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Slumming It in Paris

 

Apaches at Work

Encounter of the Apaches with the police on the Place de la Bastille

 

Tourist traps were not invented yesterday. The Parisians have got the hang of it very early on. One of the tourist attractions in the past was the glimpse of the redoubtable Apaches, the vicious gangs that terrorized Paris. (More about them in The Gangs of Paris.) Like other tourists, the American author and humorist Irvin S. Cobb followed this fashion of playing with the fire. We first came in contact with his caustic humor in Jacques Takes a Bath where he questions the local hygiene. In the following text, Cobb explores the Paris underground hoping for an adrenaline high in mingling with the Apaches:

Knowing from experience that every other American who lands in Paris will crave to observe the Apache while the Apache is in the act of Apaching round, the canny Parisians have provided a line of up-to-date Apache dens within easy walking distance of Montmartre; and hither the guides lead the round-eyed tourist and there introduce him to well-drilled, carefully made-up Apaches and Apachesses engaged in their customary sports and pastimes for as long as he is willing to pay out money for the privilege.

Being forewarned of this I naturally desired to see the genuine article. I took steps to achieve that end. Suitably chaperoned by a trio of transplanted Americans who knew a good bit about the Paris underworld I rode over miles of bumpy cobblestones until, about four o’clock in the morning, our taxicab turned into a dim back street opening off one of the big public markets and drew up in front of a grimy establishment rejoicing in the happy and well-chosen name of the Cave of the Innocents.

Alighting we passed through a small boozing ken, where a frowzy woman presided over a bar, serving drinks to smocked marketmen, and at the rear descended a steep flight of stone steps. At the foot of the stairs we came on two gendarmes who sat side by side on a wooden bench, having apparently nothing else to do except to caress their goatees and finger their swords. Whether the gendarmes were stationed here to keep the Apaches from preying on the marketmen or the marketmen preying on the Apaches I know not; but having subsequently purchased some fresh fruit in that selfsame market I should say now that if anybody about the premises needed police protection it was the Apaches. My money would be on the marketmen every time.

Beyond the couchant gendarmes we traversed a low, winding passage cut out of stone and so came at length to what seemingly had originally been a wine vault, hollowed out far down beneath the foundations of the building. The ceiling was so low that a tall man must stoop to avoid knocking his head off. The place was full of smells that crawled in a couple of hundred years before and had died without the benefit of clergy, and had remained there ever since. For its chief item of furniture the cavern had a wicked old piano, with its lid missing, so that its yellowed teeth showed in a perpetual snarl. I judged some of its important vital organs were missing too – after I heard it played. On the walls were inscribed such words as naughty little boys write on schoolhouse fences in this country, and more examples of this pleasing brand of literature were carved on the white oak benches and the rickety wooden stools. So much for the physical furbishing.

By rights—by all the hallowed rules and precedents of the American vaudeville stage!—the denizens of this cozy retreat in the bowels of the earth should have been wearing high-waisted baggy velvet trousers and drinking absinthe out of large flagons, and stabbing one another between the shoulder blades, and ever and anon, in the mystic mazes of dance, playing crack-the-whip with the necks and heels of their adoring lady friends; but such was not found to be the case. In all these essential and traditional regards the assembled Innocents were as poignantly disappointing as the costers of London had proved themselves.

According to all the printed information on the subject the London coster wears clothes covered up with pearl buttons and spends his time swapping ready repartee with his Donah or his Dinah. The costers I saw were barren of pearl buttons and silent of speech; and almost invariably they had left their Donahs at home. Similarly, these gentlemen habitués of the Cave of the Innocents wore few or no velvet pants, and guzzled none of the absinthe. Their favorite tipple appeared to be beer; and their female companions snuggled closely beside them.

apache 1

We stayed among them fully twenty minutes, but not a single person was stabbed while we were there. It must have been an off-night for stabbings. Still I judged them to have been genuine exhibits because here, for the first, last and only time in Paris, I found a shop where a stranger ready to spend a little money was not welcomed with vociferous enthusiasm. The paired-off cave-dwellers merely scowled on us as we scourged past them to a vacant bench in a far corner. […]

For the sake of the conventions I tried to feel apprehensive of grave peril. It was no use. I felt safe – not exactly comfortable, but perfectly safe. I could not even muster up a spasm of the spine when a member of our party leaned over and whispered in my ear that any one of these gentry roundabout us would cheerfully cut a man’s throat for twenty-five cents. I was surprised though at the moderation of the cost; this was the only cheap thing I had struck in Paris. It was cheaper even than the same job is supposed to be in the district round Chatham Square, on the East Side of New York, where the credulous stranger so frequently is told that he can have a plain murder done for five dollars – or a fancy murder with trimmings, for ten; rate card covering other jobs on application. In America, however, it has been my misfortune that I did not have the right amount handy; and here in Paris I was handicapped by my inability to make change correctly. By now I would not have trusted anyone in Paris to make change for me – not even an Apache. I was sorry for this, for at a quarter a head I should have been glad to engage a troupe of Apaches to kill me about two dollars’ worth of cabdrivers and waiters. For one of the waiters at our hotel I would have been willing to pay as much as fifty cents, provided they killed him very slowly. Because of the reasons named, however, I had to come away without making any deal, and I have always regretted it.

Related posts:

Jacques Takes a Bath

The Gags of Paris: Les Apaches

100

A milestone like the hundredth post naturally calls for a pause, for a look back at what has been achieved. These days VP posts are read around the world, even in countries I never knew existed.  It was not so at the very beginning.  Buried deep in the archives are posts that few eyes have seen recently. Yet given the small readership at the time, they gathered exceptional attention either for their content, or for the quality of the writing. Victorian Paris, it should be known, is history written by the people who lived it. From time to time, I contribute by writing a post, but usually I limit myself to finding a catchy title. After all, the texts published here don’t need more than a short introduction. Even though they were written more than a hundred years ago, they are rich in content and very often full of sparkling wit. Let’s revisit three of them:

 

La Grisette

Homage to the grisette. Statue erected in 1830

 

 

Living Vertically: Parisian Housing in 1850 / Part 1

Parisian house, January 1st, 1843

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Paris Morgue in Emile Zola’s Words (warning – gruesome!)

The Morgue at Paris. The Last Scene of a Tragedy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1858 Italian gownThe previous post dealt with the duel – a very masculine endeavor of two men killing each other for the sake of honor. Unlike the male population, women did not carry swords or pistols to assert themselves. They used fashion to that end. The 1850’s  and 60’s was the era of expansion in every way including the fashion. Railways expanded around the world, an undersea cable was laid and the telegraph carried instant news across the Atlantic. Machines and bridges were built that required chains of links the size of a human body. International expositions united goods and people from every corner of the globe. Women in their ever-increasing skirts took more and more room at such gatherings. A dress made of 15 to 20 yards of fabric covered with an ample mantle in the winter made women look like moving pyramids. Fortunately, the sewing machine was invented just then to help with assembling the abundant material.

Although I published a few posts on the 19th century fashion, especially on the infamous 1850-60’s crinoline, none of them can compete with Mimi Matthews’ meticulous work The 1850s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade. Mimi is working her way through the century post by post, each decade a careful assemblage of museum collections photos: a visual feast not to be missed. You’ll find some fashion atrocities like the Queen Victoria’s Great Exhibition gown with cancerous satin growths, but also things of stunning beauty, of rich materials and clever use of sewing skills. The winning entry is the orange Italian court gown. Do click on the photo to enlarge the gorgeous gold embroidery. You will be taken directly to the Metropolitan Museum fashion collection. But do come back to read Mimi Matthews’ remarkable post!

Related post:

The Hoop Crinoline: Dying for fashion

 

The Last Duel in Paris

 

cassagnac2

 

In the A Tramp Abroad, published in 1880, Mark Twain mocked the French practice of dueling:

“Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure to catch cold. M. Paul de Cassagnac, the most inveterate of the French duelists, had suffered so often in this way that he is at last a confirmed invalid; and the best physician in Paris has expressed the opinion that if he goes on dueling for fifteen or twenty years more—unless he forms the habit of fighting in a comfortable room where damps and droughts cannot intrude—he will eventually endanger his life.”

Paul de Cassagnac, who fought twenty-two duels, will be mentioned again in this post and in the embedded video you will be able to see his son follow the family’s dueling tradition.

Whatever Mark Twain might have said with his customary sarcasm, the duel was no laughing matter. In the Middle Ages it was a legitimate procedure to settle a personal dispute. Yet as time went by, an excess of testosterone combined with personal pride made it the prime cause of death among young nobles, who felt obliged to fight for the slightest personal offence. At the rate of 500 deaths a year, France was in danger of losing all of her nobility to trivial disputes. Duels were outlawed by a royal edict. However, the social pressure remained strong and the image of a hero executing a mortal dance to avenge an insult had an irresistible pull. From public places, the duels merely moved to private enclosures or to forest clearings.

After the Revolution, all the royal edicts were abolished including those banning duels. All citizens were allowed to carry arms which led to the democratization of duel: now men of all classes could kill each other just as stupidly as the nobles had done for centuries. Fortunately, most of the duels fought by now ended with the first appearance of blood and a mere scratch was often good enough to satisfy the offended honor. Even so, 200 deaths in duels were registered between 1826 and 1834.

cassagnac3Although in the 19th century a duel kill could be punished as a murder, the authorities were generally indulgent if the result was a mere injury. For instance, in 1868, Paul de Cassagnac was condemned by the Sixth Chamber of the Criminal Court of the Seine to six days in jail and 200 francs fine after his victorious duel with his cousin Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. The four witnesses were sentenced to 50 francs fine each. The victim was left off to lick his wounds. (Lissagaray was put to bed for a month. Barely recovered, he sent his witnesses to Cassagnac to continue the duel. Cassagnac replied: “No, sir. I left you on the ground riddled like a sieve. I could consent to be your opponent, it disgusts me to become your butcher.”)

Now we have heard enough about Paul de Cassagnac to be curious. Who was this duelist extraordinaire? A French Casanova?  Most would think that duels were fought mainly over a lady’s honor, especially in France, but that would be an error. Journalists and politicians were called out more often than wife’s lovers. De Cassagnac, both a journalist and a deputy at the National Assembly, made numerous enemies with his radical views. His son, Paul de Cassagnac Jr., inherited both his father’s dangerous occupations and his fiery temperament. You can see him fighting in the following video clip (second duel).

 

By the beginning of the 20th century, the duel was the thing of the past in all countries except in France, where it was still going strong until the killing fields of WWI took away the lives of an entire generation. There were a few duels afterwards, all duly caught on film, but one would believe that even the French would be entirely done with dueling after the horrors of WWII. Right?

The last duel in Paris (Ribière left, Deferre in the center)

The last duel in Paris (Ribière left, Deferre in the center)

Wrong! The last duel in Paris was fought  April 21st 1967. Again, the point of contention was not an affair of the heart fought over by two young bucks. The participants were two staid politicians in the French hotbed of disagreement: the National Assembly. Deferre, the mayor of Marseille was constantly interrupted in his speech by the deputy of Val d’Oise, René Ribière. “Mais taissez-vous donc, abruti!” (Shut up, asshole!), shouted Deferre. Refusing to apologize for the insult, he was challenged to a duel. President Charles de Gaulle sent emissaries to cancel the duel, but without success. The participants avoided the police and organized a secret encounter on a private property. The duel lasted four minutes and the referee put an end to it after the second scratch.  Just as well because Ribière, the loser, was getting married the next day. And so, after all the politics, we can finally mention l’amour.

Related post:

Events in the Street: Female duel with sand-filled socks

 

 

 

The Café-Concert at “The Ambassadeurs”

The Café-Concert at “Les Ambassadeurs”

Jean Béraud 1848 - 1935

Jean Béraud 1848 – 1935

Jean Béraud was born in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, where his father worked as a sculptor.  In 1853, after Jean Béraud Senior died, his wife Eugénie took Jean and his three siblings back to France. Jean studied at the Lycée Bonaparte then became a pupil of Léon Bonnat at the School of Fine Arts in Paris. He started at the Salon of 1872 and in 1876 he enjoyed success with his painting After the Funeral.

He became one of the leading painters of Parisian life. From the sweeping views of the boulevards to the intimate twosome at a bistro table, Béraud knows his Parisians. He paints with acuity and often with humor the scenes of daily life in every social setting.

After the Funeral

After the Funeral

A Windy Day at the Pont-des-Arts

A Windy Day at the Pont-des-Arts

Children with a Toy Seller on the Quai du Louvre

Children with a Toy Seller on the Quai du Louvre

Boulevard Poisonière in the Rain

Boulevard Poissonière in the Rain

An Argument in the Corridors of the Opera

An Argument in the Corridors of the Opera

La Marseillaise

La Marseillaise

First Communion

First Communion

The Boulevard

The Boulevard

The Garden of Paris

The Garden of Paris

In a Café

In a Café

Related post:

Paris Boulevards

On fine Sunday afternoons, the outskirts of Paris offered cheaper refreshments and popular bals as this one painted by Renoir

On fine Sunday afternoons, the outskirts of Paris offered cheaper refreshments and popular balls like this one painted by Auguste Renoir

 

In his Innocents Abroad Mark Twain divided travelling Americans into the Pilgrims and the Sinners. The Sinners enjoyed all the world had to offer in terms of amusement while the Pilgrims experienced a serious culture shock on several levels. For rock-solid Puritans such as the man who requested that the trans-oceanic steamship engines be stopped to observe the Sabbath, the sight of a  fun-filled Sunday boulevard was a direct path to Hell.  (Not to speak of –horror of horrors!—the nude statues in public places and more ‘nudities’ in the Louvre.)

The following text was written by James Jackson Jarves (1818–1888). This American newspaper editor and art critic visited Paris in the early 1850’s and published his impressions in Parisian Sights and French Principles  (1852). On the subject of Sunday he stands in the middle.

On this day Paris disgorges its population upon the Boulevards, the Champs Elysees, Bois du Boulogne, public gardens, and museums. The throng is interminable, but a more orderly, happier looking and better dressed crowd is nowhere to be seen. The working faubourgs send their population outside the barrier. In fine weather the Champs Elysees present the appearance of a fair. Every species of jugglery, Punch and Judy, concerts and dog shows, booths, games, and mountebank tricks are in full blast, and each becomes the centre of a curious circle. The roll of carriages and pleasure vehicles is incessant. Paris dines ” en ville,” or in other words, as pleasure is a part of a Frenchman’s creed and he is fond of good eating, he dines on that day with his family or friends at a restaurant, takes his coffee and brandy in the open air or on the sidewalk in front, and passes the evening at some theatre or ball. However remiss he may be at mass, this part of his religion is never neglected. The government encourage this mode of its observance by selecting it for grand reviews, races, launches, and whatever can add to the already seemingly superabundant sources of amusement. The grand waters at St. Cloud and Versailles play on Sunday, and the throng of people on the excursion trains of the railways is immense. Sunday is taken literally in the sense of a day of rest from ordinary work; consequently a day of liberty from otherwise the necessary labours of the remaining six might derange.

A Frenchman is as conscientious in defending his manner of keeping the Sabbath as an American would be in condemning it, though there are some, even Catholics, who agree with the latter. Education makes the difference. As the highest authority has declared Sunday was made for man, the surest way to test the relative merits of the two systems is by the effects on national character. The balance of physical happiness, and the enjoyment of the senses in works of art, would seem to be in favor of France ; but in the acquisition of religious instruction and the strengthening of moral principles, the graver course of the United States stands out in strong relief. The former renders the individual more joyous because less thoughtful — the latter more thoughtful and less joyous. The first, like their own champagne, sparkles, exhilarates and is gone ; the last, a solid aliment for the soul, nourishes strength for the hour of trial. A happy combination of the two would temper the one and adorn the other.

Related post:

Americans in Paris and the Kissing Protocol

Jean-Georges Béraud: Street Scene

Jean Béraud: Street Scene

“One of the characteristics of the people of Paris, for which they are known the world over, is their politeness,” wrote David W. Bartlett, an American author, who visited Paris during the Second Empire (1852-1870). Reading this, the immediate reaction of today’s visitors would be an utter disbelief since Parisians are known world-wide for their unpleasant behavior. The only consolation for the foreigner is that they don’t treat each other any better. During my last visit, my Parisian friend was called “une conne” (and a few more choice words) because of a tiny parking mistake she had made. The aggressor was a middle-class, middle-aged man. Things are looking up though. Well-aware of their bad reputation, Parisians are trying to soften their manners. In my experience (compared to ten, twenty years ago) there is a noticeable improvement.

David W. Bartlett

David W. Bartlett

Yet if we are to believe Mr. Bartlett, present-day Parisians come nowhere close to their ancestors’ civility. “I noticed this politeness in all circles and in all places,” he writes, and goes on: “In England John Bull stares at your dress if it differs from his own, and hunts you to the wall. Or if anything in your speech or manners pleases him, he laughs in your face. But in Paris, the Frenchman never is guilty of so ill-bred an action as to laugh at anybody in his presence, however provoking the occasion. If you are lost and inquire the way, he will run half a mile to show you, and will not even hear of thanks. The only time that I ever experienced anything but politeness in Paris, was when in a great hurry I chanced to hit a workman with a basket upon his head. The concussion was so great that the basket was dashed to the pavement. He turned round very slowly, and with a grin upon his countenance said, “Thank you, sir!” This was politeness with a little too much sarcasm. It was spoken so finely that I burst into a laugh, and the Frenchman joined me in it.”

Lucky Mr. Bartlett!

Related posts:

Mending Their Manners

Events in the Street: Female duel with sand-filled socks

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