Archive for April 18th, 2013

She had the most capacious heart I know and must be the only whore in history to retain her heart intact.  –  Henry Labouchere

Of all the grandes horizontals of the 19th century the one I feel I can understand the most, and for whom I have the greatest affinity, is Catherine Walters.  While other courtesans went through money like water, she was relatively thrifty; while others affected gaudy displays of jewelry and ostentatious wealth, she was known for her style and taste; while others made spectacles of themselves, she always behaved naturally; while others extracted all they could from their clients, her fairness earned her a number of lifetime incomes; while others exposed their clients in tell-all memoirs later in life, her discretion was legendary.  And while others used exotic stage names or titles that made them sound more like institutions than women, Catherine was simply “Skittles”, a nickname derived from her first job:  setting up pins in a Liverpool bowling alley named the Black Jack Tavern.

equestrian SkittlesShe was born on June 13th, 1839, the third of five children of Edward and Mary Ann Walters of 1 Henderson Street, Toxteth, Liverpool.  Her mother died giving birth in 1843, and her father was a customs official who eventually drank himself to death in 1864.  Beyond the bowling alley job, little is known of her early life except that she ran away from the convent school to which her father sent her sometime after her mother’s death, and that she also worked in her early teens for a livery stable, where she learned the equestrian skills that were her passport to success.  Though she was petite, charming and very beautiful (with grey eyes, long chestnut hair and an 18-inch waist), the fact that she could outride most men set her apart from other beauties and gained her the public and press attention a courtesan needed for advertisement in those pre-internet days.

She left Liverpool at the age of 16 as the mistress of Lord Fitzwilliam, who set her up in London and remained with her for two years; when he tired of her he gave her a gift of £2,000 and an income of £300 a year.  This set the pattern for her later relationships; her wealthy patrons knew that she would never reveal their names, and the annual payments they provided helped to ensure she was never tempted.  In fact, the £500 pension from her second lover, Spencer Cavendish (Marquess of Hartington and future Duke of Devonshire), was continued by his grateful family even after he died in 1908.  Of all Skittles’ admirers, Lord Hartington was the one who had the most profound effect on her life; their relationship lasted from 1858-1862, during which time he put her in a townhouse in Park Street, Mayfair, gave her a stable of thoroughbreds, introduced her to the tailors (Henry Poole & Co) she was to do business with for decades, and hired a tutor to give her the education she had missed.

The Shrew Tamed by Edwin Landseer (1861)It was during this time that she first became famous as a “horse breaker” on Rotten Row in Hyde Park; her beauty and skill attracted so many fans that she started drawing crowds of onlookers, and her clothes were so perfectly tailored (and skin-tight) that it was rumored she wore them without underwear.  Noblewomen and others who could afford it copied her style of dress, but even after she became a fashion trendsetter she never forgot her roots; the majority of her tailors’ bills were for maintaining and mending her clothes rather than buying new ones.  Her horsewomanship was admired by men and envied by their wives, and though she called herself “Anonyma” when riding in public everyone knew who she really was; she is mentioned by name in The Season by future poet laureate Alfred Austin, and she was said to be the model for The Shrew Tamed by Edwin Landseer (though that was actually a woman named Annie Gilbert, who resembled her).  Unfortunately, all this attention was seen by Hartington’s family as an impediment to his future in politics (which was, as it turned out, quite distinguished), so despite the fact that they had very strong feelings for one another he was obliged to break the relationship off in the autumn of 1862.

Skittles was quite upset by the end of what had been the happiest time of her life, and though she made no attempt to hurt Hartington she wanted to start over again somewhere else.  She eloped to New York with Aubrey de Vere Beauclerk, but this relationship was short-lived and by early 1863 she had moved to Paris.  But while Cora Pearl and most of the other demimondaines of the time attracted attention by over-the-top theatrics, Skittles preferred just to be herself; her only really unusual behavior was driving her own carriage followed by two mounted grooms, all in impeccably-tailored outfits.  Her reputation for discretion had preceded her, however, and it is rumored that her clients during this period included both the Minister of Finance, Achille Fould, and Emperor Napoléon III himself.  One whose identity is known for certain is the diplomat and poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who fell obsessively in love with her and was prone to jealous behavior which attracted unwanted attention; the affair ended when it was discovered by Lord Crowley, Ambassador to France and father of Blunt’s fiancée, who dismissed Blunt from his post and sent him back to England in disgrace.  Though he later married Lady Anne King-Noel, daughter of Ada Lovelace, he never did get over Skittles and wrote the poem “Esther” to her thirty years later.  Around that time he also began writing letters to her, and they became friends and corresponded until her death.

Catherine Walters by Pierre PetitWhen the Franco-Prussian War began she returned to London, and in 1872 moved to 15 South Street, Park Lane, where she lived for the rest of her life.  She returned to riding and hunting and instituted a tradition of Sunday afternoon tea parties for important men; future prime minister William Gladstone was known to have been a regular attendee, though it is unknown if he was a client.  Her most famous patron from this time was the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, who fell in love with her and sent her over 300 love-letters; after his infatuation waned he not only paid her an allowance, but also sent his own physician to care for her when needed.  A few years later the doctor reported to his royal patron that Skittles was grievously ill, and fearing she might die the Prince asked for the return of his letters; she gave them back without any fuss, and His Highness was so grateful he raised her pension.

At some point in the early 1880s, she began a relationship with Alexander Horatio Baillie which was serious enough that called herself Mrs. Baillie for the duration, but there is no documentary evidence that they were ever legally married.  She continued to see clients throughout the ‘80s, finally retiring about the age of 50 as a wealthy society lady.  Sometime after her retirement she had a love affair with the much-younger Gerald de Saumarez, whom she had first met years before when he was only 16 (and she 40), and though they parted as lovers after a time they remained friends ever after, and she left her entire estate (valued at £2764 19s 6d, over £60,000 today) to him when she died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 5, 1920.  In her last few years she had become something of a recluse after being crippled by arthritis, but there is no evidence her mind was anything other than sharp until the very end.  Though she left no diary or memoirs which could have betrayed her clients after her passing, they and many others who knew her have painted a clear picture of her charisma, honesty, loyalty, fairness, good sense and capacity for love, and that is as fine a legacy as anyone could wish.

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