You may not know the name Marie Duplessis, but odds are you know some stories about her. She inspired a French novel, which was turned into a successful play, several movies (including one starring Greta Garbo), a ballet and, most famously, a great Italian opera — La Traviata.
Duplessis was a famous, 19th-century Parisian courtesan known for her relationships with prestigious men. But she tragically died of tuberculosis at 23. In The Girl Who Loved Camellias, journalist Julie Kavanagh tells the true story of the girl who captured so many imaginations.
She joins NPR’s Robert Siegel to discuss Duplessis’ Normandy childhood, her life in Paris and difference between her and her fictional counterparts.
On Duplessis’ humble beginnings
“Most of the stories based on her life, the opera and the films, start when she was a famous courtesan in Paris. But actually, she started as a peasant girl in Normandy. She had an incredibly tough background. Her brutal father was so violent towards her mother that her mother left these two little girls and went into hiding. And Marie was really left to fend for herself. She was called Alphonsine then, she wasn’t Marie, and she was sold at the age of 14 by her father to an old man of 70 and he then took her to Paris. She was just 14 and completely alone. And then she sort of made her way from being a shop girl to a courtesan and it all happened within a couple of years.”
On circles she traveled in
“She started off being a mistress of students and then she met a very well-known young man called the Duc de Guiche, and it was through the Duc de Guiche that she started learning how to dress, almost like an aristocrat. And there were sort of two or three restaurants and cafés on the boulevard — the Maison Dorée and the Café Riche and the Café de Paris — and they were almost like a sort of private club. And you would get Nestor Roqueplan, who was the editor of the Figaro, and [Louis-Désiré] Véron, who was the director of the Paris Opera, and they would have a table and they would obviously have sort of intellectual friends and they would invite one or two decorative courtesans and Marie became one of them.”
On Duplessis’ death of tuberculosis as the great romantic story of the mid-19th century
“I think it was something that appealed to artists because there was something at that point rather romantic about tuberculosis and it wasn’t known quite how it was transmitted. And so … the consumptive heroine was almost like an archetype in literature.
“… People now think of her as an older woman because performance history has always made her this sort of older woman with a young boy, and that’s the way I think it’s played now. But she was a kid, she was just 23. She just had her birthday … when she died.”
On the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils
“He was very much in the shadow of his much more famous father, Alexandre Dumas, who was the author of The Three Musketeers, but he wrote this novel … in eight days and it was done in response to her death. And he wrote the novel, which was published in 1848, called La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias).
“There was then sort of a revolution in Paris and so the novel sort of didn’t make much of an impact, but he wrote a play based on the same subject. But he then spent three years trying to get it staged because it was thought to be just too shocking because French theater was very sort of embalmed in the past. And what he was trying to do was put a living courtesan who people still remembered — I mean, she’d only just died a couple of years ago — onto the stage. And this was so revolutionary that it couldn’t be staged. But then finally he managed to get it on in 1852 and it was a sort of overnight, huge success.”
On La Traviata, whichGiuseppe Verdi wrote after seeing Dumas’ play
“He was inspired by the story, which really touched him. He was forced — because of opera being much more conventional — to sort of set it in a historical time. But the first performance was in Venice. I think [it] was a bit of a flop because he cast a very sort of buxom prima donna as Violetta and every time she coughed people would burst out laughing because she seemed so incredibly unfrail. And then it was a year later that it was recast and then took off and now is virtually playing, you know, every night in some opera house around the world.”
On Duplessis’ obsession with camellias
“Dumas, fils, always claimed that he was the one who invented it and he said that any painting of her that was done before he wrote the novel, the camellia had been photoshopped in, so to speak. But actually, I managed to get a hold of her florist bills. Sure enough, the camellias — it’s there in black and white. So she was obsessed with them. And there was a story, a myth about her that she would wear a red camellia at a certain time of the month to alert her lovers to the fact that she was not available. I did find on the bills there’s a camellia imperial, which actually is a red camellia, which again is written proof.”
On the reality of Duplessis versus the way she’s portrayed in fiction, as the courtesan who falls in love and makes sacrifices for the man she’s attached to
“I think she was much more of a modern woman. I mean, I think people today find the play hard to take because would a woman really give up a man she adored for conventional reasons to save his name? But actually I think Marie probably was too in charge of her own fate and destiny to agree to that and I think she’s a much sort of more feisty character than the fictional versions of her.”