Wednesday, June 11, 2008

La Dame aux Camélias

Watercolor by Camille Roqueplan

Many of you know the tragic romance told in the pages of La Dame aux Camélias, even if you have not read it, because Verdi’s La Traviata is based upon this story penned by Alexandre Dumas, the younger (Alexandre Dumas, fils in French). While presented as fiction, it is really the true story of the author, who is portrayed as the character Armand Duval, and his real life mistress, Marie Duplessis, named Marguerite Gautier in the novel, again changed to Violetta Valéry in La Traviata.
Alexandre Dumas, fils was a second rate writer who forever lived in the shadow of his famous father, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The younger Dumas did not strike gold until he published La Dame aux Camélias as both a novel and play, whose tragic and romantic story line he actually lived.
Marie Duplessis was born Alphonsine Plessis in Normandy and moved to Paris when she was 15 years old. Her own father acted as her pimp, and by the tender age of 16, she was accepting money from prominent men in exchange for her company in both private and social settings. She was an astonishing beauty, captivating nearly everyone who saw her. Soon she became a legendary courtesan, learned in the arts and current events discussed in those days. She was the mistress of Alexandre Dumas, fils and later of Franz Liszt.
Mme. Duplessis was also the celebrated hostess of a salon, where politicians, writers, and artists gathered for stimulating conversation and socializing. She rode in the Bois de Boulogne, attended opera performances and even had her portrait painted by Édouard Viénot. Unfortunately, she died of tuberculosis at the age of 23. Throughout her short life, her reputation as a discreet, intelligent, and witty lover was well known. Amazingly, she remained in the good graces of many of her benefactors, even after her relationships with them had ended. It is said that her lavish funeral in Montmartre Cemetery was attended by hundreds of people; to this day her tomb is covered with flowers year round.
In an act of bold affectation, she added the faux-noble "Du" to her name – thus Plessis became Duplessis. She briefly married the French count, Édouard de Perregaux, who was with her on her death bed, along with another of her lovers, the Swedish Count Von Stakelberg. During her entire life in Paris, she traveled in the upper circles of society.
It is poignant that both she and Alexandre Dumas, fils are buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre, although at a discrete distance – in death as in life.

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