"It was a momentary illusion, created through an unspoken accord, the crowds not only assenting but each among them doing his or her best to keep alive the glorious feeling that only pleasure lay in every direction. And for a period of several hours, the common consent of the thousands who arrived by carriage or on foot, who strolled past the cafes, entered, drank, dined, danced, flirted, listened to music, laughed at the raucous or ribald words of a song, succeeded in creating a miracles. The pleasure they imagined was conjured into existence. This extraordinary feat was more than made possible by the fact that it was repeated every night. That certain revelers came again and again, the men called boulevardiers, the women known as demi-mondaines, was essential. From noon until the early hours of the morning, the region belonged to them.
Thus, a courtesan reaching this territory just after rising at noon might head directly to the cafe at Number 22 Boulevard des Italiens called Tortoni. Entering by the private door reserved for regular patrons in the back, she would take lunch with a friend or a lover, afterwards most likely indulging in one of the ices for which the cafe was famous.
After this, she might drop down to the shade of the Tuileries Gardens for a brief stroll before wandering into the passages leading off the Boulevard Montmartre, small arcades filled with shops, to look at and perhaps purchase the sumptuous fabrics, the flowers arranged like offerings to the goods, sparkling gems wrested from all over the world, perfumes made from fields of lavender, rose petals, leaves of lemon verbena, and thousands of enchanting objects designed to titillate the eye displayed in the countless windows that lined her path.
Tired then from this brief but richly sensuous tour, she would return to the Boulevard des Italians, stopping now at the Cafe de Paris across the street from the cafe where she took her lunch, or instead at the Maison Doree, next door to Tortoni's, knowing that at this hour, the late afternoon, she will be certain to encounter friends. Perhaps while sitting with a table of boulevardiers, journalists, artists, other cocottes, she might meet a new protector; then again, if by chance she already has an appointment for the night, she may simply be there to relax.
If it is early fall, when the Paris season is already in full swing yet still not tired of itself, the air that was hot in midday will have a pleasant edge of coolness at this hour, and it is pleasant to sit outdoors as witty remarks fly by, laughter rising and ebbing, and abandon herself to the tide of conversation. Moreover, the relative ease of the hour is needed to revive herself for the larger waves to come.
Soon, she will rise to prepare for the evening. When she returns, she will be dressed far more elegantly and, no matter how nearby she lives, she will arrive in a coach. De Amicis describes the moment 'when all the gay life of Paris pours itself out from all the neighbouring streets,' when the odour of musk and flowers and Havana cigars and absinthe mixes heavily in the air, and the carriages stop while 'the cocottes, with their long trains descend... and disappear, with the rapidity of arrows through the door of the restaurants.'
Whether she is dining at the Maison Doree, the Cafe de Foy, the Cafe Anglais, Maxim's, the Prevost, Marguery, Viel, Le Cardinal, Ledoyen, or Le Grand Vefour, the meal will be sumptuous, with eight or nine courses, beginning with small, nameless bite-size treats, followed by soup made velvety on the tongue by cream, continuing with fish and then meat, if not game, too, all accompanied by a good champagne... and finally ices, without of course skipping at the very end a digestif - Armagnac, Cognac, or Chartreuse. She may be dining in a private room upstairs called a salon particuliere, with just her lover or a small party, or she may be seated in the grand salon , the decor of both rooms adorned with velvet and silk brocade, frescoes, gold gilding, lit by dazzling chandeliers in the public room, and quieter, more flattering lamps in the private one. If she is in a salon alone with her lover, they may take another course of pleasure on the couch provided for each private room before descending together at midnight once again into the streets, which are lit now with gas lamps and the thousand lights of every cafe and restaurant, all of which give the boulevards, against the night sky, a strartlingly bright illumination.
By contrast to the restaurant in which the air of jubilance is subdued, the streets host a celebration of gigantic proportions: the festivity stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction. Here a perpetual party pulls the couple into a powerful stream heading perhaps toward yet another cafe, open late at night, the Cafe de Foy, or toward the more verdant Champs-Elysees, where singers can be found performing at the cafes chantants, their sparkling lights strung like diamonds under the trees; or in the other direction, to the Palais Royale and its gaming tables...
Yet perhaps they have not dined so early, choosing instead to attend the opera or the theatre first... No doubt they will arrive separately, she by coach at the main entrance, mingling for a while with friends in the lower foyer before walking slowly up the grand staircase made of rare marble and onyx so that, appropriately set in this opulent architecture, her own beauty can be admired.
The streets immediately around the Opera will have prepared them both for this night. Her dress would have been made by a designer head-quartered on the rue de la Paix, perhaps the fashionable Paul Poiret or his mentor, Charles Worth... And a few steps further west, in the Place Vendome, her protector would have found the diamond bracelet which he plans to present to her when he visits her private box during the intermission...
Then again, they may have gone to the theatre. The abundance is staggering to contemplate. There were spectacles everywhere... They might have climbed the hill up to Montmartre, where not far away at the Moulin Rouge the cancan was being performed until the early hours of the morning, or gone east on the boulevards to the Folies-Bergere, where one could watch the stage while drinking or eating as tableaux and parades of extravagantly costumed appeared, some of them legendary...
But the performance would be only a prelude to what must have seemed an infinite spectacle. Leaving the theatre, they would rejoin the crowds heading toward the Cafe Turc, the Cafe Anglais, the Cafe des Mauresques, the Cafe Riche, or Le Napolitain, to drink and dine and continue the party. And of course, they could easily have chosen instead the established center of gaiety, that golden place known as Maxim's, to dine under the glass roof designed by Lalique, drink the best champagne to be had in Paris, and the dance through the early hours of the morning to the music of the house orchestra.
In the Belle Epoqiue, Maxim's was synonymous with the high life of the fin-de-siecle... More than once, the frivolity reached a fevered pitch, as when, for instance, Maurice Bertrand ushered in four pall bearers who were carrying a casket that, when opened, revealed a case of champagne. And whenever in the natural course of a night anyone's capacity for folly began to ebb, the celebrant had only to look in the sinuously beautiful Art Nouveau mirrors that wrapped each room in luminescence to be inspired once more by the sight of someone else laugh, flirtatious, seduced, or all three, and in the process producing delicious gossip...
Everywhere along the boulevards the festivities were enlarged and intensified by glittering images and thrilling legends, which danced and sang along with the crowds, calling out like sirens inviting pilgrims from far and wide to join the party..."
-'The Book Of The Courtesans,' Susan Griffin
PS. The deadline for my intern competition is looming, darlings, and I do so want to win! Please do take the time to have a peek at my posts over at Wedding Design Anarchy - it will mean oh so much to me. The latest batch: Lauren Bacall's beautiful words about her wedding to Humphrey Bogart, Kate Moss' wedding style, and picnics!