Marie Duplessis was the most admired young courtesan of 1840s Paris. A peasant girl from Normandy, she had reinvented herself in a matter of months, changing her name and learning how to dress, speak, and act like a duchess. But this was far more than a Pygmalion or Pretty Woman transformation. The country waif, scarcely able to read or write when she arrived in the capital at the age of thirteen, was presiding over her own salon seven years later, regularly receiving aristocrats, politicians, artists, and many of the celebrated writers of the day. These were, of course, all men, because no virtuous woman would have anything to do with a courtesan, but Marie’s profession had bought her proximity to the most brilliant minds in Paris. Her close circle included Nestor Roqueplan, editor of Le Figaro, Dr. Veron, director of the Opéra, and bon viveur Roger de Beauvoir, whom Alexandre Dumas père called the wittiest man he had ever known. Dumas himself was intrigued by the childlike Marie, and his son Alexandre fell in love with her. Franz Liszt came to Paris for a week but was so bewitched by Marie that he stayed for three months and remained romantically attached to her memory for the rest of his life. Such was her fascination that her early death from consumption in 1847 was regarded as an event of national importance. “For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers,” a bemused Charles Dickens wrote to a friend from Paris. “Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important, the romantic death of one of the glories of the demi-monde, the beautiful, the famous Marie Duplessis.”
A year later, with the publication of The Lady of the Camellias, the novel Dumas fils had based on her life, the beau monde was abuzz again. Dumas père was a national institution in France, and people were curious to see whether the twenty-four-year-old was to follow his father’s lead. He certainly had the elder Dumas’s lively style and flair for natural dialogue, as well as a freshness and sincerity of his own. But of even greater interest was the subject of the book itself. Alexandre’s affair with Marie Duplessis was well known on the Boulevard, and so was the identity of the heroine he renamed Marguerite Gautier. His descriptions of her are pure reportage. Whether sitting in her box at the theater with her signature bouquet of camellias or stepping into her pretty blue carriage, wrapped in a long cashmere shawl, Marguerite was instantly recognizable as Marie: the same tall, thin physique, the same chaste oval face, black eyes, and dark arched brows. As intrigued then as now with the private lives of celebrities, the public read the fiction as fact, thrilled to be taken inside the demimondaine’s apartment, allowed to eavesdrop on scurrilous conversations at her dinner table, and be shown her rosewood furniture, Saxe figurines, Sèvres china—even her boudoir with its costly array of gold and silver bottles. Marguerite’s friends and suitors also had their counterparts in real life, the passionate young hero Armand Duval being a composite of two of Marie’s lovers with elements of Alexandre himself.