This handsome young man is smoking a long-stemmed clay churchwarden pipe. He poses comfortably, relaxed in his turtleneck sweater which in the 20th century became associated with academics and artists. The title of the song tells us that he belongs to a fraternity, a kind of student club. One of the cushions even bears the name of his fraternity, Phi Delta Phi, a combination of ancient Greek letters. Our frat boy is definitely ‘living the Greek life’, that means to follow the customs and rules of a fraternity. And so are the girls on the covers below.
According to my perfunctory research a fraternity is a brotherhood, an elite club of like-minded people at university or college in the US and Canada. A sorority is the feminine counterpart. Fraternity brothers or sisters subscribe to the same ‘high’ values and beliefs. Many hope that their membership will be a stepping stone to a life of power, wealth and success. And I who thought fraternities were all about drinking inhuman amounts of booze, vomiting profusely and libidinous behaviour! Perhaps I got that impression forty years ago from the low-brow comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House…
Fraternities were originally formed around 1775 as secret literary dining clubs, with rituals similar to the Freemasons. They always have been keenon using complex symbols such as their Greek-lettered names, but they are also fond of secret passwords and hand grips, and love intricate coats of arms…
… and pins.
In the first quarter of the 20th century, the sisters and brothers made plenty of time to organise sports events, parties and dances and they tended to date within their ‘Greek caste’. This of course provided the inspiration for a number of songs.
Enough history. Time for a song, and what a song! It was probably the most popular fraternity song around. Now sing along with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians: The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi.
The girl of my dreams is the sweetest girl
Of all the girls I know.
Each sweet coed, like a rainbow trail
Fades in the afterglow.
The blue of her eyes and the gold of her hair
Are a blend of the western skies;
And the moonlight beams on the girl of my dreams
She’s the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi.
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 àla garçonne.
This year André Téchiné directed the film Nos Années Folles (The Golden Years). It isbased 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, 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 womanbecause he still risked being convicted for desertion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Inspired by autumn I scanned our collection for chrysanthemums. And look what I found: no less than a dozen covers! That doesn’t come close to the number of sheet music romantically decorated with roses. But at least it shows that in the beginning of the 20th century mums (the informal name for cultivated chrysanthemums) were cherished. Perhaps because they seem to add a touch of exuberance to the music?
Chrysanthemums are botanically described as a genus of compositae with more than 200 species. The variety of colours and wildly arranged petals often reminds one of small fireworks.
It is probably their Chinese origin (and centuries later also Japanese roots) that explains their highly decorative value for many orientally inspired art nouveau images.
Twenty years later, art deco artists showed no lesser fascination for the orient. Look at de Valerio’s beautiful cover design for ‘a Japanese fox‘ or Granath’s Swedish illustration for a ‘Japansk serenad‘.
As a finale, here is one more sheet music: charming, though I’m not really sure that it is an ‘official’ chrysanthemum…
I was surprised to learn that one can brew tea from certain chrysanthemum flowers. For centuries it has been a popular drink in China and other parts of the world. It is praised for its floral aroma and health benefits.
Chrysanthemums have also been used in the Chinese kitchen and in medicine. The flower heads of two particular species have traditionally been used in the Middle East and the Balkan as a repellent for insects. This effect is caused by the toxic substance pyrethrum which they contain.
And here is where the moths enter our story. In 1814 a certain Johann Zacherl was born in Munich. Following the steps of his father he learned the pewter crafts. A few years and travels later he found employment in a pewter foundry in Vienna in 1836. He must have been an enterprising lad or a restless soul, because from there he travelled via St. Petersburg, over Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa to finally arrive in Constantinople. In the early 1840’s Zacharl moved again, this time to the Caucasus where he set up shop in Tbilisi. He had a pewter foundry, but also a wood and iron turning workshop.
In Georgie, Johann Zacherl moreover started trading tea, rum, amber, carpets and oil paintings. It is probably through his contacts with Armenian merchants in Tbilisi that he discovered ‘Persian powder’. This was in fact grounded chrysanthemum flower heads, which when mixed with water gave a powerful lotion against vermin, parasites and moths.
In the West the demand was high for an efficient protection against insects, and moths in particular: think of the damage to precious carpets, curtains and furs. Gradually Zacherl increased his trade in Persian powder (which he branded as ‘Zacherlin’). It is said that he travelled deep into the Caucasian mountains in order to organise the picking of the wild-growing chrysanthemums.
After having put in place an export network to Europe, Zacharl moved to Vienna in 1855. He first set up a shop and then a real production factory. His business expanded successfully, and later his eldest son joined the flourishing company. Today one can still admire the Oriental facade of the Viennese workplace. Part of the building is used for cultural events and exhibitions.
Johann Zacharl senior died in 1888. A bronze statue in the staircase of the former factory shows the company founder in Circassian costume. He holds a chrysanthemum in his hand.
We’ve already told you that in these days they made songs about almost anything. Well…
Since I started preparing this post, and all through the writing of it, another song has persisted in my mind. It still is, and I can’t get rid of it. I know Jacques Brel’s lyrics so well.
De chrysanthèmes en chrysanthèmes Les autres fleurs font ce qu’elles peuvent De chrysanthèmes en chrysanthèmes Les hommes pleurent les femmes pleuvent…
Well, it can linger in your head now, until it really gets under your skin!