Category Archives: Literature, Lyrics & Poetry

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.

Pierre de Régnier aka Tigre

16714_1 copy
Milina, chica mia, cover illustrated by Tigre

The French writer and cartoonist Pierre de Régnier (1898-1943),  aka Tigre, had an artistic pedigree to be proud of. His maternal grandfather was the Cuban-born French poet José-Maria de Heredia, a respected member of the Académie française. His mother was Marie de Régnier, novelist and poet, nom de plume Gérard d’Houville. His legal father was the French aristocrat, Henri de Régnier, one of the most important symbolist poets. Pierre referred to him as The Immortal. And his godfather (and biological father) was the nonconformist poet and writer Pierre Louÿs.

henri Regnier copy
Marie de Régnier between her husband Henri de Régnier, on the left, and her lover Pierre Louÿs

His mother Marie was a non-conformist to say the least. She defied her aristocratic-bourgeois milieu by not wearing a corset and by having several lovers, male and female, during her marriage and by posing naked for her lover Pierre Louÿs.

Marie de Régnier, photograph by Pierre Louÿs

Pierre Louÿs was born in our beloved and beautiful Belgian city, Ghent. He wrote erotic texts set in antiquity, delicate obscene verses but also loads of secret and quite filthy ones, only to be found after his death. He is best known for his lesbian-themed poems Chansons de Bilitis (Songs of Bilitis). Louÿs sold these poems as translations from a Greek poetess, Bilitis, a contemporary of Sappho. In fact it was a hoax which his good friend and brother in mischief, Claude Debussy could very well appreciate. Debussy set three of Louÿs’s Chansons de Bilitis to music. The sexually obsessed Louÿs was also a keen amateur photographer…

Photographs by Pierre Louÿs. Eat this Kim Kardashian !

As a child, Pierre de Régnier was cherished by his unconventional mother, who lovingly called him Tigre (Tiger).

Tigre, the spitting image of his mother (in Femina, january 1905).

As a young man, just after World War I, he plunged head first into the Années Folles (the Roaring Twenties). A real party animal, clad in a tuxedo and white scarf, he tumbled every night head over heels into the Parisian nightlife.

Pierre de Régnier
Pierre de Régnier

In summer he left Paris for the casino’s and racecourses of Deauville or the French Riviera. Pierre de Régnier was a big spender and his parents had to help him out more than once. His life in the fast lane was alas a short one. His obstinacy for partying turned out nasty and self-destructive.

Deauville, written and illustrated by Pierre de Régnier (Tigre) in 1927. Dedicated to ‘Fred, the bartender of the Casino, who prevented me from dying of thirst’.

Pierre de Régnier left a diary in which he wrote about his empty life of a wastrel, consuming opium, cocaine, absinthe, gin or calvados. Every entry of this diary ends with the word: cuite (plastered) followed by  the hour of his arrival home, never before dawn of course. According to him everyone and everything had to be rigolo or funny; seriousness was an ugly trait. But deep down he was melancholic, and his poems are drenched in mal de vivre or spleen.

‘Je bois mes nuits mélancoliques
En vieux noceur désabusé
Mes aurores sont romantiques
Et mes regrets désespérés’

Pierre de Regnier wrote only about subjects he knew well: parties, endless nights, alcohol, bars and beautiful women, mondaine or demi-mondaine.The novels and poems he wrote are now mostly forgotten. Only Chroniques d’un Patachon, a collection of society columns about the Parisian nightlife in the thirties is still printed. The columns, short and ephemeral, like his pleasures, were written in his typical style: humorous, frivolous, ironic and tender. 

Henri de Régnier, The Immortal, by Tigre

Pierre de Régnier illustrated his columns himself with simple caricatures in black ink. He always signed his drawings Tigre. I’ll let you be the judge whether he successfully portrayed his subjects on the following sheet music covers.

Left, ‘Japona’ foxtrot by Marcel Learsi, dansed by Odette Florelle (pictured above right) and by Armand Bernard (pictured below right).
hep copy2
Left, ‘Hep!’ Foxtrot by Fr. Withers. Right a cotton-top tamarin (a kind of sagouin).

Hep! was dedicated to the sagouins (tamarins in English) but Tigre clearly had no notions of their morphology. Tamarins are squirrel-sized New World monkeys. The morphology was not that important because the word sagouins is used here to indicate men with despicable behaviour like bastards or S.O.B.s.

Musidora as Irma Vep illustrated by Guy Arnoux

We end this post with an extract of Les Vampires, the famous silent crime serial by Louis Feuillade from 1915. If you fast-forward to 5:20 you can see Irma Vep (an anagram for vampire) perform in the ‘Howling Cat’ Club. Irma Vep was portrayed by the beautiful femme fatale Musidora, the first mistress of Pierre de Régnier. Now incidentally, she also had been the mistress of Pierre’s biological father, Pierre Louÿs. Well yes, these artistic circles surely had their share of complicated relations! And then, what to say about Pierre Louÿs probably being the son of his half brother…