Romantic Paris: Parc Monceau


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, their home
territory, so much of which actually belonged to them. After ten 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.

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 élite 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 favoured by Madame Aubernon, who would
invite them, in groups of twelve, to her weekly dinners on rue
Montchanin (now rue Jacques-Bingen). In order to express her respect
for such honoured 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.

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!

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.”

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 favours 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!

For more on Thirza Vallois, see her biography. Copyright © Thirza Vallois, L.L.C. For special Travel Plans to France, click here:

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