CHAPTER X

Cafés in Montmartre — The Nouvelles Athènes — The Rat Mort — The Place Blanche — Amusing experience — An incident on the Place Pigalle — The Abbaye de Thélème — The Elysée Montmartre — The Moulin de la Galette — The fast women in the Rue Bréda and the Quartier de Notre Dame de Lorette — Brasseries and cafés — The frail sisterhood — The underworld of Montmartre — The artists' colony — Studios — Artists' models on the Place Pigalle — The studio district — The inception of the Cabaret du Chat Noir — Rodolphe Sails "Gentilhomme Cabaretier" — Removal of the Cabaret to the Rue de Laval — Remarkable procession — A midnight escapade — Artistic surroundings of the "Chat Noir" — The theatre — Famous productions — Array of talent — Great success of the cabaret — Imitation "Chat Noirs" — The Lion d'Or — New school of decoration


There There were, of course, many other cafés in Montmartre which were also frequented by artists — the Nouvelle Athènes on the Place Pigalle and the one on the Place Blanche, to mention only two where we used to go occasionally.

Alluding to these cafés reminds me of a very curious though perhaps amusing experience I had on one occasion. A charming lady (they were all charming in those days) had promised to lunch with me, and wrote to say she would meet me at the café on the Place Blanche at one o'clock. I was delighted, and got there ten minutes before the time so as not to keep her waiting in case she was punctual. I ordered an aperitif, and not having read the paper that morning I called for the Figaro. Absorbed in my reading I did not notice the time; then suddenly I thought of it, and looked at my watch. It was half-past one. She was half an hour late; surely something must have happened to prevent her keeping the appointment. All of a sudden it flashed through my mind, as I looked round, that our rendezvous was at the café on the Place Blanche, and that I was seated at the Nouvelle Athènes on the Place Pigalle. How it came about I cannot explain, except that it must have been a fit of abstraction on my part.

Well, in less time than it takes to relate I had paid the waiter, and was running as fast as I could to the Place Blanche a few hundred yards distant — but she was not there. When I got back to my room after lunch I found a note from her telling me she had waited for me for half an hour, and hoped there had been no misunderstanding as to the appointment. She was good-natured enough to forgive me, and lunched with me another day, when I explained the contretemps, putting it down, as she said laughingly, to my temperament d'artiste. Not many women would have been so kind.

At the opposite corner of the Place Pigalle was the Rat Mort, then a place of unpleasant repute even for Montmartre — as it had the reputation of being frequented only by ladies and gentlemen of certain proclivities. Still it gradually seemed to improve, and the usual habitués migrating elsewhere apparently, it then got to be known that they gave an excellent table d'hôte dinner with vin à
discretion at 2.25, and it was by degrees taken up till at last one could actually be seen going in without any chaffing remarks being made afterwards; whilst it eventually also became a place where one sat outside and took one's coffee and so forth.

The life on the Place Pigalle was very interesting to watch from the terrasse of either of the cafés, especially of an evening before dinner; there was always a stream of petites ouvrières on their way home, and if it were at all muddy one would get a gratuitous display of dainty ankles.

I remember sitting with some pals outside the Rat Mort one summer evening taking our aperitifs. It had been raining but had cleared up. We were in a larky sort of mood. Suddenly one of us exclaimed, "What a lovely leg that girl's got crossing over there; if her face is anything to match she must be a real beauty."

"Well, it's easily found out," I remarked.

"How?"

"By going after her and having a look, of course," I replied, making a movement as though I were about to do so; but at that moment the object of our curiosity turned round to avoid a passing cab, and revealed the most charming of faces and figures. She was indeed chic and attractive, and we all gave an exclamation of approval.

At The Cafe
"You are so daring, Price," said one of the chaps — "I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll bet you five francs you don't go after her and bring her back to dinner."

"I don't like to encourage your extravagance," I replied in the same vein, "but I'll take on your bet all the same."

"I'll make it a bottle of wine as well, that you don't even get her to speak to you."

"Done with you," I replied, and picking up my hat and stick I dashed across the road after the beautiful stranger. I felt that my reputation as a "blood" was at stake, so had no hesitation.

Just as she reached the opposite side of the Boulevard, and was walking up the Rue Houdon, I caught her up. I was breathless both with excitement and with hurrying. Without pausing I raised my hat and blurted out, "Pardon me. Mademoiselle, for speaking to you, but will you help me make a fortune?"

She stopped dead, and looked at me with astonishment, amazed for a moment at my impertinence in speaking to her, for she was evidently not the type of girl to be à la recherche d'une aventure.

"Que me voulez-vous, Monsieur?" she ejaculated; then noting perhaps that I was not an evil-looking ruffian, she added, "Je ne vous connais pas."

But that in itself was sufficient; it only remained with me to start a conversation. In the distance I could see my friends at the café standing up, the better to watch developments. I had an inspiration which I flattered myself afterwards was a masterpiece.

"It's this way. Mademoiselle," I said; "I am an artist and I am looking for a specially beautiful face for a picture I am going to paint, and as you passed I said to myself that if I could only persuade you to sit for me my fortune is made. So you can help me if you will; anyhow I offer you my apologies for venturing to accost you."

It was bold introduction, but it caught on. Although she repeated, "Mais je ne vous connais pas. Monsieur," I could see she was not really angry, now she knew my reason for stopping her; so one portion of the bet was already won — now for the other. But in these few minutes I had realized that she was no ordinary girl like one could meet any day in Montmartre; so I quickly made up my mind that if I could help it the adventure should not end so abruptly. The ice was now broken, so after some persuasion I got her to let me accompany her just a little way whilst I told her all about my picture — which needless to say had only just been evolved from my imagination.

"Vous êtes un Monsieur bien original," she said, as with some hesitation she consented; adding, "Mais seulement un petit bout de chemin."

I soon discovered, and to my surprise, for I had hoped for something different, that she was quite a respectable girl, living with her people in the Rue Lepic, and was employed as vendeuse at a big millinery establishment in the Rue Royale. We strolled on for quite a long while getting more and more friendly, till she gradually threw off her reserve of manner and remarked naively that anyone to see us would take us for old friends; and then I remembered the bet and felt almost ashamed of myself for having told her such a lot of fibs. When, however, she said she must be getting home, and I then suggested her dining with me instead, she wouldn't hear of it for a moment.

"Une autre fois, peut-être, mais pas ce soir "; besides, she was expected home. After a deal of persuasion I managed to get her to give me an address where I could write her, and she promised to meet me another evening; then she hurried away.

When I got back to the café my friends had nearly finished dinner; they gave a roar of laughter when I appeared alone, and the one who had made the bet began to chaff me mildly. I pulled out a five-franc piece and handed it to him, saying, "You have won that part of the bet, old man, but I'll have the bottle of wine with you, at any rate." They started asking a lot of questions, but I refused to be drawn.

"Comme il est malin, ce vieux Price," they declared.

I wondered if they guessed the luck the bet had brought me.

A few days later we met again, but not by accident this time, and I took her to a very quiet restaurant away from my artistic haunts; and we sat right in a corner in case anyone should happen to come in who knew her at home, and we had a simple little dinner which she chose herself — and then I told her all about the bet and she wasn't the least bit angry, but laughed heartily and said, "On m'a toujours dit que les Anglais sont monotones, mais vous ne lêtes pas au moins." Then we strolled back through quiet streets in quite spoony fashion, and I snatched an occasional kiss in dark doorways; and it was very nice and all that — but it wasn't a bit what I had expected, for she had to get in early unless she was going to a theatre, she told me. One evening, "when her parents knew me," she would perhaps be allowed to stay out later. We had a very peaceful, pleasant evening, and I promised to write and fix another appointment; but on thinking it all over afterwards I came to the conclusion that it would be better for us both not to meet again — so I didn't write.

The Whole District...
Next door to the Rat Mort on the Place Pigalle an artist's house, I think it was Stevens, with studio and garden, had just been bought by some enterprising restaurateur who had conceived the original idea of turning it all into a high-class restaurant; so one lunched or dined in the salle à manger and the salon and the big studio upstairs, whilst during the summer it was pleasant to take one's coffee under the tree in the garden which overlooked the Place. To this new place was given the artistic and resounding appellation of the Abbaye de Thélème. The prices were just a trifle higher than elsewhere in the neighborhood, but very moderate considering.

Montmartre in those days was a very different place to what it is now, and no one could ever have imagined it would have developed into such a fashionable resort at night. The Moulin Rouge was not dreamed of. The chief place of amusement was the Elysée Montmartre a dancing hall on the Boulevard Rochechouart, where all the smartest and the fastest girls and the artists' models were to be found. Everybody used to go there, and it was quite the only thing to do on Saturday and Sunday nights during the winter. One was pretty sure to find an "aventure" there also if one was looking for one. On Sundays, in the afternoon, there was dancing up at the Moulin de la Galette, a quaint ramshackle old place on the heights of Montmartre.

This was quite a picturesque spot close to the fortifications, on the top of a steep hill. It was almost rural in its seclusion, and was more like a corner in a small provincial town than a portion of busy Paris; the view one obtained from the terrace alone was worth the arduous climb up the ill-paved streets to reach it, and many people went up only for this, and with no intention of dancing. The ballroom was very primitive, as it had evidently been a big barn originally, and there was no pretence at all at luxury about it or the gardens surrounding it. Close by was the battered ruin of an old mill, from which it got its name. Here the crowd was of a very rough description; though one often met artists up there, it was not at all artistic. One was charged two pence a dance, and a man used to collect this during the dances. There were always a lot of pretty girls there, but it was a somewhat risky thing to ask anyone you didn't know to dance with you, as it was more than probable her "macquereau" was close by, and he and his pals might set on you when you got outside. This was constantly happening, as there was never more than one policeman on duty in the hall. Artists would go up there to look for a pretty model, and have a very bad time if they went up alone and were too venturesome.

Although it was the artists' quarter it was also a hot-bed of vice. The whole of the district round where I lived was full of women and their souteneurs, and in the Rue Bréda and round about on a warm summer evening one would see dozens of them hanging out of their windows in the scantiest of attire, and they would often beckon one to come up if they thought one looked like a possible client. I never accepted one of these invitations myself, but men told me they had at times, if they felt they wanted cheering up before dinner, instead of having an aperitif. There was, however, no necessity to go out of one's way to look up at the windows for such adventures if one were so minded, as the streets of the Quartier de Notre Dame de Lorette fairly reeked with cocottes, and they were to be seen everywhere — gorgeously dressed in the latest of fashion, and painted up to their eyes. There were any number of brasseries and cafés which were crowded with them of a night — where one saw every possible grade of frail sisterhood.

I shall never forget my first impressions of one of these places. It was close on daybreak. In the hot, fetid atmosphere, reeking with musk and the fumes of stale tobacco smoke, the crowd of wanton women with their painted and powdered faces and tawdry finery appeared almost inhuman. I remember that on looking round I wondered what attraction, sensually or otherwise, these bedizened trollops could possibly present, even to the most drunken debauchee, for most of them were quite middle-aged, and I did not see one with any pretension to good looks. There were very few men in the cafeé, and the women sat at the tables in gloomy silence, for time was getting on and soon the place would be closing, and then naught would remain but to make their way wearily to the all-night houses near the Halles Centrales, the last hope of the Paris street-walker — out of luck.

It was indeed a picture of the underworld of a great city. There were also not a few places in the neighborhood which enjoyed a peculiar notoriety distinctly Parisian, where the sterner sex were seldom to be seen. In fact so "hot" was the district that I often wondered if any respectable female really lived in it. The artists' colony adjoined, and in places overlapped it —whether by accident or design one can only surmise; anyhow, one would find studios in all the streets around the Place Pigalle — whilst along the Boulevard there seemed to be one in every house, judging from the immense windows facing north; in fact some houses consisted only of studios. The frame-makers and color merchants apparently thrived well in this quarter, for there were numbers of them. Artists' models, mostly Italians, male and female, used to loiter about the center of the Place Pigalle waiting for a job — and with their picturesque costumes imparted a bright welcome note of color on a sunny morning.

The studio district stretches now right up the heights of Montmartre — but I am only concerned with the part where I lived at that time, and which was the original colony — the Boulevard Rochechouart, the Boulevard de Clichy, and some of the neighboring streets. It now extends as far as the Pare Monceau. No description of the quarter would be complete without some mention of the famous Cabaret du Chat Noir which had just been opened in the Rue de Laval (now the Rue Victor Massé) by the artist, poet, and writer, Rodolphe Salis.

The Women Sat...
Originally started on the Boulevard Rochechouart in 1881, in a modest shop which served as studio for Salis, it became the rendezvous of all the eccentric artists, poets, musicians, and writers of Montmartre, who gave full vent to the most revolutionary theories in their work, whilst ostensibly drinking the comparatively harmless beer of France. These reunions gradually became talked about and other people outside the little set became attracted to the place. The growing éclat of the coterie decided Salis to transform his studio into an artistic cabaret which he described as being under the proprietorship of a "Gentilhomme Cabaretier" and "pour verser a boire a tous ceux qui gagnent artistiquement le soif."

The walls were plentifully adorned with old tapestry and other quaint decorations and paintings, as well as with busts of the original members. A magnificent black cat, which had served as model to several artists, was the oriflamme of the little establishment which henceforth blazoned out under the sonorous appellation of "L'Institut" (a skit on the famous temple of Science and Art of Paris), and where only those who made their living by their intellect were eligible as members. Gradually the vogue of the place spread amongst the artists and writers away from Montmartre, and it became generally known as the "Chat Noir." The artistic soirees of Salis began to be talked about; the tickets of invitation to these gatherings were eagerly sought after, till at length the modest ci-devant shop became too small to contain all those who wished to be present.

In the face of such extraordinary success, Salis decided to move the "Institut" to more important and convenient premises in the Rue de Laval in 1885. The removal of the cabaret from its old quarters was made in the most original and fantastic style — as might have been expected from so many fertile brains. At eleven at night a remarkable and picturesque procession was formed, and to the accompaniment of weird music the members marched through the streets with their bag and baggage to their "new home"; whilst the whole quarter turned out to witness the most curious spectacle that had ever been offered to Montmartre. The festivity in connection with the removal of the "Chat Noir" continued late in the night, and some of the younger and more boisterous of the followers of Salis were so carried away by the exuberance of their spirits that they started playing pranks outside the cabaret, which might have landed them in trouble. As it was, they only escaped through a fortuitous circumstance which was quite amusing in itself.

About two in the morning half a dozen or so of young fellows, my cousin Jephson amongst them, after all sorts of hare-brained escapades, started scaling lamp-posts and turning out the gas. They were thus merrily engaged when some sergents de ville suddenly appeared on the scene, arrested them all, and conveyed them to the nearest poste de police, where they were brought before the officer on a charge of riotous behavior. Though doubtless accustomed to such boyish pranks on the part of artists and students, he assumed a very grave air, expatiated on the heinousness of their conduct, and told them to their astonishment that they would have to prove their identity; also that unless they could find bail he would not let them out till they had seen the Commissaire the following day.

Here was a pretty ending to a night's amusement; but there was no help for it, since he refused to regard it all as a harmless joke, so they began producing letters and cards to prove their respectability. Jephson alone had neither a card nor a letter on him — but in searching his pockets he came across a "spoof" letter that a facetious London friend had posted to his rooms in the Rue St Georges that day. It was addressed thus: "To the Right Honorable Lord Sir Charles Jephson, Esquire, N.B. R.S.V.P., etc. etc., dans son Hôtel de Saint Georges — à Paris."

In a spirit of banter he handed the envelope to the official, who read it attentively. The effect produced was astounding; he rose from his chair and with an obsequious bow assured Jephson that he would accept his assurance that he and all his friends would attend before the Commissaire when ordered to do so — or words to that effect. So they all trooped out of the station again, and curiously enough they heard no more of the affair; which perhaps proved that even in a Republican country like France a high-sounding title still carries weight.

The new habitation of the "Chat Noir" was a veritable museum, as all its members had contributed towards its embellishment by presenting artistic treasures in the shape of furniture, pictures, old china, pewter, armor, and tapestry. From the entrance and up to the second floor it was a series of surprises. A gigantic Swiss guard, halberd in hand, stood at the doorway; on entering one was confronted with a huge carved fireplace — flanked on either side by two grotesque black cats. The place had been designed on the lines of an old Flemish hostelry; the greatest humoristic artists of the day had decorated it, and it was unique in all its details. The beer tankards, glass and crockery were delightful — even the waiters were picturesque, and, garbed as academicians, bore themselves with becoming dignity. On the first floor was a tiny theatre where veritable chefs-d'oeuvre were given by their authors by means of silhouettes on a white screen with a strong light behind.

At The "Chat
                        Noir"

When it is mentioned that such masters of satire as Caran dAche, Willette, Uzés, Pille, and Henri Rivière collaborated in their production, it will be realized how spirituelle were those shows. L'Épopée, La tentation de Saint Antoine, and L'enfant Prodigue amongst others became famous, and attracted all Paris. Quite an attroupement of talent was gradually gathered at the "Chat Noir" — and Alphonse Allais, Jules Jouy, Maurice Donnay, Jean Rameau, A. Masson, Mouloya, MacNab and Delmet all gave readings of their first compositions here.

For some years these and other equally clever attractions drew crowds to the Rue de Laval; but as nothing succeeds like success, rivals in the shape of other quaint cabarets and brasseries gradually sprung up. There were more men in Montmartre with original ideas, and so it came about that the inception and success of the "Chat Noir" undoubtedly brought about extraordinary changes, not only in the life of Montmartre but in the world of entertainment generally. In a very few years there were imitation "Chat Noirs" all over the district, and then the rage extended to the Grands Boulevards, where a delightfully decorated and appointed restaurant, built also on the lines of an old Flemish auberge, was opened under the name of the Lion d'Or, in the Rue du Helder. Many others, too numerous to mention, followed — in all of which the original conception of Salis could be traced — namely, to give scope to eccentric genius and original thought — with the result that a new school of decoration sprang up, which gradually ousted time-worn academic methods, and which still holds its own.



Proceed To Next Chapter

Go To Table Of Contents

Return To BohemianLit.com Home Page