Romantic Paris: Parc Monceau

   631  
When you do come to Paris, as you must, try the area of Parc Monceau, known as La Plaine Monceau, the most exclusive part of Paris during the Belle Epoque, and also the hotbed of the most celebrated courtesans. It was inevitable that the brothers Emile and Isaac Pereire should become the promoters of the 17th arrondissement, their home territory, so much of which actually belonged to them. After 10 years of preparation, work began around 1875 and soon the plain was covered with opulent freestone buildings, as shiny and new as the money of their occupiers. This was where the ‘mushroom aristocracy’, as Zola. called them, lived, with plentiful servants and horses and carriages, which carried them daily to their places of entertainment, on the Grands Boulevards, on the Champs-Elysées and in the Bois. Entertaining was also done at home: following the patterns of the waning old aristocracy, the mistress of the house liked to preside over weekly literary salons attended by the country’s elite of literati, artists and musicians, many of whom had taken up residence here too. One such was the fashionable painter Ernest Meissonier, soon to be followed by two of his disciples — Edouard Detaille and Alphonse de Neuville. Charles Gounod, Claude Debussy, Edmond Rostand, Sarah Bernhardt, Alexandre Dumas… the list goes on and on. All the artists, writers and musicians frequented those private homes, and so did the members of the French Academy who were favored by Madame Aubernon, who would invite them, in groups of 12, to her weekly dinners on rue Montchanin (now rue Jacques-Bingen). In order to express her respect for such honored guests, her meals were accompanied by a dish of spinach, a far-fetched tribute to the green costume (l’habit vert) of the Académicien. Not all the households of the Plaine Monceau could display such respectability, certainly not that of Emile Zola’s Nana, the laundress’s daughter from the gutter of La Goutte-d’Or, although she too was living in a magnificent home, on the corner of avenue Villiers and rue Cardinet. In a fluctuating society, where fortunes were made overnight, respectability and thinly disguised prostitution lived side by side, the latter “advancing, gliding, dancing with the weight of its embroidered petticoats.” Brief notes jotted down by Zola in his notebook inform us of “very well maintained hôtels” in the ‘quartier Haussmann’, in particular on rue de Prony, with “footman, powdered concierge, imposing staircase, huge landing, couch, armchairs, flowers…” Adrieu Marx acquiesces when he speaks of the ” ‘belles petites’ who swoop down on the new quarters”, adding that “face powder has succeeded in replacing the dust of building plaster.” “Semi-senile, debauched males were ready to abandon everything for an arse,” Zola jots down in his notebook. He also speaks of “the pack behind the bitch who is not on heat,” who spends as much as 200,000 francs a year, or, having recently bought a townhouse, now wants to sell it! Around the year 1900 the 17-year-old Colette — Claudine in the novel — ran into her childhood friend Luce on Parc de Monceau. The poor country girl had been offered champagne, adorned in silk undies and stockings and set up by the sixtyish widowed husband of her aunt in a top-floor flat of a gleaming white building on rue de Courcelles. An enormous lift, lined with mirrors, carried Luce up to this flat, whose main items were a 1.5-metre-wide bed and bathroom “paved with tiles, walled with tiles… gilttering, like Venice, with a thousand lights and more.” Not unlike Nana, Luce lapses occasionally into her native speech, which Colette finds “priceless.” The seducer, like his forerunners, is depicted as “hideous, fat and almost bald… he had a bestial look, with jowls like a Great Dane and big calf’s eyes.” Some cocottes, courtesans and demi-mondaines were the talk of the scandalized town, such as the fiery Andalusian Otero on rue Fortuny, for whom more than one suitor had given up the ghost and for whom William II of Prussia had written a play. Others, such as Louise Delabigne, now Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne, knew how to worm their way into society. She too had ruined a wealthy suitor, but she had the talent and intelligence to know how to be accepted and became the friend of Manet, Courbet, Boudin, Alphonse de Neuville and Detaille, which earned her the nickmane l’union des peintres’. When she first went on the stage as Hebe in Orpheus in Hell, a critic said that she was as timid and as red-headed as a Titian virgin – but it did not take her long to lose both timidity and virginity nor, for that matter, to leave the stage and sell her favors elsewhere instead. From the arms of Prince Lubomirski, she flew to those of Baron Sagan, who financed the glorious mansion Jules FArialévrier had built for her in 1876 on the corner of Boulevard Malesherbes and rue de la Terrasse and was subsequently ruined. It was her bedroom that served as a model for that of Zola’s Nana.   The highly acclaimed painter Henri Gervex used her as his model for the bride (!) in his painting Le Mariage civil (at least it was not a religious wedding), which now hangs in the Salle de Mariage (the wedding hall) of the Mairie of the 19th arrondissement. Thus Mademoiselle Valtesse has come down to posterity fortified by the Third Republic’s attributes of chastity, matrimonial bliss and respectability. Middle-class morality, to which, after all, a quarter of France’s households adhered, had the final word!
  • SUBSCRIBE
  • ALREADY SUBSCRIBED?
“Semi-senile, debauched males were ready to abandon everything for an arse,” Zola jots down in his notebook. He also speaks of “the pack behind the bitch who is not on heat,” who spends as much as 200,000 francs a year, or, having recently bought a townhouse, now wants to sell it!

Around the year 1900 the 17-year-old Colette — Claudine in the novel — ran into her childhood friend Luce on Parc de Monceau. The poor country girl had been offered champagne, adorned in silk undies and stockings and set up by the sixtyish widowed husband of her aunt in a top-floor flat of a gleaming white building on rue de Courcelles. An enormous lift, lined with mirrors, carried Luce up to this flat, whose main items were a 1.5-metre-wide bed and bathroom “paved with tiles, walled with tiles… gilttering, like Venice, with a thousand lights and more.” Not unlike Nana, Luce lapses occasionally into her native speech, which Colette finds “priceless.” The seducer, like his forerunners, is depicted as “hideous, fat and almost bald… he had a bestial look, with jowls like a Great Dane and big calf’s eyes.”

Some cocottes, courtesans and demi-mondaines were the talk of the scandalized town, such as the fiery Andalusian Otero on rue Fortuny, for whom more than one suitor had given up the ghost and for whom William II of Prussia had written a play. Others, such as Louise Delabigne, now Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne, knew how to worm their way into society. She too had ruined a wealthy suitor, but she had the talent and intelligence to know how to be accepted and became the friend of Manet, Courbet, Boudin, Alphonse de Neuville and Detaille, which earned her the nickmane l’union des peintres’. When she first went on the stage as Hebe in Orpheus in Hell, a critic said that she was as timid and as red-headed as a Titian virgin – but it did not take her long to lose both timidity and virginity nor, for that matter, to leave the stage and sell her favors elsewhere instead. From the arms of Prince Lubomirski, she flew to those of Baron Sagan, who financed
the glorious mansion Jules FArialévrier had built for her in 1876 on the corner of Boulevard Malesherbes and rue de la Terrasse and was subsequently ruined. It was her bedroom that served as a model for that of Zola’s Nana.

 
The highly acclaimed painter Henri Gervex used her as his model for the bride (!)
in his painting Le Mariage civil (at least it was not a religious wedding), which now hangs in the Salle de Mariage (the wedding hall) of the Mairie of the 19th arrondissement. Thus Mademoiselle Valtesse has come down to posterity fortified by the Third Republic’s attributes of chastity, matrimonial bliss and respectability. Middle-class morality, to which, after all, a quarter of France’s households adhered, had the
final word!
Previous Article Ask Karen: Thanksgiving in Paris
Next Article Hors d’Oeuvres au Fromage