Mata Hari on Wanton Weekends

Mata_Hari_15Mata Hari is remembered for being a spy, one who used her role as mistress to glean military secrets from her conquests.

1906: The infamous Dutch spy Mata Hari, real name Margarete Geertruida Zelle (1876 - 1917) who was born in Leeuwarden and became a dancer in France is performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. (Photo by Walery/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

She was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1876, and seems to have decided early on to use her beauty as her coin to buy herself a future. In 1895, she became a mail-order bride, after answering an ad inserted by Rudolf MacLeod, a military captain in the Duch East Indies. He was 21 years older than her 19.

Their marriage was disastrous. He drank heavily and she enjoyed the attention she received from other officers. After nine years, her husband took their daughter and left, and Mata Hari moved to Paris.

There, she became the mistress of a diplomat and an exotic dancer. She billed herself as a Hindu artist, and drew on cultural and religious symbolism from the East Indies to create her own form of ‘temple dance’.

As she grew older, she took lovers to supplement her income. In 1916, nearing 40 and plump, her dancing days behind her, she accepted an assignment to spy for France.

Was she a double-agent for the Germans? The Germans claimed she was, in a letter that was intercepted by the French. At her trial, she said: “A courtesan; I admit it. A spy, never! I always lived for love and pleasure.”

She was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917.


The quadroon concubines of New Orleans on Wanton Weekends


In New Orleans at the end of the 18th Century, a wealthy white man would generally live on his plantation with his wife and children, but he would also have a townhouse in New Orleans where his other family lived: his quadroon mistress and the children he had made with her.

To the men and women involved, these marriages de la main gauche (left-handed marriages) were honourable arrangements. The women were faithful to their protectors, and the men were expected to provide for their children. It was what a gentleman did.

Girls were as carefully raised and protected as their white counterparts, and, when they were old enough, introduced to wealthy white men at the weekly quadroon balls – elegant affairs that only white men and quadroon women were permitted to attend. A man attracted to a particular girl would need to negotiate with her mother, and she would probably insist of various protections in writing before the girl was allowed to move into the house her new protectors would purchase for her.

As time passed, institutionalised racism grew, and the system was no longer officially sanctioned. This made it easier for the legal wife and ‘legitimate’ children to cheat the placée and her children out of their inheritance.

By the end of the reconstruction period following the American Civil War, many families of former placées were impoverished, and their daughters had few options. However, their beauty, education, grace, and charm meant success in the city’s sex trade, as courtesans and madams. Their grandmothers and greatgrandmothers would have been horrified.

The image shows women at one of the last of the quadroon balls.


The floating world on Wanton Weekends

Last week’s post was about a woman of business at the top of her profession. For today, I’m moving to the other side of the Eurasian land-mass, two thousand years forward in time, and to the bottom of the pecking order.

In 17th Century Japan, new laws restricted brothels to specific quarters, where they could be regulated and taxed. Men regarded a visit to ‘the floating world’ as an opportunity to escape their highly regulated lives. Their wives were expected to dress modestly and serve their husbands. For passion and love, the warriors, merchants, and lords of Japan looked to the floating world.

Women were sold into the brothels, often from poor farmer or fisher families, aged 7 or 8, and grew up doing chores and tending the courtesans. Compared to where they came from, the brothels were better – sufficient food, light work, a clean place to sleep.

Those that showed ability began their courtesan training at 11 or 12. A courtesan needed to be well read, talented at music and drawing, able to entertain in and out of bed. Every lesson they learned; every item of clothing they wore, every hairclip and pot of cosmetics was charged to the debt they owed the brothel.

Once they ‘graduated’ (by having their virginity auctioned to the highest bidder), they worked long hours, even when they were sick or menstruating. They had quotas to fill, with most of the purchase fee for their time going to the brothel and little finding its way into their hands.

Their only hope of a different life was to attract the attention of someone willing and able to buy their debt.

Some, of course, reached the top of their profession, becoming high-ranking courtesans with some choice about who they entertained. Most remained low-ranking prostitutes, available to lower-ranked and poorer men. In Yoshigawa in 1642, 102 courtesans were listed, compared to 881 prostitutes.

Many prostitutes died by the time they were 20, of venereal disease or lead poisoning from the cosmetics they wore, or during or after childbirth. In one graveyard, more than 21,000 prostitutes were buried ‘without connection’; that is, without anyone to pay their funeral costs.

For more, see:…/the-tragic-life-of-the-c…/


Whore to Empress on Wanton Weekends

Benjamin-Constant-L'Imperatrice_Theodora_au_ColiséeTheodora, daughter of a Constantinople bear trainer, gives us one of the most successful mistress to wife stories from history. She was an actress when, at 16, she came to the attention of a government official, who took her with him when he was posted to Northern Africa.

On her return, aged 20, she drew the attention of another government official, Justinian, the son of the Emperor. Officials were not permitted to marry actresses, but Justinian appealed to his father, who changed the law, and in 525 she and Justinian married. In 527, Justinian became Emperor of Byzantium, and Theodosia was crowned Empress alongside him.

She is credited with expanding the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, giving mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbidding the killing of a wife who committed adultery. She also closed brothels and created convents for ex-prostitutes.


The harem on wanton weekends

georges-antoine-rochegrosse-french-1859-1938-e28093-harem-girls-in-an-aviaryIf you want a harem, you really need to talk to my friend, fellow Bluestocking Belle Caroline Warfield, aka Carol Roddy, who has just release her book Dangerous Weakness. In Dangerous Weakness, the heroine spends part of her time in the seraglio at Istanbul.

But here’s what I know. The harem in Ottoman society was the woman’s quarters. Muslim men were permitted four wives (if they could afford them). Wealthy men also kept concubines – whose main job was to join their master in his bed.

Those weren’t the only inhabitants of the harem, however. The female relatives of the head of the household lived there, too: his mother, who was usually the head of the harem, his wives, his unmarried sisters, his daughters, and many, many female servants whose job it was to look after the women of higher status.

Concubines were an important part of Ottoman social structure. Wealthy and powerful men married to make alliances between families, and wives were suspected of remaining loyal to their birth family. Slave concubines had no such lineage, and could—so the theory went—be relied on to reproduce without bothersome politics.

And even a concubine could become the most powerful female in the household if the son she bore became the next master. Perhaps, if the household was that of the Sultan, the most powerful female in the Empire.


Dennis O’Kelly on Wanton Weekends

eclipse by stubbs2Today’s famous courtesan is not the beautiful horse, though Eclipse certainly performed extremely well as a stallion: 80% of thoroughbreds today carry his genes. No, our featured stud is the horses owner, one Captain Dennis O’Kelly (the rank was possibly self-granted, and certainly the promotion to Lieutenant Colonel by the time Dennis wrote his memoirs was entirely fictional).

Given Dennis’s way with a story, little is certain. He was the lover of one of London’s more prosperous madams (who he met while they were both incarcerated in Fleet Street for bankruptcy). He and she both did win their way back to prosperity fairly quickly, and Dennis did buy Eclipse, who went on to sire three of the first five Derby winners as well as many other fine racehorses.

Dennis’s story of how he got his start makes him worthy of a place at our event. He was working as a sedan chair man in London, carrying the front poles . One day, a lady passenger looked him up and down and liked what she saw. Shortly after, Dennis was approached by a woman who offered him a full time job in the same profession, but for a single employer. Imagine his surprise when he found his employer was the same lady passenger.

His surprise turned to delight when his new mistress sent him to wait for further instructions at a townhouse, where she joined him in disguise (and in precisely the sense you immediately imagined. “As this publication is intended for the virtuous, as well as vicious eye,” he says, we must conceal from the one, what the experience of the other may easily supply. Some hours were spent in mutual happiness.”

Receiving a purse of 25 guineas for his exertions, Dennis found it well worth his while to return, and over several months, he says, he saved a considerable sum of money. Gaining a taste for the highlife, he immediately lost it all again, and was arrested and thrown into prison, where he met “That well known priestess of the Cyprian Deity, that love and mirth admiring votress, to pleasing sensuality, the well known Charlotte Hayes, was then an inhabitant of the same mansion.”

He comments that his attributes soon caught Charlotte’s eye “and the same services soon obtained… the same kind remunerations.” He claims to have devoted himself for the rest of his life to Charlotte, and – while ‘Charlotte had many friends, it is true… Her affections were still centred in our Hero, and on him were all the pecuniary favours which she received from others, bestowed with unbounded liberality.’

They spent the rest of their lives together, though Charlotte continued to have many friends (by way of business), and rumour at the time said the same of Dennis. He definitely qualifies to be here.


Nell Gwynne on Wanton Weekends

Nell GwynOne Eleanor Gwyn (or Gwynn or Gwynne – they didn’t take their spelling nearly as seriously as we do) is something of a folk heroine. She was, even in her own time.

She was probably born in 1650 (or possibly as early as 1642). Her mother was the alcoholic proprietor of a bawdy house, and it is possibly she was herself a child-prostitute. Certainly by 1662, she had an acknowledged lover who paid for her rooms in a tavern near a newly opened playhouse.

Here, Nell and her sister sold oranges to theatre-goers, and here, less than a year later, Nell became an actress. She made her first recorded appearance on stage in 1665, in a dramatic part, but soon found her niche as a comedic actress, playing opposite Charles Hart, who also became her lover.

The theatres at the time had trouble keeping leading actresses, as the aristocracy delighted in tempting them away to be kept mistresses. In 1667, Nell became the mistress of Charles Sackville, then Lord Buckhurst.

In 1668, she began an affair with King Charles the Second (she called him her Charles the third), and spent less and less time acting, and more time with the King.

HSP185015 King Charles II (1630-85) and Nell Gwynne (1650-87) (oil on canvas) by Ward, Edward Matthew (1816-79) oil on canvas © Royal Hospital Chelsea, London, UK English, out of copyright

HSP185015 King Charles II (1630-85) and Nell Gwynne (1650-87) (oil on canvas) by Ward, Edward Matthew (1816-79)
oil on canvas
© Royal Hospital Chelsea, London, UK
English, out of copyright

She had her first son, Charles, in 1670. There’s a story that she demanded a title for him . Charles refused, and Nell hung him out the window, threatening to drop him. “Someone catch the Earl of Burford,” said Charles. I like the story, but I also like the alternative story, that Nell said to her son, “Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father.” When Charles objected to the word, she told him he’d given her no other name by which to call him.

James, her second child, was born in 1671.

Nell is remembered for her wit, as much as for her beauty. She died in 1687, three years after her eldest son was created Duke of Argyll, and two years after the death of her royal lover.


Belle Brezing on Wanton Weekends

300px-Belle_Brezing_in_a_feather_hat_(circa_1895)I’ve another poet for you this weekend.

Belle Brezing is supposed to have been the inspiration for the character Madame Belle in Gone with the Wind. Born in 1860, raised by a drunken, violent mother and a series of stepfathers, she was seduced at 12, pregnant at 15 and married shortly after. Her husband left town after the murder of one of her two other lovers, and before the birth of her daughter.

At 19, Belle became a resident at a ‘bawdy house’, and so excelled in her new career that she started her own enterprise two years later.

She went on to open bigger and better houses until, in 1891, she opened her last and greatest.

In the book ‘Madame Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel’, Maryjean Wall describes the opening night.

“Megowan Street had never seen commotion like Belle’s opening night in 1891. All varieties of horse-drawn vehicles pulled up in front of no. 59, dropping off male passengers wearing formal evening dress. Drivers shouted to their horses. Cabs departed as quickly as they had arrived, the drivers turning their horses sharply back toward the Phoenix Hotel to pick up more fares. In the trickle-down effect the evening had on the local economy, hack drivers made a small fortune in tips on this memorable night.

Belle Brezing's parlour“Belle had invited physicians, lawyers, judges, horsemen, businessmen, and bankers to this fete. Sweet orchestral strains poured into the street every time the door opened to admit another caller. She had hired musicians for her opening, foregoing her mechanical nickelodeon. Her staff had prepared an elegant buffet. Her bar served the finest wines and champagne.”

Belle was highly successful, though she was also indicted more than any other citizen of Lexington.

She continued to run houses for the sale of entertainment for the next 25 years, until all the houses of disrepute were closed during the first World War by order of the army. By the time they opened again, Belle’s long-time lover and her sister had both died, and she lived out her retirement as a recluse until her death in 1940.

Belle wrote this poem in her teens, perhaps before she was wed.

Sitting tnight in my chamber, a school girl figure
and lonely, I kiss the end of my finger, that and that only.

Reveries rises from the smokey mouth. Memories linger surround
me. Boys that are married or single. Gather around me. School boys
in pantalets roumping, Boys that now are growing to be young lands,
Boys that kiked to be Kissed; and like to give kisses.

Kisses. I remember them: Those in the corner were fleetest:
Sweet were those won the Sly in the Dark were the sweetest.
Girls are tender and gentle. To woo was almost to win them.
They lips are good as ripe peaches, and cream for finger.
Girls are sometimes flirts, and coquettish; Now catch and Kiss if
you can sin: could I catch both – ah, wasent I a happy Girl.

Boys is pretty and blooming sweetly, yea sweetness over their rest!
Them I loved dearly and truely. Last and the best.

Writing by Belle Brezing, Lexington Ky


Yu Xuanji on Wanton Weekends

Today’s post is about a concubine turned courtesan turned nun, who was also a poet.

downloadYu Xuanji lived in Chang-an, a province of China, in the late Tang dynasty (9th Century western). At the age of 16, she became the concubine of an official named Li Yu. Li Yu’s primary wife couldn’t stand the younger woman, and Li You abandoned her. She returned to life as a courtesan before taking holy orders as a Daoist nun.

Ironically, respectable women had no need to be educated, but courtesans must keep their clients entertained, and we remember Yu Xuanji today for her poetry – around 50 of her poems survive today, a fraction of her probable output. She is also remembered for her death. She was accused of murdering her maid, jailed, tried, and executed.

Was she the ‘Wild woman’ of later literature? Or a woman who refused to be confined by the expectations of her society and paid the price for it?

From this distance, we can only judge her by her work. Here is one of her poems, believed to be about beautiful young women.

Selling the Last Peonies

Facing the wind makes us sigh
we know how many flowers fall

spring has come back again
and where have the fragrant longings gone?

who can afford these peonies?
their price is much too high

their arrogant aroma
even intimidates butterflies

flowers so deeply red
they must have been grown in a palace

leaves so darkly green
dust scarcely dares to settle there

if you wait till they’re transplanted
to the Imperial Gardens

then you, young lords, will find
you have no means to buy them.



Gabrielle d’Estrées on Wanton Weekends

gabrielledestresAnother highly successful mistress today, though she tragically died just before she was made a wife. Gabrielle d’Estrées was the mistress and beloved of Henry IV of France. She accompanied him during his campaigns, making sure he was well fed, doing his laundry, and acting as his secretary.

When their son was born, he legitimised the child and the text validated his mistress as ‘worthy of our friendship’. He also recognised and legitimised the other two children they had together, a daughter and a son.

And he made her a Duchess, duchesse de Beaufort.

Five years after the birth of their first child, Henry applied for an annulment and authority to remarry, and gave his mistress his coronation ring as a sign of his intentions. But before they could wed, Gabrielle died.

Henry gave her a funeral fit for a queen, and wrote: “the roots of love are dead within me and will never spring to life again”.