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The Girl Who Loved Camellias

Julie Kavanagh

You may not know the name Marie Duplessis, but odds are you know some stories about her. She inspired a French novel, which was turned into a successful play, several movies (including one starring Greta Garbo), a ballet and, most famously, a great Italian opera — La Traviata.

Duplessis was a famous 19th-century Parisian courtesan known for her relationships with prestigious men. But she tragically died of tuberculosis at 23. In The Girl Who Loved Camellias, journalist Julie Kavanagh tells the true story of the girl who captured so many imaginations.

From the author of Nureyev, the definitive biography of the celebrated Russian dancer, now comes the astonishing and unknown story of Marie Duplessis, the courtesan who inspired Alexandre Dumas fils’s novel and play La dame aux camélias, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata, George Cukor’s film Camille, and Frederick Ashton’s ballet Marguerite and Armand. Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, Greta Garbo, Isabelle Huppert, Maria Callas, Anna Netrebko, and Margot Fonteyn are just a few of the celebrated actors, singers, and dancers who have portrayed her.

Drawing on new research, Julie Kavanagh brilliantly re-creates the short, intense, and passionate life of the tall, pale, slender girl who at thirteen fled her brute of a father and Normandy to go to Paris, where she would become one of the grand courtesans of the 1840s. France’s national treasure, Alexandre Dumas père, was intrigued by her, his son became her lover, and Franz Liszt, too, fell under her spell. Quick to adapt an aristocratic mien, with elegant clothes, a coach, and a grand apartment, she entertained a salon of dandies, writers, and artists. Fascinating to both men and women, Marie, with her stylish outfits and signature camellias, was always a subject of great interest at the opera or at the Café de Paris, where she sat at the table of the director of the Paris Opéra, along with the director of the Théâtre Variétés, the infamous dancer Lola Montez, and others. Her early death at age twenty-three from tuberculosis created an outpouring of sympathy, noted by Charles Dickens, who wrote in February 1847: “For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers. Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important, the romantic death of one of the glories of the demi-monde, the beautiful, the famous Marie Duplessis.”

With The Girl Who Loved Camellias, Kavanagh has written a compelling and poignant life of a nineteenth-century muse whose independent and modern spirit has timeless appeal.

About the author:
Julie Kavanagh is the author of Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton and Nureyev. She was trained as a dancer at the Royal Ballet Junior School, graduated from Oxford, and has been the arts editor of Harpers & Queen, a dance critic at The Spectator, and London editor of both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. She is currently a writer and contributing editor for The Economist’s cultural magazine, Intelligent Life.

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