[ Issue 7 / November 2013]
“You want to interview me? La Goulue? Right here in the rain? Vraiment. Of course I will talk to you, but you must buy something from me first. Flowers? Peanuts? Cigarettes? I’m an old woman, you know; I have to make a living. Some peanuts? Fine. No, I don’t have any change. Here, I’ll give you two bags, yes? That’s good. Are you sure you don’t want some cigarettes? Maybe flowers for your girlfriend? No girlfriend? My goodness! You should have a girlfriend. A nice looking boy like you should always have a girlfriend.
“So what do you want to know, mon cher? My days at the Moulin Rouge? Ah, well, those were the days, weren’t they? The can-can. Valentin the Boneless. Toulouse-Lautrec. Of course I remember them. Like it was yesterday. I was the queen then, you know. Queen of Montmartre. Everyone in Paris knew me. I was the highest paid dancer in the city.
“No. No. It didn’t all start at the Moulin Rouge. People think that, but it’s not true. It really started at the Moulin de la Galette. Even before then, actually. You see, I was born Louise Weber and my mother worked in a laundry near Paris. Even then I loved to dress up and dance. I’d ‘borrow’ the expensive clothes that came into my mother’s laundry and sneak off to the dance halls. I would kick and kick…
“God, how I loved to dance.
“We called it the quadrille then. There were no professional dancers. Just customers. Everybody did whatever they wanted. Some people kicked high and leaped around and other people were more sedate. It was disorganized. No rules. There were no rules on the dance floor and off it. Hah! In the hallways. Behind the building… It was wild then. No rules. The women would lift their skirts up in the air and kick and kick. Sometimes they kicked so high their underwear showed. Sometimes they didn’t wear underwear. Now, they were the real popular dancers. Hah! And over time, certain dancers developed a following and clubs started paying us to perform. That’s how I ended up at the Moulin de la Galette.
“La Goulue? I got that name—The Glutton—because I drank everybody’s beer. That’s right. I never saw a beer I didn’t like. Hah! I’d just dance from one table to the next and bottoms up! I’d drain six or seven in a row; I didn’t care. I’d dance and spin and twirl and snatch beers off tables as I went. Nobody ever complained about me drinking their beer. In those days I didn’t know what constraint was. I did everything in a big way.
“Of course, when you’re young, you can do that, can’t you?
“Valentin le Déssossé—the Boneless? Yes, he was a real person. Tall, skinny man, angular—always wore a top hat. He was called boneless because of the way he danced—like he was made of rubber, like he had no skeleton. He’d go through all these strange contortions on the dance floor without ever missing a beat. Truly incredible! Nobody could imitate him. He would wiggle and squiggle and gyrate all over the place. He was the greatest male dancer I ever saw.
“Let me tell you about Jacques. His real name was Jacques Renaudin—Valentin was just his stage name. He was a wine merchant or something like that by day and came to the halls every night just because he loved to dance. And he was serious about it. When he realized how I could kick and spin and do that big split at the end of a dance, he started working with me. He came up with all these creative steps we could do together. That’s what really made me famous. The Moulin de la Galette started paying us to dance the quadrille together. But Jacques never took the money because he had his own income. He considered it beneath his dignity.
“The Moulin paid other dancers to do the same thing and this attracted more customers. The customers would come to dance and drink and have fun and watch us. People talked about me. I could kick my leg straight up and touch my ear. Yes! You wouldn’t believe it now, would you? I could leap in the air and come down in a perfect split with my dress spread all around me. Nobody did it better! In fact, I made a dress with sixty yards of lacy petticoat and when I turned around and flipped the back up, you could see a big heart embroidered on my panties. Hah! I could kick men’s hats off: one, two, three in a row, and never hurt anybody. People would scream and laugh.
“Oh, God, those were the times…
“Toulouse-Lautrec? He was just a dwarf. A little thing. He was shorter than me. Ugly man. Thick lips, and he talked with a lisp. He drooled. Disgusting man, actually. Well, maybe not. But he was fascinated with me, I can tell you. Sketched me all the time−even before the Moulin Rouge opened. And when the Rouge opened, they asked him to do a big poster advertising the place. At the time he was young; hardly anybody knew him. And he produced this monstrous thing called ‘Moulin Rouge: La Goulue.’ It showed me dancing with my petticoats swirling, with Valentin in the foreground. They distributed three thousand of those posters all over Paris and we became stars overnight.
“Well, I was already a star. He just made me more of a star.
“Was he interested in me sexually? Pffff! They were all interested in me sexually. They all wanted to fuck me from the moment I’d walk through the door. Everywhere I went, they’d watch me, watch me. And, yes, I did strut around like I was the queen. I saw the way they looked at me. But, listen, I was the highest paid dancer in Paris. I was the reason people came to the Moulin Rouge. It wasn’t because of the other dancers, I can tell you that. They couldn’t dance like me. They couldn’t kick like me. They didn’t have my flair.
“I didn’t give a damn about any of them.
“No, I didn’t have any respect for anybody, I admit it. I was brought up poor and watched my mother work her hands to the bone. Now I was Queen of Montmartre. Fuck ’em. I didn’t care.
“I guess you heard about the time the Prince of Wales came to see us. He wasn’t king yet, just a prince. I was dancing right in front of his table and said, ‘Hi, there! Wales! Aren’t you treating us to champagne?’ Well, everybody was shocked. Shocked! You can’t talk to the future king of England like that! Oh, my goodness, what are we to do? Well, pooh. He wanted to fuck me like all the others. He was no different. And, listen, he handled it just fine. He bought us some wine afterwards. He wasn’t a bad sort, after all.
“The only man who treated me like a lady back then was Jacques. You know, Valentin. He was a perfect gentleman, and we were very good friends on and off the dance floor. He owned a horse and carriage and took me on rides through Paris. Oh, it was so lovely. I’d get all dressed up with gloves and parasol and we’d drive through the Bois de Boulogne and I’d nod to the people in the other carriages and some of the people walking in the park and it was just the best. The little girl from Clichy was now bowling through the Bois. Hah!
“No, I didn’t fuck any of those people. I didn’t give a damn how much money they had. All they got to do is look at me and the big heart on my ass when I danced. I lived with another dancer in those days—La Môme Fromage, she was called. She was a sweet little thing… No, I don’t know where she got that name, but she was a dancer at the Rouge also. People said she looked like a kitchen maid. Well, that’s so ridiculous. I loved her and we were together during the best days of my life. I miss her today. Yes, I do… No, I don’t know what happened to her. We eventually split. That’s what happens, you know. You don’t always keep a good thing when you have it. I’ve lived with my share of men, too. They came and they went. But I loved La Môme the most. Always will.
“Sorry, mon petit, I don’t mean to cry. I have this cough, you see, that bothers me too. Between crying and coughing, I’m a real mess, aren’t I? The doctor says I shouldn’t be out here in this weather but I have to make a living, don’t I? Who’s going to pay my bills? No, I never thought of these things back then, of course. I just lived for the moment. I ate and drank and danced. I didn’t think about getting old. I certainly never imagined I would end up like this!
“Sorry, I have to cough again…
“Toulouse? Well, he turned out to be very famous, didn’t he? When I became a dancer at the Moulin de la Galette, he came there regularly and sketched me. And later in the Rouge. He wanted me to pose for him but I wasn’t interested. As I look back, I wonder how he got anything done. He was drunk every night. Yes, every night! But I understand he painted every day regardless of how he felt. If I had a hangover from all that wine, I’d stay in bed. But I hear he was up in the morning ready to create another masterpiece. Now, that’s genius, isn’t it?
“No, I don’t know how many sketches and paintings he made of me. I wasn’t the only one he painted anyway. There was Jane Avril, who took my place as lead dancer at the Rouge. And Yvette Guilbert, the singer. And lots of others. Whatever interesting that was going on in a dance hall, he sketched it. He adored the place. But he also spent some time in a whorehouse and painted the whores, you know. Yes, he did. Hah! Can you imagine what his mother thought about that idea? He was born in a chateau, you know. His father was a count. But Toulouse liked dance halls and whorehouses more than parlor rooms. At least he preferred to paint them. He once said to me, ‘A brothel is the only place in Paris where I can still get a decent shoeshine.’ Hah! He had a good sense of humor, Toulouse did. I told that story for a week at the Rouge. We all laughed.
“Yes, I miss him. I admit it.
“Sorry, I need to cough again…
“Why did I leave the Rouge? Well, I got too fat, for one thing. Couldn’t kick high anymore. The owner gave me a hard time about it so I just left. I became an oriental belly dancer at a fair. I had a booth and Toulouse painted the curtains for me. They were beautiful curtains: bright and cheery. Just like his posters—a blaze of color. The left panel showed me and Valentin dancing just like the old days when we were at our best, surrounded by audience members. The other panel had me in it too, in an Oriental custom, dancing. Toulouse put a lot of our old friends into the audience: Jane Avril, Toulouse himself. Even Oscar Wilde was there. Isn’t that wild! Oscar Wilde! Hah! That old pervert. I never met him but Toulouse did and sketched him from memory.
“I sank all my money into that Oriental act, but it didn’t work. It ruined me. Yes, it was very difficult. I did other things after that, of course. I was a wrestler, a lion tamer. I had an act with a trained monkey. Nothing worked. Nothing. Every year was worse than the one before. Soon I had nothing at all. Where do I live now? Well, I’m sorry to say, in a one-room Gypsy van down the way there. I’d be embarrassed to show it to you. Yes, I’ve fallen a long way. I admit it. Once I had a nice little house in Montmartre with a pretty garden that I dearly loved. Lived right next door to a priest. Yes, a priest! Had to watch my language then, you know. It’s hilarious when I think about it. And La Môme was with me. I was the queen then. Truly the queen.
“There’s hardly anybody left from those days, unfortunately. Valentin? I don’t think he’s alive anymore. Toulouse? Drank himself to death. La Môme Fromage? Disappeared. Jane Avril is still around but not doing too well. Most of her money is gone. She married and had a son but the husband died and the son vanished. I hear poor Jane is alone and lives only for her memories.
“Well, so many of us do…
“No, life hasn’t been good to the dancers of the Moulin Rouge. It gobbled us up and spit us out. It never gave a damn about us afterwards.
“Do I still know how to dance? Of course I do. You never forget that. I’m just too old and fat to do it like I could. A demonstration? You’ll have to buy something else from me if I’m going to dance, mon cher. I was a professional dancer, you know. The best of them all. I’m not going to do it for free. How about this orange here? It’s nice and fresh and it’s healthy for you. Give me a franc. I know it’s too much but if you want me to show you the dance steps, you have to give me a franc. Yes, that’s good. Thank you.
“Let me put my basket down here…
“Look. Look. This is called the rond de jambe: you rotate your leg—you see?— rotate…except, of course, my leg was held higher in those days. I can barely lift it now. And this is the pas seul. Toes pointed inwards. You rotate and flow into it gently…lift your skirts…like so. See how graceful? I can still do it. I haven’t forgotten. And, of course, there was the high kick—the battement. The higher you kicked the better you were. And the porte d’armes, where you turned on one leg while you held the other almost vertical. No, I can’t do that one, of course. No…The cartwheel—yes, even children do that. We all did the cartwheel. And everyone would see our petticoats. And finally the grand écart: that big split at the end of the dance. Sometimes all of us would do a grand écart together. With the music playing. Yes, monsieur, sing it. That’s good. Sing it, monsieur. Yes. Yes. Sing the can-can. That’s what it sounded like. And we would swish our skirts… You see… Flip them around… Swish… Swish… And the crowd would just roar! Yes, it was the best of times…
“Sorry… I have to cough again… I’m not used to all this talking…
“No more questions? That’s it? Well, thank you for letting an old woman talk. We’re all disappearing, you know. Soon you won’t have any of us to tell you about the old days. They don’t dance today like we used to. No, what you see in the Rouge is not the same. They can’t dance in there. They don’t know how to dance. We were creative. We were the best.
“Please come back and see me again. Yes, I’ll be right here on this street near the Rouge. This is how I make my living. It’s the best I can do now, monsieur. But don’t wait too long because this cough might finally get me. Come back and we’ll talk again.
“Remember, we dancers just live for our memories. That’s it. Nothing more.
“Au revoir, monsieur. A bientôt.”
Note: La Goulue died alcoholic and destitute at age sixty-two near the Moulin Rouge which she
helped make famous.
Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist who has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous literary journals including the Gettysburg Review, Connecticut Review, and Hawaii Pacific Review. He is the editor of the war anthology REMEMBRANCES OF WARS PAST, and author of the memoir I NEVER MET A PARANOID SCHIZOPHRENIC I DIDN’T LIKE, and the E-novellette THE TUXEDOED CORPSE, all of which can be found on Amazon. His website is www.henrytonn.com.