Sunday, January 27, 2013

La Miss

Gay Paree tumbled into the Twentieth Century with its colorful cabarets and their unique form of live entertainment.  These French cafés each showcased a glamorous chanteuse wearing dazzling costumes amid spectacular sets.  None was so popular as Mistinguett, who with her million dollar legs and risqué routines, captivated Paris.

Before she called herself Mistinguett, she was Jeanne Florentine Bourgeois, born on April 5, 1875 in Enghien, France to alcoholic parents.  Despite their own problems, the Bourgeois wanted their daughter to be a lady so they sent her to school and demanded she learn to play the violin.  Jeanne, however, had other ambitions.  She dropped out of school to sell carnations in front of a local casino and traded her violin lessons for singing lessons.  By the time she was 15, the young girl was a popular performer in the local cafés.  When a song-writing acquaintance made up the name Miss Tinguette, Jeanne took it as her own running it together and dropping the final ‘e’.  In 1895, Mistinguett debuted at the Casino de Paris and soon became the toast of Parisian nightlife.
Each evening at 9:30 sharp, she made her dramatic entrance in the spotlight.  Descending an enormous flight of stairs, wearing colorful feathers and sparkling jewelry, Mistinguett carefully navigated each step.  Cautiously balancing an enormous headdress while maneuvering an exaggerated train behind her, she reached the front of the stage and took charge.  Her numbers, ranging from soft ballads to bawdy dance routines, secured her place in the limelight.

By 1906, she teamed up with a much younger partner, 18-year-old Maurice Chevalier.  In their very first dance number, they rolled themselves up in a rug.  As the weeks wore on and they fine-tuned their steps, Chevalier worked up the nerve to kiss her while hidden in the rug.  Much to his delight, she liked it and once said:  “It was that damn carpet that started it all.”  The two had an on-again off -again relationship for decades.
Mistinguett lived large surrounding herself with luxury and royal lovers.  Aside from her Paris apartment, she owned magnificent homes in Normandy, Bougival and Antibes and her torrid love affairs were legendary.  She carried on with an Indian Prince, a Spanish king, as well as a future king of England.  She was also known to have turned down the King of Sweden and the German Crown Prince.  Unashamed of her influence over some of the most powerful men in the world, she never hesitated to call on any one of them for favors.

In addition to her colorful life, it’s believed she worked covertly for the French Military Intelligence during the First World War.  Her exact business with the French government remains shrouded in secrecy, but in 1918, the French military court asked her to testify against a German espionage ring that she helped uncover.  Due to the highly sensitive nature of the case, the records were permanently sealed and have never been made public.
Mistinguett played the Paris music halls for over 50 years.  She was, at one time, the highest paid female entertainer in the world.  In 1919, her legs were insured for 500,000 francs.  She was the first to sing ‘Mon Homme’ whose English version ‘My Man’ was later made famous by funny girl Fanny Brice.  She also popularized the elaborate showgirl costumes with their weighty headpieces that are still favored in Las Vegas.

Upon hearing of the the fatal stroke that claimed her life on January 5, 1956, Maurice Chevalier wrote:  “…You  can take your rest, Mist.  You who were the Parisienne personified, more than anyone ever was before, as much as anyone will ever be again.  You were the body and soul, the wit and chic of the feminine city.  They all adored you… and you will remain, for everyone, a shining light in the City of Lights.”  

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