As a base for my researches, I looked for a hotel that had been a former brothel. One tempting example was the Hôtel Amour—Hotel Love—on Rue de Navarin, once offering access to a medieval-themed chamber, complete with iron shackles, a rack, a cross for binding limbs, even a hangman's scaffold. But then I discovered something more my style: the swank Hôtel Édouard 7 next to the Paris Opéra on the Right Bank, which was for many years the pied-à-terre of the most notorious debauchee of the belle époque.
In his profligate youth, the English Prince of Wales—Britain's future King Edward VII (he ruled between 1901 and 1910)—was a celebrity in Paris, thanks to his gargantuan appetites for both food and sex. Perpetually availed of champagne and cigars, his girth filled out by five high-protein meals a day, he would receive a standing ovation at the theater whenever he appeared with a beautiful new paramour on his arm. From 1877, Bertie kept an apartment in a building on the Avenue de l'Opéra, an address he relished because it was the Right Bank's upscale epicenter of vice, then dubbed by one British aristocratic roué, Lord Hertford, "the clitoris of Paris." He finally gave it up 27 years later, when he was crowned king, and the building changed hands several times before it became a hotel. Today, this loyal establishment names each suite after a consort of "Dirty Bertie," as the British nicknamed him, including actress Sarah Bernhardt, American socialite Jennie Churchill (Winston Churchill's mother), and courtesan Alice Keppel (great-grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles).
Even now, legends of Edward's appetites filter through Paris. One in particular stands out. According to Maisons Closes, or Shuttered Houses, the classic study of Paris' brothels written in 1958 by an eccentric French "historian of private habits" named Romi (real name Robert Miquel), the Prince of Wales grew so obese in middle age that he commissioned the construction of a fauteuil d'amour—a "sex chair"—to be kept in his favorite luxury brothel, Le Chabanais. This bizarre device allowed him to have sex without crushing the poor girl with his enormous bulk.
The chair's provenance could be traced until 1951, when it sadly disappeared into the hands of private collectors. A pity, I thought. Maybe the Windsors could buy it back as a wedding present for Prince William.
When I arrived at the Hôtel Édouard 7, an immaculately turned-out doorman led me through the gleaming foyer, past a bronze bust of the portly prince, and up to the fifth floor, where Prince Bertie had his apartment. My room was designed in "belle époquemoderne"—the same rich velvet upholstery, but with sleek minimal picture frames instead of the traditional ornate gold. There was even a balcony over the Avenue de l'Opéra, leading to the splendid opera house, the Palais Garnier, which was once filled with attractive young dancers "chosen more for their sex appeal than for their talent," according to Charles Bernheimer in his study of the Parisian demimonde, Figures of Ill Repute.
Like Bertie, I was well pleased with my new address. Gazing through the fluttering curtains, I could imagine that nothing had changed since Monet and friends were renting their first studios—at least if you closed the double-glazed windows against the traffic.
My 1883 prostitute guide, The Pretty Women of Paris paints a lively picture of this brilliant district and the beautiful women who ruled it. It even includes the names of their pets, their illegitimate children, and the thoroughbred horses in their stables. Readers are offered intimate glimpses of the courtesans' opulent if precarious lifestyle—such as how they catered to their clients' odd requests. Leonie de Clómenil, we are informed, kept a solid silver chamber pot and floor mirrors to entertain her many bathroom fetishists, while Henriette Chavaroff had a regular engagement with a rich Spaniard who wished her to kill a live rooster at each visit.
There are also juicy details on how famous courtesans began their stellar careers. To catch the attention of belle époque society, it first helped to create a stir. Marie Estradère earned a name for herself when she crashed a government soiree; instead of mingling, she retired to a bedroom and gave the politicians "manual relief" for 5 francs. Another self-promoter, Hautense Daubinesco, became a regular in the most exclusive social pages, thanks to her pro bono work with journalists.
The eccentricities of each woman seemed to function as niche advertising. Mathilde Lassens liked to make love while her maid played a street organ in the next room. Lee d'Asco filled her mansion with animals, including a tame bear, and on one occasion ascended above the Seine in a hot-air balloon, dressed as a man holding a revolver. After tossing her clothes to well-wishers below, she returned to the ground stark naked.
On my first forays to Paris, finding actual physical traces of the louche past felt a masochistic pursuit. For the last century, Parisians have traded on nostalgia for the belle époque, and restaurants that survive from the era have usually undergone a dozen renovations or offer cheesy floor shows for tourists. With their red vinyl banquettes, faux-brass lamps, and irritable waiters in white aprons, they are closer to Pepé le Pew cartoons than period reality. Worse, Paris has also undergone a transformation in its very atmosphere and reputation. Its brothels were outlawed in 1946, and its tradition of tolerated vice was stamped out. It is now Europe's bourgeois capital par excellence, well-to-do and rather smug. There is nothing of the sensual frisson found in the streets of, say, Rio de Janeiro, Havana, or Sydney. In fact, most of central Paris is about as provocative as New York's Upper East Side. Historic playgrounds like the Palais Royale now feel like a minimalist art event. Parisians' strongest passions are reserved for their shoes.
It takes a combination of perseverance and creativity to locate the era's sacred sites. Pretty Women in hand, I first tracked down the Maison Dorée, or Golden House, at 20, Boulevard des Italiens, once a bustling cafe that doubled as a pick-up spot for aspiring courtesans—now a bank. Across the street had stood the Café Anglais, with its raunchy party venue, the Grand Seize Room—long gone and replaced by a men's clothing store. It was here that the Chilean belle Isabelle Féraud agreed to settle a young man's wager that he could extract a flower from her nether regions "without injuring the blossoms." She chose a gardenia and reclined upon a table as admirers crowded about. "A roar of applause greeted the saucy scamp as he lifted his flushed face," wrote one eyewitness, and revealed the intact flower between his teeth, like some perverse ancestor of Gomez Addams.
Soon, however, I began to find more concrete remains. At Lapérouse, a romantic restaurant that still operates on Le Quai des Grands-Augustins, the tuxedoed maitre d' took me upstairs to visit the original cozy chambres particuliers, private rooms where gentlemen could discreetly ply courtesans with champagne, delicacies, and expensive presents. The antique mirrors are still clouded with etched marks, when the ladies would test their diamond gifts by scratching them along the glass to make sure they weren't being duped.
And in the Museum of Decorative Arts, part of the Louvre, I found on display the actual bed of illustrious courtesan La Valtesse de la Bigne—a virtual altar of gilded bronze, where cupids frolic on the headboard and fauns watch sardonically from the bed posts. Blessed with sky-blue eyes and cascading auburn hair, the extraordinary valtesse (born Lucie Delabigne) lived in a palace filled with priceless artworks and hosted a literary salon that was frequented by Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. Émile Zola also attended while researching Nana, his famous (and moralizing) novel about a courtesan.
Sadly, la valtesse's magnificent house has gone, as have almost all of the courtesans' mansions. But I did find 25, Champs-Élysées—the grand former residence of La Païva, a Russian-born beauty (real name Esther Lachmann) whose lovers included composer Richard Wagner. Today, the basement has been turned into a restaurant called (of course) La Païva, swathed in velvet drapes and neoclassical statues, while the structure itself has survived as the aristocratic Travellers Club. When I rang the bell, a liveried doorman summoned the director, Rosalind Winlarik, who turned out to be a passionate devotee of courtesan lore. She proudly gave me a tour of the palace's gaudy mix of French and Italian Renaissance styles.
At last, I was breathing the air of the grandes cocottes! The onyx staircase and agate bathroom were inspired by the Arabian Nights, while the marble nudes supporting the drawing room mantelpiece were modeled from life by the lovely La Païva herself.
Now that was something to fire a traveler's imagination.
Click here to see a slide show of Paris for perverts (warning: contains nudity).