Ah, the 1890s in Paris! How well I remember those days. As a young Englishman I had been sent abroad to study at the Impressionist School, a large building where art was taught in the small front room and absinthe manufactured everywhere else in the house. I still recall old Claude Monet leaning over to me confidentially and saying: “Always, remember, my boy: a fool and his Monet are soon parted”, then pouring me a large glass of absinthe.
But it was not all hard work. Paris was so bubbling with life after London, where the only entertainment was reading about Jack the Ripper and booing Oscar Wilde in the street. In Paris the champagne poured as if they knew it could not last – in fact, in the Butte de Montmartre they had a big sign reading: “Only Nineteen Years, Two Months and Five days to the First World War” which was changed every day. We sang in the streets, danced in the streets and slept in the streets. There wasn’t much choice if you couldn’t afford a room.
This, in fact, was how I first met Feydeau. I was investigating a small wardrobe with a view to moving into it, and found it occupied by a man with no trousers. “Go away,” he muttered, “I am researching for my new play!” We became firm friends and he would often leave his trousers with me when he had to feel his way into a new comedy.
Paris was thronged with café-bars, café-cabarets, café-restaurants and café concerts. I don’t know why, but I never saw a plain café. My favourite was café-concert – it was an amazing sight to see 120 members of a concert orchestra crammed into a café with six tables. I remember at one café-concert having to crawl into a small cupboard, so squashed was the place, and in it I found M. Feydeau with no trousers and a chambermaid, also with no trousers.
“More research, mon ami!” he winked. “Ah, it is hard to be a playwright.”
The most famous structures of the day were the Eiffel Tower and Sarah Bernhardt’s wooden leg. The Eiffel Tower I never thought much of, but Miss Bernhardt’s leg! In accordance with Victorian taste, this was an elaborately carved, deeply scrolled walnut piece, with lace hangings, a small, concealed drinks cupboard and a bell to call the servants with. Feydeau once asked her if it contained a small cupboard in which a man might hide, as this would be perfect for his next play, but she would never let on. She even received an invitation from New York to appear there for three months, and was quite mortified to learn that the request, from the World’s Trade Fair, was for her leg only. I believe she eventually compromised by letting it go for a month and doing a short season as Long John Silver.
Edward, Prince of Wales, was a constant visitor to Paris in order to cement the Entente Cordiale, a system under which Edward intended to establish friendly relations with every woman in France, one by one. Sometimes he would travel incognito, disguised as Clement Freud, but this fooled no-one, especially as the Gare du Nord was closed down specially for his arrival. He came to see one of Feydeau’s plays and Feydeau made the stage manager go in front of the curtain and announce: ”If there is an Edward Windsor in the house, would he please phone his mother!” I went round to congratulate Feydeau afterwards, in the little wardrobe he usually occupied in the theatre, and there I found him in a compromising situation with Mme Feydeau.
“Please tell nobody,” he begged of me. “If it were to get out that I were having a liaison with my wife, my reputation would be shattered.”
Heady days, indeed. I myself was pursuing an ardent friendship with one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s models, a darling girl whom he had bought from a circus for 5 francs. One day, in fact, as I was dallying with her in the studio, we heard him coming up the stairs which, owing to his size, he climbed on all fours.
“Quick,” she said, “you must hide. He is a terror when jealous and will stab you in the knees. Into this cupboard!”
There was not much room in the cupboard, mostly because it was already occupied by a man holding a piece of furniture. Imagine my thrill when I recognised the Prince of Wales and Sarah Bernhardt’s leg.
“Good morning, young man,’ said the Prince with dignity. “I am, ah, inspecting a work of art which I propose to purchase for the nation.”
Moments later Toulouse Lautrec opened the cupboard door and stabbed me in the knees, but of the Prince there was no sign. So there was a cupboard in the leg after all!
Yes, they were great days and now life seems very dull by comparison. I sometimes take off my trousers and climb into a closet, but it’s not the same, so I climb back out and return to watching television in the curiously carved set that people sometimes admire. They never believe me when I tell them it is the last resting- place of the divine Sarah’s leg.
March 25th 1985