“Liane de Pougy sold her body, and for quite a sum, but she never sold her heart or her soul”. This quote, by her biographer, Jean Chalon, is a striking encapsulation of this twentieth-century woman’s life. She went from prostitute to Romanian princess and finally, in her last years, she became a sister touched by God’s grace.
Born in a poor provincial family in 1869, she, who was then known as Anne-Marie Chassaigne, received a strict education at the Faithful Companions of Jesus convent. Endowed with a solid bourgeois education, her family married her off to a man as lackluster as his name – Armand Pourpe – and who her nurse judged “too husband-like” in 1886. She did not love him, lived a Bovarian life in the province, gave him a son, Marc, and cheated on him.
Ironically, he is the one who apologized. Ironically, she was the one who divorced him and abandoned both husband and child after three years of marriage, fleeing to Paris as a freshly divorced, destitute 19-year-old.
At the time, 80,000 prostitutes worked in Paris. Anne-Marie was young, beautiful and educated. She nourished the ambition of becoming a socialite. She changed her name to a more exotic and noble patronym and, in less than two years, Liane de Pougy, she who Gil Blas called the “horizontal luxury”, or the “princes’ passage” of 1890’s Paris, was born.
In 1894, she performed onstage, like most of her colleagues. The Folies-Bergère received her androgynous grace, her breathtaking beauty and her scenic prestidigitator numbers. The greatest names and fortunes strove for her, for the privilege of exhausting themselves in her: Carnavon, Rothschild, Mac-Mahon, to name but a few.
For fifteen years during, her success as a courtesan, cabaret artist and writer knew no limits. And yet, just before her fortieth birthday, Liane fell for a young, penniless Romanian prince fifteen years her junior: Georges Ghika. They married out of love in 1910 and the prince nobly asked for a separation of assets.
Liane became princess Ghika and Paris would never forgive her for this marital betrayal. The couple wandered Algeria, Romania, Britany and, after a few years of roaming, settled down in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, due to Paris’ tenacious resentment. Their happiness lasted for nearly sixteen years. However, two events would come and shake her tranquil domestic happiness and slowly lead her towards the celestial.
In 1914, she lost her son on the field of honor. This child, the small and abandoned Marc, who she only met again in his teenage years, died as a hero during World War I. She never fully recovered from the loss and was consumed by the guilt of not providing him with motherly love for many years.
In 1926, she also lost Georges, who fled to Romania with a youth of barely 20, Manon Thiébaut, who was naught but… Liane’s own mistress. Georges returned to his wife’s side a few months later, yet the betrayal remained a purulent wound in Liane’s heart – she would never stop reminding her husband of his mistake.
She began walking on the path to God, and would do so for 20 years. In 1943, she entered the Third Order of Saint Dominic. She became Sister Anne-Marie of Penitence and reconnected with the young convent student that she was, at age 74.
When Georges died in 1945, Liane became aware of the love she did not give, in her marriage this time. She joined him in 1950.
Even though everything arrived quite late in her life – maternal love, marital love, altruistic love – her love of love eventually guided her to God. No woman has ever reconciled the archetypes of the whore and the virgin so well, or embodied the image of the repenting sinner, touched by the grace of God.
Rise, Mary Magdalene.
January 10, 2020
Corset, necklace & feather train by Joanna Delys – Marcel & Jeannette top hat – Ashish tulle skirt