Crazy by Night - NIGHT 3: TOUCH - Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter

Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)

NIGHT 3: TOUCH

Chapter 26. Crazy by Night

Sex is not romantic, particularly when it is commercialized, but it does create an aroma, pungent and nostalgic, which is far more glamorous and seductive than the most brilliantly illuminated Great White Way.

Henry Miller, Quiet Days in Clichy

There are times when I’ve felt an affinity with Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby. Eager to be thought one of the beautiful people, he’s condemned to be a watcher, a facilitator, and, in his darkest hour, a pimp, helping Gatsby arrange a doomed reunion with Daisy.

I’m no stranger to the role myself. I’ve been recruited as a “beard” when illicit lovers wanted to meet in a hotel lounge without arousing suspicion—and who, in their eagerness to get upstairs, left me to pay for some high-priced cocktails, only half drunk.

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The Crazy Horse Saloon

In London during the 1970s, when censorship still strangled the cinema, banned movies could sometimes be shown at theaters registered as “film clubs.” As a working critic, I had automatic membership, and occasionally friends asked me to take them as my guest. The number peaked with Maîtresse, a prowl through the underworld of French S&M, about which director Barbet Schroeder seemed to know more than was healthy.

Since I moved to Paris, a few men have quizzed me about the gay scene—“just for background color, you know, for the new novel.” And women have solicited my help in dipping a toe—and more—into the échangiste scene and those clubs where clients arrive with one companion but leave with another.

This time, however, it was my turn to make the proposal. When my friend Milou wafted into town on one of her periodic visits, I asked, “Would you like to go to the Crazy Horse?”

Along with the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère, the Crazy Horse Saloon strip club is one of Paris’s most famous nighttime attractions. But was there any way it could be incorporated into a night walk? And to which of the senses would it appeal? As it wasn’t a place one visited alone, and Marie-Dominique had no interest in accompanying me, I thought of Milou. Fortunately, she accepted immediately.

Tall, stately, with a penchant for little black dresses and sensational lingerie, Milou drifts around the edge of the arts. One month, she’s doing PR for a boutique opera company that performs avant-garde one-acters in abandoned warehouses. Next, she pops up as au pair-governess to the family of an Italian baritone. A century ago, she could have been one of Maurice Dekobra’s madones des sleepings, those suave women who haunted the wagons-lits of the Train Bleu, preying on the card sharps and their victims who played high-stakes bridge to fill the hours between Paris and Rome.

On her last visit to Paris, we’d seen a performance of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges at Opéra Bastille, then had supper at La Fée Verte, the absinthe bar on rue de la Roquette. A visit to le Crazy wasn’t quite in the same league, but a little slumming never hurt anyone.

During more than half a century, the Crazy has accumulated a mythology. Salvador Dalí and other distinguished artists designed numbers for his girls. Georges Balanchine visited regularly. In What’s New Pussycat Woody Allen works there.

“I help the girls dress and undress,” he says. “It’s twenty francs a week.”

“Not much,” commiserates costar Peter O’Toole.

Woody shrugs. “It’s all I can afford.”

To promote the film, Allen participated in a photo shoot for Playboy called What’s Nude Pussycat, in which he played touch football with the girls. As they were topless, Woody also removed his shirt, offering a rare view of the unremarkable Allen physique. The girls invited Woody backstage. “I spent about an hour and a half in there, chatting with them,” he wrote to a friend. “The fact that I didn’t understand a word of it didn’t matter. I just nodded my head and smiled and went on looking.”

Nothing about the Crazy Horse Saloon marks it as particularly out of the ordinary. Like avenue George V itself, a wide thoroughfare lined with expensive hotels, boutiques, and cafés, it looks, at first glance, quite staid …

Except, of course, for the doorman, who’s dressed in the uniform of a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Milou didn’t blink, but as we descended the curving stairs into the below-ground cabaret area, she did raise an eyebrow.

“It’s a long story … ,” I began.

In 1951, Alain Bernardin, an enthusiast for American culture, decided that what Paris needed was a square-dance club. Leasing some wine cellars of Avenue George Cinq, he converted them into the Crazy Horse Saloon, complete with a floor wide enough for the most extravagant do-si-do and allemande left, and a real western bar where dancers could quench their thirst …

“Plus a Mountie on the door,” Milou concluded.

“Exactly.”

When the club flopped, Bernardin resourcefully turned it into a strip club. Its main attraction was his then-wife, Micheline Bernardini. A nude dancer at the Casino de Paris, she’d been the first woman to model the bikini swimsuit after regular mannequins refused to appear in anything so shocking.

There’s nothing cowboy about the modern Crazy Horse. A dimly lit terraced amphitheater under a low black ceiling, it seats customers on red plush couches in cubicles separated by barriers that provide a bare minimum of privacy.

Scheduled for nine thirty, the show didn’t begin until after ten, when the last latecomers had been lured in and the final drinks order extracted. Only then did the curtain rise on the tiny stage.

For the next hour and a half, we watched in respectful silence as twelve dancers, interchangeable as Barbies in their unerotic near-nudity, posed, minced, lounged, writhed, and pouted. None displayed the slightest crease. No flab, no sweat, and no body hair, except for a neat black pubic triangle.

Aiming for a topical repertoire, the current choreographer, Philippe Decouflé, had introduced an element of social comment. More than twenty years ago, I attended one of his first works. Presented as part of the Festival of Saint-Denis, the most left wing of Paris’s so-called Red Belt of satellite towns, it was staged in an abandoned boiler house.

He’d gone upmarket since then, while retaining his socialist bias. In one number, an anguished female stockbroker shed her business suit against a background of plunging sales graphs. In another, a nude girl in a dungeon struggled ineffectually but erotically with her chains, no doubt in a plea for the release of political prisoners. Another routine recalled the days of Sputnik. Two stately young women, near enough to twins, dressed in identical gold lamé helmets and not much else, tussled in a space capsule. It reminded me painfully of Roger Vadim’s high-camp film of the comic strip Barbarella, but for the first time Milou’s attention was engaged. She nudged me.

“The shoes,” she murmured.

“What about them?”

I could see that their impossibly high-heeled sandals, soles as thick as wedges of wedding cake, must be hell in low gravity.

“Christian Louboutin.”

“Who?”

She waved a hand in dismissal of my ignorance. How could I have failed to see that, for women, sex was so not the point of shows like this, compared with the fact that one of the leading lights of shoe design provided the footwear?

Decouflé had benched some old favorites, including the number in which a girl crawled all over the red velvet couch designed by Salvador Dalí in imitation of the lips of Mae West. Also gone was “Lay, Laser, Lay,” for decades a high point of the show. To the sluggish pulse of Oscar Benton’s “Bensonhurst Blues,” the dancer, lit by a fan of blue laser light and wearing only string (and little of that), slithered and writhed on a slowly revolving circular platform tilted toward the audience. I last saw it performed by a girl who, in a Crazy Horse tradition, hid her identity behind a pseudonym, in her case Roxy Tornado. (Others have included Akky Masterpiece, Lily Paramount, Rita Cadillac, Lana Polar, Lova Moor, and my favorite, Fuzzy Logic.) My appreciation even survived meeting Roxy in the flesh and finding a rather ordinary young woman from, of all places, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Celebrity dancers compete to appear at the Crazy. Arielle Dombasle, the almost scarily thin wife of philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, did a season there, as did celebrity stripper Dita von Teese. The show so fascinated Toni Bentley, for ten years Balanchine’s star at the New York City Ballet, that she asked Bernardin for a job in the corps de ballet. He turned her down, not for lack of talent but because she didn’t conform to his rule that all dancers be five feet four inches tall and identically proportioned. Their physical features, from eyes to crotch, had to line up precisely. “Like a painting,” he explained, “like a Modigliani, everyone the same.” He did allow her backstage, where she collected some makeup secrets. Dior No. 004 gave the girls a uniform creamy pallor, while their pubic triangles proved, like the moustaches of Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, to be Leichner Black greasepaint.

Beside me, Milou watched in silence. Not everyone was so respectful. Although the audience remained in darkness, an occasional overspill of light from the stage illuminated the banquettes where a gleam of thigh suggested some couples, finding the show insufficiently erotic, were making their own entertainment. I’d once brought to Le Crazy a friend more used to raunchier performances. As the troupe marched out for another demonstration of close-order calisthenics, he yelled “Take ’em orf!” Other patrons shushed him indignantly. “It was like we were listening to Beethoven’s late quartets!” said my friend.

After the show, Milou and I crossed the avenue for cocktails at the George Cinq.

Since my last visit, its lounge and inner courtyard had undergone a lavish makeover. Flower arrangements six feet tall erupted like fountains of color, and the pianist who used to vamp on Porter and Gershwin now played Lionel Ritchie. One felt as dwarfed by the setting as any tourist at Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower. To do something as conventional as drink in such a place seemed a failure of imagination. At the very least, a full orchestra should materialize in the courtyard, now relit as artfully as a stage set, and a choir rise on a hidden elevator to sing extracts from Les Misérables.

A waiter with the air of a high-class mortician placed something like a footstool beside Milou’s chair. Before I could ask her what it was for, she put her handbag on it. A handbag rest? What next?

“What did you think?” I asked Milou as we browsed the bulky drinks menus. There were so many essays on the hotel’s décor, history, and distinguished clientele that it was hard to find any reference to cocktails at all.

“The show?” she said. “Pretty, I suppose. Like watching arty shop window displays, except that the mannequins moved.” She turned another page of the menu. “What do you suppose goes into a Dunmore Sour Mulata?”

“Not sexy, then?”

She thought for a moment. “I liked the shoes.”

Two blond girls took the table next to us. Still in their teens, they spoke London English, but softly. Though their black dresses and jewelry were discreet, both appeared somehow soiled.

At this time of night—but really at any time of the day or night, if you could believe the gossip—most unaccompanied women in these hotels were prostitutes. Could these girls be double-teaming for the tired businessman looking for Something a Little Different? If so, their style was a triumph of marketing and packaging: just discreet enough to attract attention but casual enough to provoke.

I was almost ready to start a conversation when a willowy woman in impossibly high heels and a crimson evening gown swayed by on the arm of a shorter, older man. She passed before we turned our heads, so we didn’t see her face. It didn’t matter. It was impossible to watch anyone else, a fact of which both the man and woman were fully aware. Something in the way she moves …

“Now that … ,” said Milou respectfully, “is sexy!”

Later she emailed me. “If I were you, I’d forget the Crazy and just describe the cocktail bar and that woman in Valentino red.”

She was right, of course.

And she was right about the shoes.