Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 3: TOUCH
Chapter 24. Love at Night
Three matches, one by one in the night
The first to see your face
The second to see your eyes
The last to see your mouth
And the darkness to remind me of all this as I squeeze you in my arms.
JACQUES PRÉVERT, “Paris at Night”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” murmured Angelina Belladonna, leaning forward over her café crème and tarte aux cerises.
We were sitting in Au Petit Versailles, on rue François Miron, a narrow thoroughfare that snakes along on the edge of the Marais, threading through ancient churches and buildings that had been old and leaning when François Villon reeled drunkenly among them, shouting, “We must know who we are. Get to know the monster that lives in your soul; dive deep and explore it.”
The morning sun streaming through the window illuminated one of the prettiest cafés on the right bank, although its belle époque painted ceiling and frontage jarred with what Angelina was telling me about some surprising events that took place just a few doors from the little apartment they had just rented.
“They just stand there,” she said, “in their fur coats and high heels, and you just know there’s almost nothing on underneath. They have a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other, and they say the most extraordinarythings!”
“Well, of course,” I said. “That’s Le Pluriel.”
Nothing distinguished rue François Miron except perhaps its antiquity, but one address at least was extremely well known. Nothing about the exterior of the seventeenth-century hôtel particuliare at No. 14 looked particularly remarkable. Its exposed beams and crooked windows gave no hint that it housed one of Paris’s most popular échangistes, or sex clubs.
On its website you could watch videos of its three levels of cellars, where clients could enjoy a buffet supper, dance in the disco, drink at the bar, but also, more important, test the limits of what was possible between consenting adults. Ironically, one of the few acts forbidden in Le Pluriel was smoking. To light up, patrons had to climb to the street, where they used the opportunity to report to their friends on the night’s activities. These were the ladies that so scandalized Angelina.
The following Sunday, around midnight, after dining with Angelina and her husband, we descended together to the ground floor and stepped out onto the sidewalk. A light rain was falling, sifting down through the streetlights and adding a sheen to the old stones.
“There they are,” hissed Angelina.
About a dozen women pressed up against the façade to escape the rain. Most wore long coats, a few of them fur, but I spotted a Burberry, and one woman was tightly wrapped, Marlene Dietrich-like, in a belted garment of black leather that brought to mind horse whips and handcuffs. All wore heels so high that to walk more than a few meters would have invited a broken ankle. Not that any of them needed to. A phone call would bring a chauffeur or obliging husband from the parking station where they waited, napping or listening to late-night radio. Nothing among these people took place by chance. Sex was a serious business, to be approached with the care and formality of attendance at a vernissage on avenue de Marigny or a concert at Salle Pleyel. As one partouzeuse put it, “Does an orgasm deserve any less respect than a Chopin prelude or an etching by Matisse?”
As we passed, a few of the women turned away and lowered their voices, but most continued to murmur into their cell phones. I caught snatches of conversation in German, English, French. “… thought I was going to faint … son bite … énorme, ma biche, je te jure …”
That a streak of exhibitionism runs through this most formal of cultures isn’t surprising. For most European intellectuals, writing, talking, or reading about sex has always been at least as entertaining as the act itself. The Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár, working on an operetta in the Budapest of the 1920s, was surprised, waiting one morning in the New York Café for his composer, to see him arrive with a suitcase.
“You know I’ve been trying for months to seduce the wife of the French ambassador,” explained the musician.
“Of course,” said Molnár “You talk of little else.”
“Well, why not?” said the composer. “She’s adorable. Anyway, I’m just a whisker off success, but now her wretched husband has been recalled to Paris. Naturally I must follow.”
“Naturally,” said Molnár. “And yet …” He lowered his voice. “My friend, which will give you greater pleasure: shtupping the lady or describing it to us in the café afterward?”
The composer didn’t hesitate. “Well, of course, describing it.”
Bending close to his ear, Molnár, said, “So why not tell us as if you had enjoyed the lady and save yourself the trip?”
The logic was incontrovertible. The composer stayed, the story was told, and the lady remained to be enjoyed another day.
Although Molnár was Hungarian, his was a particularly French solution—except in one detail. While Frenchmen frequently flaunt their conquests in conversation, it’s women who put it on paper. When Jane Fonda lived with director Roger Vadim in the 1960s, the wall between their bedroom and bathroom was glass—a useful metaphor when dealing with France’s female intellectuals, who have seldom been backward in spilling the conjugal beans. The men whose secrets they exposed didn’t always agree. When Simone de Beauvoir described her affair with Nelson Algren, complete with quotes from their love letters, the author of The Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side snarled, “Whores close the door, but Simone de Beauvoir leaves them wide open and invites the public and the press to come in.”
Despite these protests, women continued to make the running. Emmanuelle Arsan’s Emmanuelle and Pauline Réage’s Histoire d’O inspired films, TV series, and numerous sequels. In the case of the sadomasochistic Histoire d’O, there are clubs in many countries that meet to explore the world it created. One can go on Histoire d’O holidays, even cruises. English actress Jane Birkin’s relationship with singer Serge Gainsbourg is lavishly documented by her raunchy performances in the films he directed, such as Je T’aime Moi Non Plus, and in their quirky magazine appearances. For the Christmas 1974 issue of Lui, the French equivalent of Playboy, the couple showed off the latest from Valentino and Dior, posing for photos in which Serge, suavely dressed in velvet smoking jackets and silk suits, spanked and pulled the hair of Jane as a means of showing off her lingerie.
Anyone who delves into France’s social and cultural history stumbles sooner or later on la partouze, as the French call group sex. It has a long history, particularly among the elite. The surrealists shared partners as a matter of course. Édouard Mesens, senior figure of the Brussels group, and his wife Sybil were enthusiastic partouzeurs, Mesens’s bisexuality adding extra spice. Between 1927 and 1929, poet Paul Éluard and his wife Gala and Max Ernst lived in a semipermanent ménage à trois. With hopes of adding handsome young Salvador Dalí to the mix, Éluard took Gala to Cadaqués in August 1929 to meet him. Instead of turning the trio into a quartet, Gala left Éluard to become Dalí’s wife and muse.
Orgy in the Bois de Boulogne, 1927
Expatriates took up the practice with enthusiasm. As most of the references in Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It are plural—birds, bees, Lapps, Letts—it may be the partouze that he’s celebrating. As an adoptive Parisian during the 1920s, he saw “the best upper sets” doing it, and participated enthusiastically.
On warm evenings, Harry and Caresse Crosby, wealthiest of the American exiles, sometimes led a convoy of Bugattis and Duesenbergs to the wooded park of the Bois de Boulogne, parked in a circle, facing inward, then stripped off to fondle and fornicate in the blaze of the headlights. The association of sex and the automobile survived well into the 1980s. It was common knowledge that, if you drove to Porte Dauphine, a roundabout on the main route west out of Paris, put on your turn indicator and cruised in the slow lane, other cars would link up until the first peeled off, leading the group to a suitable location for a partouze.
The custom remained technically under cover until the appearance in 2002 of a memoir called La Vie Sexuelle de Catherine M. In forensically precise prose, Madame M, actually Catherine Millet, detailed thirty years of semipublic fornication with a bewildering range of partners. The partouze about which she wrote was very much top person’s sex. Scorning what she called “the carousel of Porte Dauphine,” her group gathered in private clubs, apartments, and the walled gardens of rural châteaux. Which was not to say she didn’t fancy the occasional change of space, sampling the pleasures of parking stations, workmen’s huts, or the back rooms of bars frequented by truck drivers and cabbies. She also pleasured herself with her dentist and his nurse in the chair, and with moving men in their van as they shifted paintings from airport to art gallery, the driver watching in the rearview mirror. When not having sex in company, confessed Millet, she also enjoyed exposing her body naked in public and being photographed doing so.
These revelations would have attracted little attention from a housewife or secretary. But Millet is a respected art historian who edits the monthly Art Press and wrote the definitive guide to French contemporary painting. Critics inclined to dismiss her stories as erotic fantasies, like Emmanuelle and Histoire d’O, were startled when she produced photographs taken by her husband, novelist Jacques Henric. Though not into the partouze himself, Henric tagged along on some of her excursions and cataloged her public exposures. Stories of their adventures, as well as a selection of unconventional holiday snaps, appeared in his own book, Légendes de Catherine M.
Their trips included one to Portbou, on the French-Spanish border. It’s where art historian Walter Benjamin, author of the important text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, committed suicide with his mistress in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. After examining the hotel room in which Benjamin spent his last night, Henric photographed Millet seminaked in the cemetery where he’s buried. To complete the holiday, they visited Portbou railway station, one of the busiest in Europe.
Catherine Millet at Portbou
“Saturday fourteenth August 1999,” wrote Henric in breathless cinematic shorthand. “Le Talgo [express train] heading for Barcelona passes through at high speed. Catherine is seated on a bench. The wind from the Talgo lifts the right panel of her dress. Her thigh is naked.” More than the thigh, in fact—made clear as she stands up and walks toward the speeding train, dress unbuttoned from neck to hem. One can imagine the astonished passengers—“Did you just see … ?”
The partouze became front-page news again in 2012 when economist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former minister in the French government, head of the International Monetary Fund, and possible candidate for president of the Republic, confessed to living a “libertine” life and participating in orgies all over Europe. Cleared of charges that he raped a hotel maid in New York, he was indicted in France for “aggravated pimping” over a sex party in a Madrid nightclub. Asked if any of the women at his parties were prostitutes, DSK, as he’s known, responded that he had no way to tell, as, being naked, they carried no ID. You might detest the arrogance but you have to admire his style.