|Beyond the Myth of Lesbian Montmartre: The Case of Chez Palmyre|
|From the 1870s, lesbian Montmartre emerged as a popular subject for writers and artists seeking to represent Parisian modernity. Whether celebrated by Toulouse-Lautrec, caricatured by Forain, or castigated by Zola, Montmartre’s lesbians were everywhere. After World War II, the abundant documentation produced during the Third Republic became fodder for first-generation social historian Louis Chevalier, for whom it possessed the veracity of eye-witness testimony. Chevalier’s successors critiqued the naiveté of his approach, which ignored the artistic and ideological agendas of the creators of the corpus. Scholars like Adrian Rifkin and Marie-Jo Bonnet reinterpreted the literary and visual evidence as myth, emphasizing the production of a bourgeois, male discourse in which lesbians figured class, gender, and sexual otherness. Other studies have extended this notion of discourse to sources once considered objective such as judicial archives. My first examination of lesbian Montmartre also focused on myth, but I would like to argue here for a return from cultural to social history. Just as European accounts of non-European peoples can be fruitfully read against the grain for insight into the observed cultures, so must we attempt to disentangle perceptive observations from biased interpretations in this instance. Although it is laborious to do so, we can also go beyond the rich stories told by writers, artists, judges, and police. In a modern state concerned with controlling its population, everyone leaves a trace.
This paper will focus on one emblematic figure of lesbian Montmartre, the notorious restaurateur Palmyre. She first captured the imagination of bohemians in the 1890s as manager of the lesbian brasserie La Souris. Toulouse-Lautrec, an habitué of the bar, sketched there often and made several portraits of the patronne. In the early 20th century, Palmyre opened her own establishment, Palmyr’s Bar, opposite the Moulin Rouge. It quickly attracted attention and continued to feature in journalism, memoir, and fiction for decades after Palmyre’s death in 1915. Beginning with these familiar images and accounts, I plumb police, judicial, and fiscal archives as well as genealogical sources to construct a fuller picture of Palmyre, her restaurants, and her clientele. Although many gaps remain, I hope to convince the audience of the possibility, utility, and necessity of writing a social history of lesbian Montmartre.|