"There was a time when I didn't know where my next husband was coming from," Mae West once said. This firecracker of a quote, one of many in her famously inflammatory arsenal, was more than just a show of verbal bravado. The shapely blonde from Brooklyn had a romantic life that would've exhausted most mortals, and she kept at it with a man less than half her age until well into her 70s.
Few women could quip like West without eating their words. Over the years, her white-hot sound bytes, not to mention her movies, have become touchstones of seduction. How did she do it? What separated West from the rest? (In 1935, with a salary of about $480,000, she was the highest-paid woman in America.) The starlet's secrets, and those of her sister temptresses, are revealed in Betsey Prioleau's Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love.
An exuberant tribute to female physical, intellectual and spiritual power, Prioleau's book is a feast of language and ideas that spans centuries, drawing on mythology, history and religion to capture the classic seductress in all her varied incarnations, from the goddesses of ancient Greece to modern-day deities of glam. Seductress unzips these mistresses of amour in brief, sizzling biographies, but the volume is more than just a retrospective of history's hottest heroines. Filled with advice on how to stoke the fire of desire, it's also a guide for women who want to jump-start their own romantic lives.
Chronicling the conquests of Cleopatra and Colette, Lola Montez and Elizabeth I, Seductress is a provocative (and instructive) catalog of formidable femmes women with the kind of come-hither command that could make a compliant lap dog of the roughest puppy. Contrary to popular belief, according to Prioleau, this near-infallible ability to win men wasn't a matter of biology, chemistry or voodoo. It was simply a studied, practiced mastery of the field of eros an expertise that's within the grasp of every woman. "Inspiring and sustaining passion is a high art form that requires imagination and psychological savvy," says the author, who believes that "four-star character is the strongest aphrodisiac."
Prioleau was drawn to this piping-hot topic during graduate school. The daughter of a Southern belle, she grew up in Richmond, Virginia, becoming well-acquainted with the prissier traditions of Dixie. "Girls in those days without real career options had to seduce for their supper," she says. Disillusioned by the feminist movement's devaluation of women's sexuality, she began researching the stories of females who succeeded in both their personal and their working lives. Discovering that the classic enchantress someone who thrived on physical desire and professional achievement was a frequent figure in history, a recurring archetype who couldn't be kept down, but whose story was often misinterpreted or ignored, she decided to set the record straight with Seductress.
"Most of us have the wrong idea about the seductress," says Prioleau. "We automatically imagine brainless beach babes, servile man pleasers, or shark-hearted vamps with deep cleavages and dark wiles." True femme fatales, she explains, "demolish all of these cheap stereotypes. They're actually models of full empowerment women of clout and worth who succeeded in love and life."
Seductress provides ample evidence of this. Chapters like "Homely Sirens" and "Silver Foxes" feature unconventional females who can't be measured by the usual standards of beauty and youth. The seductresses here don't rely on physical wiles to bewitch, yet they are sexy, strong and accomplished women like George Sand, Edith Piaf and Prioleau's favorite, Pauline Viardot, a 19th-century opera star with a hypnotic voice and distinctly unlovely features, who netted Hector Berlioz and Ivan Turgenev, among others.
"They teach women they don't have to cave into traditional femininity," the author says of these legendary ladies. "Better still, they don't have to be beautiful or young, hold their tongues, play tricks, or teeter on Manolo Blahniks to captivate men." In her quest to feature inspiring, positive role models for readers, Prioleau found it necessary to eliminate history's more notorious man-killers from her narrative, and that's why some of the book's likeliest candidates for inclusion didn't make the cut. A few of the names you won't find listed in Seductress' index: Marilyn Monroe, Mata Hari and Jennifer Lopez, women whose private lives make the tabloids seem tame. "To qualify," Prioleau explains, "a seductress had to be a powerful woman who won across the board erotically, personally and vocationally and chose marvelous men. No blackguards, louts and losers allowed."
These days, according to the author, "we're witnessing a seductress revival," as screen queens Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon captivate audiences while flourishing, not just as actors, but as wives and mothers. "Business and political potentates are no longer lonely spinsters in pin stripes," Prioleau adds. "They radiate feminine charisma and romantic happiness. Think of Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, Georgette Mosbacher. The list goes on." Make no mistake about it, Prioleau's book accentuates the positive, encouraging women to take command of and find liberation in their love lives, to view seduction as a form of self-expression. "The seductress's biggest lesson is the importance of cerebral lures," says the author. "The most powerful mental charm was, and is, the allure of a big, forever-interesting person. That's the best news for 21st century women."