The Girl Who Loved Camellias

A new biography of the woman who inspired 'La traviata'(Photo: npr.org)
A new biography of the woman who inspired 'La traviata'(Photo: npr.org)

If you had a pulse anywhere in the world from roughly 1860-1910 you could not have avoided the play, Camille. This is the story of a Parisian courtesan, using the polite term, who gives up her lover for the honor of his family.

The film with Greta Garbo (1936) was preceded by at least five others, including Alla Nazimova and Valentino!

Camille was a long-standing vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, who suffered and raged right to the footlights, and for Eleanora Duse, who barely moved. Both ladies toured the world performing only in their native languages.

The play comes from a novel by Alexandre Dumas fils,  La dame aux camellias. His happy then unhappy lady of the camellias is named Marguerite Gautier. The young Dumas himself was the jilted lover. Supposedly the young man was telling his own story in his novel, which sold like hotcakes and caviar for years.

Still confused? The real Marguerite Gautier was a courtesan, once again polite term-named Marie-Alphonsine Duplessis (1823-1847). Through assignations with wealthy and titled men, Marguerite became the grande horizontale of Paris. She had no problem telling one tottering General, “A night with me is ten thousand francs, Monsieur.”

There’s a new biography of Marie, The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh. It squeezes any romantic notion out of what became business propositions. It also hints at the extent of Marie’s charms and provides context for the important role of femmes de monde in Paris.

Why am I telling you this on a classical music blog? Camille/La dame aux camellias was the inspiration for Verdi’s La traviata.

This opera has been a world favorite since 1853.  Eventually La traviata put Camille out of business, so to speak. But it all began with Marie Alphoninse Duplessis, who began with nothing, and did what he had to do to survive.

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