By Theadora Brack
Calling all saints and sinners: Snuggle tight because it is time to crack open my slim, spellbound volume of spirited adventures in Paris for another retelling. For tricks, I’ve added a few new tales and photographs. I’ve also got the flashlights, pillows, and blankets, along with the marshmallows and bubbly for toasting. Here are eleven of my favorite spooky grounds.
Now, let’s go raise some spirits!
1. The Unknown Celebrity of the Seine
Among the artsy clutter that once adorned nearly every artist’s lair was a plaster face with a mysterious smile. These were cast from a famous death mask called “L’inconnue de la Seine,” made from an unknown 16-year-old who washed up on the banks of the river in the 1880s with an eerily pleasant expression on her corpse.
Copies quickly became popular fixtures in artists’ studios and salons as well as the inspiration for numerous literary works. Camus called her the “drowned Mona Lisa,” and Nabokov celebrated her in his poetry.
In the 1960s, the nameless girl’s visage was resurrected once again as the face of “Resusci Anne,” the rubber CPR training dummy. Because of this, hers is sometimes called “the most-kissed face of all time.” Consider tossing a flower in the water for her as you stroll along the Seine.
2. Le Petit Homme Rouge
Whilst traipsing through the Jardin des Tuileries, do keep your eyes peeled for “Le Petit Homme Rouge.” We have astrology-maniac Catherine de Médici to thank for this angel of vengeance. Prior to becoming an otherworldly imp, personal butcher Jean l’Écorcheur (a.k.a., “the Little Red Man”) had earned his bread as the queen’s favorite henchman.
Cutting to the chase: After making a killing (so to speak), little Jean was murdered in turn by Catherine herself, apparently because he knew too many of her darker secrets. I know! Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to shine at the workplace. Like the old Russian proverb puts it, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
During his final moments Jean is said to have muttered, “Je serai de retour!” beating the Terminator’s “I’ll be back” by two hundred years.
And back he came.
Like a bad penny, that’s how he rolled. “Le Petit Homme Rouge” not only revisited Catherine, but he also dilly-dallied with Henry IV, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and Napoleon—never spreading joy but always bringing horrific fortune to the royal lot.
As Catherine herself might say with a little hindsight vision now, “Never double-cross a butcher—he’ll get you coming and going.”
3. Saint Denis
During my Rocky-inspired runs on the steep slopes of Montmartre, I often pay homage to the patron saint of both France and headaches, Saint Denis—who, after some Romans gave him the décapitation treatment in nearby Abbesses, reportedly picked up his own head and hiked on over the hill another eight kilometers (all the way to the eponymous suburb), stopping only once for water. I’ll have what he’s having! It just goes to show you the importance of staying hydrated while exercising. Now I’m a believer.
Heads-up: The saint’s statue is located in the little Square Suzanne Buisson at 7 rue Girardon, near the top of the hill. But if you go, for heaven sakes don’t be a bling ring menace. Back in the day, as a daredevil tried to pet, borrow, or steal one of the ornamental gold pigeons that once graced this site, he was suddenly pushed by an invisible force. According to his motley crew, after the shove, he took a tumble, falling on his very own lance. Ouch. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” as Aretha would say. Just do it.
Weird Terminology Time
Saint Denis is far from the only saint to have kept on going like a certain Battery Bunny despite being rendered sans tête. Over the years there were eventually enough of them, in fact, that the term “cephalophore” was coined, from the Greek for “head-carrier.”
4. Eiffel Tower
The worlds tallest building for more than 40 years, the Eiffel Tower was a virtual magnet for suicides. From the get-go, folks started jumping off it like there’s no tomorrow. In fact, it’s still one of the most popular spots to commit suicide in all of Europe. She may not have been the first to say it, but perhaps she was the most memorable: “So sorry to rain on your parade,” Princess Anna Troubetzkoy shouted, as she lept from the top on Bastille Day in mid-July 1931. At first it was ruled accidental, but then a farewell note was found in her bag.
The mysterious back story: A few months before, Anna had married a certain Prince Sergei in New York. They kicked off their European honeymoon in June and were set to renew their four-month vows in August when they reached Russia. So what happened? Was she already envisioning endless crash diets and yet another round of dress fittings? (Heck, we’ve all been there!)
Nobody knows for sure, but obviously something had already gone enough astray between the lovebirds to make her decide to fly the coop so dramatically.
5. Pont-de l’Alma, Princess Di
Just outside the Pont de l’Alma Métro station is the “Flamme de la Liberté” memorial, which now serves double duty as the unofficial Princess Di shrine. Pilgrims still leave poems, flowers, and love letters there.
According to my friend Ghislaine, who worked on two documentary films about the crash that killed the fallen Princess, “There are definitely ghosts in the Alma tunnel. After many nights spent filming there, I can tell you it’s eerie. It was if Diana’s ghost was trying to urge us to find the truth. And I was certainly not the only one to feel this.”
6. Hôtel Cluny Sorbonne
Trekking to Paris? I’ve got the place for you. Located in the Latin Quarter near the Université de la Sorbonne and Panthéon, the Hôtel Cluny Sorbonne has always attracted starving poets and Lonely Hearts, too. Here La Vie de Bohème can still be found in its coveted reflection-inducing garret rooms.
Poet on Fire: In fact, in room 62 is where visionary poet Arthur Rimbaud composed the ultimate break-up, “he’s just not into you” opus, upon his fiery return to Paris in 1872.
And speaking of another Rimbaud poem, “Eternité,” do keep a watch for spirits. The place is rumored to be flush with glowing literary orbs. Experiencing writer’s block? Perhaps one will lend a guiding hand.
Just bask: “I have stretched ropes from bell-tower to bell-tower; garlands from window to window; chains of gold from star to star, and I dance!” Monsieur Rimbaud brilliantly penned.
7. Arc de Triomphe
Almost immediately after it was completed, people began heaving themselves off the Arc de Triomphe’s rooftop parapet, after climbing all 284 steps to get there.
(Did they not spot the gift shop?)
Occasionally a skirt would tangle and catch on a cornice, leaving the poor women (which nearly all of them were) dangling a few long moments above the horrified crowds below, until the seams would give way and they’d plunge to their deaths.
Figuring out which police station to contact after one of these unfortunate incidents has always been a major source of confusion, because the monument sits at the juncture of four arrondissements and they’ve never clearly settled whether it’s the departure spot or the point of arrival (i.e., the sidewalk) that should be the determining factor when establishing proper jurisdiction.
Atop the Arc, look out for a particular spirit named Rose. After quarreling with her beau on Bastille Day in 1914, Rose jumped, narrowly missing throngs of tourists in her tumble. Our hobble-skirt clad fashionista was “dressed expensively and well,” according to the newspaper report.
Just what is it about Bastille Day that drives folks to make the leap? Is it the uniforms or the martial music?
8. Notre Dame
A young woman known only by the initials “M.J.” appeared at the cathedral on a cold and rainy October day in 1882, begging to climb the tower. She was refused, because back in the day, single women weren’t allowed to ascend without a chaperone.
So what to do? She quickly spotted an elderly lady who was also touring the church and decided to make fast friends. After buying her breakfast at a nearby café, M.J. asked the lady to tour the tower with her. The older woman agreed and they headed back to the church.
By the time the pair reached the upper parapets, rain had begun to pour. While her new-found companion sheltered in the bell-ringer’s room, the maiden screamed and apparently jumped. According to witnesses, she fell onto the spiked railings below and was neatly severed in two. No identification was found in her bag, but her kerchief was marked with the initials “M.J.”
Poof: As for the old lady who agreed to escort her, she seems to have disappeared into thin air, too. If you happen to visit Notre Dame, keep one eye peeled for either one—they’ve both been seen flitting between the gargoyles.
Pack the opera glasses, I say. Do let us know if you spot them!
On May 3, 1987, Yolanda Gigliotti, better known as the pop idol Dalida, took a handful of pills, put on her sunglasses and “left our world for another,” as a fan website afterwards put it. Ever since, the house has never felt quite the same. However, sometimes a shadowy figure appears at the window as if to greet her fans—and she certainly still has them by the millions.
In addition to the house, the late diva’s life-size sculpture is in the Cimetière de Montmartre, while her rather busty bust is at the junction of rues Girardon and Abreuvoir. Both memorials are often rubbed for luck, especially before athletic and musical competitions. Her greatest hit? “Itsy-Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” . . . of course.
10. Cimetière de Montmartre
After spending time with the head-to-toe Dalida, visit Marie Taglioni’s shrine, in another part of the same cemetery. Paying homage to the ballerina, dancers from all over the world still leave their well-worn ballet slippers (sometimes with little notes). The sight of these heartfelt gestures has never failed to lift my own spirits. It’s true.
Winding it back: Though Marie Taglioni was hardly the first to dance en pointe or don the muslin skirt (skimming the ankle, much to the delight of every binocular-carrying fan!), she’s the one who made it her own.
“Shorten your dress just a little,” begged one admirer, according to a newspaper report in 1884. Taglioni’s popularity launched her name into the lingo: the verb Taglioniser means “to be slender and graceful.” And most coveted coiffeur? À la sylphide!
11. Just to End It All on an Odd Number: Cimetière du Père-Lachaise
After dancing with the stars in Montmartre’s marble orchard, hotfoot it on over to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, where you’ll not only find the graves of famous folks like Chopin, Balzac, Modigliani, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and, some say, Jim Morrison, but a few final resting places that are even more interesting because of the behaviors they induce.
One of my favorites is the grave of Allan Kardec in section 44. Here you can discreetly watch as true believers in spiritualism not only come to caress the shoulders of the bronze bust glaring from its niche (under what looks to be a crude prehistoric dolmen), and to whisper messages in order to “telephone” their dead loved ones in his ear, but often also to put in requests for winning lottery numbers.
Behind the tomb is an official warning from the city of Paris (akin to the surgeon-general’s warning on a pack of cigarettes) to the effect that the municipal government can’t be sued if your numbers don’t win. On the flipside: France is still a hotspot of afterlife activity—it’s no accident that words like séance, clairvoyant, and déjà vu are all French terms. So Bonne Chance!
Tip: It’s worth buying a map at the entrance to help you locate Kardec and the others. The best time to watch the action is early in the morning.
Clipping from Allan Kardec: ‘Unshakable faith is only that which can face reason in all human epochs.”
Now, let’s seek out more traces from the past. Carpe diem!
By Theadora Brack
Jet setting to Paris? Cuckoo for running? Well then, why not just go with the flow, pack the shoes, and compete in one of the city’s grande classiques?
Here’s the squeal: Racing in France is thrilling. The excitement is palpable, even before the gun sounds. Every race is different and half the fun is getting into the groove of the course du jour. Plus, I can’t think of a finer way to hobnob with Paris’s past and present, than by charging cheek by jowl with the compression-clad, while dashing past the bright sights of the city. Gushing all Proustian: It does the trick every time.
As Papa Hem once preached: “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus, you remember them as they actually are.”
That goes double for traveling by foot. In fact, I am training for a few upcoming races. So tighten your laces. Here are a few of my favorite races in France. Bygone it, Atalanta—Ready! Set! Bolt! (more…)
By Theadora Brack
It’s summertime and the boasting is Skid-Dat-De-Dat easy, breezy. That’s right. This week, I’ve got good news to share, along with a classic French cocktail recipe—perfect for your outdoor shindigs and shenanigans. It’s another win-grin-sin, I do declare.
Here’s the squeal: France Today magazine has made me their Paris columnist, and I’m head over heels about it. Based in the U.K., this gorgeous rag has been around since 1985. Making no bones about it: I am over-the-super-lune thrilled to be part of their team!
So, in celebration of the nouveau gig and Woody Allen’s brand-spanking-new “Magic in the Moonlight” flick, let’s flock on down to the Côte d’Azure. (more…)
By Theadora Brack
Start spreading the news because we’re leaving today! In celebration of the recent July 14th Bastille Day in France, let’s pay homage to my favorite Franco-American collaboration, the gigantesque statue of Lady Liberty on Bedloe’s Island in the New York Harbor.
Up my sleeve, I’ve got a few new tidbits and photographs, along with one taken by our own special photographer friend, Maurice Sapiro. While playing the trumpet with the 279th Army Band in Europe in 1956, Maurice documented the streets of France. Inspired by the Lumière Autochrome color film process, his shots snap, crackle and pop! (more…)
By Theadora Brack
It’s that most wonderful time of the year for shoppers in Paris. This year, “Les Soldes d’Eté” launch on Wednesday June 25. So in celebration, I’m not only updating my big summer sales tip sheet, but I’m also shining a bright spotlight on one of my favorite artists, Fifi Flowers.
Inspired by artists like Henri Matisse and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Fifi paints the City of Light in bright hues, bold strokes, and intricate curlicues. Possessing retro whimsy, her signature brand of wit and charm captures Paris’s shapely Art Nouveau street furniture, sleek black iron balustrades and manicured flowerbeds, along with cocktails, poodles, and scooter bikes—all girly, glamorous, and gussied-up to the nines in nifty, fifty shades of pink.
As Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening!” Mais oui! (more…)
By Theadora Brack
Keeping on our tipsy toes, we’ve been spring cleaning here on Planet Bling like there’s no tomorrow. Next week we’ll be back on track with a fresh batch of tales about the City of Light. Fancy a swing by the Opéra Garnier? Step-by-step, I’m with you. For kicks, I’ll reveal a slew of newly-acquired tidbits about the historical palace, along with Sun King’s Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris and Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Black Swans, this pas de deux is for you! (more…)
By Theadora Brack
As promised, this week we’re going to shimmy back up to the hill of Montmartre, and pay homage to my favorite movie house in Paris, Cinema Studio 28. Don’t forget to pack your fancy duds, too, because we’ll also trek it back in time again with photographer Maurice Sapiro. Winding it back to the summer of 1956: While playing the trumpet with the 279th Army Band in France, Maurice documented the streets of Paris, deftly improvising with light and architectural texture like a jazz musician. Inspired by the Lumière Autochrome color film process, Maurice’s shots still snap, crackle and pop, much like the City of Light herself. In the words of John Milton, “Come and trip it as you go, on the light fantastic toe!” Step right up. Here’s your ticket! (more…)
By Theadora Brack
Today we’re going to swap our Belle Époque frothy petticoats for some pencil skirts and starched Peter Pan collars. Maybe put a few Chubby Checker 45s on the Hi-Fi, too. That’s right, twisting time is near, so grab the vintage cocktails and the gingham-lined picnic basket. Dear Mad Men fanatics, this tease is for you. Here’s the squeal: Next week, we’re going to take a joy ride back up the hill of Montmartre, and visit my pet movie house, Studio 28 Cinema, the only theater in the historic ’hood.
And that’s not all, Folks!
I’ll also introduce you to one of my favorite photographers in the world. Flashback to August, 1956: While playing the trumpet with the 279th Army Band in France, Maurice Sapiro hit the cobblestoned streets of Paris running, with camera in hand. Inspired by the Lumière Autochrome color film process, he documented the Paris cityscape with fervor, ardor and zeal, capturing her dramatic skies, sunsets and glittering lights like no other. It was a game changer. (more…)
By Theadora Brack
Embracing ice skates, glitter, and sequins, this week, let’s glide on up to the Moulin Rouge, sitting pretty in the hills of Montmartre. That’s right. Get ready for some more time travel as smooth and exciting as a vintage Johnny Weir solid gold triple axel. He is still my hero. However, did you catch Yevgeny Plushenko shining like a diamond as he skated to the “Tango de Roxanne” from Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack (2001)? His quad toe / triple toe possessed mass appeal in my book. Love will lift us up where we belong! Indeed!
You will be missed, Monsieur.
Now, let’s grab soda pops at the nearby Monoprix, and commandeer a bench with a view of the centuries-old Moulin Rouge. Spirits are high and I’ve got a tale to spin. Lean in because it’s show-time. (more…)
By Theadora Brack
Chim chim-in-ey! Chim, chim, chérie! Get your glad rags and wiggle on, jazz babies and pêcheurs de lune! With the discerning eyeball of a dandy and the goddess Fortuna statue neatly tucked in our pocket, let’s swing by the Clignancourt Flea Market (Marché aux puces de Saint-Ouen) for some old-fashioned, toe-tapping, bodice-ripping window-shopping, shall we? Get to picking!
Flashback: In the 19th century, the infamous “rag and bone men” (forerunners of today’s “dumpster divers”) kicked-off the big flea frenzy. Trekking to Paris? Get thee there. Clignancourt’s eclectic palace-worthy collection continues to charm. In fact, the bustling centuries-old market had a cameo in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Confession: Yes, the movie was a tad hokey pokey in places, but I fell gladly for it. Fantasizing about time travel always makes my heart swell. Larger than life, Yves Heck as Cole Porter was simply divine. Paris, you DO do something to me. (more…)