Paris: A Saintly Tour de Force
By Theadora Brack
Paging all saints and old souls: Snuggle tight because it is time to crack open my pleather-bound volume of spirited adventures in Paris for another retelling. ’Tis the season! For tricks, I’ve added new photographs and one divine tale, too. I’ve also got the wine and a tongue-twisting tarte aux pommes—all à la Julia Child ode.
Now, let’s go raise some spirits.
1. Saint Vincent de Paul
Whenever my mood needs a boost, I make a beeline to the Chapel of the Lazarists, tucked behind the Bon Marché department store on rue de Sèvres. It does the trick each and every time. Never looking more beautiful, here Saint Vincent de Paul hovers over the altar. Sprightly, lightly tiptoe up the tight flight of stairs in the back of the sanctuary for a closer view of the reposed gent and patron saint of horses.
Keeping it real
Ordained as a priest in 1600, Saint Vincent not only championed the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy, but he also encouraged them to work together on charity missions financed by public subscriptions (much like today’s Kickstarter funding schemes). Fully embracing crowdsourcing on the streets, the ahead-of-the-curve saint fundraised for prisons, orphanages, and hospitals. Nobody got left behind.
What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?
Absolutely nothing, according to Vincent. Besides, he wrote, “Calm will follow the storm!” A timeless mantra, I do believe. After all, who doesn’t desire a little more tranquility? Suddenly catching Vincent’s contagious optimism, perhaps it’s high time to volunteer with the École du Chat de Clichy organization. Mew it forward!
Witness if you will, a young woman, hailing a taxicab at Place Pigalle. The year is 1922 and the destination is the Pont Neuf. Arriving at the bridge a bumpy ride later, she hands the driver a five-franc note, climbs up on one of the nook-like bastions, and then immediately tumbles over the parapet. Her body isn’t recovered until much later that evening, some distance downstream.
According to newspaper accounts the following day, Alice Marie Dessenne was a seamstress, still sharing a flat with her parents in Montmartre. She had recently fallen head over heels for a pearl dealer from Sri Lanka, but unfortunately, her Prince Charming turned out to be not all that charming. He had fled France before tying the nuptial knot.
But perhaps it’s not so cut-and-dried. Had she jumped, or merely slipped? Did the broken engagement push Alice to the end of her rope, or was that only a red herring? It’s just barely within the realm of possibility, see, that she was on another mission entirely when she took an unexpected dip in the river.
During the weeks leading up to Alice’s fatal plunge, a heat wave had plagued Paris. In every arrondissement, it was hot as a Peugeot’s piston. Temperatures were spiking at 95 degrees, even in the shade. Not so merry, was this particular month of May. To make matters even worse, pet fish had started perishing at an alarming rate.
One Fish, Two Fish
“Paris Mourns Its Goldfish!” read the headlines. Aquariums everywhere were sporting sad ribbons of mourning black, after their little gilded denizens had been found floating belly up.
Luckily, it didn’t take long to trace the fish epidemic back to the water supply. Fearing contamination in the cholera-inducing weather, the city authorities had added a new disinfectant to the reservoirs, “which, excellent as it may be for human consumers, spells disaster to the little fishes, because it renders the water too chemically pure.”
Public service announcements hit the bullhorn. “Many a glass bowl today stands empty. Owners of surviving goldfish are advised to fill the bowls with dirty river water, which is not very easy for inhabitants of Montmartre and other parts of the city far from the Seine.”
A long haul, perhaps, but worth every drop. For the love of her own little goldfish, could this be the real reason why Alice traveled down to the River Seine that fateful day? Was it losing her jewel-dealing beau or trying to save her little living jewel that had led to her desolate demise? It seems we’ll never know.
3. 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.
4. 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.”
5. 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.”
6. Eiffel Tower
A story I often tell: 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.
According to a cousin, the princess had been in a joyous mood.
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.
7. Pont-de l’Alma, Princess Diana
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 Diana 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.”
8. Hôtel Cluny Sorbonne
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.
“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.
9. 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 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.
10. 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?
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 at the end of rue d’Orchampt 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.
12. 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.
Just to End It All on an Odd Number: Cimetière du Père-Lachaise
After dancing with the stars in Montmartre’s marble orchard, trek 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.
14. Victor Noir
You see, according to legend, if you are looking for un grand amour, Victor is your man. Shot in a duel by Prince Pierre Bonaparte in 1870, political journalist Noir became a heroic martyr overnight. Now sculpted in bronze by Jules Dalou in a sexy, hyper-realistic style, he comes “fully equipped.” They say that if rubbed in all the right bright coppery spots, Noir will not only miraculously assist with love and marriage, but also with the baby carriage.
After a session, leaving a perky flower in his top hat typically seals the deal.
15. Allan Kardec
Speaking of wish-granting graves, one of my favorites is that 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!
Clipping from Allan Kardec: ‘Unshakable faith is only that which can face reason in all human epochs.”