It was early morning when Olivier arrived at the de Florian apartment. The street cleaners had not long moved on, leaving the tarmac of the road still wet and smelling like rain. Two waiters from the Boulangerie opposite were busily arranging tables and chairs along the footpath in preparation for the morning’s trade.
The delicious aroma of fresh coffee and caramelised sugar emanating from the portals of the Boulangerie proved impossible to resist. Olivier succumbs and orders a takeaway coffee and a warm flaky croissant filled with cheese. Eschewing the inviting arrangement of tables and chairs on the footpath, he crosses the street to the apartment.
Once inside the flat he moves decisively through its rooms, opening the windows and shutters. The morning sunlight, followed by a sharp zephyr of breeze quickly disperses the shadows and the cloyingly stale, torpid air.
In Marthe’s boudoir, Olivier takes a paper napkin and carefully wipes clean the dust from a pretty hand painted table. Setting his breakfast down on it, Olivier then makes himself comfortable in a commodious Louis armchair, ignoring the great plume of dust exploding around him as he settles into its seat.
With greedy alacrity the buttery croissant is soon disposed of, and, after wiping clean from his fingers the clinging flakes of pastry, Olivier pulls forth from his leather satchel, Marthe’s journal.
Just a few pages, he vows to himself, while I’m finishing my coffee and then I will start working. Casting a quick glance at Marthe’s portrait, almost as if he were reassuring himself of her luminous beauty, Olivier eagerly opens the journal…..
Marthe’s Journal 1880 – 1884.
Its enviable the fearlessness of youth. The belief that all things are possible. The wonderful ability not to see or perhaps, to deliberately ignore, the potential pitfalls or dubious consequences once a course of action has been decided upon.
It was the nescience of youth that gave me the confidence and self-belief to approach Monsieur Edouard Marchand, Entrepreneur and Manager, of the famous Folies Bergere Theatre.
I could sing, I was a natural mimic, and I was more than passably pretty. What further credentials were required of an actress? I didn’t aspire to be a Grande Dame of the theatre. The Folies Bergere with its repertory of musical comedy, operetta, short plays and exotic dancers suited my modest talents perfectly.
Its reputation as the theatre where the most beautiful actresses were on display night after night, attracted gentlemen of discernment, usually very rich, very generous and extremely desirous for the company of a beautiful woman. It was perhaps for that reason alone I was most keen to become one of its players. It would be, hopefully, the perfect vehicle to showcase my beauty and launch me into the upper echelons of the demimonde.
I was hopeful Monsieur Marchand would find inspiration, if not in my blushing abilities as an actress at least then in my undoubted comeliness.
It was indeed fortunate for me that my mother could claim a tenuous acquaintance with the well known theatre manager. She had, while still enjoying the protection of the kind Monsieur Delacourt, met Edouard Marchand on various social occasions. The two men had been friends and business associates .
The financial patronage of M. Delacourt and his deep abiding belief in the entrepreneurial skills of the talented theatre Manager had led to some of the of most extravagant and successful spectacles ever witnessed in Belle Epoque Paris. The partnership propelled M. Marchand to the top of his field and had helped establish the Folies Bergere as the most glamorous and famous theatre in the whole of Europe.
It was I suspect, the association my mother had enjoyed with his dear friend M. Delacourt, that Edouard Marchand agreed to meet with me. He also however, may have heard of the parlous circumstances in which my mother and I now found ourselves and was moved to act in kindness.
On the day of the interview I woke feeling miserably nervous and just as I was about to leave the apartment, the panic of doubt swept swept through me. If it hadn’t been for my mother’s encouraging words – “You look beautiful darling. Monsieur Marchand cannot but be moved by your loveliness” – I doubt I would have made it out the door.
When I arrived at the theater however, and adjusted the bodice of my gown, borrowed from my mother, to show better the pert fullness of my breasts, the stage door attendant gave a low whistle; I laughed and gave him an impudent wink. Suddenly I felt much reassured.
“I’ve come to see Monsieur Marchand. He’s expecting me. May I go in?” The young attendant made bold by my flirtatiousness, cheekily demanded, “And who may I say is asking for him?”
It was on the tip of my tongue to answer Mathilde Beaugrion and then I remembered, this was my new beginning. An opportunity to reinvent myself, to leave Mathilde behind, to leave behind the awfulness of poverty and the attendant despair associated with that dreadful state.
“You can tell him, Marthe de Florian is here to wait upon him.” I said, very pleased with the satisfying, aristocratic sound my new name had.
Opening the door wide the man gestured for me to follow. It was dark inside for the only illumination came from a huge chandelier that hung above the stage. There was a sour smell of human sweat but overlaying that was the more pervasive smells of greasepaint and stale perfume.
“Mademoiselle de Florian to see you Monsieur Marchand.” , announced the man into the darkness of the auditorium. Turning to leave, the attendant whispered, ‘“Good luck Mademoiselle” and then he was gone, leaving me to stand alone in the circle of light on the stage.
“Your mother tells me that you want to go on the stage” a disembodied voice called from the shadows, I hesitated and then cast my most alluring smile; the one I had practiced in the mirror just before leaving home, in the direction from whence the voice came.
The corners of my mouth began to quiver and I felt slightly breathless. “Yes I do. Will you give me a part?”
Edouard Marchand laughed softly and then out of the shadows he emerged. A tall man with carefully manicured moustache and side whiskers, dressed in a tailored suit of pearl grey silk.
“Let down your hair and walk around the stage, so I can look at you.”
Removing the pins from my hair, allowed it to fall in heavy tawny waves around my face. I knew my hair to be glorious and holding my ribs high to show off my full pert breasts and small waist, I walked the length of the stage.
Coming to a standstill in front him, I was asked to raise my skirts to above my knees. After having appraised me carefully as a man might do when buying a horse, he asked, “What else can you do Mademoiselle, besides looking beautiful?”
“I can sing and I can dance.”
Marchand nodded,“Good, that’s half an actress’s business. But can you read a part?
‘Yes”, I replied, although I had never tried.
“No need to worry about that now. But I would like to hear you sing.”
For a moment I hesitated then clearing my throat I began to sing. I chose a saucy street-ballad about mistaken identity and lost love. I have a full, voluptuous quality to my voice which can make a far more innocent song seem suggestive and exciting.
I moved gracefully about the stage, acting out the lines of the song, all my self-consciousness gone in my passionate determination to please.
When at last the song came to an end I sank to a deep curtsy and then lifted my head to smile at him with eager questioning eyes, he clapped his hands.
“Bravo Mademoiselle! You are spectacular! In a week’s time we are giving a performance of “The Mistress’s Dilemma” Come to rehearsal at nine tomorrow morning and I will have a part in it for you.”
I had no expectation of playing the lead but I was seriously disappointed to discover the next morning I was to be merely one of a crowd in a Ball scene and had not so much as a single word to speak.
Monsieur Marchand encouraged me by saying that if I were to attract the attention of the audience as he felt sure I would, he would put me in more important parts. Pretty young women were very much in demand for the stage, and if the gentlemen liked you, bigger and better roles would surely follow.
I had rather naively expected camaraderie from the other women players but they had already formed a tight clique and were jealous and suspicious of any outsider trying to break into their closed ranks. They ignored me when I spoke to them, tittered and whispered behind my back, hid my costume on the day of the dress rehearsal, all in the obvious hope of making me so unhappy I would leave the company.
I was soon to learn that other women were not important to my success or happiness and I refused to let their pettiness and jealousy trouble me. Marthe de Florian was here to stay and more importantly she was here to prosper!
At last the day of the performance arrived and after a restless night spent tossing and turning, wracked with doubt and apprehension I awoke, very anxious to begin the day.
I arrived at the theatre at noon, well in advance of the play’s starting time, which was at three in the afternoon. I wanted plenty of time to apply my stage make-up and not have to fight the other women for a share of the mirror. The common dressing room was a crowded, damp space, smelling of sweat and cheap perfume.
It was also a utility room used for storing costumes, false – hair, false- beards, false -noses, fanciful stage scenery and other mysterious – at least to me – theatre paraphernalia.
These chaotic working conditions were for only the most lowly players of which I happened to be one. The more successful and sought after actresses enjoyed private dressing rooms where there was ample room to dress, and to leisurely paint their faces and, if they were so inclined, to take a glass of champagne before their performance. Champagne was believed to give an extra sparkle to a woman’s beauty and an exciting verve to her performance.
For some older actresses, fearful their allure was fading and that their performances were lacking youthful energy there was the more sinister and intoxicating elixir of champagne laced with cocaine. This concoction might invigorate and give you a marvellous sense of invincibility but it also could lead to a debilitating addiction.
Because it was so early I found the entire theatre empty but for a couple of backstage-hands moving scenery and the lighting person preparing the enormous chandelier that was to hang above the heads of the audience.
In those days the theatre-goer expected the auditorium to be as brightly lit, as the stage itself, if not more so, thus allowing the audience – should the entertainment prove other than engaging – the opportunity to raise their Opera – glasses and scan the pretty faces in the surrounding private boxes.
By the time the other actresses began to arrive I was painted and dressed and had left the stifling confines of the dressing room. I wanted to watch the audience from behind the curtains.
The pit was already full with dandies, grisettes, prostitutes and pretty girls selling fruit and refreshments, all of them noisy and laughing and shouting to acquaintances all over the theatre.
The galleries were still mostly empty except for a few men and women anxious to secure a good seat. They sat fanning themselves with their programs for the great chandelier above them irradiated considerable warmth with its many gaslight candles.
Finally the boxes began to fill with splendidly gowned and bejewelled ladies, languid self-absorbed beauties who were already bored with the play before it had even begun.
I stood looking out, my throat dry, and my heart beating a fierce tattoo in nervous anticipation, when suddenly a howl of pain came from the direction of Hortense d’ Albert’s dressing room. She was the star of the play and Queen of the Folies Bergere, famous for her a great beauty, and notorious for her, capriciousness , mean spiritedness and vindictiveness, making her possibly the most feared woman in the company.
She jealously guarded her position as the premier star and was ruthless in her determination to see off all possible rivals. It was she who had orchestrated the campaign of hurtfulness toward me and encouraged the other actresses to carry out small acts of sabotage, like the hiding of my costume at dress rehearsal and putting ground chillies into my rouge pot. An old trick used to temporarily disfigure a rival’s beauty by causing burning and swelling. I quickly learned to take my paint home with me and not leave it the dressing room where it could be tampered with.
A small group of players had gathered at the open door of Hortense’s dressing room. I could see the actress sobbing, obviously in pain and frantically sponging her eyes with a moistened towel. Her panicked maid was shrilly demanding a doctor be called and for someone to fetch Monsieur Marchand.
Within moments Edouard Marchand was striding through the group, effectively silencing our whispered speculations by demanding we should make ourselves scarce and find something useful to do.
Suitably chastened, the crowd melt away and I returned to my position behind the curtain. I was consumed with curiosity regarding the drama that was unfolding in Hortense’s dressing room. What had happened to the actress’s eyes?
“Pardon me Madame.”, a deep voice sounded from behind me. Startled, I turned to see a tall handsome man, elegantly dressed with deep set eyes and soaring cheek bones . His smiling, sensuous mouth revealed strong white teeth, made even more so, by contrasting with a luxuriant black moustache.
“I’m Monsieur George Clemenceau. I believe someone needs the services of a Doctor. Although I no longer practice these days, I may still be of some use.”
At first I’m flustered by the intensity and brazenness of his gaze, then quickly regaining my composure, I say, “Its Madame d’Albert you’re looking for. Please come this way.”
And, as I walk I’m suddenly possessed by the discomforting feeling that despite being fully clothed, the gentleman following me is completely cognisant of my body and it’s form. It felt as if I were parading through the theatre in my natural state.
Arriving at Hortense’s dressing room I knock on the door. I can hear raised voices and crying coming from the the other side.
Suddenly the door is flung open, revealing Monsieur Marchand looking worried, angry and almost at his wits end. Ignoring me, he demands of my companion, “Are you the Doctor?”
“ Monsieur Clemenceau at your service.”, says the doctor, taking the theatre managers hand in a firm grip. Edouard Marchand, his relief patently evident says without further preamble, “Your patient is inside.”
As the Doctor moves into the room he turns to me smiling, his hooded eyes, obsidian and glittering with suppressed desire. “A good day to you Madame and I hope to meet again, soon.”
With the deliberate emphasis on the word soon, his eyes lock with mine. Seconds pass until the spell is eventually broken with an interruption from the increasingly impatient Monsieur Marchand, “Monsieur if you please. Your patient waits! ”
The doctor bows his head a fraction, in acknowledgment of the rebuke and moves into the dressing room, closing the door quietly after him.
Monsieur Marchand turns to me,“Marthe, listen to me carefully.”, the urgency in his voice immediately drives all thoughts of the attractive doctor from my mind. “Madame d’Albert has sustained a serious injury to her eyes and I have no doubt she will not be able to play her part this afternoon.”
Although Hortense d’Albert was no friend of mine I could no but help feel some concern for the actress. “Why, what’s the matter with her eyes? A fleeting look of frustration crosses his face only to be replaced immediately by one of tired resignation.
“She is a victim of her own colossal vanity.” Taking a moment to compose himself he continues, “She has blinded herself with the stupid overuse of belladonna drops. I can only hope it is a temporary condition and not a permanent one.”
I’m appalled. Belladonna or deadly nightshade as it is more commonly known, was widely used as a cosmetic, especially in theatrical circles. A small drop to each eye causes the the pupil to dilate thus giving the eyes a deeply mysterious luminosity. A dangerous practice often causing nausea, blurry vision and to the serious devotee even blindness.
Monsieur Marchand takes my hand in a desperate grip and its with incredulous disbelief I hear him say, “ Marthe, I want you to take her place!” But as I open my mouth to vehemently protest he puts a finger to my lips. “Stop! Listen to me! You can do it ! I’ve been watching you in rehearsals. You know the part and I’ve heard you singing the songs. You’re the right age, the part is really one for an ingenue, Hortense while undoubtedly beautiful is technically too old for this part.”
My heart is pumping I want so very much to say yes, but what if I fail, what if everyone laughs at me and I’m ignominiously booed from the stage. “There must be another actress you can call on, someone more experienced than I.” I cry frantically.
“Marthe, Marthe! Trust me you can do it. I wouldn’t put you on the stage if I didn’t truly believe you will make a success of it. Sure, I have more seasoned actresses I can call on, but the part calls for the freshness of youth and your beauty is without peer. Will you do it?”
Tumultuous emotions rage through me, fear, pride, hope but the premier feeling is one of complete exultation. I knew the part, and the songs. An opportunity such as this comes but once in your life. Of course I would do it. And without further deliberation, banishing all doubt from my fevered mind I say to M. Marchand, “Yes, I will do it!”……………….
Olivier closes Marthe’s journal and quickly slides it into his satchel. He has heard footsteps on the stairs, then moments later a knock on the apartment door. The assistants, as promise by Marc Ottavi to help with the cataloguing of the de Florian estate, have arrived. Olivier reluctantly makes his way to the door, he would have so much rather stayed in the company of the fascinating Marthe…… to be continued.