By Sharon Gittleman
When Belle Epoque beauty Liane de Pougy made her confession to a priest just before her marriage to a Romanian prince in 1914, it took much less time than the average Parisian would have expected. Pougy merely told her confessor, “Father, except for murder and robbery, I’ve done everything.”
By the end of, “My Blue Notebooks,” you’re sure to agree with her assessment.
“My Blue Notebooks,” (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam 2002) is a collection of diary entries Pougy kept from 1919, when she was 40 years old, until 1941, nine years before her death.
This “priestess of Sappho,” lived a shocking and thrilling life that took her from courtesan to princess to Dominican nun.
At age 25, Pougy abandoned her first husband and her child, to dance on the stage at the Folies Bergere in Paris. There she attracted the attentions of a French count, whose last name she adopted, and she began her career as one of history’s greatest courtesans.
While courtesans accepted favors from their lovers, they weren’t considered to be either prostitutes or mistresses by their contemporaries.
In Europe, from the Renaissance until the dawn of 20th Century, most women had four principal choices for their futures – marriage, a vocation as a nun, to become a servant or to live as a courtesan. While the first two choices entailed giving up all control of their lives, and the third promised near-poverty, courtesans maintained their own independence.
Few women achieved the status of a true courtesan. Many of these women were justly acclaimed for their abilities as poets and painters – professions often barred to females. They were charismatic beauties with great wit, style and intelligence, who moved in circles populated by powerful men, intellectuals and artists.
Pougy was no exception. In, “My Blue Notebooks,” we read about her relationships with the great artists of the day, from actress Sarah Bernhardt, to novelist Marcel Proust, to film maker Jean Cocteau.
Pougy described Cocteau as, “a dazzling talker, passionate, ironic, vigorous, elegant and abundant” who could be equally “cruel,” “disturbing” and “repulsive.”
Pougy wrote frankly about her relationships with other women, including Natalie Barney. Barney ran a salon (a gathering of intellectuals and artists) that was at the center of lesbian life in Paris. “We abandoned ourselves without remorse and without restraint to the delirium of our love,” wrote Pougy.
In, “My Blue Notebooks, we see snippets of a forgotten era. Pougy described the funeral of Russian Tsar Alexander III, which she attended in 1894. She revealed that, at the funeral, a man symbolically dressed in heavy black iron armor to symbolize the fallen Tsar, died of exhaustion at the end of the procession to the church. She recalled the soon-to-be last Tsar, Nicholas II, as a timid, good-natured, mediocre and pitiable man.
Pougy delighted in others’ wit. When a wealthy man treated her less than respectfully, Pougy refused his offer for a “dinner” out, telling him she loved no one but kings, from the king of jewelers to the king of cooks. The next day, he returned with flowers and chocolates begging for a second chance, since he was the “king of fools.”
Pougy retired from her life in the demi-monde when she married her Romanian prince, Georges Ghika. She lived unhappily with her husband for 30 years. Following Ghika’s death, Pougy was inspired to become a nun, after she saw the tender care several sisters provided to children with horrible physical and mental afflictions. The new Sister Anne-Marie of the Order of Saint Dominic eventually came to regret her notorious past and embraced her chance to live a more spiritually fulfilling life.
“My Blue Notebooks,” offers readers the rare opportunity to share the inner secrets of a woman who lived her life with true passion.