Paris had gained a reputation for the variety of its nighttime pleasures and for its free and easy attitude toward life in general. Within this climate of relative tolerance many specialised same-sex establishments were opened and a gay sub-culture thrived in the 1920s.
Although most straight venues were clearly inhabited by homosexuals and lesbians who conformed to traditional values, same-sex venues began to open to cater for those who needed a greater degree of openness. The three areas of Montmartre, Pigalle and Montparnasse were where most of these venues emerged, taking advantage of an already well developed nightlife. But many were transitory: they opened, were closed by the police and opened again in a continual cycle of defiance.
Montmartre had been the main gathering place for Parisian lesbians and Lulu de Montparnasse opened the Monocle on Edgar-Quinet Boulevard, which was one of the first, and certainly the most famous of lesbian nightclubs.
There were several well-known nightspots for men who were often referred to as ‘fairy-nice boys’ and if you say this fast it was meant to sound all right. Many popular ‘straight’ venues such as the Angel Bar, Champs Elysees Bar and the Liberty Bar attracted a large gay audience. One of most popular ‘exclusively gay’ venues was the Claire de Lune in the Café Biard near Place Pigalle. This modest little space was often cramped with dozens of men all in close proximity. There was always a large sprinkling of military and naval types and a sprinkling of ‘fairies’ or men dressed as women. At the back of the room sat sedately on a bench was an elderly matron who was called variously Bijou or Mother and dispensed wisdom and jokes to anyone who listened.
Chez Ma Cousine, at the top of Rue Lepic (behind the Moulin Rouge) was another popular spot always full with a wide range of different people including a large contingent of men dressed as women all having a raucous time drinking and dancing.
Another nightclub was called La Petite Chaumiere at 2 Rue Berthe on the slopes of Montmartre at the steps of the Fanicula. It was a picturesque small cottage-like-building with a rustic front and windows covered in turkey red cotton. Inside the walls were decorated with cubist paintings and a pianist played. Because of the large number of men in drag it became known to tourists seeking a thrilling view of the Parisian underworld. Indeed, one observer said ‘…this is not a nice place strictly speaking. This is a place where men dress as women. Men of a certain degenerate tendency who infest every large city. If, however you do want to see these Freaks cavort around and swish their skirts and sing in Falsetto and shout ‘whoops, my dear’ this is the place to see them. Nothing is said of a course nature and you leave quite as unsullied as when you entered. It is meant to be funny. Take it that way, rather than to bother to analyse it, or to be shocked.’
The larger and more salubrious La Petit Moulin Rouge also called La Feuillee Montmartre was situated somewhere in Montmartre and was a nightclub and dance hall but a very smart one with a large capacity and a very mixed and sophisticated crowd.
Other noted bars were Chez Roland (15 Rue Aux Ours), Chez Ma Belle Soeur (47 Rue Xaulincourt), La Triboulette (243 Rue Saint Jacques), Tonton (Rue Norvins), Recamier, The Maurice bar, Graff (Place Blanche), Mon Club (the end of a dead end off the Avenue de Clichy in a basement), Chez Leon (nr Les Halles), La Bolee (Rive Gauche, in the passage des Hirondelles), Chez Julie (Rue Saint Martin), La Folie (Rue Victor Masse – that became the Taverne Leigeoise on Rue Pigalle) and Les Troglodytes (private club). There were also many queer bars near the Porte Saint Denis and the Port Saint-Martin that were also viewed as cocaine dens. Needless to say certain places were notorious for pick ups (the Gaumont Theatre and the Berlitz bazaar) and cruising was in evidence at all the urinals, parks and Turkish baths.
Drag balls were also important and mostly these took place during the high season for fun and frivolity between Mardi Gras and mid-Lent in mid-February and also at Bastille Day. The cream of Parisian inverts met to party without distinction of class, race or age dressed up in every conceivable type of gown complete with hats, lingerie, wigs, jewellery, perfumes, make up and a smile.
One of the more famous dance halls was the Montagne Sainte-Genevieve located on the summit of the hill behind the Pantheon, across from the Ecole Polytechnique. It had a typical layout comprising a large hall with banguettes against the walls. There was no ban on homosexuality in France and the police were tolerant toward special nightclubs providing that customers maintained decorum. Although women were allowed to dance together, men dancing together were frowned upon. The owner, who was an ex-movie starlet, deliberately created a mixed atmosphere of lesbians and gay men and if the police arrived, lookouts would tip everyone off and the men would dance with the women.
The other famous venue was the ballroom at the Magic City on the left bank near Pont Alma at 188 rue de l’Université not far from the Eiffel Tower and the Champs de Mars. This large outdoor pleasure palace was opened in 1911 and hosted huge drag balls at Mardi Gras that became famous until it was banned in 1934.
A similar ambiance prevailed at the Salle Wagram ball (near the Etoile) also held during Lent and there were also many dance halls in the Bastile region especially on the Rue Lappe where tipsy sailors and colonial troops could be seen.
There were other high profile balls that engulfed Paris each year – those organised for medical students and another for art students. Although these were private affairs, the streets of Paris were engulfed with revellers in a range of bizarre costumes and some wearing little at all, that must have precipitated off-shoot parties and entertainments. The medical ball took place in September or October and started out around the medical schools before descending on the Salle Wagram for a night of debauchery. The more famous Bal Des Qua’z Arts was organised by the students of the four arts at the end of June and started off on the left bank with the revellers making their way across the river and up to the Moulin Rouge. Both confirmed the view that Paris and the French were ‘dangerous and mad’ and full of ‘debauchery, vice and perversion’.
Amidst all this debauchery arrived a more salubrious haunt, the fashionable Le Boeuf sur Le Toit that opened 15th December 1921 at 28 Rue Boissy Anglais just of the Place de Concorde. It was definitely not an out and out queer place but very bohemian and open and attracted a mixed crowd of arty types headed by the famous Jean Cocteau and his entourage.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent (with the exception of the book covers)
A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London and Paris 1919-1939 by Florence Tamagne
The Secret Paris of the 30s by Brassai
The Third Sex by Willy
Paris Gay 1925 by Gilles Barbedette and Michael Carassou
The Ox on the Roof by James Harding
Paris With the Lid Lifted by Bruce Reynolds