Prostitutes have occupied the role of muse for innumerable artists. Writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers, and poets have alternately identified with, idealized and demonized working girls in an obsessive fixation spanning generations. From Paris’ 19th Century avant-garde to the streets of New York City in the 1970s, the disgust and awe that surrounds the working girl (and boy) continues to consume the pages and palettes of creative minds.
The Internet, alongside changing sexual and social mores, may have begun to transform the way we perceive sex workers — making the world’s oldest profession less of a clandestine operation and more of a business transaction (see: Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience ). However, there will always be an artistic refuge — and planet Hollywood, of course — for the romanticization of crooked pimps and saucy streetwalkers. For every sordid, seamy expose, there’s a Pretty Woman waiting in the wings to silver-line the mythos. After the jump, check out some of our favorite “love letters” — and less flattering missives — to the women and men of the night. Which ones have always fascinated you?
Charles Bukowski’s “To the Whore Who Took My Poems”
It’s no secret that Bukowski had a fondness for the darker side of life. His highly autobiographical Women confesses, “Basically I craved prostitutes, base women, because they were deadly and hard and made no personal demands. Nothing was lost when they left.” The boozy poet laureate did lose something, however, prompting him to write To the Whore Who Took My Poems. The work seems to be a tribute to Catullus, a 1st Century BC Latin poet who wrote a similar verse, Adeste, hendecasyllabi, quot estis, demanding similar from a Republican period floozy.
Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour
Catherine Deneuve was the most famous prostitute of 1967 in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour . She plays Séverine Serizy — one of the greatest names for a character, ever — a bored housewife who finds her flings with strange men for money more satisfying than her marital sex life and bourgeoisie world. The film’s ending, unclear if reality or fantasy, maintains an aura of mystery to this day.
Walt Whitman’s “To a Common Prostitute”
Even though Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is studied in schools across the nation, upon its release the world wasn’t ready for a filthy hippie like Walt. After several complaints condemning the work as obscene, Whitman’s publisher asked him to remove several pieces, including “To a Common Prostitute.” Whitman refused to be censored and pursued a different publisher to release his book. Thankfully he succeeded. Break out your CliffsNotes for a translation of the work, which should prove that Walt’s detractors were all wrong about the sentiment behind it. Read the poem in full over here.
The Ramones’ “53rd & 3rd”
New York City in the ’70s was dirty and dangerous, and street hustlers of every variety owned the night. Hollywood has made an indelible impression of the time period upon audiences, portraying prostitutes and pimps like rodents running rampant through the streets. The Ramones 1976 song, 53rd & 3rd, was allegedly based on Dee Dee Ramone’s personal experience as a male prostitute during that time and tells a story about “rough trade” and murder in a way that only the Ramones can.
Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby
Brooke Shields made her screen debut – to much controversy due to the movie’s nudity — in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby . The director worked closely with the recently passed Polly Platt on the film about 12-year-old Violet, who grows up during a time when prostitution was still legal and a brothel was called home.
Perhaps the Roman Empire’s most powerful woman, Empress Theodora — wife of Emperor Justinian I — was a party girl prostitute who ruled the Byzantine Empire like an uber feminist and was eventually made a Saint. Not too shabby for a girl who wanted to be an actress, but ended up empowering women by expanding their rights and creating safe havens for former prostitutes.
Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty
To say that Hitler’s Third Reich was a corrupt regime is a serious understatement, but a slice of Nazi espionage involving a Berlin brothel highlights how far the Führer would go to manipulate anyone he could to support the cause. Hitler’s SS intelligence agency outfitted Salon Kitty, run by Madame Kitty Schmidt, with microphones in hopes of picking out traitors, preening several women to act as prostitute spies. The events became the inspiration for Tinto Brass’ softcore Nazisploitation sleazefest, Salon Kitty, which zeroes in on the decadent and bizarre exploits of Kitty and her crew.
Édouard Manet’s Olympia
Manet must have reveled in the looks on everyone’s faces when he debuted his painting, Olympia, in 1865 at the Paris Salon. Audiences were divided, some calling it immoral and vile, while others praised Olympia as an instant masterpiece. Unlike the passive and idealized nudes of the past, Manet’s subject was a brazen woman who was immediately identified as a courtesan thanks to the various opulent visual clues the artist included in his work. (Yes, the black cat really does mean that.) His painting style also contributed to a never-before-seen realism that rocked the 19th century art world.
Nan Goldin and Klaus Kertess’ Desire By Numbers
Writer and curator Klaus Kertess teamed up with legendary photographer Nan Goldin for a series of portraits depicting male prostitutes (boys, really) in Southeast Asia. Kertess’ words about homoerotic love accompany Goldin’s emotionally intimate images. Goldin has always taken issue with being known as “that woman photographer who photographed the downtown New York scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s of marginalized people, drug addicts and prostitutes.” She responds to that label by saying, “We didn’t want to be part of the ‘straight’ or ‘normal’ community. We were a community by choice.”
“The House of the Rising Sun”
The folk ballad “The House of the Rising Sun” has a long and speculative history, but it’s one of the oldest songs about streetwalking ever recorded. Garage-rockers The Animals made it popular again in 1964, changing the song perspective to a man advising against the dangers of gambling and drinking. Georgia Turner is credited with the first recording in 1937 (initially titled “The Risin’ Sun Blues”), however, which warns listeners to “shun that house in New Orleans” that has been “the ruin of many a poor girl.”