Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Brothels of Old Paris

A prostitute in a Parisian brothel of the 30s. With a furtive punter...

The Brothels of Gay Paree

Paris has a problem with sex - at least of the commercial variety. Take a stroll down the rue St Denis, or through the Bois de Vincennes, and the evidence is unmissable: there are whores everywhere: standing on streetcorners, lying in the backs of vans, working out of dingy bedsits. Many of these whores are drug-addicts, or HIV+, a disturbing minority are sex slaves from Eastern Europe.

It’s a sad tale that could be repeated in any big modern city. What makes the situation in Paris unique is that the French used to handle commercial sex quite differently. Until their abolition in 1946, the French enjoyed legalised brothels, known as the maisons closes (the ‘closed houses’). Such was opulence of some of these houses they became a proud symbol of French taste, civility, and good sense. Now some French people (a majority, according to a recent poll) want the maison closes re-established; in direct contrast to the Chirac government’s hardline anti-whoring policy. The whole debate is expected to hot up in 2006.

So, what were the maisons closes? And can they really be a remedy for modern urban ills?

The legalised brothels first arose in the 1830s. At that time Paris probably had about two hundred bordellos, scattered around town. As industrialisation brought prosperity, and prosperity brought ‘respectability’, the city authorities came under pressure to close down the cat-houses. Instead the government opted to police them.

The first laws for the maintenance of the houses are a telling balance between propriety and blunt common sense. It was forbidden to establish a bordello on a principal boulevard. Nor could you open one within a hundred metres of a church, or school. The houses had to be discreet, with no signs or open windows; only women were allowed to run brothels (i.e. no pimping); moreover, these women had to be ex-prostitutes. Most crucially of all, every working girl in the house was inspected at fortnightly intervals, by a doctor, for venereal disease.

The system worked. Indeed it worked so well people started making serious profits; these profits attracted further investment. Consequently in 1878 the first really big, opulent brothel opened its discreet polished doors: Le Chabanais.

The proprietress was one Madame Kelly, an Irish-born member of the high-class Jockey Club. Among her backers were various well-known French businessmen. These people anonymously injected enough francs into the Chabanais to make it a model of its kind - and a byword for luxury. Le Chabanais might have been a sober French townhouse on the outside; inside it was all velvet, ormolu, and tiger-skin. The so-called Selection Salon, where the semi-naked whores would lounge around in lingerie for the delectation of the newly-arrived punter, was notably plush.

Not surprisingly, Le Chabanais was expensive; only the rich or royal could afford its pleasures. Amongst these was the future King Edward VII of England, alias ‘Bertie’. Bertie loved Le Chabanais, and came back time after time to sample the exotic Hindu Chamber, and the infamous champagne bath. Such was Prince Bertie’s loyalty the owners of Le Chabanais had a ‘fellatio seat’ specially made for the future king. The seat was designed to make oral sex between two or three people as comfortable as possible; it still exists today, and looks decidedly sinister.

The princely imprimatur was all that Le Chabanais had needed for final approval. A trip to one of the houses now became an integral part of the Paris experience for any visiting celebrity or dignitary. Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, King Leopold of the Belgians, Humphrey Bogart, they all took pleasure at the top bordellos, either at Le Chabanais, or Le Sphinx, or Chez Suzy, or The One Two Two.

The One Two Two, which flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, was noted for its fabulous decor, which out-kitsched even Le Chabanais. The Selection Salon of ‘The One’ was a flower grotto, surrounded by marble pedestals on which the whores posed, bare-breasted. Upstairs were rooms decked out to resemble cabins on ocean liners, igloos in the Arctic, even compartments on the Orient Express where you could commingle with a fascinating stranger (these rooms came complete with ticket collector, primed to slide open the wagon-lit door at just the right titillating moment).

Downstairs in The One there was also a kitchen, with naked serving wenches, and something resembling a torture garden, with chains, handcuffs, and scourges. Perversity was, of course, endemic in the maisons. According to one madam, at various times fully a third of the brothels’ clients were men known as ‘juicers’ (delicate readers please skip the next sentence). These were men who liked to wait outside a whore’s room until the first punter had done his deed, then the ‘juicer’ would rush in and suck out the other man’s sperm.

Other men had even kinkier tastes, all catered for. The great novelist Marcel Proust was a frequenter of the homosexual houses (there were maisons for lesbians, and couples, as well). Proust’s favourite thing was to spy through a specially-drilled hole on other love-making men - not so odd, perhaps. Yet it has also been claimed that he liked to watch rats being stuck with pins. Either way he certainly had an unusual relationship with the brothels: he donated all his dead parents’ furniture to one gay bordello.

Along with Proust, many other artists were drawn to the maisons. Picasso, Hemingway, Degas, Giacometti, all found solace and inspiration behind the shuttered windows. The most assiduous artistic habitue was probably Toulouse-Lautrec. For a while he practically lived in one bordello - on the rue d’Amboise. There he was known to the girls as Teapot Toulouse because of his short stature and maximal endowment. Toulouse-Lautrec also painted a dozen beautiful murals for Le Chabanais, now sadly gone.

The sexual Belle Epoque could not last. The beginning of the end came with the Second World War, when, instead of closing down the brothels the Germans preserved and frequented them, even publishing a guide for the use of officers. In time German soldiers with sten guns were posted outside Le Chabanais; Herman Goring was a regular visitor; towards the end of the Battle of Britain, blonde and doomy German airmen would come to The One, sharing their official amphetamines with the girls in a last careless frenzy.

Such activities were ‘horizontal collaboration’, in the eyes of many angry French people. Right after The Liberation a violent backlash began; the situation worsened when Madame de Gaulle, wife of the new president, revealed her personal animus against the houses. The inevitable end came on April 13th 1946, with the proclamation of the Marthe Ricard law, officially closing down the bordellos. In a few weeks the interiors were broken up; the girls dispersed; the champagne tubs smashed.

What became of the properties? Their fates are poignant and telling. The One Two Two, on 122 rue de Provence, is now a dreary office complex. Le Chabanais on 7 rue de Chabanais has been turned into apartments. The Sphinx in Montparnasse is another block of flats; others are private houses, restaurants, hotels, flower shops.

Just about the only interior to have survived is that of the Aux Belles Poules (‘the beautiful chicks’), at 32 rue Blondel, in the 2nd arrondisement. Here you will find a room of elegantly erotic mosaics, and sentimentally carnal ceramics. As it is one of the few interiors of the tolerated brothels to have survived in situ it has had a preservation order slapped on it.

Parisians who see, on a daily basis, the drug-addicted Albanian girls of rue St Denis can be forgiven for thinking that what the maisons closes need is not preservation, but renovation.  Posted by Hello


Tim Worstall said...

Heard the one about the Italian Prime Minister visiting Paris?
French Foreign Minister, as the car was going down the Champs Elysees:
"And there, on the left, we are passing Madame Claude’s, the finest whorehouse in all France"


Sean, can you drop me an email. Question I want to ask you.

Dr. Olivine Batrachian said...

"...the Chirac government's hardline anti-whoring policy"?

I salute you. The more time I spend gazing in delight at those seven words, the more depth and resonance they gain.

Captain Eleuthera Mountebank said...

"German soldiers with sten guns" — Sten guns?! Why would the Germans be using notoriously flaky Brit weapons instead of something more... German?

sean said...

Captain Eleuthera Mountebank. First may I say what a delightfully implausible name you have (likewise you, Doctor Olivine Batrachian; also you both have lower case naming schemes, like e.e.cummings - is there any chance you could be related?).
Secondly, er, yep. Bit of a cock-up there on the Sten gun front - I thought Sten gun was a generic name for sub-machine gun. But, hey, you know what I mean... right?!

gina said...

Hello Sean-

I am doing some research on the Chabanais. Could you tell me what your sources are?


sean said...

Hi Gina

Can't really help that much - I just spent a day in the British Library, wading through every reference to 'French brothels', etc.

And I didn't take any serious notes of actual references..

Good luck!


tim said...

Greetings, also doing research on the locations of Paris brothels, and prostitution in general. Any info you have pass along to Also, I have a pretty extensive compilation of information on Paris addresses, if interested also contact and I will help if I can. Thanks Tim Norris