Review: Scarlet Women by Ian Graham

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In 1965, an impoverished elderly woman was found dead in Nice, France. Her death marked the end of an era; she was the last of the great courtesans. Known as La Belle Otero, she was a volcanic Spanish beauty whose patrons included Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. She accumulated an enormous fortune, but gambled it all away. Scarlet Women tells her story and many more, including:

Marie Duplessis, who inspired characters by both Dumas and Verdi; Clara Ward, a rare American courtesan who hunted for a European aristocrat, but having married a Belgian prince, ran away with a gypsy violinist; Ninon de L’Enclos, who was offered 50,000 crowns by Cardinal Richelieu for one night. Money left in her will paid for Voltaire’s education.

Featuring a cadre of scandalous women, you’d think this book would be more salacious than it is, yet the cover is about the most tawdry thing about it. More focused on the unusual lives of some of the most infamous (and often forgotten) women who rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful in history, the book rarely addresses anything going on between the sheets and more looks at how unique their lives and situations often were. The over arcing theme is often that many times these women had little choice in the matter of whether they were “scandalous” or not. Some had big personalities, some were pushed into the life of a courtesan by their families, and some were simply beautiful women who wanted some measure of freedom in their lives. Many of the women I’d never heard of before, but they are presented sympathetically and often with humor. The book has sort of a choppy style in the writing, which is the only minor complaint I had. I’m sure someone looking for in depth about any of these women would be disappointed, but as a general collection of stories about some fascinating figures this book is a wonderful read.

4 out of 5

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