La paiva

I sometimes feel there is a pattern with Shelved Dolls. I begin with a saint, then write about a serial killer and then a sinner – and start the rotation again. Marion Davies was going to be our sinner but, according to Tennessee Williams and good people everywhere she “made up for the rest of Hollywood” so I decided we needed a really spicy courtesan this week.

A regular champagne bubble about town, if you will.

As I was thinking that, I read this article in Lapham’s which stated:

Rose champagne is the intoxicant of choice for courtesans and kings. Beautiful, expensive, and rare, it was beloved by the grandest of the grandes horizontales of nineteenth-century Paris—and the men who could afford to love them. In Second Empire France, the Countess Henkel von Donnersmarck—known to historians of the libido as La Païva, and earlier as Esther Lachmann, late of the Moscow ghetto—demanded magnums of it as a “gratuity” while entertaining clients in the boudoir of her ill-begotten Hotel de la Païva on the Champs-Élysées.

I just knew we had found our girl. I wanted to investigate her life story for I am a historian of the libido.

The Lapham’s article also contains the sentence, “There was apparently no slaking louche women and their lust for pink bubbly”. You should probably take a few minutes right now to decide which portion of that statement is your favorite. Louche? Slaking? Lust for pink bubbly? God, why is Lapham’s not the most popular magazine in America?

Segue time – there will be no slaking my lust for knowledge about this woman. Who, apparently, really was a sinner. Most of the courtesans we read about are perhaps a little frivolous (Mme. du Barry) or else fiercely independent (Veronica Franco) but they aren’t generally dedicated towards bleeding their lovers dry. La Paiva was.

By all accounts she had extraordinary willpower. It’s perhaps most evident in the journals of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, who write:

At table she expounded a frightening theory of will-power, saying that everything was the result of an effort of the will, that there were no such things as fortuitous circumstances, that one created one’s own circumstances, and that unfortunate people were so only because they did not want to stop being unfortunate….She spoke of a woman who, in order to attain some unspecified aim, shut herself up for three years, completely cut off from the world, scarcely eating anything and often forgetting about food, walled up within herself and entirely given over to the plan she was developing. And then she concluded: “I was that woman”.

I guess that plan must have started early. La Paiva, who was born Esther Lachmann in 1819, grew up in a Moscow ghetto, the daughter of Jewish parents of Polish ancestry. From her youth, she was determined to find a wealthy husband, or at least, one who could get her out of the ghetto.

She married Antoine Villoing, a tailor, in 1836 when she was 17. You may be thinking to yourself, “Well, that was kind of dumb. Was he a rich tailor? Was he somehow the Tsar’s tailor?” If you are thinking this, I guess you have been won over to La Paiva’s mindset quicker than I expected. You should be thinking, “Did she love this tailor?”

No, probably not. And La Paiva did think it was dumb! After bearing a son, La Paiva ditched the marriage and her child and fled for the street of Paris, where she changed her name to Therese and dedicated herself to finding a rich husband.

Doesn’t she remind you of Truman Capote’s mom, the basis for Holly Golightly? Yes, of course she does.

Apparently she did not have a moment of regret over her decision, although abandoning your child seems like something . . . most human beings do have heartache over. Not La Paiva, though. La Paiva had stuff to do.

Namely, she had to meet Henri Herz, a pianist. This is Henri. I am putting his picture here because I am always excited when I see men from the past who are attractive by modern standards. Say “Hello, Henri.”


Hello, Henri!

Henri and Esther (now Therese) supposedly married in London, though it’s difficult to determine when. It would have been bigamy, as she never properly divorced her first husband, but, well, I guess that was not the kind of issue that troubled her. And it finally seemed like La Paiva was making headway in artistic, if not aristocratic, society. (Aristocratic society was still the end goal in the 19th century.)

She began hosting a salon which was attended by notables like Richard Wagner, Théophile Gautier, and Émile de Girardin. So, pretty cool people. She also spent an absolutely staggering amount, and bankrupted Henri within a few years. By 1848 he left for America, and his family turned Therese out of the house on account of, you know, her absolutely unchecked spending which she had no intention of stopping.

And so, she moved to London. There is some indication that she was worried about her prospects; she asked her friend Gautier for a supply of chloroform in case she was reduced to penury again.

She was not.

She quickly caught the attention of Lord Stanley and, after toying with him, seduced the Portugese marquis Albino Francesco de Païva-Araujo. In what La Paiva no doubt considered a stroke of good fortune, her first husband died right around that time, which meant she was legally free to marry the Marquis in 1851.

In what may be the cruelest rejection ever, the morning after sleeping with Albino, La Paiva (for now she really was La Paiva) told him:

“You wanted to sleep with me, and you’ve done so, by making me your wife. You have given me your name, I acquitted myself last night. I have behaved like an honest woman, I wanted a position, and I’ve got it, but all you have is a prostitute for a wife. You can’t take me anywhere, and you can’t introduce me to anyone. We must therefore separate. You go back to Portugal. I shall stay here with your name, and remain a whore.”

I bet that was information Albino would have appreciated before marrying her.

They separated, and he shot himself.

Which, you know, was good for La Paiva because now, aided by funds from her new – and younger – protector, Count Henckel von Donnersmarck, she was able to establish a truly elegant salon in Paris. The extremely luxurious Hotel de la Paiva still stands on the Champs Elysees. If this painting by Adolphe Montecelli (“Une Soiree Chez La Paiva”) is any indication, the parties were fabulous..

la paivaI mean, to me, fun is just Colonel Sanders hanging out with some can-can dancers.

Not everyone agreed on what was elegant and fabulous. In 1867 the Goncourts claimed that the Hotel was excessive and “in the worst taste” and La Paiva herself was “an old courtesan, painted and plastered, with a smile as false as her hair.” Yes, she was getting a bit older by that point. But the place still sounds kind of great. Supposedly the food was so lavish that, according to Frederic Loliee, “Her guests were almost tired of eating enormous strawberries in the depths of winter.”

Apparently once, thinking that La Paiva was out of earshot, a guest estimated her wealth at around ten million francs. La Paiva, who was likely lurking, was outraged and replied, “Ten million? Why that would only yield an income of 500,000 francs a year. Do you think I could give you ripe peaches and grapes in the middle of January on 500,000 francs a year? My table is worth more than that!”

Arsene Houssaye claimed that La Paiva’s sumptuous table stimulated wit just as well as the frugal table of Madame Maintenon. More is more, sometimes.

And fruit was a really big deal.

And if the extreme luxury of the house made some people – like Delacroix, who always seemed uneasy there – uncomfortable, well, it’s possible that was fine to La Paiva. She never really had much desire to be like other people, or to set them at ease. She seems, in all of her interactions, somehow removed from most of humanity.

The Goncourts recalled one particularly freezing evening when she entered the room in a strapless dress claiming:

“I am still a little blue with cold. My maid did my hair with the windows wide open” she said. Out of doors it was snowing, and the night so cold that, coming here, we shivered for the ill clad poor of Paris. This woman is not built like the rest of humanity. She lives in icy air and water, like a kind of boreal dragon of a scandinavian myth.

She wasn’t always cold, surely. She was said to have lined her entire carriage with sable, and swathed herself in blue fox fur.

I think she just wanted to prove that nothing, especially something as ordinary as the weather, could ever dominate her.

The Goncourts also claimed that:

On the surface, the face is that of a courtesan who will not be too old for her profession when she is a hundred years old, but underneath, another face is visible from time to time, the terrible face of a painted corpse.


Look, honestly, if the Goncourts objected to her as much as they kept claiming, I really don’t understand why they were always at her parties. I think maybe the Goncourts just weren’t the kind of people who much liked people.

I guess they liked strawberries. Maybe that.

After being with him for nearly twenty years, La Paiva married her Count in 1871 when her marriage to the Marquis was annulled (before he killed himself). This reminds me of a line in the movie Gigi where Aunt Alicia says that courtesans are unlike other people in that, “Instead of getting married all at once, they sometimes get married at last.”

I don’t know if she was deliriously in love and happy – she seems like she might have been too eternally pragmatic for that. But the Count supposedly gave her a massive emerald necklace that had once belonged to Empress Eugenie. So I expect she was at least somewhat happy. The massive emeralds – let’s say they were emeralds as big as grapes because food was such a big thing during this period – should have made her at least 70% happy.

After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, La Paiva, who had Prussian sympathies, moved from Paris to the Count’s country chateau in Poland.

It was supposedly glorious, and even Napoleon III asked to be shown the massive palace, made out of onyx, gold and marble. He was seemingly impressed. (Unlike the time Elizabeth Taylor was underwhelmed by the President of Benin’s wife’s shoe closet).

She died at the chateau in 1884.

I suppose how you feel about her depends upon how highly you value determination. La Paiva wasn’t nice to . ..  anyone, really. She plied “friends” with strawberries only because she wanted to achieve social success, and I doubt she was close to anyone, with the possible exception of the Count.

Still. What she set out to do, she did. Going from the Moscow ghetto to a chateau Napoleon III begged to visit in one generation is a hell of a voyage.

And someone loved her. There’s a particularly ghoulish story, that I’m sure the Goncourts would have absolutely relished. Donnersmarck remarried and his second wife came upon a secret room in the castle that her husband kept locked. After finding the key, she went in – to find the body of La Paiva preserved in alcohol.

God, I hope it was champagne. I hope it was gallons and gallons of pink champagne.

Picture via Artflakes, Wikpiedia

Additional Reading:

Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Katie Hickman

Lapham’s Quarterly, “That Intoxicating Pink”

“The Great Courtesans,” Decadent Handbook