In 1729 the celebrated actress Adrienne Lecouvreur died in mysterious circumstances. Some of the events that supposedly took place before and during her final illness are reported by her friend, Mlle Aïssé, in a letter written to Mme Calandrini:
Shortly thereafter, la Lecouvreur became so ill in the middle of a play that she could not finish… The poor creature went home, and four days after, one hour after midnight, she died.
La Lecouvreur, a poor creature, is thus summed up by her “friend,” who was not, incidentally, known as la Aïssé, although her own history was far from impeccable. An epistolary writer, Mlle Aïssé was meant to have been a Circassian princess, sold into slavery and bought by the French ambassador to Turkey, who brought her back to France to be raised by his sister-in-law. Like her friend Adrienne Lecouvreur, she never married, and she had at least one notorious love affair and at least one illegitimate child. Nonetheless, she retained the honorable title of “mademoiselle.”
Why “la Lecouvreur”? Inside the theatre of the ancien régime the actress was almost always given the title “mademoiselle,” but outside the private world of the stage, the actress was often referred to not with a title but with an article. Even today in France, the la is sometimes used, although now it indicates an actress of mythic stature.