Again, this is just a glimpse of the Panthéon of flatlined superstardom residing in the cemeteries of Paris. Montmartre is my chosen celeb-spotting mud club this time round and I’ve kept it an all-female cast as the women I’ve read about here are all innovators who successfully bucked the gender roles of their times.
Nadia and Lili Boulanger
In a time when famous sisters were known for their remarkable talents and their magnanimity as opposed to having a big behind or a small dog, the Boulanger sisters, Nadia and Lili reigned supreme as musicians and composers as well as benefactors of wounded soldiers.
Granddaughter of a Russian Princess herself, invited to The White House by the Kennedys, requested to compose their wedding music by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, you will not find a more talented or admired woman than Nadia Boulanger. She was a composer and a teacher to all comers from great musicians to wealthy dilettantes as well as talented youth and competed for the prestigious ‘Prix de Rome’ of music.
Her sister Lili, a fellow composer, also competed for the ‘Prix de Rome’. She died at only 24 but was so well-loved, the asteroid, ‘1181 Lilith’, is named after her. Nadia carried on her legacy performing their music around the world and teaching at the likes of the Juilliard and Yehudi Menuhin music schools eventually even recording at the BBC before passing away at the age of 92. In wartime, she ran a program to help wounded soldier musicians and her musical legacy is said to have influenced modern composers such as Philip Glass and Quincy Jones.
Despite being a female innovator, however, she was controversially counter-feminist advocating a traditional role for women and rejected the vote stating women “lacked the necessary political sophistication”.
Maria Deraismes, on the other hand, was a feminist pioneer and suffragette having run for political office two years before Nadia Boulanger was born. Sixteen years earlier she founded her own feminist association and was initiated as a Freemason three years prior to running, when women in Freemasonry was almost unheard of.
She was fortunate in that her pioneering father insisted she have the very best of education and became reknowned from a young age as an excellent orator as well as writer, her most publicised stand being against the Catholic dogma of ‘original sin’, stating, “It is time humanity freed itself from this ancient curse and rejected it like a malevolent fairy tale”.
In Paris’ 17th arondissement (not far from Montmartre Cemetery) a street named after her runs to the Square Des Epinettes where her statue (sculpted by Louis Ernest Barrias, who has works in the Musée d’Orsay, place Victor Hugo and other French cities) stands, despite having been melted down for weapons metals by the Germans in WWII. It was restored in 1983.
Marie Duplessis was the celebrity courtesan who had inspired Alexandre Dumas the younger to write, ‘La Dame Aux Camelias’, the novel which made her famous. Dumas later converted it to the play which inspired Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ and amongst her lovers was Franz Liszt, the original rockstar playboy who was so tamed by her wit and beauty he asked her to come and live with him. Greta Garbo even played her in the film ‘Camelia’, said to be among her finest work.
She was born amongst us common folk but by the time of her death at the age of only 23 years old she had opened a salon to which the most fashionable men of Paris flocked to hear her speak and bask in her legendary beauty. By her deathbed stood both a French and a Swedish Count, to one of whom she had been married. Conflicting accounts dispute the other’s role as either former lover or husband like his fellow bedside Count. In either case, their devotion is undisputed.
Her funeral was attended by hundreds and upon her death, her possessions were sold off to pay her debts. I would like to think she lived a life carefree of expense, choosing to burn brightly rather than fade away. Her legacy, in any case, is timeless.