The Most Famous Courtesans in History

Courtesan Veronica Franco

They wanted more from life

We all know it is the oldest profession in the world, so you would think that there have been some major characters in that time. These are women who have changed history, who slept with Kings, who were loved and admired by people of their time, and who have left their mark on society. These are the stories of women who wanted more from life than marriage and babies and obscurity. They made their own futures and funded it the only way they knew how to.

1. Veronica Franco – The Venetian Courtesan Veronica Franco was a courtesan in 16th Century Renaissance Venice.  She was extremely well educated and even published poetry. Back then in Venetian society, there were two different classes of prostitute.  The high-class set (of which Veronica was one) who were educated and had many other literary and musical talents, and the lower class Prostitutes who were uneducated and plied their trade on the street. Veronica was the daughter of a high-class courtesan and learned the trade from a young age.  Her mother taught her well but was worried about her future so she married her off to a wealthy Physician whilst Veronica was still in her teens.  Veronica felt stifled in this marriage and sought a divorce.  As she had given birth whilst married, and her ex-husband refused to refund her dowry, she had no other option to support herself other than going back to her trade full-time.  Veronica provided popular with her wit, intellect and talent in the bedroom and quickly become infamous and consorted with Royalty and the Wealthy of Venice. As courtesans could not rely on a husband to provide for them, Veronica had to learn to rely on her trade and ‘wealthy benefactors’ to contribute to her way of life. She had many famous lovers but the money would always run out.  As she aged and her beauty faded, her benefactors become scarce and Veronica lost her wealth.  She died in poverty in 1591. A movie was made about the life of Veronica Franco released in 1998 called’ Dangerous Beauty’. Notable Clients:  King Henry III, King of France

courtesan Madame Du Barry

2. Madame du Barry – The Hated Mistress to the King Madame du Barry was a French courtesan, the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress.  When Jeanne was young, one of her mother’s lovers took the family with him when he travelled to Paris where her mother was appointed as a Cook.  The lady of the house took a shine to little Jeanne and spoiled her with love.  She generously funded her education. When the love affair between her mother and her beau fizzled out, he threw both of them out of their Paris home and Jeanne had to sell small trinkets on the street to afford to eat.  She tried her hand at many different jobs before the buxom blonde bombshell was spotted by Jean-Baptiste du Barry, a high-class pimp.  Du Barry saw something special in Jeanne and the two became lovers.  Du Barry encouraged his Mistress to have a career in trade as a high-class Courtesan in all the elite Parisian societies. Jeanne became a French sensation where she was soon noticed by the King of France, King Louis XV.  To allow Jeanne to move into apartments in the Palace, she needed a title, so a quick ‘Marriage of Convenience’ was arranged with Jean du Barry’s brother, and Madame du Barry was introduced to royal society. The King lavished gifts on his Mistress and even presented her with her own slave.  She had her own personal hairdresser and dressmaker.  She was adorned in diamonds and the finest dresses in France. Marie Antoinette soon came to court to marry the King’s son and she hated Madame du Barry as soon as she realised her position. The King soon passed away and the new King and Queen (Marie Antoinette) exiled Madame du Barry to a nearby Nunnery. She lived a relatively quiet life for the new few years, with a few love affairs.  During the French Revolution Madame du Barry was arrested and accused of treason.  She was condemned to death and her head was cut off via the guillotine. Notable Clients: King Louis XV

courtesan nell gwyn

3. Nell Gwyn – The Witty Child Prostitute Nell was born in 1642 to ‘Low-born parents’.  Her mother drowned when Nell was young, and her father was a Sea Captain who didn’t stick around to raise his two daughters.  There are reports that she became a child prostitute to afford food for herself and her sister.  Nell used to love to dress up as a man and perform skits at the Brothel in which she worked.  Nell soon developed a name as being quite an accomplished actress with incredible comedic timing and wit.  Patrons would come to the brothel just to see her perform, even though at the time women were not allowed on the stage. When Cromwell came into rule England, all theatre performances were banned as they were considered ‘frivolous’.  Charles II soon ascended the throne and a new theatre was build and Nell was given a job as a ‘Sweet Seller’.  This new theatre exposed Nell to high-society and with her clear, strong voice, lively wit and good looks, she was soon being trained as an actress. She was one of England’s favourites by 1665 and gained celebrity status. The Great Plague of London shut down the theatre and Nell and her sister started following the King’s Court around the country. During one performance, Nell was seated in the box next to King Charles.  Even though Charles already had a bevvy of mistresses (and a wife), the two fell in love and the other mistresses were dismissed. Nell gave birth to her first son in 1670.  She still continued to perform on stage, much to the horror of society who deemed it ‘beneath her’.  The King purchased Nell her own townhouse.  She gave birth to another son in 1671. When King Charles died in 1685, his heir James II gave Nell an annual pension and allowed her to retire into obscurity. Nell had a stroke in 1687, almost certainly due to the acquired variety of syphilis.  She was 37 years old. Notable Clients: King Charles II of England.

courtesan Catherine Walters

4. Catherine Walters – The Pro with a Heart of Gold Catherine Walters was born in 1839 her mother died young.  It is reputed that Catherine learned her horseriding skills with a travelling circus.  People would line up on the streets to see Catherine ride, she was a sight to behold with perfect posture and the most beautiful riding habits ever seen (in fact they fitted her so well, people speculated she had nothing on underneath!).  She was considered the ultimate fashionista of her time. She is considered the last great courtesan of Victorian London.  She was also very outspoken, direct and bawdy – and everyone loved her for it. Catherine never married, instead, she chose to have a series of wealth ‘benefactors’. She was considered discreet and loyal with a huge heart, and she retired as a very wealthy woman. Her benefactors included members of the British Royal Family, leaders of Political Parties and intellectuals. Notable Clients: King Edward VII, Jesse James, Marquess of Hartington, Lord Fitzwilliams.

courtesan lulu white

5. Lulu White – The Brothel Madam of New Orleans Lulu White was an infamous Madam in Storyville, New Orleans in the early 1900’s. Storyville was an infamous red-light district which flourished between 1898 and 1917.  Lulu was born in Alabama but told everyone she was an immigrant from the West Indies.  She started work as a Prostitute in New Orleans before seeing an opportunity to expand, and expand BIG. Lulu was the epitome of the modern day entrepreneur.  With a few wealthy investors, she purchased her own Brothel in one of the most prominent positions in Storyville. Her ritzy high-class brothel was called ‘Mahogany Hall’.  The house was four storeys and made or marble.  It had 15 bedrooms, each with a bath, five parlours and the entire house was heated by steam. Her girls were ‘Octoroon’ a racist term now, but it means 1/8th black, and the customers were rich white men.  Lulu’s girls were renowned for their beauty and talents.  She opened a saloon next door due to the demand for alchol, and when Prohibition came in, she conveniently turned it into a ‘Soft drink bar’. Lulu was famous for her unique marketing skills of the time, to promote her bordello, she produced brochures that featured her ‘Octoroon Girls’ with a biography of each girl. Lulu was creating her own ‘Brand’, and the buyers ate it up! She was known for her love of jewellery (particularly diamonds) and was rarely seen without wearing mountains of jewels. Lulu was also constantly in trouble with the law, she was arrested countless times on charges ranging from disorderly conduct. However, she never let her law troubles get in the way of her Madam skills. Lulu vanished from history after 1931. She was the most infamous Madam of New Orleans.

courtesan sally salisbury

6. Sally Salisbury – The London Stabber Sally Salisbury was born Sarah Pridden in 1690 in London.  She became an apprentice seamstress when she was only nine years old, however, she accidentally lost a piece of lace belonging to her employer and rather than face the harsh consequences, she ran away and lived on the street.  She tried her hand at selling pamphlets however she soon realised she made a load more money if she sold ‘Her time’ to the local boys. At the age of 14, she was discovered by Mother Wisebourne, the Madam of one of the most exclusive Brothels at the time.  Sally changed her surname from Pridden to Salisbury to sound more appealing. Sally was a hit amongst the clients.  She was celebrated for her incredible beauty and wit.  She boasted that she was the highest paid prostitute in the world. Sally became even more infamous when she stabbed a client after an argument over opera tickets.  The incident was the talk of London.  Sally was sent to prison for a period of one year. The victim, Lord Finch, was not fatally wounded and in fact visited Sally in prison often. Sally died after nine months in prison of ‘Brain fever’, modern accounts say this was almost certainly Syphilis. She was 32 years old. Notable Clients:  Duke of Richmond, George II


7. Cora Pearl – The Wild Child Cora Pearl was born Eliza Emma Crouch in 1835 in France. Her father was composer Frederick Nicholls Crouch who deserted his wife and six daughters due to debt.  Her mother, Lydia, soon met another man who Cora despised.  The friction in the family raised to boiling point and Lydia sent Cora to boarding school in Boulogne where she remained for eight years and engaged in many same-sex relationships with other students. When she returned home, she went to live with her Grandmother. Cora was wild and unsatisfied with the life of a ‘proper young lady’.  She loved going out unchaperoned at night and soon found herself wooed by alcohol and treats by older men who would give her money for sexual acts.  Cora had never seen so much money in her life!  She moved out of her Grandmother’s home and started her life as a prostitute. Cora soon met local pimp Robert Bignell who owned a notorious brothel called The Argyll Rooms.  Cora soon moved into the brothel and became Bignell’s mistress. The couple posed as married and travelled the world, but when Cora found Paris, she didn’t want to go home. She worked in Paris as a common street prostitute until she found another pimp that could set her up and broaden her skills in the bedroom.  She realised that other women in her trade ended up dead from disease or lived in poverty, so she looked at finding wealthy benefactors to fund her lifestyle. Her first benefactor was Victor Massena, the third Duke du Rivoli who set her up in her own residence and showered her with jewels, servants and a private chef.  The relationship lasted five years, during which time she became quite famous in high society.  But Cora wanted to make a sensational splash.  A dinner was organised with the creme de la creme of French Society, her chef was ordered to spare no expense.  Cora herself was served as dessert, lying naked on a huge silver platter and carried in by four men. She soon became the mistress of Napoleon Bonapart for a period of nine years. Cora’s next relationship with a man ten years her junior ended badly and he tried to kill her.  She fled to London where she again became a common prostitute. Cora died from intestinal cancer, in poverty. She is buried in an unmarked grave. Notable Clients: Napoleon Bonaparte via   These women lived incredible lives at a time when women had limited options. I find their stories incredible for their time.