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Backstory

In August 1845 Alexandre Dumas fils ended his brief but passionate affair with Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis. He sent her a bitter letter that is often quoted in program notes about La Traviata:

“My very dear Marie: I am neither rich enough to love you as I would like, nor poor enough to be loved as you would like. So let’s both forget, you a name which must be a little indifferent to you, me a happiness which has become impossible. It is useless to tell you how sad this makes men because you already know how much I love you. So farewell. You have too much heart not to understand the motive of my letter and too much spirit to not pardon me for it. A thousand memories. A.D. 30 August midnight.”

This letter is so angry, so full of angst, that it grabs the reader’s heart. Alexandre Dumas fils would immortalize the brief time he spent with Duplessis in a novel and then a play Dame aux camellias. Giuspeppe Verdi immortalized the affair even more with his opera La Traviata. The play was a favorite of actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse.

Greta Garbo’s portrayal of the doomed courtesan is routinely cited as one of the great screen portrayals of all time. In the 1960′s, the great choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton capitalized on the electric chemistry between Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev by creating a ballet based on the Dumas/Marie affair called Marguerite and Armand. Audiences swooned all over again.

What a love story, right? Except … there’s no proof Alexandre Dumas ever sent this letter to Marie —he only “revealed” this special correspondence 40 years after her death, by which time he had spent a lifetime riding the Camelias gravy train. In fact, the Marie/A.D. “affair” seems to have been little more than a fling. Dumas’ novel and play more closely resemble other, more serious relationships Marie had with different lovers. And if Dumas was heartbroken on “30 August midnight” he wasn’t heartbroken for long, for by September 1845 he had taken up with an actress and Marie had fallen in love with Franz Lizst.

All this is revealed in Julie Kavanagh‘s new biography The Girl Who Loved Camelias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis. Most aficionados of La Traviata will already be familiar with the basic outlines of Marie Duplessis’s life: she was born Alphonsine Plessis in the French countryside of Nonant to a brutish alcoholic father Marin Plessis and a delicate mother Marie Deshayes. Alphonsine’s mother eventually abandoned the family and from then on Alphonsine and her sister Delphine were shipped around to different relatives.

When Alphonsine hit puberty her father resurfaced in her life, seemingly with the express purpose of pimping his pretty daughter out to dirty old men. Despite this brutal introduction to the facts of life, Alphonsine was a quick study and learned that her sexuality could be used to further her position in life. She moved to Paris, worked in a dress shop as a lusty grisette, until she found her first in a long series of wealthy lovers.

By the time Alphonsine (now renamed Marie Duplessis) was in her late teens she was one of Paris’s top courtesans with staggeringly expensive tastes: leather-bound volumes of books, a stable of thoroughbred horses, clothes, flowers and hats for every occasion (camellias were just one of the many flowers she bought), and on top of that she was a compulsive gambler.

Her friend the actress Mme. Judith describes her salon: “There were sofas covered in Beauvais tapestries, small rosewood tables displaying Clodion pottery, divine Riesener trinkets with copper ware chisels by Gaultier.” Imagine if Franco Zefferelli ever designed a production based on descriptions of Marie’s real-life surroundings.

Marie in behavior was typical of a courtesan: she used her lovers as ATM machines, and they had her attention until the money ran out or she found someone richer. Attraction didn’t matter: one of her longest affairs was with the 80 year old Count Stackelberg. But she was charming, an excellent conversationalist, and managed to maintain good relationships with many of her ex-lovers long after the affairs were over.

Her lovers and friends in turn retained fond memories of her: her childhood friend from Nonant Roman Vienne wrote a book about her, her lover Ned Perregaux acquiesced to her demand for a meaningless marriage at a London registry after their “love affair” had come to an end, Franz Lizst regretted not returning to her after their brief time together, her ex-lover Olympe Aguado even persuaded his mother to help pay for Marie’s mounting debts when Marie was dying of tuberculosis. And of course Alexandre Dumas created the love story of Marguerite and “Armand,” who seems to be an amalgam of Marie’s lovers.

The problem with Kavanagh’s book is that while it attempts to be a thorough biography of Marie Duplessis, her major sources (the book by Roman Vienne, Dumas’ novel) are far from reliable, and Kavanagh admits as much at numerous times in her biography. Marie herself left very little surviving correspondence, and what does exist is unrevealing. There are arrangements for meetings at the opera, or trips abroad.

Kavanagh does a good job convincing one to be doubtful of Dumas’ novel’s veracity, yet she quotes it in large bulks to fill in the narrative of Marie’s life, and only intermittently attempts to separate what in the novel might really have been “based on real life events” and what was clearly the author’s artistic license.

Marie Duplessis remains frustratingly opaque: a woman almost completely defined by the memories of others and artistic imagination. Did she ever think of the illegitimate son that she gave up to the family of her first lover? How did she feel about her nightmarish childhood? Which of her lovers did she really love?

Kavanagh’s chatty, gossipy style (no surprise to anyone who’s read her biographies of Frederick Ashton and Rudolf Nureyev) is very accessible. The book is a quick read, and lacks pretentiousness: there’s no pontificating about feminism or Victorian-era morality.

On the negative side, there’s only a cursory examination of all the novels, plays, opera, ballets, movies, and great portrayals Marie inspired. This is disappointing as Kavanagh is a long-time arts critic. The book is sort of shallow — we learn that in her final days, Marie to cure her pain was addicted to opium and lost her customary tact and good manners: she complained bitterly about ex-lovers, even the loyal Ned Perregaux: “I don’t want hum to ever set foot here; if (Clotilde, her maid) opens my door to him I will chase him away.”

But Kavanagh doesn’t even speculate why there were such bitter splits with lovers. One wonders what a writer with a more inquisitive mind (like, say, Arlene Croce or Robert Gottlieb) could have done with the same material.

Still, for lovers of La Traviata, this book is certainly an enjoyable read. And in a strange way, it’s a throwback. The recent trend in Traviata productions (like Willy Decker or Robert Carsen) has been to emphasize the starker, grimmer aspects of the story. Kavanagh’s breathless recounting of all of Marie’s balls, trips, shopping sprees, lovers, made one think: “The ending may not have been pretty, but the journey was certainly fun.”

36 comments

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Is this the same Julie Kavanagh?

  • Camille says:

    Ivy! Did you stay up all night reading this? That was quick! I’ll give this a thorough read when I have time as have none at the moment.

    Pleased to see this bio, and it it only a bit on the sketchy side, probably the story is impossible to relate in all its gory detail.

    You should know about Joanna Richardson’s book The Courtesans>/i>, which features a good chapter on the immortal Marie Duplessis, among other famous demi-mondaines of the nineteenth century.

    • Poison Ivy says:

      Nope read it on the train on the way to and from work. And during lunchtime.

      • Camille says:

        Oh good. Like popcorn.

        Were there pictures of her and/or any of the periment characters, aside from Dumas fils? The usual one is already on the cover and just wonder what else she was able to find. There is a photo of a passport she was issued in the mid-forties, in the Richardson book, for example. Guessing that those items are somewhat limited.

    • Camille says:

      An interesting blog page on The Courtesans with other of the Grandes Horizontales who frequented the nineteenth c. demi-monde.
      Mdlle. Duplessis is number 10 on this list.

  • laddie says:

    Thank you so much Ivy. Invaluable review when you think about the number of Traviata productions around. So much of Romanticism is all in the heads of the day which is why Decker’s Traviata is so fantastic as more of a symbolist approach. I would love to see the ballet. Is it on video?

    • Poison Ivy says:

      John Neumier’s Dame aux camellias is out on video. Not sure about Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand. It’s available on VHS in “Nureyev: I Am A Dancer.”

  • skoc211 says:

    New York Parterreians!

    Julie Kavanagh will be introducing a screening of Garbo’s “Camille” at the Film Forum at 7:00pm on July 1st!

    http://filmforum.com/movies/more/camille

    I unfortunately missed their screening of “Becoming Traviata” a few weeks ago, but I’ve already bought my tickets to see “Camille.” It’s one of my all time favorite films and Garbo’s performance really is “one of the great screen portrayals of all time.” I can’t wait to see it on the big screen! I imagine it hasn’t been seen in a movie theater very many times since it was released.

    • Camille says:

      I dunno about that rarity of frequency regarding The Divine Garbo.

      In the very early eighties I saw an entire exhibition of Garbo films at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA, to the homies), Camille was among them, but remember liking Ninotchka perhaps the most.

      The Film Forum and the many other venues here in New York City surely must have given at least some of her films at times.

      First time I saw Camille, however, was on a black and white TV. To frost the cake, I played the opera in the background. De trop, I know!

      • skoc211 says:

        Ninotchka is such a gem.

        I’m somewhat new to The Divine Garbo, so I haven’t been looking out for screenings for very long.

        • Poison Ivy says:

          I would like Camille more if not for the hilariously bad acting of Robert Taylor. He looks pretty, but that’s about it. I agree though that Garbo’s interpretation is pitch-perfect. I also thought the film did a good job of working around the Hayes code in portraying demi-mondaine life.

      • Camille says:

        Here they are, in all their respective glory:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFUuoqp0Ya0&sns=em

        It’s nice to note the usage of “Ah, fors’è lui” integrated into a part of the accompanying music for this trailer, toward the end.

        • WindyCityOperaman says:

          I also loved Rex O’Malley’s as Gastone. He is the only sympathetic person from Marguerite’s old crowd and leaves money to pay off her debts. Comprimari tenors preparing this role should study his performance.

          The latter day tv movie isn’t nearly as accomplished, but Colin looked awfully cute . . .

    • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin says:

      Lucky you, skoc211! I was living in NYC in the 1980s when The Public Theater gave a retrospective of Garbo’s silents with live piano (I went every night) and then the next year gave the first screening in over 50 years of “The Single Standard.” I now have all 25 of her extant nature films on DVD. As much as I love “Camille,” I my favorites remain “the Temptress” and “Flesh and the Devil.”

      • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin says:

        That’s MATURE films (meaning everything post “Peter the Tramp”). D’oh!

      • skoc211 says:

        That sounds divine. I haven’t seen any of her silent films yet, but I did get a Garbo DVD film collection as a gift and, upon checking, it appears that “The Temptress” and “Flesh and Devil” are included, so I’ll definitely be checking them out soon!

        • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin says:

          Is that the TCM set which also has “The Mysterious Lady?” That’s a great beginner set! 86 years after its premiere, the “communion scene” in “Flesh and the Devil” is still one of the most lascivious scenes ever committed to film (you’ll know it when you see it). If you ever have the chance, don’t miss her pre-MGM films. She’s not the star, but both “Gösta Berlings saga” and “Die freudlose Gasse” (from G.W. Pabst) are magnificent films.

          • derschatzgabber says:

            “Die Freudlose Gasse” will be screened on Saturday, July 20, 8:30 pm at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The print is a restoration with a running time of about 150 minutes.

            I highly recommend the Silent Film festival to any parterriani in the Bay Area (or with summer travel plans to the Bay Area). All films are presented with live musical accompaniment, and the evening screeings often are accomponied by small ensembles. Check out http://www.silentfilm.org

            Thanks to the festival, I was able to see that “communion scene” on the big screen a few years ago. Die Junger does not exagerate.

          • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin says:

            Mein lieber Schatz(gabber), thanks for your comment. I’m happy to find anybody who even knows about the existence of “Flesh and the Devil,” let alone agrees with me on the power of that one scene.

            It’s great that the Castro will show “Die freudlose Gasse.” I highly recommend it.

            I have the official Murnau Foundation DVD which has “Die freudlose Gasse” fully restored at 151 minutes, plus a second disc with the feature-length (111 minute) Pabst documentary “Der andere Blick” (1991/revised 2009) plus more than an hour of other extras plus ROM features, and a nicely illustrated 20-page book (mostly in German). I don’t know if it can be ordered from an American source, but I got my copy (Region Code 0, so it will play anywhere) from http://www.edition-filmmuseum.com at a pretty reasonable price.

            After chatting about it, I re-watched “Gösta Berlings saga” (183 minutes) -- and wow! What an extraordinary film! Garbo, in a supporting role, is sensational, but the woman who plays The Major’s Wife just walks away with the film.

            Meanwhile our new “Tristan” starts in just a little more than five hours, so I am getting myself in the proper frame of mind (and trying to figure out what to wear…).

            Tschüß!

  • Will says:

    In another of the books on Marie, the Swedish Count Gustav Ernst Stackelberg (a Baron Duphol figure but indulgent of Marie’s affairs with younger men, and who remained protective of her to the very end) is placed in the opera house in Stockholm in 1792 the night Gustav III was shot. The author identifies him as the first person who made it to the king’s side to get him out of further danger and to medical help. Although no such figure appears in Un Ballo in Maschera, Count Stackelberg nevertheless was historically involved in the lives and deaths of actual persons who became the central figures in two Verdi operas.

    • Camille says:

      That is actually quite a fascinating little tidbit and I thank you for sharing it with us. Wondering now if there are any others, if not for Verdi, then Wagner, Puccini, you name it.

      • Will says:

        Stackelberg died in 1850, so he didn’t live to see the play and the opera, but he could have read Dumas’ novel. Many others who knew Marie personally, however, would have seen both. And she would have loved knowing that she made it onto the spoken and opera stage. She loved theater and opera and her last appearance in public was in a box at a theater in Paris.

        The reason the Stackelberg coincidence could happen was that Verdi wrote two operas based on real people — Wagner and Puccini didn’t. But here’s another one about Marie.

        When she died, Ned Perregaux had her buried in the Cemetery of Montmartre. Dumas had her exhumed (a bizarre and almost terrifying episode in the novel as he insisted on the coffin being opened so he could see her one last time) and had her moved to the more prestigious Pere Lachaise. Sarah Bernhardt for whom the play was a massive success played it into the 1920s and was buried in Pere Lachaise on her death. When Maria Callas died, her wish was to be cremated and then scattered in the Aegean off Greece. Her ashes were briefly interred at Pere Lachaise until that could be arranged; so, for a few months Marie and the two women who were arguably her greatest interpreters on the spoken and operatic stages were all lay within a very short distance from each other.

        • Camille says:

          C’est juste!

          It is kind of wonderful to think of this convergence, even if entirely post-mortem.

          Grand merci.

          (This reminds me of the hideous graveside scene of Berlioz and the disinterring of his wife, Harriet, too.)

  • papopera says:

    Perfect grande horizontale, many rich cochons, un hotel particulier, opium to boot, died of tuberculosis at 23. Really, what else could a lady want ?

  • rysanekfreak says:

    Perhaps I’m not remembering correctly, but in the film, don’t Garbo and her friends go to the Opera for a performance of Donizetti’s La Favorite?

  • Camille says:

    Has anyone of you ever seen this really rather interesting film on the Camille story?

    http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/150396/Vera-Storia-Della-Signora-Delle-Camelie/overview

    httpv://movies.nytimes.com/movie/150396/Vera-Storia-Della-Signora-Delle-Camelie/overview

  • WindyCityOperaman says:

    No one has mentioned John Neumeier’s beautiful ballet film and the incredible Marcia Haydee. Ivan Liska is the kind of Armand one has sweet dreams about . . . my understanding is that these days he performs the role of Armand’s father.

    • WindyCityOperaman says:

      Apologies as Poison Ivy had mentioned it way before . . . I’ve only seen the filmed version (with Haydee) and not the remake.