Ah, Paris in the 1920s!
‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’ by Francine Prose
By Kit van Cleave
In her latest novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, Francine Prose has recreated some of France’s most glorious years, before World War I. That was the time American ex-patriots arrived in Paris to enjoy a lifestyle off the puritanical U.S. leash, with great food and wine, cheap apartments, and vivid nights of jazz and new ideas.
Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and Natalie Barney all left the U.S. searching for a place where they could achieve artistic and personal fulfillment.
They were surrounded by European émigrés—Picasso, Man Ray, Bunuel, Dalí—who were creating artistic movements and anxious to exchange ideas about work. Rarely in history have so many genius artists been in the same place at the same time; one ran into them everywhere.
Over all of this bubbling lifestyle the Germans cast their shadow, starting both World Wars and eventually occupying Paris in 1939.
Prose was inspired to write this unusual book after seeing a photograph, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932,” in a Washington museum. It was “a portrait of two women sitting at a table in a bar, one in a sparkly evening gown, the other in drag, with short hair and tuxedo,” Prose has written. The photo had been taken by Brassai (real name: Gyula Halasz), a Romanian photographer whose photography lighted the dark corners of Paris nightlife.
“The wall text said something I hadn’t known,” Prose recalls, “which was that the woman in the tuxedo, a professional athlete named Violette Morris, had worked for the Gestapo during the German occupation.” Morris informed the Nazis about where the Maginot Line ended, thus ensuring an easy entry into France. She was assassinated by the French Resistance in April 1944.
Prose’s book at first seems to be an epistolary novel, with Brassai, renamed Gabor Tsenyi, writing to his parents asking for money. Then the tone turns biographical, with Violette Morris renamed Lou Villars, and Henry Miller renamed Lionel Maine. Their friends, contacts, and lovers populate the scenes, each speaking in a distinct voice. One character is writing a biography of Villars within the novel; the author intends to highlight the decadence of both 1920s Paris and 1930s Berlin during the rise of Hitler. Hitler and Picasso have cameo roles.
But then who was the prototype for the beautiful and very rich Baroness Lily de Rossignol, wife of a gay automobile CEO, who doles out money to emerging artists, collects their work, and helps Lou Villars become a top racecar driver? And who was the real owner of the Chameleon Club (named Yvonne in the book), where butch-femme couples and drag queens entertained artists and aristocrats?
Surely an authentic stand-in for the Baroness could be Marlene Dietrich, who was known to patronize the gender-bending nightclubs of Paris, and whose generosity to other artists was widely known. And of course she was associated with the song “Lili Marlene” all her life. In 1939 at Cap d’Antibes, she took as a lover Marion Barbara “Jo” Carstairs, British-born heiress to a Standard Oil trust fund, who was a championship speedboat racer. “Jo” started and operated the X Garage, a car-hire and chauffeuring service featuring only women drivers and mechanics. Lou Villars opens a similar garage in Prose’s novel.
Later in her life Carstairs was best known as the owner of Whale Cay in the Bahamas, where she hosted Dietrich, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and other society figures. (For more about Carstairs, The Queen of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale is recommended.)
As for Yvonne, after taking Frederique Baule as a lover in 1936, Dietrich was a part owner of La Silhouette, another gay spot (named after Marlene’s favorite Berlin bar), generally known as Chez Frede. The club did so well that Baule expanded it into Carroll’s in the 1940s, when Paris was still occupied by the Nazis. Marlene brought Maurice Chevalier to the opening.
Marlene also loved cars and being photographed with a green Rolls-Royce, given her by Paramount, and a custom Cadillac limousine loaded with extras, which she bought herself. A rhapsodic description of the Baroness with her husband’s cars is a highlight of this novel.
Prose masterfully gathers all these unique characters into a fine work of fiction, while keeping to facts about their lives and work. She convinces the reader by consistency in both the writing and speaking styles of each, resulting in a terrific read. Finally, of course, she has solved the old question: “Aren’t there enough books about Paris in the 1920s?”
Never, if the next one is as good as Prose’s.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.