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Archive for the ‘night life’ Category

 

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The Moulin Rouge. Polychrome photo, 1914

 

With nearly 600,000 visitors every year, Moulin Rouge is in the top ten must-see items on the tourist’s list. Located at the bottom of a hill in the Montmartre neighborhood—then a semi-rural setting favored by artists—Moulin Rouge opened its doors in 1889 to offer champagne-filled parties during which remarkable dancers and singers performed. Very soon, the establishment became world-famous for a scandalous dance called the can-can. No one has described the can-can in better words than Mark Twain here.

 

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With enough champagne bottles emptied, spectators found themselves willing participants on the dance floor that was installed to admire the performers up close. The great painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, immortalized these scenes of night-time delirium in some of his famous works. It is mainly thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters, that the two most colorful Moulin Rouge dancers remain in our consciousness.

 

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Moulin Rouge’s top star La Goulue with the silhouette of her dance partner Valentin the Boneless

 

 

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No less popular is this Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster featuring Jane Avril

 

The two women had only one thing in common: they both excelled on the dance floor. La Goulue, low-born and vulgar, was the prototype of the working-class girl found in the dancing halls. Louise Weber—her real name— was born in 1868 and passed to posterity as La Goulue for her greedy behavior: she liked to empty the guests’ glasses that stood within her reach.   The other dancers did not fare any better as to the choice of their nom d’artiste. There was the Cheese Kid, the Sewer Grid, or Nini the Paws-in-the-Air. This joyful band was not impressed with royalty. “Hey, Wales,” La Goulue addressed the heir to the British throne, “the champagne is in your name so is it you who pays or is your Mama [Queen Victoria] inviting us?”

 

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La Goulue’s sensual, provocative body corresponded to the taste of the time that appreciated generous femininity.

 

 

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La Goulue entering the Moulin-Rouge. 1892. Lautrec painted her with a smirk on her face that is difficult to interpret: is it the arrogance of a diva or simple tiredness?

 

 

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Toulouse-Lautrec remained La Goulue’s friend well after her triumphs. In this picture, they sit side by side with La Môme Fromage (the Cheese Kid) opposite

 

Soon, La Goulue ceased to please and turned to her painter-friend for help. Now self-employed, she would sell her renown in the fairgrounds.  To recall her prestigious past, Lautrec painted two large panels exposed on the front of her fairground hut.  A few years later, when in debt, she had to sell these panels and they were cut into smaller canvasses by a greedy merchant.  In 1929, they were bought and restored by the Louvre and can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay.

 

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La Goulue’s fairground hut with panels painted by Toulouse-Lautrec

 

The next adventure began in 1900 when La Goulue married. With her husband, a magician in trade, she learned to tame wild beasts.  Unfortunately, they were both assaulted during the show.

 

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By that time, La Gouloue’s life was on a sharp downward slide. Her husband was shot in 1914, the victim of a German bullet in the WW1. Her son, who she claimed was fathered by a prince, died at 27.

 

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La Goulue with her son Simon

 

deathShe lived miserably in a caravan, where she gathered ailing circus animals, and she returned to the Moulin Rouge for financial support. She was allowed to sell peanuts and cigarettes on the sidewalk. Now and then, she’d get drunk and shout: “I’m La Goulue! Can’t you see it? I was the greatest star here!”

The newspapers announced La Goulue’s death in 1929.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jane Avril by Edgar Chahine

 

 

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Jane Avril, charcoal sketch by Picasso

Born near Paris, but seemingly coming from another planet, was Jane Avril, the other celebrated Moulin Rouge star. Strange and mysterious, she did not need the raw sensuality of La Goulue to seduce her audience. She’d come and go as she pleased –no salaried employment for her—and simply danced with every nerve in her body. Except for that, she had nothing in common with the other dancers. They did not understand her and they did not like her. For them, she was Mad Jane. But Mad Jane did not care. She found her friends and lovers in intellectual circles.  She could marry if she wanted to for there were willing takers but she loved her freedom.

 

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Toulouse-Lautrec: Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, a lonely, mysterious figure

 

Her story of an enfant-martyre explains a lot. Born Jeanne Beaudon, in 1868, to a Second Empire courtesan, and fathered by an Italian aristocrat to whom she was an embarrassment, she was first brought up by her maternal grandparents. Her life took a turn for the worse when her sadistic mother decided that Jane should live with her in Paris. She was nine when she entered hell. Today, Jane’s mother would be identified as a dangerous psychopath but the science in Jane’s childhood did not yet reach that stage. Nor did the social services function as they do today. The children, then, were the property of their parents. Several people knew that Jane was beaten at least twice a day for invented offenses, but none reported the abuse to the police. It was just not done. The constant stress had to show somewhere and Jane developed a chorea minor, then referred to as Saint Vitus Dance. It is a nervous disorder characterized by rapid, involuntary jerking movements. At fourteen, she ran away from home. Finally, she found herself in a madhouse and happy as a lark. One can fully appreciate the degree of her suffering when a child finds the madhouse a step above her home.

In her biography, Jane relates that during a musical entertainment at the hospital, she suddenly got up and began to dance. In front of her audience’s eyes, she changed from a timid, shivering nonentity into a graceful nymph. Her condition improved and, soon, she was released to her mother’s care. She ran away—for good— at sixteen to live with a student. She gave all of herself to this first love, only to find herself betrayed. This was too heavy a load for her fragile constitution. Immediately after the discovery, she ran toward the Seine to jump from a bridge. A prostitute talked her out of the idea. Jane spent that night in a brothel. The next day the inmates went to a public ball, taking their new protégé with them.

 

avrilThe public ball was Jane’s second awakening. From then on, her life became divided in two: a day job to keep her from hunger and a night life to keep away her demons. Her talent led to prestigious theatrical engagements when an exceptional dance number was needed and, for a time, she was the ambassador of French can-can in London and in Madrid. Her poise, grace, and intelligence made her a welcome guest at dinner parties. A friend of novelists, dramatists, artists, philosophers, and scientists, she also captured the heart of Toulouse-Lautrec who saw in her a sister soul. He too was a victim of physical suffering. He, too, had an unusual childhood. They remained friends until the painter’s premature death.

 

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Such was Jane Avril’s status in the world of entertainment that her presence in the audience recommended any show (poster by Toulouse-Lautrec)

 

In her forties, Jane finally settled down to sixteen years of quiet married life. She died in 1943 at the age of seventy-five.

 

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The origin of can-can, the wild whirl of petticoats and kicking legs, can be traced back to the 1830’s. The dance was born in the public balls and guinguettes where the working class men and women discharged their energy in a rough display of seduction on the dancing floor. The can-can was later choreographed for the stage and became the chorus dance we now associate with the Belle Epoque Paris. To the 19th century public, the dance was scandalous to the extreme, hence the word cancan (scandal). Mark Twain, visiting Paris in the 1860’s, left us the following account:

 One night we went to the celebrated Jardin Mabille, but only stayed a little while. We wanted to see some of this kind of Paris life, however, and therefore the next night we went to a similar place of entertainment in a great garden in the suburb of Asnières. We went to the railroad depot toward evening, and Ferguson got tickets for a second-class carriage. Such a perfect jam of people I have not often seen – but there was no noise, no disorder, no rowdyism. Some of the women and young girls that entered the train we knew to be of the demimonde, but others we were not at all sure about.

The girls in our carriage behaved themselves modestly and becomingly all the way out, except that they smoked. When we arrived at the garden in Asnières, we paid a franc or two of admission an entered the place which had flower beds in it, and grass plots, and long, curving rows of ornamental shrubbery, with here and there a secluded bower convenient for eating ice cream in. We moved along the sinuous gravel walks, with the great concourse of girls and young men, and suddenly a domed and filigreed white temple, starred over and over and over again with brilliant gas jets, burst upon us like a fallen sun. Nearby was a large, handsome house with its ample front illuminated in the same way, and above its roof floated the Star-Spangled Banner of America.

“Well,” I said. “How is this?” It nearly took my breath away.

Ferguson said an American–a New Yorker–kept the place, and was carrying on quite a stirring opposition to the Jardin Mabille.

Crowds composed of both sexes and nearly all ages were frisking about the garden or sitting in the open air in front of the flagstaff and the temple, drinking wine or coffee or smoking. The dancing had not begun yet. Ferguson said there was to be an exhibition. The famous Blondin was going to perform on a tightrope in another part of the garden. We went thither. Here the light was dim, and the masses of people were pretty closely packed together. […]

The dance had begun, and we adjourned to the temple. Within it was a drinking saloon, and all around it was a broad circular platform for the dancers. I backed up against the wall of the temple and waited. Twenty sets formed, the music struck up and then–I placed my hands before my face for very shame. But I looked through my fingers. They were dancing the renowned “cancan”. A handsome girl in the set before me tripped forward lightly to meet the opposite gentleman, tripped back again grasped her dresses vigorously on both sides with her hands, raised them pretty high, danced an extraordinary jig that had more activity and exposure about it than any jig I ever saw before, and then, drawing her clothes still higher, she advanced gaily to the center and launched a vicious kick full at her vis-à-vis that must have infallibly removed his nose if he had been seven feet high. It was a mercy he was only six.

That is the cancan. The idea of it is to dance as wildly, as noisily, as furiously as you can; expose yourself as much as possible if you are a woman; and kick as high as you can, no matter which sex you belong to. There is no word of exaggeration in this. Any of the staid, respectable, aged people who were there that night can testify to the truth of that statement. There were a good many such people present. I suppose French morality is not of that straightlaced description which is shocked at trifles.

I moved aside and took a general view of the cancan. Shouts, laughter, furious music, a bewildering chaos of darting and intermingling forms, stormy jerking and snatching of gay dresses, bobbing heads, flying arms, lightning flashes of white-stockinged calves and dainty slippers in the air, and then a grand final rush, riot, a terrific hubbub, and a wild stampede! Heavens! Nothing like it has been seen on earth since trembling Tam O’Shanter saw the devil and the witches at their orgies that stormy night in “Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.”

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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From Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles by Charles C. Fulton. Text written in 1873.

Fulton was one of the incomprehensibly rich American tourists who invaded Paris two years after the twin calamities of the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the Second Empire. In 1871, the city was ruined by Prussian bombardment and the Commune of Paris revolution, both responsible for destroying and damaging many public buildings. It is therefore surprising that Fulton never mentions the wounds Paris had sustained. In the two years that followed, Paris seems to have risen from the ashes to dazzle the foreigners as it did under the reign of Napoleon III.

The boulevards of Paris, extending for miles through all sections of the city, present a gay scene at night. The thousands of cafés, brilliant with gas-jets, have their tables out on the broad pavements, and from eight to ten o’clock in the evening it is difficult to obtain a seat in any of them. Ice-cream and coffee is the extent of the Parisian’s indulgence though a few add a little cognac to their coffee. They spend their summer evenings in promenading the boulevards and occasionally stopping for a cup of their favourite beverage.

The sidewalks of the boulevards are at least thirty-five feet wide, and in many prominent places, women are stationed along the curb-stones with chairs to rent, on which those who are tired may for a few centimes rest themselves and view the promenaders as they pass. The broad streets are also filled with carriages so that it is difficult to effect a crossing. They are required by law to have their lamps burning.

Strangers in the city who wish to view these gas-light scenes generally engage carriages and drive slowly through the different boulevards, and a vast number of carriages are constantly passing to a from the various places of amusement. Everybody seems happy and intent upon enjoyment.

[…] The stores are not only brilliantly lighted, but nearly all of them  have rows of gas-lights on the outside, making the streets almost as light as day.

The display of the stores last night on the Boulevard des Capucines exceeded anything we had ever before seen even in Paris. […] The tasteful  arrangement of the goods, the disposition of the lights, and the reflection in the side-glasses with which the shop-windows are always provided, presented a continuous spectacle of surpassing beauty. Ten years ago the Palais Royal was the great central attraction of Paris, but the boulevard stores have so greatly excelled these small establishments that it is now comparatively deserted at night. The hundreds of jewellers’ windows were sparkling with diamonds and precious stones, and even the fancy and dry-goods stores tried to excel one another in the effort to attract attention of the throngs of promenaders.

We walked through some of these central boulevards for nearly two hours, and everywhere the pavements were so filled that it was difficult for three to walk abreast without being continually jostled by the promenaders. This was also the case in the arcades running through the interior of the squares, where the display was similarly attractive. The best possible order was everywhere preserved and the gensdarmes, with their huge cavalry-swords, stood like statues on the corners of the streets, having no occasion to do more than remain quietly at their posts.

There being no cobble-stone pavements in Paris, the carriages and omnibuses make little or no noise as they glide along the smooth asphaltum, nor is there any dust for them to stir up to vex the eyes and the lungs of the people. The sweeping machines are going all night and until ten o’clock in the morning, making the streets as clean as they could be swept with a corn-broom by hand, and lest any dust should be left in the crevices, they are washed off with hose.

In short, Paris is grand. She has passed through her tribulations, and has again presented herself to the world more beautiful and attractive than ever. That the world is pleased is evident from the many thousands of strangers now lingering here to enjoy the brilliant spectacle.

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