The Lioness of the Belle Epoque

In Susanna Forrest’s Écuyères series, she unearths the lost stories of the transgressive horsewomen of turn-of-the-century Paris. 

Céleste Mogador as a countess (wikimedia commons)

My horse carried me like the wind. I couldn’t breathe; I hugged his neck, like jockeys do; I called out to him; he leapt forward again … I was going to overhaul my companions, maybe win the race! This idea transported me. I threw my horse against the ropes at the turn … I blocked the woman who was pressing closest to me and I passed her! I was so happy that, for fear of seeing the other woman beat me, I closed my eyes, left everything to my horse and spurred his left flank. I heard them say: She has won!

That’s Élisabeth-Céleste Venard looking back on her first race as a stunt rider at the Hippodrome at the Barrière de l’Étoile outside Paris in 1845. At the time she was twenty, already notorious, hired to titillate the new arena’s eight thousand spectators in sidesaddle hurdle races, costumed parades, and chariot chases. She hared around for another circuit, took her winner’s bouquet, and breathed, “France is mine!” All eyes were on her, and her “nom de guerre,” Mogador, was on every tongue. “Mlle Céleste has a mischievous little face that exposes itself quite happily to the public’s lorgnettes,” wrote one critic.

But Céleste, as she preferred to be known, had been exposed from the start. The audience at the Hippodrome knew what she was: a sex worker. To be more precise, in the city’s rigid, grasping sexual bureaucracy she was a fille inscrite, or “registered girl”—and one who had gone rogue, at that. She had been born to unmarried parents in the dirty and labyrinthine district of Temple, her father had died when she was six, and her mother worked in hat-making ateliers. Four years before her debut at the Hippodrome, when still a minor of sixteen, Céleste had made her mother sign her on to the notorious Paris register of sex workers. She could no longer live at home, where her mother’s lover had tried to rape her twice (her mother took his side), and she’d already been picked up by the vice squad and locked up in the notorious Saint-Lazare prison on suspicion of being a fille insoumise, or unregistered prostitute. Working-class women like Céleste had little hope of an appeal or fair trial in these roundups, regardless of their actual crimes or lack thereof. In the prizon she’d both had her first lesbian affair and made a friend who convinced her that becoming a pensionnaire at a bordello would provide an escape from home and a better apprenticeship than being a seamstress. It took one night at the elegant, curtained bordello for Céleste to realize how mistaken that was. That’s when she began to plot her next escape—one that led her to the Hippodrome and far beyond, although that hasty signature in the registry chained the bordello to her ankles for much of the rest of her life.

If you feel as though the pace of Céleste’s biography is already too fast, pause now. Life never let up on Céleste, and she clung to it as doggedly as she rode her racehorse in the Hippodrome. We all like to think that if we were the ones navigating the past, we would elude, clamber, escape—we’d be the ones who made it to the Titanic lifeboats, the smart cookies who didn’t buy stocks before the crash, the girls who dodged the witch hunters. Céleste, as she ducks and dives, climbs ladders and skids down snakes, determined to be free of her background, lived as daringly as we like to imagine we would have. Semiliterate as a young woman, she taught herself to write and published the first of three volumes of memoirs in 1858, which is how we’ve come to know so much about her experiences and those of the demimonde and the working-class sex workers of Paris, whose lives usually reach us via male writers, social scientists, and police reports.

After that first race in 1845, Céleste dismounted and saw that her horse was bleeding where she had spurred him. She begged his pardon with sugar but also showed him her bouquet and explained why she had had to hurt him. The insubstantial dazzle of the Hippodrome was the firmest foothold out of the brothel she had found. She had to make it work; she had to transform her infamy into fame.

By signing herself on to the register, the teenage Céleste had discovered, she was “no longer a woman, [but] a number.” She could escape only by becoming a madam, getting a job, being ill, living in sin with one man, having a protector who guaranteed her income, or finding someone respectable to vouch for her. Each week she was subject to a gynecological examination by the authorities. The madam had wasted no time in exercising her absolute power, tricking up ways to get the girls into debt: money for candles, money for clothes, more for a bath, money if you say no to a punter … Within weeks, Céleste was eleven hundred francs down. One of her clients was the poet Alfred de Musset, who abused and humiliated her. She trembled when their paths crossed in a salon years later, but he didn’t recognize her. There was a bout of smallpox, and the generosity of another client, who bought her out, granted her her freedom, but outside the brothel she was once again at risk of arrest. She might have a job, but the police didn’t see it that way—they saw her as a fille inscrite evading her examinations and operating solo.

Céleste lifted herself above the other working girls by dancing at the Bal Mabille, a garden lit by gas-powered chandeliers in central Paris where men and women met under tree boughs and glittering decorations. Still recovering from smallpox, she paid her one-franc entry fee because the mistress of the man she loved could waltz and she could not, and she was determined to learn. Instead of the waltz, it was the polka—a brisk Polish folk dance—that made her name overnight. Songs were written about her, and decades later her name was a nostalgic shorthand for an entire era.

She squared off against the Mabille’s reigning queen, Élise Sergent, a spiky, ferociously monobrowed girl in a black wool dress, already sapped by tuberculosis. Nicknamed La Reine Pomaré after the Tahitian queen then fighting to save her country from French colonialism, Lise was dancing off the grief of losing an illegitimate child. Her mother had been an écuyère at Cirque Olympique and daughter of its director, Henri Franconi, and her father had conducted and composed music for the Franconi circus dynasty. Cast out for her pregnancy, Lise had become a courtesan known for her aggression and passion. She traveled in a battered, rented carriage with mismatched horses, but the men called her Queen. Céleste fell into rivalry with Pomaré, then friendship. She got her nom de guerre of Mogador that night—another double-edged compliment about a woman fighting off seducers. Just as Queen Pōmare had resisted and was eventually forced to concede to invasion by the French, so the Moroccan town of Mogador (now Essaouira) had held out under French cannon fire in 1844 for three days before it was destroyed.

Céleste became a regular at the Bal Mabille; it didn’t pay, but it gave her access to new “protectors.” However, these lovers were neither a consistent source of income nor a means of escape from the vice squad. She tried to get work in theater and was turned down for having no training. Then there was a job fighting with sabers at Les Funambules, but they said her wrists were too small. When she ran into Henri Franconi’s brother, Laurent, codirector at the new Hippodrome, each knew who the other was, and he offered her a hundred francs a month to ride in hurdle and chariot races. As an apprentice seamstress, she’d made perhaps a franc a day. In the brothel, she didn’t even own the clothes on her back. She eyed the diamonds on his fingers and said yes. She learned to ride well enough in two months: “I worked with a fierce ardor. I took two or three lessons a day, all accompanied by an hour of sitting trot. At the start, I was very tired; I sweated blood, but that didn’t stop me.”

That opening night at the Hippodrome saw no human casualties, but a race of “Africans”—monkeys strapped to horses—ended in the death of one “jockey” after it fell from its mount and was trampled. The displays were a far cry from the skilled, death-defying feats of the circus; speed was all that counted. Unlike the other horsewomen in this series, Mogador did not get praise from the sportsmen of Paris for her technique: “She makes too much dust, she torments her horse, who doesn’t know what she asks of him,” wrote one critic. “The poor girls who play these roles have no idea how to ride horses,” wrote another after the first night. He also noted that while they might look nervous when they entered the arena, the young women pushed their horses full tilt. Perhaps they were braver than the male jockeys because they rode sidesaddle and only saw one side of the action, he suggested.

But in reality, they were all in the same race as Mogador, a race against voracious poverty and a world where, as the historian Jill Harsin writes, “Murder was rather infrequent; violence was routine.” As filles insoumises, grisettes (amateur working-class sex workers), femmes galantes (courtesans), and lorettes (a “breed” of “charming little beings … neither a streetwalker, nor a grisette, nor a courtesan,” as Alexandre Dumas fils put it), the “poor girls” were already facing the full range of domestic and police abuse. It is hard not to view the Hippodrome races as a kind of parallel spectacle, where Parisians leaned down from their galleries to watch these girls risk their lives in a more overt way. Read the accounts from male commenters of the period, and they’re full of delight and gentle mockery for the “good-time girls” who are guilelessly tacky and offer a refreshingly slutty domesticity to men who can afford one as a mistress. In one caricature, a lorette asks a Hippodrome écuyère, who stands with whip in hand and jockey cap on head, “How much do they give you here to ride the horse, Antonia?” And the écuyère replies, “A quarter of what the viscount pays me if I fall off it.” But like the Hippodrome races, their lives were filled with danger packaged as light entertainment for the gents, and they were forever under surveillance as they galloped in circles. As Céleste wrote again and again, it was the men who endangered her most.

Although her equestrian performances didn’t immediately release her from the register, they helped Céleste to ascend into the demimonde among the male aristocrats, artists, musicians, politicians, and writers who played at love with courtesans of the city. In her memoirs, she is clear-eyed, observing that “le vice élégant est toujours le vice.” She witheringly assesses these men—their characters, their looks—whose whims could ruin or transform her life. She is the cat gazing coolly at those who think themselves kings—and she gradually banked enough to build her own house in the country. She appreciated their education and wit as well, and endeavored to learn from them.

One day, the saddle of Céleste’s nervous chestnut mare slipped midrace, and Céleste had to throw herself clear, landing at the base of a hurdle in time for the rest of the field to leap over her. The mare had struck her ankle as she fled. Céleste wrote of this time, “The talk was only of our courage. We battled on with a truly frightening foolhardiness. The spectators often cried, ‘Enough! Enough!’ We were unbelievably lucky—there were always accidents where we could have died and we just escaped with bruises instead. I could have broken my head or ribs.” She asked for her horse, remounted, and took her applause. Afterward, “I rested eight days on my sofa and then I started again, keener than ever.”

The newspapers called her a lionne, a lioness—the category reserved for the most ruthlessly sporting women riders and, later, for courtesans. As the humorist Albert Cler put it, lionnes “become famous by taking part in races, challenges, wagers … The only perceptible difference between them and the sportsmen lies in mustaches.” Céleste put in a request at the police prefecture to be removed from the “infernal book.” The police responded that if the Hippodrome closed (something it was in no danger of doing), she would no longer have a job. She wept.

That autumn marked the end of the season at the Hippodrome. The rain had turned the dirt of the arena to clay and then mud, with puddles at the turns. Pomaré had come to watch. Céleste was heedless, wanting to win no matter what, beat the other women, and hear the crowd.

At the first turn, they heard cries when a horse fell. Céleste was second, blocked behind her rival Coralie. Coralie’s horse took a false step; she urged it on but lost half a second. The two horsewomen drew level and tied, to the crowd’s delight. The manager called for a runoff—a duel between the two. This time, as the women urged on their horses, the clay at the first turn claimed them, and both horses fell.  Coralie went in headfirst. Céleste sprawled in the mud. She forgot to ask Coralie if she was injured and started to laugh. They both wanted to start again but were told to stop, and came back covered in mud and glory, with bouquets.

Céleste’s memoirs are full of accounts both of friendships (some of which were clearly romantic if not sexual) and of rivalries with fellow courtesans and lorettes, all scrabbling at the same cliff face. A jealous woman wrote poison-pen letters to one of Céleste’s lovers, saying that even Mogador’s horse did not respect her. Céleste lent another shawls and got her a job at the Hippodrome only to realize she was “a serpent I warmed in my own cashmeres” (Céleste has an exquisite turn of phrase). She paid to support the child of one maid who died of cholera, and bailed Lise out of jail. Other women in the race fell by the wayside: consumption, debt, childbirth. Céleste relates her attempts to take her own life, and, from her new vantage point in the demimonde, the realization that she was not yet safe: “I collapsed into depression. I could see the young women whose lives I’d envied rising and falling all around me … Debt and misery lay in wait for them behind the lace curtains. The elderly had nothing. The young had fine wardrobes for now, but if they died, there wasn’t so much as a scrap of linen to bury them in.”

The next season at the Hippodrome was marked by more falls for Céleste. The horses were often lame, and there were few efforts to protect the performers from accidents. Paris loved it: “Fortune seems to have fixed her chariot on the triumphal arch of l’Étoile, and to pour money into the till of the Hippodrome,” wrote La tribune dramatique. Céleste began to think about asking for a raise, but knew there was a queue of young women ready to take her place, and she believed that the directors did not want stars demanding higher fees. The Hippodrome and the city’s appetite for reckless, endangered young women was endless. Her initial exhilaration was dimming: she was given a new horse to train with two male jockeys riding alongside, both drunk. The horses, uneasy and fresh, bolted and made ten circuits of the arena over the hurdles before they could be stopped. Céleste’s hands were bleeding by the time they eased to a jolting trot.

A chariot race ended her stuntwoman career. The Hippodrome track was barely one hundred meters long—not exactly the Circus Maximus—and Céleste was costumed as a Phrygian in a red hat and white tunic that bared her legs to the thigh. The race began well—she had whipped her two horses to pass Louise, drawn level with Angèle, when the wheel of Louise’s chariot caught the back of her own, and instead of halting her horses, Louise drove them on. Céleste’s chariot was jerked violently sideways in her wake. The shaft struck one of Céleste’s horses, driving him into the other and bringing them both down and flipping over her chariot. She was dragged behind the struggling horses, struck in the shoulder, and run over twice by other chariots.

The horses were caught—one screaming with a broken leg—and Céleste staggered up, finding herself surrounded by doctors and people from the crowd who had leaped the barriers. She gave a salute and crumpled into a heap. They took her home.

Miraculously, she had no fractures, but a strike from her horse had gashed her thigh to the bone, her knee was dislocated, and the studded chariot wheels had left vast bruises on her legs. She ran a fever for a week. Eventually, a wealthy young man who had been in the audience sent one of the best doctors in Paris to her, and she gradually recovered. As soon as she was able, she took a carriage to the Hippodrome and discovered she was all but forgotten. In a rage, she swore she would compete in the next chariot race, but her nerves were destroyed and she pulled up her horses on the second circuit. At the end of the season, she approached one of the directors for a raise, but he refused, demanding to know why a few hundred francs should mean anything to her if she was managing her “business” correctly. Céleste walked out. Nobody said goodbye to her.

The Hippodrome wasn’t a false step in her climb out of danger, but it wasn’t a safe plateau. In January 1848, the journal Asmodée reported that “the famous Mogador has died like Pomaré, still young, after a short illness.” But while the poor Queen had indeed died in April 1847—as creditors were stripping her belongings from her home—Céleste survived. Six years later, she married Count Lionel de Chabrillan, a long-term lover who had first seen her at the Hippodrome, and finally cleared her name from the “infernal book.”

The count was bankrupt and too disgraced to marry well, but his family naturally objected to Mogador all the same. Tant pis. She became the Comtesse de Chabrillan, and she carried that title like a trophy till the end of her days, despite attempts by Lionel’s family to bribe her into giving it up. After his death in 1858, she remained alone but continued to write—in all, some twenty-six plays, ten novels, several operettas, and more memoirs, including an account of her travels in Australia during the gold-rush era with Lionel, who was the French consul. Her first novel was reviewed side by side with Madame Bovary by Alexandre Dumas, who was a friend of hers. In the 1860s, she was performing in cafés. During Prussia’s 1870 siege of Paris, she helped establish what scholar Carol Mossman calls “a women’s paramedical organization” to help the wounded. In 1885, she was living in one room, using her stove for a vanity table and surrounded by hatboxes full of manuscripts. When the Chabrillan family tried to stop her plays from being performed, she made a bid to manage her own theater—while also directing and playing the lead roles.

She was relatively poor when she died, at eighty-four, in 1909—another era from the one in which she’d been so notorious—stripped of the widow’s pension to which she was legally entitled. But her influential friends ensured she was not destitute. She was also, finally, at the end of her life, righteously angry. Jana Verhoeven rediscovered the notebooks from Céleste’s last years in the country house Celeste had built with her own money in her demimonde days. The final entry, from 1907, read, “I was born in 1824. I am losing more and more of my memory.” And yet for us, we may be grateful that the memory of her extraordinary life is far from lost.

 

Read more installments of Écuyères here.

Susanna Forrest is the author of The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History and If Wishes Were Horses. She’s currently working on a third book and a series of essays about circus horsewomen in nineteenth-century Paris.

Read more: theparisreview.org

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