Personally I know nothing about sex because I have always been married.
ZSA ZSA GABOR
Sex is the most natural but least straightforward of all human urges. It fascinates and repels us, and it’s the ultimate leveler. Rich or poor, prince or plumber, saint or private equity fund manager, we all got here because somebody, somewhere, had sex with someone else. Yet human sexual activity takes up less of our time than eating, sleeping, watching television, or even choosing what clothes we wear in the morning. Of the twenty-five years the average couple spends in bed, only two months are spent making love. And despite what you read in the papers, we don’t think about it all the time, either. The cliché about men’s minds straying to sex every seven seconds is pure invention. The Kinsey Institute found that almost half the men they survey think about sex only once or twice a week.
This was not the case with Giacomo Casanova (1725–98). His twelve volumes of memoirs, The Story of My Life, are a 3,600-page catalog of debauchery and sexual conquest. They are in French, which Casanova thought more sophisticated than his native Italian, and were not published in full until 1960. They record each significant moment in Casanova’s life up until the summer of 1774 (when he was forty-nine), at which point the narrative stops in mid-sentence. The author was then in his sixties, a washed-up, impotent, pox-raddled librarian in an obscure Bohemian castle. Bored out of his mind, he began to write as “the only remedy to keep from going mad or dying of grief.”
Giacomo Casanova was born in Venice. His father, Gaetano, was an actor. Even in the most licentious city in Europe, infamous for gambling, prostitution, and its wild abandoned carnival, acting was a low calling, scarcely better than burglary. When Gaetano Casanova married Zanetta Farussi, her father, a humble shoemaker, died of shame (or so they said) within a month of the wedding. His son wasn’t proud of him, either. His memoirs begin with a tortuous attempt to make up for it by proving that his father was the descendant of a Spanish nobleman, tracing the family tree back three centuries, only to conclude that his real father wasn’t Gaetano at all, but an aristocratic theatre owner called Michele Grimani. Casanova’s mother, “beautiful as the sunlight,” was a flirt of epic proportions: Alternative paternities have been suggested for all six of her children. Casanova’s lifelong anxiety over his legitimacy would drive him to create an ideal self—the suave, witty, patrician libertine of legend—but that’s not how it began.
As a boy, Giacomo had “an air of madness” about him. His mouth hung open slackly and he had a perpetual nosebleed:
My illness made me a gloomy child, and not the least bit amusing. Everyone felt sorry for me and left me in peace; they thought my time on earth would be brief. My father and mother never spoke to me at all.
Luckily for Giacomo, he had Marzia, an Italian grandmother straight from central casting. She bossed, bullied, and fussed over him, took him to see a witch to try to sort out his nose, and then, with the help of the abbé Grimani (the brother of his true father), arranged for him, aged nine, to be privately educated in Padua. He spent some miserable months starving in a rat- and flea-infested boardinghouse, but Marzia came to the rescue, traveling to Padua herself, tearing a strip off his sadistic Croatian landlady, and transferring him to the family home of his young tutor, the abbé Gozzi. Giacomo proved himself an excellent student and was soon outpointing his teacher in theological discussions. Extracurricular activities were also on offer. The priest’s teenage sister, Bettina, seduced him, inflaming his ardor one morning by washing his thighs, using the flimsy excuse that she wanted him to try on a new pair of white stockings. As Casanova recalled, she “struck the first sparks of a passion that was to become the dominant one in my heart.” The eleven-year-old Giacomo quickly lost control (“the sweet pleasure her curiosity caused in me did not cease until it could increase no more”) and then tormented himself, wondering if, after this terrible crime, he should offer to marry her. But Bettina had already turned her attention elsewhere, to older boys—teaching Giacomo another, less enjoyable lesson: After love comes melancholy.
For the next four decades, Casanova devoted himself to the pursuit of pleasure and a lavish lifestyle. His working life, by contrast, was chaotic. He graduated from Padua University as a lawyer but felt an “unconquerable aversion” to the legal profession. Instead, he took holy orders. This started well. He landed a job working for a powerful cardinal in Rome, where he met the pope and persuaded him to allow him access to “forbidden books” and grant him special dispensation to eat meat on “fish only” days (on the grounds that fish “inflamed” his eyes). After being caught in a three-in-a-bed romp with two sisters and then arrested for gambling debts, he left the Church in a hurry, though a distinctly ecclesiastical flavor lingers on in the records of his romantic encounters (he “approaches the altar frieze,” “performs the gentle sacrifice,” and on one occasion “reaches the porch of the temple, without gaining free entrance to the sanctuary”). Casanova’s next temping job was as an officer in the Venetian army. Initially attracted by the smart uniforms, he almost immediately got bored with the repetitiveness of military life, so he had a stab at being a theater violinist, followed by trying his hand as secretary to a Venetian senator. And so it went on. Casanova’s charm and intelligence would get him work, after which he would be distracted by women, rack up huge gambling debts, and be forced to flee from his creditors. His story reads like half a dozen airport thrillers with the pages shuffled and put back together in the wrong order. He was a diplomat, mathematician, spy, alchemist, Freemason, card sharp, magician, entrepreneur, faith healer, actor, playwright, duelist, lawyer, physician, and finally, librarian. Fluent in Italian, French, Latin, and Greek, with a smattering of German, English, and Russian, he traveled some forty thousand miles and negotiated his way in twenty-seven different currencies. Work, for Casanova, was only about status: He would do anything for anyone, in any country, as long as it allowed him freedom and the semblance of wealth and influence. Throughout his life, most of his “income” came from gifts. When he needed serious money, he gambled:
Why did I gamble when I felt the losses so keenly? What made me gamble was avarice. I loved to spend, and my heart bled when I could not do it with money won at cards.
And he was good. Over the period covered by his memoirs, his winnings came to more than $11.7 million in modern terms, with his losses running at less than a million. The low boredom threshold he exhibited when trying to hold down a job never affected him at the card table. One marathon session of piquet lasted for forty-two hours without a break.
But gambling, however addictive he found it, was always a means to an end—and the end, with Casanova, was always a woman. “Love is three quarters curiosity,” he wrote—and his was insatiable: any woman, under any circumstance, was fair game. Tall and skinny with a beaked nose, bulbous eyes, and heavy eyebrows, he was not classically handsome, but it was his unshakable conviction that he—or indeed any man—could seduce any woman if she felt herself the sole object of his undivided attention. “I don’t conquer, I submit,” he explained. Women trusted him and he was an appreciative and considerate lover. He liked to give them pleasure and even practiced safe sex, using a variety of condoms made from sheeps’ intestines and linen or—if all else failed—half a lemon inserted as a kind of improvised diaphragm. His list of conquests is surprisingly modest given his reputation: He slept with perhaps no more than 140 women (a total trounced by Byron, when he lived in Venice, in just two years). On the other hand, it was enough to give him gonorrhea at least eleven times, and when he died in 1798, it was from a bladder complaint probably caused by repeated venereal infections.
The detail and humor of Casanova’s memoirs make for a compelling read. He relates that he lost his virginity to two sisters and that their lovemaking was punctuated by an impromptu dinner of bread and cheese. Falling for a castrato singer called Bellino, and convinced she was a woman in disguise, he groped her crotch, only to find an unmistakable bulge. Indefatigable as ever, he reasoned this must be a “monstrous clitoris,” and his persistence paid off. “Bellino” was indeed a woman called Teresa, who wore a false phallus to get around the papal ban on women singing in church choirs. Needless to say, she became his mistress. In Venice, he enjoyed a ménage à trois with the French ambassador and a nun. He nearly seduced a beautiful young woman who turned out to be his own daughter by a former lover. A few years later, they met again and this time he deliberately seduced her and slept with her and her mother simultaneously. Untroubled by shame, he also bedded his niece, encouraged a twelve-year-old novice nun to fellate him through a grill, and seduced all five daughters from one family in exchange for rescuing their parents from ruin. But he didn’t get it all his own way. In London a courtesan called Marianne Charpillon refused to go to bed with him and then stole all his money. He was so upset by this that he decided to kill himself by jumping into the Thames, and only stopped when a friend persuaded him to go to a pub and get drunk instead. To get revenge, he trained a parrot to recite: “Miss Charpillon is more of a whore than her mother.” This so enraged Miss Charpillon that she took legal advice on whether she could sue a parrot for libel.
Casanova had better luck with the Marquise d’Urfé, one of the richest women in Paris, who was impressed by his deep knowledge of the Kabbalah. He convinced her that he could help her be reincarnated and that part of the necessary ritual involved his having sex with her. The Marquise was so physically repulsive he had to fake two of his three orgasms. This wasn’t his usual problem—he was afflicted by premature ejaculation through most of his life—although he claimed he could make love at least six times a night with the help of a special concoction of chocolate and egg white. He also fixed the oyster’s reputation as an aphrodisiac, sometimes eating fifty for breakfast, declaring that the best sauce for an oyster was his lover’s saliva. A special treat was eating live bivalves off a girlfriend’s breasts.
In 1755 Casanova’s sexual intrigues, combined with his dabbling in banned Masonic rites and magic, earned him a five-year sentence in Venice’s Piombi prison. He stuck it out for nine months before escaping by breaking through the roof of his cell and walking out of the main gates when they were opened the next morning. Forced to seek exile in France, he came up with his greatest and most lucrative financial scam—inventing the French national lottery. Now in his midthirties, he enjoyed a brief spate of wealth and fame, styling himself the Chevalier de Seingalt (an entirely bogus title). He met—and was disappointed by—Voltaire, arguing with him over religion; he discussed powered flight with Benjamin Franklin and taxation policy with Frederick the Great; and made friends with Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s favorite librettist. (It seems likely that Da Ponte’s masterpiece, Don Giovanni, was based at least in some part on Casanova, who may even have contributed to the writing himself.)
Casanova’s own literary ambitions never quite came together until the very end of his life. He wrote forty-two books, including a history of Venetian government, a history of Poland, and a much-admired translation of Homer’s Iliad into modern Italian. He even produced a five-volume science-fiction novel, Isocameron, which predicted the motor car, the airplane, television, and many other inventions. His plays were performed across Europe but he was never in one place long enough to capitalize on his reputation. Fame, money, and love all had a way of deserting him. He never came close to getting married, although he did, in his late twenties, fall heavily for a young Frenchwoman called Henriette:
They who believe that a woman is incapable of making a man equally happy all the twenty-four hours of the day have never known an Henriette. The joy which flooded my soul was far greater when I conversed with her during the day than when I held her in my arms at night.
Henriette was smart and cultured as well as beautiful, and she seemed to sense Casanova was in the grip of a pathology he couldn’t control. She turned the tables on him, and stole away in the night, having scratched a message on his bedroom window with her diamond ring. It said, “You will forget Henriette, too.” She also slipped 500 gold louis into his jacket pocket (worth about $45,000 today): the perfect “thanks, but no thanks” gesture. She had his number: clever, charming, and expensive to run. Casanova was bereft and cheered himself up the only way he knew how: more travel, more women, and more gambling. It would be easy to argue that he squandered his talents and that but for his addiction to sex, he might have ended up, in some way, as one of the great men of his day. Surveying the wreckage at the end of his life, he fantasized about the different course he might have taken:
If I had married a woman intelligent enough to guide me, to rule me without my feeling that I was ruled, I should have taken good care of my money, I should have had children, and I should not be, as now I am, alone in the world and possessing nothing.
Anyone familiar with his effervescent memoirs will see this as self-pitying, self-indulgent humbug: Casanova got the life he wanted and the fate he deserved. As he sat in the castle at Dux in Bohemia, hunched over his manuscript in a drafty library, scribbling away for thirteen hours a day, he had come full circle. The nine-year-old boy who had watched his father die and kissed his beautiful mother good-bye was alone once more.
The chief business of my life has always been to indulge my senses; I never knew anything of greater importance. I felt myself born for the fair sex, and I have been loved by it as often and as much as I could.
Sex may not have made him happy, but it made him laugh and it made him famous, more famous than almost anyone else of his era.
In 1765 Casanova was granted an audience with Catherine the Great (1729–96). Both were in their prime: He was forty, she thirty-six. Here were two of the most famous sexual appetites of all time engaged in an animated discussion. What did they talk about? Bringing the Russian calendar into line with the rest of Europe is what. They clearly got on. He said of her that she “thoroughly understood the art of making herself loved. She was not beautiful, but yet she was sure of pleasing by her geniality and her wit.” She said of him that he was “not precisely handsome” but agreed to see him again and was obviously charmed. Their encounter ended with Casanova’s failure to persuade her either to reform the calendar or to introduce his lottery scheme. He praised her tact and judgment but ended with an arch (and somewhat ironic) aside to the reader, saying that, for all her greatness, “the moralist will always consider her, and rightly, as one of the most notable of dissolute women.”
Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, wasn’t Russian, wasn’t called Catherine, and hated being referred to as “the Great.” She was a Prussian aristocrat, born Sophie Frederica Auguste, Princess von Anhalt-Zerbst.
Almost three centuries after her death her name is still synonymous with wanton lust. Her notoriety is based on having had “legions” of lovers, combined with the entirely apocryphal story that she died while attempting to mate with a horse. In fact, her death was one of the least remarkable things to happen to her: She collapsed from a stroke while on the lavatory and died some hours afterward in bed. What she left behind her was a powerful, modernized Russian empire that made other European states nervous. Most of the rumors concerning her death were probably spread by her enemies, of which the post-Revolutionary French were the most prominent. Tales of sexual excess were the standard way of disparaging a powerful woman: The rumors about Queen Marie Antoinette’s sex life were even worse.
To get to the truth about Catherine we need to start with her very odd and unsatisfactory marriage to her cousin, the Grand Duke Peter of Holstein-Gottorp (1728–62), heir to the Russian throne. Badly disfigured by smallpox and physically quite weak, Peter preferred playing soldiers to managing affairs of state. His absorption in these games was total and he would change uniform up to twenty times a day while having mock battles with his valets, guards, and a selection of companion dwarfs. Catherine was expected to join in and often had to stand on guard as a sentry in the doorway between their two rooms when she was his fiancée. Peter had several other lovers, one of whom Catherine described as being as “discreet as a cannonball.” After their wedding in 1745 they moved into the Oranienbaum Palace on the Gulf of Finland, near St. Petersburg. Catherine realized the marriage was doomed from the start, writing in her journal that he was “unlovable” and telling herself “if you love him you will be the most wretched creature on earth.” Fortunately, the marriage wasn’t consummated for several years, and by the time it was, Catherine had already started on her own sequence of dashing lovers, beginning with a handsome chamberlain called Sergei Saltyov and a suave Polish nobleman, Stanislaw Poniatowski, whom she visited disguised as a man (Catherine later made him king of Poland). She insisted that her first son, Paul, was the result of her affair with Saltyov, though he was both physically and emotionally very like the Grand Duke Peter, a weak-willed bully who shared the older man’s love of dressing up. In an effort to stop his becoming an effeminate laughingstock like her husband, Catherine arranged for a young widow to instruct him in the art of love when he was fourteen.
In 1762, on the death of his mother, Grand Duke Peter became Emperor Peter III. He was a German, born in Kiel, and he hated Russians. At his mother’s funeral he disgraced himself by deliberately walking slowly so that the cortège drew ahead and then sprinting after it so that the elderly courtiers were left gasping for breath. Six months later, a group of Russian nobleman deposed him in a coup d’état, provoked by both his incompetence and his support for Prussia’s land claims in Poland. The feeble-minded Peter seemed quite happy to retire to his country palace with his mistress, and despite her own lack of Russian blood, Catherine was proclaimed Catherine II, Empress of All the Russias. She’d been careful not to implicate herself directly in the coup but she ordered that the victorious army be given free drinks in St. Petersburg, paying the bill herself. It came to more than 100,000 rubles (around $30 million today). Three days later, a young officer called Alexei Orlov assassinated Grand Duke Peter.
Orlov was the third of four brothers, the second of whom, Grigory, had been Catherine’s paramour since 1759 and was one of the leaders of the military coup. Historians generally exonerate Catherine from her husband’s murder, but she rewarded all four Orlovs by creating them counts, and Grigory got a palace in St. Petersburg as well. He had obvious attractions as a lover. He was a powerfully built guardsman who had been wounded several times on the battlefield and enjoyed bear hunting, cockfighting, and boxing. Catherine almost married him, but though they stayed friends, she decided he wasn’t up to the politics and she’d have more freedom as the dowager empress. In the meantime, she continued to enjoy the services of younger, physically impressive men. Perhaps the most important of these was General Grigori Potemkin, who remained a confidant and ally even after their love affair was over. They wrote to each other several times a day even when they were in the same building—she called him her “lion of the jungle,” “golden tiger,” “wolf,” and her “Cossack.” He called her “Sovereign Lady,” and occasionally “Little Mother” (Matrushka). After their affair, it was rumored that he acted as her bedroom adviser, choosing young men she would find suitably attractive and interesting. Catherine was sexually active until the end of her life: One of her last lovers was Prince Platon Zubov. He was only twenty-two, more than forty years her junior. She was devoted to him, referring to him as her “baby,” and telling everyone he was “the greatest genius Russia has ever known.” Under her patronage, he amassed great wealth and eventually succeeded Potemkin as governor general of New Russia, the newly conquered lands in what is now southern Ukraine.
What Zubov, Potemkin, and many of Catherine’s other partners shared was their capacity to engage her intellectually. She liked her boys beefy, but wit was much more important. Arriving in St. Petersburg as a teenager, she had been horrified by the ignorance and lack of education she found in royal circles: Almost half the courtiers were illiterate. In 1774 she was thrilled when the French philosopher Denis Diderot visited the city, feeding her mind with long discussions about science, art, and politics. He was equally delighted, describing her as having “the soul of Caesar with all the seductions of Cleopatra.”
Catherine’s active sex life was just one facet of her passionate and energetic personality. She could stay awake for twenty-four hours, working late into the night on state papers; she could ride a horse as well as most men; and she was both highly intelligent and creative, writing plays and corresponding with the great philosophers of the age of Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and d’Alembert, and incorporating their ideas into her Nakaz, or “Instruction” of 1767. Designed as a template for an enlightened monarchy, it anticipated many of the themes of the American constitution by twenty years. All men were equal before the law and the death penalty and torture were discouraged.
The same progressive attitude and openness to new ideas informed her personal life. As a strong, intelligent woman she was far ahead of her time in the ultraconservative backwater of Russian politics. In that chauvinistic world, a mere woman could not succeed on merit alone. Her enemies would destroy her reputation in any way they could, even if it meant claiming that she was so debauched that no man could fully satisfy her inhuman appetites.
If Catherine the Great sought out sex because she enjoyed it, Cora Pearl (1835–86) turned her sexual expertise into a business. One of the great Parisian courtesans of the 1860s (known collectively as les Grandes Horizontales), she called her succession of male friends “a golden chain.” They weren’t merely wealthy, they were prominent members of high society: Prince Wilhelm, heir to the Dutch throne; Prince Achille Murat, grandson of the king of Naples; the Duke of Rivoli; the Duke of Morny, half brother of the emperor Napoleon III; and the emperor’s cousin “Plon-Plon,” better known as Prince Napoleon. Showered with gifts from these wealthy lovers, Cora was able to buy two houses in Paris, keep sixty horses, and amass a collection of jewelry worth more than a million francs.
This darling of the French nobility was actually English, formerly Eliza Crouch of Plymouth. Daughter of the cellist and conductor Frederick Nicholls Crouch and Lydia Pearson, singer, when Eliza was ten her father deserted the family and emigrated to the United States, where he reputedly fathered another twenty offspring. Eliza never saw him again. Lydia remarried and moved to Guernsey, and Eliza was sent to a convent school in Boulogne, afterward returning to London to live with her grandmother. She was just nineteen when a man in the street accosted her, gave her gin, and took advantage of her. Too ashamed to go home, and completely distrustful of men, she began to earn her living as a prostitute. She befriended Robert Bignel, owner of the Argyle Dancing Rooms, where she plied her trade. He took her to France on holiday as his mistress, but she refused to return to England, throwing her passport on the fire so that he had no choice but to leave her behind. Adopting the name Cora Pearl (because she liked the sound of it), she set about acquiring a circle of wealthy admirers. There was no better place for that than Paris during the Second Empire. The city was the center of the civilized world, a nonstop succession of balls and parties where, as Alexandre Dumas filsdescribed it, “Women were luxuries for public consumption like hounds, horses and carriages.”
Cora, the Devon girl who spoke “Cockney French,” quickly turned herself into the most desirable woman in Paris. She wasn’t classically beautiful; one critic writing in the London Truth said she had “a round face, carroty hair, an unamiable temper, and a laugh which if bereft of jollity stretched her coarse mouth from ear to ear. That mouth was visibly formed to eat and drink, to talk slang and to swear.” But Cora’s red hair quickly became legendary, earning her the nickname “La Lune Rousse” (the Red Moon).* Plus she had an unblemished complexion and a body that was a “marvel of nature”: her breasts were accounted so perfect that plaster casts were taken of them to make bronze sculptures. She also gained a reputation for being life-changingly adventurous in bed; one of her (anonymous) admirers described her “as a specimen of another race, a bizarre and astonishing phenomenon.” It was rare to find a courtesan who loved sex as much as Cora did, and this added greatly to her mystique. If the appeal of undreamed-of sensuality wasn’t enough to ensnare a potential lover, Cora was also a consummate hostess.
Her parties were like no others in the city, a combination of lascivious cabaret and fine cuisine. As many as fifteen lucky gentlemen at a time would be invited to see her immersed in a bath of champagne, dancing naked on a bed of orchids, or served up for dinner on a silver platter, wearing nothing but a few sprigs of parsley. She wore shimmering body paint, covering herself in silver, stars, and pearls. She dyed her hair red, black, and blond, and transformed her eyes with brilliantly colored eye shadow and mascara. Once, she even dyed her dog blue to match an outfit (it died shortly afterward). She was bright, witty, outrageous, and reassuringly expensive. At her peak during the 1860s, she was burning through an income of 50,000 francs a month (equivalent to about $130,000 today), all of it provided by her “protectors,” most of them members of the French royal family. When the emperor’s half brother, the Duke of Morny, died, she took up with his cousin “Plon-Plon,” Prince Joseph Charles Bonaparte (1822–91), Napoleon’s nephew. In return for her exclusive attention, he gave her a mansion and the money to buy a large collection of racehorses, which she ran with English jockeys. As her reputation grew, women copied her style. At a dinner one night, she boasted that whatever she wore in public would be in the shops the next day. To prove her point, she took one of the gentlemen’s hats, crushed the brim, stuck an ostrich feather in the peak, and walked down the Bois de Boulogne. Sure enough, the next day, a copy of the ludicrous headgear was for sale in a fashionable boutique. Cora usually preferred something classier, and she helped establish the reputation of the English couturier Charles Worth, whose wincingly expensive dresses she bought by the armful. Through her patronage, he became one of Paris’s most celebrated designers and was the first one ever to sew a named label into an item of clothing.
In 1870 the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war brought all partying to an abrupt halt. The defeat of Napoleon III sent him and most of his family into exile, depriving Cora of her protectors. She went to London but her reputation got there first: She was snubbed by polite society and refused a room at the Grosvenor House Hotel. She returned to a very different Paris. To starve the city into submission, Prussian troops blockaded it for four months. Conditions deteriorated rapidly and the citizens were forced to eat rats, dogs, and horses. Even the animals at the city’s zoo weren’t spared: Restaurant menus survive that feature dishes made from elephants, camels, wolves, and bears. On January 25, 1871, Bismarck ordered the bombardment of Paris with heavy artillery, and three days later, it surrendered. Since the siege began, more than forty-seven thousand civilians had been killed or seriously wounded. By the end of May 1871 another thirty thousand had fallen in the street battles of the Paris Commune. The pleasure-seeking days of the Second Empire seemed a very distant memory.
Cora responded to this change in her fortunes in a surprisingly practical way, turning her large house into an impromptu hospital, tearing up bed linen to make bandages and making sure her patients were given the best possible care. This made a serious dent in her finances, but by early 1872 she had found a new admirer. Handsome, wealthy, and deeply unstable, Alexandre Duval was the son of a successful restaurateur. He fell in love with Cora, squandering the several million francs of his inheritance on her to prove his devotion. When bankrupt, and thus of limited value to Cora, he continued to stalk her, alternating between jealous rages and proposals of marriage. It all came to a head one afternoon when Duval arrived at Cora’s apartments on the rue Chaillot and begged to be allowed to stay. She ignored him and tucked herself up in bed. In the meantime, he shot himself in the chest on her doorstep.
Somehow he survived, but the story circulated that Cora had left him bleeding in the street and wouldn’t call for help. She countered that she had had no idea he’d used the gun on himself, protesting that he was always prone to exaggeration and melodramatic gesture, but the damage to her reputation was done. She was portrayed as cruel and heartless, and overnight she found herself persona non grata in Parisian society. She lay low in Monte Carlo, where she stayed with a friend until the scandal died down, but it quickly became clear that her career as a courtesan was over. Without a protector or an income, pursued by her creditors, she was forced to sell her houses and possessions and for the last ten years of her life lived as an itinerant gambler, drifting around the racetracks and casinos of Europe, rather like Casanova.
Unlike him, she didn’t have much luck, and by the time the French journalist Henri Rochford bumped into her in the early 1880s, she was an “ugly old wreck” who accosted him for racing tips. The woman whose beauty and wit had once brought in more than $1.5 million a year was reduced to playing roulette at the Monte Carlo casino—on the cheap tables where only 5-franc bets were allowed. One night, her former lover Alexandre Duval (now recovered and married to someone sensible chosen by his mother) was spotted at the next table, where the minimum bet was 100 francs. He did not even acknowledge her.
Just before her death from cancer in 1886, she published her memoirs in an attempt to make some money. They attracted disappointing reviews, largely because she refused to dish the dirt on her former lovers. The New York Times was typical: “One has only to read her book to see she has no wit at all. The volume makes no appeal to unhealthy curiosity. It is dull. The woman is not even malicious.” In fact, her memoirs, while not remotely in the league of those written by Casanova or Catherine the Great, have a warmth and honesty that is genuinely moving. The French novelist Zola portrayed her sympathetically in his novel Nana (1880).
Cora Pearl was only fifty-one when she died. She went peacefully and without bitterness.
I have had a happy life; I have squandered money enormously. I am far from posing as a victim; it would be ungrateful of me to do so. I ought to have saved, but saving is not easy in such a whirl of excitement as that in which I have lived. Between what one ought to do and what one does there is always a difference.
Cora would have got on well with the novelist and social commentator H. G. Wells (1866–1946). Wells liked to call himself “the Don Juan of the intelligentsia”: Even at the age of seventy-four, having lost all his teeth, he was proud that he could still enjoy the company of prostitutes. He once said that “to make love periodically, with some grace and pride and freshness, seems to be, for most of us, a necessary condition to efficient working.” If Cora turned sex into work, Wells turned to sex in order to work.
Wells inherited infidelity from his father, Joe, a nonchalant ladies’ man who supplemented the modest income he made in his china shop as a fast bowler for Kent: He had once taken four wickets in four balls against Sussex. His sporting career was permanently interrupted when he fell off a ladder and broke his thigh. The accident happened while he was helping a girlfriend climb over a wall one Sunday morning while his wife was at church. The service ended sooner than expected and Joe—pretending to prune a vine—was caught red-handed. Some years earlier, his son Bertie (never Herbert) had also broken his leg, aged seven. He always said this was the beginning of his love of books: His father brought him piles of them to read in bed while he recovered. When he was thirteen Wells wrote his first story, a comic strip called “The Desert Daisy,” but his literary ambitions were put on hold after his father’s accident. Never particularly well off, the loss of Joe’s cricketing income meant Bertie could no longer be sent to school at the Bromley Academy. To bring in money he was apprenticed at a draper’s shop, but was sacked for being too common, an experience he was to chronicle in his novel Kipps (1905) about a draper who comes into money and tries to mingle with the upper classes. Wells himself was more interested in mingling with women—lots of them.
During his two years as a draper, Wells showed extraordinary powers of self-discipline. He devoted every scrap of spare time to educating himself and was proud to say that during these years he never read a work of fiction or played a single game. His hard work paid off and he secured a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London, studying biology under the great T. H. Huxley. Dirt poor, shabbily dressed, and permanently hungry, Wells graduated with a degree in zoology, discovering the joys of English literature and socialism en route. He worked as a teacher, first at a boarding school in Wales and then in Kilburn, where his star pupil was A. A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh. While lodging with relatives, he fell in love with, and married, his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells. He was twenty-five and she was twenty-two. Until then, his only sexual experience had been with a prostitute several years earlier.
The newlyweds moved to Wandsworth, where Wells continued to teach, earning extra money by writing educational journalism and producing his Textbook of Biology, which stayed in print for thirty years. On the side, he was also making up for lost time in the sack. By 1894 the marriage was over. Wells moved in with, and then married, one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins, whom he called Jane. Although Wells wasn’t your typical Lothario—he was short and scrawny, with a limp mustache and a squeaky voice—he bubbled with ideas and self-confidence, and loved to talk, fixing people with his piercing blue eyes. He discovered that women found him irresistible.
His political awakening, his immersion in Darwinism, and his struggle to pull himself out of poverty led him to believe that love meant freedom from restraint and the judgment of others, and this could only be achieved if he had more than one sexual relationship. In Jane he found a woman who seemed happy to go along with this radical logic, allowing him to keep an apartment in town for assignations and to hang photographs of his lovers in the family home. She was even prepared to deal with the human fallout of Wells’s endless bacchanals, taking one of his spurned lovers, the Austrian journalist Hedwig Gatternigg, to a hospital after she had slashed her wrists outside his flat, distraught at the idea that he didn’t truly love her.
Wells’s health had troubled him since his time at the boarding school in North Wales. He had been aggressively fouled while playing soccer and, falling badly, had acquired a crushed kidney and hemorrhaged lung. The lung problems developed into a condition that his doctors suspected was tubercular and he wasn’t given long to live. This added urgency to his sexual conquests, but also gave him time while convalescing to begin writing the scientific romances for which he is still best known. In a tremendous four-year burst of creativity he produced The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). He founded modern science fiction at a stroke, marrying thrilling, apocalyptic stories with the latest scientific and political ideas. He would later come to disparage their popularity, but they propelled him to the front rank of English novelists and gave the couple much-needed financial security. Moving to the healthier air of Sandgate on the Kent coast, he discovered a thriving community of fellow writers, with whom he soon became good friends, including Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and George Bernard Shaw. He gradually got fitter and began a lifelong passion for cycling: “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race,” he wrote. By 1909 he felt well enough to reenter the intellectual ferment of London, and he, Jane, and their two boys, Gip and Frank, moved to 17 Church Row in Hampstead.
Wells’s “open marriage” scandalized literary London, but it worked for them. He called her “Bits” and “P.C.B.” (Phylum: Companion of the Bath). She called him “Bins” (short for husbinder) or “Mr. Binder” or sometimes “Pobble.” They communicated in “Picshuas”—little scrawled cartoons that caricatured incidents in their marriage and that, Wells said, “softened our relations to the pitch of making them tolerable.”
This childlike domestic contentment gave Wells a secure base from which to sally forth on his carnal adventures, to explore the “sexual imaginativeness” that Jane could not provide. His lovers included the birth-control campaigner Margaret Sanger and the novelists Dorothy Richardson and Elizabeth von Arnim. Richardson was a school friend of Jane’s and her underrated novel Pilgrimage (1915) invented the stream-of-consciousness technique that Virginia Woolf later made famous. It also contained a vivid portrait of life in the Wells household. An affair with Bertie, it appeared (rather as with Casanova), could be great fun and a tonic for the ego. Here he is writing to Margaret Sanger:
My plans in New York are ruled entirely by the wish to be with you as much as possible—& as much as possible without other people about. I don’t mind paying thousands of dollars if I can get that.
He added that she was, at all costs, to dress up in the “costume of a tropical island…. Everything else is secondary to this.”
In 1907 Wells addressed the Cambridge University Fabian Society, which had been founded the previous year by a sparkling young undergraduate called Amber Reeves. After the talk, Wells bundled her onto a train and took her to Paris for the weekend. She was, he wrote:
a girl of brilliant and precocious promise … a sharp, bright, Levantine face under a shock of very fine abundant black hair, a slender nimble body very much alive, and a quick greedy mind.
Two years later, she was pregnant with Bertie’s child. This dismayed her mother and father (they were friends of Wells’s), and the couple ran away to Le Touquet and tried to make a go of it. It lasted three months. Amber was lonely and depressed and Wells put her on a ferry back to England. There, she found comfort in the arms of a mutual friend, a young lawyer called George Rivers Blanco White, who gallantly married her before the child was born. Amber’s daughter, Anna-Jane, was eighteen before she found out that H. G. Wells was her real father.
In 1912 the precocious feminist journalist Rebecca West wrote a critical review of Wells’s novel Marriage, calling him an “old maid.” As we know, Wells liked spirited young women, so he (forty-six) invited her (twenty) to tea. She gave birth to his son Anthony in 1914, and the boy was told that Wells was his “uncle.” Anthony’s second name was “Panther,” the nickname Wells had used for Amber. (Amber had called him “Jaguar.”) Messy as all this sounds, it actually worked out quite well for everyone. In 1939 Amber wrote to Wells to say that neither she nor her daughter had ever, for a moment, felt “they were not worth the price.”
Wells visited Russia twice, in 1914 and 1920, and there he met and impressed the writer Maxim Gorky. Not everyone was so generous. After a brief meeting, Lenin called him “a dreadful bourgeois and a little philistine!” For his part, Wells disliked the cult of personality that surrounded Karl Marx, whose face loomed from every wall and bulletin board:
About two-thirds of the face of Marx is beard, a vast solemn woolly uneventful beard that must have made all normal exercise impossible. It is not the sort of beard that happens to a man, it is a beard cultivated, cherished, and thrust patriarchally upon the world. It is exactly like Das Kapital in its inane abundance, and the human part of the face looks over it owlishly as if it looked to see how the growth impressed mankind. I found the omnipresent images of that beard more and more irritating. A gnawing desire grew upon me to see Karl Marx shaved.
The highlight of the second trip for Wells was, true to form, the addition of a new lover. She was his interpreter, Baroness Moura Budberg (1892–1974). The Baroness had been married twice, first to the tsarist diplomat Count Johann Benckendorff and then, after he was shot by the revolutionary authorities in 1919, to Baron Nikolai von Budberg-Bönningshausen. She had also been the mistress (at different times) of Maxim Gorky (who had recommended her to Wells) and the British spy Sir R. H. Bruce Lockhart, author of the bestselling Memoirs of a Secret Agent (1932). Moura was known as the Mata Hari of Russia. Her MI5 file recorded “that she can drink an amazing quantity, mostly gin.” It was she who, as early as 1951, was to tip off MI6 that Sir Anthony Blunt was a communist, her other claim to distinction being that she was the great-aunt of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats. She was twenty-four years younger than H. G. Wells, but it was no casual fling. After the death of his wife, Jane, in 1927, Moura became Wells’s closest female friend and he would later confide: “She was the only woman I really loved.” Moura was equally smitten. When quizzed by Somerset Maugham on what she saw in “the paunchy, played-out writer,” Moura replied: “He smells of honey.”
If Wells showed no signs of slowing down in his personal life, this was matched by his phenomenal productivity as a writer. In a career spanning fifty years, he published more than 130 books. Instead of mellowing, his political and social philosophy got more extreme as he got older, and his later books alternate between a kind of Utopian authoritarianism (he was a keen supporter of eugenics) and muscular “we’re all doomed” pessimism. His finest work of nonfiction, The Outline of History (1920), became an international bestseller, describing the modern world as “a race between education and catastrophe.” Wells was a passionate advocate of world government and he knew his subject, interviewing both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lenin and Stalin. He rejected both communism and fascism from the start, and if few people now take his political philosophy seriously, the Nazis, at least, felt otherwise. Top of the blacklist of intellectuals to be liquidated after their planned invasion of Britain was the name H. G. Wells.
For all Wells’s talk of the Great Sexual Liberation and his socialist dislike for the bourgeois institution of wedlock, he was happily married for much of his life. The final volume of his Experiment in Autobiography was published in 1984, after the last of his lovers had died. In it, he admits that he often wanted to leave Jane and the drudgery of family life for one of his younger, eager-minded lovers, but he knew that she was a steadfast presence, a true friend that he couldn’t do without. This was not the case with the other women he had known: “The women I have kissed, solicited, embraced and lived with, have never entered intimately, and deeply into my emotional life.” Sex with his mistresses occupied “much the same place in my life that fly-fishing or golfing has in the life of many busy men.” This is hardly a mission statement for a new world order of sexual liberation; it sounds more like a man having his cake and eating it. Jane forgave Wells and put up with his philandering because it posed no real threat. The “World-Man,” the “hero of the future” always came home for the sympathy, support, and encouragement that only she could give him. As he himself once confessed:
I can’t bank on religion. God has no thighs and no life. When one calls to him in the silence of the night he doesn’t turn over and say, “What is the trouble, Dear?”
The story of the loyal wife making sacrifices to support the career and unruly appetites of a gifted husband is a familiar one. But what happens when the boot is on the other foot? What if Jane had written about the marriage instead of Bertie? Reading the work of Colette (1873–1954) is practically a rite of passage for adolescent girls in France. In more than fifty novels, she lays bare the ambiguities of female love with such acuity and startling originality that they make H. G. Wells’s social novels look like so much high-minded puffery. If a chap wants to understand women’s sexuality, Colette is the perfect place to start. She laid out her stall early on. While still a schoolgirl, she decided she would be known by her surname, as the boys were. None of her friends in Burgundy ever used her Christian names—Sidonie-Gabrielle—and she continued the habit when, aged twenty, she married Henri Gauthier-Villars. Fifteen years her senior and an art critic who dabbled in fiction, he saw at once that she was the better writer, encouraging her to produce a series of novels based on her character Claudine, and locking her in her room until she had produced the requisite number of pages. First published under his pen name, “Willy,” they were runaway bestsellers, titillating French society with their implied lesbian relationships among schoolgirls.
Willy had an adventurous sex life himself, openly bringing a succession of young lovers back home and giving Colette at least one dose of gonorrhea. She left him in 1906, earning her living as an actress, and she formed a close lesbian relationship with the aristocratic Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belboeuf, better known as Missy. Colette and Missy were a scandal. At performances of Rêve d’Egypte in 1907, there were riots when they bared their breasts and exchanged a kiss on stage. Fleeing Paris, Missy bought Colette a house in Brittany, where she could write after her divorce from Willy. (Willy, unfortunately, had kept the copyright to Colette’s early successes, and she needed an independent income.) Colette started writing a column for the daily newspaper Le Matin. Aged thirty-seven, she fell in love with twenty-four-year-old Auguste Heriot but abandoned him in 1912 to marry the editor of Le Matin, the wealthy Baron Henri de Jouvenel. He was to prove just as unfaithful as her first husband. In 1913 they had a daughter, Bel-Gazou, whom Colette referred to as “a rat.” Motherhood was not going to interrupt her career. “My strain of virility,” she wrote, “saved me from the danger which threatens the writer, elevated to a happy and tender parent, of becoming a mediocre author.” Bel-Gazou was left in the care of a nanny; it wasn’t unusual for Colette to pass six months without seeing her. At eight the child was sent to boarding school, and a friend of Colette’s revealed that “all weaknesses are forbidden her, above all asking for love….”
Henri de Jouvenel had a teenage son, Bertrand, who was sixteen in 1919 when Colette seduced him. To be fair to forty-nine-year-old Colette, she had initially hired two prostitutes to take his virginity, but he was unable to perform. Colette persevered and succeeded where the professionals had failed. Bertrand later described his stepmother as “demanding, voracious, expert and rewarding.” Colette, by her own account, remained in love with Bertrand’s father, but he was preoccupied with work and other mistresses. Eventually they divorced but she carried on living with her stepson lover, an affair that lasted until he was twenty-three. Colette had a savage perm and a face-lift in an effort to ward off old age—quite an experimental operation in the 1920s. She told a friend that the secret of life was to “content yourself with a passing temptation, and satisfy it. What more can one be sure of than that which one holds in one’s arms at that very moment?”
In 1935 she got married for the last time, to forty-five-year-old Maurice Goudeket. He soon ran out of money and before long he was selling secondhand washing machines and devices to unblock lavatories. Colette supported him with her royalties, and although he, too, took other lovers, he was jealous of any other men who paid her any attention right up until her death in 1954 at the age of eighty-one. His infidelities had never troubled Colette. She knew who was running the relationship. She understood that nothing sexual was ever straightforward, explaining to a friend that Maurice stayed with her because of her “male virility, which shocks him. When he sleeps with another woman he chooses one who is feminine, but he couldn’t actually live with a woman like that.”
For Marie Bonaparte (1882–1962) it was the lack of male virility that posed a problem—not hers, but her husband’s. Marie was the great-grand-niece of Napoleon, and the last of the Bonaparte line. Her marriage to Prince George of Greece connected her to the royal families of Denmark, Russia, and Great Britain (she was Prince Philip’s aunt). Prince George was tall, fair, and handsome, but he never even kissed Marie while they were engaged, something she put down to his chastity and good breeding. On her wedding night George could not perform and scurried off to his uncle Waldemar’s bedroom for a pep talk. Returning with instructions on how to consummate the marriage, he confessed, “I hate it as much as you do, but we must do it if we want to have children.” When they left for their honeymoon, Uncle Waldemar helpfully came with them, and George cried when he left three days later. He was soon back, though, and as it was clear she wasn’t going to be able to shake him off, Marie resolved to enjoy Uncle Waldemar’s company. He would kiss her passionately while George looked on. Marie sometimes joked that she had two husbands but that she thought of George more as a brother than a husband. When Marie was a teenager, she had had an affair with her father’s secretary, a man called Leandri, who then blackmailed her with the love letters she wrote to him. Undeterred by this unpromising start, Marie took numerous other lovers throughout her life, including the French prime minister Aristide Briand, although none of them was to bring her physical satisfaction.
As a young woman, Marie told her father, Prince Roland, that she wanted to train as a doctor, but he forbade it as an unseemly choice for an aristocratic woman. However, he permitted her to keep a human skeleton in her bedroom, so that she could study anatomy. This gave her nightmares, transforming in her dreams into a Hindu mummy that attacked her. Marie decided that the skeleton was a subconscious symbol for her dead mother, and that she must keep it in her room to force herself to conquer her terrors. Her neuroses multiplied: She had her bedroom curtains removed in case they harbored germs, and would not light a fire in case it sucked all the oxygen from the house.
Forbidden to become a doctor and fascinated by her inability to enjoy sex, Princess Marie formed the idea that she would become an expert on frigidity. Her father was bedridden for months before his death, and Marie sat with him, quietly reading books on psychology. Freud’s works particularly inspired her, and in 1924 she went to Vienna to be analyzed by the master, prior to becoming a psychoanalyst herself.
Freud had plenty of material to work with. Marie’s mother had died when she was a tiny baby and her childhood was lonely. Brought up by servants, she was kept away from other children because her grandmother, Princess Bonaparte, thought that having too many friends was common. Marie developed a range of phobias (including an irrational fear of buttons) and an unhealthy interest in reading anything she could about gruesome crimes, especially articles about Jack the Ripper’s victims and anarchists’ executing people with bombs. Her earliest memory of sexual pleasure was when her nursemaid sat her astride her foot and bounced her vigorously up and down but, as she explained to Freud, such pleasure eluded her as an adult. She wondered if this might have been caused by a repressed memory of her nursemaid having sex with a groom, but Freud suggested she was a lesbian, and that matters had been made worse because her husband was probably a homosexual. Marie became obsessed about her sexuality and even sought out the groom and asked him if it was possible that he had had sex in her presence when she was a small child. He confessed that it was.
In 1926, supposedly now sane, Marie cofounded the Société Psychoanalytique de Paris and started taking on her own patients. She had unusual methods. She crocheted while she listened, analyzed her patients in the garden, and sent splendid, chauffeur-driven cars to collect them. Sometimes she would take patients away with her when she went on holiday to Athens or Saint-Tropez. As a child, men in the Bois de Boulogne had frightened Marie by exposing themselves to her. Confronting her fears, she returned to the scene of the trauma on a regular basis. When a man did flash her, she would walk up to him, give him her card, and say, “Put that away, I’m not interested! But please come and see me tomorrow, I would like to talk to you.” When a senior Parisian academic came to her for analysis, she told him that his daughter’s phobia of touching the soap in the bath was related to her wish to massage his testicles. The professor was appalled and fled the room in horror, with Marie chasing him down the corridor, shouting, “But you cannot behave this way.”
One of Marie Bonaparte’s few practical achievements was to recruit 243 women and measure the distance between their clitoris and their vagina, concluding that if they were too far apart it would be impossible to achieve orgasm. Marie’s own anatomy convinced her that this was her problem, too, and she volunteered to have surgery to move her clitoris closer to her vagina. When it didn’t have any effect, she had it done again, but there was still no improvement.
Marie Bonaparte’s association with Sigmund Freud developed into a close friendship and when he fled Austria for England, she gave him financial assistance. They also collaborated professionally, and she respected his controversial belief that vaginal orgasms were superior and more natural than those involving the clitoris. She confessed to him that she had been tempted to commit incest with her son Peter, and took Freud’s advice not to try it. When she visited a rival analyst—with whom she also had an affair—she immediately confessed her “analytic infidelity” to Freud, and (when he gave his permission) she felt so guilty that she vomited. Marie and Freud shared a love of dogs, and she gave him a Chow as a present. She wrote four books about her own dog Topsy, another source of anxiety in her life: She lived in terror of the dog’s eventual death. She and Freud spent a lot of time analyzing the nature of interspecies love. Apart from her books about Topsy, she also published a study of female sexuality and a seven-hundred-page psychoanalytic interpretation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who Marie was convinced was a necrophiliac.
Marie continued as an analyst until her death in 1962. One of her last public duties was to represent her nephew, King Paul of Greece, at the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. She struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to her, offering to analyze him. He agreed and they spent the rest of the ceremony in deep conversation. His name was François Mitterrand, the future president of France. It was to Marie that Freud made one of his most famous pronouncements: “The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’ ” In 1920 the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi produced his own answer. Immortalizing Marie Bonaparte in sculpture, he unveiled his portrait of her at the Paris Salon. Titled Princess X, it consisted solely of a giant bronze phallus and testicles.
Brancusi’s sixteen-inch-long artwork would have been of great interest to the American academic Alfred Kinsey (1894–1955), who measured more than five thousand penises in his lifetime. Their dimensions appeared in his painstaking scientific study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). Dry and statistical in tone, and based on more than eighteen thousand intimate case histories, the book was distributed by a medical publishing house, which expected around five thousand sales. Instead, the book shot straight to the top of the bestseller list, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Buried in the text, for those who could be bothered, was every possible bizarre detail of how Americans had sex, how often, with whom or what, and which bits of their bodies were involved.
Kinsey took his inspiration from the pioneering sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), whose Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1921) helped establish sex as an appropriate subject for academic research. Ellis had coined the word homosexual and made his own (controversial) stab at answering Freud’s question by stating that “women’s brains are in a certain sense … in their wombs.” But the author himself was spectacularly unqualified in terms of his own experience. He was impotent until he was sixty years old, and it’s doubtful he ever consummated his marriage. His wife Edith used to refer to his penis as “the Holy Ghost” and wrote a novel about a woman married to a man made impotent after a mining accident. She conducted numerous lesbian relationships during their marriage. When Henry finally got the hang of sex (with the help of his younger lover, Françoise Delisle, after the death of his wife), he became quite addicted to it. Until then he much preferred masturbation. The thing he found most arousing was the sight of a woman urinating, something he put down to having seen his mother caught short in a London park as a child.
Kinsey, too, was something of a late starter in the bedroom, and also like Havelock Ellis, bore the scars of a deeply religious upbringing. He hated his childhood. The son of a carpenter, he grew up in extreme poverty, suffering from rickets, which gave him double curvature of the spine. He was frequently ill as a boy, and as well as suffering all the usual childhood diseases, he had rheumatic fever and typhoid. He was bullied at school because his clothes were so heavily darned. Like H. G. Wells, everyone was convinced that Alfred would die young, and because of his frequent absences from school through illness, he made very few friends. The abject poverty of his youth left him with a lifelong horror of debt and a furious hatred for the potato, which had often been the only food available when he was a boy.
His father, Alfred senior, was a religious zealot and a bully. Every Sunday, he dragged the family along to three interminable church services and Sunday school as well. On the Lord’s Day, no entertainment or activities of any kind were permitted, not even reading the paper. The milkman was forbidden to deliver milk and Mrs. Kinsey had to cook all of Sunday’s meals the day before. Alfred’s aunt was turned out of the family home for playing the piano on the Sabbath. Suspecting his neighbors of lax moral standards, Alfred’s father used his son as bait to see if shopkeepers would sell cigarettes to a minor. All references to sex were taboo, no adult was ever seen naked in the house, and Alfred was banned from seeing girls.
Kinsey finally escaped to study biology (against his father’s wishes). For the first twenty years of his scientific career there was nothing to suggest that this polite, shy man was going to unleash a sexual revolution. Instead, he forged a reputation as the world’s foremost expert on North American gall wasps. After earning a doctorate from Harvard, he traveled across the United States collecting three hundred thousand wasps from thirty-six states and posting them back to Boston. Many of these hatched before he got back, causing chaos in the postal service. Kinsey took twenty-six individual measurements on every single wasp, enabling him to identify seventy new species unknown to science. He always did everything obsessively—he collected irises and planted more than 250 species in his garden; he plaited homemade rugs twice as thick as anyone else’s; even as a Boy Scout he had amassed seven years’ worth of merit badges in just two. His talent for extreme detail and meticulous research stood him in good stead when he began to tire of wasps and take an interest in human beings.
Kinsey followed up his study of male sexual behavior with Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), which was also an immediate bestseller. Having grown up in a family where nudity was anathema and sex never mentioned, Kinsey realized many of his undergraduate students were as ill informed about their sexual needs as he was. He also came to see that repressed sexual urges were psychologically damaging. As in everything else he did, Kinsey’s attention to his subject was all-consuming. He regularly worked sixteen hours a day, which prompted his wife to remark dryly: “I hardly ever see Alfred at night anymore, now that he’s taken up sex.”
Kinsey’s crusade to rid the world of sexual ignorance started in his own bedroom. His marriage to Clara McMillen—always known as “Mac”—in 1921 wasn’t consummated for several months. This may have had something to do with his unusually large penis and her short stature, but they hardly gave themselves the best start. For their honeymoon they went on a grueling climbing expedition, and their first attempts at sex were on a mountainside in the middle of a storm. The gradual release of personal documents by the Kinsey Institute means we now know that the Kinseys’ marriage and sex life were liberated in a way that H. G. Wells could only dream of. They loved nudism and took their clothes off whenever they decently could. They operated a system of interacting open marriages with colleagues at the Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, which Kinsey had founded in 1947. He had casual affairs with many of his colleagues, male and female. Many of his staff had affairs with Clara. During a research trip to Chicago, he was delighted to find an outlet for his homosexual urges, and frequently went cottaging among the gay community there. Kinsey was particularly keen to get the man-on-man taboo out in the open, and when one of his assistants confessed that he had no experience of homosexuality, Kinsey said he could personally help him “tick that box.”
He also experimented with masochism, inserting objects into his urethra while masturbating, enjoying the pleasure and the pain equally. As this organ became less sensitive over the years, he started putting larger and larger things up it. By 1949 he was able to insert pencils into his penis and even a toothbrush, bristles first. He also tried self-piercing, which culminated with his successfully circumcising himself with a penknife in the bath. Kinsey was proud to call himself “unshockable.” As he was keen to drill into his researchers, the key thing was gathering data: “We are the recorders and reporters of facts—not the judges of the behaviors we describe.” The results were often controversial; he reported that almost half of American men had had a homosexual experience, that almost half of married men had committed adultery, and that a quarter of married women found their sex life unsatisfactory.
To Kinsey anything was “biologically normal” provided it was performed by a sizable number of people—or animals. He would have found the experiences of Casanova or Cora Pearl interesting but unremarkable. He once said that “the only unnatural sex act is one which you cannot perform.” This was mind-blowing stuff for the 1950s and ushered in attitudinal changes from which our society is still reeling. The modern view of sex—where masturbation isn’t evil or harmful, homosexuality is widespread, and enjoying sex doesn’t mean you are depraved—owes a huge amount to Kinsey’s work. By documenting behavior that many people at the time thought was “abnormal” and showing how widespread it actually was, he helped create a culture where sex could be seen as just another aspect of ordinary life.
Some people didn’t wait for Alfred Kinsey to come along to know they needn’t be ashamed of their sexual desires, among them the actress Tallulah Bankhead (1902–68), who bragged that she had more than five hundred lovers. When the Kinsey report was published, she’d seen it all before: “The good doctor’s clinical notes were old hat to me,” she remarked.
As a girl Tallulah was short and plump, weighing almost 150 pounds and just 5 feet 2 inches tall, but by the age of fifteen she had shed enough puppy fat to win a beauty contest in her hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. This encouraged her to head for New York to try her luck as an actress. She went on to appear in more than fifty plays and eighteen films, with her final appearance as a character called the Black Widow in a 1967 episode of Batman. Early on, she got a reputation for partying, and was a regular user of cocaine and marijuana. She was annoyed by what she saw as petit bourgeois fears about drug misuse, but chose humor to confront it: “Cocaine isn’t addictive,” she said, “I should know: I’ve been using it for years.” She was equally blasé about sex. She was once asked if it was true that she had been raped as a twelve-year-old on the drive of her father’s home. “Yes, it was awful, truly awful,” she said. “You see, we had so much gravel.”
Her early career on Broadway was a series of false starts, but in 1923 she came to London to appear in a play called The Dancers opposite the suave elder statesman of the West End stage, Gerald du Maurier. Her lustrous hair, husky voice, and exuberant cartwheels turned her into an overnight star. The writer and actor Emlyn Williams wrote that her voice “was steeped as deep in sex as the human voice can go without drowning.” Her most devoted fans were her Gallery Girls, a group of Cockney teenagers who cheered, stamped their feet, and threw flowers onto the stage whenever she said a line. The writer Arnold Bennett was dazzled:
Ordinary stars get “hands.” If Tallulah gets a “hand” it is not heard. What is heard is a terrific, wild, passionate, hysterical roar and shriek. Only the phrase of the Psalmist can describe it: “God is gone up with a shout.”
Winston Churchill was a regular at her shows and before long “to Tallulah” had become a verb. She told an American reporter: “Over here they like me to ‘Tallulah.’ You know—dance and sing and romp and fluff my hair and play reckless parts.” After a triumphant and extravagant eight years, she returned to the United States to be signed up by Paramount, which planned to make her “the new Dietrich.” They didn’t—they made a string of turkeys. There was something about the nature of film that failed to capture what made her so sexy and delicious in the flesh. She continued to make the occasional movie, but through the 1930s and 1940s, her best work was on Broadway.
Tallulah was bisexual but liked to joke that she couldn’t be a lesbian because “they have no sense of humor,” and she once let slip that she could never have an orgasm with anyone she was in love with. The only man she truly loved was an English aristocrat called Napier Sturt Alington, known as “Naps,” who was also bisexual. He married someone else, became a captain in the Royal Air Force, and died in Cairo on active service in 1940. Tallulah married only once, in 1937, to the bit-part actor John Emery. She told friends that she had chosen him because he was “hung like John Barrymore,” but later confided that “the weapon may be of admirable proportions but the shot is weak.” They never had children and were divorced after four years. When she was thirty, Tallulah had to have a hysterectomy brought on by a bad case of gonorrhea, an infection she blamed on going to bed with Gary Cooper. Leaving hospital in a very weakened condition, and having lost a lot of weight, she barked at her doctor, “Don’t for one minute think this has taught me a lesson!”
She was the mistress of the one-liner. When a former lover came up to her excitedly babbling that he hadn’t seen her for many years, she shot back: “I thought I told you to wait in the car.” Arranging an assignation, she scribbled a note: “I’ll come and make love to you at five o’clock. If I’m late start without me.” She talked nonstop: One of her friends followed her around for a day, timing her with a stopwatch, and estimated that she spoke seventy thousand words, the length of a short novel. As the Hollywood publicist Howard Ditz wearily remarked, “A day away from Tallulah is like a month in the country.” Sometimes her mouth got her into serious trouble. Speaking to a fan magazine in 1932, Tallulah confessed that she hadn’t had an affair for six months, adding, “Six months is a long, long while, I WANT A MAN!” This drew a sharp reprimand from Will Hays, Hollywood’s censor and moral guardian, for allowing a star to indulge in “verbal moral turpitude.”
Tallulah took her clothes off in public so often that her friend Estelle Winwood asked, “Why do you do that, Tallulah? You have such pretty frocks.” She was notorious for not wearing underwear, and delighted in showing off the fact to as many people as possible. When the film crew complained of her regular exposures on the set of Lifeboat in 1944, Alfred Hitchcock’s laconic reply was: “I don’t know whether that’s a concern for wardrobe or hairdressing.”
Interviewing Tallulah was never easy. When Time magazine tried it in 1948, their reporters came away bemused. She had played the piano, performed some ballet, told jokes, done impersonations, made them lunch, plied them with mint juleps, and talked without pause—accompanied by several dogs and her free-flying budgie, Gaylord, whom she had taught to drink champagne. (Luckily, by that time, she had got rid of her pet lion, Winston, and her chimp, King Kong.) As usual, her conversation was peppered with bon mots, which included, “I never think out anything, dahling; I do it instinctively or not at all. I do things I’d loathe in anybody else.” Trying to pinpoint her age, the reporters sought verification from her older sister, Eugenia, who sighed: “Every time Tallulah knocks a year off her age, I have to, too. I’m not sure how long I can keep it up.”
Success, as opposed to notoriety, returned to her life from two unexpected quarters. In 1950 she became the host of a weekly celebrity talk radio slot called The Big Show. It featured Tallulah reciting Dorothy Parker monologues, interviewing other stars, and introducing comic turns by the likes of Jimmy Durante and Groucho Marx. Held together by her unpredictable charm, it became an instant hit. Then two years later her autobiography Tallulah went straight to the top of the bestseller lists. She had recorded most of it on a tape recorder and it reads like one long, frank, funny, opinionated Tallulah monologue.
This welcome return to the limelight couldn’t mask her rapid descent into dependency on drink and sleeping pills. She recruited a bevy of young men as her assistants, calling them her “caddies.” Although they were usually gay, they often had to sleep in her bed because she was terrified of being alone. At night, one of her boys would tape her wrists together to stop her taking any more pills. Raddled, frequently irrational, her looks a grim parody of her former beauty, she still had her sense of humor. Not long before she died, a fan approached her and asked if she was Tallulah Bankhead. “Well, I’m what’s left of her, darling,” she replied.
Long after her death, declassified British government papers revealed that Miss Bankhead had been investigated by MI5 in the 1920s over allegations that she had corrupted the morals of pupils at Eton with indecent and unnatural acts. No conclusive proof was ever found.
If there is one thing this chapter does prove conclusively, especially in the work of Alfred Kinsey, it is that between the sheets at least, there is no such thing as normal. Or as Woody Allen put it, “Sex between a man and a woman can be a beautiful thing—provided you’re between the right man and the right woman.”
* Literally, “The Red (or Auburn) Moon,” from her round face and red hair, but it’s cleverer than that. In French La Lune Rousse also means “The April Moon,” one that coincides with the frosts that can destroy the shoots of young plants.