Griselidis Real

Virtuoso writer and 'revolutionary whore'

It sounds like a pseudonym. But Grisélidis Réal was the real name of a unique woman who was a highly talented writer and also a revolutionary prostitute. Ironically, her first name is that of Boccaccio's long- suffering victim of a brutal husband, the "Patient Griselda" of his last story in The Decameron. She became a universal symbol for marital fidelity, which was certainly not the outstanding virtue in Grisélidis Réal's agitated existence.

Grisélidis Réal, writer, courtesan and social worker: born Lausanne, Switzerland 11 August 1929; married (children); died Geneva 31 May 2005.

It sounds like a pseudonym. But Grisélidis Réal was the real name of a unique woman who was a highly talented writer and also a revolutionary prostitute. Ironically, her first name is that of Boccaccio's long- suffering victim of a brutal husband, the "Patient Griselda" of his last story in The Decameron. She became a universal symbol for marital fidelity, which was certainly not the outstanding virtue in Grisélidis Réal's agitated existence.

Réal came from a highly respectable Swiss family in Lausanne. Both her father and mother were teachers and, during her childhood, she lived with them in various foreign postings. In 1939, on their return to the neutral safety of Switzerland, she began studying at the School of Decorative Arts in Zurich. She also studied classical piano - only to medium ability but with her own special touch, and in later life this musical gift, coupled with a strenuous S&M training, allowed her to declare: "I can pound a piano or a pervert - it's all the same to me, all in a good night's work."

After graduating, Réal worked as an artist's model, married one of the artists and gave birth to two sons before separating from him by mutual consent. In 1960, she moved to Germany, and one day, when she was rambling in the countryside, a motorist stopped and made her a proposition of money for sex in the back of his car. That was her first professional job as a "street walker" - what Kipling in Soldiers Three refers to as "the most ancient profession in the world".

Germany at that time was full of occupation troops of various nationalities. With her linguistic abilities, Réal won over many of the victors: she was especially fond of the British ("real gentlemen") and the Americans, with a decided preference for black men, one of whom she nearly married. She started living with a new lover, by whom she had two more children.

These adventures became the subject of her first book, Le Noir est une couleur ("Black is a Colour") in 1974, which had a certain success: it was reissued by popular demand in March this year. Réal proved herself to be a virtuoso stylist in this realistic account of her life on the streets, viewed with a clear, cold eye not lacking in a certain poetry. With touches of acid humour, she comes across as a highly intelligent and sympathetic woman who is both onlooker and fellow worker in what is often a very grim business.

The better to sympathise with the needs of a certain class of client, she began taking practical courses with a great master of S&M techniques. Although bondage was "not my thing", she said, she insisted on learning about the myriad forms of sexual subjugation - because, as she explains in her book, "you have to be able to put yourself in the skin of any kind of sado-masochist if you really want to give him (or her) the satisfaction they crave".

There was one bleak period in which Réal spent seven months in prison for drug trafficking. She converted several of her fellow female prisoners to her own advanced views of the redemptive nature of "the Profession". As soon as she got out of jail, she undertook a course of analytical psychiatry that enabled her to experience her first orgasm. After that, there was no stopping her: she had 11 pregnancies and seven abortions.

Réal started keeping a diary in which she jotted down her experiences with every type of client: "Roger, bald old goat, keeps his underpants on as long as possible, playful, groper, premature, 80 francs." There are very full descriptions of an almost clinical directness, a sort of "hands-on" investigative sociological analysis from sapphism to sadism and various forms of erotomania. She claimed that her erotic art was founded in compassion, in which nothing human was ever foreign to her. She called the resulting book Carnet de bal d'une courtisane ("A Courtesan's Dance Card", 1984).

She had never wanted to be the prisoner of an office job, but she decided to become a sort of volunteer social worker with a special concern for the rights of prostitutes, both male and female. It was through such acts of charity that she met the journalist and author Jean-Luc Hennig. He became her constant supporter and in 1992 Réal published La Passe imaginaire ("la passe" is French slang for the short time spent with a prostitute), a collection of letters to him.

It was her native intelligence, coupled with a deep knowledge of human nature, that began to make Réal militate in various causes in support of her sisters of the streets. It was their protest and occupation of the Chapelle Saint-Bernard in Montparnasse in 1973 that first involved her in defence of their human rights against the brutal controls of pimps, panders and the police. She became known as the "catin révolutionnaire" ("revolutionary whore") when she helped to found Aspasie, the first association to come to the aid of ill-treated prostitutes. She also set up an International Centre of Documentation about Prostitution in Geneva, a reference source now much used by researchers and sociologists.

In a preface to a reprint of Carnet de bal earlier this year, Réal calls prostitution "an art, and a humanist science". She says:

The only authentic prostitution is that mastered by great technical artists and perfectionists who practise this particular form of native craft with intelligence, respect, imagination, heart, experience and willing ministry as a kind of innate vocation.

When in old age this great innovator was struck down by cancer, she wrote poems about her affliction that curiously moved audiences to laughter. Her courage, humour, passion and selfless devotion to a cause can never be forgotten. Above all, she was a great human being.

James Kirkup

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