During our visit to the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe I will tell you about Esther Blanche Lachmann, also knowned as the Marquise de la Païva, an intelligent, cultured woman, for whom seduction was a strategy for her social and financial ascension. Courtesan, Marquise and then Countess, discover here the extraordinary destiny of the most famous courtesan of the Second Empire.
From the Russian ghetto to the New Athens
Esther Blanche Lachmann did not always enjoy opulence. Of Polish Jewish origin, she was born in Moscow in 1819. In 1836, she married a French tailor in Moscow, with whom she had a son. However, the story is short-lived. Esther decided to leave everything, husband, child and Moscow to go on an adventure that would bring her to Paris in 1839. In Paris, she settled near Notre Dame de Lorette, where she got into the world of lorettes. But what is a lorette you ask? In the 19th century, a Lorette was a type of elegant young woman who lived from her relationships with men and owes her name to the church of Notre Dame de Lorette. (Larousse 1873)
Esther Blanche Lachmann enters the world of prostitution, where she will be called Therese. She has set herself one goal: to climb the social hierarchy through men.
Entering the circle of Parisian intellectuals
After selling her body for a while in the New Athens district, she quickly went from a simple lorette to a Lioness: a courtesan maintained by rich patrons. She fell in love with the pianist Henri Herz in 1841 who brought her into the very closed circle of Parisian intellectuals of the time. It is said that she attracted the attention of the pianist by fainting at one of his performances. Many think today, that it was all a set-up, anyway it worked and Henri is very much in love and presents Esther as his wife. Even though she is still married she pretends to be Mrs. Herz and changes her name once again, to Blanche ! This very loving couple has a daughter in 1842, Henriette, whose custody is entrusted to the Herz family. She will unfortunately die at the age of 12.
Thanks to Herz, she followed him on his European tours and met Wagner, Théophile Gautier, Léon Gambetta and the Goncourt brothers. Once again, this love affair did not last… After having squandered Herz’s fortune, she was chased away by her family and found herself without money. But it hasn’t stopped her!
From Lioness to Marquise
Do you remember her French husband that she left in Moscow? He decided to leave Russia to win her back, but it was not enough and she pushed him away. Desperate, he dies in Paris in 1849. This meant that Esther/Therese/Blanche is finally a widow ! She wasted no time and in 1851 she marries a Portuguese Catholic mainly for his title: the Marquis Albino Francisco de Païva. She moved up the ladder again and became a marquise. However, the wedding did not last long and they separated after two years. The marriage was annulled only in 1871 and the debt-ridden marquis committed suicide in 1872.
From Marquise to Countess
In the 1860s, she finally meets the man with whom she will end her days and who will finance her folie de grandeur : Count Guido Henckel Von Donnersmarck. He is a Prussian Lutheran, eleven years younger than her and a cousin of Bismark ! She married him in October 1871 – right after the marriage with Marquis de Païva was annulled, and thus became a countess, a consecration ! The marquise is now a countess, but her title of marquise remains in all contemporary writings.
Of course, the Marquise de Païva wished to settle in a sublime residence… Nothing better than on the Champs-Elysées, the place to be during the Second Empire ! A private mansion was inaugurated at 25 avenue des Champs-Elysées in 1867, after 10 years of work. For 10 million gold francs, the equivalent of 40 million euros, the marquise’s every wish was fulfilled. She called upon artists in vogue at the time and launched the careers of some of them, such as Baudry, who would later decorate the foyer of the Garnier Opera House, and the sculptor Dalou.
If the Italian renaissance style facade is rather sober, inside, many luxurious wonders make the charm of this private mansion. Nothing is too good for the marquise ! One of her follies? A silver bathtub weighing 900 kilos with 3 taps: one for hot water, another for cold water, and the third would have been used to make champagne flow ! Enough to maintain the legend of this extraordinary woman.
The private mansion was nicknamed ‘the louvre of the ass’ by the Goncourt brothers. Indeed, the hotel is decorated with numerous paintings and sculptures representing our dear Blanche in her simplest form.
Limits to social integration
However, even if she was married and had a title, there were limits to her social integration. The imperial couple, Napoleon III and Eugénie will never receive her at the Tuileries. No decent woman would compromise herself to appear at La Païva’s. All this is unfortunate, because she may be a former courtesan, but she is also a very intelligent, gifted and cultured woman. Blanche speaks several languages, plays the piano, rides a horse and reads a lot… She must be quite intelligent to keep the conversation going with such a prestigious and literate guests ! She also has a good business sense and manages her fortune alone, not bad for the time !
End of a dream
The dream ends when the prussian war breaks out in 1870. Her husband being Prussian, she was almost accused of being a spy. It was indeed her husband who negotiated the war indemnity that France had to pay, an exorbitant sum: 6 billion francs. She was quickly considered a traitor, despite the fact that she had tried her hand at politics. La Païva therefore fled Paris and settled in Silesia in her husband’s castle. She won’t survive long this forced separation and social decline. Blanche literally died of boredom 4 years later, in 1884.
To conclude, I leave you with this “poetic” quote from the literary critic Paul de Saint-Victor who said of the Paiva that “her lips are a red couch flattened by a pasha’s ass“. I don’t really know what to think about this, but i though it was quite interesting as she was the most famous courtisan of the Second Empire, but apparently not that pretty, with an atypical face.
If I wrote this article about this woman, it’s because on my to-do list of things to visit in Paris, there is her famous Hôtel particulier, on the Champs-Elysées. Since 1903, the mansion belongs to the Traveller’s Club (a men’s club, ironically !) and can only be visited on certain weekends upon reservation. Maybe some of you have already visited it? Anyway, I can’t wait to go there and I won’t hesitate to share the visit with you on the social media.
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