The Original "Pretty Woman"

"Reading her biography, you just get so much more respect for who this self-made woman was...a determined, visionary, aggressive woman who refused to be repressed by conventional morality.” – Liesl Schillinger, translator of The Lady of the Camellias

La traviata is one of the most performed operas in the world — and for good reason. The opera’s story of love and sacrifice is timeless, inspiring popular film adaptations like Moulin Rouge. But it’s not just a story...Violetta, Verdi’s tragic heroine, is actually based on a real woman: Marie Duplessis, one of the most famous courtesans of the 19th century.

Born in 1824 in a small Normandy village, Marie grew up under the thumb of an abusive, alcoholic father. She escaped to Paris when she was just a teenager and found a job in a dress shop, but her wages were barely enough to live upon. She quickly decided that she could enjoy a better life by becoming a wealthy man’s mistress, and she was right. Marie’s first patron provided her with a furnished apartment and an initial sum of 3,000 francs. (By comparison, she likely earned no more than 22 francs a day at the dress shop, despite working 13-hour days.) Marie aspired to rise still higher, but she recognized that an uneducated peasant girl — no matter how beautiful — would never hold the attention of powerful men. She taught herself how to read and write, and then hired tutors in literature, history, politics, geography, and more.

Within a few years, Marie transformed herself into one of Paris’s most intellectual, desired women. Marie’s first aristocratic lover was Duke Agénor de Guiche, who lavished Marie with jewels, clothing, horses, and camellias — which became her trademark symbol. This liaison brought her into the same social circles as influential men like Nestor Roqueplan (editor of the newspaper Le Figaro) and Louis-Désiré Véron (director of the Opéra de Paris). Marie soon became famous in her own right for hosting glittering salons filled with Paris’s most important politicians, writers, and artists...and all by her early 20s.

However, Marie’s fame comes from a humbler lover, Alexandre Dumas fils (the son of the author of The Three Musketeers). It was he who captured Marie’s spirit in the book La dame aux camélias (“The Lady of the Camellias”), which closely mirrored the details of their real-life romance. The couple was said to be madly in love, but their relationship was troubled. Alexandre couldn’t afford to support Marie, but he was also bitterly jealous of her liaisons with other, wealthier men. Marie parted ways with Alexandre just a year after their affair began.

Despite many other aristocratic conquests, Marie’s only other true love was the composer Franz Liszt, who once wrote, “[Marie] puts me in mind of poetry and music.” However, when Marie offered to give up her lifestyle and tour Europe with Franz, he rejected her proposal. Whether out of heartbreak or pragmatism, shortly thereafter Marie married one of her other devoted admirers, Count Edouard de Perregaux. The marriage seems to have been a mismatch, since within just a few months, the pair were living separate lives.

Sadly, Marie’s meteoric rise to fame was mirrored by an equally swift decline. Marie fell ill with tuberculosis and died on February 3, 1847. She was only 23 years old. Hundreds of people are said to have attended her funeral in the Montmartre cemetery. The lavish processional was paid for by two of Marie’s most loyal lovers, including the Count de Perregaux.

A few weeks before her death, Marie allegedly told her maid, “I’ve always felt that I’ll come back to life.” She couldn’t have known how right she was. Alexandre Dumas fils wrote the majority of La dame aux camélias in eight days after her death. The book was published in 1848, and Alexandre adapted the story into a play just a few years later. The story leapt from the stage to the silver screen with the advent of moving pictures, and subsequent adaptations have starred some of the most famous women in entertainment history, including Sarah Bernhardt, Greta Garbo, Julia Roberts, and Nicole Kidman.

But no adaptation of Marie’s story is more famous than Verdi’s masterpiece La traviata. The legacy of this fearlessly independent woman will doubtlessly live on for many more centuries to come.

Written by Anh Le