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Tue July 2, 2013

The Tragic Story Of 'Traviata' Muse Marie Duplessis

Originally published on Tue July 2, 2013 6:12 pm

You may not know the name Marie Duplessis, but odds are you know some stories about her. She inspired a French novel, which was turned into a successful play, several movies (including one starring Greta Garbo), a ballet and, most famously, a great Italian opera — La Traviata.

Duplessis was a famous 19th-century Parisian courtesan known for her relationships with prestigious men. But she tragically died of tuberculosis at 23. In The Girl Who Loved Camellias, journalist Julie Kavanagh tells the true story of the girl who captured so many imaginations.

She joins NPR's Robert Siegel to discuss Duplessis' Normandy childhood, her life in Paris, and differences between her and her fictional counterparts.


Interview Highlights

On Duplessis' humble beginnings

"Most of the stories based on her life, the opera and the films, start when she was a famous courtesan in Paris. But actually, she started as a peasant girl in Normandy. She had an incredibly tough background. Her brutal father was so violent towards her mother that her mother left these two little girls and went into hiding. And Marie was really left to fend for herself. She was called Alphonsine then, she wasn't Marie, and she was sold at the age of 14 by her father to an old man of 70, and he then took her to Paris. She was just 14 and completely alone. And then she sort of made her way from being a shop girl to a courtesan, and it all happened within a couple of years."

On circles she traveled in

"She started off being a mistress of students, and then she met a very well-known young man called the Duc de Guiche, and it was through the Duc de Guiche that she started learning how to dress, almost like an aristocrat. And there were sort of two or three restaurants and cafés on the boulevard — the Maison Dorée and the Café Riche and the Café de Paris — and they were almost like a sort of private club. And you would get Nestor Roqueplan, who was the editor of the Figaro, and [Louis-Désiré] Véron, who was the director of the Paris Opera, and they would have a table, and they would obviously have sort of intellectual friends, and they would invite one or two decorative courtesans; and Marie became one of them."

On Duplessis' death of tuberculosis as the great romantic story of the mid-19th century

"I think it was something that appealed to artists because there was something at that point rather romantic about tuberculosis, and it wasn't known quite how it was transmitted. And so ... the consumptive heroine was almost like an archetype in literature. ...

"People now think of her as an older woman because performance history has always made her this sort of older woman with a young boy, and that's the way I think it's played now. But she was a kid, she was just 23. She just had her birthday ... when she died."

On the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils

"He was very much in the shadow of his much more famous father, Alexandre Dumas, who was the author of The Three Musketeers, but he wrote this novel ... in eight days, and it was done in response to her death. And he wrote the novel, which was published in 1848, called La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias).

"There was then sort of a revolution in Paris, and so the novel sort of didn't make much of an impact, but he wrote a play based on the same subject. But he then spent three years trying to get it staged because it was thought to be just too shocking because French theater was very sort of embalmed in the past. And what he was trying to do was put a living courtesan who people still remembered — I mean, she'd only just died a couple of years ago — onto the stage. And this was so revolutionary that it couldn't be staged. But then finally he managed to get it on in 1852, and it was a sort of overnight, huge success."

On La Traviata, which Giuseppe Verdi wrote after seeing Dumas' play

"He was inspired by the story, which really touched him. He was forced — because of opera being much more conventional — to sort of set it in a historical time. But the first performance was in Venice. I think [it] was a bit of a flop because he cast a very sort of buxom prima donna as Violetta, and every time she coughed people would burst out laughing because she seemed so incredibly unfrail. And then it was a year later that it was recast and then took off, and now is virtually playing, you know, every night in some opera house around the world."

On Duplessis' obsession with camellias

"Dumas, fils, always claimed that he was the one who invented it, and he said that any painting of her that was done before he wrote the novel, the camellia had been photoshopped in, so to speak. But actually, I managed to get a hold of her florist bills. Sure enough, the camellias — it's there in black and white. So she was obsessed with them. And there was a story, a myth about her that she would wear a red camellia at a certain time of the month to alert her lovers to the fact that she was not available. I did find on the bills there's a camellia imperial, which actually is a red camellia, which again is written proof."

On the reality of Duplessis versus the way she's portrayed in fiction, as the courtesan who falls in love and makes sacrifices for the man she's attached to

"I think she was much more of a modern woman. I mean, I think people today find the play hard to take because would a woman really give up a man she adored for conventional reasons to save his name? But actually, I think Marie probably was too in charge of her own fate and destiny to agree to that, and I think she's a much sort of more feisty character than the fictional versions of her."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Perhaps you've never heard of Marie Duplessis. If so, Julie Kavanagh's new book will take care of that. It's called "The Girl Who Loved Camellias." And odds are you know some of the stories about Duplessis or stories that are based on her life. She inspired a 19th century French novel, which was turned into a hugely successful play, several movies, starting with some silent ones, a ballet and most famously a great Italian opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA TRAVIATA")

SIEGEL: That was Maria Callas as Violetta, the fallen woman, "La Traviata," in Verdi's opera, based on the life of Marie Duplessis. Julie Kavanagh, welcome to the program.

JULIE KAVANAGH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, give us some very basic biography of who this woman was and when she lived.

KAVANAGH: Well, most - I mean, most of the stories based on her life, the opera and the films, start when she was a famous courtesan in Paris. But actually, she started as a peasant girl in Normandy. She had an incredibly tough background. Her brutal father was so violent towards her mother that her mother left these two little girls and went into hiding. And Marie was really left to fend for herself. She was called Alphonsine then, she wasn't Marie, and she was sold at the age of 14 by her father to an old man of 70 and he then took her to Paris. She was just 14 and completely alone. And then she sort of made her way from being a shop girl to a courtesan, and it all happened within a couple of years.

SIEGEL: Give us a sense of who is in the circle that she traveled in in her day in Paris.

KAVANAGH: Well, she started off being a mistress of students, and then she met a very well-known young man called the Duc de Guiche, and it was through the Duc de Guiche that she started learning how to dress, almost like an aristocrat. And there were sort of two or three restaurants and cafes on the boulevard - the Maison Doree and the Cafe Riche and the Cafe de Paris - and they were almost like a sort of private club. And you would get Nestor Roqueplan, who was the editor of the Figaro, and Dr. Veron, who was the director of the Paris Opera, and they would have a table, and they would obviously have sort of intellectual friends, and they would invite one or two decorative courtesans, and Marie became one of them.

SIEGEL: Critical to her story is that after going from illiterate farm girl - teenager in Paris, first walking the streets and then becoming an elegant courtesan. By the age of 23, she dies tragically of tuberculosis or consumption, I guess, they (unintelligible).

KAVANAGH: That's right.

SIEGEL: And this is the great romantic story of the middle of the 19th century.

KAVANAGH: I think it was something that appealed to artists because there was something at that point rather romantic about tuberculosis, and it wasn't known quite how it was transmitted. And so the sort of the consumptive heroine was almost like an archetype in literature.

SIEGEL: So let's chase her afterlife in literature and on the stage, Alexandre Dumas, the son, fils, one of her lovers, writes a novel about her.

KAVANAGH: That's right. I mean, he was very much in the shadow of his much more famous father, Alexandre Dumas, who was the author of "The Three Musketeers," but he wrote this novel in which he sort of wrote in eight days, and it was done in response to her death. And he wrote the novel and - which was published in 1848, called "La Dame aux Camelias, "The Lady of the Camellias." There was then a sort of revolution in Paris, and so the novel sort of didn't make much of an impact, but he wrote a play based on the same subject.

But he then spent three years trying to get it staged because it was thought to be just too shocking because French theater was very sort of embalmed in the past. And what he was trying to do was put a living courtesan who people still remembered - I mean, she'd only just died a couple of years ago - onto the stage. And this was so revolutionary that it couldn't be staged. But then finally, he managed to get it on in 1852, and it was a sort of overnight, huge success.

SIEGEL: One of the most famous people to ever see the play, I guess, or at least the most consequential theatergoer, was Giuseppe Verdi, who was the opera composer. He went there with his mistress.

KAVANAGH: Indeed. He was inspired by the story, which really touched him. He was forced - because of opera being much more conventional - to sort of set it in a historical time. But the first performance was in Venice. I think was a bit of a flop because he cast a very sort of buxom prima donna as Violetta, and every time she coughed, people would burst out laughing because she seemed so incredibly unfrail.

(LAUGHTER)

KAVANAGH: And then it was a year later that it was recast and then took off, and now is virtually playing, you know, every night in some opera house around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA TRAVIATA")

SIEGEL: Among the many films that were made of Camille, as it was known on this side of the pond, in English at least, was "Camille," 1936, George Cukor's movie, starring Greta Garbo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAMILLE")

GRETA GARBO: (as Marguerite Gautier) Well, why don't you laugh at yourself a little as I laugh at myself and come and talk to me once in a while in a friendly way?

ROBERT TAYLOR: (as Armand Duval) That's too much and not enough. Don't you believe in love, Marguerite?

GARBO: (as Marguerite Gautier) I don't think I know what it is.

KAVANAGH: I think it was one of the movies that really established Garbo as a fabulous actress, and she won an award. And it was - I think it was the definitive performance of all the film versions.

SIEGEL: There were still films and television adaptations being made of "Camille" into the 1980s and 1990s. This is over a century after her life, and her entire life in Paris was only about seven years in duration.

KAVANAGH: That's right. I mean, I think people now think of her as an older woman because performance history has always made her this older woman with the young boy, and that's the way, I think, it's played now. But she was a kid. She was 20 - just 23. She just had her birthday.

SIEGEL: When she died?

KAVANAGH: When she died, yes.

SIEGEL: Where did the camellia thing come from?

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: What's her connection to the flower?

KAVANAGH: Dumas, fils, always claimed that he was the one who invented it, and he said that any painting of her that was done before he wrote the novel, the camellia had been Photoshopped in, so to speak. But actually, I managed to get a hold of her florist bills.

SIEGEL: Yes. (Unintelligible).

(LAUGHTER)

KAVANAGH: Sure enough, the camellias, you know, so it's there in black and white, which again is written proof.

SIEGEL: In most of the stories that Marie Duplessis inspired, she's the courtesan who falls in love. She sentimentalized. She would give things up in favor of a man whom she truly becomes attached to.

KAVANAGH: That's right.

SIEGEL: In real life, was there all that much sentiment in this heart?

KAVANAGH: No. I think she was much more of a modern woman. I mean, I think people today find the play hard to take because, you know, would a woman really give up a man she adored for conventional reasons to save his name? But actually, I think Marie probably was too in charge of her own fate and destiny to agree to that, and I think she's a much sort of more feisty character than the fictional versions of her.

SIEGEL: Julie Kavanagh, thank you very much for talking with us about Marie Duplessis and about your book about her.

KAVANAGH: Thank you, Robert. It's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Julie Kavanagh's book is called "The Girl Who Loved Camellias." You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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