‘Perhaps no English Courtesan ever excited quite so much controversy as Cora Pearl’
Cora had one great talent: she was able to turn having a good time into a beautiful art form.
Her huge income allowed her to live an extremely extravagant lifestyle of entertaining and socialising – she was the embodiment of the Victorian elite.
Perhaps no English courtesan knew how to spend money as freely as Cora and by the late 1860’s, Cora owned several houses, stables, the finest wardrobe money can buy and extravagant jewellery to match.
It is true that Cora was certainly renowned for her excessiveness - British accounts reported that one of her lingerie bills from a Parisian supplier came to more than £18,000. In the winter months, she had fruit brought to the table embedded in Parma Violets, which had cost her a ruinous 1500 francs (nearly £3,000). It is thought that when an admirer sent £1000 worth of fresh orchids, she threw them all over the floor of her drawing room and danced a hornpipe on top of them.
However, Miss Cora Pearl wasn’t always accustomed to such an indulgent, extravagant lifestyle…
Originally born in Plymouth and named Emma Elizabeth Crouch, Cora Pearl spent eight years in a convent school in Boulogne where she learnt the French language. During this time she discovered the demands from wealthy gentlemen for pretty women.
Cora Pearl quickly gained many admirers, one being Robert Bignell who took her to Paris for the first time, where she immediately fell in love with the city. Refusing to return with him to London, she adopted her name, Cora Pearl. She embarked on a theatrical career which never saw real success, but because of her reputation and youth, many powerful rich men were very attracted to her.
Although relatively poor, she began wearing high fashion couture dresses of the day, believing her appearance of wealth would attract the wealthiest men.
Many of Cora's admirers included some of the most powerful men in Europe - such as Prince Napoleon and Prince Willem of Orange, son of King William III of The Netherlands It was said she commanded an income in excess of fifty thousand francs a month for her entertainment and company, the equivalent of over £90,000 in modern terms.
Cora was also very kind hearted. She opened her homes to hospitals for the wounded, paid for doctors and medicine and anything that the soldiers needed out of her own pocket during the war with Russia. At the end of the war, Napoleon & family fled to England with Cora in tow. Here she visited The Grosvenor Hotel, then the ‘grandest hotel in London’, who refused to let her stay because of her reputation.
Cora eventually returned to Paris and was over 200,000 francs in debt. She began to sell her homes in order to survive and began associating herself with a wealthy, obsessive young man, Alexandre Duval, who started to support her up until she bankrupted him and his family fortune. Cora began to shamelessly ignore him once it became clear that he had run out of money.
One day he arrived on her doorstep, tried to force entry and then shot himself. Not appreciating the extent of his injuries, Cora shut the door on him and calmly put herself to bed. Although he survived, the scandal of ignoring Alexandre Duval when he was in this wounded state completely ruined Cora’s reputation.
In order to survive, she was forced to sell the remainder of her property, jewellery and artwork. She ended her days in a small boarding house where she died of stomach cancer. Only 20 people attended her funeral, which was financed by her remaining lovers and she was then buried in an unmarked grave.
She wrote in her memoirs, "I have had a happy life; I have squandered money enormously. I am far from posing as a victim; it would be ungrateful of me to do so. I ought to have saved, but saving is not easy in such a whirl of excitement as that in which I have lived. Between what one ought to do and what one does there is always a difference."
Source: ‘Courtesan’s, Katie Hickman (Harper Collins, 2004)