Midnight in the Sex Museum

One evening, I decided to see what might happen if I visited one of the less-celebrated ladies’ addresses in Pretty Women of Paris, my 1883 prostitute guide to the city. The very first listing under the letter A was Jeanne Abadie of 80, Boulevard de Clichy. Mlle. Abadie was “a dashing, well-dressed person of about twenty-seven,” I learned, “who looks very well by gaslight, in spite of her false teeth.” She had been brought up in the wings of a theater, where she caught the eye of the rich boulevardiers. Her personality was “rough and fiery,” the author warns, but “her tariff is moderate.”

I emerged from the Metro in the heart of Pigalle, a name once heavy with romance. In 1883, bohemians were hanging out at the Café de la Nouvelle-Athène, where Degas had painted The Absinthe Drinkers, and Parisians were hailing Manet’s colorful depiction of local nightlife, The Bar in the Folies-Bergère, which had been exhibited at the last Salon. (Less romantically, Manet died in the spring of 1883 from an emergency amputation, the result of tertiary syphilis contracted in his misspent youth.)    

Today, tragically, Pigalle is the epicenter of nondescript commercial sleaze, its streets lined with neon-lit sex shops trawled by scrums of Germans on stag nights. Still, I dutifully began following the numbers, looking for Abadie’s old haunt at No. 80. I immediately discovered that No. 82 is the all-too-famous Moulin Rouge. Opened in 1889, it was a more humble music hall in Abadie’s day. On the night I visited, guards with loudspeakers were herding throngs of tourists into lines behind velvet ropes. No. 78 was an erotic supermarket.

But where was No. 80?

A couple of doors down, at No. 72, is Le Musée de l’Érotisme, the Museum of Eroticism, so I decided to stop by. The modern world has seen a flurry of successful institutions in this field, but they are usually surprisingly clinical and depressing places. Surely this one, spread over seven floors, would tap into the rich tapestry of Parisian sensuality.

At midnight (it’s open nightly until 2 a.m.), the museum was deserted except for a few giggling couples, so I carried around my notebook and scribbled furiously, trying hard to look scholarly. The exhibition began without much promise. Initially, most of the collection seemed to consist of souvenirs from Japan. But then I arrived at the floor devoted to Paris, with original 19th-century photos of bordello scenes, streetwalkers, and cross-dressers. Projected on a wall was one of the blue movies from the early 1900s that would be shown in the waiting rooms of brothels “to excite the appetites,” involving two “nuns” cavorting with a puppy.

Parisian lowlife was still going strong right through the 1930s, the heyday of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. How could the post-World War II brothel closures have so completely destroyed this culture?

The museum’s co-owner, Alain Plumey, was in his office. Wiry and unshaven, fidgeting for a cigarette, he already looked like he had spent a wild night on the tiles. Plumey explained that he had been inspired by the success of Europe’s first sex museums in Amsterdam and Berlin to start this one in Paris in the 1990s, but he had chosen the Pigalle location with hesitation. “I dislike the avenue, it’s rather horrible,” he admitted. “But unfortunately, Pigalle has the history. The name is internationally famous. Ten million tourists a year now come here. We catch a few of them.”

I asked him what had ended the epic saga of Parisian debauchery. To illustrate, Plumey took me to one of his favorite exhibits, a handwritten ledger of accountsfrom World War II, in which a Parisian prostitute carefully listed the schedule and income from her dealings with German military officers. It was a busy roster.

“Horizontal collaboration,” he grinned wolfishly.

Prostitutes were the scapegoats of the occupation, he explained. No sooner had the Germans taken over Paris in 1940 than working girls were obliged to take them on as clients. The luxury brothels were converted into brothels for Nazi officers, and they did a roaring trade, to the disgust of French men already emasculated by the nation’s abject military collapse. It’s still a sore point in France: When historian Patrick Buisson revealed in his 2009 book 1940-45, Erotic Years that some Parisian prostitutes even preferred the German conquerors for their personal cleanliness, good looks, and hard currency, it caused a scandal. In contrast to the image of heroic resistance, many single French women—and married women whose husbands had been killed, wounded, or were POWs—were also obliged to sleep with the enemy for cash or black-market goods. But it was the prostitutes who drew the most vicious French rage after the liberation in 1944: Their hair was clipped, and they were sometimes forced to parade naked through the streets.

A popular French heroine named Marthe Richard—a former aviator, World War I spy, and supposed resistance figure—was cleverly chosen by conservative politicians to lead the campaign to close the bordellos. In 1946, the municipal council passed legislation to end 150 years of tolerance, with many officials who were clients of high-class brothels too embarrassed to oppose it. Naturally, the move didn’t end the sex trade; it merely degraded conditions for the 1,500 brothel workers who ended up on the streets.

By the 1950s, many Parisians recognized that the ban was a failure. Police records also proved that the righteous Marthe Richard was a fraud, a former prostitute herself who had changed her name, fabricated her heroic history as a spy, and spent the first years of the occupation in pro-Nazi Vichy procuring women for German officers.

But the extirpation of the city’s sinful golden age was complete, Plumey mourned.

“Nothing remains of that time. Only a few façades. You can go to the site of Le One Two Two”—a top bordello from the 1930s at 122, Rue de Provence, a favorite of Humphrey Bogart and Marlene Dietrich—”it’s now a union office, the National Federation of Leather and Hide Workers. It’s comic,” he added bitterly. “Comic!”

By the time I left, bracing myself for the nasty sleaze of Pigalle, Plumey had become decidedly maudlin. “Today, the erotic in Paris is dead. Vanished! If you want an erotic ambiance, go to Bangkok, Sao Paolo, Budapest. There is nothing left in Paris but nostalgia.” He smiled ruefully. “This whole city is just a museum of eroticism.”

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