Paris 1901 a dancing world of cabarets, dancing girls and drink fuelled lives; the turn of the century gave Paris a new glow. Businesses were seeing new lights, electricity allowed factories and dancing halls to run all night; people earned more money just to throw it away at the brothels. They were wasteful men living wasteful lives. However, among all of this, the poor were still poor and the rich had nothing else to do but get richer and exploit the workers. Life was increasingly hard for anyone to deem to better their standard of living, young girls had to follow example of their mothers, which meant learning how to sow, cook and above all else know their place in the scheme of things whether or not their husbands were drunk or embarked on affairs. Those who did not understand their place were reminded of it and learned to hide any suspicions and never asked for more or charity from anyone.
The Moulin Rouge was the centre of attention of the rich and powerful, along with this was the ‘Grand Guignol' the big Puppet show, a theatre of horror and Paris' dark secret discreetly placed between the brothels in the back alleys. Few knew about this theatre but those who did were addicted, they had tasted foul blood and needed more. The audience was the sophisticated who laughed and mocked at the misfortune of others then went home to their homes where their children were cared for and protected. Its freak shows ran all day, the blood drained all night. This is when I arrived.
I went to Paris in an attempt to escape my Uncle William, a strong factory owner with a stronger backhand. I lived in a dream world, dreaming of a life on the stage admiring all the grand operas and reading about le Comédie-Française. I read Shakespeare in my youth and pictured in my mind‘s eye the island from The Tempest, and balcony in Romeo and Juliet. However, with a stern childhood, being educated in a catholic school studying the sciences instead of the arts. Refrained from the male sex, being told they were deceiving and abusive, the dream was forced out of my mind and joined a parade of other wondering dreams and questions some never will be fulfilled and some never to be answered .
I took my Uncle's name, making my full name Mary Marie Hawthorn, I never knew my Father its one of the questions that reigns in my head, one which I know will never be answered, but I know my Mother died in childbirth she never even held her only daughter. My earliest childhood memory was in an orphanage, and my Uncle picking me up at 5 years of age, in the middle of December when the snow was ankle deep, and all I had to cover my feet were the shoes made of torn leather that the orphanage gave me. I was taken to his mansion up in the Yorkshire Moors, he taught me to read and write, how do you repay a man who teaches you to write your own name? This is how; by standing your ground and doing as your told accepting discipline in all forms. My Uncle beheld the grudge of his sister's death and leaving nothing but her bastard child without knowing who or where my father was. He never spoke about my father in front of me; the pain of an illegitimate niece was too much of strain on his social standing. This was the motive for beatings he gave me. Most nights I stood in the bathroom nursing the bruises and treating the open wounds, even now, I can feel the burning sensations of iodine on my tender skin having to lie to my friends as to how I got them, but it was common for us to be put back in our place. For 12 years, I withstood the beatings from both my Uncle and the merciless Nuns who would never accept blasphemous speech or being told they were wrong. However I remember one of the few conversations I had with my uncle in that everyone must do what they want to do in life as long as they had the will power to do so, the nuns disagreed with this. I had to escape that life and strive to fulfill my dreams. I had heard of the theatres in Paris, as being the best in the world, a life on the stage would enlighten the black wall in my heart caused by the strangling determination of my Uncle. Nevertheless, I needed money. I knew my Uncle had lots, so I took £50 from the wallet and took a train down to Southampton then purchased a one-way ticket to Calais, stepping of that train and onto the boat made me realize that I was free from my Uncle, his rules and harsh hands.
Arriving in Paris on the midnight train, appearing through the smoke and crowds wearing my emerald dress with the black corset bodes I could have easily been mistaken for being a streetwalker but the crowds were in too much of a hurry to notice. I found my way to the center of Montmartre the drunken laughter of prostitutes under the bridge rang through my ears; the sweet sound of tavern music gave me a sense of freedom, a break away from rules and a life in the limelight. I rented a small room overlooking the ‘Grand Guignol' in a tavern aptly named ‘Le Chat Noir‘'. The dark stingy room reminded me off the room I shared with four other catholic girls at my side. During the night, I recalled the painful memory of the nuns entering my room with the cane beating us when we overslept or answering a question incorrectly in class. The bed was hard, the springs stabbed into my back and I cried myself to sleep thinking of home and my mother, beginning to regret leaving England but the dream of the theatre dried my tears. I was awaken four hours before dawn, by a noise that came from across the street. I got out of my bed and went to the window, it was dark but there was a full moon casting a little light. In the dark there were strangers casting long shadows on the cobbled alleys, loading something out of a horse drawn van that belonged to the local butchers. However, after everything was offloaded, they loaded something else into the carriage. It was long and wrapped in a grey white sheet, tied with a rope, and knotted tightly the package was so heavy it took all the men to lift it. I thought nothing of it, went back to bed, and went straight back to sleep.
The squeaking of rats woke me at dawn and I failed to return to my dreams. I rose from my bed still weary from a night of hard sleep; the beautiful morning sun turned my grey nightgown into a crimson orange with a gorgeous high view over Montmartre. I stared at the filthy back streets of Paris where a rag and bone man on a pair of crutches ripped down a poster of the previous night's act the ‘Great Jean-Pierre'. Suddenly a knock at the door caused the dust to spread around the room, through dust and tearful eyes I saw the house cleaner, an old woman with a wart on her nose and stringy grey hair spoke to me in a cackled voice "Mornin' my dear. Just need to change ya sheets." I let her get on with it and I continued to stare at the ripped poster. As I knew nothing about the theatre, I needed information and the house cleaner appeared old enough to know something about it, I found the courage to question her. "Who is the ‘Great Jean-Pierre'?" "Oh. I can't reveal information like that mademoiselle." she insolently replied. I reached for my purse and looked at what little money I had. In my fingers, I revealed a one-franc coin, and her yellow teeth gave a greedy grin at the shimmer of the coin. "Oh. Well maybe I can tell ya a little about him. And for two francs I'll tell ya about the theatre itself." I brought out another coin as she beckoned me to sit with her at the small desk in the corner after she swept away the cobwebs and spiders she drew herself a little closer and began to talk.
"Well my dear it's like this ya see. 10 years ago the ‘Grand Guignol' started to make big profits and under the old manager a Monsieur Robert Dupont when the theatre only performed the romantics. Shakespeare that was his favorite, until his wife God blesses her died of the..." a sense of dread and a stutter in her voice allowed me to predict how the wife had died. "...the smallpox and Monsieur Dupont turned to drink. Oh the mercy, I could only watch that man drain up to three bottles of Absinth a night..." "What is Absinth?" I asked, "A very powerful spirit my dear, drunk by those who have no respect for their souls; it's a very bright crystal green, and tastes like aniseed shaken with fire. No, you do not want to try it. Anyway a few years later a man arrived in Paris, and slept in this very room he did, a fine gentleman tipped me everyday he did, oh what was his name err... oh yes a Monsieur Jacque Artoir bought the theatre. He came from Bordeaux with his wicked smile and sharp pronunciation of words. He came over here, his wallet full of money; all cash, not a single coin. He sat Monsieur Dupont down, and after taunting him of his past. Monsieur Dupont relinquished the theatre and gave the deeds to Monsieur Artoir," the house cleaner said this nervously, melancholy and dark as if to reveal a secret of the past. I sat avidly listening letting my mind's eye travel back through time.
"What did Monsieur Artoir ... what did he do?" I asked and eagerly awaited the response.
"Well Jacque Artoir is a believer in the dark arts and turned the theatre that was once a fairytale castle of romance into a witch's cave of horror, on the stage his mystical puppets perform terrible but fantastic rituals, dating back to the time of Macbeth. On that stage, the unexpected is expected. Many have died in his grasp of horror and many more are to follow."
I did not want to believe the story they seemed to be the words told by a nurse trying to put a child to sleep or a story of moral that a teacher would tell you, but her words danced in my mind like brandy in the blood causing confusion and disbelieve. Nevertheless, her spell had performed its mesmerizing deed, when more words slipped out by my curious tongue.
"But what happened to the Great Jean-Pierre?"
"He was last night's performer. A dark magician. Some say he could raise the dead with the smell of gin in his breath. A performance doomed to fail from the start, do not know why Monsieur Artoir took him on. The man couldn't even perform, he was drunk again last night and all his magic went wrong, the animals were falling all over the stage, audiences were leaving in the end he was performing to a half empty theatre, Monsieur Artoir was damn right to do away with him as he did."
"What has Monsieur Artoir done to him?" I asked, dreading the answer.
"You've been up since dawn....did ya see him leave?" she said leaving the room with a secretly devious look on her face.
What could I do, but sit in silent shock over the question she just asked me. My breathing deepened and heart pounding, a cold gust of wind blew the window open causing leaves from of the streets to be swept into my room. I stood up and walked towards the window just as I was about to close it, if fate would have it the same rag and bone man was putting up the poster for that nights performance.
Branded across the paper were the words:
COME ONE, COME ALL TO SEE THE SENSATIONAL MADEMOISELLE CLAUDIA DESIRÉE.
She was a legend across the world, an opera singer and my golden idol performing at the epitome of the arts. However, I could not resist the temptation I was going to see Claudia Desirée on the stage. Nevertheless, if I was to go to the theatre that evening, I had to organize my luggage. I pulled out a dozen dresses off fantastic colors and styles along with a few dirt corsets and laddered stockings. At the bottom of my case I found a necklace, I could not believe it was in there, or how it got there. My Uncle gave it to me for my thirteenth birthday I remember receiving it then having it taken away, it belonged to my mother and was an heirloom through the women in the family. It was a gold necklace with a small sapphire in the centre encrusted with diamonds. My uncle had kept it hidden from me, as it was the only physical object in his possession, which belonged to her.
That evening as the sun was about to set, I passed the time trying on my various dresses, I decided that the crushed blood red velvet dress would be more appropriate for the evening. Then with my necklace around my neck and my dress cut low, I stumbled down the stairs walking between the tavern prostitutes attracting clients for the evening. The red low cut dress had mistaken me for that kind, and then I was out into the drink plagued cobble streets, finding it hard to walk as my right shoe was missing the heel. The icy wind went straight through my velvet dress freezing my tender insides making my breathing heavy and my hair dry.
There was a long queue at the theatre many women waiting impatiently only to collapse half way through, but it was the men in the queue dressed smartly they captured the presence. I admired the exterior of the theatre as it was just how I imagined it to be, embracing the appearance of the night and the darkness of sin, its gothic features gained control of my darker side. A hunched back man who looked more as if a gargoyle brought to life greeted me at the doors; he opened the door after I paid the 5 shillings for the ticket leaving me penniless. In paying him the 5 shillings, he smiled at me, but he had gaps in his teeth and the only ones remaining were decayed and stained black.
I walked through the black oak doors with heavy brass knobs and 17th Century Gothic art décor which took full strength to turn, but once turned you will stunned by the scene, one of which took my breath away. The over powering smell of burning oil in the lamps and the varnish in the wood. Allowed me to believe that it would be here where my career will take place. At the Grand Guignol.