Louise Weber had already come so far down in the world; as she lay dying on this day in 1929 she feared that death would not end her descent. “I do not want to go to hell,” she told her priest. “Father will God forgive me? I am La Goulue.”
It was a name with the power to evoke a whole era, one at whose epicentre she stood, or rather kicked. Immortalised in 1891 by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in one of the most famous publicity posters of all time (above), La Goulue was the star of the can-can and the can-can was the star attraction of Paris in the heady Belle Époque.
La Goulue was born in Paris in 1870, her father a cab driver, her mother a laundress, and it was in “borrowing” clothes from the laundry and parading them in music-halls that she first got a taste for nightlife. After a spell pursuing the typically limited career options for an ambitious, comely working class girl – prostitute, artists’ model – she debuted as a dancer at the new Moulin Rouge. There she mastered the can-can, a dance originally reserved for courtesans as a means to advertise their wares.
The girl from Goutte d’Or was soon drawing a crowd of crown princes and captains of industry, attracting fame and francs in equal measure. After a few years she was emboldened to leave the Moulin Rouge and direct her own fate. La Goulue commissioned Toulouse-Lautrec to paint two huge backdrops which, more than mere decoration, are highly subjective freeze frames of the city by night. One of them features Oscar Wilde, who was about to be put on trial, and the critic and anarchist Félix Fénéon whose subversive activities had recently brought his own brush with the law.
La Goulue hoped to do for the belly dance — which had been a hit at the 1889 Exposition Universelle — what she had done for the can-can. But she could never recreate her Moulin Rouge success. Eventually the backdrops were cut up and sold in pieces and La Goulue, no less broken up, took ever-more menial jobs.
By the end she was living in a caravan among rag-pickers, drunk and fat as her stage name might have foretold (“goulue” meaning glutton). But there was one last encore. Not long before her death La Goulue was captured on film; a sport to the last, she gamely attempts to reanimate the high-kicking heroine of her heyday.
For the francophones: more on the backdrops which were reassembled and now hang in the Musée d’Orsay, as well as a biography of the dancer by her great-grandson.
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