The Maisons Closes of Paris: The Dark Side of the City of Light

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The Maisons Closes of Paris: The Dark Side of the City of Light
Number 12 Rue Chabanais, in the 2nd arrondissement, is an anonymous doorway for a typical Parisian apartment building. Walking past in 2022 you would never guess that it was once the most luxurious brothel in Paris. It was just one of the estimated 200 licensed brothels operating in the capital at the start of the 20th century. They catered to all levels of society, from manual workmen to royalty (one of No.12’s most favored and regular customers was the Prince of Wales before he became King Edward VII). Le Chabanais, as No. 12 was called, represented the absolute top end of Parisian maisons closes with its exotic decor and rooms furnished in the style of different countries (Russian, Moorish, Japanese). Edward had his own bathtub filled with champagne and a special chair which accommodated three people! In later years its customers numbered Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart and traveling dignitaries might have an entry in their diaries “visit to the Head of the Senate” — a euphemism for a clandestine visit to Le Chabanais. Even Marlene Dietrich frequented it as an alternative nightspot to The Ritz. The infamous “fauteuil d’amour” used by the future King Edward VII at the Paris brothel, Le Chabanais. Photo credit: WikiMeubles The fact was, throughout the 19th century and up to the 1940s, prostitution in France was not only tolerated but legal and regulated. Another name for a brothel was maison de tolérance but the alternative name, maison close, actually sums them up much more accurately. The phrase literally means “closed house” and this reflects the lives led by the girls who were employed there. Although it might sound ridiculous, they were almost as cloistered as nuns and virtually all of every day was spent behind the doors of the brothel. Trips outdoors required a special dispensation and were seen as a great treat. This detail alone reveals the kind of soul-destroying life most of the prostitutes endured. They may have been saved from the dangers of the street but living behind those closed doors was no guarantee of a better life. Our impression of Belle Epoque brothels largely comes from the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec and although he did capture the boredom and lassitude in the faces of the women, he barely scratched the surface of what life was really like for them. As a man and a customer, perhaps that is not surprising. Au Salon de la rue des Moulins – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 1894

Lead photo credit : Le Sphinx, blvd Edgar-Quinet. Photo credit: Roger Viollet/ Wikimedia Commons

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.


  • Bonnie Sullivan
    2022-12-08 09:37:41
    Bonnie Sullivan
    Pat, I love reading your articles and seeing photographs of the very things you are telling us about. Last month I had a lovely email correspondence with another of your associates, and thought I saved the entire questions & reply from her. But I cannot find it now. I explained that I am eagerly awaiting a cruise, Paris to Paris with Uniworld cruises in April. Sadly this will be my last trip to Paris, I am 82 yrs and have enjoyed many visits over the years, My health is not very good, so I can do this trip slowly and just look upon places I have been, and have loved so much. I think I mentioned that my Dear friend of many years, is doing the cruise with me. In fact, we will be in Paris for two nights before coming back to US, We added the two days because Sunday is Easter (April 9th) and we are thrilled about attending Mass there. In her message I think she told me about Le Procope cafe. I am hoping we could make a reservation if they are open. Interestingly, my granddaughter, Aimee & her husband Philip Curry, had dinner there in November. They were celebrating their First anniversary! So, I am counting the days until this trip commences....very, very excited indeed. If you can respond to my email I hope we can keep the conversation going. Surely I can SAVE on my emails. joyeux Noel, Bonnie Sullivan