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.”