Belle Epoque Lesbian Bar Palmyra

The gay and lesbian bars of Paris during the Belle Époque (1871-1914) helped transform the Montmartre district from “a dormitory town for boulevard prostitutes and bohemian artists into the Mecca of commercialized modern mass culture known under the name “Gay Paree”. Choquette examines how the owners of places like Palmyre’s Bar have contributed “in no small way to creating and sustaining a queer community.” They did this while “marketing and marketing” it at the same time, making these establishments key to Paris’ international appeal in the years before and after World War I.

“By encouraging voyeurism and the shantytowns of tourists in order to maximize their profits, writes Choquette, they have contributed as much as the innkeepers and dance hall impresarios to building Montmartre as the scorching entertainment capital of the Western world.

Choquette explores the career of Palmire bar owner Louise Dumont. Born in 1855 in northern France to working-class parents, Dumont worked in spinning mills until she was 22. Little is known about the next two decades of her life – some sources suggest she may have been involved in prostitution. In 1897, she became manager of La Souris, a brasserie established in Montmartre which caters to lesbians. At that time it was simply known as Palmyra.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec made La Souris famous through his sketches and lithographs. He did the same for Palmyra. His 1897 lithograph To The Mouse, Madame Palmyredepicts the “gruff landlady”, a couple of her pals and her beloved bulldog, Bouboule, sitting on a table.

Palmyre opened its eponymous bar in January 1909. The establishment is ideally located, just opposite the white square of the (very) famous Moulin Rouge. Palmyre’s Bar was based on Maurice’s, a neighborhood gay bar, with a doorman and the use of the English “bar” in the name, but with a much more lesbian vibe.

Palmyre worked to cultivate celebrities like Mathilde “Missy” de Morny, the writer Colette’s lover. Collette, in turn, helped publicize the bar, attracting other authors who later wrote about it. Actors and singers performed on the small stage, strollers raised their eyebrows, the voyeurs watched something forbidden and the money flowed. It was a place for “visibility and celebration” of turn-of-the-century queer culture, display and performance, both a neighborhood bar and a destination.

Choquette explains that “the tenants of queer bars had it easier in France than elsewhere” because the French Revolution had decriminalized homosexuality. Male homosexuals are still prosecuted for public insult and bribery of minors under the age of twenty-one. But if there was no public indecency, still a loose term, bars were allowed to continue in business. Police mostly ignored “lesbian behavior within the confines of bars and brothels”. Choquette also notes that it was not excluded that Palmyre pays the captain of the local police.

In its brief existence, Palmyre’s Bar has become iconic. Choquette writes: “His very name now signified vice, whether for a student newspaper in distant Montpellier, a ballet-pantomime at the National Academy of Music or the latest plays in the great theatres, including the Comédie- French.”

When Palmyra died in 1915, his equally unmarried sister, who had supplied the bar’s kitchen with provisions from her farm, inherited half the holding. But that same year, the entertainment establishments of Montmartre were closed because of the war. Palmyre’s last business partner, Georges Giguet, aka Bobette, would eventually open a new bar, the Liberty, in space in 1923.

Palmyra’s “business formula of providing sexualized gay entertainment to beautiful people and straight voyeurs” became the model for Montmartre nightlife. The “commodification of delinquent pleasures” of modernity has helped maintain a “queer community while commercializing and commodifying it”.

And Paris’s reputation as the cultural capital of the world — of modern art, sexual freedom and racial freedom — has made it a haven for many Americans, from Lost Generation expats to black Americans in exile. How, asked the popular American song of 1919, “you gonna keep them on the farm after they see Paree?” Especially when they not only saw “Paree”, but danced at the lesbian bar on the square White?


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From: Leslie Choquette

Historical Reflections / Historical Reflections, Vol. 42, no. 2 (summer 2016), p. 75–96

Books by Berghahn


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