The Milliner on the Champs Elysées by Jean Beraud
In this fifth and last part of the series, Octave Uzanne explores the hidden side of the Parisian sex industry. The text was published in 1912. This post is longer than usual, but then the clandestine prostitution possessed more secrets and inventions than the open sex trade.
The clandestine prostitution of Paris is the most interesting branch of the subject for it is the most ingenious, the most fertile in resource, the cleverest in passing off what it has to sell, the most expert in creating an atmosphere of illusion.
As its name indicates, this province of vice is a thing apart. It is a mysterious trade, which depends for its success on histrionic capacity and on a tangle of tricks and intrigues which would be impossible to unravel completely. Clandestine prostitution, like the spider, weaves its web in the shadows. It has its spies, its brokers, its beaters whose business it is to drive the game into the toils. Its methods are rarely direct, and whatever mode of action be chosen it very rarely comes into the light of day, and uses extraordinary and marvellously combined subterfuges to conceal its operations. Labyrinths are constructed the windings of which can never be known to the police. A mise en scène is chosen which prevents the most subtle observer from guessing the kind of play on which the curtain is soon to rise.
In Paris, a clandestine prostitution is everywhere. It surrounds a man in all his acts and avocations. It presents itself in hotels, in restaurants, in shops, in omnibus shelters, at the Louvre and the Luxembourg, where it appears armed with a Baedeker, ready to guide the foreigner. In certain circles—aye, even in the official ones—it shows itself discretely, almost impenetrably disguised. It insinuates itself into your pockets in the form of circulars, visiting cards, and unusual and curious invitations. In the newspapers you find it in advertisements on the fourth page where it well understands the use of such euphemisms as “massage”, the “removal of superfluous hair”, “dyeing”, “manicure”, or “private lessons in gymnastics”.
It enters your house on the various pretexts of charity, literature, art, or applications for employment. It is to be seen at photographers’, in places where ladies show themselves in tights, in reading rooms and libraries, and in bars. It is familiar with every subtlety and knows the use of every kind of mask. It reveals itself slowly and does not give itself away till the ground has been made secure and the right moments has come.
The triumph of this form of prostitution is assured at the beginning of this century, when secret and selfish pleasure, the love of comfort, the search for poignant and abnormal pleasures are so much in favour with the blasé beings of our generation. The ordinary prostitute has no attraction for that section of the public which hates to vulgarize its pleasures by indulging in debauchery too flagrant or too commonplace. They want something possessing character and originality. An orgy to suit their fancy must be scented, subtle, and graceful; their gallantries must be veiled and dissimulated under the outward appearance of correctness and propriety. To such people clandestine prostitution offers just the right flavour of perversity, for it provides just every sort of feminine corruption.
Let us attempt a summary sketch of the various ingenious disguises, tricks, feints, and pretences to which the clandestine prostitute of Paris resorts, whether the scene of her operation be the streets or other public places, a shop, a theatre, a hotel, or a house of rendezvous.
Out of doors, clandestine prostitution is rampant. Many do not see it even when it is at their elbows, for one’s power of observation must be sharpened by long residence in Paris and by an innate curiosity in these matters before one can be certain, so deceptive are the appearances which this culpable trade assumes. The rake of long standing, the impenitent libertine, the corsair of the pavement – all those who love the streets of Paris for the sake of the women they meet there, the amateurs of fresh faces and alluring curves, are never deceived, for daily exercise in the chase keeps every sense alert. They divine everywhere the discreet invitation, the mere insinuation of an advance, and it is rarely indeed that they are mistaken.
“Believe me,” said one of them to us, “that out of a hundred young women whom you will meet unchaperoned in the course of a stroll along the boulevards you may be certain that, however respectable they look, more than a third are adventuresses. I’m not speaking of obvious harlots. I take merely those whose bearing is modest, whose manner is virtuous, and whose composure is all but middle-class.”
“Come,” he continued, “let us observe. You see that young girl tripping along with a roll of music under her arm. You think she is an artist, or perhaps some young lady who has been having a music lesson. Follow her for a little, using the approved method and taking care not to frighten so wary a bird. Accost her at the psychological moment in some passage, square or blind alley towards which the sly minx will have led you on. A hospitable room will soon receive you, and you will not be long in discovering what are the lessons given and received by the subtle lady who looks as if she came from the Conservatoire.
“Again, look at that pretty creature in deep mourning. How elegant she is and shapely in her black gown. Her pale charming face is delightfully framed by the crape of her English widow’s cap, and the air of sadness on those features which were surely meant for dimpling smiles inspires the spectator with sincere sentiments of pity. Hasten, then, to console her. Your sympathy will not go unrewarded. Follow on the track of the bereaved. She belongs to the department which ‘does mournings’ for a special class of client.
“Behold this adorable girl passing in the company of that respectable lady. Is she not a pupil at some girls’ school? She is as fresh and charming as a half-opened rosebud. You are in ecstasies at such a delightful spectacle of youth and innocence, and think of the happy marriage the dear child is sure to make. Simple soul! I look more closely at the venerable chaperon and exchange with her an imperceptible smile. A few minutes later pass ahead of the pair, and when you come to the first corner turn and confront the matron saluting her as you would a friend. Compliment her on her daughter’s charms, and propose calling on her. If you care for such things you will find the girl as complaisant as she is already calculating and depraved.”
Mothers who sell their daughters as soon as they reach thirteen or fourteen are unfortunately only too common, and their bearing as they walk the streets does not escape those who understand these things. There are also sham waiting-maids, sham workgirls, sham sick-nurses, and even sham Sisters of Charity, whose business, when they are not working on their own account, is to canvass out of doors or from house to house for the numerous clandestine salons of the capital.
A favourite scene of operations is a railway station—the Gare de l’Ouest for choice—where there are such crowds of women that one is tempted to suppose that it received its name of Saint-Lazare because it’s the favorite issue for prostitutes coming from the sanitary prison of the same name. Their game at such stations is, of course, the foreigner and the provincial – the Englishman arriving from Dieppe, and the suburban man of business who, when he comes to Paris, is often not unwilling to indulge himself with a little diversion.
Many of these pseudo-travellers provide themselves with a railway rug or a travelling-bag and dress themselves in the tailor-made English fashion. In that case they do not merely haunt the vestibules, the waiting-rooms, or the neighbouring cafés, but actually travel from Paris to Saint-Germain, or take the Nord-West via Argenteuil, Enghien, and Saint-Denis – an itinerary which appears to suit their particular line of business. Some do the Paris-Versailles route, where there are plenty of foreigners. They all travel first class, and inspect the train carefully, choosing if possible a compartment in which there is a man alone.
Others of the clandestine sort frequent picture shows, courses of lectures or the reading rooms at the Bon Marché or the Magasins du Louvre. There they are on the look-out for serious-minded clients, and consequently they themselves affect an interest in the fine arts, in literature, and intellectual things generally. They are often the most intelligent and interesting of their profession, and have quite a gift for conversation.
Some frequent only the large hotels, where with the connivance of porters, valets, grooms or upper servants, they get to know the names of new arrivals, find out their financial position, and lay siege in form to the victims of their choice. Then they have recourse to letters—and what clever letters!—or to visits in the character of canvassers for shirt-makers, jewellers, or tobacconists. Some even go the length of taking a room in the same hostelry if the coveted person is important enough to make it worthwhile.
Clandestine prostitution is sometimes carried on by means of circulars or through newspapers, thanks to the “agony column”. It is a method which is coming more and more into fashion. The woman of the agony column is usually well-educated, original, and witty writer, and in the columns she produces phrases such as these: “Eve is bored. Write to her, X. Y., office of this paper”’ Or again: “A chilly swallow wants a nest. Who will give her one?” She gets answers, stupid, amusing, impertinent, arrogant or timid by turns, which, if she has any penetration, will show her clearly enough what is the moral and social position of her correspondent. It is therefore an excellent method for courtesans, who are using it more every day and competing with the respectable women who amuse themselves in this way.
Theatres which speculate upon the curiosity of the public by producing what are known as “pièces à femmes” are also hotbeds of clandestine prostitution. Whether they play fairy pieces for the delight of children, or revues which are crowded with characters who must appear in tights, every minx who is vain of her figure rushes to offer her services. Such women know very well that they will have a favourable opportunity of exhibiting themselves and of showing that if they have no talent they have, at any rate, an attractive pair of legs. At the stage door connoisseurs, escorts, suitors, and lovers mix in groups with the merely curious, awaiting the exit of the charmers. They glare at each other like china dogs, and they are content to wait for hours with angelic patience, often in evening dress, at these back entrances, which are horrible places, dirty, damp and malodorous.
We must now track the clandestine prostitute into less accessible retreats where chance must serve us in lieu of observation – the shops, flats, and salons of all kinds in which women carry on a trade in their own bodies without solicitation and consequently without scandal. First of all we must speak of the shops which sell perfumery, gloves, artificial flowers, collars, ties, shirts, photographs, engravings, and even new books. The exterior has no special feature, except perhaps that there is very little in the window, and that what there is allows you to see between the half-drawn curtains into an elegant but sparsely furnished shop, with a counter in the middle, covered with little articles, at which a woman sits and simpers, gracefully turning her head towards the street as soon as she feels that she is observed. If the customer accepts her invitation to enter, the curtains are discretely drawn, and the conversation which follows very soon clears up the situation. Usually there are two women in these “shops” – one of ripe age and notable embonpoint, the other a slim, girlish creature with her hair in plaits. They have a joint stock, and share the profits scrupulously every night. Their business hours are approximately from midday to midnight.
In the purlieu of the Rue Montorgueil, of the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle and the Boulevard du Château-d’Eau there are to be found establishments of a different character. These are the sham milliners, dressmakers, and jewellers established on the first floor of houses of ill-fame. On the doors are such inscriptions as “Mme. Jeanne, fleuriste”, “Mlle. Alexandrine, modes”, “Fiorina, artiste”, or, again , “Pauline, plumes métalliques”. It would require the pen of Biartial, a Suetonius, or a Juvenal of the present day to describe the putrescent immoralities of these dens of iniquity where the most unmentionable vices of the ancients are practiced.
Other posts of interest:
Saint Lazare: Women in prison
Mark Twain and the Cancan