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Great European lives: La Goulue

Louise Weber called La Goulue (1866-1929), French cancan dancer. Ca. 1900. (Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images) - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY looks into the life of La Goulue.

In 1928 filmmaker Georges Lacombe was exploring the fringes of Paris for a documentary he was making called The Zone, about the city’s rag pickers. In Neuilly-sur-Marne, a poor district to the east of the city, he came upon a flea market where once he’d begun to unpack his camera equipment he was advised to call upon the occupant of a small caravan parked in the corner of the market’s muddy yard.

Lacombe stepped around the horse dung and puddles of yellow water to approach the vehicle, climbed the rickety wooden steps up to the door and knocked. A voice asked who was there, Lacombe identified himself, the door opened 
and the caravan’s occupant squinted through rheumy eyes at the young filmmaker. Lacombe looked back at a jowly, heavy woman in her early sixties wrapped in layers of old clothes, greasy hair smeared across her forehead. He took off his hat, introduced himself and asked whom he had the pleasure of addressing. The woman smiled broadly to reveal there was not a single tooth in 
her head.

‘Je suis La Goulue,’ she said and on seeing Lacombe’s stunned reaction broke into a rasping, throaty laugh.

For a few years in the late 1880s and 1890s La Goulue, the stage name of dancer Louise Weber, was arguably the most famous woman in France. The lead can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge, she was painted by Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec and courted by the red-blooded royals of several European countries, one of whom gave her a luxurious apartment where the bath would be filled with champagne.

The fickle nature of fame, however, saw to it that when La Goulue fell from grace the descent was as unremitting as her rise had been meteoric. The erstwhile queen of Montmartre spent her final years circulating the tables of the area’s pavement cafes selling sweets and hawking vegetables from a barrow on the same cobbles where dukes once jostled to escort her to her barouche as she swept out of the Moulin Rouge.

There are competing stories as to how she earned her nickname, which translates as ‘the glutton’. Some say it was from the way she’d drain people’s drinks as she danced among the tables, others that it derived from her teenage years as an artists’ model who, coming from a poor background where food was scarce, devoured the meals the painters would give her. Unflattering her nickname may have been but she seems to have got off relatively lightly – one of her Moulin Rouge colleagues went by Grille d’Egout, or ‘sewer grating’.

La Goulue was not considered a great beauty in what one might call a conventional sense, yet her combination of wildcat charisma, air of advanced sexual accomplishment and the ability to dance like a goddess made her irresistible to male audiences: 
according to legend four men committed suicide out of unrequited love for 
La Goulue.

‘Was it on account of my fame that prime ministers, ambassadors and princes flocked to me the way they did,’ she wrote, ‘or was it my beauty? I could not tell you, I am sure. Still, I am inclined to think that it was my fame that brought them and my charm that held them. Once a pretty woman is famous all the men want to see her. And the more men she has known in her life the more they like her and the more it tickles their vanity. Darling idiots!’

Louise Weber was raised far from the world of prime ministers, ambassadors and princes, growing up in the working class Paris suburb of Clichy to where her parents had fled from their native Alsace at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, when Louise was four. Her mother worked as a laundress, a trade Louise followed, but as a teenager tired of dunking raw hands into cold, soapy water she began sneaking out at night to clubs and bars wearing clothes borrowed from the laundry and posing for some of the artists she met there.

At 18 a painting of La Goulue by 
Jean Alphonse Gaupil gave her a certain local celebrity and she used that to exploit her talent for dance, appearing on stage at famous venues like the Ambassador’s, the Casino de Paris and on the opening night of the new Olympia Theatre.

By the time she began dancing regularly at the Moulin de la Galette in the late 1880s La Goulue had developed quite a following, standing out from other dancers from the heart embroidered front and middle on her underwear, visible when she raised her skirts, to the way she danced between tables kicking hats from heads.

When the Moulin Rouge opened in Montmartre in 1889 La Goulue was its first star – she would even boast the legendary venue had been built for her – and the highest of high society flocked to see her, including on one occasion the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.

‘Hey, Wales,’ La Goulue called to him across the Café Americain at the after-show party. ‘Are you buying champagne? Or are you just here waiting for your mother?’

‘That little girl gave me more entertainment in an evening than I’ve had in years,’ he recalled.

The Russian Grand Duke Alexei, younger brother of Tsar Alexander III, was particularly smitten and set the dancer up in an apartment in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, a gift he christened with a bath filled with champagne.

‘I dipped in so hastily the champagne splashed all over the floor,’ La Goulue recalled. ‘Ah, what a sensation it was! It prickled and tickled me all over!’

From that fizzy pinnacle things soon began to go wrong. By some accounts she left the Moulin Rouge in the mid-1890s because they tried to reduce her salary, others say that, perhaps giddy with aristocratic attention and champagne baths, she had overestimated her own status and made an ill-advised decision to leave the venue and go it alone. When Alexei’s spending alarmed the Tsar enough to recall him to Moscow, La Goulue found herself effectively homeless and jobless. For all that the travelling show she founded featured other former Moulin Rouge dancers and scenery painted by her old friend Toulouse-Lautrec, the true appeal of La Goulue had lay in the combination of dancer and venue: she and the Moulin Rouge were effectively a package.

Initial interest in her new show 
soon dwindled, the dancers left and by the turn of the century La Goulue, 
the darling of the Moulin Rouge, was touring fairgrounds with a shabby lion-taming act and a menagerie display that at one point was reduced to two porcupines. The troupe of dancers and stagehands shrivelled to an assistant (whom she subsequently married) and Simon, her son from a previous relationship.

When war broke out Simon was conscripted, sent to the front and captured while La Goulue found herself selling horse meat sausages to soldiers behind the lines. When Simon died, aged just 27, in 1920 La Goulue fell into an alcoholic depression from which she never truly emerged, hawking her sweets and vegetables on the streets and living in the small caravan where Georges Lacombe found her that day in 1928, barely six months before her death.

His camera recorded a woman initially self-conscious as she stood at her caravan door lifting and waggling her leg bashfully at Lacombe’s suggestion that she demonstrate the can-can.

Then the film jumps and suddenly she’s standing on the muddy ground, her hair neatly combed, earrings in and a couple of layers of clothes lighter. She’s wound a long, bright scarf loosely around her neck, she’s smiling and she’s dancing.

Despite her heaviness her feet skip lightly over the wet ground and her arms move with balletic grace and the elegance of silk in a breeze. She spins and twirls to the music inside her head, where she’s no longer an old woman among the mud and dung of a slum flea market, she’s back at the Moulin Rouge, the star attraction, glancing out beyond the footlights to where a prince catches her eye and raises his glass.

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