Esther Lachmann hustled her way from the Moscow ghetto to the top of society in 19th Century Paris – enchanting artists, writers and royalty along the way. Jason Farago recounts the strange tale of the courtesan they called ‘La Païva’.

It is a common refrain in our Kardashian-besotted times: once our celebrities were famous for their talents, now they are only famous for being famous. A bit of sex appeal and a lack of shame are all it takes, we wail, to win adoring crowds and reams of press coverage. But there has always been more than one way to earn public renown – and in mid-19th Century Paris, the most famous celebrity of the age was renowned not for her brains or her power, but for something much less dignified.

From a nearly penniless sex worker, she rose to massive fortune and major political influence

One hundred and fifty years ago, as France passed from monarchy to republic to empire, the courtesan known as La Païva set out to conquer Parisian society – and pulled it off so grandly that even she was surprised. From a nearly penniless sex worker, she rose to massive fortune and major political influence, with Emperor Napoléon III himself among her many, many admirers.

La Païva, as her contemporaries understood, was more than just a courtesan, but an archetypical figure of the European 19th Century – when tectonic shifts in social organisation saw the old order give way, and a new class of capitalists and empire-builders set about remaking the world. Her waist was large, and her face was described by writers of the time as mannish. Yet La Païva had a virtue greater than beauty, and more enduring too: steely, total ambition.

The only way is up

She was born in Russia in 1819, the child of Polish and German Jews in a land not hospitable to her religion. We know little about her youth: Esther Pauline Lachmann was her given name, though she soon adopted the name Thérèse, the first of many French affectations, and later called herself Blanche. By 17 she was married, to a tailor with tuberculosis. She dutifully bore him a son, but less than a year later she was off to Paris – without her child, without even divorce papers, but with an iron determination to make it to the top of European society.

How she got to Paris we have no idea. But in those days the city had no shortage of courtesans and other sex workers, and it seems La Païva lodged in a maison de passe, a cheap hotel where prostitutes clubbed together and men came and went. Other girls were prettier, but Thérèse was in it to win it. She spent, by her own barely trustworthy account, three whole years preparing a social insurgency, eating little, concentrating her will, and determined that she needed to get somewhere more exclusive, more fashionable, and score a man better than the by-the-hour bourgeois of the red light district.

So in 1841, aged 22, she set out for the Prussian spa town of Ems, with a trunk full of borrowed evening gowns and fake jewelry. She bagged herself a pianist – one Henri Herz, wealthy but not wildly loaded, who set her up with an apartment, jewels, the works. Soon she was back in Paris, hosting a successful salon, and not quite married. The Muscovite tailor was still her lawful husband, and though she now called herself Madame Herz, no one was fooled, least of all the gatekeepers at of King Louis-Philippe’s circle, who turned her away from court.

Thérèse was spending far too much in the mid-1840s. Herz had gone to the US, and his parents conspired to kick her out of their house. Her health was faltering, her jewels were at the pawn shop, and without Herz’s backing she risked falling out of Paris’s artistic milieu and back into the brothel. So in 1847 – advised by, of all people, her dressmaker – she left Paris for London, where she had instant success. On her first day in town, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, she seduced a loaded aristocrat. Soon she’d done even better, ensnaring a Portuguese marquis, Albino Francesco Araújo de Païva.

You go back to Portugal; I shall stay here and remain a whore – La Païva

And, while she was gone, what do you know: revolution! In 1848, the July monarchy was ousted; three years later, the short-lived Second Republic gave way to a new empire, under Napoléon’s nephew. It was a good time for glitz, for reinvention, and for nouveaux riches, who sat atop massive fortunes gained in fresh industries and imperial ventures.

In the expanding Paris of Napoléon III and Baron Haussmann, with its new boulevards and massive construction, new money was no barrier to social standing. Ostentation was in, and so-called respectable people mixed freely with the demimonde. “Under the Second Empire,” wrote the art critic Charles Blanc, “a growing luxury so corrupted manners that an honest woman could no longer be recognised by her style of dress.”

The Second Empire was to be La Païva’s playground. Having got what she wanted from her spendthrift marquis, she dispatched him in a letter that concluded: “You go back to Portugal; I shall stay here and remain a whore.” (Soon enough, back in Lisbon, he duly committed suicide.) Now she was that rarest thing, a courtesan with a title, and with it she won a succession of paramours, ever more powerful and ever richer.

One gent she seduced by offering him her body for the length of time it took to burn ten thousand francs in her fireplace. She called her jewels “my children”; her actual kids were nowhere to be seen. She had become a legend, and raised her prices accordingly – settling at last for no one less than Guido, Count Henckel von Donnersmarck, a much younger Prussian and one of the richest men in Europe. He gave her everything, and underwrote the construction of her very own hôtel particulier with a very prominent address: 25, avenue des Champs-Élysées.

She had hustled all the way to the most glamorous street in Europe, and no one was going to forget it

Oof, this pile. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his play No Exit, imagined Hell as a Second Empire salon, and it might have looked something like La Païva’s receiving room – a massive gilded chamber whose ceiling mural depicted her as a goddess chasing the night away. The staircase was made of solid yellow onyx, and so was the bathtub, weighing in at half a ton and equipped with jewel-encrusted taps. (It’s still there, and you can visit if you know someone who’s a member of the Travellers Club.) The Goncourt brothers, in their Journal, called her house a Louvre de cul – a palace of… well, perhaps we ought not to translate that expression for a family website. Alexandre Dumas was even more scathing: “It’s almost finished. All it needs is a sidewalk.”

They could go hang, so far as La Païva was concerned. The men all came – the emperor, the industrial barons, and also writers such as Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola – from whom she demanded, as the bare minimum recognition of her hospitality, magnums of rosé champagne. (She bathed in the stuff too, and milk as well at times.) The mansion was much more than a home for a woman who liked to live large. It was a public marker of what La Païva had accomplished – she had hustled all the way from the Moscow ghetto to the most glamorous street in Europe, and no one was going to forget it.

Decline and fall

We have no proper portrait of her: a couple of iffy paintings, a photograph in profile. What did she really look like? Contemporary observers contradict one another – even then, she was more a myth than a woman. She was busty, even when young. Pale white skin, which she blanched further with rice powder. Probably a curvaceous figure; no willowy girl. As for her face, numerous writers classed her as what the French call belle-laide, or “ugly-beautiful.” Her eyes were described as too large, and her nose came in for particular criticism: shaped like a pear, they say. (Her Judaism played a part in this reception, without a doubt. One observer acidly wrote that “this wandering and victorious Jew” had nothing in common with “the pretty free spirits of the Second Empire.”)

Her widower had her corpse embalmed in alcohol and stored her body in the attic

But by 1871, when the country was routed in the Franco-Prussian War, the mood towards La Païva has soured. She was accused of being a German spy. At the opera, so the story goes, the audience hissed when she entered. Her Prussian spouse did not help matters, but it was more than Germanophobia that did her in. The Second Empire’s loose morals and mixing of classes became suspect in the years after the defeat. Courtesans, in a weird way, became scapegoats for national weakness – and La Païva, not only a courtesan but a Jew to boot, was scapegoat number one.

It was time to go. La Païva and her last, richest husband lived out the rest of her days in a giant mansion in Silesia, in what today is Poland. After she died in 1884 her widower, heartbroken, did not bury her. Instead he had her corpse embalmed in alcohol, cried over the dead courtesan for months, and then stored her body in the attic – without telling his subsequent, shocked wife. In 1901, Kaiser Wilhelm granted Henckel von Donnersmarck the title of Fürst – the highest rank in the German nobility below the Kaiser himself. You have to wonder if he went upstairs to tell his preserved spouse the news: La Païva, at least in death, had become a princess.

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