The cartoon by Faria for the comic song Devant la Samaritaine shows a half-naked woman and a lecherous fisherman, the popular singer Paulus. The only Samaritaine in Paris we knew till now was the department store near the Pont Neuf (which closed definitely in 2005). This ignorance explains why we couldn’t make sense of Faria’s picture. So, it’s google time again.
Les Bains de la Samaritaine depicted on the cover was a floating construction on the Seine containing public baths. The stylish and stunning vessel contained 100 bathtubs, placed in small cubicles distributed over two floors. One could go there for a simple bath, or for medicinal baths, steam baths, showers and hydrotherapy.
The hydraulic pump and the immense filters used to purify the water of the Seine were installed in the roof space of the building. The chimneys of the heating boilers with their decoration of metal palms were famous throughout Paris.
Les Bains de la Samaritaine, as well as the famous department store, took their name from a large hydraulic water pump. It was installed in 1608 to power the water of the Seine into the Louvre and the Tuileries. The pump was rebuilt in 1715. The facade of the building that housed the pump contained a sculpture representing Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, hence the name.
It is not known when the baths were first installed next to the Pont Neuf. The first authorisation to build hot baths on a boat dates back to 1761. On a preserved plan for such a bathing establishment we see small cubicles. Some contain a bath, others also accommodate a bed or two baths. There is clearly a physical separation for men and women, with different staircases.
The Bains de la Samaritaine disappeared in 1919. They were sunk by a flood of the Seine.
We wonder if the angler on the following picture is hoping, like Paulus, for a flash of female nudity.
But of course to understand all this we could have read the text of the song. Life can be simple.
Devant les bains de la Samaritaine
Je pêchais sur les bords de Seine
Quand dans un cabinet voisin
Je vis une dame qu’allait prendre un bain
Sa fenêtre était grande ouverte A cette vue qui m’était offerte
This cover shows two Parisian buffoons: Bobèche and Galimafré. It was illustrated by Barbizet in 1859. Even forty years after their successful performances, the pair remained popular in Paris. Bobèche (Antoine Mandelot) and Galimafré (Auguste Guérin) were paradistes or clowns who performed at the Boulevard du Temple in the first quarter of the 19th century.
At that time the Boulevard du Temple resembled a pleasure garden. It was lined with theatres. Scattered over the vast expanse of the boulevard were a host of small shows: jugglers, paradistes, monkey showmen, dwarves, giants, skeleton men, strongmen, tightrope walkers and fortune tellers. They attracted a crowd day and night. In the middle, street vendors tried to sell their ware. A typical street vendor at the Boulevard du Temple was the marchand de coco. You can see one standing on the right of the print above. Coco was a lemonade containing liquorice extract. A coco vendor always wore a white apron and carried a large elongated container topped with a figurine to attract attention. He had several drinking cups strapped onto belts. We also see a coco vendor standing in the public at the buffoons’ show, depicted in this cartoon.
A contemporary oil painting also shows the acclaimed theatre performance by Bobèche and Galimafré. Can you pick out the obligatory coco vendor?
The Parisians nicknamed the Boulevard du Temple ‘Boulevard du Crime’, not because it was dangerous but to allude to the bloody melodramas playing in its theatres.
A panoramic painting of the Boulevard du Temple illustrates the extent of the street. Have you spotted our coco man in this crowd? In the year this was painted (1862), almost all of it would be demolished by Baron Haussmann in order to enlarge the Place de la République during the rebuilding of Paris.
The Boulevard du Temple has been rebuilt in the studio for the legendary film Les Enfants du Paradis. In the fragment we see Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault) trying to get to Garance (Arletty) during carnival.
But let’s get back to Bobèche and Galimafré. As told before they were paradistes. A parade is a type of French street entertainment dating back to the renaissance with characters often drawn from the commedia dell’arte. In the first quarter of the 19th century it was a short improvisational buffoonery performed by two or three characters on a balcony outside the smaller theatres, or on outdoor platforms. The sketch was larded with crude humour, vulgarities, double entendres, sexual innuendos and obscene gestures. Slaps and punches enlivened the spectacle. Bobêche and Galimafré were the best-loved parade characters of this period. They always presented their jokes in the form of dialogues.
Bobèche played the standard comedic character of a Jocrisse, the incarnation of stupidity and clumsiness. Bobèche was a city boy who wore colourful clothes, striped stockings and a cornered hat topped with a butterfly.
Galimafré would attract the crowd with a giant rattle. He was a tall lanky man, dressed in the costume of a Norman peasant. His wig’s hair was cut straight across the forehead. On top of that he wore a kind of bowler hat.
During twenty-some years Bobèche and Galimafré performed on the Boulevard du Temple but also in private salons. The fall of Napoleon also meant the end of the popular duo. Galimafré refused to perform for the ‘enemy’ and worked as a stage technician for the rest of his life. Bobèche became director of a small theatre in Rouen. But soon his theatre went bankrupt and nothing was heard of him since.
Some years ago in Paris we found a small bundle of handmade sheet music. Although the illustrations and music seemed rather naive and overly romantic we couldn’t resist buying it. Sometimes people craftily copied expensive printed sheet music, but in this case they were handwritten by the composer herself. She signed as ‘Ellebasi‘, clearly the reverse of Isabelle.
A bit of sleuthing on our part turned up her real name: Isabelle-Marie-Henriette Mellerio who became Isabelle Charpentier after her marriage to Lucien Charpentier, a not so gifted composer. Composers often dedicate their work to family or friends and so did Ellebassi. This enabled us to reconstruct her family story, which is rather interesting. We’ll even add a bit of scandal at the end.
Ellebasi belonged to the famous jeweller family Mellerio dits Meller with roots in Italy. Being jewellers to kings and queens the family earned a large fortune. Isabelle Mellerio, born in 1866, was the youngest of seven children. Her family lived above their boutique in Paris. She was only 16 years old when her father Jean-Antoine, also a jeweller, passed away.
Ellebasi composed the pieces as a young adult, between 1892 and 1896, some of them while living in Cannes. We can only guess if she lived there permanently or if it was her winter place of residence. Apart from the music for Les Courtisans de Flore we haven’t found any of Ellebasi’s compositions in print. In fact, Les Courtisans de Flore probably got printed because lyricist Alfred Gounin-Ghidone himself was a publisher.
And now for the scandal. The son of Isabelle’s great-uncle, Antonio Mellerio, was a misfit. Already at the age of seventeen he plunged into the mid-19th century Parisian society, neglecting his work for gambling and orgies. He was a big spender, misbehaved scandalously and had countless mistresses until at the age of 25 he ‘fell prey’ to Anna de Beaupré. Her name, suggesting an aristocratic background, was an embellishment invented by Anna Trayer. She was the separated wife of a tailor Achille Debacker. Antonio, no doubt madly in love, paid Anna’s old debts and treated her lavishly. His parents disapproved whenthey moved in together. After the dead of his father in 1860 Antonio left the running of the jewellery store to his cousins, restored his father’s Tailleville castle near Caen in Normandy and the couple changed house.
When his mother died in 1868, Antonio was eaten alive by guilt for all the pains he had caused her. At the funeral he literally plunged into her grave. Later he acted more and more strangely, often seeming incoherent to his family. Nonetheless the family convinced him to sell his inherited share of the jewellery business to Isabelle’s uncle Joseph Mellerio. Antonio was also persuaded to make a will in favour of his cousins. Isabelle’s father was named executor. Furthermore Antonio promised to finish his relation with Mme Debacker and he burned her letters in the fireplace. And in an effort to redeem himself he mutilated both his hands by keeping them in the fire chanting ‘Burn! Burn! Burn! Purify my past!’ He lost all his fingers and parts of his hands. Later he would learn to write and also draw with his stumps and even, with great perseverance, with his mouth.
But Antonio reconciled with Mme Debacker and became, according to his family, religiously obsessed, seeing angels and devils. Alas, he didn’t profit long from his immense inherited fortune. One day in 1870, he was then 43 years old, he climbed the stairs of his castle and fell (or threw himself) from the top of its belvedere dying instantly. Isabelle’s father who had never visited his cousin before, rushed to Tailleville with the intention of executing Antonio’s will, only to be told that a new will had been found!
In that new will Antonio had left his complete fortune to Mme Debacker. Moreover he had indicated that after her dead, Tailleville castle and some money should go to a local convent. The family was horrified. Ten of his cousins, including Isabelle’s father, contested this last will on two grounds: Antonio was too unsound of mind to make a valid testament and the beneficiaries had exerted undue influence over Antonio, coercing him into making a testament in their favour. In addition they wanted an annulment of all his previous substantial gifts to Mme Debacker. The trial was a cause célèbre. It scandalized Paris, gossip swirled around and it provided ample material for legal journals. In the end –meanwhile the 1870 franco prussian war had ended– the cousins lost the trial and all the subsequent appeals. Mme Debacker was finally allowed to take possession of her inheritance.
In 1873 this sordid story was made into a poem Red Cotton Night-Cap Country by Robert Browning, the famous English Victorian poet. He had researched the facts reading newspaper reports and transcripts of the legal documents and interviewing residents of Tailleville.
The family Mellerio dits Meller still have their boutique in Paris, 9 rue de la Paix, right next to Cartier. Mellerio dits Meller is the world’s oldest jeweller existing just over 400 years. Today they are the last important jeweller company to be independent and family owned.
Next time we visit the Place Vendôme in Paris we’ll try to exchange these unique sheet music covers for a tiara. Wouldn’t that be nice!
Yours truly, Enivid
Rough in Brutal Print: The Legal Sources of Browning’s Red Cotton Night-Cap Country by Mark Siegrist.
Mellerio dit Meller, joaillier des reines by Vincent Meylan