“The Most Kissed Face in the World”: The Curious Case of l’Inconnue de la Seine

l'inconnue de la seine albert rudomine 1927

La Vierge inconnue du canal de l’Ourcq. Photo by Albert Rudomine, 1927

In the late 1880s, the body of an unidentified young woman was pulled out of the Seine at the Quai du la Louvre, not far from the museum of the same name. While the Louvre houses the Mona Lisa, the river offered up an enigmatic smile of its own, and the woman—only the latest in a string of presumed suicides—became a beauty icon in her own right.

Dubbed l’Inconnue de la Seine (the Unknown Woman of the Seine), her body quickly became the star attraction of the already popular public morgues in Paris. People turned out in droves to see her, moved not only by her young age—she was thought to be about sixteen—but by the curiously peaceful expression on her face. She was beautiful, yes, but what struck them was that she appeared to be happy.

A wax plaster death mask was cast so early, it faithfully reproduced her wet, matted hair and the droplets of water in her eyelashes. Her death was a mystery that remains unsolved to this day, and she was never identified. It has been argued that no one who had drowned—let alone a suicide—could have died with such a relaxed, almost joyful look on their face, leading many to speculate that her cause of death was not drowning at all.

Finding a young woman in the river was a heartbreakingly common occurrence. Bodies of sex workers were pulled out of the Seine almost daily, all of them assumed suicides unless there was clear evidence to the contrary. Because no injuries could be found on her body, l’Inconnue was presumed to be another sex worker who had tragically taken her own life.

The mask of l’Inconnue became an obsession of Bohemian Paris, inspiring art and literature for decades after her death. Albert Camus pointed out the parallel to the Mona Lisa, and women were all too happy to emulate her. While her life was presumably difficult and tragically short, she was a muse in death, and bizarrely, an erotic ideal. Copies of the death mask were mass produced and sold as spectacularly morbid household decorations through the early twentieth century, and there is a workshop that still makes masks from the same mold to this day.

Even if you haven’t heard of her before today, chances are, you’ve kissed her yourself. In the 1950s, Norwegian company Laerdal Medical gave l’Inconnue a new life that would become her most enduring legacy. When they were developing the first CPR doll, they decide they needed a non-threatening face people wouldn’t mind kissing. L’Inconnue was perfect—beautiful, widely known, and there was already a mold of her face. As Resusci Anne (CPR Annie), the face of l’Inconnue reached an even wider audience as a staple of CPR courses around the world. Though most don’t know about the macabre origins of the doll, it’s a fitting legacy for the Unknown Woman of the Seine that in death, she saves others from drowning.

Jessica Cale

 

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Ghouls’ Night Out: Sex, Death, and Damnation in Fin de Siècle Paris

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The Cabaret du Ciel (left) beside the Cabaret de l’Enfer (right) on the Boulevard de Clichy

Every generation likes to think they’re the first to invent counterculture, but today’s goths and Murderinos are part of a tradition of gleeful creepiness that goes back centuries. We’ll be looking into more of this in future posts, but tonight we’re going to start in Montmartre.

In Bohemian Paris of Today (1899), William Chambers Morrow describes Montmartre as “that strange Bohemian mountain with its eccentric, fantastic, and morbid attractions,” and that’s a good start. It was home of the Moulin Rouge, Le Chat Noir, the famous stairs of the Rue Foyatier, and the Sacré-Coeur. Now one of the most recognizable parts of Paris, Montmartre was (and continued to be) the red light district, inhabited by countless sex workers as well as some of the most influential writers, musicians, and artists of the late nineteenth century.

So much of Western art and literature can be traced back to Montmartre in the 1890s that it’s really worth of a blog of its own. We already looked at Toulouse-Lautrec and some of the famous figures who appeared in his art, so today we’re looking a bit closer at some of Montmartre’s hottest nightspots–the magnificently goth heaven and hell nightclubs the Cabaret du Ciel, l’Enfer, and the Cabaret du Néant.

neant postcardCabaret du Néant

At the Cabaret du Néant (Cabaret of Nothingness), the morbid nihilism sweeping fin de siècle Paris found its natural home. If you were thirsty after a long day of morgue tourism*, you could pull up a bench at a coffin of your own in their Salle d’Intoxication, a bar decorated with human bones.

Every aspect of the décor had been chosen to make an impact. The entrance was draped in heavy black curtains with white details, the same ones that hung in the houses of the dead around the city. Even the iron lanterns gave off a sickly green light, giving anyone who passed beneath them the pallor of a corpse. The drinks themselves were named after poisons and diseases and served in cups shaped like skulls**, and the waiters dressed as monks and pallbearers.

After a glass of “spitting tuberculosis”, you could proceed into the adjoining room for entertainment of another kind. With the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, the bar used light and a series of carefully angled mirrors to create some very alarming effects. While Pepper’s Ghost is great at simulating apparitions, Néant took it a bit further. Seated on coffins, the guests would watch as a young woman wrapped in a shroud appeared to fully decompose into a skeleton then slowly come back to life. How they managed it, we can only guess, but they did recreate the experience for their guests; anyone could pass through the coffin, decompose, and be brought back to life in Néant’s “Cave of the Dead.”

neant chandelier

Néant’s chandelier

First established in Paris on the Boulevard Rochechouart as the Cabaret de la Mort (Cabaret of Death) in 1892, it relocated to the Boulevard de Clichy and took the name Néant, because apparently it was the name frightening the residents and not the chandeliers. (right)

In spite of the grim theme, contemplation of one’s own mortality was not the aim—or it didn’t stop there, at least. Néant was above all else a place to hook up. Whether sipping “Asiatic cholera” in the Salle d’Intoxication or taking in a show in the “Cave of Gay Ghosts” or “Cave of Sad Specters,” guests were known to engage in a fair bit of PDA. Secret Montmartre explains it thus:

“It is a constant of eroticism to be bound to the ephemeral and to death. (…) The show does not discourage the libido of spectators who do not forget that in Pigalle, sex has the last word. We kiss each other, we caress each other under the empty gaze of the skeletons.”

Cabaret du Ciel

After passing through the coffin and being dramatically reanimated at Néant, you could stagger a bit farther down the Boulevard de Clichy to the Cabaret du Ciel (Cabaret of Heaven, “the sky”) or l’Enfer (Hell) just beside it. If you’d been good—or didn’t mind a fairly blasphemous drinking session—you might make it up the stairs to le Ciel, where you would be greeted by angels, priests, and St. Peter dripping holy water on you from above.***

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Angels surround the Golden Porcus. That’s not weird.

If the nearly naked angels cavorting to harp music wasn’t enough to keep you entertained, you could listen to their naughty confessions or watch them perform scenes from Dante’s Inferno. It must have been quite a scene–some of them were also dancers at the Moulin Rouge.

Bizarrely, le Ciel also had a massive golden pig (“the Golden Porcus”) that was worshiped like a deity, decorated in flowers, and surrounded by candles. (right)

Like Néant, le Ciel had their own names for common drinks. Morrow describes his experience:

“Brothers, your orders! Command me, thy servant!” growled a ferocious angel at our elbows, with his accent de la Villette, and his brass halo a trifle askew.

Mr. Thompkins had been very quiet, for he was Wonder in the flesh, and perhaps there was some distress in his face, but there was courage also. The suddenness of the angel’s assault visibly disconcerted him,–he did not know what to order. Finally he decided on a verre de Chartreuse, green. Bishop and I ordered bocks.

“Two sparkling draughts of heaven’s own brew and one star-dazzler!” yelled our angel.

“Thy will be done,” came the response from the hidden bar.

Throughout the night, they would invite guests to become “angels” and suspend them on wires from the ceiling, allowing them to fly above the other patrons until Father Time appeared with his scythe to collect tips and send them on their way to l’Enfer.

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Cabaret de l’Enfer

As over the top as Néant and le Ciel must have seemed, l’Enfer was another story altogether. Just downstairs from le Ciel, it couldn’t have been more different:

“We passed through a large, hideous, fanged, open mouth in an enormous face from which shone eyes of blazing crimson. (…) Red-hot bars and gratings through which flaming coals gleamed appeared in the walls within the red mouth. (…) Near us was suspended a cauldron over a fire, and hopping within it were half a dozen devil musicians, male and female, playing a selection from “Faust” on stringed instruments, while red imps stood by, prodding with red-hot irons those who lagged in their performance.

the cauldron at lenfer

A cauldron at l’Enfer. Note the devils lighting the fire beneath it. You can see the walls and ceilings were covered in sculptures of the damned.

“Crevices in the walls of this room ran with streams of molten gold and silver, and here and there were caverns lit up by smouldering fires from which thick smoke issued, and vapors emitting the odors of a volcano. Flames would suddenly burst from clefts in the rocks, and thunder rolled through the caverns.

“Numerous red tables stood against the fiery walls; at these sat the visitors. Mr. Thompkins seated himself at one of them. Instantly it became aglow with a mysterious light, which kept flaring up and disappearing in an erratic fashion; flames darted from the walls, fires crackled and roared. One of the imps came to take our order; it was for three coffees, black, with cognac; and this is how he shrieked the order: ‘Three seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier!’”

The glasses glowed with “phosphorescent light,” and dapper man dressed as the devil would make the rounds and tell the guests which of their sins had led them to eternal damnation. From there, you could go to “the hot room,” where a contortionist would change from snake to devil and back again. Morrow writes that he was disappointed to find that although the walls appeared to be half melted, the hot room was disagreeably chilly.

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Antonin Alexander, professor turned devil, owner of literally the hottest club in Paris. Dapper AF.

If it seems like these clubs go together a little too well, it might not surprise you to hear that le Ciel and l’Enfer were owned by the same man, former literature professor Antonin Alexander. Alexander himself appeared as the devil in l’Enfer. (right)

After Néant was moved to the Boulevard de Clichy in 1892, le Ciel and l’Enfer joined it in 1896. Jules Claretie, then director of the Théâtre Français, viewed the clubs as essential to understanding Belle Epoque Paris and described them as “Putting Dante’s poem within walking distance.”

Even after its heyday at the turn of the century, l’Enfer continued to be a place of interest. André Breton’s Surrealists met above it in the 1920s. Eerily enough, serial killer Guy Georges was caught at the site in 1998 and confessed inside the same building where a costumed devil once confronted visitors with lists of their sins.

In case you’re curious, le Ciel and l’Enfer were at 53 Boulevard de Clichy, and Néant was at number 34. Today, 53 is a Monoprix, and 34 is a “fully naturist swinger sauna.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Bohemian Paris of To-Day by William Chambers Morrow and Édouard Cucuel (1899)

*Yes, really. 
**You thought you were so original.
***I really hope it’s holy water.