Seductive Facts About La Paiva, The “Queen Of Kept Women”

July 27, 2023 | Dancy Mason

Seductive Facts About La Paiva, The “Queen Of Kept Women”

La Paiva’s beauty was legendary—but her irresistible looks hid a terrible darkness.

1. She Was The Most Famous Courtesan In Paris

In the Second Empire of France, there was no courtesan more powerful than La Paiva. Called “The queen of kept women,” La Paiva left scores of ruined men in her wake as she moved through the streets of Paris. Yet for all her ravishing looks, those who got closest to her knew the chilling truth: She was a monster inside.

From her surprising beginning to her disgusting end, this is the story of Paris’s most infamous courtesan.

la paiva

2. She Went From Rags To Riches

In many ways, La Paiva’s upbringing provided the blueprint for the courtesans that came after her—it was a dark Cinderella story. She was born in Moscow, Russia to a humble Jewish weaver and his wife, and originally went by the name Esther Lachmann. In other words, she came from nothing and rose to infamy.

Indeed, when she was just 17 years old, she made her first step into the demi-monde—just not in the usual way.

Photograph of Esther Lachmann - La PaivaUnknown author , Wikimedia Commons

3. She Married Young

As a teenager, the girl who would become La Paiva tried to embark on a quiet, domestic life when she married Antoine Villoing, a local tailor. She even had one son by him, also named Antoine. But the cracks began to show immediately. Recently, she had been showing signs of restlessness, taking on French affectations and making people call her “Thérèse” or “Blanche”.  Then, within a year of her son’s birth, she made a shocking decision.

B&W photo of Esther Lachmann La Païva looking at front., CC BY-SA 4.0 , Wikimedia Commons

4. She Abandoned Her Family

With her marriage still in the newlywed phase and her son still a newborn, La Paiva decided to travel through Europe and settle in Paris—without her husband or her baby. By now, she was utterly determined to achieve one goal: Become rich, no matter the cost and no matter the means. Her next act proved just how serious she was.

B&W photo of Esther Lachmann (La Paiva) looking front - circa 1850Фотография, Wikimedia Commons

5. She Turned To Dark Deeds

La Paiva had a shrewd head on her shoulders, and she knew if she wanted to make it in the Paris demi-monde—which she saw as her best way to get her coins—she had to, er, practice. She quickly lodged up in a maison de passe with other ladies and entertained a revolving door of men. Yet that wasn’t all she did.

B&W photo of Esther Lachmann wearing white dress and crown - circa 1870Фотография, Wikimedia Commons

6. She Was Utterly Cunning

At this time, the budding courtesan wasn’t merely spinning her wheels, waiting for a rich man to come scoop her up. Oh, no. According to her own account, she ruthlessly honed her skills and her ambitions during this time, performing reconnaissance on the best places to be seen and the best men to be seen with. It would soon pay off tenfold.

B&W photo of Esther Lachmann (La Païva) wearing black dress and hat looking at side - 1860Фотография, Wikimedia Commons

7. She Had A Strange Attraction

Despite her reputation as a seductress, people didn’t consider La Paiva conventionally beautiful. Her eyes were too large, and her nose—at least for the anti-Semitic sentiments of the time—was too pear-shaped. She did, however, have an ace up her sleeve. For the French, she perfectly embodied “belle-laide” or “ugly-beautiful,” and she was utterly captivating because of her unusual features.

So when she finally decided to make a move, the result was explosive.

Photograph of Esther Lachmann generally known as La Paîva - circa 1860Marie-Alexandre Alophe, Wikimedia Commons

8. She Bagged An Artist

In 1841, at 22 years old, La Paiva packed up her possessions, plus some borrowed gowns and paste jewelry, and took herself down to a spa town where wealthy men liked to congregate. While there, she hit the first of many jackpots. Henri Herz, a well-off and fashionable pianist, quickly fell in love with her and brought her back to Paris as his mistress.

It wasn’t all a fairy-tale, though.

Portrait of composer Henri Herz by Achille Devéria  - 1832Achille Devéria, Wikimedia Commons

9. The Royal Family Hated Her

Through Herz, La Paiva gained entry to the Bohemian world of artists, and she was no doubt hugely charming at their loose, debauched parties. Still, this wasn’t enough. La Paiva also wanted the aristocracy to accept her—but the noble court of King Louis-Philippe of France roundly turned her away from their ranks. Then again, she was still hiding a dark secret.

Painting of King Louis Philippe - 1838Louise Adélaïde Desnos, Wikimedia Commons

10. She Lived A Lie

While in Paris with Herz, she began going by the name “Madame Herz,” and he would often introduce her to society as his wife. The only problem? She was still married to her first husband, the tailor back in Moscow. So instead of a marriage certificate, she accepted an apartment and jewels from Herz. Yet as always, she wanted more.

She was about to bite off more than she could chew.

Henri Herz holding a paper and looking at front - 1830Pierre-Roch Vigneron, Wikimedia Commons

11. She Was A Bad Mother

Around 1847, years into her relationship with Herz, La Paiva got likely unwelcome news. She was pregnant again, and gave birth to a baby girl named Henriette. But, just as with her first child, La Paiva wanted little to do with her daughter, and the girl’s paternal grandparents raised her instead.

No, this wasn’t the kind of “more” La Paiva was looking for. She wanted more money, more acceptance into aristocratic society, more for her. Herz tried to oblige—and this is where it all went sideways.

Photo of Unindentified woman and baby in her lap, - 1855.Insley Pacheco, Wikimedia Commons

12. She Made Extreme Demands

La Paiva was never shy about saying what drove her: money, money, money. Even so, her completely unfettered spending stunned Herz and drained his coffers down to almost nothing. In an attempt to keep the cash flow going, soon after their daughter was born he went to America to look at business opportunities and play some concerts.

When he did, everyone realized something was terribly, terribly wrong.

Poster of woman talking with a man wearing black suit - 1897Strobridge & Co. Lith. D.W. Truss & Co. , Picryl

13. She Drained Her Lover Dry

It’s silly and insidious to characterize all courtesans as blood-sucking vampires…but when it comes to La Paiva, the shoe fits. When Herz played those “please give me money” concerts, his desperation showed. People said the shows were full of “tameness and torpidity,” and it was clear he was exhausted from his years trying to provide for his demanding mistress. 

Back in Europe, though, La Paiva was putting on her own show.

B&W photo of Henri Herz, wearing black jacket and looking at camera - 1860Pierson & Mayer. Upload, stitch and restoration by Jebulon, Wikimedia Commons

14. She Made A Fatal Error

The courtesan no doubt knew of her partner’s financial woes, but she nonetheless treated his absence like an opportunity for an unchaperoned shopping spree. This time, though, it had grave consequences. His family, who had clearly never been fans, turned her out of the house, refused her any further financial aid, and all but ended their relationship.

Suddenly, La Paiva had nowhere to go…until a friend made a scandalous suggestion.

Print of Henri Herz, half-length portrait - 1849Popular Graphic Arts, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Got A New Target

One day, an acquaintance saw La Paiva’s desperation without Herz and told her she should stop trying to chase all these French men, and instead go to England to seek her fortune. As the woman put it, London was a "fairy-land in which noble strangers present beautiful women with £40,000 or £50,000 a year in pin-money”.

La Paiva hopped on practically the next ship over, dressed in gowns she had borrowed from others, and went right to Covent Garden. At this point, her true infamy began.

B&W photo of Floral Hall in Covent Garden (1850 - 1880)Rijksmuseum , Picryl

16. Her Little Black Book Grew

To say La Paiva was a hit with the London men would be a grave understatement; she was a total sensation. Her first conquest was Lord Edward Stanley, and her dalliance with him quickly opened up the bedroom doors of other rich men like the Duke of Guiche and the fabulously wealthy banker Adolphe Gaiffe.

La Paiva had finally made it in the demi-monde…but her antics from this time are downright chilling.

B&W print of Edward John Stanley looking a side - 1865William Walker, Wikimedia Commons

17. She Had Expensive Bedroom Tastes

La Paiva already had a reputation for being cold and calculating, and her bedroom habits were notorious. She had a commanding swagger to her seduction, once demanding of her banker Adolphe Gaiffe that if he wanted to have her, he had to take out 20 1000-franc banknotes and burn them, one by one, over the course of their 30 minutes in bed together. Then came the real twist.

Paint from couple from Victorian era seating outside on the bench and talking.Düsseldorfer Auktionshaus , Picryl

18. Her Lover Cheated Her

La Paiva was sharp, but Gaiffe was no naïve spring chicken either. After reportedly betting his buddies that he could get the famous courtesan in bed without paying, he secured counterfeit bills for this request. Even so, Gaiffe was apparently still so appalled at the idea, he couldn’t even burn the fake money—so an unknowing La Paiva took over for him.

Not that this would have bothered La Paiva much even if she had known. Her eyes were now on a much bigger prize.

B&W photo of Victorian era gentleman - 1905Cyrus Cuneo, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Found Her New Mark

After these game-changing months in London, scores of men in both the underworld and the aristocracy knew she was the courtesan to bed, and La Paiva took her show on the road. Once again favoring spa towns to set up her honey traps, she was in Baden when she met Albino Francisco de Araujo de Paiva, the scion to an enormous fortune. But there was a sticking point.

Bad Lausick Herrmannsbad - People,standing on the street talking - 1820Kurgeschichte Bad Lausick , Picryl

20. Her Lover Was A Fake

People often called Albino a Marquis or a Viscount—but the truth was much more scandalous. Whether La Paiva knew it or not, he was in fact merely a commoner whose merchant father built up the family wealth brick by brick. Still, his money was good enough for our girl. They soon struck up a relationship—and La Paiva got a stroke of luck.

Painting of couple walking of restaurant and talking  - 1850Sotheby's , Picryl

21. She Got A Lasting Nickname

In 1849, soon after La Paiva met her latest man, her tailor husband finally passed, leaving her as a free agent at long last. Learning her lesson from Henri Herz, she wasted little time making it official with Albino de Paiva, marrying him in 1851. It was, indeed, de Paiva who gave the courtesan her lasting nickname of “La Paiva”. As it turned out, that was about all he’d give her.

Portrait art painting man wearing black suit is taking with a woman in white dress - 1850Dorotheum , Picryl

22. She Wrote A Jaw-Dropping Letter

The very day after her wedding, the brand-new Madame de Paiva gave her husband a letter. Its contents were truly disturbing. In it, La Paiva ended their relationship on no uncertain terms, saying, "You have obtained the object of your desire and have succeeded in making me your wife. I, on the other hand, have acquired your name, and we can cry quits”.

It was coldness of the ninth degree, and it worked.

Painting of woman writing a letter and holding a envelope on her desk - 1887Nationalmuseum Stockholm , Picryl

23. She Banished Her Husband

The pair had been together for years at this point, but that made no difference to La Paiva’s cold heart. Even more surprisingly, whether out of shock or outrage, Albino did exactly as his wife asked. He quickly headed back to his native Portugal with his tail between his legs, licking his wounds all the way. Only, he had to endure one more indignity.

Man in black suit and hat is waiting on the beach by the ocean - 1850Museum of Fine Arts Boston , Picryl

24. She Got One Last Insult In

La Paiva knew exactly what she was doing when she split from her husband. See, she wasn’t entitled to just his name; their marriage contract also stated that she was entitled to tens of thousands of pounds in Albino’s securities, plus all the furnishings of their house. With no other recourse, the humiliated husband forked everything over.

La Paiva always came out on top in a breakup. She was about to rise even higher.

Portrait of a Gentleman in a Carriage wearing black suit and hat - circa 1850–60Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons

25. She Became The Toast Of Paris

With her second marriage under her belt, La Paiva began searching around for her next victim—uh, I mean man. The thing is, it was easy. Paris was now in the throes of the Second Empire, and tastes had shifted to include famous courtesans like La Paiva at the chicest parties. It was exactly where she had always wanted to be.

At one such party, La Paiva zeroed in on the industrialist Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck. Her pursuit was nothing short of genius.

Photo of Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck, 3rd husband of La Païva, wearing black suit looking at side - 1871.Hôtel La Païva, Wikimedia Commons

26. She Played A Cruel Game

While Donnersmarck was a ruddy-cheeked 22-year-old, La Paiva was well into her 30s now, with a lifetime of tradecraft behind her. Accordingly, she played him like a fiddle. Although she followed him across Europe, always happening to be at the same events, she pretended each time like she wasn’t really into him and it was all happenstance they kept seeing each other.

Warning: Do not try negging at home. But for La Paiva, it worked a charm.

Painting of woman wearing white dress standing in front of a mirror - circa 1825 - 1925Wikimedia Commons , Picryl

27. She Met Her Match

In truth, La Paiva couldn’t have picked a more perfect mark for her sugar daddy. A powerful-looking specimen, Donnersmarck loved to throw his money around lavishly, and made his mark on the world by speculating wildly and building up a stable of shady contacts. In other words, game recognized game. Soon, Donnersmarck had his own plan for La Paiva.

Photo of Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck looking at side - before 1917Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

28. She Won Her Prize

By the time they met again in Berlin, Donnersmarck only wanted La Paiva. He then made her an offer she couldn’t refuse—or at least, would never refuse. He said that if she became his mistress, he would share his immense wealth with her. The jewel-happy courtesan agreed, reportedly saying, “All my wishes have come to heel, like tame dogs!”

After this, her lifestyle got a serious and gaudy upgrade.

Painting of couple wearing white shirt and pink dress holding by hand - 1891Sotheby's , Picryl

29. She Lived In Luxury

Donnersmarck’s love language was obviously gift giving, and that suited La Paiva down to a tee. In 1866, he presented her with Hotel de la Paiva, a massive, gaudy, custom-built mansion. Its details were jaw-dropping. It had a yellow onyx staircase and a matching bathtub for the Madame—and the tales of her excess in this house are the stuff of legend.

B&W photo of front of the Hotel La Paiva - 1919Lansiaux, Charles Joseph Antoine (Aniche, 09–03–1855 - Paris, après 06–04–1939), photographe,, Wikimedia Commons

30. She Bathed In Strange Substances

In La Paiva’s yellow onyx bathtub had three jewel-encrusted taps, but only one of them was for water. In the others, the kept woman liked to keep milk and champagne, both of which she often bathed in. Indeed, she liked rose champagne so much, she often insisted that any guests to her spacious abode bring her a magnum of it as a gift.

At long last, the girl from the Moscow ghetto had finally arrived. She made sure everyone knew it.

Painting of woman seating in the bathtub - 1873 - 1874Wikimedia Commons , Picryl

31. She Loved Putting On A Show

With a house like that, it’s no wonder that La Paiva became one of the most celebrated hostesses of her day, and frequently held parties for luminaries like the French writers Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola. While performing these duties, La Paiva relished wowing her guests with her expensive spreads, often having out-of-season fruits even for January parties.

This very extravagance led to one famous moment.

Self-portrait of Émile Zola looking strait - 1902.Émile Zola, Wikimedia Commons

32. She Knew Her Worth, Literally

La Paiva was never shy about admitting how much she loved money, and one day she really let it all hang out. At one of incredible her gala evenings, she overheard two guests discussing how much she was worth, with one suggesting 10 million francs a year. Her response was legendary. The hostess butted in to say, "You must be mad. Ten millions?...Why my table alone costs me more than that”.

This brutal honesty about her avarice reared its head in other ways, too.

A painting - party at Esther Lachmann's mansion in Paris.Adolphe Joseph Thomas Monticelli, Wikimedia Commons

33. She Loved Her Jewels More Than Her Own Children

As La Paiva got richer and richer the longer she was Donnersmarck’s mistress, her jewelry collection—once consisting of fakes—grew to immense proportions. According to one commenter, she often wore two million francs’ worth of gems on her person. Even better, the courtesan liked to call her jewels “my children,” all while having abandoned her actual children long ago.

It was a very good life, and La Paiva was surely one of the most successful courtesans in history at this point. But then her old habits popped up…

Painting of woman's hands with jewels (close up) - circa 1700 -1900Wikimedia Commons , Picryl

34. She Wanted To Make It Official

As the 1870s and middle age approached, La Paiva grew tired of merely being Donnersmarck’s mistress, and pushed to become his wife. As always with her, there was a little problem. She was still married to Albino de Paiva. Still, for a woman of her means and ambitions, this was nothing. In the summer of 1871, La Paiva finally got what she wanted out of her ex-husband Albino: An annulment. And then her dreams came true.

Painting of woman wearing pink dress - 1883Wikimedia Commons , Picryl

35. She Got An Empress’s Bounty

La Paiva quickly locked down her long-time lover Donnersmarck, marrying him just two months after her annulment in Paris. Just in case you worried Donnersmarck’s funds were dwindling, he gifted his new bride with a triple-strand diamond necklace that had once belonged to Empress Eugenie of France.

For La Paiva, nothing could have been better. But there was an extreme dark side to her wedded bliss.  

B&W photo of Eugénie de Montijo wearing crown ,looking at side - 1862Sergei Luvovich Levitsky (Russian, 1819 - 1898, active Paris, France), Wikimedia Commons

36. She Drove Her Ex-Husband To The Brink

The next year after her marriage, as La Paiva was still basking in the honeymoon phase, horrific news came to her doorstep. Whether she cared or not, her ex-husband Albino had just killed himself. She was free once, for all, and permanently from their brief time together. But that wasn’t all.

Painting of a man wearing black suit and white shirt ,laying outside - 1840Gustave Courbet, Wikimedia Commons

37. She Was A Man-Eater

Disturbingly, La Paiva had a real, if indirect, hand in her ex-husband’s demise. He had likely never gotten over her betrayal, and he had certainly never recovered from her financially. After trying for years to replenish his coffers through bad gambling and worst investments, he had finally taken his own life.

It’s likely the cold La Paiva barely spared him a thought. But karma was coming for her.

Painting of Young Woman in front of a Mirror - 1630Wikimedia Commons , Picryl

38. She Didn’t Age Well

By the time La Paiva married Donnersmarck, she had already suffered a crushing blow. Namely, the years had been very unkind to her beauty, which had always been of a rare breed anyway. In response, the courtesan began powdering her face even more heavily than before in the hopes that it would make her look younger. It had a much different effect.

Painting of woman in front of a Mirror - 1904Wikimedia Commons , Picryl

39. She Looked Lifeless

In truth, La Paiva in her middle-aged years was a sight to behold—and not in a good way. At the age of 40, one commenter noted she was “painted and powdered like an old tightrope walker, [and] she has slept with everyone”. A decade later, two French diarists described in her visage “the terrible face of a painted [cadaver]”.

For the courtesan, there was perhaps nothing worse than her beauty fading. Even so, worse was on the way.

Image of woman using cosmetics - 1867J. Paul Getty Museum , Picryl

40. She Fell From Grace

Right around this time, a new order came into France. The Franco-Prussian war ignited anti-German sentiment, and many people began to look upon La Paiva and her Prussian spouse with suspicion. More than that, courtesans had also fallen out of favor again in French high society, and La Paiva’s Jewish origins had never made her popular.

It was a perfect storm, and it was heading right for her. , Picryl

41. The Public Booed Her

In 1871, the same year La Paiva made it official with Donnersmarck, her status plummeted in a brutal way. The public was so full of animosity toward her, they reportedly began hissing at her when she entered the opera house for a night of entertainment. The courtesan had gone from being the toast of the town to its scapegoat, right when her beauty was no longer her armor.

Then the vicious rumors really started.

Photo of Exterior of Paris Opera House - 1890Library of Congress , Picryl

42. The People Accused Her Of A Heinous Act

With her deep, rich networks across Europe and her Prussian husband, it wasn’t long before people were accusing La Paiva of being a German spy, planted in France to be a double agent. To be fair, the only flag she flew under was the gold standard—so if you paid her enough, I could see her engaging in a little betrayal.

It didn’t matter in the end, though, what the truth was. The people of France got their revenge.

B&W illustration of People on balconies in Paris - 1853Brown University Library , Picryl

43. She Ran Away

In 1877, La Paiva and Donnersmarck finally left hostile France to settle in a massive castle in Silesia, in what is now Poland. But according to rumors, they didn’t quite go willingly—people whispered that the government had  forced them to leave after suspecting them of espionage as well. It was a shameful end to her Paris life…but it got twistier.

Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck circa, Wikimedia Commons

44. The Rumors May Have Been True

During this time, the details of La Paiva’s life are extremely suspect. German politician Otto von Bismarck was fairly buddy-buddy with Donnersmarck, and after the couple decamped to Silesia, Bismarck sometimes had Donnersmarck perform under-the-table political and financial deals for him. So, you know, maybe the whole spy thing was true.

B&W photo of Otto Von Bismarck At His Desk - 1899Unknown author , Wikimedia Commons

45. We Don’t Know What She Looked Like

Despite her immense impact on French culture at the time, we don’t have a reliable likeness of La Paiva. There are only a few suspect portraits of her in existence, as well as some photographs that are tantalizingly vague about what she really looked like. In many ways, however, this is also part of her allure—she wasn’t easily imitated, after all.

A painting of a woman with her back turned - circa 1890-1899Wikimedia Commons ,Picryl

46. She Had “No Redeeming Feature”

In the end, La Paiva’s lasting legacy isn’t the scandal she caused as a courtesan during her heyday; it’s her utter ruthlessness when it came to getting what she wanted. One writer described her as the "one great courtesan who appears to have had no redeeming feature". Harsh, to be sure, but given her story, perhaps fair.

Painting of woman wearing red dress looking at side - 1905Wikimedia Commons , Picryl

47. She Ended With A Whimper, Not A Bang

For the next decade, La Paiva aged away from the prying eyes of Paris, locked in her Silesian castle. Even so, it was a happy life by many accounts, and her much-younger husband remained devoted to her even as she hit her 60s and her health began to fail. But when her end came on January 21,1884, it all took a dark turn.

Painting of woman wearing white dress and looking at mirror - circa 1880Wikimedia Commons ,Picryl

48. Her Husband Couldn’t Let Her Go

In the end, Donnersmarck’s devotion to his dearly departed wife turned very creepy. According to one report, he refused to bury her, since that would mean admitting she was really gone. Instead, he had someone inject her with embalming fluid, preserving her beauty for all time. Yes, that’s disturbing…but you haven’t seen anything yet.

B&W photo of Guido von Donnersmarck looking at camera.Erdmando, CC BY-SA 4.0 , Wikimedia Commons

49. He Kept Her In The Attic

It wasn’t just that Donnersmarck insisted on embalming La Paiva’s body, it was also where he kept it. Since he was still insisting his beautiful wife couldn’t be buried, he had to put her body somewhere. His choice? His attic. It was some perverse version of the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre, and it was about to get a whole lot worse.

B&W photo - postcard view of Schloss Neudeck, circa 1890Unknown author , Wikimedia Commons

50. His New Wife Made A Shocking Discovery

Although Donnersmarck had a hard time getting over La Paiva, he eventually did, remarrying the Russian noblewoman Katharina Slepzow. Shortly into her marriage, she made a blood-curdling discovery. While going through the attic she found, you guessed it, the body of her predecessor. I’m assuming La Paiva’s ghost delighted in scaring her new rival.

Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck with his wife Katharina - 1917Unknown author , Wikimedia Commons

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