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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 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.
The truth is, legalized prostitution in 19th century France was conducted on an industrial scale. Scouts traveled the country, preying, in effect, on impoverished families where parents were only too ready to send their daughters away in return for money. Once installed, the young girls — all in their teens and twenties — were effectively the property of the brothel-keeper, or tenancière. They were forced to relinquish anything they had brought with them, including their own clothes, and were dressed according to the demands of their mistress. Everything, including rent, food, toiletries, new clothes, was paid for out of their earnings and bought through the mistress, which left the girls with hardly any money to spend freely. In fact, they were almost always in debt to their mistress and if they moved to a new house, their debts went with them and accumulated. Consequently, they found themselves in a situation which was impossible to escape from.
For most, the dream was to attract the attention and favor of a wealthy customer who would set them up as his mistress, but this destiny was only enjoyed by a very select few. For a really minuscule number they might actually rise to the semi-respectable world of the demi-mondaine, or courtesan. But if a girl had the intelligence to achieve that, then it’s probable that she would have succeeded in any walk of life, given better opportunities. Unsurprisingly, a number of women eventually opened their own houses and became tenancières in turn. At the other end of the scale, an older woman who was no longer useful might be kept on as a maid-of-all-work, which was marginally better than being thrown on the streets, the plight of many women.
A girl entering the profession faced a slew of bureaucracy (nothing changes in France, it seems!). She had to register with the police, present a birth certificate and answer questions about her background (age, parents, former profession or trade, whether she had children and whether she lived with them). After a medical exam she was free — if that was the right word — to choose a house to work in. Her new mistress would then update her dossier with the police and include her in the compulsory monthly health checks. Although registering was relatively straightforward, it was much harder to get removed from the register. Death and marriage (which was viewed suspiciously as not being genuine) accounted for some but a large number of women simply “disappeared.”
So how did you find these houses and what were they like? Published guides were popular: in 1892 a man called Paggiole produced a guide with the cumbersome title of “Directory of Addresses of Society Houses, known as Houses of Tolerance, in France, Algeria, and Tunisia and the principal towns of Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Spain.” All that crammed into 70 pages for 5F50, with a request for readers to send the author updated information as places changed. The book was swiftly withdrawn from open sale, only to be replaced by the Pink Guide, also sold clandestinely but very well known and used.
The houses listed in these guides were, for the most part, at the more “respectable” end of the trade. If Le Chabanais represented the ultimate in luxury, other houses specialized in a certain kind of clientele or sexual practice. So, for example, Chez Alys at 15 Rue Saint Sulpice catered for the clergy at nearby Eglise du Saint Sulpice, with dominatrix nuns for added thrills. Now a very respectable apartment building, the mosaic floor in the hallway still bears the name of its former owner. I wonder how many of today’s residents know the background to that name?
Chez Christiane, at 9 Rue de Navarin, was nicknamed the “English House” for specializing in sado-masochism, supposedly a favorite activity of all those repressed Englishmen. Across the road, another house has been turned into a hotel, the Hotel Amour, where the bedrooms give a sanitized experience of the “olden days.” There were also a few houses catering to gay men: Marcel Proust was an almost daily visitor to the Hotel Marigny in Rue de l’Arcade and was even on police files! Meanwhile, couples were welcome at Le Sphinx, 31 Boulevard Edgar Quinet whose motto was “See everything, hear everything, and say nothing.” La Fleur Blanche, also known as La Maison des Moulins, was Toulouse-Lautrec’s home and his famous paintings of women sitting on the circular couch depict the interior of that house.
Le Chabanais was not the only house to welcome celebrated guests. Le One Two Two, situated at 122 Rue de Provence, was the haunt of many French showbiz stars in the interwar years, including Sacha Guitry, Jean Gabin, Charlie Chaplin and Edith Piaf. At this upper end of the market, the house was a place where people drank and socialized as much as they took the sex on offer. The business end of the establishment was carried out discreetly and tastefully.
The striking thing about these addresses is how scattered they are across the city: the 2nd, the 9th, the 14th arrondissements. Paris had its red light districts — even now Pigalle and the Rue Saint Denis retain vestiges of their lurid past — but you could find a maison close discreetly inserted in the most bourgeois neighborhood. If you were in the know, the only giveaway would be a particularly ornate entrance. So Le Sphinx sported an Egyptian head above the doorway, while Chez Christiane is still recognizable by its neo-Gothic ornamentation. Hardly any of these establishments remain in their original state, but occasionally you will find the telltale signs. If you really want a “behind the scenes” look at one of these houses, Aux Belles Poules at 32 Rue Blondel was restored in the early 2000s and now operates as a function venue with guided tours.
But these establishments represented the top echelons of the sex business. Far more numerous were the dozens of small, insalubrious houses where the girls worked more or less like a production line. Even further down the social scale were the estaminets, or neighborhood cafés, where local workmen and young students would go upstairs after a few drinks and buy a girl for a few francs. Since the café would only close once the last customer had left, the working day for the girls might go on until four or five in the morning.
The system came crashing to a halt in 1946 when prostitution was made illegal. Of course it carried on and brothels didn’t just disappear; they still haven’t. But the trade went underground and arguably the women lived in greater danger of violence and disease because of it. That’s not to glamorize the women’s lives before. Working in a maison de tolérance was a hard and demeaning life with little chance of escape. It was the dark underside of Paris’s reputation as the City of Light and world capital of elegance.
Lead photo credit : Le Sphinx, blvd Edgar-Quinet. Photo credit: Roger Viollet/ Wikimedia Commons