Last Fantasy in Paris

I refused to accept M. Plumey’s bleak verdict that all traces of the belle époque’s flourishing vice trade had been scorched from the face of the earth. Consulting my antique prostitute guide, The Pretty Women of Paris, I found an appendix listing 100 of the classiest brothels in the city of 1883. Most were known only by their addresses—24, Rue Sainte-Foy; 83, Boulevard de Grenelle—but they were once fabulous enclaves of luxury ensconced behind deceptively anonymous façades.

Surely something of those sinful palaces survived, I reasoned.

Just around the corner from my own regal address, the Hôtel Édouard 7, once stood the renowned 12, Rue Chabanais—which was, my guidebook asserted, quite simply “the finest bagnio [bathhouse, a nickname for a bordello] in the world.”

If Paris was an island of fantasy within Europe, “Le Chabanais,” as Parisians affectionately referred to it, was its dreamlike jewel. Each of the bordello’s 30 rooms was decorated in a different theme, creating a refined menu of the erotic arts. It was opened in 1878 by a wealthy former courtesan, “Madam Kelly,” who allegedly spent over 1,700,000 francs on the interior design (roughly $12.75 million in today’s terms), and was soon attracting Europe’s wealthiest financiers, politicians, aristocrats, and stars of the stage.

I wandered along Rue Chabanais, now a quiet, leafy lane behind the National Library, sprinkled with modest little restaurants and boutique art galleries. And yes, the antique exterior of No. 12 was still intact—a slender, eight-story building sporting a fresh coat of understated beige paint. Back in 1883, Le Chabanais’ façade had also been kept plain to deter the riffraff. But when those doors were opened by an African man in glittering Moorish garb, a magical world was revealed. The bordello’s vestibule was designed as an underground grotto, complete with artificial rock walls and flowing waterfalls. Clients were led to the first floor, the mirrored Pompeii Room, where scantily clad ladies were reclining on Roman couches beneath 16 oil vignettes by—who else?—Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, depicting male and female centaurs involved in sensual acts.

It was on this floor that the financial business was transacted. No money could change hands upstairs, so clients would purchase jetons, or tokens, from the madam in advance to later trade for drinks and services. The minimum was 100 francs—around $750 in today’s currency. From this point, clients only had to choose their fantasy. There was the Hindu Room, encrusted with Indian artworks; the Turkish Chamber, filled with Oriental artifacts; or the Louis XV Salon, for committed Francophiles. The Venetian Room, evoking the Italian Renaissance, had a giant bed in the shape of a seashell. In the Japanese Salon, six divans were arranged in a circle around an incense burner. There was even a Pirate Chamber, with portholes against which seawater would be thrown by staff.      

It came as no surprise to me that Le Chabanais was a firm favorite with the Prince of Wales. For a start, it was easy waddling distance from his Right Bank apartment. His preferred fetish was the Hindu Room, and it was here that he installed his two celebrated custom-made props. The first was an enormous bathtub crafted from gleaming red copper. It was cast in the shape of a ship, with a melon-breasted siren on the prow. The prince is believed to have filled it with Mumm champagne on warm summer nights.

The other creation was his fauteuil d’amour—the love throne, or sex chair.

By 1890, the girth of Bertie’s belly was 48 inches, so he designed a device to facilitate his sexual encounters, with tall handles that allowed him to lower himself onto his partners. The inventive prop remained in Le Chabanais long after the king’s death in 1910, and the owners proudly displayed it when they began offering guided tours in the 1920s—during the day, when the girls were sleeping. American newspaperman Walter Annenberg joined the tour in 1926. “They took you around the bedrooms like Tussaud’s waxworks,” he later recalled. The royal sex chair, which Annenberg described as a type of “hoist,” was the highlight: “[The prince] stepped in there as if he were going into a stall.”

When I rang the buzzer at No. 12, a balding doorman in a canary yellow sweater let me in. Of course, he said with a knowing smile, this used to be Le Chabanais, the most successful brothel in all of Europe. Today, it is an office building. The fantasy rooms were stripped long ago. But the original marble staircase was still there in the foyer, as well as the wrought-iron doors of the brothel’s two elevators—each working in separate directions, to minimize embarrassing meetings. Their finely wrought grilles depicted a mother bird valiantly protecting her chicks from an approaching serpent.

I asked about the fate of the brothel’s contents. “You should ask Mme. Canet,” he shrugged, pointing across the street. “She’s the erotic archaeologist.”

Clearly, the memory of so much sin could not be washed away so easily on Rue Chabanais. Directly opposite No. 12 is a boutique called Au Bonheur du Jour (Daytime Delight), which, the doorman proudly informed me, was the only commercial gallery of historical erotica operating in all of Paris. It is owned by a former dancer, Nicole Canet.

This was just the specialist I needed.

I found Canet unwinding genteelly at the back of her gallery. The eroto-archaeologist was in her 50s, her wafer-thin frame fastidiously attired in a designer sundress and silk scarf. Surrounded by photographs of studly male nudes, with the piercing mascara-lined eyes of a silent film actress, she was the picture of Parisian elegance.

But I quickly learned that Madame was not having a good day.

“I’m tired!” she declared, clutching a bowl of herbal tea. “I’m not on form at all. To run a gallery like this, it’s too much for one person. I hang all of the exhibitions myself, I deal with the public. … It’s really too much alone.”   

I offered my condolences, while delicately steering the conversation toward her glass cases of alluring 19th-century relics. Among Canet’s triumphs of erotic archaeology was a porte-jetons, a gentleman’s bamboo cane, designed to hold 20 brothel tokens inside the handle; iron dog collars used for Victorian S&M games; and the rhino-horn-handled whip of courtesan La Valtesse de la Bigne, inscribed with the letters V and B in pink. “I love to go back in time and play detective,” she explained. “The erotic creations of the 19th century have a different sensibility, a different feel, a different emotion. Pornographic images were much more shocking in those days, and it was very dangerous to carry in your pocket, for example, postcards of naked men.”

Mme. Canet opened her boutique on Rue Chabanais in 1999, but she confessed that she had not deliberately chosen the location for its proximity to the famous bordello.

“It was an accident, in fact. But I wonder if there really is such a thing as coincidence. When I staged an exhibition on the brothels, my location on Rue Chabanais provided huge publicity. Thirty thousand people came, the lines extended down in the street. But I sold nothing! The French don’t buy erotica. They treat my store like a museum—they won’t even buy a 2-euro postcard. My best customers are Germans, Swiss, Americans.”

She narrowed her eyes at me. “And you, do you collect?”

“I’m just a writer!” I confessed. “I can’t afford it.”

She looked at me accusingly.

To change the subject, I asked about the fate of Le Chabanais’ fantastical interiors.

Although the brothel closed in 1946, she said, the contents were not auctioned off until May 8, 1951. Luckily for posterity, the eccentric Parisian author and antiquarian Romi, who was obsessed with prostitution lore, attended the sale. He reported that the building was mobbed by French collectors, who snapped up the Venetian glass and Louis XVI clocks. Toulouse-Lautrec’s centaur paintings were purchased by an unidentified buyer, and their location is still unknown. King Edward’s copper bathtub was bought by Salvador Dalí for 110,500 francs plus tax. (Thanks to the catastrophic postwar devaluations of the French franc, that would be only around $3,500 today.) The Surrealist installed the tub in his suite at the Hotel Meurice in Paris and equipped it with a telephone.

But what of the most imaginative erotic toy, I asked—the royal sex chair?

Mme. Canet had heard rumors that it had left the country.

“It’s a pity,” she sighed. “It should remain in France!”

Click here to see a slide show of Paris for perverts (warning: contains nudity).