Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 1: SOUND
Chapter 18. Behind Closed Doors
I remember the first time I had sex. I kept the receipt.
Like Maxim’s across the river, La Pérouse was a former brothel. In the 1890s its ground-floor lounge was filled with chattering cocottes, either waiting for a client to arrive or hoping to snare one. The upper floors are still divided into chambres séparées: private dining rooms, reached by narrow, winding staircases, discreetly dark. Some, like the one where we ate, seat twenty; others accommodate only two people, or three at a pinch, on couches upholstered in red velvet.
What one did at home in sight of gossiping servants risked becoming common knowledge, but what took place in chambres séparées stayed there. Behind their closed doors, everything was permitted. By the end of the century, their mythology was sufficiently well known to inspire the aria Komm mit mir ins chambre séparée, which made an international hit of the 1898 Viennese operetta The Opera Ball. Maxim’s in particular was so notorious for its private rooms and poules de luxe that the writers adapting Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow into English moved the entire third act to Paris. The hero Danilo blows off his consular duties to enjoy a wild night, celebrating the prospect in “I’m Off to Chez Maxim.”
The Merry Widow. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Maurice Chevalier with Maxim girls in the 1934 film of The Merry Widow
At Maxim’s once again
I swim in pink champagne.
When people ask what bliss is
I simply tell them, “This is.”
Lolo, Dodo, Jou-jou,
Clo-clo, Margot, Frou-frou—
And when it comes to kisses,
Goodbye, my fatherland!
Before and after performances at the Paris Opéra, fashionable couples mingled in private rooms at the Hôtel Grand, just opposite Garnier’s wedding cake of an opera house. Military officers, socialites, and politicians took off the edge by injecting the day’s fashionable drug, morphine. Those not into dope could enjoy the attentions of grandes horizontales, as expensive courtesans were known. Émile Zola, well acquainted with vice, described his archetypal cocotte Nana meeting clients in the Grand, and later dying in one of its rooms.
At Maxim’s, La Pérouse, and the Grand, discretion counted for more than the cuisine. If a guest requested music to smooth a seduction, a trio or quartet would be hidden behind screens or a pianist hired to play en sourdine, out of sight behind a curtain. For even greater intimacy, one could have a violinist blindfolded if necessary—playing right there in the room. (On one occasion, the best Gypsy violinist in Vienna was imported for the evening to gratify a guest nostalgic for the days of the Hohenzollerns.) Should a gentleman’s companion for the evening stand him up or prove unsatisfactory, replacements were available in the bar. Known as plats du jour—daily specials—these women loitered over a glass of champagne until the head waiter came to the door, singled out the girl closest to the client’s taste, and signaled by a touch of his forefinger to a mole on his cheek that she was required upstairs.
In such places, crowned heads and celebrities could enjoy intimate dinners and the most piquant of desserts, confident of being neither discovered nor disturbed. If the unthinkable should happen, however, a tunnel was rumored to lead from La Pérouse through the caves via the former Convent des Augustins to the security of the Senate.
The maitre d’, sommelier, and fonctionnaire in charge of greeting each arrival were almost as important as the chef de cuisine. They remain so today. Many American restaurants retain a sleek young woman with no task more demanding than keeping track of reservations. Her equivalent in Paris is very different. Older and male, he can recognize by sight the nation’s four or five hundred most famous faces, and knows not only the correct forms of address for a count, a Saudi prince, a cardinal, and a judge, but the order of seniority in which they should be accommodated.
Above all, restaurants of the first rank guarantee discretion—not simply about the identity of clients and their companions, but also what they eat. On occasion, such information has had political significance. As the revolutionaries of 1968 mellowed into run-of-the-mill politicians and began to live well, the press, having checked up at their preferred restaurants, attacked them for their diet, labeling them contemptuously gauche caviar—caviar socialists.
When Édouard Balladur ran against Jacques Chirac for the presidency in 1995, the restaurant where both ate lunch leaked the information of what they ordered. M. Balladur, who looked like a throwback to the eighteenth century, more comfortable in a powdered wig, favored herrings in olive oil, while M. Chirac, a tough, practical politician in the mold of Lyndon Johnson, went for tête de veau, a robust country dish made of meat from a calf’s head embedded in jelly. Once word got around, diners were invited to order the dish preferred by their candidate. Most chose tête de veau, so nobody was surprised that Balladur fared catastrophically in the first round of the election, with a mere 18.6 percent of the vote. Chirac won the runoff at a walk.
A few months before the dinner at La Pérouse, I’d experienced traditional Parisian restaurant diplomacy at work just a short walk along the Seine. It was our first visit to another of Paris’s culinary institutions, the Michelin-starred Tour d’Argent. Although the restaurant itself is on the sixth floor, with spectacular views over the Seine, particularly at night, one enters at ground level. After one staff member confirms your reservation, another directs you to the elevator, a third ushers you into it, while others wait six floors above to welcome you and conduct you to your table.
We arrived in the lobby at the same time as a French couple who, from the effusive greetings of the staff, were regulars. While one man checked our credentials, another conducted the newcomers straight to the elevator, where we joined them a few moments later.
At the top, the door opened on the smiling face and impeccable black suit of yet another host. He faced a tricky situation. At the rear of the car were two old and valued clients. Facing him, however, were three strangers who, for all he knew, might be rich enough to buy the building and everyone in it.
The ballet of deference that followed would have done credit to Versailles under Louis XIV. His smile to the couple behind us was modified by a glance toward us and a barely raised eyebrow, as if to say, “My apologies—but you see how it is; duty demands …” At the same time, without quite separating our threesome he ushered the couple from the rear of the elevator, shook the man’s hand, kissed that of his wife, then handed them off to another flunkey before turning to us with a look that said, “And now, my dear new friends …” After such a welcome, the panorama of nighttime Paris and the four-hundred-page wine list were almost anticlimactic.