Their Ball

Notes on the Photos of Magic-City, Drag Ball of the Inter-War Period

DOI : 10.54390/modespratiques.236

Translated from:
Leur bal

Outline

Dedication

À Michel Cressole

Text

Transvestites in front of Magic City in the early 1930s. Right, a gretchen*.

Image

© Collection Roger-Viollet / Roger-Viollet

The photos presented here are a sample of a larger collection of over two hundred photos, from the Fréjaville fund of the Performing Arts department of the National Library of France. They were taken in the early 1930s, most likely in 1931, at the most famous drag ball of Paris in the inter-war period, the Magic-City ball. After its disappearance in 1940, the memory of this ball, long deemed scandalous, sank into semi-oblivion or rather a semi-clandestinity that over time made it a small myth.

Farid Chenoune In 1976, in Le Paris secret des années 30, in six photos, Brassai was the first to give post mortem media visibility to the Magic-City1 ball. Some of his photos thus gained the status of iconic documents or even manifests, worthy of featuring on the stands holding postcards of Gay Paris. Since then, except for some others circulating as singletons, the iconography of the ball has barely been enlarged. The stand-up portraits from the Fréjaville fund, most of which are previously unseen, do not have the vitality of Brassai’s photos, which were taken in the physical proximity of the dancers on the floor, but the documentary value of their poses, although poor in their immobility, is priceless. The following notes are a quick summary of ongoing research.

In 1931, the Magic-City dance hall (or the ’Magic’, as it was often shortened to) was what remained of an amusement park of the same name, created in 1911 based on an American industrial model. Set up over four hectares near Quai d’Orsay on the left bank, facing Alma bridge and just a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower, Magic-City had for a time rivalled the other great Parisian amusement park, Luna Park, situated in Porte Maillot. Requisitioned by the military authorities in 1914, Magic-City would only partially re-open after the war and it disappeared in 1926, earmarked for a housing development, with a new street passing through it, specially created for the occasion and called rue Cognacq-Jay. Only the ballroom, or rather the two ballrooms of this dance hall, remained, at 180 Rue de l’Université. Before World War I, tango had taken its first steps there, or almost. After World War II, the site was redeveloped and housed the Cognacq-Jay studios of the pioneers of French television.

The enchanting interlude

The transvestite ball took place twice a year, on the eve of Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday, and on the third Thursday in Lent (Mi-Carême). On these evenings, the police prefecture authorised people to dress in drag to attend costume and masked balls, according to the Carnival tradition of the reversal of the hierarchy of classes and gender attribution. It is important to recall that although from 1800 onwards the law still prohibited women from dressing in men’s clothes, no text prohibited men from dressing up in drag. However, a prefectural decision dating from the start of the century prohibited them from dancing with each other in public places2.

In 1939, a note from the Brigade Mondaine (anti-pimping brigade) sums up the golden era of Magic-City ball: “From 1920 to 1934, the special nature of these balls was slowly acknowledged; at the start, a few shy male transvestites, then, the following years, when the reputation had grown, numerous inverts assiduously frequented the Tuesday and Thursday soirées in ’Magic-City’. Finally, when ’select curious onlookers’ had come, it became common in the special world of homosexuals to be remarked on those nights in Magic-City. In any case, until Shrove Tuesday of 1934, attention was not otherwise drawn to these balls, which maintained sufficient decorum and did not disturb public order.”3

The transvestite ball of Magic-City was known as ’the queen ball’ or ’the pansy ball’, a description often used in the police reports. These names were the most popular and they predominated others such as ’the invert ball’, ’the queer ball’ or even ’the poof ball’. They are all worth mentioning, just like the discreet ’special’, which was the said thing for a long time to describe anything related to homosexuality, as can be seen from its use in the note by the Brigade Mondaine cited above.

Magic-City was not the first transvestite ball in Paris. In the 19th century, there was a ’pansy ball’ for Mi-Carême and it wasn’t the only one. In the aftermath of the war, that of Wagram Hall set the pace before being dethroned by Magic-City. Also and especially existing at the time, was a network of night clubs, also known as ’special’, frequented by homosexuals and transvestite prostitutes; in Montmartre, Isis-Club, Tonton, Le Binocle, La Petite Chaumière, Le Club Liégeois, Mon Jardin and Le Liberty’s. In Rue de Lappe, in the Bastille district, Les Trois Colonnes and Noygues, “the permanent ball of young people with a little too much make-up”4. In the Latin Quarter, the ball of Montagne Sainte Geneviève, formerly known as Pradal ball, was also photographed by Brassai. All incarnate this period, which, in the immediate post-war period in 1934, was seen in France as the Golden Age of homosexual ’freedom’ and ’flamboyancy’ finely described in their complexity by Florence Tamagne5. In Paris, the Magic-City ball was the most spectacular scene of this flamboyancy. ’Their ball’ was the main title of the Parisian weekly Candide, published on 10 March 1932.

The turning point of 1934

Like others of its time, the delights of Magic-City were paradoxical, or even misleading. In their great escape, their travesty also masked an existential misery and an oppressive, repressive background, that were recalled in certain articles. In 1934, with the prohibition of the Mi-Carême ball, thus ended the delightful digression of Magic-City. After the anti-parliamentarian riots of the extreme right leagues on 6 February, the Mardi-Gras ball of 13 February had escaped peacekeeping measures that had struck the majority of Parisian dance halls. But the soirée was not much of a success: 600 admission tickets, 50 of which were bought by transvestites. The management had nevertheless made coaches available for the dancers, who were discouraged by a taxi strike that did nothing to help business. It had also distributed a large number of reduced-rate cards – a common business tactic, especially in the 1930s (15 francs instead of 40 in 1931) to “counter the disadvantages of the crisis and draw in the crowds”6.

The Mi-Carême ball could not be held. Under the pressure of the extreme right Action française and La Liberté who campaigned against “the nature of the meeting” and threatened “to demonstrate against the inverts”, it was prohibited7. The soirée was chaotic. The management had imagined that despite everything they could organise a private ball after midnight. Numerous transvestites arrived at 180 Rue de l’Université, between the police blockades, but the doors were closed by order of the prefecture. They then went to end their night in Montmartre, in the Graff brasserie in Place Blanche, as was customary after leaving the Magic those evenings. In a final attempt, the management envisaged a new date for this lost ball, 24 March, it advertised it and sent letters, but it never took place8.

In 1935, the ball itself was not prohibited, but the management, backing down in the face of the hostility that it continued to spark, and fearing a prefectural measure, decided on its own initiative to refuse access to transvestites and announced it in its advertising inserts, just like here in Paris-Soir on 25 March 1935: “To respond to certain criticism, the management of Magic-City wishes to inform its clientele that it will take part in a very gay costume party, but in good taste, in which men dressed as women shall not be admitted.” This was a far cry from the insert of 2 March 1926 which proclaimed in the same newspaper: “Transvestites are admitted.”

Advertising insert published in Paris-Soir on 25 March 1935 and in Le Petit Journal on 28 March 1935.

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Photograph by Farid Chenoune.

The transvestite ball survived, nevertheless. In 1936, 1937 and 1938, according to the short historic summary written by the police in 1939 (the document entitled ’Notes’), it did not give rise to “any serious criticism, apart from some tidbits in a certain weekly newspaper, inspired most often, by jealous competitors”. During this period, the Brigade Mondaine seemed to have exerted strong pressure on the management of the hall, so that the ball would be as discreet as possible. We can read in a note of 23 February 1939: “In compliance with the instructions received, the management of Magic-City has been informed to give as little importance as possible to the publicity it has planned on the occasion of the Mi-Carême ball, which will be held this year on Thursday 16 March.” The ball was henceforth less dazzling, sometimes dull, nostalgic of its sparkle of the past, but still frequented by transvestites, often in smaller numbers. The Mardi-Gras ball of 1939 only hosted 300 guests. But that of Mi-Carême, which was the last one for Magic-City, was a success, according to the Brigade Mondaine: “At around half past midnight, one could count exactly 2,000 paid admission tickets and out of these, there were 300 fancy dress costumes on display, much to the public’s delight, as each one was nicer than the other.” During those evenings of crisis at the end of the decade, in that nighttime Paris where everywhere else was often deserted, the transvestite ball remained the last refuge of Parisian gaiety9.

The ancient Greek chorus of the pavement

Around 10 o’clock on the great evenings of Mardi-Gras and Mi-Carême, there was a crowd in Rue de l’Université, opposite the steps of Magic-City, without anyone knowing who exactly was in it. In 1937, Candide mentions “a group of workers from the Exhibition, sewer workers, operators and some caretakers”10 in the middle of onlookers, some of whom were of the ’third sex’. They commented on and teased the appearance of the transvestites as they got out of their taxis, “made up, feathered and decked in beads”. La Rampe, a Parisian entertainment review of 1 April 1931 (reproduced here) compares this spontaneous hospitality staff to an “ancient Greek chorus” with suburban cockiness: easy-going and a good audience (“Hey, get a load of that costume, it’s bath* !”), mocking and teasing (“Look, she’s acting the snob. But, I recognise her, it’s the boy hairdresser from Rue Vaugirard. And she’s so ugly!”).

Before such an audience, climbing the quite ’steep’11 steps was a demonstration of showing off, a warm-up lap, an entrance exam not to be failed. In 1931, to win over his audience, Lucien “lifted his train with a vulgar gesture, exhibiting his huge thighs,” “crossed the thoroughfare, putting on airs” then, encouraged by his success, “shimmied, blew kisses to the ’ancient chorus’, strutted up the stairs and responded to the taunts with a taxi driver’s voice”12. In light of these descriptions with often clichéd effects, it is not easy to determine how much was part of the transvestite’s show before his crowd of onlookers, and how much was part of the columnist’s before his group of readers. To pander to the voyeurism of the respective audience, the display of the transvestite tended towards an exhibitionist act and the journalist’s stylistic exercise towards a piece of bravery.

Crowds. Flight of the young inverts

There were two dance halls in Magic-City; one on the ground floor, the other, perhaps larger, on the first floor. The transvestite costume parade and contest, which was the high point of the soirée, took place in the latter. It was accessed by a double stairway, which was also a formidable viewpoint to scrutinise the contestants and their finery in the overall bustle. After being judged by the street, time for judgement by the peers. This crowd was a mix of transvestites, homosexuals in suits, sometimes in tuxedos, lesbians in erratic numbers, society people, young male prostitutes and curious anonymous clients, alone, in couples or even with their family, to see, approach, “or even touch these extraordinary ’lady-men’”, suggested Charles-Etienne in his novel Le Bal des Folles (The Queen Ball) in 193013.

The most reliable figures on this attendance come from the criminal police reports of the Brigade Mondaine’s inspectors. There were two, in theory, one of whom was sometimes an officer of rank. From 10 o’clock until the end of the soirée they were “in charge of possibly intervening and reporting”14. In the archives of the police headquarters in Paris there are no reports before 1928 and of the 24 transvestite balls held in the 1928-1939 period, ten reports remain, including that of the prohibited ball of 1934.

1928, Mardi-Gras: “At around 1:30 in the morning, about a thousand people were gathered in the two dance halls and we can estimate the number of transvestites at around 500 or 600.”

1931, Mardi-Gras: “There was a considerable crowd, a substantial increase on last year, as we estimate the number of people participating at around 2,500.” “Very normal” clientele.

1931, Mi-Carême: “Between 11 pm and 1:30 am, there were more than 3,000 people in the two halls, among whom one could remark a large number of foreigners.” “The clientele was much more sophisticated than at the Mardi-Gras ball.”

1932, Mi-Carême: “Approximately 2,000 people in the two halls… The clientele was much more well-educated and sophisticated than at the Mardi-Gras ball and the costumes were much more opulent.”

1933, Mardi-Gras: “Approximately 1,800” people. “300 people exhibited themselves in the most diverse costumes with no originality whatsoever. These clients are almost always the same as the previous years, wearing the same drag. Most of those assisting were homosexuals or sypathisers. The foreign element did not exist, so to speak. A certain number of lesbians were observed. The presence of a large number of young inverts aged 18 to 20 (which did not exist the previous years) was also observed.”

Tonton and La Grosse Amédée

The drag parade took place around 1 o’clock in the morning. Given the programme, clients couldn’t arrive at just any time, especially if they weren’t just anyone or that is what they were claiming. 11 o’clock, it seemed, was the right time, the time for aristocratic drag queens, those who could make a distinction between ’fancy dress’ and ’outfit’. These ones scorned “the vulgar carnival costumes”, those “ordinary” clothes that were the desolation of the Brigade Mondaine inspectors and that were the reality of all and sundry who had arrived undoubtedly much earlier. The real heroines of the evening made “their entrance, one by one, around 11 o’clock, in outfits with the most exquisite taste and with the most perfect cut”, reports Candide in 1932. “They were the real stars of the ball.”15

They alone earned the right to these borrowed nicknames that gave them the rank of people of quality or stars in the parodic worldliness of their parallel society: ’La Pompadour’, ’La Moreno’*, ’La Récamier’*, ’La Garbo’*, ’La Marlene’*, ’La Duchesse’, etc. Their ’entrance’ into the dance hall had the dramatic nature of a ritual, it had to be ’remarked’. 1939, Mardi-Gras, Paris-Midi: “From time to time, applause, approving clucks, small cries: this was a particularly remarked ’entrance’”16. This is why people went to the Magic: to ’be admired’, noted the inspectors Ruyssen and Lignon with discernment in 193917.

The ’professional’ transvestites fully belonged to this aristocracy. They often arrived later, often in a group, from ’special’ night clubs where they officiated, but always on time to attend the contest, participate in it or even be a member of the judging panel. This was the case for Tonton and Ryls, well-known managers in Montmartre, the first one from the night club with the same name, Rue de Norvins, the second from the previously mentioned Mon Jardin. They came accompanied by their usual clientele and their staff, like a sequel18. Their entrance was always highly remarked.

Perhaps even more popular, although not professional, was Amédée, known as “La Grosse Amédée”, manager of the restaurant Julien, 12 Faubourg Saint-Martin. “Amédée is known by every Parisian queen,” as Michel du Coglay wrote in his investigative book Chez les mauvais garçons (Choses vues), published in 1937, about this “over fifty-something, with a greedy mouth, who shrieks without being pinched and swoons whenever she’s barely touched”. He describes Amédée parading twice a year at Magic-City “in rich outfits with feathers or lace” and never paying attention “to cost in order to be a sensation,” which systematically earned him, according to the book “one of the three prizes”19. In 1939, Amédée received the honours of both press and police. The press for Mardi-Gras. Paris-Midi, 22 February: “The arrival of Amédée, one of the stars of this transvestite world, was welcomed by shrieks of joy. It must be said that Amédée had done things well and had not skimped on foundation, eye shadow, powder, lipstick, diamantes, flounces or frills.” Then the police, for Mi-Carême. Report of 16 March: “One [costume] in particular, worn by a well-known invert, Amédée, manager of the restaurant Julien, 12 Faubourg Saint-Martin, won all the votes by its sumptuousness. Indeed, it represented the City of Paris and was made up of a blue and black court gown with a superb emblem embroidered on the breast.”

The Paris Smart Set

Having one’s name in both the newspapers and the police reports was also a privilege of the Paris Smart Set that frequented the Magic. “The Paris Smart Set comes to see,” wrote Marcel Montarron in Voilà, the news weekly, on 3 March 1933. “There is Raimu*, morose and sulky, Michel Simon*, more bleached than ever, and Josephine Baker*. And Damia* who, for fun, pulls the beard of an old man dressed up in tatty garb. And Jean Weber* at last, powdered and fresh, beset by young and lively admirers.” In addition to the screen and stage celebrities, the Paris Smart Set of Magic-City mixed big and small names from the worlds of law, finance, the civil service, journalism, politics, diplomacy, arts, literature, brothels and fashion design.

The survey of these celebrities by the inspectors of the Brigade Mondaine was more systematic than those of the journalists, and sometimes of a precision that was inaccessible in a newspaper. The report of the Mi-Carême ball of 1939 thus indicates the presence of “Count Montgommery, who in Paris is the usual quartermaster of the Menus-Plaisirs of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” before specifying: “Incidentally, it should be noted that he is a fervent follower of unnatural debauchery.” Added to the short list by Voilà cited above, in the report of the Mardi-Gras ball of 1933 were Pépito Abatino, “lover and manager” of Josephine Baker, Oscar Dufrêne, city councillor of the 10th arrondissement, Henri Varna and Marcellin, manager and stage manager respectively of the Casino de Paris, the singers Jean Sablon and Pierre Meyer, Géo London, the journalist, Henri Bernstein, ’literary man,’ ’the artist’ Gisèle Picard, Suzy Surcouf (already in the Mi-Carême 1931 report), “well-known lesbian, ex-girlfriend of the Baroness de Bremond d’Ars* ,” and the countesses de Boismorand and de Flaméricourt. Finally, the already mentioned Charles-Etienne also features, a sort of great penman of the transvestite ball, whose novels Notre-Dame de Lesbos and Le Bal des Folles describe the ball, the first that of the Salle Wagram in 1919 and the second that of Magic-City in 1930. Charles-Etienne would once again feature in the report of the Mardi-Gras ball of 1934.

For the inspectors, these lists were a factual account, without comment. As for the amateur journalists, who were into name dropping, they were on the look-out for well-known people whose names could cause a sensation, excite the enumerative frenzy of revealing “who’s one?” to their readers and allow them to take the temperature of the ball. At the Mi-Carême ball of 1932, for example, where the inspector counted the presence of twelve celebrities, Mellor, the journalist of Candide, found “apart from Maurice Rostand*, who restricted himself to a brief appearance, no known figures”. He even saw in it a sign of society’s desertion and downgrading of the ball. Granted, the ball that night had attracted a “huge crowd”, but it was, something new, in his opinion, “mainly bourgeois in nature”: “Visibly, the Parisian notabilities are blasé about this show, and it is now the middle classes that it is attracting.”20

Fashion design and professions in relation to ’appearance’ played both a central and second role in the Paris Smart Set of Magic-City. It was its world, in every sense of the word. It remains to be documented. At the Mi-Carême ball of 1931, the inspectors of the Brigade Mondaine noted the presence of Madame Charlotte Revyl, “manageress of a major fashion house in Rue Saint-Honoré” and Mr. Jean Rodgers, “manager of the fashion house ’Pax’, Avenue Victor-Emmanuel”21. But, in this report like in the others, never mentioned are the staff of these numerous Parisian houses, dedicated to “the arts of women” according to the term used at the time. For Brassai, Magic-City was swarming with fashionistas. “They would arrive in small groups, having thieved all the paraphernalia of the fair sex, their dresses and underwear, their hats, lingerie, wigs, jewellery, necklaces, make-up, unguents and perfumes… Most of them were in couture, the fur industry, hairdressing, the guipure lace industry, milliners, makers of ribbons, embroidery, fabric, lace…”22.

As though to highlight a detail in this painting, the review La Rampe captures (unless it made up the scene) two transvestites addressing each other in the stairway of the Magic in 1931:

“Ah! So it’s you, my beauty! You are absolutely ravishing this evening. Did you make your dress?”
“Of course I did, old chap. It’s because I’ve become serious. I had enough of the thing*. Now I’m working in a fashion house.”23

Just a year earlier, in Le Bal des Folles, a queen was being called a “pockmarked seamstress”24.

The judging panel

The judging panel of the contest was recruited from among the upper layer of the Paris Smart Set. How and by whom? How many members did it have? Who presided it? We don’t know, with just a few exceptions. In the newspaper articles and the police reports that were consulted, the actor Michel Simon* (three-time member) and four female French music hall stars stand out: Damia (three times), Marie Dubas* (three times), Mistinguett* (twice) and Josephine Baker (twice). The presence of these figures, idolised by the transvestites in the Magic, was a key advantage in the success of the ball: after judgement by the peers, the verdict of the stars. In 1932, for Mardi-Gras, Mistinguett, who had been announced, did not turn up, leading to “deep disappointment”, noted the inspector25. But, one month later, for the Mi-Carême ball, she was “cheered” on her arrival at half past midnight, and she was obliged to sing several of the songs from her revue at the Casino de Paris26. In 1937, the Mi-Carême parade nearly foundered, as Josephine Baker had decided not to preside the judging panel, put off by the “gloomy” atmosphere of the hall. “She wanted to leave,” reports Candide. “But her resistance threw the contestants into a tizzy, they threw themselves on her, crying, kissing her golden arms, her twitchy hands and, with suddenly virile gallantry, a dancer dressed as a Roman matron, led her to the stage. She climbed up on it and was applauded.”27 They came close to disaster but the event allows us to sense the highly strung nature of the implications of recognition and competition that exalted these soirées.

The Silver Bridge

The parade took place on a wooden bridge, sometimes called the “transvestite bridge” but christened “The Silver Bridge” by the management. It was probably installed during the evening itself, crossing the hall between two platforms. Then began the parade with a speaker as master of ceremonies, and with the nasty taunts of a viper-tongued audience: duchesses in crinoline and maid-servants with aprons, Merveilleuses (marvellous ladies) of the French Directory period, Roman matrons, Andalusian Carmens with garish shawls, blonde-braided ’Gretchens’, great ’art déco’ ladies with long, elegant gloves, flappers in spangled dresses with never-ending chains of pearls, fashionable Belle Époque café-concert goers, but also tough guys with sideburns, small neck scarf and ’Oliver Twist’ style cap, accompanied by their young fancy woman with her kiss-curl stuck to her forehead, etc. Most of the transvestites were references to famous female stereotypes and characters, either contemporary or from the past. In 1939, the report on the Mi-Carême ball recorded that most of them were “made up of marquis, marquises, gauchos, Mexicans” and of “traditional humorous costumes that we are used to seeing here almost every year, i.e. Bijoux*, Les Halles, 1900 costumes, Madame Cardinal*”.

The ship’s boys and sailors from the revues were another of these norms. In 1932, Candide noted however that the contingent “of little sailors for whom Jean Cocteau had become the painter and the bard” had significantly decreased: “There were just about half a dozen of them. But despite their freshness, these poor young men were already dated. They seemed to be from 1900, or at least from the time of the Doumergue presidency*. And you can feel that they won’t be around for much longer.”28

In this procession of models, stereotypes and citations, spitting images, copies and doubles of stage celebrities and screen vamps majestically featured: false Dolly Sisters*, false Mary Marquets*, false Marie Dubas*, false Marlene Dietrichs*, false Greta Garbos*, false Jeannette MacDonalds*, false Joan Crawfords*, false Mae Wests*, false Mistinguetts, etc. On the evening when the much-awaited Mistinguett didn’t come, the first prize was given “to an invert wearing a costume identical to that” of the star in the very same revue of the Casino de Paris29.

The judging panel awarded three prizes to the three “most handsome” or ’most original’ transvestites. The speaker declared the results. Here again the sources don’t speak volumes. In 1937, the judging panel, presided by Josephine Baker, granted first prize to a ’Marlene’, who was preferred to a ’Garbo’ who had “gotten up to all sorts of eccentricities to attract attention”. Candide described the winner: “La Marlene came back again on stage, in his black dress with impeccable taste. He took himself seriously, almost cried with emotion, acknowledged the audience, he was slim with a little sharp head”, whereas the bitter ’Mae West’ remained “tearful and jealous in the middle of the stage”30. In Le Bal des Folles by Charles-Etienne in 1930, the prize went to the couple ’Albert and Robert’: “The innate elegance of one harmonises with the faithfully copied gestures of the other. Vertiginously adorned with black ostrich feathers, covered in Chantilly lace, letting the snowy gush of undergarments show through, the duo personifies cranes, 1900-style, return of the Drags*. Following “these ladies” comes a chamber maid with a tiny waist, overflowing bosom and a varnished boater hat, carrying a white poodle beribonned in fiery red”. As for the second prize, “it goes to ’La Miss’, a tall, incredibly thin boy. Fire in his eyes, a tormented mouth, sky-scraper hairstyle, a magical train, with pink silk flounces, carried by three boys wearing the same colour.”31

The inspectors of the Brigade Mondaine did not have the descriptive lyricism of Charles-Etienne. Difficult, almost indifferent or even blasé observers, they didn’t hesitate to highlight the unsurprising nature of the outfits presented, their lack of “charm” if they judged them to be so. 1934, Mardi-Gras, report of 14 February: “There were only 50 people disguised in various costumes, with no taste or originality. They are almost always the same as the previous years, wearing the same drag.” If the outfits were successful, the inspectors contented themselves with mentioning it, most of the time without actually describing them. The report for the 13 March 1931 Mi-Carême ball was an exception: “Contrarily to the previous years, there was nothing transcendent about the ’transvestites’. To be noted however, was an invert disguised in a fanciful peace officer outfit, whose kepi had a small electric light bulb in front, and on each buttock he wore two discs, one of which was red with ’No entry’ on it, the other was sky blue with ’Parking Reserved’ on it. These two motifs were lit by a small electric light bulb. The transvestite also carried a white stick, the end of which was also lit. He was a tremendous success.”

Remark: Through his caricatured nature, this comic transvestite illustrates in an unexpected manner the cutting remark made at the same time by Claude Cahun in her Journal against the famous ball and its protagonists: “Magic-City. They make such a distinction between ’active’ and ’passive’ – the fools! that there will soon be a ’feminism’ for cinaedi.” – when she herself dreamed of being “worker bee” of the “neuter”: “Neuter is the only gender that will always suit me.”32

Preparations

Due to the lack of correspondence and direct accounts, we know very little about the preparations that these performances required for the transvestites. These little preparation ceremonies were of great importance. In his novel Hôtel du Nord published in 1929, Eugène Dabit devotes a spry chapter to one of the lodgers of the Hôtel du Canal Saint-Martin, ’Mr. Adrien’, a young, elegant and serious man who works in a confectioner’s shop, just has one thing on his mind: that of making himself a ’gitana’ costume, red dress, shawl and sombrero, to attend Magic-City. Adrien requisitions the manageress of the hotel, Louise, and Dabit details in just a few lines their tips and tricks in order to succeed, the art of making do with odds and ends, in which many of the readers of the novel must have recognised themselves. “They got to work, time was of the essence. Louise shortened her petticoat and brought it to the dyer. Adrien unearthed a short jacket in the shape of a ’bolero’ in a second-hand clothes shop. He is worried about his ’undergarments’ as he wants to be dressed as a woman from top to toe. He buys a shirt, a petticoat, silk tights. He shaves his calves and his arms. Impossible to find a decent sombrero. He resigns himself to renting a brunette wig and sews two paper flowers on to it. On the evening of the ball he does a final trying-on session in front of Louise. She advises him to stuff up his chest somewhat and to put red poppies in his wig. She laughs at Adrien’s coquetry. “When you’re young, you’re insane...”, she thinks, with indulgence.”33

Four years later, perhaps inspired by Dabit, the journalist Marcel Montarron opens his article in Candide on 4 March 1933 on Magic-City with a long foreword that features the anguish of the young Mr. Lucien, “Lulu for the Gentlemen”, just a week before Mardi-Gras. Lucien is a salesman in a fabric shop in the Sentier district. He “uplifts everybody with his punctuality and his good manners.” “He is 25 years old. But he still looks like a big kid.” He has “delicate” gestures, “fine” hands and his hair “is such a pale blond, it waves with such self-indulgence that it doesn’t look real”. Like Adrien, he wears figure-hugging jackets and, like Adrien, he dreams of Magic-City.

For two months, just like in a fairy story, Lulu has been preparing “his” dress for his first ball, “his first young girl’s ball”: a long, mauve-coloured dress, very low cut in the back, as dictated by the fashion at the time, held by thin straps on the shoulders. “He designed the model himself” and “has been saving for weeks, penny by penny on his earnings”. Before leaving, he didn’t dare put on his make up in front of his mother. “He would put it on in ’Jeannette’s’. Jeanette is a bank employee, and although his dress was already used last year, it will still make an impression under the lights.” “Jeannette is dark-haired, thinner, more slender. On his naked arms with bulging muscles he wears long, black leather gloves, that further lengthen his skinny silhouette of big girl as flat as a board.”

The journalist thus sketches two scenarios that are undoubtedly very close to reality: that of Lulu and the dress, first or not, made by hand, with his own funds, and that of Jeannette and the dress worn year after year, hoping that it will make do. To these two modest and pragmatic scenarios he adds a third one, ritzy and corruptible, that of Mado and of his “spiffing outfit with feathers as high as this and diamantes galore.” It’s the scenario of the well-maintained transvestite. The author of the article makes his characters talk. Jeannette: “What do you believe, with the two guys maintaining her, of course ’she’ can afford to buy herself costumes at that price.” To which Lulu replies “half-teasing, half-scorning”: “Me, you know, I’m not interested in professionals.”34

A family album

Perhaps this Mado, as fictional as she may seem, was one of the young, well-maintained transvestites who did not wear stereotypical ’costumes’ but the feminine outfits of their time, straight out of Parisian designer houses, as evoked by Brassai. “Styled by Antoine*, dressed by Lanvin or by Madeleine Vionnet, the great couturiers of the time, some of these ephebes on the arms of their rich protectors, were often of a rare beauty. I also saw several enigmatic, vague creatures, floating between the poorly defined borders of the two sexes in a sort of no man’s land.”35

In the presence of certain photos from the Fréjaville fund, we think of these ’women’. These photos remain mysterious. We do not know who took them or whereabouts in Magic-City. In 1932, Candide evokes the existence of tribunes whose access was reserved by “tough keepers” “for nice couples who wanted their photograph taken, as a souvenir.”36The photos from the Fréjavillle fund were all taken in the same place, in front of the small guardrail of a narrow stairway. Did it lead to one of these tribunes, which were perhaps laid out as a makeshift studio? Lastly, these photos all have a family likeness, they seem to have been taken by the same photographer. But why were they taken? 1931 is the only benchmark date: three of them feature, in painted form, in the April 1931 edition of La Rampe reproduced further on. Almost identical duplicates. But no mention of a photographer in the review. Beyond this lead, nothing.

The reports of the Brigade Mondaine inform us that the transvestites were only a small part of the clientele on those evenings, somewhere between 10% and 50% on average: 500 to 600 out of 1,000 in 1928, 200 out of 2,500 in 1931 for Mardi-Gras. They also tell us that these transvestites, from one ball to another, from one year to another, were often the same. This set of photos is the family album of the Parisian transvestites of the 1930s. Amédée, Tonton, La Miss, La Pompadour, La Grunchen, La Garbo, La Marlene, La Dubas, La Mae West, La Cardinal; all of them are certainly there.

Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris, série W, dossier n° 103119.

Image

Photograph by Farid Chenoune.

Despite the interdiction of the Mi-Carême ball in 1934, the management of Magic-City dance decided to organise a private ball after midnight. It advertized it and sent letters. The ball never took place.

Image

Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris, série W, dossier 103119. Photograph by Farid Chenoune.

* Asterisks refer to the glossary and the index in the portfolio bellow.

Portfolio, glossary and index

https://devisu.inha.fr/modespratiques/238?file=1

Image

1 Brassaï, Le Paris secret des années30(Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 166-169.

2 Christine Bard, “Le ‘DB5’ aux Archives de la Préfecture de Police”, Clio. Histoire, femmes et sociétés, 10 (1999).

3 APP (Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris), série W Fonds contemporains, dossier 103119, “Bal “Magic-City”. Noël Aldonce”, 1.

4 Jean Bouchon, “J’ai visité Paris. Une nuit à Paris en car pour 125 francs”, Candide, 7 October 1937.

5 Florence Tamagne, Histoire de l’homosexualité en Europe. Berlin, Londres, Paris. 1919-1939 (Paris: Seuil, 2000).

6 PP, série W, dossier 103119, “Rapport du 1er mars 1933”.

7 Ibid., “Rapport du 9 mars 1934”.

8 Ibid., “Rapport du 19 mars 1934”.

9 Ibid., “Rapport du 22 février 1939”; “Rapport du 19 mars 1939”; Alexandre, “Le bal de Magic-City. La grande parade du ‘Décrochez-moi ça’”, Candide

10 Alexandre, op. cit.

11 Charles-Etienne, Le Bal des folles, (Paris: Curio, 1930), 152.

12 Jean Laurent, “Le Bal de Magic... un soir de Mi-Carême”, La Rampe, 1 April 1931.

13 Charles-Etienne, op. cit., 157.

14 APP, série W, dossier 103119, “Bal ‘Magic-City’. Noël Aldonce”, 4

15 Mellor, “Leur bal”, Candide, 10 March 1932.

16 Roger Féral, op. cit.

17 PP, série W, dossier 103119, “Bal ‘Magic-City’. Noël Aldonce”; “Physionomie de la nuit de la Mi-Carême à Montmartre”.

18 APP, série W, dossier 103119, “Rapport du 13 mars 1931”.

19 Michel du Coglay, Chez les mauvais garçons (Choses vues) (Paris: R. Saillard, 1937), 165.

20 Mellor, op. cit.

21 APP, série W, dossier 103119, “Rapport du 13 mars 1931”.

22 Brassaï, op. cit., 166.

23 Jean Laurent, op. cit.

24 Charles-Etienne, op. cit., 152.

25 APP, série W, dossier 103119,

“Rapport du 10 février 1932”.

26 Ibid. APP, série W, dossier 103119, “Bal Magic-City. Noël Aldonce”, “Rapport du 3 mars 1932”.

27 Alexandre, op. cit.

28 Mellor, op. cit.

29 APP, série W, dossier 103119, “Rapport du 10 février 1932”.

30 Alexandre, op. cit.

31 Charles-Etienne, op. cit., 168.

32 Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus, (Paris: Éditions du Carrefour, 1930), 45.

33 Eugène Dabit, Hôtel du Nord, (Paris: Robert Denoël, 1929), 233-240.

34 Marcel Montarron, “Corydon conduit le bal”, Voilà, 3 March 1933.

35 Brassaï, op. cit., p. 166-167.

36 Mellor, op. cit.

Attachment

Notes

1 Brassaï, Le Paris secret des années 30 (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 166-169.

2 Christine Bard, “Le ‘DB5’ aux Archives de la Préfecture de Police”, Clio. Histoire, femmes et sociétés, 10 (1999).

3 APP (Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris), série W Fonds contemporains, dossier 103119, “Bal “Magic-City”. Noël Aldonce”, 1.

4 Jean Bouchon, “J’ai visité Paris. Une nuit à Paris en car pour 125 francs”, Candide, 7 October 1937.

5 Florence Tamagne, Histoire de l’homosexualité en Europe. Berlin, Londres, Paris. 1919-1939 (Paris: Seuil, 2000).

6 PP, série W, dossier 103119, “Rapport du 1er mars 1933”.

7 Ibid., “Rapport du 9 mars 1934”.

8 Ibid., “Rapport du 19 mars 1934”.

9 Ibid., “Rapport du 22 février 1939”; “Rapport du 19 mars 1939”; Alexandre, “Le bal de Magic-City. La grande parade du ‘Décrochez-moi ça’”, Candide, 11 March 1937; Roger Féral, “Le traditionnel "Bal des travestis" du Mardi Gras a droulé cette nuit ses fastes joyeux et factices”, Paris-Midi, 22 February 1939.

10 Alexandre, op. cit.

11 Charles-Etienne, Le Bal des folles, (Paris: Curio, 1930), 152.

12 Jean Laurent, “Le Bal de Magic... un soir de Mi-Carême”, La Rampe, 1 April 1931.

13 Charles-Etienne, op. cit., 157.

14 APP, série W, dossier 103119, “Bal ‘Magic-City’. Noël Aldonce”, 4

15 Mellor, “Leur bal”, Candide, 10 March 1932.

16 Roger Féral, op. cit.

17 PP, série W, dossier 103119, “Bal ‘Magic-City’. Noël Aldonce”; “Physionomie de la nuit de la Mi-Carême à Montmartre”.

18 APP, série W, dossier 103119, “Rapport du 13 mars 1931”.

19 Michel du Coglay, Chez les mauvais garçons (Choses vues) (Paris: R. Saillard, 1937), 165.

20 Mellor, op. cit.

21 APP, série W, dossier 103119, “Rapport du 13 mars 1931”.

22 Brassaï, op. cit., 166.

23 Jean Laurent, op. cit.

24 Charles-Etienne, op. cit., 152.

25 APP, série W, dossier 103119,

“Rapport du 10 février 1932”.

26 Ibid. APP, série W, dossier 103119, “Bal Magic-City. Noël Aldonce”, “Rapport du 3 mars 1932”.

27 Alexandre, op. cit.

28 Mellor, op. cit.

29 APP, série W, dossier 103119, “Rapport du 10 février 1932”.

30 Alexandre, op. cit.

31 Charles-Etienne, op. cit., 168.

32 Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus, (Paris: Éditions du Carrefour, 1930), 45.

33 Eugène Dabit, Hôtel du Nord, (Paris: Robert Denoël, 1929), 233-240.

34 Marcel Montarron, “Corydon conduit le bal”, Voilà, 3 March 1933.

35 Brassaï, op. cit., p. 166-167.

36 Mellor, op. cit.

Illustrations

Transvestites in front of Magic City in the early 1930s. Right, a gretchen*.

Transvestites in front of Magic City in the early 1930s. Right, a gretchen*.

© Collection Roger-Viollet / Roger-Viollet

Advertising insert published in Paris-Soir on 25 March 1935 and in Le Petit Journal on 28 March 1935.

Advertising insert published in Paris-Soir on 25 March 1935 and in Le Petit Journal on 28 March 1935.

Photograph by Farid Chenoune.

Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris, série W, dossier n° 103119.

Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris, série W, dossier n° 103119.

Photograph by Farid Chenoune.

Despite the interdiction of the Mi-Carême ball in 1934, the management of Magic-City dance decided to organise a private ball after midnight. It advertized it and sent letters. The ball never took place.

Despite the interdiction of the Mi-Carême ball in 1934, the management of Magic-City dance decided to organise a private ball after midnight. It advertized it and sent letters. The ball never took place.

Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris, série W, dossier 103119. Photograph by Farid Chenoune.

References

Electronic reference

Farid Chenoune, « Their Ball », Modes pratiques [Online],  | 2018, Online since 21 juin 2022, connection on 27 janvier 2023. URL : https://devisu.inha.fr/modespratiques/236

Author

Farid Chenoune

Ifm/Ensad/ECSSP

By this author

Translator

Vicki McNulty