Who doesn’t enjoy time travel and a chance to rub shoulders with iconic figures of the past?
This week, I’ve been spending leisurely mornings with Louise Weber, aka “la Goulue” (1866-1929) thanks to an excellent biography by Maryline Martin, “La Goulue, Reine de Montmartre.”
I was familiar with Louise Weber’s story. She often kept me company as I stopped by her humble grave inside the Montmartre Cemetery during the second lockdown, in the fall of 2020. As such she is featured in some of the virtual tours I filmed around my Parisian neighborhood during the French lockdowns in 2020.
It would be easy to dismiss “la Goulue” as a “fille facile” (a promiscuous gal) a loud drunk and a glutton (hence her nickname) who wasn’t shy and danced her life away for over a decade in Montmartre’s bals and cabarets including the iconic Moulin Rouge.
She pivoted before she turned 30 and reinvented herself into a “ménagerie” owner, performing with wild animals (often risking her life in the process) on popular fairgrounds in Belle Epoque Paris.
There were many men, her lovers, famous or not, one husband, a son she spoiled rotten and friends like her “petit barbu” (Toulouse-Lautrec) or “Valentin-le-Désossé” (Boneless Valentin,) a popular can-can dancer.
Elle brûla la chandelle par les deux bouts.
She burned the candle at both ends.
Her story didn’t have a happy ending, but she did it all her way.
Louise Weber spent most of her life in what’s become one of Paris’ most touristy neighborhoods, Montmartre and other “quartiers populaires” (working class districts) north of Paris. A few years before his untimely death in 1901, Toulouse-Lautrec claimed he recognized neither Montmartre or its iconic cabarets. I can’t imagine how he would feel today should he stroll around “la Butte.”
I bet he’d make time to visit “Louise” his old friend at the Montmartre cemetery.
Glasses would clink; laughter would erupt. Together they would summon the colorful ghosts of their carefree and rambunctious youth. Together they would once again impersonate the renowned French “joie de vivre” that seems to elude so many of my countrymen today.
La Goulue, back in Montmartre
Story inspired by:
Maryline Martin, Le Rocher-Poche, 2019
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