Only a few details from the life of Caroline Otero can be authenticated. In her 1927 autobiography, My Story, she says, ‘I was extraordinarily pretty.’ That much we can see from volumes of photographs, posters, cabinet cards and paintings. We also know that she was a famed entertainer and courtesan to many powerful men in Europe. She came from poverty but lived a life of luxury. She earned tremendous sums of money, but played the casinos and died penniless at 96. We also know that Caroline Otero (a.k.a. La Belle Otero-(November 4, 1868 – April 10, 1965) lived a flamboyant life that would set social media buzzing even today.
Newspaper and magazine reporters, gossip columnists and avid fans followed them. People emulated their style. Artists immortalized them. They were also social influencers. They endorsed products, licensed their images, signed autographs and were paid well just to show up at events.
Like today’s celebrities, they were subjects of rumor, gossip and criticism from detractors. All that static made it difficult to determine what was real and what was invented. Caroline Otero, like many of her colleagues, used that veil of illusion to her best advantage
Like any modern-day celebrity, Caroline Otero crafted her image carefully and protected her brand ferociously. Her autobiography weaves a tale that is probably more fiction than fact.
Otero claimed that her mother was a beautiful gypsy from Andalusia and her father a nobleman or army officer. It is more likely that she was born in poverty, probably to a single mother in Galicia on November 4, 1868. She was baptized Agustina Otero Iglesias but later adopted the name Caroline, possibly after a sister who died. It is also likely that she was sent away as a child to work as a maid and was raped at a young age.
When still in her teens she ran away to Lisbon (possibly with a young man) to become a dancer. One or more patrons funded her as she developed her act. It is likely that she moved from cafes to theaters, attracting and discarding admirers to help her along the way. She stayed with them as long as she needed and then moved on.
She told spread some of her stories while fans (and sometimes enemies) invented others. Among the remarkable stories, she:
-was mistress to several Spanish noblemen while still in her teens
-had one or more suitors fight duels over her
-had at least one suitor commit suicide upon losing her
-left one or more suitors penniless after they lavished her with gifts
-dueled a competing female performer
-funded her own career with winnings from Monte Carlo
-inspired two cupolas on the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France in the likeness of her breasts
– insured her ankles for £30,000.
– was filmed performing a dance in one of the world’s first movies; one-minute long, it was played in music halls across Europe.
By the early 1890s she made it to the Folies Bèrgere. She was billed as La Belle Otero, a Spanish dancer and singer. She soon became a star, with her performances routinely sold out. Her career took her to many world capitals including Paris, London, New York, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.
Otero was also one of the most sought after courtesans of Europe with many powerful businessmen, noblemen and politicians under her spell. Among her clients were King Edward VII of the UK, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Alexander II of Serbia, Prince Albert I of Monaco, Grand Dukes Nicholas and Peter of Russia.
It was a time of profound optimism thanks in part to extraordinary developments in the arts and technology. Artists including Monet, Cezanne and Toulouse Lautrec captured the excitement of the decadent lifestyle, as did Mucha, Gallé and Lalique in the decorative arts. Theatre offered Lugné-Poe to Ibsen to the can-can. According to the MetMuseum.org, Montmartre was the center of Parisian nightlife, teaming with irreverent venues like the Clubs of Heaven and Hell, the Moulin Rouge and Folies-Bergere. This was la Belle Otero’s playground.
Jule’s Chéret’s posters for clubs, events and products reflected emerging female “freedoms” in the rapidly changing Parisian society. The Jules Chéret Chérettes were self-assured, adventurous, athletic and happy. La Belle Otero was one of his finest. Women could dress scantily, dance wildly, smoke and drink publicly, and generally have a good time without judgment. Cheret’s positive, liberated images of women fueled the emerging role of women as free beings who could behave as they pleased. Caroline Otero did just that.
At a time when higher education of women was not necessarily a good thing, many courtesans and entertainers were unusually well educated in literature and language. But excluded from “polite society,” they lived in a shadow world known as the demimonde. They were frequently patrons of the arts, fashion, language and music. According to Electronic Magazine, “such courtesans were extremely accomplished and were influential leaders both in fashion and social custom.”
Evolving bicycle costumes for women are a perfect example. It was the height of the bicycle craze, with women exploring new freedom cycling offered. It also created the need for less restrictive clothing. Not surprisingly, Caroline Otero and friends lead the way as early adopters of the new “rational clothing” for female cyclists.
This illustration by Jean Baptiste Guth was published in June 3,1897 Vanity Fair. “Au Bois De Boulogne features a group of fashionable lady cyclists, including Princess Brancovan, Liane de Pougy, La Belle Otero, the Duchess of Doudeauville, the Duke of Broglie, and Ernest Coquelin.
The author, Colette witnessed Otero in her forties still dancing and entertaining guests for hours at a time. She used Otero as a model for the character of Lea in Chéri, claiming Otero ‘defied sickness, ill-usage and the passage of time.’
Courtesans were the muses who inspired and inflamed the hearts of celebrated artists. In The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues, Susan Griffin says,
“As Colette tells us, it was a joy to see Otero dance. Whenever great pleasure is had, a secondary pleasure arises from being in the presence of the banquet …When ever a particularly joyous person goes, conviviality is born, excitement is generated, creativity flourishes and crowds assemble.”
WWI War eclipsed the good times across Europe, destroying a way of life. Caroline Otero’s patrons declined, as did she. Sadly, she believed that physical beautiful was a woman’s only mission in life. “When one gets old, one must learn how to break mirrors. I am very gently expecting to die.” If only she believed that her robust spirt was the true measure of her beauty.
She had amassed a vast fortune, but lost much of it gambling in casinos. She died in relative poverty in 1965 at the age of 96.
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