I’m Tony Perrottet, a writer and historian living in the East Village Manhattan. I travel the world looking for salacious historical secrets, and have just written a book called The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe. It recounts my journey through Britain, France and Italy looking at the ways in which sex and travel have been intertwined, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the “Grand Tour” was an excuse for all sorts of carnal adventures.
I’m going to be blogging about sex and travel until July 26, when I’ll be giving a talk on the subject at MoSex with my friend Elisabeth Eaves.
One of the central chapters of the book is about Paris, which has always been legendary for its erotic mystique…
IT’S HARD TO FIND A GOOD “SEX CHAIR” THESE DAYS…
But such was not the case in belle époque Paris.
Back in the “beautiful era” of the 1880s and 1890s, celebrated in modern films like Moulin Rouge!, a notorious erotic device was kept in one of the brothels called Le Chabanais. It was built for use by the British Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who was nicknamed “Dirty Bertie” due to his enormous appetites for both food and sex.
At the time, the City of Eternal Love was world famous for its range of legalized luxury bordellos, and Le Chabanais was the most opulent of all. Discreetly hidden on a quiet little street just around the corner from the Louvre, in a district dubbed by the English roué Lord Hereford “the clitoris of Paris, it offered a range of “fantasy rooms” popular with European royalty, politicians and stars of the stage. In this erotic Disneyland, clients could choose from the Hindu Room, the Louis XV room, the Venetian Room and the Pompeii Room. There was even a Pirate Room, where scantily-clad belles would throw pails of water against a cabin window to give the illusion of sailing on the high seas.
As the Prince of Wales grew more obese, he ordered the construction of a fauteuil d’amour – “love throne” or “sex chair” – so that he could lower himself onto the working girls without crushing them with his enormous bulk. The bizarre item became a Parisian tourist attraction – it may have been used by Fatty Arbunkle and Herman Goering, two regulars at Le Chabanais, and was certainly admired by clients including Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart in the 1930s. It remained in Le Chabanais until 1945, when the French Government closed down the hundreds of legalized brothels in Paris, ending the so-called “golden age” of the city’s prostitution. It was last seen at auction in 1951, and memory of it faded, preserved only in a few grainy black and white photographs.
For The Sinner’s Grand Tour I decided to track down this legendary relic. Following an 1883 prostitute guide called The Pretty Women of Paris, I found the once-elegant edifice of the brothel at No. 12 Rue Chabanais. (It’s now an office building, although the staircase and the wrought-iron elevators are original; the concierge proudly recalled its former fame). Across the street is Paris’ only boutique of erotic historical photography, Au Bonheur du Jour, whose owner, Nicole Canet, gave me some tips as to its movements through various auction houses. Finally, I contacted the great-great-grandson of the original manufacturer, Louis Soubrier, who still operated from the family’s 19th century warehouse on the Right Bank. Soubrier was a marvelous old chap – with his fine moustache and cravat, he reminded me of a World War One flying ace – and he took me up to the furthest recess of his antique-filled warehouse, to reveal the treasured contraption. It was an astonishing sight – a cross between a sled and a gynecologist’s chair.
He had tracked it down in the mid-1990s and repurchased it, he said. It had been left intact except – thankfully perhaps – it had been re-upholstered.
Only one mystery remains. It’s easy enough to figure out how the prince used it with one woman, but French tradition maintains that it was used by one man with two women…
“The precise arrangement,” Soubrier told me dryly, “is open to debate.”