Paris for Perverts

Remains of the Love Trade
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 13 2011 7:03 AM

Paris for Perverts

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When I tried to track down King Edward's infamous sex chair, I discovered a significant paper trail. Antiquarian author Romi reported that at the 1951 brothel auction, it had been snapped up for a bargain 32,000 francs (around $1,000 today) by Alain Vian, brother of Boris Vian, a popular Parisian writer and jazz musician. I learned that the fauteuil changed hands in 1982, then again in 1992, when it was obtained by the Parisian auction house Drouot. Apparently, Drouot soon sold it to the great-grandson of the original 19th-century manufacturer, Louis Soubrier. But Mme. Canet, the erotic archaeologist, had heard rumors that it had long since been sold to a collector in the United States.

Back at my hotel, I looked up the Soubrier company's address. The family-furniture emporium was in the same location it had been since the 1850s, on the Rue de Reuilly in the 12th Arrondissement. I didn't hold out much hope, but I sent the current dynastic patriarch, Louis Soubrier, a friendly email saying that I was a researcher pursuing the history of the shuttered houses of Paris. Would he perchance know who currently possessed the fauteuil d'amour of King Edward VII?

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A couple of days later, there was an astounding message in my inbox, from Louis Soubrier himself, with the subject heading EDWARD VII CHAIR.

"When you are in Paris," it read, "I will show you the fauteuil d'amour (sex chair) with pleasure."

I was on the phone within seconds, getting directions to the warehouse.

The Soubrier family had made its fortune in the 19th century with historical replicas of Roman and ancien régime furniture—which is why, no doubt, they were chosen by the Prince of Wales to create his royal fantasy piece. Today, Louis Soubrier deals in antiques, often renting them out for period films.

Dashing from the Metro, I found myself in one of Paris' more nondescript streets, befitting this old industrial area. I almost ran into Soubrier as he was leaving the building. A dignified gentleman in his 60s, with a full mustache, tweed coat, and yellow silk cravat, he reminded me of a retired flying ace from the Western front.

"Oh, I forgot to tell you that we close for lunch!" he said, mildly bemused by my indifference to Gallic tradition. "Come with us, we'll dine together!"

Oh no, I thought, worrying that I would say something wrong during the meal that would make Soubrier change his mind. ("You mean you only want to look at the chair? I thought you wanted to buy it!") At his favorite cafe across the street, we settled at a table with one of his friends, a fellow furniture-maker whose dachshund kept hopping about his feet. Soubrier regaled us with stories of visits to America in his youth. In the l950s, he had been to Newport, R.I., and attended the birthday party of Jacqueline Bouvier. His stories were terrific, but I was fixated on furniture. Had he always wanted to repurchase the sex chair?

"My father was a very correct man, very formal," he explained. "He never spoke of the fauteuil d'amour to me. But when it came on the market again in 1992, one of the very old maison workers took me aside. I learned that my great-grandfather had made the chair in the early 1890s, on specifications provided by the Prince of Wales himself. So I began looking in our archives. And yes, there it was! I found my ancestor's original line drawings, and a watercolor of the design. It was living proof."

Soubrier purchased the chair—for how much he would not say, other than it was "very, very expensive"—and he has kept it in his warehouse ever since. For a short time, it traveled to New York City for an exhibition on "fantasy furniture." This, no doubt, was where the rumor began that it had been sold to an American. One Midtown Manhattan gallery refused to display it. "The Americans were shocked," he gloated.

The luncheon continued at an excruciatingly slow French pace until I began to fear that Soubrier might decide on a nap instead. But suddenly, he stood up.

"Allons!"

The family warehouse was crowded with antiques—ship's figureheads, chandeliers, stuffed deer, porcelain vases. A hand-operated cage elevator slowly took us to the third floor, and we followed corridors through storage rooms, with hundreds more pieces stacked on shelves. It was too much to take in, and my eyes became exhausted.

But on the top floor, in the farthest corner, some hulking object lay beneath a blue blanket. Soubrier whisked off the covering, then wrestled with several more layers of archival foam. Finally, the sex chair itself stood before me in all its glory.

"Voilà," Soubrier said proudly.

It was undeniably a beautifully made piece, vaguely like a cross between a gynecologist's table and a snow sled. The wooden frame was carved in 18th-century style, with two padded levels upholstered in pale green embroidered silk. Its practical use, however, required some consideration. The key lay at ground level, where there were swiveling brass plates, presumably to brace King Edward's feet.

"Tradition holds that the fauteuil was designed for three," Soubrier shrugged. "But the precise arrangement? It is open to debate."         

Soubrier ran his hands along the fabric. "We had to reupholster the fauteuil as soon as we bought it. The chair was dirty," he said. "Very dirty."

We know that Le Chabanais was patronized throughout the 1920s and '30s by full-bodied American comic "Fatty" Arbuckle, and during the occupation by the grotesque, morphine-addled Luftwaffe chief, Hermann Göring. In his memoir Between Meals, the rotund gourmand and New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling also confesses to visiting the luxury brothel as a student. Presumably it wasn't just Bertie who had taken advantage of the sex chair. More recently, one of its owners in the 1980s had been "a very active gay man," Soubrier said, who may well have put it to practical use.

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That afternoon, I rushed to Mme. Canet to report my findings.

"The fauteuil is still in Paris?" she said, nearly jumping for patriotic joy. "It's still here! Still here!"

I was pleased to deliver such happy tidings. But when she quizzed me on my adventure at Soubrier's, there was a brief linguistic confusion.

"Vous êtes monté?" she asked eagerly. You mounted?

No, no, I said, blanching. I didn't mount it!

A few minutes later, when I was describing the chair in detail, she clapped her hands again. "Alors! Vous êtes monté!" You did mount!

"No, really … I just looked …"

I finally realized that she meant monter in the sense of "to ascend"—that is, I went upstairs to the third floor, where the chair was kept, rather than tested it out.

That will have to wait for a more intrepid researcher.

Click here to launch a slide show on Paris for perverts (warning: contains nudity).

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