LA BELLE OTERO – cracked crystal

The kings of Europe, the presidents, the high and mighty, even the czar of Russia, looked upon her with lust.  Poets and playwrights became lyrical about her.  Two men duelled for her.  Two more committed suicide about her.  I speak of La Belle Otero, the first dancer of note to be filmed.  This was in 1889, five or six years after the medium of film appeared.  It gave her more of the star status that she already had.

La Belle Otero 1890

She was a product of the Belle Epoque, the time of peace and progress before the First World War, a time of sensuality, scandal and sumptuous behaviour, especially for the aristocracy of Europe.  And we don’t know that much about her, except that she was born in pinched poverty in the backstreets of Valga-Galicia, Spain.  One thing is certain:  she rose like a meteor with the talent she had into the limelight of the Folies Bègere in Paris.  Artists made posters featuring her.

Gypsy mystery


When a better offer beckoned, she made her way to the south of France to conquer the Côte d’Azur.  Her attractions became a fine art, both on and off stage.  Her unusually dark eyes and the smouldering gypsy passion made her irresistable.  She could choose.

But the crystal had a crack.  She could have no inhibitions because she was barren, having been raped as a child.  She could dish out her charms, when and where she pleased.

In her late-forties, at the end of the First World War, she withdrew from the wild side and, living in an expensive home in Monaco, took to the gambling tables.

I thought of her when I visited Monaco, curious to see the casino, and on raising my camera to take the finely-decorated arches of the foyer roof, was smartly shown the door.  I got the pic, though.  Did La Belle Otera haunt this place, here where many made and lost fortunes in the 150 years since Gustav Eiffel designed the building in 1860?

The Casino

The forbidden pic

As the trickle of her money became thinner, she left her luxurious home to stay in a second-rate hotel in Nice.  The bosses at the casino decided to award the lady a pension.  Quite rightly,  coming from them.

The star paled.  In the years that followed much has been written about her and in 1954 the film La Belle Otero was released with a Mexican actress in the main role.  After this the interest dimmed.  I saw some footage of the old woman moving carefully in the streets of Nice and I found it hard to picture the exotic creature that she had once been.  When she died in 1965 at the age of 97, Caroline Otero had long since been a fallen star.

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

July, 2017



Wikipedia:  la Belle Otero

Sites, France 2 television


Receuil des commémorations nationales 2015

La Bello Otero – Païva – Liane – de Pougy.  JDD papiere.

La Belle Otero home page  

Casino exterior, Casino interior – my photographs







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