Sunday, September 9, 2012

La Belle Otero, the Last of "Les Grandes Trois"

Santiago de Compostela
On November 4th, 1868, in the town of Valga, Galicia, not far north of Spain's border with Portugal, Agustina Otero Iglesias was born into poverty, but also into the very midst of the Rexurdimento, the Galician cultural revolution, so that despite her poverty, she must often have heard the folksongs in her native Galician tongue being reborn all around her. Because of her family’s straightened circumstances, it was not possible for the child to remain with them. As was true for many small children born into poor families in those days, young Agustina left her home behind at a very early age, having been placed in service as a household maid in Santiago de Compostela, the capital city of Galicia.

It was while in Santiago de Compostela that, tragically, ten year old Agustina was brutally raped, a hideous act that would leave her physically incapable of conceiving a child.

By the early 1880's, Agustina, now fourteen, was already following the music in her heart. In the company of a young man we know only as Paco, she traveled to Lisbon, where, with Paco as her dancing partner, she began her career as a dancer and chanteuse. Youth and inexperience stood in her way, but her beauty, vivacity, and natural ability worked in her favor.

SOLD La Belle Otero, wearing a tambourine as a hat
Popular history suggests that shortly after establishing herself in Lisbon, and while still only fourteen years old, the young dancer made her first conquest as a courtesan, first enchanting, and then marrying a Count Guglielmo, who whisked her away from poverty and, presumably, away from Paco as well. With the new social standing gained by this marriage, Agustina was said to have met with greater opportunities for advancement. That is certainly one version of her story, though if it is true, how she ended up still singing in cafes at 18 and 19 is difficult to explain. We do know that she eventually met a "friend" with enough money to take her to Marseilles and, while there, to support her ambitions, and that from Marseilles she made her way to Paris.

AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE La Belle Otero, photo by Reutlinger of Paris
While still in her teens, Agustina had changed her name to Caroline Otero and reinvented her history as well, claiming to be the product of a love match between a dashing nobleman and a dark-eyed Gypsy princess. So it was that upon her arrival in Paris, she was no longer Agustina, the poor peasant girl from a small town in Galicia, but  "La Belle Otero," the seductive Andalusian Gypsy dancer.

Once in Paris, and surrounding herself with the mystique of her new image,  it wasn't long before she found work as a dancer in the Folies Bergère. Before long, she was the talk of that city of lights, a top billing attraction, and within a few short years, one of the most famous women in France.

The great Folies Bergère music hall

Folies Bergère poster advertising La Belle Otero

Casino de Paris poster
advertising Liane de Pougy
Folies Bergère poster
advertising Emilienne d'Alençon
La Belle Otero was now a hugely popular performer, and also one of "Les Grandes Horizontales," an affectionate term that the people of France used for their great courtesans. She was, in fact, one of "Les Grandes Trois," or, "the three great ones." She, Liane de Pougy, and Emilienne d'Alençon, also famous music hall performers, were the three great courtesans of Europe. They granted their favors to kings and princes, but also to wealthy industrialists, amassing tremendous fortunes as a result of carefully planned liasons. Men fought duels over Otero's affections. It was claimed (though never substantiated), that six men took their own lives after she ended her affairs with them.

SOLD Emilienne d'Alençon, one of Otero's rivals
In this period known as La Belle Époque, Otero and others like her were loved and admired by royalty and commoners alike. They were made welcome at tables in the humblest of cafes, and given access to the inner circles of the most exclusive social gatherings. Their lives and loves, their rivalries, victories and defeats, were gobbled up by a ravenous public, much as people wait today with bated breath for the latest episodes of popular television dramas.

The fabulously costumed images of these stars of the stage were available to all, on the faces of picture postcards, a new medium whose "golden age" coincided with la Belle Époque. The tantalizing photographic images of popular entertainers like La Belle Otero, along with hundreds of others, offered for mere pennies, were visible in shop windows in towns and cities all across Europe and available in kiosks everywhere, in train stations, on street corners. By maintaining some control over the rights to their images, some performers managed considerable profits from the sales of these postcard images, as well.

SOLD La Belle Otero wearing a body stocking and a cape.
With the advent of moving pictures, Caroline Otero also enjoyed the distinction of being perhaps the world's first movie star. In 1898, the famous Lumière Company produced a one minute film of Otero dancing in the Czar's St. Petersburg. The film was afterwards viewed by wide audiences all across Europe, adding to her fame. It is a wonderful glimpse of her, and of that wonderful era and, at least at the time of this posting, is actually available for viewing online!

By 1914, the magic of La Belle Epoque was fading away, its spell broken by the roar of cannon and the horrors of the "Great War." The picture postcard's vast popularity also faded amidst that chaos, never quite regaining its place of prominence in the hearts of the people.

WWI French propaganda image
In 1918, at the war's end, La Belle Otero, still beautiful, still greatly admired, was fifty years old and made the decision to retire gracefully from the stage. At one point in her life she was quoted as saying, "Women have one mission in life: to be beautiful. When one gets old, one must learn how to break mirrors. I am very gently expecting to die." (Time Magazine, quoted in wikipedia) She purchased a huge mansion, lived like the countess she claimed to be, was frequently seen wagering vast amounts of money in the casinos of Monte Carlo, and apparently spent her fortune as if it would last forever, which of course, it did not. The photographer Edward Quinn took a photograph of her in the 1950s, standing on a balcony where, then in her eighties, she enjoyed feeding the pigeons.

In 1965, at the age of 97, while living in a small one room apartment, in the Novelty Hotel in Nice, Caroline Otero died as a result of a heart attack. She was remembered by neighbors and acquaintances as often speaking of her past glories, and of that golden age, La Belle Époque, which in many ways had been typified by the lovely and celebrated La Belle Otero.

AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE La Belle Otero bids us "Adieu."
Exclusive coupon code for our fans: RPMUSINGS. Use this code during checkout from the Red Poulaine store on Etsy to receive a 10% discount on your purchase.

We are fortunate to have additional postcards of La Belle Otero on their way, featuring photographs taken by the great Reutlinger of Paris. These beautiful images will be available in Red Poulaine in the near future.

La Belle Otero in an elaborately decorated gown
La Belle Otero looking over her shoulder