Category Archives: Film

The ‘real’ Garçonne

‘La Garçonne’ by Vincent Scotto published by Ernst Rolfs Musikförlags, (Stockholm, sd).

In the Twenties restrictive corsets became old-fashioned. Women opted for flat-chested dresses, they cropped their hair and started smoking cigarettes. This boyish look was called à la garçonne.

‘A la Garçonne’ by Henri Panella & Edouard Révérand, published by Margueritat (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Pons.

This year André Téchiné directed the film Nos Années Folles (The Golden Years). It is based on the true story of the French deserter Paul Grappe, nicknamed la Garçonne. The Great War broke out as Paul had nearly finished his military service. He was wounded in August 1914, and a second time in November when his index finger was ripped off. He was first accused, and shortly afterwards exonerated of voluntary mutilation to escape the battlefield. Facing his imminent return to the front in the middle of 1915, Paul decided to desert.

He returned to his wife, Louise. But a young man in good health walking around in Paris during the war would raise suspicion. So together with his wife they decided he should change gender. They moved to a new neighbourhood. At first he stayed inside, let his hair grow, removed his moustache and beard by electrolysis and learned to talk with a higher voice. His wife lent him some clothes, pierced his ears and gave him a pair of earrings.

Paul Grappe as Suzanne, between the caretaker or pipelette and his wife Louise, somewhere in the early Twenties (from ‘Détective’ magazine, November 1928).

Paul, or Suzanne as he called himself, got the hang of making his own feminine clothes. Little by little Suzanne ventured out on the street and even managed to get a job. He posed as a female friend of his own wife. Still his masculine traits must have been visible as Suzanne was called la Garçonne in the neighbourhood.

When the war was finished he continued to pretend and live as a woman because he still risked being convicted for desertion.

Headline from ‘Le Petit Parisien’, 5th of February, 1925

Not until 1925 France declared amnesty for its deserted soldiers. And Suzanne became Paul again, with the necessary media attention. But he struggled to get his life under control. He was unable to find a job, and from time to time he still felt the urge to go out in drag. One night in a bar, during a heated discussion with some other patrons, and in order to prove that he was a real man, he lifted his dress, showed his masculinity and was promptly arrested for indecent behaviour.
Trying to cash in on his fifteen minutes of fame he had made photographs of himself in male and female attire. With this album he wandered along the terraces of the Parisian cafés hoping to sell his autographed pictures for some change or free drinks. And he needed a lot:
he drank five litres of wine a day, if we can believe the newspapers of the time.

Paul Grappe as man and woman in 1925.

One night in 1928 according to his wife Louise, Paul Grappe couldn’t stand the crying of their baby boy who was very ill at the moment. He awoke from his drunken stupor, “roaring like a lion”, and started to beat his wife. Fearing that he might hit their child and weary of her husbands shenanigans Louise grasped a pistol and shot him dead. Adding to the tragedy, their little son would later also die while she was in prison.

Paul Grappe, known as la Garçonne, with his wife and their baby in 1926.

During her trial Louise stated that her husband had had more than 3.000 mistresses while living as a woman. She also told the court that he had been a regular at the Montmartre bars and among the prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne. I can’t make head nor tail of that account: was his disguise not foolproof? Did he have platonic affairs or was he bisexual? Or did these women adore a man in drag..?
Anyway, Paul’s neighbours testified that he was a vicious brute always carrying a revolver and menacing people with it. Her lawyer Maurice Garçon (what’s in a name!) argued Louise’s case eloquently and she was acquitted.

The 1939 edition of ‘La garçonne‘ by Victor Margueritte, published by Flammarion, Paris.

La Garçonne is also the title of a novel by the now almost forgotten Victor Margueritte (1866-1942). It was first published in 1922, the same year the French senate rejected the right to vote for women. It tells the story of a young woman promised by her parents to a wealthy fiancée who cheats on her. Disillusioned she drowns her sorrow in self-destructive libertinism. She starts to lead a life of pleasure, collecting partners of both sexes and frequenting fashionable boîtes to smoke opium or to indulge in cocaine.

La garçonne‘ by Victor Margueritte, published by Flammarion, Paris, the 1934 edition.

She tries to redeem herself in a tormented romance with a jealous, manipulating man determined to submit her, even quite literally. But finally she falls very much in love with a respectful, modern intellectual.

‘C’est la Garçonne’ by Yvan Fouyat, published by Antoine Ysaye (Brussels, 1923) and illustrated by Peter de Greef.

So, although Margueritte’s Garçonne repents by becoming a model of bourgeois virtue, the novel was still considered particularly shocking. The author was even stripped of his Légion d’honneur. That was bad. To illustrate this: last month President Emmanuel Macron said France should strip Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of his prestigious Légion d’honneur. So yes, it is was that bad.

‘Der er maaske en lille Pige’ (Voici la Garçonne) by Alexander Yrnèh & Henry Carlsen, published by Alfred Thorsings Musikforlag (Copenhagen, 1926).

The scandalous novel has been adapted into a film four times, the most notable one in 1936. The heroine is played by Marie Bell who is being kept by an astonishing blonde Arletty. She discovers the nightlife and the opium dens, and arouses the lust of two female singers.
One is embodied by Suzy Solidor, then a huge star of the music hall and openly lesbian. The other by a young Edith Piaf, acting and singing in her first film.

Still from La Garçonne (1936) with Edith Piaf standing in the middle.

What better way to end this story than with a tragical song from this film? Edith Piaf sings Quand-même. The music is by Jean Wiener and the lyrics are from Louis Poterat.

Le bonheur quotidien,
Vraiment, ne me dit rien.
La vertu n’est que faiblesse
Qui voit sa fin dans le ciel.
Je préfère la promesse
Des paradis artificiels.

Je sais qu’à la porte d’un bar
Où j’aurai bu jusqu’à l’extrême,
On ramassera quelque part
Mon corps brûlé sur un brancard.
Je bois quand même…

Que sous la drogue lentement,
D’extase en extase suprême,
Je m’approche implacablement
Du sombre asile des déments.
J’en prends quand même…

Je sais qu’en la femme fatale,
Dans les bras d’un amant trop blême,
S’infiltrera l’horrible mal
Dont on crève au lit d’hôpital.
J’aime quand même…


Further reading on Paul Grappe: La Garçonne et l’assassin by Fabrice Virgili and Danièle Voldman.

All Quiet on the Western Front

…geen nieuws van het westelijk front” by Henri Theunisse, published by N.V. Algemene Muziekhandel en Uitgeversmaatschappij van Esso en Co (Rotterdam, 1929) and illustrated by Haas.

“But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” – Carl Maria Remarque

In 1929 the German novelist Carl Maria Remarque wrote his anti-war masterpiece Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front). This book about war’s physical horror was the inspiration for a Dutch song by Henri Theunisse. You can hear his wife Jeanne Horsten sing the song together with Louis Noiret.

The book follows a young German, barely nineteen, and his fellow German classmates who fight in the Great War. They joined the army voluntarily after listening to the patriotic speeches of their teacher. After weeks of fighting Paul Baumer realizes that war is not glorious nor honourable, and that it makes enemies of people who have no grudge against one another. Amidst the ravages of poison gas, artillery bombs, destroyed horses and lost limbs Paul faces sorrowful disillusionment.

Left: ‘Kriegers los‘ by Fritz Redl & Hermann Frey, published by Fülnhorn Verlag (Berlin) Right: ‘Vision…‘ by P. Jullien, published by Schott Frères (Brussels) and illustrated by Amedée Lynen (1917).

The book became an international bestseller. A year later, in 1930, it was adapted as an American film. It became one of the first talkies to win the Oscar for best picture. Because of the defeatist view on war’s meaningless slaughter the book and film were vilified by the emerging National Socialists In Germany. Goebbels led some Brownshirts into tossing stink bombs from the balcony of a Berlin theatre, throwing sneezing powder in the air and releasing white mice. These obnoxious pranks however went further by shouting insults to Jews and even beating people thought to be Jewish. The show was stopped. The next evenings rallies were organised against the film and similar riots erupted across Germany. The film was banned.

When I was in my early teens All Quiet on the Western Front was required reading at school. It moved me so much though that I couldn’t sleep for nights in a row. Since then I’ve been a committed pacifist.

My language teacher —who was responsible for the class’ reading list— was quite an appearance! She was a short, matronly lady with a heavily made-up face: white powder and ruby lips. Her hair was painted raven-black, which she wore in an imposing chignon. A heavy bosom completed her formidable look. At the time I thought her to be at least 100 years old. She held her husband, a now long forgotten poet and writer, in adulation. Her boundless admiration for him led her to tell us interminable stories about him and his works. Boring, but sometimes surprisingly interesting… Contrary to her old-fashioned demeanour, she was a feminist, a pacifist and atheist.

On the right my language teacher next to her husband, the poet and writer Paul Rogghé. Picture taken in 1948, some 20 years before I became one of her pupils. (source: AMVC-Letterenhuis, Antwerpen)


She not only taught us to appreciate literature but told us all about  Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe and the role of Bernadette Devlin in the student-led civil rights movement in 1968. At the same time, as she found us an unruly bunch of young teenage girls, she taught us about etiquette, which magazines were appropriate for young women, and how to decorate our future homes. After all, you wouldn’t want to live in a petty-bourgeois interior, now would you?

Speaking for myself, I’m inclined to say: mission accomplished Mrs R.! Except maybe for the etiquette thing.
This song is for you.

The Man Who Loved Women

‘Ombre et Lumière’ by Pokrass, published by Salabert (Paris, 1927) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

This beautiful art deco cover by Roger de Valerio represents the Rowe Sisters. The twins Pauline & Betty Rowe started their career in France around 1924. They were one of the several twin-sister acts emulating the immensely successful Dolly Sisters.

Poster of the Rowe Sisters by Gesmar, 1925

They were known to their fans as ‘the Greyhounds of Paris’. But unlike the popular Dolly Sisters almost nothing is known about their personal lives, not even their nationality. According to newspapers of that time they were either American or English.

As stated by La Vie Parisienne in 1927, le tout Paris was “eagerly awaiting the return of the Rowe Sisters at the Casino de Paris after their success at the Alhambra in Brussels transformed them into stars.” But the leggy Rowe Sisters never became top of the bill and they stopped dancing when Betty married a hot actor and singer, Henri Garat in 1932. They met by chance in a train returning to Paris from the French Riviera and married shortly after. But she married the wrong guy.

‘C’est Malheureux d’être amoureux’, song from the ‘Rive Gauche’ Paramount film. Music by Ray Noble & lyrics by Marc Hély, sheet music published by Chappell (Paris, 1931) and illustrated by Kramer. It prominently shows the picture of a smoking Henri Garat.

Henri Garrat was known as “France’s most glittering matinee idol and film star” and was according to a then newspaper “the coqueluche of France, meaning that all the midinettes got whooping cough over him”.

Mon Amour quand je danse avec toi‘ waltz by Werner R. Heymann with French words byJean Boyer, published by Salabert (Paris, 1931) and illustrated by H. Cerutti.

A leading film actor in light romances during the 1930’s, Garat became a big star as the partner of Lilian Harvey. The cinema made him rich, very rich. He got more money than sense and led an opulent life with a yacht, several cars, a castle and too many friends who ate caviar by the spoonful at his table.

Chicago Tribune, April 1933

In the 1934 film Prince de Minuit, Betty Rowe got to play a small part together with her husband. He plays the role of a clerk in a shop selling records.

Interestingly the clip above shows —apart from a few stupefying film montages— that these shops offered a technical studio where you could cut your own record. In the next fragment of the same film Henri Garat sings Caricouli, a foxtrot composed by Maurice Yvain.

We also see Betty Rowe’s cameo: she’s a customer in the shop listening to him crooning. The clip ends with both dancing together on top of a giant revolving 78 rpm.
Betty’s career in film was short. She only appeared in minor roles in two other films. It is thanks to two stills of these other films that I was able to recognise her in the clip above. Makes me feel a top-noch archival sleuth, ahum.

Left: Betty Rowe in ‘Le Messager’, 1937. Right: Betty Rowe in ‘La souris bleue’ with her husband Henry Garat and Monique Rolland, 1936.

Betty and Henri’s marital bliss was short-lived. Just as he sang in the film ‘Un Soir de Réveilllon‘:

J’aime les femmes, j’aime les femmes
Voilà mon vice, ma faiblesse et mon défaut.

in real life our handsome jeune premier also loved women.  And these in turn found it hard to resist his charms…

Even while Betty was pregnant there were continuous rumours of affairs with other women. No wonder that five years later their marriage was over.

Henri Garat would marry four times. And ultimately his extravagant lifestyle, his consumption of cocaine, his philandering, his marriages including one with a ‘Russian countess’, his divorces and also fraud brought him ruin. His stardom started to wane. As a result he suffered from depression and had to follow a detox. He opened a restaurant and a toy store, but it didn’t work out. At the end of his life he was discreetly assisted by La Rou Tourne, a charity for the unfortunates from the world of theatre. Supported by this association Henri Garat became a pathetic attraction in theatres. He even toured with a circus. Alas too often, the public didn’t recognise the big film star anymore. Henri Garat died in poverty aged 57.

Still from the film ‘Il est charmant’ with Henri Garat and Meg Lemonnier.