While visiting an antique shop in Jylland I came across a fine vintage photo album. Its pages were printed with gold and green, and among them rested the forgotten members of an aristocratic Danish family. Regrettably, the thick leather binding which had once held them together was torn and replaced by a graceless plastic cover. I toyed with the idea of buying the album, but finally decided not to. However, one particular portrait, depicting a young woman seated to a desk, grabbed my attention. The name Nora Ebbesen was vaguely scribbled under the frame. Ten crowns poorer I returned home with this portrait and the scandalous story of the woman it depicts.
Young Nora Ebbesen
"I have been asked to write down my biography and the reason, for which I allowed myself to be persuaded, is that it may serve as a warning for my own sex. It would show how a bad education, poor examples in childhood, beauty, vanity, conceit, mistreatment, flattery and many other circumstances have led me into this abyss, where I was finally cast, and have given me fame as an uttermost strange person of my sex."
-Nora Ebbesen, 1872
It is unknown when Nora Ebbesen was born. What little biographical information is available about her comes from her own memoir. She was raised in Copenhagen, the daughter of a poor shoemaker and his cheating wife. At home she was called lille nor [little one]. Her mother was the daughter of a tailor, a vain and proud woman by her own account. She would take costumers into her bed for money, which she later spent on expensive garments for herself and her daughter. The parents often quarreled, and Nora's drunken father beat his wife. He called Nora a bastard who bore resemblance to a certain nobleman called Ø . . . . . . . . . . [?]
At eight Nora started attending public school, where she learned to read and write. Her mother refused to let her become a mere seamstress or a servant. Having heard of several "success" stories in the royal theater, she urged her young daughter to take ballet lessons when she turned ten. By the age of fourteen Nora had made it to the royal dancing school. It was then she started noticing the growing attention of men. At first she was indifferent to flattery, but her mother encouraged her to find herself a nobleman and persuade him into marriage. She instructed her daughter in manners of enticement, but warned her always to keep a safe physical distance. Soon herds of suitors would wait by the theater doors for her to step outside.
But Nora wasn't advancing as a dancer. Her ballet master, Z . . . . .[?], had made it clear to her that in order to advance she would have to sleep with him. At first reluctant because he was old and ugly, she quickly succumbed to his will in order to scorn a classmate. At fourteen Nora Ebbesen lost her virginity at the royal theater and gained the leading role she wanted.
"Once the first step is taken, one knows that the next quickly follows."
Nora bought herself many foes in the theater once she had won the ballet-master's favor. She soon grew weary of their hate, and turned her interest elsewhere. A young Russian count, B., was at the time staying in Copenhagen. He had long been courting her, offering all his riches if she would commit herself to him. After bribing her mother, the two sailed off to Petersborg on a steamer. They lived together a year in luxury the likes of which Nora had never seen. She took his word when he promised to marry her. They just had to wait, he said, because his old father would denounce him if he married beneath him. Once he's out of the picture they could marry.
"One day, as I was driving with the count in an open carriage, riding came a young handsome officer in a magnificent uniform. Just as he was rushing by he noticed the count in the carriage. 'Bon jour, mon amie!' he called out, 'Have you returned from Denmark, and is that your wife, an exceptionally gracious dame? Have I guessed correctly?'. 'Not at all' replied the embarrassed count. 'The lady is of my acquaintance'. 'Ah, a little lassie' he said, 'you have a devilish good taste. One might think it is Venus herself sitting by your side'. And with that he threw a piercing and admiring glance at me, urged his horse, greeted in an exaggeratedly gallant manner and rode off with a gallop. 'That was Tsar's wing-adjutant and his favorite, count Dolgoruki' the count said to me. I didn't reply, but the young man had made an impression on my heart, for he surpassed in beauty all the men I had ever seen."
The following day the officer came to visit the count. While they were drinking chocolate, Dolgoruki sent some fiery glances at Nora. He also directed the conversation at her rather than the actual count. The latter was annoyed, but said nothing. Once Dolgoruki was gone he proclaimed his displeasement and said he would rather give Dolgoruki a bullet in the head than give Nora up. She calmed him down. The next day, while the count was at the legation in Petersborg, Dolgoruki returned to pay a visit. He found Nora alone in a nightdress. "In a nightdress you look more like the goddess of beauty" he said and sat very close by her side.
"He grabbed my hand, and with words of admiration led it to his lips. I let him keep it, but soon he took himself further freedom by stretching his arm around me and letting his hand rest on my breast. As I was about to stand up and resist the count stepped in through the door. Fury sparked in his eyes when he saw the officer quickly pull his arm back. 'I find your behavior towards this woman whom I love shameless!'. 'Watch your words', replied the officer angrily. 'I should perhaps praise you, because you behave nothing like a cavalier or nobleman should?!'. 'Take back those words, or else...' said the officer. 'Or else what?' my incensed lover asked. 'Or I'll call you by a name you deserve'. 'I call you a rascal!' replied my furious lover. 'For this insult I demand satisfaction'. 'With the greatest pleasure, and at once - at the island in the Neva river in the Chestnut woods. You may choose your weapon.'"
The count blamed Nora for being unfaithful, but she started to cry and he forgave her. An hour later he met the officer in duel and was killed. Nora mourned his death. She was left alone in the foreign city. But as soon as word had reached the Tsar that his adjutant had killed the young count he ordered him under house arrest. Nora was instructed by the Russian chief of police to leave Petersborg withing 24 hours and Russia within fourteen days. She sold all her belongings and returned to Denmark.
In Copenhagen Nora found her mother widowed. She hired her services as a housekeeper. She had made a nice sum of money in Petersborg, but decided that she had to find herself a rich lover again. So she ordered herself and her mother a private box in the royal theater. Dressed in her finest garments she attended a show. Her presence did not go unnoticed.
"The noose was set and many had soon fallen in it."
The next day no less than ten love letter found their way to her house. The gentlemen at the theater had followed her carriage or sent their servants after it to retrieve her address and name. The authors of the letters- counts, barons, officers, landowners and merchants- all sought permission to visit her. Among them were one count Rantzau [?] and count Schulenburg [Carl Otto von der Schulenburg, 1801-1847]. Nora had heard about the latter, a handsome and very rich man, having love-affairs with women of the theater and especially dancers. She would gladly take both for lovers, but feared another duel and therefore chose Schulenburg. She wrote him a letter of few words saying she would be delighted to have him visit. He came the very same day.
Caricature of count Schulenburg lifting a dancer
-Det Kongelige Bibliotek
"He was like Caeser, used to come, see and conquer. He went straight to the matter, proclaimed he was in love with me and that he, in order to gain my affection, would pay me one thousand rixdollars a month. I let him believe I was uninterested, but when he pulled out an expensive diamond breastpin, many hundred rixdollars worth, I pretended I couldn't resist his offer. He was neither ashamed to sit with me in the Kabriolet, which he drove himself, nor to sit by my side in the theater box. He was proud that I preferred him over the many other rivals he knew had sought my affection."
But Nora and Schulenburg's affair was short lived. Count Rantzau, whom Nora had denied her affection, was envious. One day, while the two were meeting with other officers he loudly whispered to another officer of the guards "What a bad taste this Nora Ebbesen must have to prefer a drunken lieutenant of the hussars over an officer in the guards as a lover". Schulenburg, who was known for his short temper, silently drew his sword and hacked deep into Rantzau's arm. He was arrested and sentenced by court to half a year of imprisonment in the citadel. Had it not been for his father's position as commander in Copenhagen and the favor of the king - his punishment would have been far more severe. The sentence was later sweetened by the king to one month's imprisonment.
After that Nora came to great fame among the garrison officers, who would swarm by her house to get a glimpse of her at the window. A few days later count Rantzau came to her. "You are to blame for this rigid arm, beautiful Nora" he said. "You owe me compensation for the pain I suffered, and I therefore thought that you would let me replace your Schulenburg, who will spend half a year in the Citadel".
"What should I answer? Rantzau was a rather handsome officer. He had enough money, as he owned an entailed estate, and I knew I could get all I wanted from him. So I went for it, and he became my lover. It is unbelievable how much money he spent me. I bought genuine East Indian shawls for several hundred rixdollars, dressed in the most expensive satin and velvet cloths, and possessed such a quantity of gold jewelry and genuine stones that a queen could not have more. He bought a manor to me, not to mention squandered huge sums of money on me."
This lifestyle lasted a month. Rantzau's incredible wastefulness caused a stir and his family had him declared incapacitated. Nora unwillingly sold her diamonds to provide for the both of them. But when Rantzau came to her one day asking for five hundred rixdollars he had lost in a bet she decided to show him the door. They quarreled and he left.
Nora's attention now turned to a landowner, baron Knuth. He had taken the freedom to greet her quite often after Rantzau ran dry of money. Having heard she disposed of Rantzau, Knuth quickly came to her and proclaimed his love. She wasn't playing picky after he pulled out a heavy pair of golden bracelets with diamonds. Knuth was engaged with countess Oxenstjerne of Scania, the rightful heir of ten manor houses. The match was made by his father, but he claimed he would rather die than marry the countess, who shared nothing with Nora's beauty and figure according to his opinion.
"He had loved me from the first moment he saw me, and would be faithful to me until his death. I knew very well the love-ridden talk about eternal faithfulness, but pretended that I was convinced of it, and I was now again leading a good life like before."
But half a year later dark clouds appeared in Nora's sky. Knuth had spent far more money than his monthly allowance from his father, and was forced to take a loan. When payment was due half a year later he asked his creditors for patience. They, in turn, went to his father and threatened to report his son to the police lest the money be paid immediately. Knuth's father then traveled in person to Copenhagen to hear what his son, who he believed was studying, had to say for himself. There he heard of the life young Knuth was leading and learned Nora Ebbesen's address. He found his way to her home. Ignoring the chambermaid's objection he stormed into Nora's room, where he found Nora and his son in an unequivocal position.
"Yes, this is one neat son that I have!" Knuth's father shouted. "Here I find him in the arms of a whore instead of reading in judicial books. If you do not leave this female that seduced you at once I will denounce you as my heir!". Nora was enraged "I'm no whore! Your son seduced me and not the other way around. So spare me your insults, Sir!". "Of course, she isn't to blame" he shouted at his son, "she, who had so many counts for lovers before she lured my son into her net. I'll throw her in jail where she can work the spinning wheel instead of sitting here in the capital and sucking on gentlemen who are so imbecile, that they let themselves be lured by her trapping-light!".
"I then grabbed a woman's default weapon and started to cry."
The father was not impressed, but Knuth was moved and felt encouraged to speak. "You shouldn't speak this way to miss Nora. She truly loves me and I love her". "Well then won't you make her a baroness?" the father asked scornfully. "She truly loves you? She loves anyone with money in his pockets that can buy her gifts! Come here at once! I'll have a word about this slut with the chief of police to see if he can't put a stop to her seducing of young men. Come!". Knuth followed unwillingly. As they neared the door Nora shouted at his father "I don't care about you or your chief of police. I ask neither you nor him whether I can love a gentleman who loves me back. I'm no prostitute that anyone can buy!". They left the room as she burst into tears. But luckily for Nora, old landlord Knuth was later convinced by friends to silence the matter lest the family's name be stained.
An engraving of Nora Ebbesen found in her autobiography
-Det Kongelige Bibliotek
Now that Knuth was out of the picture Nora received an unexpected visitor. "You mustn't be so coy with me. Most young women are so docile you won't believe it" the prince said. "I can believe that" Nora replied, "for your royal highness must be giving these young women something in the return?". "Yes, that's understandable. But listen, little Nora. Isn't that what you're called? You could use money yourself?" he inquired. "Yes, you can rest assured of that, your royal highness" she replied. "I forbid you to call me royal highness" he said, "Call me your little F . . . . . . . . " [probably Ferdinand, Hereditary prince of Denmark, 1792-1863]. "I dare not!" Nora said. "Why not?" he asked. "Because of your wife". The prince started laughing hysterically. "You think I would tell this to my wife, she who is as jealous of me as a Turkish sultan of his odalisques?". He pressed her hand and said "Come now, little Nora, can't we be good friends?". "How do you mean, your royal--- little F . . . . . . . . ?". "That I shall tell you, beautiful Nora. I have fallen fatally in love with you, and if you won't deny me what I desire I'll give you whatever you want". "Your--- you can't mean you desire my love?". "That is precisely what I desire" he said. "How can I dare to accept such an honor?" Nora asked. "Now you are being foolish. Am I, because I am a prince, better than other men? Don't say such nonsense". The prince then reach his arm around Nora. "Now, a kiss from your cherry lips" he said and pressed his lips against hers.
"He became bolder and bolder, but I stopped him in his lover's heat as I thought it was not worth while giving away the apple before I had gotten the pear."
"I am in need of money, your royal--- I must pay a debt I owe, and have no idea as to where I can get the money" Nora said. "How big is the debt? It can't be that great?" the prince asked. "Well, it is actually one thousand rixdollars" she said. "What is that, little Nora?" the prince jumped off the sofa as though a snake had bitten him. "Have I heard correctly? Do yo owe someone a thousand rixdollars?". "Yes, your---". "That is a fine shilling, I won't deny" he continued and scratched his head. "My box is rather empty at the moment. But I'll simply have to find that Jew, Salomon, although I'll end up having to return two thousand rixdollars for the one thousand I borrow. I'll bring those thousand rixdollars to you tomorrow afternoon. Is the matter settled?" he asked. "Yes" Nora replied. The prince started once more to caress her, but she stopped him. "I have suddenly gotten such a headache that I can't stand it. Forgive me today, your royal highness, because I need to get some fresh air". "Yes, I can see you have become blushingly red in your chins" he said. "Poor Nora, I grieve you. Listen now, you know what? I'll come tomorrow with those thousand rixdollars. By then your headache will probably pass. Isn't that so?". "I hope so, your royal highness, and I look forwards to your visit". "Well, but to our parting you won't deny me a little kiss from you crimson lips, beautiful Nora?". "When you ask so nicely I won't deny it from you" she said.
"And now I let him give me a real smoocher on my mouth, after which he left saying 'live well, beautiful Nora, until we meet again'. When he was gone I thought: it is hard to switch such a handsome cavalier as the count with this old, withered lord. But one thousand rixdollars made him handsome in my eyes, and I intended to pick a few thousand more off him."
The next day the prince returned. "Here I am, my sweet little Nora" he said, "and with me also one thousand rixdollars. Which do you like the most, myself or my money?" he asked and laughed. "God help me, your royal highness, it is of course you in person. A prince of the royal house is a great honor to have as a lover". "But the thousand rixdollars?" he asked smiling. "I highly value them as well" Nora replied. "I bet you do. But tell me now, has that terrible headache passed?"
"The great sum in front of my eyes blinded me, and in my joy I fell upon his neck. The old lord was pleased, and he pulled me down on his lap and slapped my chin. 'Well, little Nora, will you have me as your man?' he asked. 'You bet' I replied, 'Then I would be a princess'. 'Ho, ho, ho!' he laughed 'I bet you'd wish that'. I was hurt by his scorning laughter."
Nora let the old prince have his way with her. Afterwards, as they were laying in bed, they played cards together. She won his diamond ring and an expensive breastpin his wife had bought him. From now on the prince would visit her on his free afternoons.
-Det Kongelige Bibliotek
"The reader can probably guess I wasn't faithful to the old lord, and that I from time to time entreated a young handsome gentleman when he gave me valuable presents"
Among her younger lovers at the time was the prince's adjutant, baron S . . . . . [?], of whom Nora was fond. Unfortunately for the two of them, Nora had stolen a lover from an acquaintance, who in revenge wrote to the prince and told him of her love affair with his adjutant. The Prince stalked the baron and burst into Nora's bedroom while the two were sitting in the sofa together. "I see you are hunting on my ground, baron, that is no cavalier behavior!" the prince shouted. The baron couldn't come up with any excuse and murmured "I've just come to see for myself whether your royal highness' lover was as beautiful as rumor suggests. I would never think to hunt on your grounds, I have far to much respect for your royal highness". "It does apparently not collide with your respect for me that your arm is wrapped around Nora's waist!" the prince said ironically. Nora started to cry, but the prince told her to spare him the crocodile tears. "See if you'll ever find a golden bird like me to pluck. Farewell beautiful Nora and farewell baron. We shall speak tomorrow". When the prince was gone the adjutant asked for Nora's forgiveness and left.
"Once the adjutant was gone I started thinking about a new lover. I had a few days earlier received a letter, written on the finest paper, from the rich merchant H . . . . . . [?]. A disgusting old man, but the owner of loads of gold... He was a usurer and a bloodsucker... It was a sour apple to bite, taking this old man as lover. The fact he was an Israelite, did not please me either"
"It is a great, great sum, five hundred rixdollars, maiden Nora" said the merchant, "it takes a long time to earn such a sum. But I can't withstand your fair, sparkling eyes, maiden Nora. Would you then care for me a little, when I have paid your house rent?". "How can I be anything but grateful to you, sir merchant. I regard you as my benefactor" Nora replied. She managed to milk another hundred rixdollars from the old man, after which she wrote him a parting letter.
By now the many scandalous relationships Nora lead bought her fame in Copenhagen. In 1968 the publication of P.A. Worm published a fictional novel with the title Nora Ebbesen, eller Kjøbenhavn paa Vrangen (Nora Ebbesen, or Copenhagen on the wrong side). This book may have encouraged Nora to later publish her autobiography. There was much talk about her in the streets, where she had gained the dubious nickname "Copenhagen's half-dame".
Author Peter Anton Worm (1828-1866)
-Det Kongelige Bibliotek
H.C. Andersen himself met Nora twice. The first time was while he was staying at the house of State Councilor Collin in Copenhagen together with the Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen. Andersen had returned home late one afternoon, and told Ibsen the following story: On Østergade he was delayed by lady. She was very easy on eye, and all the men in the Gianelli tearoom were eying her though the windows. She stopped him on the sidewalk and asked whether he wasn't the famous H.C. Andersen. "I am completely in love with your 'Kun en Spillemand'" she said, "You must give me a nicely bound copy of this wonderful book, preferably with a little dedication on the front". As Andersen finished his account Collin entered the room. "What's this I hear of you, Andersen" he said, "a man from Gianelli just came and told me that you, in the middle of Østergade, stood and bowed before Nora Ebbesen. Everybody there was laughing at you!". "But she was dressed like a princess" Andersen said apologetically.
Andersen at Collin's home in the late 1860's
Andersen met Nora again at the same place in March 1870. She was walking together with an Italian diplomat. At the time she was evidently residing at the luxurious Bournonville house on Slotsgade 9. "I pretended as though I did not know who she was, and spoke French with her", Andersen entered in his diary.
After getting rid of the merchant Nora set upon a neighbor, an old nobleman whom she had seen from her window. She thought he was handsome for his age with a "noble face like that of an old school aristocrat", and most importantly - rich. For a while she plotted how she might seduce him, until finally she noticed he took a daily walk down a side-street.
"When I followed him on the next day he went around Kronprinsessegaden and into the king's garden. 'Ha, ha!' I thought, 'there I can probably catch the old snail!'. I briskly passed him and cast my sorcerous gaze upon him as I crossed his path. Once I noticed he hastened his steps I sat at an empty bench. When the nobleman saw this and had reached the bench he took off his hat, complimented me and sat down by my side."
Nora Ebbesen, from an 1880 police
collection of Copenhagen prostitute pictures
-State Archives of Denmark
The old gentleman was gallant and kind to Nora. He spoke respectively to her, and she enjoyed his old-fashioned manner of speech and romance. "But how long did Adam live in Paradise?" Nora wrote. Soon her lover was appointed ambassador at a German court and had to leave Denmark. He asked Nora to join him, but she did not wish to leave Copenhagen.
"After him I had different lovers- a nobleman, a lawyer, an actor, a poet... but their gifts to me grew worse and worse, and at last I decided to travel to Hamburg. There I knew I would find my happiness"
An engraving of Nora Ebbesen shown on the cover
of a humorous song bearing her name, late 19th century
-University of Odense
Not much is known of Nora's whereabouts after she left Denmark. She did attend the World's Fair in Paris, where her presence reportedly caused a stir [1879?]. Some sources claim she had her last relationship in 1880's at a ripe old age.