Gaiety Girls and Ironing Boards

Gaiety Girls and Ironing Boards

Thu 10 May

It is said of the French writer Guy de Maupassant that he regularly took lunch at the café within the Eiffel Tower; and not for the quality of its food. He hated Gustave Eiffel’s structure so much that he ate there because it was the only place in Paris he wouldn’t have to look at it. Maupassant’s choosing to eat at the tower contains within it an aesthetic judgement.

This famous story is taken up by Roland Barthes in a rhapsodic contemplation of the nature of the city as seen from above.[1]  Barthes concedes the tower insinuates itself into every glance taken in, and of, the city. The tower stands for the city whose proffered experiences are in themselves attractive. From the synoptic view, we might say, we feel like diving into Paris.

Barthes regards the Eiffel Tower as a promise of the city to be explored and exploited for the multifarious experiences it yields. In another essay Barthes writes of the city as text. Leaving aside, or perhaps just delicately touching upon, the vexing question of language and meaning, it is clear that what Barthes wants to focus upon is the notion of interpretation – he wants to draw attention to the fact that we understand, and in so doing, we appreciate cities; and our appreciation involves our experience of the city.

[T]he city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it…[2]

It is a feature of cities in the west that there are meeting points for congregations of every interest. Artists are interested in cities as situations of aesthetic response. That is different from the pleasures that tourists derive from having their photographs taken in front of sites of historical interest.

Dérive and Détournement are terms introduced into our language from the French. They are associated with the Situationist International (SI), and in particular with Guy Debord, the SI’s most famous theoretician. Usually, dèrive is translated as “drift”. It has become of particular interest to architects, urban designers, geographers, film-makers and writers. Détournement, is the “turning” of one kind of thing into another. Duchamp famously took everyday objects and turned them into art. He also advocated turning works of art into everyday objects, as when he recommended, “Use a Rembrandt as an ironing board.”

For the time being, I am living between Paris and London. In discussion with Linda, an old school friend, she told me that her aunt had lived in Paris whilst dancing at Folies Bergère. These days the great music hall rents its space to imported shows like Hairspray or Chicago or Cabaret. Linda’s aunt struck a chord. I asked her for photos. When I studied philosophy, Richard Wollheim was professor at UCL. His mother had been a showgirl. In his autobiography, Germs, he writes, “she joined the Gaiety Theatre, not as a chorus girl, but as a showgirl, an all-important difference.” Although “all-important,” he doesn’t go on to explain that difference. Wollheim was a member of the Colony club in Soho, some twenty years before me. But he might have remembered, as I do, a member named Suzie Bardolph, a “bluebell girl”.

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Dear Ed,

As for Auntie Pat, the chorus girl, she was a member of the Jackson Girls who performed at Folies. We do have a programme from those days, showing photos of her, but no others. Sadly, her life changed from feathers, lace, sequins, high heels, high kicks and the buzz of sharing a stage once inhabited by Josephine Baker, Zizi Jeanmaire et al. She married a Belgian and they ran a bar in Port Grimaud, in the Var region in the south, but I don't think he was kind to her. She was found in later life wandering along a main road in her nightie.

Take care, and as Del Boy would say “mange tout”.

Dear Linda,

I have started to drink in Le Tabac des Folies, just opposite the music hall. It’s a largish place that sells cigarettes and carries an onscreen Lotto game every five minutes, with scratch cards another attraction. It’s run by a Chinese family. There are old ladies (older even than us) who drink in there and who are quite glamorous and are used to being looked at. I hope in my heart they are ex-dancers but I haven’t the courage to ask. It’'s what keeps calling me back. There is a delicious sadness about the place.

Ed,

I can’t stop thinking about those glamorous old ladies in Le Tabac des Folies. I so want them to be ex-dancers who indulge their memories of a well-spent youth over several coupes de champagne (They definitely won’t be using coupes these days, but they are in my head), cupped by an elegant, if wrinkled, palm and Chanel nails. Of course, there will be an armoire at home stuffed with beautiful clothes and jewellery given to them by fabulously wealthy admirers. I don’t know whether Auntie Pat had any such admirers but I do remember a very large and rather good oil painting of her in a blue dress painted by one of her beaus – no doubt a struggling Parisian artist. No one knows where it went after my granddad died.

However, after I read John Izbicki’s biography, I was delighted to find a photograph of the dancer Lydia Lova in there! Pat will certainly have known her, since she was dancing in the same show! In the pic with the yellow feathers, Pat is second left, front row. In the green and pink dresses, she is centre, front row. In the Jackson Girls pic, she is one from bottom and in the other black and white pic. Lydia Lova is top right.

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Lydia Lova, born Lydia de Korczak Lipski, lived in Paris with her father after her mother and brother evacuated. Her father was a Polish aristocrat who was recruited to the Polish Interallié network, working in Occupied France during the German occupation. Lydia had joined a dance troupe and performed at a theatre where German soldiers and a few Parisians comprised the audience. By this time she was already drawing diagrams of German positions to send to Britain for the RAF. Codenamed Capinka (Polish for “chicken”) she was denounced along with her father by a double agent. After interrogation by the Gestapo, she spent eighteen months in miserable conditions, first in solitary confinement in La Santé prison, where she was falsely informed of her father’s death; then in Fresnes prison. After this she was deported, as a political prisoner, to Ravensbrück concentration camp in a cell with two other women, one a prostitute. There, she was sentenced to death and experimented upon by Nazi doctors. She was injected with a substance and told that it would take effect in twenty to twenty-five years. She was rescued and released by the allies at the end of the war, whereupon she returned to Paris and joined the Folies Bergère.

In 1960 she was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, having already been given the Croix de Guerre in the same year. This was for her work for the French Resistance during the war. In 1963, John Izbicki published her biography, The Naked Heroine, raising her profile in England and abroad. She received more press attention as a result and she enjoyed a successful season at the Casino de Paris in London’s Soho. In 1966 she died suddenly aged 41. So Lydia Lova danced in Paris and in Soho.

Many of my interests converge here. Richard Wollheim, whose work on painting I know through my academic life; but then there is his mother, the showgirl. There is his membership of the Colony Room Club which is in Soho. The Casino de Paris club in Soho, where Lydia danced, was run by Eric Lindsay and Ray Jackson, two gay men; and whilst homosexuality remained illegal in England, the Colony was a speakeasy for gay men and women, artists, poets, writers, prostitutes and journalists. Eric and Lydia were close friends. Surely Lydia must have been to the Colony.

In Paris I am working on images and reading about the use of mental imagery in poetry. Of depiction, Wittgenstein says, “It is as if an image came into contact with, and for a time remained in contact, with the visual impression.”[3]

Brian O’Shaughnessy has something similar to say,

[Depiction] consists in seeing expanses of colour in such a way that, while remaining expanses of colour for one, they simultaneously in a special imaginative sense bring a landscape into view.[4]

Both write of a relationship between the surface of the picture – Wittgenstein’s “visual impression” and O’Shaughnessy’s “expanses of colour” – and the three-dimensional world depicted in that surface. Wollheim calls this twofold seeing, or seeing one thing – the recognitional aspect – in the other – the configurational aspect. It is Wittgenstein and O’Shaughnessy who commit themselves to a relationship between the flat coloured surface and a mental image, although Wittgenstein warns,

But I don’t want to say that an aspect is a mental image. Rather that “seeing an aspect” and “imaging something” are related concepts.[5]

How can we arrive at mental imagery through looking at coloured surfaces? Let’s leave that question hanging. At least we can say that the spectacle is what shows up on the surface; and that what sustains it is a physical fabrication of a surface. And in this it is not unlike the theatrical productions at the Folies.

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Chorus girls. Their status means much to them and they jealously guard their position. Here Paul Derval, Director of The Folies Bergère from 1918-1966, writes of the care with which the girls examine their imagined position,

Then there is the problem of the billing. I never did find a satisfactory way of solving that. A name a fraction of an inch smaller than another’s; set below the title instead of above; a name printed without a frame, or in blue lettering instead of red and hence a shade less legible – and the fat is in the fire.

Mistinguett always specifies in her contract not only the position and size of her name and the colour and type of the lettering to be used, but also the way the supporting players must be billed.[6]

The Tabac des Folies is across the road from the music hall and photographs show that it existed long before Lydia Lova and Linda’s Aunt Pat danced in a show together there. It doesn’t look to have changed much since the Sixties. I have become increasingly fond of the tabac and, it seems to me more reliable as a site for chance meetings and intrigue in Paris as a social arena, than would be the spectacle currently on stage.

On my latest visit to the tabac, a man came in from the street with an ironing board under his arm. It had an attractive young woman in a swim-suit printed on its flat surface. I was intrigued and asked him if it was his work? “No”, he replied, and added that he had just picked it up in the street. He then leant it against the window of the bar with the woman upside down. So I righted her, for dignity’s sake. He laughed; we both laughed, since ironing boards don’t have dignity and the appearance of the woman was no more than that. But the image of using a Rembrandt as an ironing board came to mind. And then the image of ironing seemed to crash against the idea of the voluptuous young woman depicted on its flat surface. It was a splendid moment and one that I will take home with me from my life in Paris. It shall have a central place in my mental images, whereas the Eiffel Tower shall not.

Article by Edward Winters

[1] Roland Barthes, ‘The Eiffel Tower’, in Susan Sontag (ed.) A Barthes Reader, New York, Hill and Wang, 1983, pp. 236-50.

[2] Roland Barthes, ‘Semiology and the Urban’, in Neil Leach (ed.), Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (London: Routledge, 1997), pp.166-172.

[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (trans.) G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953, p.207e

[4] Brian O’Shaughnessy, Consciousness and the World, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000, p. 347

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, volume II, (eds.) G. H. von Wright and Heikki Nyman, (trans.) C. G. Luckhardt and M. A. E. Aue, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980, 543.

[6] Paul Derval, Folies Bergère, London: Dutton, 1955, p.103.

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