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The Gacé girl who became a Paris queen; La Dame aux Camélias

Within this imposing fortress at Gacé, is a small unexpected homage.  A museum dedicated to a local girl whose short life was filled with passion, fame, tragedy and horror.

carte-de-gace-le-chateau-normandy-match
The chateau at Gacé, match!

In Gacé, Rose-Alphonsine Plessis worked in an umbrella factory.  As Marie Duplessis, she was the courtesan queen of Paris, for a while.

Thanks to the writer Alexandre Dumas, the composer Giuseppe Verdi and a few rooms up a spiral staircase in this chateau, she will never be forgotten.

Family

Rose-­Alphonsine Plessis was not born of love but from alcohol, violence and disappointment.  Her father was the peddler Marin Plessis, an uncouth man rumoured to be the illegitimate son of a prostitute and a priest.  Marin was blessed with remarkable good looks and a desire to be permanently drunk.  Of course he enchanted modest Marie-Louse Deshayes, a local farmer’s daughter.  Marie was just one of many to fall for his questionable charms and empty promises, but with all the good sense of youth, she married him.

By the time Alphonise arrived on 18 January 1824 the family were enduring grinding 19th century poverty in Nonant-le-Pin hovel.  Marin’s good looks were roughened by constant drinking and Marie’s bruises never had time to heal.  One time Marie’s screams were so terrible neighbours came running, to find an intoxicated Marin had thrown her into the burning hearth.

Eventually Marie took a job in Paris as a maid and left her children with a cousin, Agathe.  By the time Alphonsine was 7, Marie was dead.

Youth, ill used

The cousin ran a farm and Alphonsine, slight for her age, was expected to work hard for her keep.  According to a friend and biographer Romain Vienne she was not treated well on the farm.  An unwanted girl with no-one to protect her, by 12 either through love or something much worse, she was no longer an innocent.

Jean-Francois Millet - The Gleaners (Normandy)
Jean-Francois Millet – The Gleaners (Normandy)

When Alphonsine’s careless guardians discovered what had happened to Alphonsine, they tracked down Marin and handed her over to him, demanding he find her respectable trade.

He arranged work for her at the umbrella factory and as a laundresses’ apprentice, a tough, badly paid job but also a skill that would later prove useful.  Then Marin, either to pay a debt or to fill his pockets for a few weeks of drinking, made a terrible decision.

Marin took Alphonsine for dinner at the remote Exmes home of a well-known local bachelor, M. Plantier.  She would later describe him to Romain as a ‘septuagenarian with a detestable reputation as a debaucher’. After dinner Marin left, without his daughter. Alphonsine was 14. The next morning he returned for his fee.  This arrangement continued for some time.

Aware Marin already attempted to trade his daughter with gypsies and a troupe of mountebanks (travelling sellers of dubious medicine) neighbours suspected what Marin was doing.  Local outrage and intervention by the mayor eventually stopped this unseemly arrangement and a job was found for Alphonsine at a local inn.

Marin made himself scarce for a while but was back within the year, demanding his rights as a father to care for his daughter. Packing up her few belongings, Marin paid for the cheapest ticket and soon Father and daughter travelled to Paris. Other stories suggest he was fed up with being told he was responsible for her and that he packed her off to work with relatives who were Paris grocers.

Whatever Marin’s plans, Alphonsine was no longer a malleable child. Soon after arriving in Paris she slipped away.

Paris

Alphonsine found work in a Latin Quarter laundry, scrubbing clothes and pressing petticoats for a pittance.  She was now 15.  The French writer Nestor Roqueplan remembered an encounter with her. He recalled a startlingly pretty, poorly dressed young girl staring at a street seller’s fried potatoes ‘like a peasant craving gold coins’. He bought her a portion only for Alphonsine to take the potatoes and run.  Nestor’s next encounter would be very different. Alphonsine had no intention of being a laundress for much longer.

Career options

Nearly invisible in her plain peasant clothes, Alphonsine observed well-dressed Paris girls with faces and figures no better than her own flirting their way into an easy life.  She wanted to become a one of these girls, a grisette.  Grisettes didn’t roughen their hands in laundries.  They had jobs in shops or dressmakers and garnished their incomes with a generous lover, or two.

So Alphonsine saved to buy a silk dress, or at least something that looked like one.  She chose a bonnet that coquettishly revealed and concealed her face and carefully shod her tiny feet in dainty fashionable ankle boots.

Then she joined the crowded promenade around Montmartre, gliding past the entertainers, occasionally pausing gracefully to be admired. No-one saw a Normandy peasant girl who had already lived enough for a few lifetimes, they saw a sweet, smiling angel.  An angel who ignored two young doctors fighting for her attention as she took the arm of the lead violinist at Le Prado concert hall.

Early success pushed her on.  The next rung on the Parisian career ladder for a young girl unworried by how she earned her living was to be a lorette.  Lorettes were supported richly by a number of admirers or ‘Arthurs’.  Dressed in the latest fashion they would flit between boutiques, café and lovers.

By now Alphonsine was sixteen with ‘lips redder than cherries’.  Portraits reveal dark hair framing a sweet oval face.  Admirer Alexander Dumas II described her ‘like a little figurine made of Dresden china’.   Cleverly this ambitious girl saw there was no benefit in making enemies.  Said one admirer; ‘She made friends everywhere because she never uttered a disobliging word against anyone.

The grisettes and the soldeirs by Constantin Guys
The grisettes and the soldeirs by Constantin Guys

The gentlemen are happy to oblige

Alphonsine did not have to wait long to achieve her ambitions.  She caught the eye of a restaurant owner, the widowed M. Nollet.   He quickly installed her in an apartment on Rue de L’Arcade and handed over 3000 francs spending money.  In just a few months M. Nollet could no longer afford her, but she was already making other arrangements.

It was not always just business for the gentlemen of Paris.  Antoine Alfred Agénor Guiche, 10th Duc de Gramont fell in love and perhaps for a while saw a future with Alphonsine.  He encouraged her to ‘better’ herself arranging dancing, piano and drawing lessons and urging her to work on her reading and writing.  He helped transform her accent and educated her about current affairs. Agénor bought Alphonsine beautiful clothes, jewels, horses and white Camellias; her favourite flower and soon her famous accessory.

Nestor was astounded to see Alphonsine again, now Agénor’s charming, elegantly dressed companion. He was bemused to see Agénor showing her off like his personal creation with an ‘inventor’s satisfaction’.

To complete her transformation Alphonsine chose a new name, one more fitting to her future;  Rose-Alphonsine Plessis became Marie Duplessis.  Marie for the Virgin Mary (or for her mother?), plus a little faux nobility with the addition of ‘du’.

When it became obvious Marie was pregnant in 1841, Agénor found an apartment for her outside of Paris.  She had hoped to leave the child with her sister Delphine in Normandy, but for whatever reason Delphine said no. So Marie, just 17, was forced to leave him with wet nurses in Paris.  She wept when she heard he died. Agénor soon married the proud daughter of a Scottish noble.

Marie Duplessis
Marie Duplessis

Marvelous sinner

Marie threw herself into her work.  Her days were a round of dressmakers, the better restaurants, the casinos and La Comédie-Française.  Her promenades were no longer in the Latin quarter but through the fabulous pleasure gardens Bal Mabille, near the Champs-Elysees.  Her occasional sadness only added to the piquancy of her company. She insisted armfuls of camellias be sent to her home every day.  Expensive to grow, each perfect bloom enhanced her own pale skin.

An infatuated lover said ‘this marvelous sinner was the talk of Paris.’ 

The gossip columns reported enthusiastically ab each outfit was scrutinised by fashionable competitors; ‘her beautiful hair was delightfully intermingled with flowers and diamonds, her arms and bosom were bare, though she wore a necklace and bracelet of emeralds’. Each outfit was scrutinised by fashionable competitors.

Alexandre Dumas was more direct when he explained an important part of Marie’s appeal ‘she was always ready for love’...

Her hard work had paid off, the ‘Lady of the Camellias’ was now a Parisian celebrity, nearing the peak of her ambitions.  Quiet and less well know was her kindness.  She helped a girl’s orphanage, bought a disgraced daughter to live under her care and helped many ‘fallen’ women.

Marie also earned a reputation as an outrageous liar.  When asked about it she said ‘lying whitens the teeth’

Le bal Mabille (1858), lithograph
Le bal Mabille (1858), lithograph

“My favours cost…”

Marie knew her own value.  An admirer was cautioned in a letter ‘Monsieur le baron, I must let you know that my favours cost a great deal of money. My protector must be extremely rich to cover my household expenses and satisfy my caprices.’

Old papers give an insight into her expenditure; a saddler’s bill for ornate bridles and embossed stirrups came to 2,390 francs, around £30k today.

For love, and for money

Love did warm her heart a little.  Le Compte de Valory was gentle, generous, and barely older than she was.  For three months they conducted a passionate affair.  Valory spent thousands of francs on her and she naively hoped they would marry.  But once the first flush of attraction passed he listened to his parents who said he would be a bankrupt unless he drop her. So he did.

He was swiftly replaced.  Edouard de Parrigauz rented a house in Bougival, a village on the Seine, so they could be an exclusive couple, for a while.  But Marie was rarely exclusive. It is said seven of Marie’s lovers clubbed together to buy her a chest of drawers so each of them could keep a change of clothes at her apartment.

Marie first met the man who would one day make her immortal in 1842.  They were both 18, he was Alexandre, son of Alexandre Dumas famous author of the Three Musketeers.  His own writing efforts had been less successful.  They met again when Marie was 20, established as a queen of Paris and favourite of the fabulously wealthy Count von Stackelberg.

Watercolour of Marie Duplessis at the theatre by Camille Roqueplan
Watercolour of Marie Duplessis at the theatre by Camille Roqueplan

Courtesan to a Count

German born Count Gustav Ernst von Stackelberg was 76 and a multi-millionaire when Marie Duplessis charmed him while holidaying at the Bagneres spa.

He said her angelic looks reminded him of his daughters.  Girls who died tragically young of tuberculosis.   The Count asked to be her protector. Marie said yes.

He bought her a grand house on Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris and paid all the bills as her parties became the hottest ticket in town. He could well afford the 100,000 francs she was spending and gambling in a year.

As her life changed beyond recognition somehow her sweet her looks stayed unchanged.  The actress Judith Bernat described Marie at this time as ‘very slim, almost thin, but wonderfully delicate and graceful, her face was an angelic oval and her dark eyes had a caressing melancholy, her complexion was dazzling. She had an incomparable charm’.

The Count insisted she view him as a father, suggesting in his fondest moments she may inherit his fortune.  He expected her to be loyal to him and in return he showered her with diamonds.  But of course Marie maintained her own interests.

Count Gustav Ernst von Stackelberg - very very very rich
Count Gustav Ernst von Stackelberg – very very very rich

Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre became her ‘amant de coeur’ a lover who didn’t pay, who she helped financially.  Despite her preferential treatment Dumas suffered terribly from jealousy so for his own sanity and his pride he started to distance himself in the summer of 1845.  She wrote to him in August:

‘Why haven’t you told me how you are and why don’t you write frankly to me?  I think you should treat me like a friend.  So I hope for a word from you and I kiss you fondly like a mistress or like a friend, whichever you prefer.  In any case I will always be devoted to you.’  He replied:

‘I am neither rich enough to love you nor poor enough to be loved as you would like.  So let us both forget – you, a name which must mean hardly anything to you – me a happiness which has become impossible to bear.  There is no point in telling you how sad I am for you already know how much I love you.  So farewell – you have too great a heart not to understand the reason for my letter and too good a nature not to forgive me for it.  A thousand memories.’

Marie did not reply to Dumas’s letter.  She could not know their affair would one day make him rich.  Anyway she had fallen in love again.

Alexandre Dumas (the younger)
Alexandre Dumas (the younger)

Liszt & love

They met in a theatre foyer and stayed to talk through the final act. Franz Liszt was famous, 30 and unattached after his love affair of many years with Mariette Countess Marie d’Agoult ended.  Franz’s heart was broken but he was not immune to Marie’s charm.  He described in a letter feeling ‘strangely attracted to this delightful creature’. Not the passion she usually inspired.

Marie’s feelings were considerably stronger.  A brief liaison followed until a tour called Franz away.  She begged to go with him writing ‘I shan’t bother you, I sleep all day . . . and at night you can do with me what you will.’  He rejected her, softening the blow with a promise to take her to Turkey the following year.

Portrait of Franz Liszt by Ary Scheffer 1837
Portrait of Franz Liszt by Ary Scheffer 1837

Marie confided in a friend ‘that is the real horror of my life… it is wrong to have a heart when you’re a courtesan. You can die from it.’

Marie’s desperation was exacerbated by the knowledge that she was unwell.  Just a few months after the Count became her official protector she had started to show the first signs of a horrible infection.  He had given her something more enduring than his money, something he carried with him at all times and had given to his daughters; Tuberculosis.

Feverish and excitable, she left Von Stackelberg and returned to Paris. Marie tried everything to treat her symptoms. Pharmacy bills list laudanum, leeches, quinine, opium patches, snail syrup, tincture of deadly nightshade, enemas, saccharure of crocus and spa waters sent from Bohemia and Bormio in Lombardy.

In Paris she tried to forget her illness and her broken heart.  She drank, partied and gambled to exhaustion, running up debts at both the casinos and the pharmacies.

Marriage

Knowing Liszt’s famous snobbishness Marie agreed to marry a man she did not love.  The Comte Edouard de Perregaux was dense, enamoured and had already spent two of this three inherited fortunes.  As his wife, the Normandy farm girl would become a Countess.

The wedding took place on 21 February 1846 in Kensington, London.  It was a sham.  Too ashamed to tell his family what he had done, Edouard never had the banns published in France, so in their own country the wedding was not legal.  The smog troubled Marie’s lungs and she was soon back in Paris, leaving her silly husband behind.

Her illness was progressing unpleasantly and news of it spread around Paris.  Marie’s looks were fading fast as the disease ravaged her body.  Protectors and friends horrified by her deterioration and fearful for their own health, began to avoid her.

By the new year of 1847 Marie was alone with a few unpaid servants, her maid and visited only by doctors.  Apparently the last three days of her life were the worst as even the laudanum could not completely deaden the pain she was suffering. On 5 February 1847 Marie Duplessis, nearly Countess of Perregaux received the last rights as the bailiffs ransacked her luxurious apartments.

Honest burial

Marie’s funeral was paid for by Edouard and the Count.  A weeping group of women she had helped were among those who came out to see her final journey to the cemetery at Montmartre.  It was three weeks after her 23 birthday.  The tomb is still there, she was buried honestly as Alphonsine Plessis.

Marie’s coachman claimed ‘at the end she drank nothing but Champagne’. The myths were just beginning.  Her celebrity ensured huge crowds attended the auction of her belongings, gawping at the luxury her immoral life had bought her.  Charles Dickens was in the crowd and later wrote ‘one could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness.’

Tomb of Alphonsine Plessis, Montmartre cemetery Paris
Tomb of Alphonsine Plessis, Montmartre cemetery Paris – vintage postcard

‘I’ve always felt that I’ll come back to life’ M. Duplessis

While Paris picked over Marie’s possessions, her old lover Alex Dumas was feeling terrible remorse.  He had avoided Marie in her final weeks and now his thoughts lingered on old memories.  As he mourned she became saintly in his mind, not a hard-nosed business woman with the fortunate face of an angel.

It took him four weeks to write La Dame aux Camellias, a romantic story that could never have been Marie’s life.  Within five months of Marie’s death the book was published.

In Alex’s book Marie became Marguerite and Alex, Armand Duval.  She gives up her life as a courtesan to live with him in the country and they are happy, until she is told how much his family suffer by her association with Armand.  To save him from ruin she leaves and he thinks it is for another man.  Like Marie she has consumption.  Later as she lies dying, beautiful and heroic, he realises her great sacrifice and she is redeemed of all her past sins through her selfless love.  In his arms at last she says ‘I have lived for love and now I am dying of it’ before expiring prettily.

Cover of journal serialising The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas
Cover of journal serialising The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas

Which as we know was a lot of tosh, but Paris lapped it up.  An instant hit, over 12,000 copies were sold to readers who enjoyed confusing reality the author’s fantasy. Marie was still paying Alex’s bills from beyond the grave.

After a lull in interest, Alex reworked his book as a play.  Almost five years to the day after Marie died lonely an in agony, the stage version opened in the Theatre du Vaudeville on 2 February 1852.  Hugely successful, the great actresses of the 19th century fought for the dramatic role of Marguerite.

The play inspired Giuseppe Verdi to create the famous opera La Traviata, premiering at La Venice opera house in Venice on 6 March 1853 and sung around the world ever since.   Rudolph Valentino played Armand Duval in a 1920 movie opposite Alla Nazimova, and Greta Garbo won an Oscar nomination for her 1936 gloomy portrayal of Marguerite. The film Pretty Woman was also inspired by the story.

While Alex Dumas continued to write he never achieved the same level of popularity again. His fascination for Marie never faded, it simply changed.  He became obsessed with the ‘wickedness of prostitution’ and his distrust of women became well known.  He made his feelings clear when he wrote ‘Women never listen to reason; not even to proof. When they do surrender it is always to feelings or to force. They must be either in love or cowed; either Juliet or Martine! Nothing else is of the slightest interest to them. I am writing, therefore, for the instruction of the male. If, after this revelation of the truth, men still persist in making mistakes about women, it will no longer be my fault, and I shall do as Pilate did…’

She made him rich, but he could never forgive or forget that Marie choose money over him.

‘The violins play too slowly’

And that is the remarkable story of Rose-Alphonsine Plessis.  A pretty Normandy girl who dragged herself up from nothing to become the beautiful, cultured plaything of millionaires, only to die alone.

A remarkable life lived at an incredible pace.  But as she once said ‘it’s not me who is dancing too fast, it’s the violins that play too slowly’.

White Camellia
White Camellia

Visit La Dame aux Camélias museum

In Gacé, Rose-Aphonsine/Marie is remembered kindly. Relations still live nearby and mementos they have cherished are now in the chateau museum. The curator has also lovingly collected personal souvenirs across France.  The collection includes tiny eye catching silk dresses, jewellery, portraits letters and notes.

A request

We hope this story, taken from many sources, is close to the life of Normandy girl Rose-Alphonsine Plessis. A life that becomes a legend will always have a few hazy edged interludes.  If you spot anything too far from the truth, drop us a line. Thank you.

Alfons Mucha's 1896 poster for the play 'La Dame aux Camelias' played by Sarah Bernhardt
Alfons Mucha’s 1896 poster for the play ‘La Dame aux Camelias’ played by Sarah Bernhardt

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