l’Abbaye de Theleme: A Retrospective


Fountain & The Abbey of Theleme @ Place Pigalle
Fountain & The Abbey of Theleme @ Place Pigalle

Place Pigalle, Paris: Once upon a time the secret stream of Arcadia pooled up from this small village well.  We should tell you that the waters of Arcadia do not quinch the thirst but, on the contrary, quicken a ceaseless, insatiable desire for sensation, mystery, liberty, life and love.  As everyone should know, every village well such as this is inhabited by some sort of spirit (much like, as Mr. Wallace Budge informs us, Qa-ha-hetep inhabited the well at Abydos); and the spirit of this well was none other than Pantagruel.  And as Simon Greban was certain when he wrote “Mystre des Actes des Apostres,” Pantagruel is a little devil who leaves us ever thirstier than we were before.

In 1862 &1863 a fountain designed by architect Davioud Gabriel was built upon this well.  For a time the fountain was much abused by the locals, who used it to dump out their carts and wash their dogs.  In1868, the fountain was enclosed with an iron grill, and then a small garden was built around it.  For generations, this fountain was where models, some as young as six years of age, traditionally turned out each Monday to find work posing for the numerous artists who lived in the area.

Clubs and Cabarets:

Originally there was the Cafe de la Nouvelle Athenes (9 Place Pigalle).  After the Paris Commune, it was a favorite haunt of the Impressionists. The critic and writer George Moore referred to Nouvelle-Athens as the academy where he received his education. In the late 1870s on any given night one might find the likes of Manet, Pissaro, Cézanne,  Lautrec, Renoir, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Degas sipping absinthe, trading tales, swapping ideas and arguing over the latest fashions.  The composer Erik Satie was a regular pianist of Nouvelle-Athenes and it was here that in 1898 that he met the young Maurice Ravel; who would later compose his famous Bolero.

There was also the Café Pigalle (7 Place Pigalle);  more commonly remembered as The Dead Rat or Le Rat Mort:

“…the painter Marchal, Leon Goupil, Victor Davau, and Olivier Metra, dropping in one afternoon to take their ” aperient,” found the establishment in a state of great excitement, — an enormous dead rat had just been discovered in the beer-pump. “C’est ice Ie cafe du Rat mort” exclaimed Marchal ; Goupil painted the unfortunate animal on the ceiling, and Davau, later, executed four oblong panels which still decorate the walls.”
Paris from the Earliest Period to the Present Day P.157 (1899)

In the last half of the 19th century, no less than forty different clubs opened in the Montmartre area, and many closed before 1900.  Several of these cabarets and cafes adopted a Rabelaisian theme; the most famous being La Chat Noir; first established in 1881.

“There have been numerous imitations of the Chat Noir, but M. Salis has been the most successful, if not the first, of the organisers of literary and artistic taverns, where the ancient and the modern, the rococo and the commonplace are harmoniously blended. The Chat Noir is, of course, a huge joke, and the gay landlord, who poses as a kind of Rabelais, whom he partially resembles in features, is the first to laugh at the literary enthusiasts and gayos from the provinces who believe in the authenticity of his antique accessoires, and who are firmly convinced that they are drinking out of glasses or gazing at bric-à-brac which belonged to Villon, Voiture, the Curé of Meudon, or Cardinal de Richelieu.” The Bookmart P.132 (1890)

“Here Alfred de Musset, Alphonse Daudet, and the freres de Goncourt assembled to write verses and eat their dinners, including wine, for 20 sous. Here Guy de Maupassant came nightly, brooding alone, at a table apart from the others. Paul Verlaine wrote verses here, seated at a marble table, with ink and a bottle of wine before him, and a quill pen in his hand.” New York Times March 23, 1897 (Obituary of Rodolphe Salis)

Postcard Scenes from the Cabaret du Ciel
Postcard Scenes from the Cabaret du Ciel

Many of the clubs in the area followed Chat Noir’s example and adapted themselves to varous themes. At the Cabaret du Ciel (Heaven) the waiters dressed as angels, complete with wings and blonde wigs. As guests sipped on the “ambrosia of the gods,” they beheld burlesque religious rites, and were treated to “mystical illusions and celestial music.” …In other words, a strip tease and drinks to start the evening’s festivities.

“On the second floor of this house is another hall, which is called Heaven. It is a vast grotto, in which hang stalactites of a golden colour.  Here Saint Peter is represented by a robust mulatto, armed with a long key, with which he opens the door for the elect, and a sergeant de ville — as an angel — guardian of the peace, closes, the procession, which enters this vast grotto, where figures of angels are suspended in space. Gorgeous transformations now take place in a mysterious manner, so as to favour the illusion that it is no longer this sad earth of ours, but a region ethereal and serene where all the angels are represented by women.” Pleasure Guide to Paris P.91 (1903)

From a Cabaret du Ciel promo card
From a Cabaret du Ciel promo card

Eventually a crowd would be let out, so that the next could be led in. It would make its way to next door and enter the Cabaret de 1’Enfer (Hell). Here the waiters dressed as demons and the patrons were entertained with skits of diabolical illusions and séances of black magic in the den of Satan.

Postcard Scene from Cabaret de l’Enfer
Postcard Scene from Cabaret de l’Enfer

“Near us was suspended a caldron over a fire, and hopping within it were half a dozen devil musicians, male and female, playing a selection from “Faust” on stringed instruments, while red imps stood by, prodding with red-hot irons those who lagged in their performance.
Crevices in the walls of this room ran with streams of molten gold and silver, and here and there were caverns lit up by smoldering fires from which thick smoke issued, and vapors emitting the odors of a volcano. Flames would suddenly burst from clefts in the rocks, and thunder rolled through the caverns.
Red imps were everywhere, darting about noiselessly, some carrying beverages for the thirsty lost souls, others stirring the fires or turning somersaults.”

Bohemain Paris of Today P.279-280 (1899)

At the Café du Neant (Café of Nothingness) customers entered a chamber dimly lit by wax tapers suspended on a chandelier composed of human skulls and arms.  As the people were ushered in by waiters dressed as undertakers they were seated at tables made of coffins.  While they were being attended to, they were free to ponder the images of death, carnage and assassination that adorned the walls.  After drinking les microbes de la mort, the customers would be ushered down the “Hall of Incineration” to behold a spectacle of death and decay.  A member would be chosen from the audience to be placed in an upright coffin.  Using a projected image, glass and mirrors an illusion was cast to make it appear to the crowd as if that person decomposed into a skeleton:

“Enter mortals of this sinful world, enter into the mists and shadows of eternity. Select your biers to the right, to the left; fit yourselves comfortably to them and repose in the solemnity and tranquility of death ; and may god have mercy on your souls!” Bohemian Paris of Today p.265 (1899)

Postcard scenes from Café du Neant
Postcard scenes from Café du Neant

There were women who went among these cabarets selling flowers to the patrons.  Many were known to sell bouquets laced with cocaine; which were often purchased by a certain sort of “European nobleman.” These “gentlemen of leisure” used it to seduce the unsuspecting female, usually from the United States or Great Britain.  Amidst the abysinth, the cocaine, the champagne, the music, the dancing, the frolics and the various other sensual wonders, one partook of the sacraments of the Bohemian mysteries.  These initiates were drawn to these night spots to partake of something they imagined to be exotic or ordinarily forbidden to them; or to forget something they wished to leave behind.  It is in such contrasts that Place Pigalle it’s unique and peculiar aura of alluring mystery.

“To astonish you, to give you a sensation, to quicken into some sort of action your jaded nocturnal nerves, is the object of all these places.” New York Times May 14, 1911.

“All the way down from the quaint little shops and crooked, cobble-stoned streets of the rustic upper region above the Moulin de la Galette to the blazing purlieus of the Place de Clichy and the Place Pigalle, there is always something on hand at midnight to amaze the neophyte. You may indulge or not, as inclination dictates, but you are pretty apt to be astonished, when you look at your watch, to see how long you have lingered.” Around the Clock in Europe by Charles Fish Howell P.343 (1912)

“No more excuse for inebriety exists in Montmartre than in an insane asylum. The place is crazy enough without the aid of an excess of alcohol. It is a distorted, iridescent world, seen through the bottom of a goblet; a dusty, dirty dream, full of colour, noise, and confusion, peopled with caricatures, and smelling stale as a plush dress on which a goblet of champagne has been upset. And there you sit and sit until the blue dawn begins to percolate through roofs of glass, and things and people fade and melt in the mixed lights.”  Paris a la Carte By Julian Street P.77 (1912)

La Chat Noir:

In October of 1878 a group of artists, writers, poets and students dubbed themselves the Hydropathes and began to gather regularly.  Under the leadership of Emile Goudeau the group met in various cafés around the Latin Quarter to improvise their own evening’s worth of entertainments.  Such an atmosphere of spontaneity quickly caught on, and within three months the original group of 30 had swelled to over 200 participants.  Within five months of their inception, they were publishing their own journal, L’Hydropathe, which first appeared February 19, 1879.

By December of 1881, Rodolphe Salis had convinced the Hydropathes to move to Montmartre and meet at La Chat Noir.  This association propelled Salis and his Black Cat to enormous success.  In one deft move he appropriated atmosphere, talent and an additional attraction for his establishment.  La Chat continued to expand it’s programs and noteriety as it attracted an ever increasing array of singers, poets, illustrators and painters who helped to decorate the cabaret by making it the venue in which they shared their talents with the rest of the world.

Within four years La Chat Noir had become so well established that Salis had to move to a more accommodating building:

“Poets, artists, singers, humorists, gathered within its precincts. Salis provided a small stage on which authors performed their own pieces with the assistance of silhouettes fashioned of zinc and designed by Caran d’Ache, Willette, Pille, and others. Some of these shadow-plays and playlets, ‘ L’Epopee,’ ‘ La Tentation de Saint Antoine,’ ‘ Sainte Genevieve,’ ‘ La Marche a l’Etoile,’ and notably ‘ L’Enfant Prodigue,’ became famous. All kinds of subjects were treated. The genre macabre found its place at the Chat Noir, and religious mysticism, Rabelaisian gauloiserie, and the Napoleonic legend were also laid under contribution.
Further, songs were sung, verses read or recited, and lightning cartoons improvised by one or another of the many men who in divers ways contributed to increase the establishment’s notoriety.”
Paris and Her People p.182 (1919)

Rodolphe Salis aggressively promoted his establishment making elaborate boasts and staging various antics to promote La Chat.  On one occasion he led his own funeral march around the neighborhood.  When he moved to his new location in 1885, he held a procession from the old venue to the new one.  As his clientele became more established he raised his prices and sought new ways to exploit the artists who performed or displayed their works there.  He charged them full prices and didn’t pay them or acknowledge their contributions.  This soon to murmers of discontent.  Adolphe Willette created a stained glass image depicting the worship of the golden calf and installed it in the foyer of La Chat Noir.

“The Chat Noir had begun as a gathering place for poor poets, but as middle-class Parisians came slumming in this artists’ haven, Salis expanded his venue’s commercial potential by catering to these new patrons and raising their drink prices. Setting the tone for Montmartre, other cabaret owners soon followed Chat Noir’s lead. To many observers this kind of crass commercialism betrayed the neighborhood’s reputation for placing a higher value on artistic expression. As a result, many believed that an ethos of “art for sale” was replacing a supposedly more traditional notion of “art for art’s sake.” The change prompted Montmartre resident and artist Willette, for one, to produce a stained-glass window depicting the worship of a golden calf in Paris to illustrate his distaste for the way that art, like that of Salis’s Chat Noir, pandered to the marketplace.” Making Jazz French P.36

In January 1882, Salis began issuing his own Chat Noir journal to promote the club and extend his commercial reach.  He used the cabaret as the editorial offices and installed Emile Goudeau as chief editor; with many of the illustration chores originally being taken on by Adolphe Willette.  Other regular contributors included Paul Verlaine and Villiers de l’Isle Adam.  In the first issue Salis proclaimed Montmartre as the center of the universe.  On another occasion he used the journal to boast that La Chat Noir had originally been founded by King Louis XIII in 1114.  Still, on another occasion he declared that, “The Chat Noir is the most extraordinary cabaret in the world. You rub shoulders with the most famous men of Paris, meeting there with foreigners from every corner of the world.”

“The other stories in the Contes du Chat Noir are handled somewhat differently. All are written in an archaic form of French, reminiscent of medieval tales and the works of the Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais. Rabelais was of particular interest to the Chat Noir artists because, like them, he saw the humor in daily life and expressed it through outrageous exaggerations.” Montmartre and the making of mass culture P.208-210

Ultimately the journal failed and then in 1897, La Chat Noir closed its doors.  Rodolphe Salis died March 22nd of that same year.

Rodolphe Salis
Rodolphe Salis

Diaz de la Pina:

The building at the corner of Place Pigalle and the boulevard de Clichy was originally built in 1856; as a home, hotel and workshop for the painter, Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Pena.  His family had fled to France from Spain just before his birth.  Diaz was a naturally gifted painter who had started his career decorating porcelain.  By the age of fifteen he had found work churning out decorated “plates and dishes, jam-pots, and apothecary gallipots.”  He was fired for insubordination when he discovered that his artistic hunger simply could not be satsified by being relegated to painting public-pleasing, pretty, trifling images.

Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Pena
Narcisse-Virgile Diaz de la Pena

In 1836 he retreated into the serenity of the forests of Fontainebleau.  There he met Theodore Rosseau at the Barbazon village and they became fast friends. Diaz found in Rosseau a sort of mentor despite the fact that Diaz was older than Rosseau.

Diaz discovered a profitable market in painting Nymphs, Dianas, Venuses, Bathing Women and Cupids.  His work came into demand and fetched high prices; making him very wealthy.

After building 1 Place Pigalle, Diaz packed it full of furniture, pictures, tapestries, oriental costumes and a relentless assortment of trinkets, knick-knacks and props.  He then let such space as was left to the numerous artists who eventually crammed onto every floor of the building.  These included Eugene Fromentin, Ferdinand Roybet, Johan-Barthold Jongkind, Louis Béroud, Feyen-Perrain and Leon Richet. Claude Monet took a studio in January of 1866. It was while living in this neighborhood that he met Camille Doncieux, his future wife. Charles Jacque occupied the ground floor in 1869.

l’Abbaye de Theleme
l’Abbaye de Theleme

In 1886 Jules Roques bought the building and converted it into l’Abbaye de Theleme; named in honor of Rabelais’s fictional monastery for “Thelemites” which possessed but one rule: “Do what thou wilt.”  The more one comes to know about Jules Roques, the more fitting it seems that he would create l’Abbaye de Theleme as an extension of his own abundant personality.  Roques was an eccentric and an iconoclast.  In 1889 he ran for local office as a socialist candidate.  He was defeated; coming in third place with 359 votes.  In 1890 he was an organizer and negotiator for the coal stokers’ union.  When they went on strike that year he successfully negotiated a 10% increase in their pay.  He was the first force for organizing and promoting the various balls and fetes which became such a prominent feature of fin-di-siecle Paris:  In 1887, Roques organized and put on the “Bal de femmes,” and soon after followed the first “Bal des Quat’z’Arts,” for which he was an original sponsor, and which became a long running tradition that lasted in some form or other until 1966.

Jules Rouques by Adolphe Willette

Jules Rouques by Adolphe Willette

In 1884 Jules Roques established Le Courrier Francais that, for a time, competed with Salis’ “Chat Noir.”  The two publications shared much of the literary and artistic talent between them.  Adolphe Willette left the Chat Noir to illustrate for Le Courrier, and was a regular contributor for over 25 years.  Roques had a talent for finding sponsors.  Advertising revenue from products like Geraudel lozenges or Dubonnet quinine tonic wine enabled him to run an expansive and ongoing publishing operation.  This emboldened his illustrators and other contributors to take a free reign in expressing some of their more radical Bohemian views and opinions.  The Courrier also gave him a great platform from which to promote his other socialist journals such as Le Crie de Paris, and L’Égalité; a collaboration he began with Michel Zévaco in 1889.  Roques and his crew frequently used Le Courrier to boldly advance and advocate liberty, address social inequality and injustice and to attack censorship and restriction wherever there was occasion.  Le Courrier shocked ‘respectable society’ by portraying nudes in modern settings rather than as mere recapitulations of classical images.  It shamelessly celebrated pleasure for pleasure’s sake.  As such, Le Courrier Francais easily became the most popular journal of its type, and within three years, by 1887, it was distributed and read in nearly 1000 cafés throughout Paris.

Legrand’s two “Prostitution” illustrations from Le Courrier Francais 06/1888 & 04/1889.
Legrand’s two “Prostitution” illustrations from Le Courrier Francais 06/1888 & 04/1889.

In 1888 Roques, his printer, Lanier and illustrator Louis Legrand, were fined and sentenced to two months in jail for using the Courrier to publish a picture of a nude woman in a manner “calculated to elicit lustful ideas.”  The illustration was a work of Legrand’s entitled “Prostitution.”  It depicted a naked woman sitting on a bed embraced by a dark figure; presumably death.  Legrand intended this as a visual commentary on the evils of prostitution.  In the original trial, the three men were acquitted but the government appealed and the second time around they were found guilty.  This verdict sparked shock and outrage among the press and the artists who felt that the prosecution was motivated by the personal and political prejudices of the presiding judge, Justice-Minister Ferrouillat.  After this conviction, Le Courrier Francais published yet another picture by Legrand intended to mock the court’s ruling.  This one depicted the same figure from the back. Another Courrier illustrator, Jean Louis Forain, continued these lampoons of the Justice-Minister.  One edition of the Courrier from August 12, 1888 featured an image of a hand-tied Justice-Minister Ferrouillat inspecting a chorus line of derrieres.  It was entitled “The Temptation of Saint Ferrouillat.” Another issue from Sept. 9, 1888 featured a caricature of Justice-Minister Ferrouillat entitled: “Ferrouillat the chaste, Minister of Justice and Keeper of the Seals.”  This type of ridicule went on for months until, finally in February of 1889, Justice-Minister Ferrouillat resigned his post.

“Ferrouillat the Chaste”
“Ferrouillat the Chaste”

l’Abbaye de Theleme:

On May 22, 1886 l’Abbaye de Theleme celebrated its opening with a gathering of the great lights of the Parisian art world to enjoy a banquet worthy of Rabelais’s giant, Gargantua.  The guests included Emile Zola, Aurelien Scholl and also Emile Goudeau, Adolphe Willette, Henri Riviere as well as many of the other regulars of Le Chat Noir.

“Le Courier francais devoted an entire issue to Rabelais and to the new restaurant. ‘Today France has returned to the Gauls,’ proclaimed Mermeix with gargantuan hyperbole. At least the champions of liberty and laughter had ‘returned’ noisily to an anti-Catholic and pre-Catholic past, finding there historic roots for their cause.” P.37 Pleasures of the Belle Époque by Charles Rearick

Like the other restaurants in the area, l’Abbaye adopted a motif.  The wait-staff dressed as monks and nuns.  It adapted a Rabelaisian décor, and the menu items were named after various famous Montmartre artists and sculptors.  From 1895-1902 the ambience of the building began to transform under the guidance of Architect, Jean Edouard; who developed several of the other taverns throughout Paris.  Like its neighbor, Le Rat Mort, the Abbaye soon acquired a widespread reputation for good food at reasonable prices in a lively, late-night atmosphere.  It quickly became a place to see and be seen.  In 1900, if one showed up around one or two in the morning, they could listen to the spirited tunes of gypsy musicians, called tziganists, and enjoy a full meal for about three and half francs.

“From 7 to 10 p.m. this place is one in which the visitor may dine quietly in the handsome saloon, or, if he desires, in the well-arranged and comfortable private dining-rooms. But at midnight a change takes place; it is no longer quiet — it then begins to justify its name. Frequenters of the Moulin de la Galette, the small theatres and houses of the Butte, after closing, come here in large numbers for further refreshments and a change of amusement. So great is the crowd that the small refreshment tables become speedily engaged, many persons having to wait their turn for a seat, during which time they stand in groups along the glazed terrace, and so soon as a seat is vacated it is at once taken by one of those in waiting. Women congregate here in great numbers from all parts of Paris, some of them being very doubtful characters; therefore it behoves the English visitor to be on his guard as to his purse and person.” Pleasure Guide to Paris (1903)

“Almost opposite (of Café Bruyant) are the restaurants of the ‘Abbaye’ and ‘Dead Rat.’ No one approaches them much before two; then they are packed. Both have tzigane (gypsy) bands and both provide supper – Montmartre ladies dart to and fro. But the gaiety of the “Abbaye” is not the gaiety of the Taverne Lorraine, for its clientele is neither young nor frank nor fresh. There is noise enough ; and when the tziganists play spirited airs, when a table is cleared away for a lady to dance, when a glass is smashed, when a chair is overturned, when a voice rises, when a quarrel ensues, when the manager comes up, there is excitement enough too. The flower woman enters, and her basket is the freshest thing in the place. It empties quickly, and she is glad to go. Restless young fellows, prematurely old, wander about with a scowl for their friends and an affectionate smile for all those whom they have never met and do not know. A monstrous waiter beams on them, however, and is sometimes persuade to dance with them and to tell of how he was christened in champagne one night ‘le gros glouglou.” Often Armand plays with Edouard’s hat, and Edouard with Armand’s – both laugh insanely if one falls of and stooping to raise it, fall too. The “Glouglou” comes to the rescue, and Armand clasps his neck while Edouard pulls his legs, and “Glouglou” totters, and a circle forms to see whether “Glouglou” can resist, and how Armand and Edouard will find their feet. Occasionally, a Montmartre lady quarrels with her friend. The chasseur is called and seizes her. She struggles and is carried out.” Paris of the Parisians (1900)

Ladies of Place Pigalle
Ladies of Place Pigalle

Of course this would all change as l’Abbaye, and Montmartre in general, acquired a more international reputation.  In 1908 the restaurant was taken over by one M. Mouriez; who was known to have a talent for making Parisian restaurants appeal to American money.  He had begun his career in Paris at the Hotel Foyot in the Latin Quarter.  Even though it was considered out of the way for American tourists, the dishes had gained a reputation for excellence and it had become a favorite stop of every visiting gourmet.  Soon after, he opened the Café de Paris and then a chain of restaurants around Paris before eventually acquiring the Abbaye Theleme.  Mouriez raised the prices and set out to turn l’Abbaye into an up-scale establishment.  During his time there, “The Abbey” came to be known as the most exclusive night time dining in Paris.  This appealed to transatlantic tourists as much as it repulsed the locals.  Pretty soon American and European tourists became the dominant clientele.

“Time was and not so long ago when Paris was the place where the Russian seigneur, the English milord, and an occasional American millionaire used to drop into the French capital for a wide-open time. Twenty years ago, if a respectable woman went into Maxim’s or the Abbay de Theleme, she was criticized, and was likely to lose caste. Nowadays these places are run differently. The management has realized that the greatest profit could be made out of respectable people who go to Paris to get shocked, and they have commercialized the semblance of vice. You find everywhere now as respectable crowds as you will see in any New York theatre sitting about at tables in these places with the thrills chasing themselves up and down their spines as they imagine to themselves that they are actually in dens of iniquity. …You cannot see at these places the things that used to happen. Almost every place now caters especially to respectable folk, and the head waiter is always on the lookout to see that women vistors of this kind are treated with respect and anybody who offends is ushered out.” New York Times. Sept. 9, 1913 p.18

“The names change from year to year; but most folk know the Rat Mort, where you may dine amid peaceable appearing burgesses on the street floor, and later, on an upper floor, find all manner of mixed and fascinating dancing going on between the cataracts of champagne or tisane; most know the Abbaye, with its mirrors, its overdressed women, its paid dancers, and its supercilious servitors; and most have been to the Moulin Rouge either when it was sheerly a dance hall or when it was a music hall, or when, as lately, it is a cross between the two. There are numerous cabarets, all based upon the idea of Bruant, or of Café Noir of Rodolphe Salis.” Vagabond Journeys; The Human Comedy at Home and Abroad

Like L.J Vance and others, H.L. Menken used the Abbaye as a metaphor to rail against the superficiality of a cult of tourism that had become so prominent on the Butte:

“It is night in Paris! It is night in the Paris of a thousand memories. And the Place de la Concorde lies silver blue under springtime skies. And up the Champs Elysées the elfin lamps shimmer in the moist leaves like a million topaz tears. And the boulevards are a-thrill with the melody of living. Are you, now far away and deep in the American winter, with me once again in memory over the seas in this warm and wonderful and fugitive world? And do you hear with me again the twang of guitars come out the hedges of the Avenue Marigny? And do you smell with me the rare perfume of the wet asphalt and feel with me the wanderlust in the spirit soul of the Seine? Through the frost on the windows can you look out across the world and see with me once again the trysting tables in the Boulevard Raspail, a-whisper with soft and wondrous monosyllables, and can you hear little Ninon laughing and Fleurette sighing, and little Hélène (just passed nineteen) weeping because life is so short and death so long? Are you young again and do memories sing in your brain? And does the snow melt from the landscape of your life and in its place bloom again the wild poppies of the Saint Cloud roadways, telegraphing their drowsy, content through the evening air to Paris?
Or is the only rosemary of Paris that you have carried back with you the memory of a two-step danced with some painted bawd at the Abbaye, the memory of the night when you drank six quarts of champagne without once stopping to prove to the onlookers in the Rat Mort that an American can drink more than a damned Frenchman, the memory of that fine cut of roast beef you succeeded in obtaining at the Ritz?”
Europe After 8:15 (1914)

From card promoting l’Abbaye de Theleme restaurant
From card promoting l’Abbaye de Theleme restaurant

The American Naturalist and Socialist, Theodore Dreiser, provided a glimpse of what the Abbaye was like in the period between the turn of the century and WW I:

“One really ought to say a great deal about the Abbaye Theleme, because it is the last word, the quintessence of midnight excitement and international savoir faire. The Russian and the Brazilian, the Frenchman, the American, the Englishman, the German, the Italian all meet here on common ground…


…By one o’clock, when the majority of the guests had arrived, this room fairly shimmered with white silks and satins, white arms and shoulders, roses in black hair and blue and lavender ribbons fastened about coiffures of light complexion. There were jewels in plenty – opals and amethysts and turquoises and rubies – and there was a perfect artillery of champagne corks. Every table was attended by its sliver bucket of ice; and the mandolins and guitars in their crowded angle were strumming mightily.


I speculated interestedly as we seated ourselves as to what drew these people from all parts of the world to see this, to be here together. I do not know where you could go, and for a hundred francs see more of really amazing feminine beauty. I do not know where for the same money you could buy the same atmosphere of lightness and gaiety and enthusiasm. This place was fairly vibrating with a wild desire to live. I fancy the majority of those who were here for the first time – particularly of the young – would tell you that they would rather be here than in any other spot you could name. The place had peculiar glitter of beauty which was compounded by the managers with great skill. The waiters were all of them deft, swift, suave, good-looking; the dancers who stepped out on the floor after a few moments were of an orchid-like Spanish type – ruddy, brown, full-bodied, black-haired, black-eyed. They had on dresses that were as close fitting as the scales of a fish and that glittered with the same radiance. They waved and rattled and clashed castanets and tambourines and danced wildly and sinuously to and fro among the tables. Some of them sang, or voices accompanied them from the raised platform devoted to music.


After a while red, blue, pink and green balloons were introduced, anchored to champagne bottles, and allowed to float gaily in the air. Paper parcels of small paste balls of all colors, as light as feathers, were distributed for the guests to throw at one another. In ten minutes a wild artillery battle was raging. Young girls were up on their feet, their hands full of these colored weapons, pelting the male strangers of their selection. You would see tall Englishmen and Americans exchanging a perfect volley of colored spheres with girls of various nationalities, laughing chattering, calling, screaming. The cocotte in all her dazzling radiance was here – exquisitely dressed, her white arms shimmering, perfectly willing to strike up an understanding with the admirer who was pelting her.


After a time, when the audience had worn itself through fever and frenzy to satisfaction or weariness, or both, a few of the tables were cleared away and the dancing began, occasional guests joining. There were charming dances in costume from Russia, from Scotland, from Hungary, and from Spain. I had the wonder of seeing an American girl rise from her table and dance with more skill and grace than the employed talent. A wine-enthused Englishman took the floor, a handsome youth of twenty-six or eight, and remained their gaily prancing about from table to table, dancing alone or with whomsoever would welcome him. What looked like a dangerous argument started at one time because some high-mettled Brazilian considered that he had been insulted. A cordon of waiters and the managers soon adjusted that. It was between three and four in the morning when we finally left; and I was very tired.” Excerpts from: Traveler at Forty” (1913)

Several novels that have used l’Abbaye as a prop include Valentine (1913), The Mischief-Maker (1913), Babette (1916), and Nocha Regules (1922) . These stories and recollections provide us a look inside the Abbaye as it was in those days. In works like “Caviar” (1914) we find that, “if you know the Abbaye, you know that from just behind where the musicians play there runs a narrow passage which leads to a cloak-room in which in effect dancers and guests, whether they be men or women, restore the ravages of the night in one almost promiscuous medley.”

Indeed, from the numerous descriptions we can get a pretty good idea of what it looked like.  One came in through the main door and passed through a lobby to the main room; which was about 3,600 square feet and irregularly pentagonal in shape.  Tables lined the walls around the perimeter and the chairs were situated with their backs to the wall.  The middle of the room was kept open and throughout the course of the night, extra tables would be brought in to accommodate demand.  As the evening wore on, they would be removed and the center of the room would be used for dancing and other entertainments.  The musicians set up in one of the angles of the room.  The interior was painted in lavender white which met a rich, velvet green carpet, throughout.  Six large, prismed electric chandaliers illuminated the space in a subdued soft-peach glow.  The room’s biggest drawback was that it was poorly ventilated.  In her memoirs, Josephine Baker revealed that it was dancing at l’abbaye that caused her to come down with a case of bronchial pneumonia that nearly took her life.


Assembled outside l’Abbaye de Theleme circa 1909.

Assembled outside l’Abbaye de Theleme circa 1909.



After the Great War broke out in 1914, most of the clubs in the Place Pigalle boarded up their doors as patrons and owners went to the front to help drive back the German march on Paris.  On the second day of mobilization the government issued an order that all cafes must close by 8:00 PM; and restaurants by 9:30.  This effectively put an end to night life: Café’s Heaven and Hell closed.  Le Rat Mort closed.  The Moulin Rouge showed movies.  During this time, L’Abbaye ceased to be a nightclub and distributed supplies and relief to the neighborhood.  Just before the Christmas of 1914, l’Abbaye had what the New York Times called the “city’s greatest doll exhibition.”  The women of the neighborhood took material, donated by a women’s store; that the war had forced to close.  With that fabric they made a dazzling array of dresses and uniforms for thousands of puppets.  “All of juvenile Paris turned out to buy Christmas presents.”

Sometime during the transitions of the war, l’Abbaye wound up in the possession of the Volterra brothers whose influence would be felt on Parisian nightlife throughout the roaring 20s.  Leon Volterra, the best known of the three brothers, had gone from selling pamphlets at the Olympia Theatre before the war to being the owner of the Casino de Paris.  Brother Elio ran The Princess while Albert took over management of l’Abbaye de Thelema.  This was just as American jazz, especially black American jazz, was coming into vogue in Montmartre.

The name Volterra also figures in one of the stranger stories of luck to be found in the annals of horse racing: Leon’s horse, Roi Belge won the Autieul Grand Steeplechase, and its purse of 200,000 francs.  In an unexpected and bizarre display, the top two favored horses suddenly veered off the track.  The horse running in third place tried to follow the other two and lost its legs as its rider tried suddenly to correct it.  Leon had bet 10,000 francs on his longshot horse as had many of the workers of his Casino de Paris. Roi Belge paid at 40-1.

The 1900 World’s Fair Exhibition had made Paris a regular attraction for the large ruling-class families throughout Latin America.  Paris had become the place where Brazilian plantation owners and Argentinean cattle barons sent their sons to complete an education in all of the ways of the world.  It was in this way, that Latino dances found their way into vogue throughout Paris.  As early as 1908, l’Abbaye de Theleme had presented the maxixeiros: Gerlado Magalhaes and his dancing partner Nina Tiexeira; who were received with wild acclaim.  Maxixe was a sensual Afro-Brazilian form of erotic dance that was a predecessor to the Samba and the Carioca.  It had first appeared in Paris in late 1889 or early 1890, and though its popularity in the United States was short-lived and dampened by Jim Crow, it remained popular in Europe up through the 1930s.  In turn, it paved the way for the Tango which arrived in Paris around 1907 and had come into vogue there by 1911.

“In the Maxixe could be found the arts of Carmencita, of Otero, and of the old Egyptians. The costume might be of the ultra-modernity of Paris patterned on a mold of Spain; but the motion was that of the primeval female using beauty for beauty’s first purpose. Seduction rarely went more lithely to music.”
P.68 Their Day in Court By Percival Pollard 1909

The Maxixe From: Social Dancing of Today (1914)
The Maxixe From: Social Dancing of Today (1914)

After the allied victory of WWI, Paris had become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.  When the well known bandleader and tango composer, Manuel Pizarro arrived in the early 1920s, there were over 4500 Argentineans estimated to be living in Paris.  One of them, a young, wealthy Argentinean consul named Vincente Madero took Pizarro to The Princess and introduced him to its owner, Elio Volterra.  Pizarro talked Volterra into letting him put together a Tango orchestra and host a Tango night in Volterra’s club.  The peformers dressed in the traditional gaucho costumes of Argentina.  This was an immediate success and Pizarro was made a regular feature of The Princess; which soon changed its name to El Garròn.  Pizarro and his orchestra were soon performing to some of the most illustrious patrons to be found in Paris including: Rudolph Valentino, Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier.

Miss Josephine Baker
Miss Josephine Baker

In 1918, Albert Volterra reopened l’Abbaye de Theleme, as a night-club, by announcing that the wine-cellar had remained undisturbed since the outbreak of the war in 1914.  It quickly regained its former stature as a late-night spot and its star continued to rise.  In the Spring of 1920, the government sought to economize on coal in response to a miner’s strike, and issued an edict requiring cafes and restaurants to close their doors by 10:00 pm. L’Abbaye, along with Rat Mort and other restaurants in Montmartre responded with a strike of their own and refused to open at all until the government saw fit to let them remain open until at least 11:00 pm.

Pierre Mourgue's illustration which appeared in the January 19, 1929, Vogue
Pierre Mourgue’s illustration which appeared in the January 19, 1929, Vogue

During the 1920s and beyond, l’Abbaye would become known as a hotspot in the Parisian jazz scene and was one of the best known cabarets in the world.  In 1924, a 14 year old named Django Reinhardt would often hang around outside to hear whatever he could of Billy Arnold’s American Novelty Jazz Band.

Billy Arnold’s band had been discovered by Jean Cocteau and composer Darius Milhaud on a visit to England in 1920.  Cocteau told avant-garde musician, composer and promoter Jean Wiener about them, and Weimar arranged for them to appear in France at the Ackerbau Hall.  According to Cocteau, the performance of Billy Arnold’s Jazz Band on December 6th, 1921 was the first concert performance of an American jazz band in France.

In 1926, after getting off work at Folies Bergère, Josephine Baker would go to l’Abbaye and dance into the early hours of morning.  In 1930, she returned from her extensive world tour and could often be found at l’Abbaye performing with the Plantation Orchestra.  The Plantation Orchestra had been created to support Florence Mills in 1921, originally reigning over New York’s Plantation Room as a part of Lew Leslie’s “Blackbird Revue.”  For years it had thrived and toured Europe under the orchestral genius of Will Vodery.  Florence Mills had died in 1927, and so by 1930, The Plantation Orchestra was under the direction of trombonist Herb Flemming who also managed to find time to perform with Josephine Baker.  Flemming once recalled, “…the Abbaye was one of “these establishments [that] gave visitors the impression that they had suddenly stepped into Harlem.” In Paris, blacks from America, accustomed to the degradations of Jim Crow segregation were delighted to find a tolerant society where they could make a life for themselves.

Billy Arnold's American Novelty Jazz Band
Billy Arnold’s American Novelty Jazz Band

Other notable musicians who played in l’Abbaye during this period included violinist Stephan Grapelli, who is famous for his numerous collaborations with Django Reinhardt.  There was also trombonist Leo Arnaud (a.k.a. Leo Vauchant); who Maurice Ravel approached when he wanted to learn more about the improvistations of jazz.  Arnaud is also remembered for his composition “Bugler’s Dream” (1958), which is most familiar as the theme for the Olympics.  “Bugler’s Dream” was first used by ABC as the theme for the 1968 Winter Olympics, and also for “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”  Later in his life Vauchant recalled l’Abbaye, commenting that the Prince of Wales used to frequent the place and would sometimes sit in on the drums.  He also recalled seeing Arthur Rubinstein, “always alone, with a bottle of champagne and peanuts.”

In Rubinstein: A Life, authors Harvey Sachs and Donald Manildi describe one occasion after the Quat’z Arts ball, Arthur Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz rolled into l’Abbaye and performed for several hours:

“He (Arthur Rubinstein) was especially happy to plunge head-long into Parisian night life, and Chotzinoff recalled having seen him “in a Paris restaurant…[on] the night of the famous Quatre Arts [Quat’z Arts] ball. On that night … all the accumulated restraints of civilization may be discarded, the celebrants permitting themselves freedoms normally prohibited or frowned on. Rubinstein (accompanied by Jascha Heifetz [Chotzinoff’s brother-in-law]) wore a bizarre armless, full-length garment, underneath which one caught glimpses of his white skin. Persons equally unrobed or disrobed wandered in, seemingly unconscious of their strange appearance. Unorthodox behavior by the students and their guests at the ball was hinted at in the next morning’s papers.” Rubinstein described the event as an orgy: men and women who didn’t know each other copulated on the floor and false rapes were enacted. Heifetz, he said, could not believe his eyes and feared a police raid, which did not take place. According to Chotzinof, “in the early hours of the morning, Rubenstein and Heifetz stopped on their way home at a night spot in Montmartre, took over the chores of the establishment’s violinist and pianist and played for hours, to the patrons’ delight.” This took place at the Abbaye de Theleme restaurant in the Place Pigalle; the principal members of the audience were Domingo Merry del Val, brother of a cardinal and the Chilean ambassador to Britain, and the two prostitutes who were his table companions.” p.158

In September 1934 the club was taken over by René Goupil.  He attained his fame cross-dressing as an old chatelaine named “O’dett.”  By 1936 he had begun to gain wide acclaim for a parody of Phaedra that he performed at the Casino de Paris with Pierre Dac; who, in addition to being a talented female impersonator, was also a master of burlesque.  Over the next several years O’dett operated the establishment under a variety of names.  First he transformed l’Abbaye into a tavern called “La Noce” (The Wedding).  Then, in 1935 he renamed it Le Trone (The Throne).  It was at this time that singer Élyane Célis, who sang “One Day My Prince Will Come” in Walt Disney’s, Snow White, made her debut.  In 1938, the club was once again renamed, this time as Chez O’dett or Odett’s.  Edith Piaf performed here while putting her career back together after the murder of her manager and mentor, Louis Leplée in 1936. Bruno Coquatrix was the art director at the time.  In 1954 he would purchase the famous Olympia Theatre. Until the time of his death in 1979, he provided a venue for everyone from Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker to The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

Le Chaptieau during the German Occupation of Paris
Le Chaptieau during the German Occupation of Paris

In 1940 O’dett developed a new routine mocking Adolph Hitler. It was an unflattering portrayal of the Furher as a hallucinating madman.  When the Germans invaded France, O’dett prudently left for Monaco and didn’t return to Paris until after the war.

Soon after the Germans had taken France, Hitler ordered that black jazz music would no longer be played in the cafes and cabarets.  Black, Jewish and Gypsy musicians who had not already fled were rounded up and sent to internment camps.  None-the-less, the night-life of Place Pigalle and Montmartre continued to flourish in spite of food shortages and the other deprivations of an occupation.  In early 1943 the former Abbaye reopened, this time as Le Chapiteau and operated by the singer, Marcelle Bordas.  That year the Jean Chabaud Orchestra gigged there as did Christian Wagner and his orchestra.  O’dett’s previous mockeries of Hitler caused Le Chapiteau to be criticized in Pro-Nazi news papers, even though it was under new management.  In spite of this the club was a favorite watering hole for pro-nazi French and gestapo.

O’dett & Marcelle Bordas
O’dett & Marcelle Bordas

As the allies drove the Germans out of Paris, the last vestiges of the flirtatious, seductive and the mysterious gave way to outright decadence and depravity.  Prostitution, which had never been in short supply, became epidemic.  It got to the point where a working girl could be found “every six feet from La Chapelle to the Place de Clichy.” Le Chapiteau degenerated into Les Naturistes and Le Rat Mort into Le Eve.  Both featured nude reviews and strip shows, and as the post-war era rolled toward the end of the century, the neighborhood came more and more to be known as one of Europe’s most notorious red-light districts.  In the 1970s porn theatres begin to pop up and along with them, sex shops and video stores.  Eventually Les Naturistes closed and was taken over by Léon de Bruxelles, becoming just another link in a chain of restaurants; even though this too has recently closed.

Matchbook cover from Les Naturistes at 1 Place Pigalle
Matchbook cover from Les Naturistes at 1 Place Pigalle

So what does the future hold for Place Pigalle?  In the 21st century, it seems to be in a state of regeneration.  Perhaps the phoenix will yet rise from its own ashes.  In 2003 parliament passed a law against “passive soliciting,” designed to cut down on prostitution.  Parisian police began to crack down on the numerous scam artists and strip joints in the area, and several were closed permanently.  After the success of the movie, Moulin Rouge, in 2001, that movie’s Montmartre namesake began to trend away from the usual nude cabaret performances in favor of “Feerie” (“Enchantment”), a more family oriented show.  Fans of the movie treked to the Old Red Lady and as a result it saw its revenues jump 30% that year.  Real estate prices have been on the rise as the neighborhood becomes a home for people like fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, comedian Valerie Lemercier, model and designer Inès de la Fressange, director Claude lelouch, and actor Johnny Depp.  New restaurants and boutiques are starting to emerge and the club Divan du Monde at 75 rue des Martyrs features a variety of indie rock, punk, hip hop, new wave and fusion electro and has been acclaimed as one of the finest entertainment venues Paris has to offer.

l’Abbaye de Theleme
l’Abbaye de Theleme


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 Posted by at 6:43 pm

  One Response to “l’Abbaye de Theleme: A Retrospective”

  1. This is a wonderful evocation of this club and its history I can see you’ve done a lot of work with this research. This is the best source of information on l’Abbey I’ve found.

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