Cora On The Jersey Shore

A review of Worth ‘Courtesan’

If you were a woman with an urge to make an impact, the decks were stacked against you not so long ago. You could choose respectability…and marriage. Respectability…and spinsterhood, the fate that lay in store for Jane Eyre if not for Mr. Rochester. Or…

Just reject respectability altogether and make what you would and you could off the hypocrisies of the Victorian Age…drive men to wreck and ruin, leave heaps of havoc in your wake, squander fortunes and hold salons, be accepted in all the best (French) society and leave an immortal name behind…as a courtesan of the Second Empire.

Today, we have all sorts of wrong associations with that word. We tend to think of courtesans – who still exist even today – as simply a more refined grade of prostitute, but some of these women changed history, broke hearts, spent fortunes on frivolities, misbehaved on an epic scale, lived with a zest and a fervor not even today’s rock stars on a rampage could hope to emulate with quite so much success. And above all those famous beauties of dubious repute and scandalous rumors shone an Englishwoman who taught even the French a lesson or two on the arts of decadence.

Because as any woman worth her lipstick in any age knew or knows today, the aeons-old battle of the sexes can by necessity be boiled down to nine words:

We’ve got it. They want it. Make them pay.

A very pretty English rose named Emma Elizabeth Crouch came to Paris in her early twenties as the paid companion to a titled gentleman. So entranced was she with what she saw, she promptly dumped him, somehow managed to persuade Charles Worth to part with a few of his creations on the premise that clothes are at least half the battle, and then set about setting Parisian society on its ear and other body parts. Only now, she called herself Cora Pearl.

It wasn’t too long before the beauteous Cora had a theatrical career, a slew of well-heeled “admirers”, a full wardrobe from Worth that was the envy of Empress Eugénie and the very last word on decadence. She is said to have been served as dessert covered in cream in a fashionable restaurant, to have danced naked on a carpet of orchids, and also that she once literally bathed in a silver bathtub full of champagne at dinner parties.

But even Cora could go too far. One of her lovers refused to leave and began to stalk her. When she denied him entry to her house and went to bed, he shot himself on her doorstep. She didn’t call for help. He survived, but poor Cora’s reputation didn’t. From 1876 until her death ten years later, she supported herself mostly by selling off her jewels and possessions piecemeal. In her memoirs, she famously said:

I have never deceived anybody because I have never belonged to anybody. My independence was all my fortune, and I have known no other happiness; and it is still what attaches me to life.”

As they would say in hardboiled film noirs in the 1940s…she was…some dame!

This is the alleged backstory of Worth’s 2006 perfume ‘Courtesan’, a homage to one of the original Worth devotees. So am I taken back to the grand age of the Second Empire with its crinolines and its proprieties? Does this make me want to dance naked on a carpet of orchids? Am I borne away on a cloud of perfumed blarney, feeling like the ultimate four-letter word in depraved desserts?

“Death by chocolate, baby. Five fabulous feet of it!”

You may shoot me. Yes, I am a philistine. No, I shall never be the Countess Castiglione (one of Cora’s competitors, albeit titled and blonde), averting the Prussian invasion of Paris at Bismarck’s behest, nor does ‘Courtesan’ seem to me like anything that could make me lose my mind and shimmy seductively over a mass of orchids, even with seven veils to wear. Then again, that might depend on who else was in the room, and if copious amounts of champagne were involved, not in a bathtub.

Instead, what I smell is a hot, modern, more-iental and the kitchen sink mess of a perfume that reminds me more of ‘Jersey Shore’ than anything in Second Empire Paris.

If you rolled every Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Mariah Carey celebufume into one with a slightly higher price point and a pink bottle, too, and called it ‘Courtesan’ – because Joisey Goils think that sounds classy in, like, a sorta French kinda way, ya know…then, yes, it’s perfect! Perfect for pink vinyl microdresses, artificial nails in baby-pastel pink French manicures for a little added oomph, really serious hair and OhmyGawd, let’s not forget the six-inch leopard-print platformed spikes, too. I already feel for the poor Jersey Boys Guidos who will be clobbered with this on Friday nights in Hoboken, really, I do. I suddenly have an itch to board the next plane on a cloud of vintage Bandit extrait, a black suede dress and my worst Viking accent just to show Snooki and her ten best BFFs how these things are done in Europe. I shall, however, restrain myself. Just.

Where was I? Ah! Yes. ‘Courtesan’.

It begins with a pineapple spice bomb handgrenade explosion, and that’s exactly what I mean. This should come with Marvel superhero speech bubbles. POW! OUCH! BANG! O…K…I, like, totally get it now…it’s one of those…what did that SA in Sephora call it…ori…something. No, not an Oreo. Not yet, anyway. So, as I was saying, it’s like, really spicy and totally cool with, like, this pineapple vibe thing going, and then…well, whaddaya expect, like some kind of, like, flower or something?

No….it’s the cold, gray, steely pulse of a total gold digger, doncha know, she’s just too cool and too deadly to put out for anything less than like, dinner at Momofuku and drinks at the Plaza and a suite at the W, but only if she wants to and she’ll insist on flossing afterward. The second it hits you, you’ve been, like totally fleeced, she will have departed on a fluffy cloud of sweet, cloying vanilla musk with maybe a whiff of chocolate (it was that cheesecake!), and the worst you can say was that the two grand was so…like, kinda worth it, ya know? Wait’ll the guys at Denny’s get a load of that!

Courtesan was given as a gift – assuredly with a lot of love behind it – from my dear friend and fellow blogger Ines of AllIAmARedhead, and I tried to love it, really, I did! I’m no stranger to the maximalist approach – here’s looking at you, Uncle Serge, or that devious dude at Amouage whose ideas get me in trouble – but geez…I’m, like, just totally not feeling it, ya know? It goes from fruity to chilly to musky, cloying cocoa-powdered vanilla on me before it dies at the end of the night with a bubblegum sigh and half a can of Elnett engine exhaust.

Alas, poor Cora, I knew her well…Cora Pearl spent a fortune on many things from lingerie to perfume, certainly. But I have to say, I doubt Courtesan would have been it. I could see Cora in another all-out shameless Oriental, something like Bal à Versailles (beloved of bad gals since the 1960s), maybe Fracas, or an elegant Guerlain.

What I can’t see is poor Cora abandoned on the Joisey shore, leading on the Guidos with a perfume like this.

Notes for Worth Courtesan: Cinnamon, cardamom, clove, pineapple, red berries, bergamot, orange blossom, magnolia, jasmine, rose, raspberry, caramel, chocolate, cocoa, amber, vanilla, musk.

PS: Dear Ines: I still love you, you know. There’s just no way in Hackensack, Hoboken, or Hell we’ll ever agree on this one! 😉

Image of Cora Pearl in Worth, ca. 1863, from lovingyou.