An Introduction To Shanghai Demimondaine

To celebrate the upcoming publication of Nick Hordern’s new history of the beautiful Australian Lorraine Murray, we’ll be publishing three excerpts from Shanghai Demimondaine: From Sex Worker to Society Matron. It is is published by Earnshaw Books and you can find out more about all Nick Hordern’s works here.

noun: demi-monde; (in 19th-century France) a class of women considered to be of doubtful social standing.

Lorraine Murray’s Fateful Meeting At Farren’s

(Lorraine Murray was born in Adelaide in 1910. She and her siblings were illegitimate, and their childhood was overshadowed by their mother’s attempts to conceal that she was an unwed mother. At the age of 24, Lorraine found herself stranded in Shanghai and went to work in a brothel. She had left the sex industry eighteen months before this excerpt opens, but she was still struggling to find a new path.

One night in October 1937 the American writer Emily Hahn went out dancing to Shanghai’s hottest jazz nightclub, Farren’s. The Sino – Japanese War had broken out two months before and the besieging Japanese army was drawing closer: there were checkpoints on the roads and distant explosions echoed through the autumn night. 

Many of the male customers packed into Farren’s were western businessmen, but there were fewer western women because many had been evacuated from the city. But neither the war nor the dearth of familiar partners had cramped Shanghai’s nightlife; if anything, it was more frenetic. On the crowded dance floor Emily bumped into a young woman she knew as Jean, who came from South Africa. They had been introduced before but now Emily was puzzled because Jean ‘looked at me … as if she were not at all sure I would recognize her’. 

The reason for Jean’s uncertainty was that until recently she had been a star attraction in one of the city’s high class brothels, and she was worried that she would be snubbed, or worse, called out and shamed. In fact Emily did not know Jean had been a prostitute, and when she did find out she didn’t judge her for it, for she herself was on the wrong side of respectability and a sworn foe of hypocrisy and convention. 

Emily also didn’t know that Jean’s real name was Lorraine Murray and she came from Australia, not South Africa. The identity of Jean was part of an armour of lies that Lorraine wore to shield her from a censorious world, but it didn’t protect her from her inner fears. She was haunted by the sense that she was an outcast, and not only because she had been a sex worker. 

This would start becoming clear to Emily a few months later, when Lorraine moved into her home, beginning a lifelong friendship between the two women. 

Over the next decade Emily would guide Lorraine away from a life of banality, while for her part Lorraine would provide Emily with material for several books. In the first of these, the 1944 memoir China to Me, Lorraine appeared as Jean: beautiful, immature, foul-tempered and morally blind to the catastrophe engulfing China. Then in the 1947 novel Miss Jill, Lorraine appears in fictionalised guise as Jill, a younger woman struggling to take control of her life. 

That night in Farren’s, Lorraine was dancing with the Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, a rising star of Mussolini’s Fascist regime. He was one of the flock of journalists who had arrived in Shanghai to cover the Sino-Japanese War, and he and Lorraine had just begun an affair which would be one of the great romances of her life. It was also Lorraine’s introduction to the world of the foreign correspondent and in the coming years she would often be found in the company of journalists: not only Italian but American, British, Japanese and Australian as well. With Emily as her mentor, this new milieu would stimulate Lorraine’s interest in politics and global affairs, books and writing – among the strands which, woven together, became her bridge to a new life. 

In China to Me Emily tells how they had met the previous year, when a businessman nicknamed Dee Dee – ‘a man in town, a wealthy broker’ – had asked the writer a favour. Would she hold a party to introduce ‘a young woman who was stranded in the city’? The young woman was Lorraine, and the party had not been a success. According to Emily, she ‘was extraordinarily pretty and she looked just like the others in the way she dressed, but there was a something in her manner that made me look at her twice. She wasn’t at all easy in her mind.’ Next, Dee Dee invited Emily and Lorraine out to dinner at a Japanese restaurant. On this occasion, Emily discovered that Lorraine spoke fluent Japanese, which surprised her because Dee Dee had told her that she had just arrived from South Africa. And that was the last she saw of her until they met on the dance floor. 

Then, a few months after that night at Farren’s, Dee Dee called Emily again, to say that Lorraine had made a suicide attempt and to ask if she could come and see Emily to talk things over. The upshot was that Lorraine moved in, and was soon beginning to unburden herself to the writer. It turned out that Lorraine had spent two years working in Madam Louise’s, a high class brothel, and that Dee Dee, having supported her to leave the sex industry, was now trying to get Lorraine to lead a more reputable life with the ultimate goal of her marrying a suitable man. And that, although in love with her, Dee Dee was unable to offer himself as a husband. Lorraine was, to use her own term, a ‘demimondaine’: one who lived on the boundary of prostitution, but Dee Dee’s family belonged to Shanghai’s elite and he could not expose them to the scandal that a marriage to Lorraine might entail were her former profession revealed. 

In fact, Lorraine’s suicide attempt had been triggered by a rebuff from Luigi Barzini, but their troubled affair was only one of her woes, her shame at having been a prostitute looming large among them. But why had she gone to work in a brothel in the first place? Emily’s books tell the reader very little about Lorraine’s life before she arrived in China, only that she had previously been the mistress of a high Japanese official and that, when that relationship had ended, she had been passing through Shanghai and stayed on, eventually winding up in Madame Louise’s. But the real roots of her unhappiness stretched back to her earliest childhood.

You can order Shanghai Demimondaine: From Sex Worker to Society Matron via this link.