What we think of now as a wild time abroad seems quite tame compared to the debauchery a traveler could come across in earlier centuries, says the author of Napoleon's Privates.
In this era of endless airport queues and package tours, we often cast ours eyes back to a lost "golden age" of travel—a fantasy version of a time when Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway were on the road. But for the really wild adventures of the past, you didn't have to schlep to darkest Africa or the Mexican deserts: You could get into genuine mischief exploring the most famous capitals of Europe.
While today a certain type of traveler heads for Las Vegas, Havana and Bangkok, in the 18th century, Paris was the unrivalled sin city of Europe. Even the uproar of the 1789 revolution, which was initially supported by many French aristocrats, only helped promote its hedonistic reputation—at least until the Terror of 1793–4 squelched tourism.
No sooner had the Bastille fallen than the capital was flooded with foreigners, curiosity–seekers, and political delegates from the French provinces, all looking to enjoy carnal delights while they savored the newly–democratic ambiance. To help out–of–town gentlemen navigate the underbelly of the city—and to control the problem of over–charging—a unique and practical guidebook was quickly published for those seeking prostitutes in the Palais Royal, the enormous entertainment complex that doubled as a red–light district. Today, this pocket–sized opus—List of Compensation for the Ladies of the Palais Royal, and District, and for the Other Regions of Paris, Comprising Names and Addresses—provides an unusually intimate glimpse of the 18th century sex industry.
An 18th–century map detailing prostitution zones and density in Paris
The anonymous author notes that one lady of the night, nicknamed La Paysanne or "the country girl," charges a very reasonable six livres for her services, plus a bowl of punch. (The guide notes that La Paysanne only works during the day, preferring to sleep at nights). Mme Dupéron and her four friends at salon No. 33 are far more expensive, he warns, at 25 livres, while a certain Georgette is definitely to be avoided if she is drinking ("a perfect disgrace.") The classy La Bacchante is famous for her beauty and charges on a sliding patriotic scale—six livres for young revolutionaries, twelve livres for a "mature man." La Bacchante can also be hired as a consort on a weekly basis: Not only will she provide young foreigners with an excellent erotic education, she will help them shop for decent clothes in the best boutiques and teach them the niceties of etiquette.
For the new revolutionary era, the Palais Royal was soon renamed the Maison Egalité, Equality House. While prostitutes thronged the sprawling complex, their presence did not deter visits by young couples or families. Conveniently placed opposite the Louvre, the palace's gracious open spaces included gardens, cafes, clothes boutiques, theaters, billiard halls and amusement–park attractions. There was a natural history museum, the world's first wax museum owned by Dr. Curtius (where the young Madame Tussaud was apprenticed), a zoo, and freak shows where you could gawk at a 632–pound giant and 200–year–old woman. There were astronomical machines showing planetary movements and a vehicle pulled by a mechanical deer, which would go backwards or forward on command. For refreshments, you could head to the Café Mécanique, where steaming mocca coffee was pumped through a pipe in the middle of each table.
According to historians' best guesses, the prostitutes continued to ply their trade untroubled by the Revolution's increasing violence. Less lucky was the owner of the Palais Royale, the Duke of Orléans, an aristocrat who dubbed himself "Citizen Equality" and tried to ride out the waves of fury that had been unleashed. In 1793, he voted for the death sentence of his cousin, King Louis XVI, but was sent to the guillotine himself about ten months later—one of 2800 Parisians to meet this end. Today, the Palais Royale is a pleasant and remarkably unsleazy tourist attraction set around a quiet lawn.
Paris police performing a crackdown round–up
Even in the early 20th century, Europe could be an eye–popping place—if you knew where to travel.
American literati might have flocked to Paris in the '20s, but the true wild and crazy guys preferred Berlin—the modern version of Babylon where every night felt like the last and any pleasure could be obtained for a price. The brief spasm of democracy from 1919 to 1933 (referred to as the Weimar era, after the small city where the constitution was drawn up) has become a mythic time of no–holds–barred depravity in the German capital. Up and down the grand boulevards like the Kurfürstendamm, frenzied partygoers, fueled by high–octane cocktails, morphine and exotic designer drugs like the petals of white roses frozen in chloroform and ether, "writhed like creeping plants… in the blue lights of bars," wrote the author Friedrich Hollander. Popular travel guidebooks to Berlin listed over 200 gay bars, 80 lesbian bars and dozens of "social clubs" for all tastes. Casinos were set up in private apartments; risqué pornography flooded the bookstores; nudist camps flourished in the suburbs; the world's first sex institute, directed by Dr. Magnus Herschfeld, researched questions that would not be pondered again until the '60s.
Vaudeville was a big part of the decadent package in Weimar Berlin; you couldn't order a glass of lager or plate of würst unless it was accompanied by a jaw–dropping chanteuse or lewd stand–up comic. At least 150 venues called themselves "cabarets," although only perhaps a dozen of those were the type portrayed in Marlene Dietrich films or Cabaret, where a witty MC introduced short acts of a dark and cynical nature. The rest of the clubs simply offered erotic pageants, euphemistically known as Beauty Nights, where seedy patrons viewed the talent with opera glasses even though only 15 feet away.
The most infamous of the genuine cabarets was Weisse Maus, the White Mouse, where aficionados could admire the "demonic" queen of Berlin herself—Anita Berber. She was a confrontational performance artist who acted out her own self–destructive, drugged–induced fantasies on stage, long before Iggy Pop started eating light bulbs or Ozzy Osborne live bats. Berber was also Berlin's fashion pace–setter, a beautiful redhead dancer and silent film star who gadded about with her face powdered a ghoulish white with a vivid slash of scarlet lipstick, stark naked beneath a mink coat except for a gold chain around her ankle and a pet chimpanzee hanging on her shoulder.
Seeing this woman on stage was, by all accounts, an unforgettable experience. For a wad of devalued Reichsmarks (or three American dollars) patrons were given masks for anonymity and shown to dimly lit booths to drink over–priced champagne. At last, with a discordant burst of music, the artiste sprung cat–like, and usually stark naked, onto the stage to began her hypnotic dance movements.
Berber's most provocative works were The Dances of Depravity, Horror, and Ecstasy: They were performed with her equally demented husband, Sebastian Droste, whose heavily–kohled eyes and gaunt features made him look like a cross between Nosferatu and a Gap model. For one emotionally raw piece named Cocaine, the stage set was lit by a flickering streetlamp resembling a monumental syringe. Berber emerged from the darkness wearing a black corset that laced up below her bare, porcelain–white breasts and proceeded to uncoil her body in ever more convulsive movements to an unidentified piano piece by Saint–Saëns while her husband chanted from the shadows, "Cocaine—Shrieks—Animals—Blood—Alcohol—Pain—Much Pain…" For another wholesome dance piece called Salomé, she emerged naked from an urn full of blood and began a writhe and pant orgasmically to the improbable strains of Richard Strauss. (In her crowning artistic achievement, The Depraved Woman and the Hanged One, Droste masturbated while strung up by the neck on an execution gibbet and Berber caught his semen in her open thighs).
But the audience was most transfixed by the star herself. Anything could happen during a Berber performance. If she felt that a member of the crowd was not showing her proper respect, she might spit brandy in his face or jump from the stage and slap him—the victims being occasionally mistaken, since she was badly near–sighted. After her act, Berber would exit the theater with a train of androgynous admirers in tow, entrusting her gold purse full of greenbacks to an escort while she binged on cognac. Once, at a bar, she shrieked to her panting fans, "Shut up! I will sleep with all of you!" Her show was finally canceled after she cracked a wine bottle over an audience member's head. She fell rapidly from sight, dying 1928 in a Beirut nightclub; not yet thirty, she looked fifty.
Story extracted and adapted from Tony Perrottet's Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped (Harper Collins). All rights reserved. The related website, www.napoleonsprivates.com, includes a video on the author's epic quest to find Napoleon's penis in Englewood, New Jersey.
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