Paris: 5 Tales from the Tub
By Theadora Brack
Celebrating cooler weather and fresh starts, let’s take the plunge. And why not? “After a hot bath, I’m ready to take on the world,” is what my indomitable grandmother used to say. Napoleon would have loved her. In fact, one of his own favorite mantras was, “Water, air, and cleanliness are the chief articles in my pharmacy.”
I couldn’t agree more. So let’s recharge the batteries with five bizarre bath tales from the City of Light. I’ll grab the towels and bubby, while you fill the tub.
1. Puttin’ on the Ritz
After an extreme makeover, the Hôtel Ritz Paris has reopened. Down through the years, the hotel has seen the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Charlie Chaplin, and Greta Garbo, along with Sophia Loren, Orson Welles, and Marlene Dietrich — just to name a few. Let’s not forget Hemingway, either.
Hem’s wife Mary wrote, “Marlene used to wander down to Ernest’s room to sit on his bathtub and sing to him while he shaved, and they both forgave me when I mimicked her.” Oh, la la. It is a small world.
King of the Hoteliers
César Ritz (a.k.a. “Host to the World”) opened the Hôtel Ritz in 1898. Adding posh and circumstance, rooms were outfitted with telephones, electricity, and bathrooms. With real tubs! But in a rare fit of pique, wet blanket Oscar Wilde missed the point. “Who wants an immovable washing basin in one’s room?” he whined. “Hide the thing. I prefer to ring for water when I need it.” Oh, Oscar.
Here’s another royal blush: After King Edward VII got stuck in a bathtub at the hotel during a ménage à trois, Monsieur Ritz swiftly installed king-sized tubs in all the rooms. After all, this “host with the most” was also credited with having coined the phrase: “The customer is never wrong.” Rub-a-Dub-Dub!
2. Turn on your love light
Ever since Louis XIV cried, “Let there be light,” tourists have been flocking to Paris. Under his reign, Paris became the first city in the world to illuminate its streets after dark, turning it into the world’s premier tourist destination practically over (a well-lit) night. It’s been the City of Lights ever since.
One of the establishments that flourished under Louis XIV’s lighting initiative was his very own bathhouse. Operated by the Sun King’s first valet de chamber, Francois Quentin, here is where he went for rubdowns with essential oils, hair removal, and the occasional “indulgence.” Yes, sometimes, according to palace gossip, the Duc Saint-Simon, his highness would take a little comfortati (a.k.a. “aphrodisiac”). Wowza.
Trekking to Paris? Don’t miss the king’s octagonal bathtub at Versailles. Restored in 1936, it’s made from a single block of reddish violet and creamy white marble. Installed in the palace in 1773 and costing a whopping 14,000 18th century dollars, it weighed in at an impressive ten tons. Imagine Oscar ringing for that.
According to dancer Gabrielle Deslys, the best way to cleanse the skin while improving circulation was to travel to the seashore, collect some salty beach sand, and then heat it before scrubbing the skin until it glows.
“Every morning I have my bath. But, unlike most people, I do not dry myself with towels. A quantity of the finest sea sand is heated until it is quite hot and brought in on a large piece of canvas, and when I get out of the tub, I am rubbed with this sand until I am not only perfectly dry, but until my skin has attainted a perfect polish, and feels soft and satiny to the touch.”
“Afterwards, I am comfortable and so happy that if I were a kitten, I could purr.” Gaby wrote from her own black marble bathtub in 1912.
Mademoiselle Deslys was also known for a dance called the “Gaby Glide,” and is credited with having performed the first strip tease on Broadway—while serving as a spy for the French government. Talk about a multi-tasker!
Get out your Geiger counters. After WWI, radioactive face creams, toothpaste, lipsticks, and bath salts were all the rage. In 1932, Dr. Alfred Curie (apparently—and amazingly—no relation to Madame Curie) launched the Tho-Radia line of beauty products, which promised lighter, brighter complexions. And no wonder he could stake that claim—they were made with glow-in-the-dark thorium chloride and radium bromide.
Advertisements featured a cool blonde washed in an eerie, bluish light who taunted, “Stay old if you want.” But Paul Frame, a curator of radioactive consumer goods, warns against the temptation to collect the Tho-Radia line because it’s still “an inhalation hazard that your lungs will not thank you for.” In other words, it’s not such a bright idea.
5. All Washed Up
Napoleon bathed regularly, back during a time when the average European bathed only once every few weeks. He even brought his bathtub with him on military campaigns. Legend has it that his beloved bathtub was lost on the morning of the fateful battle of Waterloo. At the time, he thought it as a very bad omen. It’s true—you could say he was all washed up!
A stickler for first-rate hygiene, Napoleon’s toiletry kit included a shaving basin, soap, licorice, a pair of tweezers for plucking the beard, toothbrushes, tongue scrapers, razors in mother of pearl and gold, combs, scissors, gimlets, cork-screws, a looking glass in a matted gold frame, and an ear picker—along with large gilt bottles for Eau de Cologne.
Cuckoo for the citrus-scented Eau de Cologne, Napoleon emptied as many as sixty bottles per month. All other scents were abolished, wrote his valet, Louis Constant Wairy. According to his faithful servant, the “Little Corporal” also had a habit of pitching his garments all over the room, believing—as Napoleon himself put it—that you “Throw off your worries when you throw off your clothes at night!”
I know the feeling. It’s quite therapeutic. And I wake up ready to take on the world, too!