The “Erotic Archaeology” of the Belle Époque

Warning: the slide show contains nudity.

To capture the essence of Paris, there’s nothing like a good brothel tour.

At first, finding any trace of these legendary emporiums, upon whose carnal delights the city’s reputation was founded in the 19th century, presented quite a challenge. They were all closed down by the French government more than six decades ago and have been converted to other commercial uses over the years. All I could find was fragments—a few ornamental windows here, a strangely elaborate doorway there. But when I went looking for No. 32, Rue Blondel, the site of a luxurious den of sin once called Aux Belles Poules—The Cute Chicks—the historical ambiance suddenly sprang to life.

A short stroll from the glittering Right Bank boulevards took me to Rue St. Denis, a street that has been synonymous with prostitution in Paris since the Middle Ages and still has its share of streetwalkers lounging alongside African street vendors. Rue Blondel was even less reputable, a narrow alley where mature ladies of the night and muscular transvestites hover in the doorways, sporting regulation leopard-skin tights and plunging bustiers.

The atmosphere may be Fellini-esque today, but No. 32 was once a hotspot of Parisian glamour, where Victorian gentlemen would flock to enjoy sophisticated erotic treats. Aux Belles Poules was particularly noted for its tableaux vivants, “living paintings.” Wealthy Parisian couples and adventurous travelers would enjoy creative pageants such as “the crazed nun,” “the wife wakes up,” or “the naval officers on leave,” with the actresses sporting strap-on phalluses of lurid pink.

Today, Aux Belles Poules can easily be identified by the original red faience tiles on its façade. Like all Parisian brothels, it was closed in 1946 as part of the conservative-led cleanup of the French sex trade after World War II. The building was converted into student housing, while the ground floor operated as a candy wholesaler for decades, then a Chinese clothing importer, before it closed down two years ago.

When I poked inside the foyer, I found the original abstract floor mosaics and elegant wrought-iron staircase intact. The brothel’s grand salon still boasts a gallery of century-old erotic paintings on ceramic tiles. Voluptuous nymphs loll naked on fluffy clouds. Other women dance dreamily, in a style evoking frescoes in Pompeii. Antique mirrors can be seen behind rusted pipes. Only the difficulty of removing the pieces spared them from French collectors, and in 1996, the Ministry of Culture put a preservation order on the ramshackle building for its “artistic and historical significance.”

But Rue Blondel is still a feisty corner of Paris. As I pointed my camera at No. 32’s exterior, howls of fury began to echo up and down the alleyway.

“Don’t photograph the girls!”

A formidable woman in a German military cap swept down from nowhere and demanded my camera. But when I explained my serious historical purpose with Aux Belles Poules, she softened. I was clearly a connoisseur.          

“It’s so beautiful in there,” she sighed. “It should be reopened for us girls!”

To get a fresh view of any overly romanticized city, I often use out-of-date guidebooks—out-of-date, preferably, by a century or more. These yellowing editions manage to conjure up the past as a tangible world teeming with activity and life. You can almost hear the horse traffic, smell the flower markets, taste the roast chestnuts.

In the case of Paris, the city of eternal love, I chose an even more specific historical reference book—a prostitute guide from 1883.

Their Names and Addresses,
Qualities and Faults,
being a Complete Directory or
Guide to Pleasure
for Visitors to the Gay City.

Of course, I wasn’t out to make it with the ghosts of Montmartre’s sex workers. But this slender opus has rightly enjoyed an underground cachet among academics for its wealth of human detail, providing a fresh reminder of the city’s mythic heyday, as well as specific names and addresses of Paris’ most alluring clubs, nightspots, and private boudoirs of 1883. Although written anonymously, it was evidently composed by a well-to-do British expat in Paris who was intent on assisting his fellow countrymen. Only 169 copies of the guide were printed “for private distribution”—four of them on “syphilitic-green paper” for the personal use of the Parisian chief of police, the author cheekily claims in his preface.

Today, Pretty Women is extremely rare, with only three original survivors. One of them happens to be in the New York Public Library, kept safely under lock and key in the Rare Books Division in Midtown. (Mysteriously, it is part of the George Arents Collection on Tobacco.) So before I left New York, I made an appointment to peruse it in the library’s high-security reading room. As the librarian handed over the delicate text, which was bound in discreet gray paper, he winked at me: “Looks interesting …”

It certainly was—a keyhole peep into the high-class bedrooms of 1883. Within its pages, 200 or so women are listed alphabetically by name and address, with each elaborately described in the florid style of the era. Admittedly, it’s hardly high literature, and the portrayal of the women is just as unsavory as one would predict, with the author even straying into the crass vernacular of the horse track, praising “a well-nourished frame,” “teeth white and strong,” and “ruby gums that are a sure sign of health.” The comely Berthe Legrand, of 70, Rue des Martyrs, for example, has “teeth like a terrier,” but the mere movement of her hips stimulates men’s desires, the author enthuses, “like the vapor of cooked meat on the olfactory nerves of a hungry man.” Even so, the guide presents a wealth of anecdote and gossip that allows the women’s outsize personalities to shine through, capturing the ambiance of Paris during its erotic apogee.

The belle époque, the “beautiful era” from 1880 to 1914, when Paris established itself as the world capital of illicit pleasure, may qualify as Europe’s most beloved golden age. Movies like Moulin Rouge!, with their cast of handsome rogues, troubled artists, and golden-hearted ladies of the night, ensure that its reputation continues to smolder.

At the time, Paris blazed even more brightly as a beacon of permissiveness and high style. Sex, and most particularly the sex trade, was simply classier in Paris.

The details are unlikely to be celebrated in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s planned Maison de l’Histoire de France, the country’s first national history museum. For Victorians, the city was revered as the ultimate escape, an enclave of carnal fantasy far from judging eyes, and its freedoms were not reserved for only men. High-society women from Moscow to Minneapolis were drawn to its parlors, where adultery was an avid sport, like moths to the flame. At dawn, they could be seen quietly leaving the mansions of the Champs-Élysées and entering waiting carriages, their elaborate undergarments rolled into a convenient ball. Gay visitors needed employ only slightly more discretion, heading to the marble-laden bathhouses around the Luxembourg Gardens. Local bon vivant Marcel Proust favored the Hôtel de Saïd near the markets of Les Halles, where off-duty soldiers gathered for R & R. The most exclusive lesbian club was called Les Rieuses—The Merry Women—hosted weekly by a trio of actresses in a candlelit mansion on the Champs-Élysées.

But Paris’ most lasting fame was earned by its prostitutes, nicknamed les cocottes or les horizontales.The rest of the world marveled at the brazenness of their trade, which had been monitored by the government since Napoleon’s day to control the spread of venereal disease. By the belle époque, there were 224 legal brothels in Paris, where girls were given twice-weekly medical inspections, an unheard-of precaution in London or New York at the time. The most luxurious maisons closes (“closed houses,” so named because their shutters were sealed at all hours of the day) became international legends even into the 1930s, when film stars such as Cary Grant made them even more famous, their interiors decorated by famous artists, with “fantasy rooms” catering to every preference.

A step down in the market were the 30,000 licensed streetwalkers, who served clients in state-approved hôtels de rendezvous. But while the romantic view of the Parisian cocotte flourishes to this day—gay, carefree, enjoying her work—the reality was, not surprisingly, very different. The going rate in budget brothels was a mere 1 franc ($7.50 today, adjusted for inflation). Nicknamed maisons d’abattage, “slaughterhouses,” these were places where men took a numbered ticket and lined up outside the doors, and a worker would endure up to 60 passes a day. Any girl who did not register within the system was at the mercy of the dreaded Police de Moeurs—Morality Police—who hunted down unlicensed prostitutes across Paris. Abuses were rampant. After midnight, the specialized police agents would block off whole streets in working-class districts and launch themselves into the crowds with terrifying shouts. According to historian Jill Harsin in Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Paris, the scenes were reminiscent of Nazi roundups in the ghettos.

Of course, the most fascinating class of Parisian fille de joie operated on a level far above the grubby fingers of the Morality Police—the top-class courtesans, known as les grandes cocottes. Occupying a shadowy position between high-class prostitute and mistress, these were the true princesses of the Parisian demimonde. Many had risen from poverty to become the lovers of financiers and politicians, princes and millionaires. A lucky few amassed vast personal fortunes. The painter Auguste Renoir, in the biography by his son Jean, Renoir, My Father, refers respectfully to their strength of character and keen intelligence—like the refined qualities of the geisha or ancient Greek haetera—which made them excellent companions in any social circle.         

It was to help outsiders navigate the various levels of this exotic world, with its own codes and manners, that The Pretty Women of Paris was written.

Click here to launch a slide show on Paris (warning: contains nudity).