Of the books I’ve read to glean some historical background for my Calypso Bergère Mysteries series, my favourite is Janet Flanner’s Paris Was Yesterday, 1925–1939. Flanner wrote a regular ‘Letter from Paris’ for The New Yorker magazine and this book is a collection of the columns, covering the period from when she first moved to Paris up to the eve of the Second World War. Flanner’s writing is more reportage than a first draft of history but the pieces are vivid, acute, and gossipy. As James Campbell says in his introduction, ‘it would be a centimetre off the mark to say that Janet Flanners’s Letters from Paris of the 1920s and ‘30s grant you the illusion that you were there. Rather, they give the intense and delightful experience of reading someone who was there’.
Though Flanner writes of current affairs and cultural matters, her primary interest is in people, of all classes and occupations. Through her pages the reader meets a fascinating cast of characters, some in their prime, some on the way up or down, others the subjects of short and idiosyncratic obituaries. One of the most extraordinary of the departed was Louise Weber, known by all as La Goulue, ‘the Gourmand’.
Louise Weber died in January 1929, at the age of sixty-two. The daughter of a cab-driver and a laundress, she became, in her twenties, the most famous and adored can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec and pursued by bankers and aristocrats. She achieved wealth, notoriety, and residence in a swish house near the Bois de Boulogne. In Flanner’s words:
It was from this discreet mansion that La Goulue was invited to dance before a gentleman who afterward literally covered her with banknotes and turned out to be the grand Duke Alexis. She had charm, a dazzling complexion, and wit. It was the last great heyday for courtesans, and she made hay.
Alas, it didn’t last.
Then came her fall. She went to jail after some lark. She became a lion-tamer in a street fair. She became a dancer in a wagon show; Toulouse-Lautrec painted curtains for her, but she forgot them in some barn and the rats gnawed at them. Then she became a laundress. Then she became nothing.
In 1928, a film-maker called Georges Lacombe was making a documentary about the ragpickers who lived on the outskirts of Paris. A old woman emerged from one of the caravans during the shoot. It was La Goulue herself and after a bit of encouragement she gave him a turn or two.
This was to be her last public performance. La Goulue died a few months later. Here are Flanner’s final words on her:
Her last interview was given to the weekly Vu. After the first glass of brandy of the interview she took out a cracked mirror; after the third glass she recalled her cab-driving father. After the fourth she remembered the Grand Duke Alexis and, on the promise of a box of face powder, even remembered her own son, who had died in a gambling den. A few weeks later her ragpickers took her to a city clinic, where she too died, murmuring as if declining a last and external invitation, ‘I do not want to go to hell’.
[Image of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting La Goulue arrivant au Moulin Rouge courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]