The discovery of a Boldini painting in a Paris apartment untouched for decades revived the story of űber chic Marthe de Florian – one of the Belle Epoch’s shadiest ladies – but the lovely tramp behind the legend was more complicated, says Randy Bryan Bigham
Beyond rain-streaked windows, shuttered for decades, lay the remnants of a life of luxury and decadence. The gilt-paneled Paris apartment of belle epoch courtesan Marthe de Florian – “Venus of the Acacias,” as the French press called her – remained as it had been at her death in 1939. Although the son of the once fabulous demimondaine returned to die in a small wing of the place in the mid ‘60s, Marthe’s living quarters, set aside almost as a shrine, were undisturbed when estate agents unlocked them again five years ago.
What they found made headlines around the world – priceless bibelots scattered, sultry letters tied in ribbons (color-coded by lover) still snug in a dresser drawer. Most important of all: a previously unknown portrait of a seductively posed Marthe, clad in wisps of pink gauze, painted by Giovanni Boldini. Auctioned by Villanfray & Associés for more than $2.3 million, a record for the artist’s work, the painting and the story behind its discovery ignited the public’s imagination. Novels were written, including the best-selling A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable, and photos of the dwelling’s lonely, dusty contents swept the internet. But who was this woman who has fueled such a romantic myth, and why was her exquisite apartment abandoned?
The slim beauty who tantalized the most powerful men of her time lived to be a stout matron of 74, and it was with the pride of a duchess that she willed her once notorious pied-a-terre and its treasures to her granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron. Solange, only a teenager at the time, as genealogists Gilles du Bois and P.Y. Leclerc have learned, was perhaps too naive to understand that the rare tapestries and 18th century furniture that filled the rooms were mementos of her grand-mére’s amorous past.
Each item was superb – tall mirrors that once reflected Marthe de Florian’s sensuous figure, a dainty dressing table where she prepared to conquer her admirers, expensively bound books she pretended to read while reclining in a tea-gown on her day bed. Did Solange even know the old lady had once reigned over Paris’ glamorous enclave of kept women, had been mistress to Clemenceau, two future presidents and assorted aristos?
If she did, she had no time to reflect on it. World War II had been declared and the Nazis were advancing. Leaving the apartment untended, the girl fled to the countryside with her father, Henri (Marthe’s only surviving son), settling eventually in the south of France. Du Bois and Leclerc have found that the girl became a playwright under the pen name Solange Beldo; others believe she was in fact novelist Solange Bellegarde. Maybe Solange’s inherited romantic sensibility is what ensured the preservation of her naughty granny’s belongings and the legend that’s grown out of them.
Whatever the reason for retaining the flat, Solange never considered selling it and nobody ever lived there, except in 1966 when her father came back to die in one of the rooms. The place was then closed up again and the taxes paid annually until Solange herself, age 91, died in 2010.
Afterwards, her legal representatives inspected the property, silent and moldering for four decades. Especially haunting were the main rooms and Marthe’s former boudoir, which were still just as the old courtesan had left them in 1939, redolent of soirees, love affairs and the solitude and memories that followed. It was a time capsule. Her makeup, perfume, a jewelry box and a single pink glove cluttered the dressing table, an open songbook lay on a chair. In the dining room, dishes were swamped in dust and a tea service glimmered in the sun that shone through open shutters for the first time in 70 years.
Venus of the Acacias
The gorgeous déclassé creature in the Boldini, and the letters from the men who loved her, reveal a woman accustomed to pampering, sure of her ability to entice and ensnare. But Marthe – born Mathilde Heloise Beaugiron in 1864 – started life on society’s lower rungs with little hope of achieving success beyond the small sum she earned as an embroiderer in the dressmaking district. Soon her looks and charm did their bit, attracting the attention of a wealthy married man, banker Auguste Florian Mollard, who supported her and the son she gave birth to in 1884. Adopting her lover’s middle name as her own, and changing her first name, Marthe de Florian flourished into one of the most sought after denizens of the “half world.”
Petted by famous men and envied by all Paris for their jewels and clothes, these bad girls depended on their beauty and style to maintain chic homes and throw wicked parties. Marthe held her own, equaling the appeal of the best grandes horizontals of the period – Cleo de Merode, Lina Cavalieri, La Belle Otero, Emilienne d’Alencon. From the late 1880s to the first years of the 20th century, Marthe’s romantic exploits, the gowns she wore, what she said and where she went were followed religiously in the gossip sheets.
Crowds gathered in the Bois to catch sight of the “Venus of the Acacias” taking her morning air. She was looked for at premiers and in the restaurants. It was hard to miss her, not only for her beauty but because of the entourage that attended her. “As queens do not walk unescorted,” observed a columnist in Gil Blas, “the blonde and stately Marthe has with her four young men who shadow her everywhere.” Called the “Four Musketeers” by an adoring public, the courtesan herself nicknamed them her “sons of love.”
Although less remembered today than some of her compatriots, because (contrary to rumor) she never went on the stage, Marthe’s looks were singled out as surpassing her rivals. Gil Blas wrote that her “aristocratic beauty recalls the chatelaines of yore, when men broke lances in the name of chivalry.”
So what did Marthe de Florian really look like? She sometimes hennaed her hair red – indeed her now famous likeness shows auburn tresses – but it was as a fair haired temptress with “a profile like a queen” that she made her mark on the cult of sex that defined the demimonde of France’s Gilded Age. Descriptions of her “exquisite blondeness” survive in the pages of newspapers like Le Supplement and La Justice, then owned by future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, one of Marthe’s early lovers. She was called an “ideal blonde” or “the adorable blonde” in countless columns devoted to this debauched class of women who held the public’s fascination.
To one writer, Marthe was “a Murillo descended from a chapel window;” to another she had the “allure of an empress.” Every reference was in the superlative – she was languorous, vaporous, ethereal. Her hair was “delicious,” even her walk romantic. No wonder then the string of paramours she collected; apart from Clemenceau, she was kept by Prime Minister Pierre Rousseau and two other leading statesmen destined for the French presidency, Paul Deschanel and Gaston Doumergue. And it wasn’t long before Marthe captured the heart of one of the greatest artists of the day, Giovanni Boldini, whose magnificent portrait of her, painted during their liaison in the 1890s, has ensured her immortality. But there were many other men – and at least one woman – in Marthe’s life.
The daily feature “Echos” in Le Supplement recorded all the latest potins of the boulevards, much of it in the form of the blind item, hinting at courtesans’ latest romps, long term affairs, flirtations and rivalries. Marthe received special attention. Gil Blas, interviewing her in 1894, swooned over the young woman’s “pretty eyes, blonde hair and chubby face the color of cherry blossoms.” The reporter asked many questions of Paris’ new pet. What was her favorite jewelry? Pearls, of course. Her favorite perfume? Royal Houbigant. The novelist she most admired was Prevost, the musician she enjoyed best Massenet. Her chief character trait, she claimed, was “unwavering loyalty.”
She must have said that with a wink, for Marthe was busily breaking hearts, juggling as many as three lovers at one point in 1900. These numbered Prime Minister Rousseau, an enigmatic nobleman alluded to in the press only as “Comte S,” and another aristocrat, a young Romanian, Marthe’s “gallant boyard,” as rumormongers called him. Through their attentions, she amassed a fortune – baubles and furs, carriages, a yacht and several homes. Among these was the now infamous apartment at 2 square La Bruyere, where she would live out her life quietly in the shadow of an epic career. In its heyday, the 13-room house with a private courtyard in the Trinité section of Paris was described as “combining comfort and luxury,” complete with a “Louis XV salon, a renaissance dining room – and a bedroom invisible to the uninitiated.”
Of sin and sex
Not all those invited to the sacred chamber were deserving of the privilege. As one scandalous item revealed in 1901, “some unreliable men were among the courtiers admitted to the little bedroom of the beautiful Marthe. Powerless to temptation, they offered unwanted caresses, and she had to seek more competent guards.”
Men’s attraction to her was equaled by women’s admiration of her sumptuous clothes. From 1901, Marthe de Florian was dressed mainly by the emerging couture houses of Bechoff-David and Doeuillet for whom she occasionally modeled, appearing in profile as Boldini had posed her. Adopting white as her signature, Marthe lived up to her “Venus of the Acacias” sobriquet. On one occasion she wore a “lily white dress a la Marguerite in Faust” and for a ride in the Bois she chose a white habit. But she was also fond of floral accessories and prints, likely chosen to complement her name. At the races at Auteuil she appeared in “a sparkling lace dress with pink roses in her red hair.” At a later reception, her “queenly beauty blossomed in a lace skirt and pompadour taffeta bodice.”
For all the descriptions of Marthe’s charm, there’s proof she could be formidable. She was said to be “very severe” at times; as a 1903 piece in the seedy magazine L’Indiscret claimed, Marthe could “castrate a man with a single disdainful pout.” She was also outspoken and had a striking sense of humor, calling herself “a good for nothing” and admitting she could never be mistaken for one of literature’s virginal heroines.
Perhaps to escape the monotony of ogling male admirers, she found solace in friendship with fellow coquette Beatrix Castillon, known by the moniker “Little Marquise” for her protracted affair with an unnamed peer. That Marthe and Beatrix were romantically involved is implied in some accounts. At public events, they were seen giving flowers and feeding bonbons to one another, Marthe once hosted a “wild, all-female” party for Beatrix, and the pair often rode together in the Avenue des Acacias. Once, the gossip hound La Diable Boiteux followed them into the Madeleine Church where he spied the “repentant sinners, blissfully kneeling, making their mea culpa.” Whatever the nature of this attachment, Marthe never stopped liking men. At a wrestling match, one paper reported, she “volubly admired the beautiful bronze skin” of one of the fighters.
Marthe de Florian continued looking gorgeous on her fashionable rounds, turning heads at Longchamp or Auteuil, or in her box at La Scala or the Folies Bergere. She caused a sensation in 1900 when she alighted in the Bois – not from a carriage but the new-fangled automobile. “Venus in a car!” exclaimed the press. “What has the tradition of mythology come to?”
She was now nearing 40, that era’s “dangerous age” for a woman, especially one whose looks were her stock-in-trade. But she hadn’t lost her beauty. Promenading in the Champs Elysees that year, Marthe was serenaded by a flock of young men as she passed. And her affairs were no less intense. A snoop from Gil Blas noticed her sitting on a bench in the Bois one day, lost in thought: “Marthe hides her face behind the mystery of a thick veil and dreams alone in the shade. This to me is a woman in love!”
But by 1904 something had happened. Marthe was no longer feted, photographed or even mentioned in the press that had followed her so ardently. She had disappeared from the chic cafés, the nightspots, the races and the male hearts that once beat to serve her. No one knows what prompted her sudden exit, but she carried on. Until her death 35 years later, Mathilde Heloise Beaugiron lived in the square La Bruyere, devoting her time to quiet pursuits, family get-togethers and memories of her days as a Venus.
Just as nothing in her fabled apartment was changed when she died, it remained until recently almost exactly as she left it. The family still owns the estate and nobody lives there, but this year its contents were removed, and the place is up for rent. Until a new tenant signs the lease, doors remain heavily locked and shutters closed, extinguishing the light again but not the legend of Marthe de Florian.
Randy Bryan Bigham is a fashion historian and the author of Lucile: Her Life by Design.