I'm not sure how old I was the first time I saw Camille – the 1936 classic Hollywood weepy starring Miss Greta Garbo. I was too young to understand why exactly it was that the father of the heroine's lover didn't approve of her. The old movie code made that detail murky.
That film, still shown from time to time on TCM, is how many of us were introduced to the story of a Parisian courtesan who falls in love, makes a great sacrifice, and dies beautifully. What fewer are aware of is how many versions of the tale exist, and that the main character was based very closely on a real person.
She was born in Normandy in 1824. Her name was Rose Alponsine Plessis. By the time she was a teenager, the beautiful Alphonsine – as she was then known – was a streetwalker in Paris. She worked her way up to the top of her “profession” exchanging her given name for a classier nom de guerre – Marie Duplessis. She had a delicate beauty and dressed with care and taste – which made her unique among her kind. A couple of her early patrons paid for her to have reading, dancing, and piano lessons. She was a quick study. Her clientele included a who's who of Parisian society, and among those she took without charge – her “amants de coeur” – “lovers of the heart” were Franz Liszt and a young dandy with a well-known name. She died a few weeks after her twenty-third birthday of “consumption” – what we now call tuberculosis. People still visit her grave.
The young dandy was Alexandre Dumas fils, whose father, the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was about as famous as anyone could be in those days. Young Alexandre decided to write a novel about his affair with Marie. The Lady of the Camellias was published shortly after her death.
How much of it was “true”? Ah, there's the rub.
He named the young hero, Armand Duval – notice the initials. But unlike Alexandre, Armand was a country boy and his father the epitome of respectability. As for his lover, she was called Marguerite Gautier. Her physical description, mannerisms and clothing choices were pure Marie. Alexandre was later quoted as saying that some of the conversations were as he remembered them, but he also admitted he never loved Marie as Armand loved Marguerite. Perhaps he simply couldn't bear to admit it. After all, the lady was no lady. There is no evidence Marie ever gave up a lover to protect a family from scandal although there is some conjecture she may have been paid off a time or two.
But people prefer myth to sordid reality, and the book – the tragic story of lovers torn apart by the dictates of society, and then by death, the noble suffering of the heroine, her redemption through the power of love, the heartbroken regret of her lover – all this made great fiction. Add to that the veneer of “truth” – the glamour of celebrity and the idea that this must have been as it really happened, and voila a bestseller is born.
Dumas fils turned his book into the play we now know simply as Camille. Sarah Bernhardt toured in it for years, and there were film versions before there was sound. But what really secured its place as legend was the opera. Verdi's La Traviata tells the same story although the fictional names were changed to make them both Italian and more musical. The pure emotion of the operatic form deepened the tale. It was no longer just a weepy love story. It became the love story – a chronicle of love, death and redemption. Violetta – as she was now called, died for all of us.
Even if you've never heard the opera, or seen the Garbo film, you're familiar with some version. Pretty Woman has a happy ending, but it's also the story of an independent but good-hearted hooker who can be dressed-up and presented as a lady. When Edward takes Vivienne to the opera, it's La Traviata they see. Moulin Rouge, with Nicole Kidman as Satine, was another take. Even Love Story bore a resemblance – while the strong-willed Jenny was not a whore, Oliver's father tried to break them up because he thought her too low-class for his son, and she also died young.
If you read The Lady of the Camellias, even in clunky older translations, there's a sense of irony about the heroine that feels very modern. She's aware of who she is and the absurdity of her situation – all those men, all that money! She's funny and she's tragic. She doesn't expect love to last or believe herself worthy of it. She knows she'll die young and that her affair with Armand will end before her premature death.
All that seems in line and true to the little we know of Marie Duplessis. She didn't leave many letters. There were no diaries, and she often told different versions of events to different people. One of the quotes attributed to her is, “Lying keeps my teeth white.
So what would she have made of her posthumous fame?
Would it have amused her? Would she have been angry at Alexandre, who could not love her in life, but created a fantasy of her after her death? And what would Marie, an opera fan, have made of Verdi's masterpiece?
I desperately wanted to know. I suppose I could have held a séance, but I doubt she'd want to be disturbed by my questions. The best method I have for channeling the dead is writing. I thought of creating an historical novel, maybe in the form of a hidden diary, give the characters back their “real names” and write about her affairs from her point of view. But I didn't only want to know what “really” happened back in the 1800's. I wanted to put Marie into the world in which we live now. Other than time travel, there was only way I could come up with to make that happen. Reader, I vamped her.
Some might find the premise of my novel, Blood Diva, gimmicky. I know it's not the first time a historical figure has gone fictionally vampire, but my intent was not simply to retell Camille with a blood-sucking twist. I wanted to bring the character to life in a fresh way, and to watch Marie/Alphonsine/Camille interact with her own myth. I realize opera fans are few, and even with TCM, most people alive couldn't pick out a photo of Garbo, let alone recognize a portrait of Marie Duplessis. Yet, I hope that the book is good enough to make Marie a shared obsession for at least a few new to her.