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Authors: Betsy Prioleau

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Belles Laides:
Homely Sirens
Everyone will decidedly prefer and eagerly desire the most beautiful individuals.
Beauty’s the thing that counts in women; red lips and black eyes are better than brains.
The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty never.
The greatest treat for a connoisseur is
l’amour d’une laide.—WILHELM DINESEN
You don’t have to be born beautiful to be wildly attractive.
n the farewell dinner scene of Martin Scorsese’s
The Age of Innocence,
Michelle Pfeiffer reigns over the table like Aphrodite at a church potluck. Her lover, married to a homely socialite, devours her with his eyes and decompensates when she walks out of his life forever at the end. It’s just the opposite, however, in the novel. There the wife, not the other woman, is the picture-perfect beauty. On that final night the real Ellen Olenska looks old, ravaged, and “almost ugly,” but her adorer “had never loved her as he did at that minute.”
Such a role reversal profanes every romantic sanctity in our culture. It couldn’t be more obvious: Ugly women get the short straw in love. They’re the dogs, douche bags, gargoyles, and double baggers of comedy club fodder, a synonym for sexual revulsion and women’s worst fear. Wherever we turn we hear the stentorian voices of scientists and experts, insisting that beauty delivers the erotic goods, the hunks, and the homes in the Hamptons. Like it or not, biology decrees the survival of the prettiest, the girls with symmetrical baby faces and wolf whistle curves. As Nancy Etcoff and others warn, “If you’re unlovely, you’re unloved”; “in the sexual domain, the importance of looks cannot be overestimated.”
Actually they can and are. Despite the messianic cult of good looks, babes don’t have a corner on seduction. In fact, many of the most fascinating and successful seductresses in history were zeroes, with every defect from hooknoses, receding chins, and thin lips with overbites to big bottoms. Their cultures were not less beauty-fixated than our own, but they muscled out the pinups and won the choice men of their age. Although plain, there was nothing drab about them. The French call them
belles laides,
homely women whose charisma, fire, and charms of character transform them into beautiful sirens. They unsettle all our beauty dogmas and reveal an insidious truth: Love is nine-tenths imagination and has “no more to do with lovely than like with likely.”
Evolutionary psychologists argue that men choose comely blondes over plain Janes because our earliest ancestors sought the most reproductively fit breeders. But as prehistorians and scholars remind us, eroticism was “primarily a religious matter” to early mankind rather than a copulatory contest for hale offspring. Paleolithic peoples knew a pretty face when they saw one. The 36,000 B.C. Brassempouy Lady has the sweetheart features of a computer-generated FacePrint fantasy: symmetrical, wide-set doe eyes, short straight nose; and tiny jaw. Anthropologist H. R. Hays believes these people were probably a “very handsome” race.
But the objects of their sexual worship lacked any trace of conventional beauty. The relics recovered from temple sites are a lineup of malproportioned goddesses, symbolically distorted to proclaim their divine sex energy and cosmic grandeur. Buttocks balloon from stick torsos, mountainous breasts flop over Michelin Man bellies, and thunder thighs bracket vulvas the size of footballs.
By Neolithic times these idols had acquired faces, but they were grotesque snakes’ and birds’ heads that depicted the deity’s animal incarnations. If evolution decreed babes for transient impregnations, it decreed these “unshapely, weird,” and asymmetric goddesses for love objects. They, not pretty breeders, were the images that snared men’s hearts, fired their loins, and vaulted them to mystical union with the almighty. Nor has this primordial fascination disappeared; it persists underground in the collective unconscious, in folk tales and art, ready for access.
Belles laides,
then, slipped past the beauty screen and surprised men at the precivilized depths of the libido. They also laid the biggest mind trip. Without the standard attractions of looks, they sank their resources into the Seductive Way. Its ultimate test case, they prove, without question, the supremacy of lovecraft and disprove every canard about the natural triumph of artless blondes in romance. To replace beauty, they constructed characters, each of which bore an uncanny likeness to their mythic archetypes, the Neolithic beast goddesses.
Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1840-1924
The “Serpent of the Charles,” she stood at the top of a massive horseshoe staircase. Dressed in skintight black velvet, the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner, “the idol of men and envy of women,” presided over the 1903 gala opening of her museum palace, Fenway Court. It was a classic Isabella moment. One by one the august Boston Brahmins mounted the steep stairs and climbed down again to pay their respects. Waiters served champagne and doughnuts as the Boston Symphony played Mozart overtures. Then at the climax of the “party of the century” Isabella strode through the great hall with her entourage of “Museum Boys” and flung open the double doors. A collective gasp went up from the crowd. Inside they found a tropical wonder-land, a soaring three-story courtyard lit by the moon and red lanterns and filled with palms and statuary. The psychologist William James described it as a religious moment, a “gospel miracle.”
But it was a miracle from no Christian Gospel. Isabella Stewart Gardner loosed the pagan snake goddess into the Boston temple of high culture. An avatar of the Stone Age lunar serpent deity, she incarnated the disruptive, dynamic principle of life energy and creativity. She was, as her doctor noted, a mythic “corpse reviver”; she regenerated the dead. Like the earliest images of this divinity, she was nonpretty to an extreme. In an age that deified feminine pulchritude and preached that nothing was “more powerful . . . than personal beauty,” she looked painfully plain: a fisted-up simian face, asymmetric pale eyes, and a thin, downturned mouth. Her nickname, Belle, seemed a cruel joke.
Yet this homely woman with a sad-sack, lusterless face had a serious “way with men.” Not only did she hook Boston’s prize catch, Jack Gardner, who idolized her throughout their long marriage, but she attracted a permanent Praetorian guard of strapping bluebloods and prominent artists. Wherever she went, admirers swarmed around her, memorializing her in books and paintings and loading her with love tributes. “She throws out her lariat,” said a newspaper of her strange allure, “and drags after her chariot the brightest men in town, young and old, married and single.”
Besides virtuosic seductive arts, Belle’s secret weapon was her goddess-born vitality. “I may not be so beautiful as Diana,” boasts her alter ego in a novel, “but I am sure I am much more alive than she is.” Such raging high spirits did not make for a tranquil childhood. Despite her aristocratic pretensions, Belle came from a bourgeois Brooklyn family that made good in ironworks and lavished its newfound fortune on their only daughter. Her father’s favorite, she was indulged in all her whims—gymnastics, music, language, dance lessons, and “fine clothes.” Even so, she was an obstreperous rule breaker and troublemaker. She ran off to join the circus, walked home from church in her bare feet, and generally raised cain, roughhousing with boys and throwing temper tantrums.
By her teens she was a devil for men. She hit on her Italian professor and seduced one of the most sought-after undergraduates at Harvard. The rich, stunning Jack Gardner had never met anyone as plain as Belle when his sister introduced them in Paris. But he underestimated her “glorious vitality.” Before he knew it, she’d bewitched him with her quick movements and bright conversation and made him roar with laughter. Defying his family, he dropped out of Harvard and married her on the sly, an escapade later covered up by a full-dress wedding in 1860 and suppressed for generations.
Bringing Belle back to Boston was like introducing a bucking bronco into a Back Bay china shop. She systematically smashed every time-honored custom. She slept until ten, snubbed the sewing circle, and violated the sacred code of female immobility: She rode, swam, and worked out. More heinously, she claimed a room of her own and entertained gentleman callers at all hours, including a prizefighter just to “feel his flexed muscles.”
In this bastion of American prudery, she told off-color jokes in mixed company, smoked Turkish cigarettes, and brazenly flirted. She arrived at cotillions decked in corsages from admirers and hogged the floor, dancing in the center of the ballroom (a practice called chandeliering) with “all the festive stags.”
After the tragic death of her infant son she began the practice of biannual trips abroad. On these binges, her husband bought her whatever her heart desired: artworks, rare pearls (in a string that eventually hung to her waist), and a Worth wardrobe that included clingy black décolleté sheaths at a time when ladies wore cameo chokers and crinolines. Amid his wife’s flirtatious romps, Jack remained the smitten, faithful paladin. Only once did an extracurricular amour try his patience.
The man was “one of the handsomest men” on two continents, the novelist and bon vivant Francis Marion Crawford. Frank met Belle, thirteen years his senior, on an 1882 trip to Boston to find a wife, and ended up in her clutches for two years. In this liaison Belle deployed two other primordial lures of the Snake Goddess: intellect and mother love. At their daily tête-à-têtes in her “boudoir,” she talked literature and history and read Dante to him in her “musical, mellow voice.” Just as seductively, she encouraged his literary talents and nursed him through his first novel, which she bound in lavender and fastened with silver buckles.
Under the horrified gaze of Proper Boston, they rode out in public, monopolized each other at balls, and behaved like lovers. Very likely they were. They spent the summer together at her Beverly estate, made unchaperoned visits to New York, wore identical bracelets with erotic Italian mottoes, and destroyed their letters. Frank said his “only worth” was that “he loved her so dearly,” wrote sonnets to her “beauty,” and featured her in a novel as “the most charming woman in the world,” a plain, fiery seductress who plots to leave her husband for a dashing lover. Maybe they contemplated some such move.
In any event, Jack snapped out of his uxorious swoon and broke up the affair. This, though, seems to have been Gardner’s last stand as a dragon at the marital gate. Afterward he withdrew discreetly to the sidelines, content to plan Belle’s parties, provide her with jewels and affection, and fund her passions.
At midlife these took a fresh turn. Shedding and assuming identities like snakeskins, Belle moved from muse to genius and social anarch to a creator herself. America’s first “lady architect” and “proto-interior designer,” she designed not only a “startling,” award-winning garden in Beverly but an Italian palace that pioneered an entirely “new kind of museum in America.” At Fenway Court great paintings were hung for the first time in an intimate setting with fine furniture and decorative art amid connecting galleries, each with its distinct character.
With creative reciprocity, Belle continued to foster and promote other artists. Her intimate friend Henry James immortalized her as Isabel Archer in
Portrait of a Lady,
and painters Anders Zorn and John Singer Sargent did their best portraits of her. Sargent’s
Woman—An Enigma
captured all her erotic numinosity and created such a scandal it had to be removed from St. Botolph’s Club. Belle stands in a plunging gown before a gold mandala with a Mona Lisa half smile on her parted lips.
Unlike many plain-featured women who grow handsome in age, Belle deteriorated physically. “Battered, depleted, [and] disfigured,” she worsened the effect with a blond wig, pancake makeup, and bizarre costumes that included a pair of diamonds on long antennas that bobbed from her head. But she was still “the very incarnation of life” and catnip to men.
On her travels, flocks of liegemen succumbed to her “spell” and accompanied her everywhere. In Venice a blond artist-god squired her through the palazzi, and in Bombay seven men motored out to her ship with gold and silver gift baskets filled with chocolate Champagne bottles. At home she acquired so many devotees that wits called them the Isabella Club and the Museum Boys. An observer remembered seeing her in the center of a ballroom with “ten or a dozen of the leading male members of Boston society, just like flies around honey.” One wrote her: “I shall always worship you as . . . the most life-enhancing person, the most lovable person on earth.”
Time did not mellow this fractious “specimen of vital nature.” She promenaded down Beacon Street with a lion named Rex, appeared at a costume party in Persian dress on the back of an elephant, and barreled through town in her automobile, scattering terrified pedestrians and swearing like a stevedore in four languages. She championed tabooed causes—the gay and African American communities—and alone defended Karl Muck, the composer, against false charges of being a German spy.
BOOK: Seductress
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