“Liaisons Dangereuses” : Exploring the Scandalous Side of Paris
Paris is synonymous with being a city of pleasure, and lovers of the Musée d’Orsay will be familiar with Impressionist works by masters such as Degas, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec above, depicting the life and times of colourful female characters from the 19th century. Take a walk on the wild side of the capital and travel back in time to meet some of the most scandalous characters who have been responsible for giving Paris its racy reputation.
We’ve seen infamous French courtesans gracing the silver screen for decades, from Leslie Caron playing Colette’s irrepressible Gigi to Nicole Kidman enthralling us with her trapeze-swinging portrayal of Satine in Moulin Rouge. We’ve all sobbed at the hapless plight of poor Fantine in Les Misérables, and readers of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of novels have grimaced at the tragic ending of high-class prostitute Nana and her antics at the Théâtre des Variétés. More than any other city in the world, Paris is renowned for its rich history in and out of the bedroom. Let’s go behind closed doors on an eye-opening unique Paris tour and find out exactly where all the action took place.
Our guided walk begins close to the Louvre at the appropriately named Place Colette, where we learn about the author’s unconventional life story, as well as some salacious tales of Napoleon Bonaparte being deflowered in the nearby Palais-Royal as an apparently unattractive 18-year-old. Meanwhile, just around the corner is the first shop to sell prophylactics in 1760, proving that old adage of “location, location, location”.
As we continue along the offbeat route through the 2nd arrondissement, we learn about the trials and tribulations facing women during the Belle Époque at the turn of the 20th century. In a time of peace and prosperity, there was much joie de vivre, and great developments were made in science and technology. In reality, however, much of France still had a large economic underclass, and poverty remained endemic in Paris’ urban slums; so while the nouveau–riche were freely enjoying all the new forms of light entertainment, their less affluent compatriots spent their leisure time and hard-earned wages in the insalubrious cabarets and music halls that opened across the city.
As a result, the capital became a literal hotbed of temptation and vice. Some of the cosseted high-class courtesans (fittingly known as les grandes horizontales) accumulated massive fortunes during their ill-spent years. But at the opposite end of the spectrum were the demi-mondaines, lorettes and grisettes, who took to the streets from pure necessity rather than as crafty career moves. At the peak of the Belle Époque, more than 200 maisons closes (brothels) had been established, with 150,000 registered filles de joie offering their wares to an impassioned and tantalised audience.
The term ‘City of Light’ also took on a new, shadier connotation during this unique Paris tour. France had recently been illuminated by the invention of gas lamps, so ladies of the night took full advantage by deliberately standing near flattering light as darkness fell. As the twilight hour began, throngs of gaudily dressed women appeared on the boulevards to flash a coquettish ankle during what was known as the ‘absinthe hour’. Degas’ famous work is a remarkable testimony to the harsh times, for some of the women, who pursued this profession; in this case, a picture tellingly paints a thousand words.
By sharp contrast, as we cross into the less touristy 9th neighbourhood, we stop in front of Les Folies Bergères to hear about the wealthy Spanish beauty named La Belle Otero, an actress-dancer-turned-courtesan. Her voluptuous bosom was said to have inspired the twin cupolas of the Hotel Carlton in Cannes and she was said to be personally responsible for the deaths of no less than six suitors who committed suicide when they fell out of favour with her.
La Belle Otero was also associated with a very conspicuous player on the Parisian scene from across the Channel. While his mother, Queen Victoria, was still on the throne in England, heir apparent Edward VII spent many a happy night ensconced in his favourite bordello, which is now an inconspicuous-looking office on rue Chabanais. Our guide Ana pointed out where two elevators were previously located: their sole purpose was to keep those arriving from encountering those leaving this hotbed of iniquity. The Prince of Wales did not have to worry about this fine detail, however, as he had his very own room at Le Chabanais, complete with coat of arms above the bed.
The future king apparently liked to bathe in a champagne-filled giant copper bath, adorned with a half-woman-half-swan figurehead. The tub was subsequently purchased by Salvador Dalì when the brothel closed its doors in the 1940s. ‘Dirty Bertie’, as Edward VII was fondly nicknamed, was also the proud owner of a famously accommodating love seat, or siège d’amour. Modesty keeps me from going into further details here, but for anyone whose curiosity has been piqued, you will hear more about the chair’s unique qualities on this no-holds-barred Paris tour.
Ana showed us how to recognise the tell-tale signs of brothels behind the innocent-looking doorways of today; and as is often the case with a guided tour, we all agreed that we would never have known what we were missing without her expert eyes indicating where we should look. We continued our scandalous tour of in front of the infamous Hôtel Amour and past the even more titillating Chez Christiane on rue Navarin, before finally reaching the glorious Place Saint Georges where the impressive Hôtel de Bernis stands, lavishly constructed by the Marquise de Païva’s husband. The powerful La Païva, as she was known, went on to build an even more opulent abode on the Champs-Élysées, where it still stands today next to the equally flamboyant Abercrombie & Fitch flagship store. Ironically, it’s now a private gentleman’s club.
Where else to end the tour, but in the former red-light district of Pigalle? Just a stone’s throw away from the Moulin Rouge is what was once one of the neighbourhood’s thriving brothels. It is now a luxury boutique hotel, which just happens to serve some of the best cocktails in the city. It was a decadent treat to sink into the velvety sofas at Maison Souquet with a complimentary drink and listen to a few final risqué tales of days gone by.
In a nutshell, this is as ‘behind closed doors’ as you’re likely to get: if you’ve already been there and done the main museums and sightseeing tours, this brilliantly seductive walk will take you to places visitors rarely frequent and doesn’t come more highly recommended. To request more details about this tour and for more details about our planning your itinerary, consult our website page here and contact [email protected] for more information.
Please note that some parts of this article were first published in June 2018 for Paris Perfect, with thanks. Featured photo credit Localers: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec © Au Salon de la Rue des Moulins. Photos by Nicola Collarile unless otherwise indicated.