The Parisian flapper dressed in her fashionable fur-trimmed winter coat is obviously infatuated with Nanook, an Inuk hunter. We can imagine that she travelled so far up North to meet the subject of her fancy, after having seen him in a Paris cinema. Nanook of the North, a docudrama filmed by Robert Flaherty in 1922 was a world-wide sensation that prompted an ‘Eskimo craze’ in the Western world.
From 1910 Flaherty had made a few explorations to the North. At one moment he started shooting film of the Inuit life. In 1916 he had collected enough footage for a movie, but he lost almost all of it by dropping a cigarette onto the highly inflammable film. Flaherty returned to the North and this time concentrated on one Inuit family. His cinéma-vérité tour de force is considered a masterpiece even if most of it was staged. Nanook wasn’t the real name of the protagonist and his children were not his real children, nor were his wives his real wives. During the filming these ‘wives’ even became Flaherty’s mistresses. And with one of them he had a child that he later abandoned.
Since it would have been impossible to film inside the dark interior of an igloo, a special set was built consisting of half an igloo. The film was meant to give impressions from the far north of the Polar Regions. In reality Flaherty‘sshots conveniently came from the north-eastern part of Hudson Bay. But at that time there were no rules for filming a documentary.
Nanook of the North was a kind of advertising film distributed by Pathé. It was financed by the Parisian fur tradersRevillon Frères. They were the largest fur company in France with branches in London, New York and Montréal, and 125 fur trading posts. Nanook of the North was filmed near one of their trading posts at Inukjuak, Quebec.
After the release of the film, Margaret Young introduced the humorous song Oogie Oogie Wa Wa in vaudeville, a song with the usual double entendre. Quickly the song became one of the popular tunes of the day and was translated in French as Amoureuse de Nanouck. It was one of Al Jolson’s greatest hits. At one point it was banned from being played at local music pavilions until it had been analysed by the Morals Committee.
Girls like simple things, Beads and ten cent rings, They kiss you for a chocolate drop, Imagine if a fellow had a candy shop…
Around the same time, Salabert published the song South Sea Moon. I don’t know what got into Roger de Valerio when he illustrated the cover for this song with a couple of Inuit resembling Nanook and one of his ‘wives’. One normally associates the South Sea with tropical Islands and blue lagoons.
Maybe he confused it with the Southern Ocean? But then again, in his drawing de Valerio combined penguins (living in the Antarctic region) with the happy-looking Inuit couple (living in the Arctic).
In the mockumentary ‘Qallunaat: Why White People are Funny’ a man from the Book Correction Division is crossing out with a marker all the penguins in drawings where they are pictured together with polar bears. The film is written from the Inuit perspective on the oddities of Qallunaat, the Inuit word for white people.
I have to end this post with one of my favourite songs from the seventies: Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow by Frank Zappa, about a man who dreams that he was an Eskimo named Nanook.
And my momma cried: Boo-a-hoo hoo-ooo And my momma cried: Nanook-a, no no (no no . . . ) Nanook-a, no no (no no . . . ) Don’t be a naughty Eskimo-wo-oh (Bop-bop ta-da-da bop-bop Ta-da-da)
… An’ she said
(Bop-bop ta-da-da bop . . . )
With a tear in her eye:
Watch out where the huskies go
An’ don’t you eat that yellow snow
Last week we got a present from our friend Etienne: a tattered leaflet, folded twice to fit in a pocket, ready to hand for an impromptu performance. On the backside of the leaflet are the words for L’Affaire Steinheil. No musical notation was needed as one had to sing it to the tune of a 1907 hit song Ma Petite Bretonne.
The Madame Steinheil of the cover was born in Alsace in 1869 as Marguerite Japy, the daughter of a rich industrialist.
The gorgeous Marguerite married the well-known but less gifted painter Adolphe Steinheil in 1890. The marriage was not a happy one but it allowed Marguerite to move in the highest social circles in Paris. She became the mistress of the French president, Félix Faure, often visiting him for assignations in the Elysée Palace. During one of their trysts Faure died suddenly. The salacious circumstances of the president’s untimely demise (in 1899) and the identity of his companion became widely known thanks to the tabloid press. According to some, presumably his political opponents, it happened while Marguerite was giving the president the Monica Lewinsky treatment, which earned her the nickname ‘La Pompe Funèbre’.
After the president’s death Marguerite continued to have a string of famous lovers. In 1908 Marguerite’s mother and husband were murdered in their bedroom. They both died by strangulation. Marguerite was found bound and gagged but otherwise unharmed. She told the police that a gang of four black-robed burglars had perpetrated the murders and stolen her jewellery.
From the start the police suspected her of playing a part in the murders but couldn’t find proof of this. In an attempt to draw the investigation away from herself, the recent widow tried (unsuccessfully) to frame the male servant who had initially discovered her. She told the police that she had found some of the stolen jewellery in the servant’s possession, including a pearl. Alas for her, a jeweller recognised it as the gem Marguerite had asked the jeweller to dismount from her ring, after the murders took place. So she must have hid it in her servants wallet later on.
Being confronted with her lies, Marguerite at long last accused Alexander Wolff, the son of her old cook Mariette. Alexander Wolff, a horse dealer, called her a vile lying whore. Lucky for him, the police soon proved him entirely innocent.
Marguerite’s wild accusations and tampering with evidence, heightened the suspicion against her and finally led to her arrest. She was charged with murder and sent to Saint-Lazare to await her trial.
At that time Saint-Lazare was a gloomy prison for women, housing mostly prostitutes and female thieves. None other than Toulouse-Lautrec (signing as Treclau) illustrated Aristide Bruant’s song ‘A Saint-Lazare’.
In contrast to Bruant’s reputation of singing with a thunderous voice, the wonderful Barbara gave a delicate enactment of the song: “C’est de la prison que je t’écris mon pauvre Polyte Et si t’aime bien ta petite souris réponds moi vite…”
The press covered every aspect of the Steinheil murders, the investigation, the arrest, the imprisonment and the trial. Conspirationists pretended that Marguerite had -almost a decade before- also poisoned president Félix Faure.
The trial revealed all her lies and tampering. However, because there was no motive and only indirect evidence of any physical involvement with the murders, she was unexpectedly acquitted and released.
Following her acquittal Marguerite got another nickname: La Veuve Joyeuse after Franz Lehar’s Die Lüstige Witwe (The Merry Widow). The first production of this operetta in Paris had been in April of the same year.
Nonetheless, Marguerite didn’t remain a widow for very long. She changed her name to Madame de Serignac, moved to England where she married into the British aristocracy in 1917 and became Lady d’Abinger.
Marguerite’s faithful cook Mariette stayed in France. She was an important witness at the trial and was described as follows: “Mariette looks an old peasant woman from one of Balzac’s novels. (…) Her nose is strong, and her eyes are terrible—but when she wants to, she can soften their expression. There is hardly any interval between the nose and the stubborn little chin, which reminds one of a dried-up crabapple.”
Notwithstanding that her mistress had accused her son Alexander of the murders, Mariette remained a very loyal servant. At the trial she had said nothing that could possibly harm her boss: “When one is a domestic, one must see everything but say nothing.” This allegiance was not reciprocal. In her 1920 memoir Marguerite wrote: “She had a terrifying appearance, the old Mariette, with her eyes that flashed angrily, her threatening jaw, and her big clenched fists.” Marguerite even hinted that Mariette was implicated in the murders…
Oddly, after the trial Mariette Wolff became a well-known billposter for the publicity firm Gabert.
Her new boss, monsieur Gabert, had astutely reckoned that her notoriety could well attract the best crowd…
Apart from being an advertiser Gabert was also a keen supporter of feminism and women’s suffrage. He would supported the right for women to vote in the elections of 1912. But back in 1908 he already made his point by hiring the first female billposter, until then a profession reserved for men.
Soon onlookers and photographers would assemble around Gabert’s ‘colleuses d’affiches’. These controversial women in a ‘male’ profession first gave rise to surprise and incredulity. But soon they would turn into a spectacle, appearing on postcards as if they were a curio.
Belgium had to wait for the first female billposter till 1916.
But back to our story. The mystery of the two murders has never been solved. Though according to the lyrics on our leaflet Marguerite was guilty as hell: “Elle va bientôt lâcher le morceau, ou d’ venir marteau. Mais cett’ femm’ si belle, est bien criminelle!”
And as to her spot of bother with Faure well, presidents will be presidents, won’t they?
The Netta of this song is a former Miss Belgium who became the first Belgian Miss Universe in 1931. Miss Universe titles had been awarded since 1926 during the International Pageant of Pulchritude held in Galveston, Texas. The Great Depression put an end to this yearly frivolous fuss in the United States, only to surface until after WWII.
Annette (Netta) Duchâteau was a modern and daring girl who got herself a pilot license when she was only 19 years old. Even so, crossing the Atlantic in 1931 by boat to participate in the Pageant in Texas must have been quite an adventure for the young lady. The year before, Netta had been crowned Miss Belgium. Notable members of the 1930 Belgian jury were the Flemish writer Stijn Streuvels (Frank Lateur indeed) and the painter Albert Saverys.
Here we see a short celebration of Netta having won her title, on the tune of the Brabançonne.
Thanks to an interesting short documentary about the 1929 Austrian Miss Universe, we can visualise the circumstances to which the contestants had to adapt. Like all other contenders, Netta had to be chaperoned (in her case by her mother). She needed a medical certificate to ensure that she could endure standing still on a cart pushed around between the masses for hours, four days on end during the street parades. The candidates could not go out alone without written permission of the committee. They had to swear that they were not artists, did not indulge in drinking nor smoking. They were not allowed to use any kind of make-up. Moreover for Netta the alienation must have been particularly hard: she didn’t speak English.
After her victory, Netta turned down all American marriage proposals. She also refused offers to appear on stage or in commercials, and returned to her native Belgium. There she was welcomed like royalty and again received a lot of marriage proposals. Her success was enormous compared to Anny Duny, our first Miss Belgium. She appeared in countless magazines and advertising campaigns before becoming a stage actress.
Allegedly Netta inspired the American illustrator Lawrence Sterne Stevens when he created the emblem for Belga, a former Belgian cigarette brand that was launched in 1923. The brands name and national colours appealed to the patriotic feelings after the Great War. Sterne Stevens drew a typical modern girl, a flapper with bobbed hair and a cloche hat. In contrast to the earlier Belga Girl by Leo Marfurt, she looks more self-reliant. She is glamorous, accentuates her looks with make-up, and expresses a certain sensuality. And she smokes!
Even René Magritte created designs for the Belga cigarettes. He didn’t need a beauty queen for a model though, he had his beautiful wife Georgette. He painted her looking straight at the viewer, holding a cigarette before his familiar blue sky with white clouds. Although Magritte referred to his work in publicity as ‘idiotic work’, this design blurs the boundary between painting and advertising. The second advertising image for Belga cigarettes is signed Studio Dongo. This was a small advertising company he owned together with his brother Paul who was also a composer. Both Magritte’s projects for Belga were rejected.
Thanks to Netta’s victory in Galveston the next Miss Universe pageant was held in Spa, Belgium. It was won by a Turkish beauty. At the end of the video, we get a glimpse ofMaurice de Waleffe, the omnipresent gentleman when beauty contests had to be organised. He is recognisable by his telltale moustache.