“Mistresses were hidden away and summoned for sex. Prostitutes were given little cash for their whole body, to be thrown back into the streets. Courtesans were bestowed with luxurious gifts, large home, and desired for their mind and body.” - Marie-Cécile Louvais
Courtesans might be an ancient profession, but for Marie-Cécile Louvais her life as one was more than historic.
Born in 1942, Marie grew up on the Caribbean island of Haiti. The youngest of seven children, the family lived in a one-room apartment in the northern village of Milot. Nestled below the Citadelle Laferrière, her family fell on hard times during the global economic depression of the 1920s and 30s. Her father resorted to alcohol, and was known for being a strict disciplinarian. For the most part. Marie, admittedly, was never a victim to his tirades. She believed her complexion was a factor in her upbringing and, to a greater extent, her later success as a courtesan. “…being of fairer skin in Haiti meant you were more likely to be accepted in Haitian society. You were likely to get a desk job rather than work with your hands. You could marry into an affluent family. Skin color meant everything.” In her teenage years Marie’s beauty blossomed. Her looks drew advances from many local men, but also ridicule from many women and her sisters. At 16, her mother decided to send her off to Port-au-Prince to live with her grandmother Louise. It was here she learned the art of courtesan-ship.
Just a year before, Haiti elected a black populist - Francois Duvalier - who promised to take the country away from the mulatto elite and redistribute it to the black majority. While the capital itself was panicking after an unsuccessful coup to overthrow the President, in the hilltop town of Petionville, all was well. Indeed, the wealthy town was worlds apart from the majority of the country. Marie’s grandmother worked in the house of Marianne de Guyon, a wealthy widow with a title and connections in social circles. (Some families were ennobled during Haiti's brief, but multiple, experiments with monarchy.) Madame de Guyon was also a former courtesan in her youth. She took an immediate liking to Marie and decided to take the young girl under her wing. Besides learning the art of pleasure Marie also received an education – something she would not receive under normal circumstances. “I learned history, politics, English, and Spanish. I was to be woman of quality”. The widow unofficially adopted Marie. Her ‘second mother’ was the key to the world of Haiti’s exclusive elites.
Her first “contact” was Alphonse, a sugar plantation owner. Their first few meetings were uncomfortable for Marie. A man old enough to be her father - if not her grandfather - they found a mutual love of literature. “We had many discussions on philosophy and literature,” she said. “I could never forget Alphonse: riding in his car with him and attending private gatherings at Cercle Bellevue. Those memories will always be with me.” As expected, the relationship reaped many rewards – the family’s debt paid; shopping trips to the fashion houses of Paris; fine furnishings at her new Petionville residence. Once accustomed to wearing dirty shirts and skirts, she was one of few women in the country to wear Dior. One of her most treasured pieces was a gold leopard brooch decorated with emeralds and rubies. But the relationship with him was mere business and, after three years, she moved on other gentlemen. A handsome Cuban official, a Haitian general, and a high-ranking government minister. But her last contact was one that was most memorable. In a photo was youthful Marie on the arm of a short, stout man with square frames and gray hair. To most individuals he was simply another man. To Haitians, however, he was the face of fear – Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, president of Haiti, and leader of one of the most brutal regimes in the country’s history.
Marie, then 24, and Duvalier, 59, first met at a banquet hosted by Guyon in Petionville in 1966. “There was an obvious commanding air about him,” Marie said. By then, Papa Doc is notoriously known for his authoritarian regime. He employed the Tonton Macoutes, his secret police, to suppress political opponents at any costs; few could escape their nightly assaults which included imprisonment, torture, or hacking families with machetes. A superstitious nation, Duvalier also used the Voodoo religion as propaganda and control over the majority of uneducated Haitians. But to Marie he was simply “sweet Francois”. She admits the relationship was nonsexual. Nevertheless, he offered her a lavish lifestyle: a mansion in Petionville and a retreat in Cap Haitien, a luxury car with a personal chauffeur, and shopping sprees to Europe and America. Such gifts were soon to cease.
When Francois died in 1971 his son Jean-Claude, also known as ‘Baby Doc’, became President. The 19-year-old inherited a poor country, but continued to spend lavishly. In a nation where many hoped to earn $500 a year, Baby Doc pent $2 million on his wedding and frequently hosted extravagant parties. He also employed torture as entertainment rather than political suppression. “There were things done to innocent men and women that it is too difficult to discuss,” a look of pain overcoming Marie's face.
In 1984, Marie took the courage to flee the nation. It was during this time she met a man by the name of André Benjamin. Educated in France and trained to be a lawyer, he returned to Haiti in the early ‘80s to educate rural Haitians on the fallacies of the dictatorial regime. After fleeing Haiti in 1982 to Florida he returned secretly a year later to take his sister and others to the States; his sister, Anne, was a house-servant in Marie’s home. “André was a strong man and that is what I loved about him,” Marie said as she glossed over an album book. Flipping through the pages, one can see what made him attractive. “He explained to me it was unsafe to live in Haiti. At any time I could easily become [Jean-Claude’s] victim.” In the middle of the night the trio fled the countryside and Marie would leave the life and splendor she was accustomed to.
They arrived in Florida in September 1984 and moved to Brooklyn the following year. After settling, André returned to Haiti to assist in the underground emigration project. It would be the last time they were together: he was caught shortly after arriving back in Port-au-Prince and, according to some, was executed on-site or died in prison.
Few Haitians returned to the country after the fall of Baby Doc in 1986. Today, Marie lives in Brooklyn. She never married – “I never had the desire to,” she said – but treats local children as her own. Nearly 33 years after her arrival, two generations have come to know la doyenne de Flatbush. Her success as a real estate broker - tycoon, by some accounts - granted her access to the city's movers and shakers. Now living in a fabulous brownstone in Williamsburg, one can say she has become a success story in her second country. Marie says her survival was due to a natural gift of adjusting to what life throws at her. "I came to this country with a few dollars a three pairs of clothes," she boasted.
Anne Benjamin, Marie's former servant, now serves as a business adviser and confidante. “[Marie-Cécile] saved my life and gave me an opportunity to help others...there is nothing more I can ask for." In 2002, Anne advised Marie on sponsoring programs and organizations that help underprivileged women – a duty she takes seriously. Eight years later, after the earthquake which devastated their native country, Anne convinced Marie-Cecile to raise funds for the relief of her native countrymen. Marie-Cécile traveled back to Haiti in January 2011 for the first time since the Duvaliers were in power. (Coincidentally, 'Baby Doc' Duvalier, too, traveled back to Haiti at the same time.) She was at a fundraiser in Petionville when news broke out of Jean-Claude's arrest, charged with corruption. Marie wept with joy. "That was vindication for André's death and many like him."
Marie-Cécile never regretted her life as a courtesan. On the contrary, she found it empowering. “It is through our charms and wits that we can take down anyone – man, creature, nation,” she said as she clasped a bejeweled feline brooch onto her tweed jacket. “I believe it was Helen of Troy who was famous for that.”