I’d love to simply dwell on the jaunty visual attractiveness—not to mention the entertainment and historical value—of author Mel Gordon’s recent coffee table book from Feral House press, Horizontal Collaboration: The Erotic World of Paris 1920-1946. It’s by turns a joyful and critical account of the legal sex industry in Paris before, during, and after the two world wars.
I’d also prefer to avoid painting myself into a corner as “That one lady who spends weeks at a time wondering aloud about what the French are going to do with all their enthused new Muslims.”
But as the EU brass continue prying national borders open to everyone who can fit on a boat, it’s almost impossible to read an account of Paris, sex, and the Nazi occupation without one’s mind wandering to Paris, sex, and the new theocrappation.
…Although the extent of said theocrappation depends on how you interpret some viscerally shocking poll data. For instance: does 3 percent of a sample of the French population responding “very favorably” to ISIS while 13 percent respond “rather favorably” add up to 15 percent of the electorate backing ISIS? You parse the adverbs.
But in any case, as my dear departed friend Lisa Falour used to say: Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. (An influx of radical Muslims is comedy gold, in fact; just as France was running out of humorless Catholics, here comes the new boss…)
I am, however, aware that reductio ad Hitlerum is a running gag with all the kids these days; therefore, I shall drive straight on to reductio praeter Hitlerum.
Because if the research in this book is anything like accurate—and Feral House’s longtime reputation might imply that it is—it sounds like the Nazis were more tolerant of, if not titillated by, Parisian sexual culture than our new friends the jihadis.
Then again, the Nazis were also more fun, sexually speaking, than the native French feminists in all apparent likelihood, so there’s that to chew on as well… Not to mention the fact that the Nazi stormtroopers supposedly acted less rapey in gay Paree than the heroic American GIs who came to chase them away.
“Unlike the disciplined German troops,” as Gordon puts it, “most Yanks had little patience with French folkways.” In other words, the fact that prostitution was legal made all the girls look like fair game—and the difficulty of telling a smoky-eyed but intractably Catholic Parisienne from a lazy hooker was compounded by the shell-shocked liberators’ tendency to start drinking perfume, eau de Cologne, or whatever else smelled strong enough when the actual booze was gone. (Same genre of logic that the Allah-inebriated are using these days when they see short skirts, I suppose.) Ninety percent of the Americans who were eventually hanged for rape (yup, hanged for rape!) in Paris were from the “colored” regiments, Gordon notes, but considering the era you would be hard-pressed to thereby extrapolate the actual rape rate with any accuracy.
The book’s finale suggests, without quite endeavoring to provide proof, that the G.I.s’ “misunderstandings” were supremely influential in the passage of the infamous Marthe Richard law after the liberation.
This bit of legislature, known as “la fermeture” (“the shutdown”), ended legal prostitution and, just as much as the Nazi occupation, marked the end of an era in cosmopolitan culture. The Parisian prostitute would ever after be a common criminal, like her sisters in less enlightened lands. Regardless of the share of the blame for the prohibition that properly belongs to the Yanks, our postwar sex crimes marked a genuine facepalm moment in American military history: you’re supposed to rape the enemy, geniuses—not your allies!
Note: Before the comments fill up with bug-eyed pedants, patriots, and PC-sters going nuts because I called Muslims, Americans, and feminists more sexually messed-up than Nazis: Yes, I am well aware that the Nazis did bad stuff in World War II, up to and possibly including everything your sick little mind can imagine. But even a monocle-squinting villain can tell the difference between Montmartre and Mauthausen. To quote Gordon:
Historically, forcible sex by the blond barbarians in the streets of Paris before 1944 was uncommon. That kind of behavior was reserved for the Eastern Front. And too many French girls had already thrown in their lot with the enemy.
… Parisians lived in an improbable erotic bubble. Inside Nazidom, there were few places where “wild prostitution” and extensive black-market trade were tolerated or categorically ignored. The same was true for homosexuality. While German gays were hunted and hauled off to concentration camps in their homeland, queer venues in Paris remained open for business as they had before the war.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Although the book’s title implies that it will mostly feature hawt Nazi action—“collaboration” was the French World War II epithet for the act of aiding, abetting, or abedding the occupiers—the vast majority of the volume is devoted to setting the stage. Gordon documents, with lavish reprints of posters and dozens of photos, the development of sexual entertainment and tourism in the capital over the relatively halcyon decades before and between the world-war debacles.
This material is considerably less depressing, save for the descriptions of the lowest echelons of late-nineteenth-century criminals and whores, which are delivered dutifully and clearly without unduly weighing down the narrative. (All of this sexy girly pin-up stuff could have been delivered with an annoyingly knowing wink, or conversely the less pleasant portions of prostitutes’ personal hells could have been harped on; Gordon avoids both errors with wit and grace.)
The pre-World War I sex culture of Paris, at least as presented by Gordon, is truly a thing to be mourned—yet another aspect of civilized life of which industrialized warfare left the world bereft. Sex was an acknowledged part of human nature, for better or for worse, a thing to hide only playfully; and bourgeois wives preferred that their men turn to the sophistication of paid prostitutes rather than the more innocent and dangerous charms of their secretaries at work.
Yes, there was crime and abuse of the sex workers involved; let’s attend to that objection. Yes. But I have a great weakness for fantastical architecture and year-round Halloween decorations—and old erotic Paris featured fabulous brothels and dives whose ghoulishly imaginative ambiance cannot but have helped absinthe hangovers glide almost painlessly into the next drunk.
Theme rooms were a specialty of many cathouses and dives—indeed, sometimes they were the entire establishment. And it wasn’t just the brothels and huge-scale dance revues like the Moulin Rouge that subscribed to a fantastic, borderline goofy vision of the erotic. Two side-by-side Montmartre cabarets called L’Enfer and Le Ciel (Hell and Heaven) were particularly delicious and weird. Themed after Biblical punishment and reward, Gordon says they transformed “the vague afterworlds of Heaven and Hell into cartoonish fairylands,” complete with bizarre special effects, scantily clad angels, and sexy condemned souls.
More seriously macabre was the tourist trap across the street: the Cabaret du Néant (Cabaret of the Void), described by Gordon as “devoted to death and the disintegration of human cadavers.” Instead of parodic visions of a dreamy afterlife, its shtick amounted to drinking in a kinky mausoleum. “Yet the Néant’s head-on gruesomeness,” says Gordon, “proved to be its enduring attribute.” Established in the 1890s, it survived till the time of the Second World War.
Unfortunately, the building itself appears more sixteenth century than medieval (correct me if I’m wrong). But it was decked out with a genuine human skull chandelier, skeletons on the walls, and coffins for tables; waiters glumly boasted that drink orders would include cholera and poison for no extra charge, and the monk who hosted the pun-choked floor show firmly reminded patrons that they were “coffin-worms,” smugly cataloguing the many ways they could meet their eventual doom. “Their future is invariably Eternal Nothingness,” says Gordon; “while he pontificates about their painful demises, glowing panels of frolicking men and music-hall dancers divulge their imminent fates as hideous cadavers.”
Though prostitutes weren’t on the menu, there were plenty nearby, and the Néant’s atmosphere of Ligotti-like uncanniness would have fortified any subsequent entertainments the coffin-worms sought out that evening with a piquant reminder of their pleasures’ fragility.
The quietly witty approach that Gordon takes overall nicely parallels the prewar Parisian attitude toward the erotic: the book is less focused on the sort of idle curiosities you’d see in an erotic museum—I don’t recall any mention of antique sex toys—and gives space instead to the way sex-as-theater was used as a force of cultural cohesion. For instance, one fascinating section focuses on the difference between what tourists got out of the dialogue at music-hall shows versus the in-jokes and social critique that few besides native viewers would have understood.
When the timeline rolls around to World War II, therefore, Gordon has set the groundwork for a sprightly but unsentimental look at the horizontal collaborators as well as the French Resistance, warts and all. He gives the impression that Frenchwomen who collaborated horizontally were motivated by more than self-preservation; though American Leftists have been titting the French for 60-some years about their (largely legendary, if you ask me) rampant Gallic xenophobia, in reality, then as now, Parisians’ cosmopolitan and open-minded taste for the exotic had a tendency to bite them in the ass. To wit: the young ladies were as curious about the Aryan Ostrogoths as twenty-first-century French college kids, in my experience, are about their Muslim peers.
Even gay culture, which in most sexy coffee table books gets treated with kid gloves, here receives a firmly arched eyebrow: “Gay men, like adolescent Parisiennes, were thunderstruck by the German soldiers’ chiseled appearance.”
It makes for great reading: presenting folks warts and all usually makes the story far more interesting. Glossaries are included throughout the book; twentieth-century Parisians had dozens of words for various grades and shades of flirts, gays, lesbians, tarts, and sex workers. Twice in the book, Gordon touches on a supremely intriguing icon of wartime Paris: Fat Claude (née Violette Morris).
Morris was a World War I celebrity nurse who became a World War II collaborator. A diesel dyke from the old school, in her youth she was the national and/or Olympic champion of everything from shotput to men’s water polo. When she teamed up with the Nazis, she became famous for a far weirder athletic feat: she devised satanically cruel methods of flogging female members of the French liberation underground to pump them for secrets. And in the great tradition of total bastards of the twentieth century, she was eventually gunned down in a car chase—in her case by the Résistance, poetically enough. If I ever get it together to write a historical novel, it will probably be about this gimlet-eyed bitch. (Either her or the slave whom the Roman emperor Hadrian stabbed in the eye with a pen; I can’t make up my mind.)
And no account of the Horizontal Collaboration would be complete without the infamous shaving of the titular (huh huh huh) collaboratrices. After the Nazi tide receded, France went into a homegrown orgy of scapegoating, in which local officials ceremonially em-baldened those emboldened women who had lain with the mighty Bosch.
That, I expected. But if you think you know about sex and Paris, expect a few surprises out of this book. My thoughts upon beginning it were preservationist: if we’re worried about the death of indigenous cultures, there’s no one more indigenous or cultured than a Parisian de souche, and Paris has long been associated with erotic ritual. Which is to say: whether you’re a conservative who disapproves of libertinism, or a liberal who’s not so sure about European sovereignty, you must at least admit that some of your values are bound to conflict with your other values if you close your eyes to closed-minded Allah nuts descending on Montmartre.
But after Gordon’s rather too-brief account of the fermeture, I’m not sure it wasn’t too late long ago. It sounds like the old Montmartre sex district was Disneyfied long before it became the heavily Muslim neighborhood it is today; jihadis and lame tourists might be a good match for each other after all. Too bad about the locals. Well, they’ve still got… er… the wealthy neighborhoods, I guess. Perfect place for a hooker!
Horizontal Collaboration: The Erotic World of Paris, 1920-1946
2016 IndieFab Honorable Mention in Popular Culture. Mel Gordon, author of Voluptuous Panic, the celebrated history about the sex culture of Weimar Berlin, returns with a stunningly illustrated look at Paris, The City of Pleasure, prior to and during German occupation during World War II. The book Horizontal Collaboration encompasses the Jazz Age, Depression, World […]