Top 10 Historical Courtesans

Prostitution is known as “the oldest trade” so it’s little wonder that significant women who appear throughout history often turn out to be prostitutes. But there are different degrees of prostitution –these women were not common hookers, made famous by having the misfortune to be murdered in Whitechapel. No, these women were sophisticated, glamorous and powerful. They had the ear of Kings and nobles, who showered them in jewels. Find out which names have lived on, in our Top 10 Historical Courtesans


10. Cora Pearl

As so often occurs with these courtesans, the name they were known by is nothing like their birth name. Cora Pearl was born Eliza Emma Crouch in Plymouth, England and was first tempted into prostitution at the age of 20, after escaping the confinement of her grandmother’s house for a wild night in London with an older man –who left her money for the privilege. She determined to become the lover of rich men, rather than a common prostitute, and became the mistress of businessman Robert Bignell.

But it was in Paris that she would find celebrity, leaving Bignell and starting affairs with the Duke du Rivoli and Prince Achille Murat. She became famous, and wealthy, throwing dinner parties where she appeared naked on a silver platter as the “main course”. In 1867, she diversified into opera, appearing in Orpheus in the Underworld and she even had a drink named after her – the “Tears of Cora Pearl” which, bizarrely enough, can still be sampled today at a London hotel as part of their “Cora Pearl Experience“. Sadly, the good times could not last forever for Cora, and she died much impoverished around the age of 50


9. Josephine Marcus

For some courtesans, there is little distinction between being a lover and being a common-law wife. And that was the case for Josephine Marcus, who found fame with her book “I Married Wyatt Earp”, even though theirs was a common-law marriage, and overlapped with the lawman’s previous common-law wife, Matty Blaylock. Before meeting Earp, Josephine had worked as an actress and dancer and it’s fairly certain that she was also a courtesan. She was described in a contemporary account as “the prettiest dame in three hundred or so of her kind”, but her book tried to cover up her past reputation. The vaguest section was the one covering her life in Tombstone, Arizona around the time of the Gunfight at the OK Coral. Certainly, no mention is made of the overlap with Blaylock or the public fights between the two. With all the mystery surrounding parts of her life, it is little wonder she was known as ”Shady Sadie”.


8. Polly Adler

A woman who lived off the proceeds of prostitution without having to be a prostitute herself, Polly Adler was a famous madam in New York in the 20s, 30s and 40s. She became involved in the underworld after allowing a gangster and his girlfriend to use her apartment, and when she opened her first brothel it was under mob protection. She was in no way publicity shy, appearing at nightclubs in flamboyant clothes, although she did go into hiding for a few months to avoid testifying at a trial against mob members.

In its heyday, Adler’s brothel was patronized by politicians, gangsters and even poet Dorothy Parker. She was arrested several times for possession of indecent materials and was jailed at one point but was certainly one of the most successful madams of the 20th century.


7. Barbara Payton

While prostitution isn’t a reputable career, it’s a steady one, unlike acting. That’s what actress Barbara Payton found after some success in film dwindled, and she turned to prostitution. She appeared in the 1949 film “Trapped” and then made “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” the following year with James Cagney. The year after that, however, saw her starring in B-movie horror “Bride of the Gorilla”, as her drinking and partying alienated Hollywood bosses.

She was married 4 times, with the marriages ranging from 53 days to 5 years, with one annulment along the way too, and she had a clutch of affairs with high profile men such as Bob Hope and Howard Hughes. But her career declined quickly and she was arrested for prostitution on Sunset Boulevard, before dying of liver cancer at the age of 39.


6. Mata Hari

Another woman who changed name to appear more glamorous, Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1867, in the Netherlands. After her family was bankrupted, she moved to the Dutch East Indies as the wife of Rudolf MacLeod. The marriage quickly turned sour, with the alcoholic MacLeod keeping a concubine as well as a wife so Margaretha immersed herself in the Indonesian culture as a distraction, and renamed herself Mata Hari (“Eye of the Day” (sun) in Indonesian).

In 1903, Mata Hari moved to Paris and worked as an exotic dancer, posing as a Java princess to win the attentions of powerful men like Emile Etienne Guimet. She often performed mainly nude or wearing a bodystocking and was widely celebrated, if not accepted by the straight-laced dancing community. After her dancing career declined, she continued working as a courtesan to the rich and famous until her unusual death in 1917, executed as a spy by the French. German documents released later suggest that the execution was indeed justified and she was in fact a German spy. An extraordinary end of an extraordinary life.

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