The Courtesan and the Apostle


Carolina Otero (1868-1965), popularly known as La Bella Otero, was arguably the most famous courtesan of Belle Époque Paris, where such women were public celebrities and moved in the most fashionable society. Like Otero, they often functioned as dancers, singers or actresses, although that was not their principal profession (the French referred to the chief among them as les grandes horizontales).

Otero was born poor in backwater Galicia, a notoriously brutish region of Spain (which gave Cuba the Castro seed). She was an illegitimate child who was raped at 10 (probably in her employ as a housemaid) and ran away in her teens with a boyfriend to seek her fortune as a dancer. By 1888 she was a café performer and prostitute in Barcelona, where she found a “patron” who took her to France and promoted her as a dancer. She created a professional persona as an Andalusian gypsy, and by 1889 was featured at the Folies Bergère in Paris, where she became a star. She also became a hotly sought-after trophy for very rich and powerful men, including various kings and princes. She appeared in many countries, including the US and apparently Cuba, where a cigar brand was named after her. Around 1920, she retired with a huge fortune, which she squandered due to her gambling addiction in places like Monte Carlo. She died poor, at 96, in Nice.

In 1890, while José Martí was living as an exile in New York, the 21-year-old Otero came to perform in the city, and he was invited by Cuban friends to see her. Initially, he declined because a Spanish flag had been placed over the entrance to the theater, and he refused to pass under it. Alas, such scrupulous dignity, while typical of the man, has never been the norm among us, and it is light years away from the disgraceful Cubanoid spectacles to which we have sadly become accustomed. However, Otero was a hit and somehow the flag was taken down, so Martí wound up going to see her.

He was a poet and a romantic, keenly sensitive to women, and la bailarina española made an impression on him. She inspired him to write a wonderful poem about her performance, suffused with a refined and elegantly suggestive eroticism. I lack the skills to translate it, and even the best translation would fall short of the original, but you can read it here. I will only give a few stanzas, including the one allusive to the Spanish flag:

Han hecho bien en quitar
El banderón de la acera;
Porque si está la bandera,
No sé, yo no puedo entrar.

Ya llega la bailarina:
Soberbia y pálida llega;
¿Cómo dicen que es gallega?
Pues dicen mal: es divina.

Alza, retando, la frente;
Crúzase al hombro la manta:
En arco el brazo levanta:
Mueve despacio el pie ardiente.

El cuerpo cede y ondea;
La boca abierta provoca;
Es una rosa la boca;
Lentamente taconea.

Otero was beautiful in an exotic yet delicate way, not unlike a geisha. She looked both vulnerable and inviting, and her very black hair and eyes offered a striking contrast against the whiteness of her skin. Her figure embodied the feminine ideal of her day, and although she was not a professionally trained dancer, she must have had that certain je ne sais quoi as a performer that made her a star. In any case, she evidently moved the man Cubans reverently dubbed “The Apostle” to immortalize her in his poetry, which was ultimately more valuable than the fabulous jewels she received from her lovers and gambled away in casinos on the French Riviera. I hope she had the chance to read it.

2 thoughts on “The Courtesan and the Apostle”

  1. There’s a reportedly rather bad 1954 French film called La Belle Otero about Carolina’s life, starring the rather overblown Mexican actress María Félix. I’ve only seen stills from the film, but it’s pretty clear that Félix was badly miscast; she was a little too old for the part, and she looks harsh, mannish and overbearing, not to say bitchy, which was definitely not what Otero projected. Félix looks more like a brassy, hard-boiled prostitute who would probably have repelled Martí.

  2. A ghastly, cheap-looking eyesore of a statue of Otero, which does her neither justice nor honor, was put up at some point in the village of her birth in Pontevedra, Galicia. I expect it was meant for tourists, not unlike the would-be museum of the miserable hovel where Fidel Castro’s father was born in another part of Galicia. Alas, in both cases, the old stereotype of gallegos as crude and grasping seems to apply.

Comments are closed.