Despite suffering so many casualties in WWI that its military-eligible population was still decimated when WWII came around, France’s economy bounced back fairly quickly in the wake of Europe’s devastation in the “War to End All Wars.” That 1920s recovery was partly based on two enduringly popular items which were made abundantly available in Paris: alcohol and women’s bodies. Americans, flush with cash in a stock bubble and weary of the prudery that led to alcohol prohibition, visited Paris for cocktails and cockteases. Paris’ sexualized entertainments ran the gamut from mere topless revues to outright sex for sale, and the publishing industry capitalized with “Pleasure Guides” for horny tourists.
Now, some of these were pretty much ordinary tourist guides tarted up with sexy cover art. This English-language guide below, via Archive.org, is a browser widget that lets you actually flip through the book. (The entry on page 79 for the notoriously gory Grand-Guignol is priceless, as it’s demure to the point of deceptiveness.) It picks up a bit of steam on page 121, a chapter titled “The Worst Parts of Paris.”
In front of the Métro Combat, a little to the right, after nº 120, stretches up towards the Buttes-Chaumont the small rue Moniol, which the rue Asselin cuts across, cutting out from the centre of said cross a block of dingy houses called the «Monjol fort», a citadel of love in which a dozen groundfloor rooms each hide in the mouldering walls three or four women, all fallen to the last degree of the vilest prostitution.
Bepainted, scarcely clad in a mere unfastened dressing-gown of oriental colours, they await, watch and call the stevedores and the «sides» who swarm at that hour in the bars around, and who prowl about and succeed one another at their half-closed doors, bespattered with a wan light from within.
You’re just crazy-horny now, aren’t you? Say what you will, that second ‘graf is poetry.
But of course, while the tamer guides were legit tourist resources with a few references to the sex trade—disguised as warnings to provide cover to both the reader and the publisher—other books were just straight-up lists of bordellos. UC Berkeley professor Mel Gordon, in his forthcoming Feral House book Horizontal Collaboration: The Erotic World of Paris, 1920-1946, writes
Paris, universally referred to as Paname by the locals because of de rigueur hats worn by male fashion plates, was back in business. By 1923, over 250,000 American tourists had made their way across the Atlantic to explore the French capital. Fleeing their country’s draconian Prohibition laws and flush with wads of hard currency, the worldly trekkers weren’t just there to inspect the landmarks and museums or ferret out its fine dining establishments. They were drawn to la Ville-Lumière for a more unconventional list of enticements, many of which were primly catalogued in the city’s official directories or featured in the voyagers’ naughty guidebooks.
The classifications of the brothels in many ways resembled those of hotels or restaurants. In general, they were broken into three categories: mammoth luxury establishments, where customers might spend the better part of an evening (masons de tolérance); intimate, more personal-sized dwellings (maisons de ren- dez-vous); and dirt-cheap lairs that mimicked the speed and efficiency of a factory assembly line (maisons d’abattage).
Annual directories and business cards advertised and updated the latest additions to the maisons closes. Smaller houses relocated with some regularity and, occasionally, the names of competing brothels — based on street addresses or landladies’ nicknames — were confusingly duplicated. So there were multiple Château d’Eaus, Chez Billys, Chez Suzys, Le Hanovres, Le Panier Fleuris, and Temples of Beauty. Guidebooks, like the ubiquitous Guide Rose or Guide-Indicateur des Maisons de Plaisirs et d’Art de Paris, were essential aids.
More après le jump…