It’s the oldest profession in the world, but when to comes to sex workers, courtesans are the OG ladies of the night. Unlike their street hustling counterparts, courtesans were the ultimate status symbol. Only the privileged few could afford the high price these women charged both in and out of bed. Courtesans sold not just their bodies, but also their glamour, political influence, public prestige and access to other wealthy people. Not to be confused with being someone’s mistress, a courtesan had great power of shaping the political landscape and allowed to express themselves in many different ways.
“Well-behaved women don’t make history.” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Here are some of the most famous courtesans throughout history.
If money is power, then Harriette Wilson had plenty of both. Intelligent and shrewd, Wilson began her career at the age of 15 and quickly rose to the top of London’s elite social structure. Apparently, her parent’s terrible marriage convinced her at a young age to seek her happiness elsewhere. Her network of extremely powerful men included Earls, Dukes, Prime Ministers and even a King. She was able to control these powerful lovers with her sharp wit, always making them work for her attention. After aging out of the sex workers union, Wilson fell on hard times. But that did not stop her from writing a tell-all about her trysts and blackmailing her former lovers. The choice was obvious—pay up or names would be released. Good thing Facebook and Twitter weren’t around back then.
Esther Lachmann (La Païva)
One hundred fifty years ago, a little-known, cash-strapped sex worker set out on conquering Paris. And boy did she ever, even exceeding her own expectations. La Païva, as she is now known, left the Moscow slums and made her way to the Champs-Elysées. She lodged at a cheap motel with other prostitutes and made the rounds. But what made La Païva different was not her beauty, but rather, raw ambition. Her in-it-to-win determination and intellectual savvy resulted in attracting a wealthier clientele and eventually the Emperor himself, Napoléon III. Quite the party animal, La Païva threw lavish events and even had a solid onyx bathtub flowing with champagne. She wasn’t afraid to get dirty either, reportedly forcing an anguished banker to burn his money while they made love. When she died in 1884, her husband preserved her body and kept it in his attic—much to the dismay of his new wife.
A Venetian courtesan during the 16th century, Veronica Franco was considered the creme-de-la-sex. It’s not surprising either. She learned from one of the best courtesans in the biz, her mother! More than just a sex worker, Franco was a highly educated woman who wrote poetry and letters on the rights of women, and of course, love. Her retinue of wealthy men included Domenico Venier and the King of France. Unfortunately, Veronica Franco’s success was short-lived. After leaving Venice during the height of the plague and her house of looted of all it’s valuable possessions and she later died in poverty at the age of 45. Poor dear!
Virginia Oldoini, the Countess of Castiglione
Before there ever was a Kim Kardashian, there was Virginia Oldoini, the Countess of Castiglione. The original selfie master, the Countess de Castiglione is one of the most documented courtesans of the 19th century. From 1856 to 1895 she had more than 700 photographs taken of her, including some particularly scandalous ones showing off her legs. Oh, my! Born into a noble family in 1837, she married young and soon after left her husband bankrupt for wealthier men in Paris. Talk about one-upping! Quite the narcissist, the countess would appear at social gatherings dressed like a goddess or the Queen of Hearts. Just like a shooting star, she shone brightly and soon crashed into darkness—alone.
It’s not surprising that Theresa Berkley would come up with a solution during a time when women were not permitted to own property. As clever courtesans go, Berkley figured out that whipping the crap out of men could help increase her standard of living. Many considered her not only powerful but also extremely dangerous to boot. She yielded great influence with her torture devices and would sometimes blackmail her upper-class clients if they did not pay an additional money. Her haven of sin included whip-thongs, cat-o’-nine-tails studded with needle points, supple switches, thin leather straps, curry combs, ox hide straps studded with nails and green nettles. Sounds likes good times.
Mata Hari was the archetypal courtesan—she had the brains for business and a body for sin. Born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands, she married young and briefly lived in the Dutch West Indies. After her divorce, she relocated to Paris with an entirely new persona as an exotic dancer. Mata Hari, as she was known, captured attention with her seductive moves and had powerful men salivating over her—even high-ranking government officials. The rumor is that Mata Hari was a German spy and she was executed for sharing secrets. Although we may never know the truth, Mata Hari’s life has inspired multiple films, musicals, ballets, and books, making her one of the most famous courtesans in modern history.
La Belle Otero
One of the last great courtesans, La Belle Otero was probably the wealthiest with an amassed fortune of 25 million (360M in today’s money). She was an admired celebrity who would make men melt with her seductive Spanish dance moves and bewitching dark eyes. Otero was so sought after that even Kings and Kaisers would fight over being with her. It is rumored that 6 men committed suicide after their love affair with La Belle Otero ended. Her claim to fame was when she moved to Monte Carlo and winning a small fortune at the casinos. After that, she lived the ultimate life of luxury in Paris where she shined like a rock star.