Of all the world-renowned courtesans of the era, Carolina, La Belle Otero, was too fabulous a character not to include in a major role.
It’s hard for us to understand now, just how pre-eminent the courtesans were during the belle époque. As icons, they not only exerted great influence over fashion and style, they also lived independent of the repression women of all classes endured at the time, providing a beacon for what an autonomous life could be.
La Belle was born in Spain in 1868, to a peasant mother, the village prostitute who likely sold her child off for the same purpose. Belle loved to dance, and thus attracted priapic eyes. She was raped at the age of eleven, and ran away to follow her own path.
From that terrible beginning, she built a life of extravagant flamboyance, as a dancer and actress. She performed hugely successful tours in Paris, USA and around the world throughout the 1890s. Men were devastated by her, she was renowned for the heartbreak she caused and was nicknamed the ‘suicide siren’.
It’s true that she seduced five crown heads of Europe – Kaiser Wilhelm II; Edward, Prince of Wales; Tsar Nicholas II of Russia; King Alfonso of Spain and Prince Albert of Monaco. However royals were ten a penny in that era and her lovers also included; the Khedive of Egypt, the Shah of Persia, Alexander I of Serbia and Prince Nicholas of Montenegro, not to mention a string of Russian grand dukes, barons, French comtes, bankers and prominent statesmen, as well as the American millionaires William K. Vanderbilt and Joseph Kennedy.
The personal fortune she amassed in fabulous jewels was beyond even the British monarch’s crown jewels and she said; “No man with an account at Cartier can ever really be called ugly”. She would ultimately throw it all away via her gambling addiction.
Belle could be kind to younger women, such as the author Colette who also started out in vaudeville, so it’s not unlikely that she’d have agreed to take on Ruby as her protégée. Belle’s amazing true story will continue in Book 2, The Titanic Mummy Mystery.