la Tournee des Grands Ducs
la Tournee des Grands Ducs was an intriguing term for a nocturnal tour of the Montmartre night-spots in Paris, which came about in the late 19th century due to the antics of the Russian nobility. Thereafter, in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, it simply became a term to describe an evening outing exploring the night-spots of Paris and ‘painting the town red.’
To escape the restrictions of the Russian court, many members of the Russian nobility flocked to Paris in the late 19th century and early 20th century where life was more relaxed than the strict Russian court.
The two early trend setters were the grand dukes Alexie and Vladimir (both sons of Tsar Alexander 11), two colourful, extravagant and notorious playboys. On their regular bi-annual trips to Paris via Berlin, Valdimir usually stayed in the Hotel Continental, Rue Castiglione, opposite the Tuileries.
Speaking excellent French and with an appetite for French cuisine and entertainment, the Russian nobles could visit all the usual fashionable restaurants and theatres. But then, usually ingognito, they would embark on a nocturnal expedition visiting haunts of dubious repute. They toured the red-light districts, fashionable brothels, gambling dens, low-life cabarets, infamous bars, cellars and dives of Belville and Montmartre and ended up in first thing in the morning at the Les Halles for the traditional breakfast of onion soup. Most of these venues visited were small and the names not recorded. But the idea and legend of the la Tournee des Grands Ducs became part of the Belle Epoque mystique.
As ever, times and interests evolved and changed, just as the places of amusement evolved and changed. Toward the end of the 19th Century there were many more ‘artistic’ night-spots in Montmartre that may well have been added to the customary la Tournee des Grands Ducs.
However, some of the places on the visiting list in the late 19th century and early 20th century may have included less dubious and more acceptable venues such as Maxim’s (not in Montmartre), the legendary Moulin Rouge with its can-can dancers, the Lapin Agile, the Chat Noir, Noctambules, Le Tambourin, the Grillon, the Quat’z’Arts, the Moulin Galette dance hall, the Elysees Montmartre, l’auberge du clou, La Taverne du Bagne, the Divan Japonais, Abbaye de Theleme, la Rat Mort and Treteau de Tabarin (Boite a Fursy).
According to Ralph Neville, in some of the more dubious spots, the artistocratic ‘tourists’ ‘were shown Apaches and their girls executing wild dances and drinking bowls of hot wine, varied by rows and quarrels in which blows were exchanged and knives and revolvers drawn from belts. Though generally accompanied by detectives or secret police, the Russians and their richly dressed female companions were often glad enough to get away safe and sound.’
The First World War and the Russian revolution put an end to the Russian association with la Tournee des Grands Ducs. With the advent of the Jazz Age in 1920s the tour became a general feature of the off-the-map Paris tourist trail but was as before taken after midnight when the theatres closed. Also, because of the huge influx of Americans, the time-honoured la Tournee des Grands Ducs became known as la Tournee des Americains.
Once again according to Ralph Neville, it was American millionaires that took the place of the Grand-Dukes. But they did not care for seeing low life ‘of which some of them, indeed, have already seen quite enough when young men in the slums of New York. Provided they are able to have an unlimited supply of champagne, most of these worthies are well content to sit in smart dancing places till dawn.’
However, as before there were numerous ‘guides’ who were more than happy to escort curious foreign visitors to see the sights of some of the so called ‘low haunts’. Ralph Nevell explained that ‘here may be seen ferocious looking Apaches and their women-folk drinking, dancing and quarrelling, while in a corner a cadaverous looking individual, after furtively glancing around the den, draws a small packet from his tattered clothes and surreptitiously sniffs a white powder, some of which he generally manages to spill. The visitors, though constantly reassured by their guide, who usually tellms them that he is in with the police, are often glad enough to get out of the underground cellars they are taken to see. In reality, however they should have nothing to fear, the Apaches being, as rule merely actors, and the white powder not cocaine but some harmless chemical which has no evil effects.’ He added that the French were ‘very clever at giving people a thrill, and on the whole the tourist who goes round Paris at night gets value for his money.’
Such pre-war favourites such as the Abbaye de Theleme and the Rat Mort continued but there were now a host of other rendezvous that beckoned the new pleasure seekers such as Pigalle’s, Bal Tabarin, Le Grelot (Rue Blanche), Monico’s, El Garron, the Palermo, Le Capitol, Le Perroquet, Florida, Zelli’s, Le Grand Duc, Chateau Caveau Cabaret Caucasiens, the Imperial Soupers, Canari, Cabaret Royal and La Junie.
One such publicized Tournee des Americains was taken by the silent movie actress Olive Thomas with her husband Jack Pickford on Saturday 5th September 1920. With a group of friends, they visited Montmartre nightspots including the Abbaye de Theleme and the Rat Mort and most likely Zelli’s and Florence. They returned to the Ritz hotel at 3.30am and then tragedy struck as Olive digested mercurial bichloride and died five days later. All in rather mysterious circumstances.
Leonce Perret produced a film called la Tournee des Grands Ducs in 1910 and much later in 1953 a French musical comedy film was released also called la Tournee des Grands Ducs.
Days and Nights in Montmarte and the Latin Quarter by Ralph Nevill (1927)
Cafes and Cabarets of Montmartre by Mariel Oberthur (1984)
Daily Herald 8/6/27