A single word can sometimes embody a thousand images and ideas, and some words are so colourful that it would be impossible to attempt to seek a concise definition. Perhaps this is true of the evocative idea of a courtesan, a word which conjures images of intrigue, beauty, wealth, power, sex, and mystery, and to this day clouds the ancestry of wealth and nobility with a veil of mist. A popular theme for Hollywood and novelists alike, the sophistication of the courtesan has moulded the political destinies of empires and religions for centuries, from Anne Boleyn to Camilla Parker Bowles. Wars have been fought over them, royal dynasties have risen and fallen because of them, and even the great schism of the Catholic Church was caused by one.
Human history and the survival of nations are shaped by 'great' people and the passage of their genes, the acquisition of such genes controlling the inheritance and control of vast estates or empires. Sexual liaisons within circles of wealth and power have long been fraught with risk and intrigue, from the Empress Theodora of Byzantium (500-548) to the conspiracies surrounding the death of Marilyn Monroe, mistress of the Kennedy brothers. Such women have risen, manipulated, ruled and captured the popular imagination, inspiring fear, hatred and adoration alike. In nature there is no greater power than the King’s bed chamber, and no closer confidant than the pillow. Here we shall reintroduce some of the most influential of all courtesans, charting the rising star of their influence and their historical legacy.
It makes biological sense that both men and women crave wealth and position, symbols of their success and that of their family lineage. The success of an individual (and their genetic constitution) in a given time and age is often translated into wealth, property and material possessions, and success is driven by appetite. Human appetite is desire driven by hormones, and in men this is often termed virility. As mother Nature gave men the capacity to have children by many women at any one time, success and wealth often translate into more sexual opportunity, and gold is the perhaps the most ancient and enduring symbol of feminine beauty and fertility. As wealth endows men with the power to attract mates and to successfully raise children, it is perhaps not unreasonable to define sexuality as the foundation stone of the world’s economy. The simplest economic transaction is for a man to pay a woman for sex (or vice-versa), and the most advanced is the contract of marriage with all the financial obligations and responsibilities it brings. The sex trade would seem therefore to be economically logical, if not inevitable, whether at the level of paying for a night of passion to maintaining a mistress, and attempts to outlaw the sex trade seem to be as futile as they are unnatural. More wealth means more opportunity to attract and to maintain sexual relationships, as Mr.Hefner himself might attest. As an extreme extension of this reasoning, the largest harem ever recorded was that of King Tamba of Banaras (6th century BC), which was recorded as sixteen thousand strong (a reflection on the male propensity to exaggerate). According to the Jataka, a collection of Vedic legends dating back to the dawn of Buddhism, this royal harem was presided over by his chief queen, Sussondi, "a woman of surpassing beauty" whom fortune has it met King Tamba whilst he was playing dice. King Mongkut of Siam (1804-1868) was somewhat more modest with a harem of nine thousand, which was so vast that it constituted an entire city, known as the Nang Harm (or "Veiled Women"). In his opulent palace King Mongkut fathered no fewer than sixty-six children.
According to legend the "art of prostitution" and "the cult of the prostitute" are the names of the two sacred treasures given to the Sumerian goddess Inanna by her father Enki, God of wisdom. It is told that Inanna took these gifts back to the ancient civilization of Sumer (5,000 – 1,595 BC), birthplace of written language, which is now part of modern Iraq. Legend has it that the people dedicated hymns to her and openly practiced these bequests in order to please their gods. The first written texts date back to 3,400 BC, and there's reason to believe the practice of such “sharing of beauty” within a society has a much earlier genesis. The first recorded temple where sexual pleasures were bought and sold whilst men sought to “cleanse their souls” was in 2,300 BC in Mesopotamia, and from there the practice spread to surrounding regions. All income generated was given to the priests for temple maintenance, and in return the “divine” women received comfortable surroundings.
Courtesans of the Classical Greek era (479-323 B.C.), or hetaeras, played ambigious games of identity to avoid social stigma and taxation. As women couldn't own property in Greece, they lived within an “economy of gifts”, and in this economy jewels became an important part of a courtesan's wealth and portfolio. Phryne was the most famous such courtesan, and by all accounts one of the most manipulative of ancient Greece, and is widely believed to have been the model for the sculpture of Venus. As with many of her persuasion she made frequent court appearances. Phryne was the subject of one of the most famous trials of ancient Greece accused of “introducing false gods”. Legend has it that her consort Hyperides defended her, and, failing to make an impact with the jurors reached over to expose her breasts. This according to legend inspired the jurors with “religious awe" and she was acquitted. Phryne became very wealthy through her male patrons. One story of such wealth has it that when the city of Thebes was destroyed by the Macedonian army of Alexander, she offered to pay for the city wall to be rebuilt.
Solon, a Greek magistrate, attempted to satisfy public relations by establishing the first publicly administered bordello in Athens in the year 549 BC. Run and inhabited by imported slaves, the bordello solved several political problems of ancient Athens, providing food and income for immigrant classes, generating public tax revenues, and creating an outlet for the sexual appetites of Greek men, a popular idea that was soon copied widely. Around 340 BC the lawyer Apollodoros accused the courtesan Neaira of living as the wife of an Athenian citizen Stephanos, when marriages between Athenian men and non-Athenian women were forbidden. Although their marriage had lasted thirty years, if Apollodoros succeeded in trial, Stephanos would be fined three years' income and Neaira could expect to be sold into slavery. This was a classic grudge and such trials were popular form of public entertainment, with jurors often numbering many hundreds. Neaira's case and early life was recounted before no fewer than five hundred and one men in explicit detail. Apollodoros denounced Neaira, describing her drunken orgies in which she had sex with many men, including “slaves” at a dinner party some thirty years earlier.
Regardless of the veracity of Apollodoros’ accusations, Neira’s life before Stephanos was that of a lowly sex slave or ‘hetairai’. Neira’s beauty and skill had allowed her to purchase her freedom at the age of 25. Remarkably at that time Neaira was able to rise to achieve significant social status as a respectable Athenian matron, the very charge that Apollodoros was trying to bring against her. Neira was raised in an expensive brothel in the maritime city of Corinth, and was sold when in her early twenties to two of her regular customers for three thousand drachmas, some ten times the normal rate for a slave. Neira bought her freedom from them for 2,000 drachmas with the gift of money from other clients, including the Athenian Phrynion who took her as his mistress. Abused by Phrynion, Neaira soon fled to set up “house” in nearby Megara as a professional "companion". Two years later she met Stephanos, with whom she returned to Athens. Phrynion, upon hearing news of her return, successfully accused her of theft, but was unable to claim that she was his slave. As a result of the settlement she was compelled to share her time between the bed chambers of Stephanos and Phrynion. Athens was then a capital of litigation and legal voyeurism, much as is modern day America, and her legal strife continued until the “great tirade of Apollodoros”. Although Stephanos and Neaira could have avoided open trial by opening their household slaves up to interrogation regarding their marital status, to have done so in Ancient Greece slaves would have led to them being tortured. This was because slaves were believed to be incapable of truth, and indeed could be persuaded to say anything under duress. A recorded insight into the life and times of ancient Athens, Neira was forthright in her defence, exposing the Greek sex trade for all its sordid exploitation. Neaira and Stephanos were acquitted by some accounts, although the verdict of Neaira's trial remains uncertain. What was certain is that ancient Athens and the Greek sex trade were put on public trial as a result of Neira’s passioned and open defence.
Beauty encodes the finest inheritance of all things human, and the most beautiful and most nobly born of all women commanded the highest prices from their suitors. Perhaps one of the most remarkable example is given by the historian Plutarch writes of how Demetrius Poliorcetes, King of Macedonia (337-283 BC) paid for the services of Lamia, a beautiful Greek courtesan: ‘Of all the disreputable and flagitious acts of which he [Poliorcetes] was guilty in this visit, one that particularly hurt the feelings of the Athenians was that, having given command that they should forthwith raise for his service two hundred and fifty Greek talents (then an inconceivable amount of money), and they to comply with his demands being forced to levy it upon the people with the utmost rigor and severity, when they presented him with the money which they had with such difficulty raised, as if it were a trifling sum, he ordered it to be given to Lamia…’
Perhaps the greatest of all courtesans was the Byzantine Empress Theodora (497-548 AD) consort of the last Great Roman Emperor Justinian. Her legend mingles comfortably with the recordings of history, and without doubt, she was the power behind the throne of the Emperor who retook Rome and North Africa from the “Barbarians”. In 330 AD the Roman emperor Constantine founded the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire at Byzantium (Constantinople, now Istanbul). After Rome fell in 476AD Constantinople became the new Roman capital, which was continually threatened by internal political and religious disputes until arrival of the Emperor Justinian in 527AD. Yet it was the wit and wisdom of his wife Theodora which saved the last bastion of the Roman Empire from civil strife and war.
It is uncertain whether Theodora was born in Crete or Syria, but we know her father Acacius was a bear trainer at the hippodrome in Constantinople. After her father's death Theodora began to work on the stage as a mime, and soon became a fully-fledged actress, a word then synonymous with "prostitute." On the stage, she was renowned for her nude entertainment, and off stage for her wild parties. Aged 16 Theodora travelled to northern Africa as the companion of an official and remained with him for almost four years before returning to Constantinople via Alexandria. It was there that she was converted to Monophysitic Christianity which held that Jesus was wholly divine, not part human. She returned to Constantinople in 522AD, settled in a house near the palace, and made a living as a seamstress at the age of 20. Soon she became the object of desire of Justinian, who was by then aged 40 had waited long for the throne, and his infatuation with Theodora also had to wait for the repeal of a Roman law which forbade government officials from marrying actresses. Justinian married Theodora in 525, and was crowned Emperor on April 4, 527. He shared power with Theodora and her quick wits saved Constantinople during the Nika revolt when rival Orthodox and Monophysitic Christian camps started to riot during a chariot race in the Hippodrome. Theodora dissuaded Justinian from fleeing, and a spirited speech of resistance from Theodora led Justinian's generals to attack the Hippodrome, killing over 30,000 rebels in the process. She presided over the rebuilding of Constantinople after the devastation of the Nika revolt, transforming it into the world’s most opulent city with aqueducts, bridges, and countless churches including the Church of the Holy Wisdom. Theodora increased the rights of women, passing laws prohibiting forced prostitution, establishing homes for prostitutes, and granting women more divorce rights. She founded a Monophysite monastery during a time of intense religious rivalry, and after her death in 548, her image remained immortalised in mosaic form throughout Europe. A courtesan had risen from destitution to become the most powerful woman in the Early Christian world.
It is often tempting to see man as a species above all other species, denying that squid or dolphins have complex language or brains, or to claim that only humankind has suppressed its primaevil instincts and raised itself above the animals (“and God Created Man in His Own Image”). Someone who studies primates professionally might disagree, pointing out that chimpanzees and baboons also have caste systems, and that the dominant alpha male have the pick of the females and will father most, if not all of the offspring within a social group. Chimpanzees and baboons also claim territories, wage wars, kill the offspring of rival males (or females), and males fight viciously to be the “King” of the harem - to determine the genetic destiny of the clan. It is certainly not only tribes from savannas or forests that do this, and from a evolutionary point of view, if an aggressive and dominant male of a large tribe or clan wins wars and expands (female) territories then he may spread the genes that affect this “successful” behaviour far and wide. Genghis Khan’s reign of conquest and terror (b.1160-1215) ultimately led to the creation of a massive empire ranging from modern day Iraq across China. According to geneticists, about 1 in 12 Asian men have inherited a form of the Y chromosome that arose in Genghis Khan’s native Mongolia nearly 1,000 years ago. The remarkably high frequency of this male Y chromosome variant almost certainly owes its abundance to Genghis Khan's personal military success, and it is tempting to believe that the distinctive Y chromosome variant itself possibly arose within Genghis Khan himself.
His descendant Kublai Khan (1215-1294) presided over one of the largest empires ever created, and his personal palace harem numbered seven thousand, including four empresses, three hundred picked virgins and countless "ladies of the bedchamber". The Great Khan himself disposed of innumerable subsidiary wives and concubines, who were refreshed every two years to maintain his amorous appetite. If this would appear to be an affront to the culture of the once great (and now Mongolised) Imperial China, bear in mind that Emperor Yang Ti of the Sui Dynasty (569-618) reputedly kept a harem which included an empress, two queens, seventy-eight courtesans, and three thousand palace maidens, most of whom were teenagers, and devised an automated "virgin wheelchair" for deflowering unsuspecting (and restrained) young women.
As human societies are larger, more complex and more specialised than those of “lesser” primates, Kings and Emperors are proportionately more powerful, and are thereby able to collect larger and more selective harems. One might almost regard it is a “right of kings”, and it is certainly one that many seem to have assumed. In late medieval Europe the influence of the Christian Church managed to restrict this Kingly instinct to just one queen, and so the many mistresses of the kingly court had to assume a more subtle and hidden form, evolving into courtesans and hand maidens. However the Islamic and Oriental traditions remained unaffected by such religious or “moral” restrictions, and continued to maintain these Kingly traditions. Such Kingly practises were certainly not restricted to the medieval Orient. Emperor Jahangir of India (1569-1627) kept a harem of over six thousand damsels and young men, whilst Emperor Akbar the Great of India (1542-1605) kept a harem of over five thousand drawn from slaves and marriage alliances with neighboring royalty, all contracted to expand his empire. Emperor Achyuta Deva Raya of the Vijayanagar Empire (r.1529-1542) wasn’t able to find sexual service for all twelve thousand beauties of his royal harem and relegated the rest to functions as armed guards, wrestlers, dancers, musicians, and bearers.
The Arabian nobility are of course no strangers to such traditions. Firuz Shah of the Tughluq Sultanate (r. 1351-1388) actively employed a veritable army of merchants who scoured the known world to fill and maintain his three thousand strong harem. A true multi-nationalist, his harem comprised women drawn from Arabia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Russia, Europe, and Afghanistan. Fearful of offending Islamic Law he was informed by the Mullahs that he was limited to only three hundred wives, a mark he achieved in a single day in order to ensure his succession. A Sultan amongst Sultans, Murad III of the Ottoman Empire (1546-1595) often abandoned affairs of state to enjoy his harem which was a thousand strong. His harem was jealously guarded by a army of eunuchs was filled with the most beautiful girls he could purchase from slave markets. So devoted was he to his harem that fathered over a hundred children to inherit his crumbling empire. Emperor Mulai Ismail of Morocco (1646-1727) was reputed to "lie with a Virgin every Night." His harem of four thousand strong was extremely cosmopolitan in composition, and included women of Spanish, Italian, Caucasian, Arabic, English and other Christian territorial descent.
There is a theory which states that there is a “polygamy threshold”, in which a dominant male of means attracts more than one partner, although in certain societies it is a fact rather than a theory. Although the original wives resent the appearance of new rivals, they receive companionship and can share the workload increasing their personal comfort. Whether such a polygamous mating system evolves in a society depends upon the distribution and population density of females, for example after a war between tribes or nations there are usually more unattached women. Laura Betzig theorises that power in cultures is used primarily for sexual success. However there always appears to be one legitimate queen, or alpha female, who rules the roost and bears legitimate heirs. The form in which the other women of the harem appears is usually the historical variable. In ancient Greece and Rome attractive female slaves became concubines, the Crusaders employed “washer women” who were so important that they were traded even before other noble prisoners of war, and medieval Kings and Lords had handmaidens and, later, courtesans. In Islamic and African societies there was less formal limitation on the number of wives a man could have, and so there was less need for the evolution of the courtesan.
During the Georgian and Victorian era a small elite group of women rose from poverty to social position, accumulating great power, wealth and notoriety. Such women had evolved away from being merely expensive mistresses, and achieved independence through intrigue and their courtly graces. They were sought after by men for their beauty and for their skills in the arts of seduction. Society men went to extremes both to gain and to retain a courtesan's worldly favours, but sex was only part of the bargain. During an era when the higher education of women was not generally favoured, the courtesan was often unusually educated in both language and literature, and was courted both for her conversation as well as for her sexual charms. Such courtesans were extremely accomplished and were influential leaders both in fashion and social custom.
During this era a courtesan may have derived from any social background, and either through early seduction or promiscuity were deemed to be essentially “unmarriable”. Social ostracism forced a choice between low social service as a governess or seamstress, or a richer life as a courtesan in the shadowlands of high society. Although formally excluded from “polite society”, courtesans frequented the opera, the nobility and were even patronised by royalty. Although they were not openly received in Royal court, as society queens they created a twilight world, known as the “demi-monde”, with its own social hierarchies, etiquette and niceties. Courtesans were frequently patrons of the arts, fashion, language and music, and naturally excelled in political intrigue and in the erotic arts. To be espied in the company of a great courtesan was a mark of social favour and standing to be much favoured. They often travelled the world and rotated around the fashion hubs of Paris, London, New York and San Francisco. However a “career” of some four to ten years was as much as even the most upwardly mobile courtesan might expect, and few saved enough to confer upon themselves a prosperous and comfortable middle age.
There were of course the leading lights of this era. Mrs Sophia Baddeley was born in 1745, and was an actress of stunning beauty who from her position on the theatre stage attracted many admirers from the nobility. Despite her prolific access to, and apparent success with the nobility she became addicted to laudanum (opiates) and died in debt. Mrs Elizabeth Armistead, procured whilst still only a girl for a notorious "convent" in Marlborough Street, eventually rose to become the wife of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Harriette Wilson, was regarded as the queen of the Regency "High Impures", and perfected the art of blackmail, terrorising the aristocracy with her explicit Memoirs, opening with the immortal line “I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of 15, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.” She numbered most of the Court amongst her active admirers, including none other than the Duke of Wellington and Lord Palmerston. After being frequented by the nobility and then discarded, her memoirs became a useful source of revenue both as a form of blackmail and from publication. The most financially successful courtesan of this era was undoubtedly Cora Pearl, an English girl of moderate beauty who stole the hearts of Parisian society, establishing herself as one of the wealthiest women in France during the Second Empire. However, the life of a desirable courtesan often ended in tradegy. Marie Duplessis died of tuberculosis at the age of 23, but was given eternal life as the girl in Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camélias”, a story upon which Verdi based “La Traviata”. The grand tradition of the European courtesan ended with the death of Spanish signora La Belle Otero (born 1868) in 1965. During her prosperous life she earnt some $25 million, almost all of which was frittered away at lavish casinos.
The powerful influence of courtesans, who owe their existence largely to the strictures of the Catholic Church, has flowed unseen through the courts and commerce of Europe for centuries. In Renaissance Venice courtesans charmed powerful men within their wit and beauty, and used their sexuality and sensibility to fully enjoy male companionship, property and financial stability, without the imposition of the social and moral contracts of marriage. At that time a courtesan would replace the society role of the wife, who was dutifully protected from the wicked ways of the world. Courtesans were companions of the nobility and merchant classes, leading social lights and entertainers within court circles. They were influential as writers and poets, as also played a key political function as they relayed important communications between bedrooms. Sex was their currency and it commanded abundant wealth and influence. Veronica Franco was perhaps the best known courtesan of the Renaissance, a woman of great influence who once smoothed relations between Venice and France by sleeping with the King of France. Whilst Italian courtesans enjoyed a busy life of servants and lavish purchases courtesy of their patrons, they enjoyed little companionship with other women. They competed with other courtesans for the wealthiest hands, and were avoided by the wives of noblemen who resented their sexual congress with their husbands. High-level courtesans would commonly have as many as six or seven patrons, each holding a different night of the week, each paying her a monthly "salary". These arrangements led a heady brew of intricacy, intrigue and clandestine activity.
To thank their patrons it was customary for courtesans to celebrate them in poetry and dedicate novels to their names, so the literature of the day was a detailed anthology of the rich and the powerful of their era. Indeed so skilled and involved was the profession of the courtesan, that literary and commercial skills were often passed from one courtesan to another, much as an academic would mentor a student. Being a courtesan was a privileged position which allowed these women to afford the best of both worlds, that is to maintain their sexual freedom whilst cultivating their minds and social position. Courtesans thus served as highly decorative amusements, staus symbols for wealthy Venetian patricians. They were however far from being expensive prosititutes, and the courting process was very much an intricate ritual, with men paying huge amounts of money merely for an introduction. Patrons were required to entertain and engage the courtesan with food, wine and repartee before they could even expect sex.
This maintained the courtesan's standing, and of course she reserved the power to say no. This served not only to obscure the boundaries between a courtesan and a noblewoman, but also avoided taxation by government officials anxious to obtain details of their incomes. Courtesans were even employed by Venetian officials to seduce and “cure” homosexuals, as homosexuality was then feared and reviled, punishable by death. The life of the Venetian courtesan was a dangerous one, and the protective influence that their powerful patrons bestowed upon them could just as easily turn into revenge. Courtesans could be disfigured, or readily ostracised within the literature, the press of the day. Victoria Franco herself was charged by the Inquisition for casting spells over her lovers, and Bishop Venier, himself a spurned former lover, constantly defamed her in print. A courtesan would fall into disgrace if she contracted syphilis, and the worst punishment, the "31" involved a courtesan being raped by 31 commoners in a secluded place, and a “Royal 31" meant rape by no fewer than 81 men. Veronica Franco epitomised the struggles of a Renaissance courtesan, sought after for her beauty and charm, and reviled for her social function. Veronica was despised in particular for her poetry and writing, which she passionately sought recognition for, and in her works she highlighted the elegance and the moral stench of Renaissance Venice, and even more unwelcome, she highlighted issues of women’s rights.
Japan saw a parallel rise in the status and popularity of the courtesan. The Japanese geisha emerged relatively recently, dating back to the early 18th Century, preceded by the Saburuko (7th Century) and the Shirabyoshi (12th Century). Saburuko (literally “ones who serve”) were created by the increasing social displacement of the time, migrants who were forced to turn to prostitution to survive. Although these included women from the lower classes, there were also those who were educated. Those who were talented dancers and singers were invited to entertain the aristocratic classes. Shirabyoshi adopted their name from their characteristic dance, and arose during a period of social decay. The decline of many aristocratic families resulted in their daughters becoming Shirabyoshi to survive. These educated women were greatly valued for their dancing and poetic talent, and were patronised by many upper class families, and were sometimes of sufficient caste to bear noble children.
The Pleasure Quarters, or Shimabara, were commissioned in 1589, and a walled-in quarter was built in Kyoto based upon the design of the pleasure quarters of the Ming Dynasty in China. They were followed by Edo, modern day Tokyo, who created the Yoshiwara, or “Field of Good Fortune”, which was some 57,000 square yards in area. The Yoshiwara looked towards the Shimabara of Kyoto for positive influence in the development of alluring customs and culture. The Yoshiwara in turn developed its own unique customs and traditions, and soon became a thriving cultural centre for the arts, with its own lineage of famous courtesans. The Yoshiwara and Shimabara allowed Japanese men to find romance, luxury and entertainment within an otherwise austere feudal society. The courtesans themselves were instrumental in the creation of this culture, and were frequently mistaken for noble women. After a large clan war many of the daughters and young samurai wives of the defeated Toyotomi Clan found themselves forced into prostitution, and this led to an influx of culture and elegance amongst the early courtesans. The Pleasure Quarters became a place of fantasy with its own unique class structure. Tayuu was the highest social rank that a courtesan could ever achieve, and at the lowest rung were the Hashi-joro.
The early Tayuu were outstanding in both beauty and talent, and were revered as though they were royalty, provided of course that they maintained divine standards of behaviour. Any breach of etiquette could lead to demotion, but whilst they remained Tayuu they were granted the luxuries of declining any suitors that they did not favour and of two young child attendants, or Kamuro. The early Tayuu looked far less elaborate than the Oiran who followed them, due to a law prohibiting them from wearing gold embroidered garments or jewelry. The 18th Century saw a dramatic rise of the Pleasure Quarters to its “Golden Age”, which paralleled the increases in the prosperity of the merchant classes who frequented them. This was accompanied by an increase in the popularity of associated artists and writers, and the high caste courtesans, or kabuki, started to become much more ornate.
In the second half of the 18th Century the Sancha-joro displaced the Tayuu, who had all but disappeared by 1763. They were replaced by the Yobidashi, and another splintering of courtesan classes occurred, mirrored by a decline in their standards and skills. These events opened the door for the appearance of a new form of entertainer, the Geisha. Around the 1680’s it became fashionable for parents to send young teenage daughters to dance schools, and these girls (odoriko) became popular amongst the nobility and high class samurai. Originally their services were not sexual, but later many odoriko were exploited and turned to prostitution. Many such odoriko from Edo and Fukagawa were arrested for illegal prostitution and sent to work in the Yoshiwara around 1753, and became known as Geiko. Kazen was the first such female geisha, and by 1779 female geisha had become so popular that they became rival courtesans and took wealthy clients. This social challenge and their refusal to pay taxes saw strict limits imposed on their dress and social status. However these rules and regulations, far from suppressing the geisha, created the perfect conditions for their Golden Age.
The slow and inexorable rise of women’s rights revolutionised the way in which women of Europe and the Americas could make their way in the world, and education was one such new avenue through which to escape domestic servitude or sexual slavery. Education, independent means, and changing attitudes towards unmarried women altered the landscape and sexual fabric of society beyond recognition. Female sexuality and beauty no longer lay hidden behind a veil or a bell-shaped dress, and the female form was openly advertised in ever more explicit imagery. In this Brave New World there were those who were quickest and most successful in exploiting the new media of film, magazines, and international travel. This brought new fashion hubs of wealth and beauty, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Rio De Janiero. The trade of the modern courtesan or “diva” is far more diverse, commercialied and openly lucrative, and many now amass vast fortunes. Stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Pamela Anderson are both multi-talented and all pervading, successfully appearing as actresses in leading roles, as Playboy pin-ups and as recording artists.
Perhaps the first such modern Diva was Mata Hari, a courtesan who rose swiftly to prominence before the First World War. Born Margaretha Zelle, Mata Hari was considered in her prime to have been one of the most beautiful and seductive women in the world. Mata Hari was a great draw in her show the “Dance of Love” which played all over Europe. Men adored her and promised her anything in return for her favours. She rose quickly to become the mistress of Germany’s Crown Prince Willem and later, of his son. Showered with jewels and money from her endless train of lovers, she revelled in her fame. Her story is fascinating as it was meteoric. After a short and tragic marriage to a Dutch army officer, Margaretha left with the money she received from the settlement, abandoned her daughter to relatives, and then set out for Paris, a new feminist determined to advance herself in the world. After failures as a model and instructing at a riding school, she used her recently acquired knowledge of Javanese dance to create her own unique style. Fashion favoured the Orient during the early 1900’s and so her style was warmly received, and she marketed herself as a Ganges temple dancer, of Hindu and British noble descent. Her tall, lithe body, dark coloring and natural beauty proved irresistible to her small salon audiences, and she is widely acclaimed as the inventor of “striptease”. She was invited by a wealthy businessman, M.Emile Guimet, to dance at his Museum of Oriental Art, and the upper floor of his museum was refurbished to accommodate Mata Hari’s act, a sinuous and provocative dance of supplication before the six-limbed statue of the Hindu god, Siva. Complete with an ‘authentic’ jungle backdrop, her first seductive performance in 1905 caused an instant sensation. Within a few years she had toured the whole of Europe from Madrid to Cairo. She was even the first Diva to be immortalised on film by an early cinematographer.
Through the early years of the 20th Century Mata Hari danced her way into the bedrooms of the wealthy, royalty and nobility. As would later prove her undoing, she also kept dangerous liaisons with many leaders in a political and military world which was by now rife with tension. She was selective and demanding of her suitors, but her performances soon became upstaged by more daring rivals, such as Isodora Duncan, who took to the European stages naked. The “authenticity” of her background and dances began to be challenged, and soon she was reduced from the first starlet of the modern age to an ageing courtesan. Her end was a swift as her rise, and because she had chosen to keep highly-ranked French and German officers as part of her entourage, French officials began to diligently track her activities. Her fame had opened embassy doors, openings which she was suspected of still using, and with the advent of the First World War, she became a focus of suspicion. Whether she was in fact a spy is still disputed, but she was eventually arrested and did little to help her cause during her interrogation. By allegedly revealing a German spy number and by offering to spy upon the Germans on behalf of French Intelligence, probably an offer made in desperation rather than from habit, she was put on trial and duly executed by firing squad.
The War Years (1914-1945) brought with them new courtesans. Pamela Harriman was the consummate late 20th Century courtesan who paid remarkable attention to every detail of her men and their preferences, running around their every comfort and need. Eventually she rose to become the U.S. ambassador to France where she died swimming in a rooftop pool at the Paris Ritz in 1997. She married Randolph Churchill, son of the great Winston at the age of 19, and spent evenings with his father at 10 Downing Street during the War. Her marriage to Randolph dissolved, after which she embarked upon a career as a courtesan. She became involved with a succession of rich and powerful men, using great skill and her legendary attention to detail. Amongst her lovers were numbered Edward R. Murrow, Elie de Rothschild, Aly Khan, Jock Whitney, and Gianni Agnelli, who were later followed by her husbands, producer Leland Hayward, and the Statesman Averell Harriman. Hayward later called Harriman "the courtesan of the century", more a compliment than a detraction. A great lover and hostess, Harriman was the darling of Washington and left behind her a rich legacy of friends and admirers.
Clare Boothe Luce in contrast was more a “femme fatale" than a courtesan. She married millionaire George Brokaw at the age of nineteen, but her husband died only seven years later, and with his passing she inherited his Fifth Avenue New York mansion, his fortune and her freedom. Luce was in her prime and took full advantage of her new freedoms. Initially rejected for work at Vanity Fair magazine by millionaire publisher Condé Nast, she waited until he left on vacation, and brazenly took up a position at a desk. Within weeks she became an invaluable member of his staff and he hired her. Later she was introduced to Time magazine publisher Henry Luce at a party who soon left his wife in what was widely seen as a contrived move on the part of Mrs.Luce. She married into publishing skilfully, soon becoming a successful war correspondent, and later a playwright, a congresswoman, and ultimately ambassador to Italy. She was renowned for having a voracious appetite for men, little subtlety and a disdain for the service of others, a past master of the art of the social slight.
Marilyn Monroe was the consummate Hollywood courtesan of her day, and became the leading light of her era despite being a bleached blonde “bombshell” from the wrong side of town, and an illegitimate child of an insane mother and a nomadic father. A massage therapist once remarked how touching her caused him to receive a sensation of electric shock, and such was her sexual aura that she was soon catapulted from pleasuring aging Hollywood moguls onto the “silver screen”. Marilyn rose quickly to play amongst the rich and famous, and at her height was held in equal esteem with the country’s first lady Jackie Kennedy, as mistress to President John F. Kennedy. An affair which was far from being a brief dalliance started with young Senator Kennedy's fascination with Marilyn's status as Hollywood's rising screen diva. However their liaison was far from transient. The future President first met Miss Monroe in 1951 at the house of a mutual acquaintance, Charles Feldman. John F. Kennedy (JFK) was a rising bachelor playboy whose political star was underwritten by his father's fortune. Their affair reportedly lasted eleven years, ending with one final fling in Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel only hours after Marilyn had infamously sung "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" in the most erotically charged performance in history. Their affair was recorded in a string of letters from JFK to Marilyn, letters which reveal that Miss Monroe was Kennedy's long-term mistress and lover.
Marilyn adored “Gone With the Wind” as a child and idolised Clark Gable as a surrogate father, and retained her ambigious sexual association with the father figure throughout her short life. She retained her trade-mark whispery baby-doll voice as an adult, and addressed her third husband, legendary playright Arthur Miller, as "Daddy." She had difficulties conceiving a child and is reputed to have loved salacious gossip, her favourite source of which was Truman Capote, mutual friend of Jackie Kennedy. A apt title might have been Marilyn of a thousand affairs. She seduced George Sanders, the then husband of Hungarian star Zsa Zsa Gabor, in “All About Eve”, who reputedly explained his infidelity to his wife by saying, "The doorbell rings and there stands Marilyn in a beautiful sable coat. I asked her what she wanted and she opened the coat. Marilyn was stark naked underneath. Who am I not to make love to a woman like that?" Marilyn met and flirted with Krushchev and Sukarno, and was courted by suitor Prince Rainier. She shared much in common with Jackie Kennedy, including perfume, hairdressers, lovers and admirers, including the actors Peter Lawford and Robert Mitchum. She had an irregular affair with Frank Sinatra and tried in vain to seduce Marlon Brando. Marilyn allegedly had an affair with JFK’s brother Bobby in the years following JFK's assassination. However her final years were a descent into tranquilizers, alcohol and madness. Haunted by her depression and her inability to conceive a child, she was found dead in her apartment aged 36 in 1962 after her recent release from a psychiatric hospital. Intrigue and a visit by Bobby Kennedy haunt her final hours, and murderous conspiracy theories surrounding her final hours abound to this day.
It is perhaps obvious to suggest that, if sex and the passage of genes are the foundations of the economy, then more attractive genes packaged more seductively, may successfully draw more wealth, sexual influence and power. If we define the modern courtesan as such an attractive socialite who wields seduction as a tool for personal advancement in both wealth and status, then countless names may spring to mind. Courtesans occupy the corridors of power of Washington, Paris and London as they have always done, but the age of modern media means that their skills are often better directed towards the silver screens of Hollywood, the catwalks of the Fashion World, and within the all pervading medium of television.
Democratic fundraiser Mrs Patricia Duff is very much the epitomy of the modern courtesan, and has been hailed as a skilled socialite, an enchantress, a goddess, and a "femme fatale" by journalists and politicians alike. A series of marriages to wealthy men and her great political skill have created enviable success. Mrs Duff studied international relations at Georgetown, and took a position at the House Select Committee on Assassinations. From this point of access she climbed the political ladder, collecting rich and powerful husbands and gaining immense power and influence. After her first marriage to her high school lover, she married Washington lawyer Dan Duff. After their divorce she went the Hollywood way where she successfully courted studio chief Mike Medavoy. After a time she left him to pursue Revlon billionaire Ron Perelman, New York's richest man, marrying him in 1995. After a disagreement at the 1996 Democratic Convention they filed for divorced after only eighteen months, but she left with $30 million and a political career to be envied. She became executive director of the Women's Leadership Forum and co-chaired fundraising for the successful Clinton-Gore campaign of 1996. Most recently Patricia Duff was associated with former Senator Robert Torricelli, Frederic Fekkai and Mort Zuckerman, although she now has a family and enjoys great social respectability.
Perhaps the very epitomy of the modern courtesan is supermodel Naomi Campbell. Born in Streatham in 1970 she rose to become the first black supermodel, making black truly beautiful. In April 1986 whilst still a student at the Italia Conti Stage School she made the cover of Elle, and by August 1988 she had featured on the front cover of French Vogue and was hired for major campaigns for Ralph Lauren and Versace. A veritable photogenic goddess, Miss Campbell has been a star of film media and the catwalk, publishing a novel, and releasing an album. She starred in numerous films including Prêt-à-Porter and Spike Lee's Girl Six, and has the accolade of a waxwork at London's Madame Tussauds. Always in the limelight, she preceded Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” by several years, and appeared in an anti-fur poster campaign for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) in 1997 despite promoting such goods on the fashion catwalks. Miss Campbell has been romantically linked to Bill Clinton, Mike Tyson, Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Eric Clapton, Adam Clayton, Joaquin Cortés, Prince Albert, Robert Goode, Luca Orlandini, Matteo Marzotto, Leonardo DiCaprio to name but a few. Prone to rage Miss Campbell broke up with F1 owner Flavio Briatore, one of her great affairs, and most recently split from R&B; star Usher in 2004. Very much an independent and three-dimensional woman, Naomi Campbell is conscious of her roots and conspicuously active in charity. Like all the great divas she openly flaunts her beauty and sensuality in front of the camera, yet is also careful to associate with the leading male icons of her time publicly, yet discretely, and has never been captured or implicated in sexual scandal or pornographic incident, skillfully leaving such detail only to the public imagination. Naomi Campbell is arguably the greatest courtesan of the modern age, the very definition of a diva.