CHAPTER VI

CHARACTERS

ONE of the last really picturesque and original characters who survives on la Butte is Frédèric, known as the Robinson Crusoe of Montmartre, owner of the Lapin Agile, to which allusion has before been made. He is, indeed, the soul of this quaint little cabaret, on the door of which is inscribed, "The first duty of man is to have a good digestion." An artist, musician and philosopher, all the Bohemian world of Paris knows him well, while his ample grey velvet trousers, sabots and fur cap are a source of delight to English and American students who make pilgrimages from Montparnasse to the heights of la Butte, where "Frédè" keeps a book in which many distinguished visitors have written little scraps of prose and verse and drawn sketches of a humorous kind.

Frédèric, who is renowned for his sense of humor, once created a sensation at the Salon des Independants by sending there a picture called "The Sun on the Adriatic," signed by Boronali. This he had produced by tying a paintbrush to the tail of his donkey which whisked it all over a canvas placed conveniently near! Boronali, it may be added, was in reality an anagram of Aliboron — the donkey's name!

In 1926 Montmartre sustained a great loss by the death of Adolphe Willette, a Bohemian artist of great merit and a survivor of the band of clever Bohemians who made the reputation of the Chat Noir. He adored la Butte and always did all he could to defend it from being defaced by the hideous buildings which are gradually robbing it of all charm.

Born in 1857 at Chalons-sur-Marbe, this unconventional character was the son of Colonel Willette, who for a time was aide-de-camp to Marshal Bazaine
— the unfortunate, and in his later years at least, incompetent officer who incurred great blame owing to his behavior at Metz during the Franco-German war, when a complete French army corps was surrendered for what seemed to be no particular reason. After the war was over Bazaine was tried for treason and sentenced to a term of imprisonment from which, however, he escaped to Spain. As a matter of fact, he was never really proved to have been a traitor, though his surrender of Metz remains a mysterious affair to this day.

In after years Colonel Willette occupied a post on the military staff connected with Les Invalides, of the life of which his son had many recollections. The Colonel does not appear to have been very pleased at his offspring's leanings towards an artistic career, but young Willette soon betook himself to Montmartre, where he passed practically all the rest of his life.

Though his family not unnaturally disapproved of their son's Bohemian ways they took an interest in his pictures, in consequence of which after he had painted "Parce Domine" for the Chat Noir his mother came to see it at an hour when the more unconventional frequenters of that cabaret were not likely to be about. As luck would have it, however, the celebrated Colonel Lisbonne, who had been a well-known figure during the Commune, burst in wishing to find a second for a duel with one of his old enemies
— a Verdsillais who had boxed his ears.

The youthful Willette, after some conversation, got rid of the old Communist, but his mother, deeply shocked that her son should be on speaking terms with such a man, would listen to no explanations but sadly wended her way back to the Invalides with a heavy heart.

After having received an artistic training under Cabanel at the École des Beaux Arts, the young artist made his first appearance at the Salon in 1881 with "The Temptation of St. Anthony," and continued to exhibit regularly until about 1887, when he practically abandoned painting and devoted himself to drawing in pastel and lithography. In addition to a panel at the Hotel de Ville, he executed a number of mural paintings for the Chat Noir and other artistic cafés. In addition to this he was from time to time associated with most of the Parisian comic and satirical journals
the Chat Noir, Triboulet and Le Rire, as recently as 1910 he was one of the founders of Les Humoristes.

A violent conversationalist, Willette made savage attacks in Le Pierrot and other papers on the objects of his dislike. He had, however, another side to his character expressed in idylls of the Bohemian life round the figures of Pierrot and Columbine, under such titles as "The Golden Age," "Chevalier Printemps," and "Baiser de la Rose." In the tradition of Watteau, he never tired of painting Pierrots.

Receiving an honorable mention in the Salon of 1894 he held several successful one-man shows in Paris and was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1906 and Officer in 1912.

For no particular reason (his paternal grandfather had known Marie Antoinette and was on guard at the foot of the scaffold when Robespierre was guillotined) Willette was apt to be very Radical in his political opinions. At one time he showed himself very bitter in denouncing the wholesale execution of the Communards, in connection with which he showered abuse upon General Gallifet whose drastic repression of the Commune he never forgave. A hater of foreigners, his skits upon Queen Victoria once occasioned a good deal of comment and offense. He was given to making fun of her and went so far as to dress up in her clothes at a students' ball. During the Boer war he published an outrageous caricature which got the Duc d'Orleans into trouble, the latter with great lack of good taste and of gratitude writing a letter of congratulation to Willette upon his scandalous skit. In consequence of this action the Duc found it best to leave England, to which country he only returned after a considerable lapse of time when he had been forgiven by King Edward to whom the pretender to the throne of France had proffered a apology for his misguided act of years before.

As a matter of fact Willette never made any pretext of liking the English, though their action during the Great War modified his outward expression of unfriendliness. This antipathy he appears to have inherited from his father and grandfather, the latter an officer in Napoleon's Grande Armée.

A warm supporter and exponent of l'Espirit Gaulois, one of Willette's chief characteristics was his whole-hearted hatred of Puritanism, which he never ceased to denounce. He hated it indeed more than he did the English, General Gallifet or Rodldophe Salis, who, the artist, in his latter years, declared had exploited the young Bohemians who had made the reputation of the Chat Noir. Willette, indeed, never forgot that Salis had only paid him three hundred francs for "Parce Domine" which was undoubtedly a masterpiece in its own imaginative style!

While constantly attacking all Puritans as humbugs and killjoys Willette singled out one amongst them for special blame. This was the late Senator Béranger, well known at the end of the last century for his attempt to moralize the Parisians. He it was who, in 1891, caused the authorities to interfere with the Bal des Quat'z' Arts with the result that serious riots lasting for several days occurred in the Latin Quarter, in the course of which a student was killed.

As a result of this Willette always spoke of M. B
éranger as a murderer, never failing to mark the anniversary of the student's death by sending the Senator a black-edged card with the victim's name inscribed upon it!

Though, from a bourgeois point of view, Willette went rather far in his anti-Puritan crusade, there is no doubt but that he did a good deal to prevent the flood of humbug and cant which pervades England and America making any headway in France. In his later years a good husband and father he preserved his independent attitude towards life and love of personal liberty to the day of his death. Asked to name his distractions by the French "Who's Who" he wrote:

"Chanter et boire et chanter."

He was indeed a true Bohemian of the old school.

After a long and painful illness Willette died on February 4th, 1926, when a heart attack put an end to the old Bohemian's sufferings.

In the same courageous way as he had faced life Willette faced death. "I want to go away," said he to his relatives, "let us be off at once! Ah how slow this train is!"

Starting up in bed he seemed to be trying to look far ahead to the end of his last journey. Suddenly pushing aside the friendly hands which sought to restrain him he left his couch and stood erect in the middle of the room. Under the impression that he was going to the Salon des Humouristes he urged an imaginary taxi-cab driver to go faster lest he should be too late. "We have arrived," he cried at last and collapsed in the arms of his friends.

On the 8th February, 1926, Willette made his last journey from Montmartre to the cemetery of Montparnasse. Here after a speech by M. Oudinot, on behalf of the Minister of Public Instruction who was away from Paris, the great artist Forain, President of the Societé des Humoristes, bade farewell to his dear colleague whom he had known for more than forty years. Another artist, M. Maurice Neumont, then spoke of the faithful friend gone to the land of eternal dreams as "the great white Pierrot who had garbed himself in black." Several other artists having spoken, Willette, who had lived on the sacred hill of Montmartre, entered upon his eternal sleep in Montparnasse, a district also hallowed by artistic traditions of the kind he loved.

Thirty or forty years ago a characteristic feature of Paris was the number of strangely dressed individuals who were to be seen there. Boulevardiers in shiny top hats with straight brims, huge butterfly ties and peg top trousers still survived from the days of the Empire, while Bohemians from Montmartre and from the Latin Quarter sported all sorts of strange costumes which have now long disappeared. All this sort of thing made the streets very interesting, while a note of brightness was struck by the varied uniforms of the French army.

At the beginning of the present century the leveling down process which is reducing everything to a drab uniformity had already done away with all eccentricity of costume among civilians. Officers and soldiers, however, still continued to brighten the streets by their martial trappings, plumes, epaulettes and the like. All this gay panoply, however, vanished as the result of the Great War, the cuirassiers and hussars having been abolished, while cavalry, infantry and artillery are all now attired in a shapeless uniform of dirty looking blue-grey. Though the cut of the old-fashioned tunics and red trousers were never particularly smart, as has before been said, they enlivened the streets and cafés where they were to be seen, while the Roman helmets of the cuirassiers and dragoons had a certain barbarian splendor which took one's mind away from the drabness of modern life. The French soldier was always rather untidy in his appearance, but of the late years he has eclipsed all records in this respect. As for the officers, who used to look smart enough in black tunics with gold epaulettes, red trousers and plumed képis, the craze for utilitarian simplicity has robbed them of all their sartorial attractions and given them nothing in return but a multitude of packets and the Sam Browne belt. A sad pity from a picturesque point of view that the cult of the Panache no longer exists in France!

The Paris of the nineteenth century was full of eccentric and original characters from Lord Henry Seymour, whose pleasantries were sometimes of a rather cruel kind, to the Duc of Granmont Caderousse, a wildly extravagant young man fond of making love to ladies and fighting duels. During the last years of the Second Empire all sorts of extravagances were committed by wealthy Oriental visitors, and in later years there have been Maharajahs who are always warmly welcomed by the Parisians. One of these Oriental potentates when he had quarreled with his European wife used to pay her out in a strange manner. Getting together four of five blatant cocottes he would put them in a landau, with himself in the middle, and with his native servant would drive up and down outside the windows of her house at which his flamboyant guests eventually dropped him. Then there was the eccentric American who for a bet appeared at a Gala dinner at a fashionable Hotel surrounded by six ladies, who were obviously pensionaires of one of the luxurious temples of love which are located in the Quatier d'Europe.

During the early years of the nineteenth century a number of strange characters who had been connected with the great social upheaval of 1789 still survived. Broken down old gentlemen, relics of the French noblesse, wearing the costume of a vanished age were to be seen in the streets, while in obscure quarters of the city lived men who after having been responsible for atrocities during the Terror had sobered down into peaceful citizens of benevolent mien. Zamor, the black dwarf, who repaid the kindness which had been lavished upon him by his mistress, Madame du Barry, by basely hounding her to death, was a familiar figure on the left bank of the Seine up till about 1820. Surly and reticent, this little wrench did not, however, enjoy any of the popularity accorded to other historical characters. As a matter of fact, the greater number of people who had played an active part during the days of the Terror seem in old age to have been looked upon as beings best left alone. Some of the people who had been connected with the Court and courtiers of the old régime, lived on still as late as the 'forties' of the last century. Strolling in the Galerie d'Orleans of the Palais Royal in the early part of the reign of Louis Philippe there was to be seen on most afternoons a very aged man who went by the nickname of "Valois Collier." This individual had been the husband of the infamous Jeanne de St. Remy, Comtese de la Motte, who, possibly with some show of truth, used to boast that she had a strain of the Royal Valois blood in her veins. The prime mover in the great historic conspiracy and swindle of the "Diamond Necklace" which did Marie Antoinette such harm, this woman was eventually whipped and branded with V (for voleuse) on both shoulders, after which she was locked up in the Salpetrière prison for life. Contriving to escape, she somehow or other made her way to London where, I believe, she eventually met with miserable death by jumping out of the window of a lodging house in Lamberth, when hotly pursued by bailiffs who had come to arrest her at the instance of some pettifogging attorney with whom the pseudo-Countess had had some financial transactions of an unsatisfactory nature.

About the last picturesque literary character who survived in Paris was the writer Barbey d'Aurevilly, whose original dress and romantic cape were to be seen as late as the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Even as an old man Barbey d'Aurevilly prided himself on his gallantries. Walking in the Champs Elysées one day and seeing a pretty girl he proceeded to make overtures to her. Without saying a word the damsel, who was tall, seized the poor little writer (he was very short), lifted him up in the air, and gave him a good shaking just as if he had been a naughty child.


Barbey d'Aurevilly was about the last Parisian who dressed in the romantic 'forties.' At night especially he was magnificent in a wonderful braided coast, light blue waistcoat, lace jabot and white kerseymere trousers striped with gold. He also wore buckles on his shoes! It was no wonder that some of this writer's friends were nervous about going out with him as his attire was apt to produce a crowd, the dress of a past epoch not being held in high esteem in the modern world. Yet a word or two of praise from him was known to go far towards establishing a young painter's reputation. Good-natured enough as a rule, when upset he had a way of saying bitter and cutting things that were apt to be very disagreeable to anyone who had incurred his displeasure.

A less striking, if original, figure to be seen on the Boulevards in the latter part of the nineteenth century was that of Albert Wolff, a very ugly man, journalist, art critic and maker of bons mots whose dictums were held in high esteem.

French critics when they believe themselves to be slighted are apt to be acid in the extreme. One of them, sent to furnish a dramatic criticism of a certain play, finding himself given a seat very far back, said in his paper the next morning that, owing to the place allotted to him, he had not been able to understand much about the new play. In any case, he added, this did not make the slightest difference as one could not see this production from too far away!

Another well known journalist of the 'seventies' was Aurélien Scholl, an ultra Parisian, who was one of the most constant habitués of the Boulevard, where he gathered material for the witty articles for which he was renowned. The illness which carried this Boulevardier off appears to have been caused by his undue partiality for the pleasures of the table. On one occasion he won a bet after dinner by eating another complete meal backwards, beginning with a liqueur and going through all the regular courses ending up with soup!

Aurélien Scholl and Albert Wolff died before their beloved Boulevards had degenerated into the present period of decadence which has destroyed their amenities from a social point of view. For many years past these tree-lined promenades, originally laid out on the site of ramparts which had been thrown up for the defense of Paris, have been becoming ordinary thoroughfares crowded from morning till night with passers-by. In addition to being now deserted by celebrities in the worlds of art, literature and fashion, the great Boulevards are gradually becoming less and less popular as the favorite strolling places of visitors to Paris. Meanwhile the extension of the Boulevard Haussmann has been completed, and already some of its fine new hotels and cafés are doing very well. The new Taverne Haussmann, at the corner of Rue Lafitte and the Boulevard, has been open some time now, and is beginning to fill its terrace during the late afternoon with a constantly changing clientèle. The gradual migration of Paris westward is also sending people in increasing numbers to the various cafés along the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Fouquet's, the Restaurant Champs-Elysées, and a number of bars near the Rond-Point, and even beyond the Arc de Triomphe, are frequented by numbers of people living in that part of the town. In the years to come in all probability Paris, having stretched yet further west, new Boulevards will be built, but none of these are likely to regain the peculiar artistic and social atmosphere which pervaded the region where formerly stood Tortoni's and the Maison d'Orée long since numbered among the vanished attractions of the gay city.

Under the Second Empire and in the early days of the third Republic most of the great cafés on the Boulevard had their own special clientèle, some of the members of which were accorded little privileges in the shape of reserved tables and the like. The waiters having become well acquainted with the habits of such people knew exactly what consommation old clients would take and what paper they would want to read. Retired officers and rentiers of moderate means constituted the main bulk of the patrons at these cafés, but here and there might be seen some old lady who had acquired a prescriptive right to her own special seat.

Long after the fall of the second Empire there was to be seen most mornings at the Café Veron complacently taking her coffee and cognac, and reading either the Univers or the Gazette de France — for she was a Legisimist of the Legitimists and a Clerical of the Clericals — a cheery old lady some eighty years of age. This old dame was very charitable, and was said to give away a thousand pounds a year to the poor. She rarely went into the country, and patronized no watering-place during the autumn season. Her delight was in the streets of Paris which she loved to roam or go shopping. Having sons and grandsons in the army, whenever she met any non-commissioned officers or soldiers belonging to the regiments in which her descendents were serving, she would invite them to enter the nearest café and regale themselves at her expense. When on one of her shopping excursions she made a point before buying anything of asking the shopkeeper if he were a Republican. If the shopman answered "yes" and showed that he had the courage of his opinions, the old lady, true to her Legitimist principles, would only buy five sous' worth of pins, or half a franc's worth of notepaper, and pass on. If, however, the man spoke respectfully of the Comte de Chambord or even of the Bonapartes he was certain to have secured a very profitable customer.

The habit of resorting to one's own special café no longer makes an appeal to a Frenchman who is well off. In these days he often goes to a cercle or to one of the numerous tripots where between five and seven he can indulge in the delights of Chemin de fer Baccarat. Tennis, golf and motoring absorb the spare hours of the younger generation which has forgotten the art of lounging as it was practiced in the past.

The flaneur who was a regular Parisian type has now disappeared, and with him have gone a number of other characters once familiar figures in the Paris streets — itinerant vendors, quaintly attired nurses, and the like, not forgetting the rag picker or chiffonnier, whose portrait was so often drawn by Gavarni. Here and there, however, one still meets a poor wretch in filth and rags shuffling along with eyes like a hungry rat, searching every nook and corner under the café tables beneath which he rakes with a stick spiked with a pin, picking up a discarded cigarette from beneath one's feet with great dexterity. Once he has got the stump he he puts it in his filthy pocket, and shuffles on to the next café. This is the "marchand de megots" who has many of the chiffonnier's ways.

One of the latter's best beats up to about the middle of the last century was a repository for refuse which yielded good returns. This was situated not far from where once stood the gibbet of Montfaucon constantly alluded to by Francis Combat, at the foot of the Buttes Chaumont. The hill in question is composed of nearly the same geological formation as the heights of Montmartre, and for a long time was quarried for similar purposes. Near the quarries there was formerly a rising mound of masonry  on which stood gibbets, and where executions took place; the bodies were thrown into a charnel house which it contained and left to decay. After the abolition of this place of punishment, about the beginning of the last century, so admirably described in the Notre Dame of Paris of Victor Hugo, the contents of all the sewers of the houses of Paris were deposited there, and it became the spot where most of the night carts of Paris were emptied. A raised causeway of stone stretched between two black and deep pools: along the edges of this the carts, which were enormous tuns placed on wheels, were arranged, and emptied their contents into the shelving trough placed a little below the causeway, from whence, after much raking and examination, they fell into the upper pool. Chiffonniers remained here whole days searching for money, jewels and other valuable articles which might chance to have found their way into the sewers, and were sometimes very successful in their search. The contents of the upper pool drained into a second, and from thence into three others successively; the water escaped, and the solid sediment was cut out and used for manure. By the sides of the upper pool were slaughter houses for horses, where most of the worn out animals of the capital were brought, and where, after they were killed, all the parts of their body were carefully cut up and separated from purposes of manufacture. The skins, bones, the blood and the flesh were sold for different economical purposes, and considerable profit was made by this disgusting trade. About 16,000 horses, dead or alive, were annually brought to this place.

Eventually, owing to the action of M. Poubelle, then Préfet de la Seine, a great change was made in dealing with the refuse of Paris. It was decreed that in future all rubbish was to be deposited in metal receptacles and these placed in readiness in front of every house for the collecting carts to empty. It seemed at first as if this innovation was likely to strike a death-blow at the whole chiffonnier profession, but an arrangement was made by which they were still allowed to pursue their work under certain modified conditions. They were henceforth compelled, if they desired to examine the contents of the dustbins, to empty everything on to a cloth or piece of sacking and carefully replace anything not required after making their selection. This system was the means of entirely suppressing the perambulating rag picker with his lantern and crochet, certain areas being allotted to individual chiffonniers, outside of which district they were not allowed to carry on their operations.

In the early 'eighties' the chiffonniers, or street rag pickers, were still to be seen in the Paris streets. Refuse was then simply thrown out on to the roadway or pavement in front of each house, either overnight or in the early morning, being afterwards taken away by the municipal dust-carts which made periodical rounds of the streets, gathering up heaps of rubbish as they went. Previous to this, however, all the refuse was carefully examined and gone over by the chiffonniers, who picked out anything likely to be of the slightest value. Some of these collectors of unconsidered trifles operated on their own account, whilst others worked in partnership with associates, depositing what they found at a given spot from which it was eventually taken away in the early morning and pooled. The appearance of these chiffonniers, as  they stumped about the streets, was rather curious, a large sort of wicker crate or basket being strapped to their backs, while in one hand they carried a lantern and in the other a sharply-pointed crook devised so as they might pick up and throw into the receptacle behind them anything which might yield a profitable return. All these poor people had a poverty-stricken appearance. Some few were young but the majority withered and wrinkled old men and crones more like animated mummies than human beings. Late at night the lights of their lanterns were to be seen bobbing about the streets in all directions. In the early morning, however, they patiently returned home to their hovels mostly situated just outside the northern ramparts. Whole families sometimes made their living in this way, and it was no uncommon sight to see children dragging a small hand-cart laden with sacks, a venerable patriarch fast asleep, reclining on the top, worn out with the night's work.

These rag pickers enjoyed a fairly good reputation for honesty in notifying the police when they found valuable jewelry or important papers among their rubbish. Nevertheless in the old days it was not considered wise for any respectably clad person to venture within the district which they inhabited. Mr. Shirley Fox tells a weird story, which much impressed him at the time, of a cab man who once lost his way and found himself with his cab right in the heart of the chiffonnier quarter. They issued forth from their dwellings like a swarm of ants from the nest, and in a very short space of time both cab and horse were reduced to small fragments and carried away by the inhabitants of the hovels. The cab man himself was stripped of nearly everything he possessed, and had to make his way back to Paris as best he might, with practically nothing left in the way of clothes.

The disappearance of the old horse cabs, or sapins, which were once such a feature of Parisian life, was very rapid, once the taxicab had come into use. In the summer of 1926 seventy-three of the old-fashioned vehicles survived, and did, it is said, fairly good business owing to the exceptionally fine weather, which caused people, not in a hurry, to take leisurely drives in the Bois. A number of Americans fond of relics of the past, used these cabs, and paid the drivers, generally very deserving men, fares which delighted their old hearts. A considerable sensation was caused that summer by a report that a wealthy Yankee, walking on the Boulevard, had hailed one of the old horse cabs, and driven in it a far as Biarritz. Though the Parisian press reported this extraordinary drive as having really occurred, the cab men on the Boulevards declared that the story was a complete fabrication. The oldest of this fraternity, inevitably doomed to speedy extinction, is, it may be added, "le père Lecomte," a fine old man, eighty years old, who, taking no notice of the law which forbids people to work more than eight hours a day, continues to drive about Paris, from early morning till late at night. Boasting that his knowledge of the streets is far greater than that possessed by any modern chauffeur, this "Doyen" of Parisian cab men, like another famous cocher Michaut, aged sixty-three, is full of souvenirs of the gay doings which used to occur in the days before mechanical locomotion had spoilt the aspect of Paris Boulevards and streets. Both these old men, it may be added, unlike the modern chauffeur, are particularly civil to ladies for whom they have always a smile.




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