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Wendy Buonaventura

 

                            Caroline Otero

 

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In the 1870s a new kind of establishment appeared in Paris, a French version of the English music hall. The most famous was the Folies Bergère. An innovation of the Folies was a promenade at the back of the stalls, where customers could stroll about during the show. Inevitably, the promenade attracted women parading themselves for hire.

 

The Folies presented one of the best-known courtesan-dancers of the age, Caroline Otero, a Spanish dancer originally from Andalusia. Hughes Leroux wrote of her, ‘She has the whole of the Orient between her legs.’ Otero lived in a sumptuous apartment near the Bois de Boulogne that had been given to her by a duke in payment for a champagne dinner. Among the many possessions she amassed during her career was an island in the Pacific, bought for her by the Emperor of Japan. Otero reduced some of her admirers to ruin but, by the end of her life, the huge fortune that she had won during the days of her great glory had vanished. Some men were said to have committed suicide over her and several duels were fought on her behalf. She even fought a duel herself once, with an actress who had poked fun at her.

 

Caroline Otero grew up with a passion for dancing. As a child she remembered her mother slipping a set of castanets on her fingers and showing her the gypsy dances of Andalusia. By all accounts Caroline was a stunning beauty and by the age of twelve looked much older than her years. She lost no time in finding a young boy to initiate her in the pleasures of sex and, young as she was, persuaded him to take her to a cafe-concert, where she asked to dance for the owners. Their customers were so entranced they offered her a payment of two pesetas a night (double the normal fee) to dance for them. Years later, performing at the Folies at the height of her fame, her fee was 35,000 francs a month. The day after her Parisian debut, Le Figaro described the sensation Otero caused there:

 

We had seen quite a few things in Paris, but we had to wait until She came to see this: a woman with Andalusian eyes, of which the poet speaks, blood-red lips, a magnificent head of wavy, raven black hair, rearing up and throwing her head like a young thoroughbred. The gyrations of her hips and legs drive the public crazy. She is loaded with jewels like an idol: diamonds, rubies and emeralds whose sparkle dazzles the audience. Her bosom is more covered with jewels than a Chief of Protocol’s chest is with medals and crosses; they are in her hair, on her shoulders, arms, wrists, hands and legs, and dangle from her ears and, when she ends her dance, the boards continue to glitter as if a crystal chandelier had been pulverized on them. And she is watched over by two guards who protect her millions. 

 

There are many stories about Otero and her priceless collection of jewellery. One of the best concerns a time when she and the singer Yvette Guilbert were appearing on the same bill. As neither was willing to give up top billing, was arranged that they should take it in turns. One night, when it was Guilbert’s turn to close the show, Otero’s fabulous pearl choker broke in the middle of her act and the pearls scattered and went rolling all over the stage, proceedings came to a halt while they were being gathered up and by the time the curtain rose on Guilbert, the public had grown fractious. She was greeted with desultory applause, and in the middle of her first song, the lack of interest made her pause. Walking down to the footlights she pretended to pick up an overlooked pearl and with a wicked glint in her eye bit it, then gulped it down. The audience was delighted.

 

The novelist Colette worked in music halls in her early thirties and came to know Otero well. In her memoir, My Apprenticeships, she left a portrait of the dancer who was referred to in the press as ‘the most scandalous person since Helen of I'roy’. Colette describes afternoons spent playing bezique at Otero’s apartment. Men were excluded from these afternoons, where the dancer sat around carelessly in her underwear, her dressing-gown falling open to reveal jewels nestling in her bosom. She played cards with fierce concentration, a glass of anisette on one side, an ashtray on the other and, having finished the game, tucked into a gargantuan feast:

 

I have always enjoyed food, but what was my appetite compared to Lina’s? Her queenliness melted, and a gentle bliss, an air of happy innocence took its place. Her teeth, her eyes, her glossy lips shone like a girl’s. There are few beautiful women who can guzzle without loss of prestige. Lina did not push away her plate until she had emptied it four, five times. A little strawberry water-ice, a cup of coffee, and up she sprang, fastening a pair of castanets to her thumbs ... Until two in the morning Caroline Otero would dance and sing - for her own enjoyment, she cared little for ours. From a handsome forty she became a lively seventeen. The bath wrap tossed aside, she danced in her petticoat, which was of brocaded silk with a flounce five metres round, the only garment essential to Spanish dancing. Soaked with sweat, her fine lawn chemise clung to her loins. Her moist skin gave off a delicate scent, a dusky scent, predominantly of sandalwood, that was more subtle than herself. There was nothing base in her violent and wholly selfish pleasure; it was born of a true passion for rhythm and music. She would snatch up her sauce-stained table napkin and wipe herself vigorously, face, neck and damp armpits, then dance again, sing again, ‘Ziz one? Do you know it?’ Her feet were not very light but her face, tilted backwards over her shoulders, the muscles of her hips rippling above the powerful loins, the savage, swaying furrow of her naked back, could defy the harshest glare. A body that had defied sickness, ill- usage and the passage of time.

 

Otero lived on into her nineties. She was still known, even then, as ‘the Andalusian volcano’ with a reputation as a croquesse de diamants (chewer of diamonds). By the end of her life she had squandered her great fortune and was living on a pension in a small hotel in Nice. Something of a recluse, she turned down frequent requests to meet visitors and journalists; but on her ninetieth birthday she agreed to talk to one of them about her past. She told him:

 

    I was very beautiful indeed. Everyone knows that. But I was not just beautiful, I was a great artist. If you could have seen me in Carmen. And how I could dance! I danced in a way that you could never understand.

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Wednesday the 18th
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