parisian brothel during the war
All photos from Capital of Pleasure – Paris In the Inter-war Period.

A Look Inside Paris' Luxurious Brothels – When They Were Legal

In the 1920s and 30s, socialites flocked to lavish houses for drinking, dancing and much more.
18 January 2020, 12:02am

Capital of Pleasure – Paris In the Inter-war Period is a new book published in French by erotic historian Alexandre Dupouy. We've translated a chapter on the golden age of Parisian brothels, and the language herein aligns with the original text.

Between World War I and World War II, an atmosphere of sexual tension led to a massive boom for the sex-trade industry and its underbelly. What is usually referred to as the “Golden Age of brothels” is no longer a reality today; but at the time, female emancipation and prostitution went hand in hand. Two ambitious women, Marthe Marguerite and Camille Fernance “Dinah” Alfrédine, came to dominate the interwar Paris sex scene, and were the antithesis of male-on-female exploitation.

Camille began working at the luxury brothel Le Chabanais at age 20. This house had opened its doors in 1877, but its glory days now seemed over. Prostitution wasn’t attracting the same bourgeois crowd it once did, and clients didn’t want to frequent lavish brothels. Instead, they preferred to party with girls in intimate settings. It’s in this context that Camille takes over the Palais de Cristal on Rue Taitbout, helped by her lover Marcel Jamet, also known as Fraisette. She baptised the place with her nickname: Dinah. This small “family house” soon surpasses its ambitions. In 1927, Dinah and Marcel buy the One-Two-Two, also known as “The One". It's called One-Two-Two because the building is located 122 Rue de Provence, and it has an international ring to it. Dinah changes her nickname to Doriane. The house is rather classy and soon joins the small circle of “Great Parisian Houses”. In 1931, something revolutionary happens in Parisian nightlife: The Sphinx pops up on Boulevard Edgar-Quinet, right in the middle of the Montparnasse quarter.

Martoune, a mistress at One-Two-Two, poses between two girls.

The Sphinx isn’t really a brothel; it’s a bar loved by the Parisian elite. Girls can leave the venue when they wish, and none of them are forced to “go upstairs” with clients. As opposed to other places centred around consumers’ pleasure, legitimate and illegitimate couples can show up together. It’s a space somewhat proud of itself, presenting itself as a discreet shop window of the lost and luxurious.

The Sphinx is Marthe “Martoune” Marguerite’s and Georges Lemestre’s idea. She wants to succeed and escape her uninspiring sales job. He – her “man”, slightly tough but loving, protects and supports her, and shows her that chance smiles at those who dare. Unlike most who work in the industry, these two decide to discover the world and travel together.

Back from the United States, Martoune has one objective: a brothel of her own. But not any brothel. She dreams of an oasis in the spirit of what she discovered across the Atlantic; enough space to host endless parties, with flowing champagne, lights, music (jazz especially), free-spirited and beautiful girls, all with a sense of abandonment. She dreams of a stylish house, far from the traditional French brothels, stilted and crumbling under heavy red curtains.

As for the location, Martoune has yet another genius idea. She doesn’t buy an old-fashioned hole of nefarious reputation. Instead, she purchases a new building built from scratch, a few metres away from the Montparnasse train station, in a trendy neighbourhood with an international vibe: the artist and nightlife quarter. The exciting launch of the Sphinx takes place in the spring of 1931. The who’s who of Montparnasse parties all night long, dazzled and curious.

As the Sphinx isn’t really a brothel, celebrities in the worlds of politics, cinema, music and the arts hang out here, including Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Cary Grant. Of course, another regular and neighbour, Martoune, who has blended well with the Montparnasse crowd, is an active member of her community. Supporting artists can only boost her reputation.

The "Renaissance" room at the One-One-Two

Meanwhile at The One, the Jamets are undeterred, responding to their competitor’s success. They soon realise that to attract the celebrity world and its crowd , they have to shift up a gear: change people’s habits, change location, or renovate at least. So they start large-scale building works. By 1935, the family business has little to envy of the Sphinx. The Jamets build higher and hire talented painters and decorators for the interiors.

The One now encompasses a bar, a smoking room, several "salons" (The Miami lounge, Musketeer lounge, Japanese lounge, Maple lounge with authentic mahogany furniture), a restaurant (called “Beef on a String”), and around twenty themed rooms: The Blue Beard, Gallant Indias, The Pirate, The Sleeping Room, The African hut, The Transatlantic, The Orient-Express, The Hay Loft, The Igloo, The Tipi, The Provincial, The Country House, The Egyptian, The Roman, The Greek, The Renaissance, The Hall of Mirrors and The Torture Chamber. Like the Sphinx, girls are selected on account of their beauty. They live outside the promises, have one day off a week, and have access to a hairdresser, pedicure, manicure, a laundry room and twelve showers. Right Bank versus Left Bank, Doriane versus Martoune, the Parisian elite comes running to experience the Saint Lazare jewel. And it’s a success; the pleasure factory is operating at full throttle.

On the second floor of the Chabanais.

At the end of the 1930s, spurred by a midlife crisis, Marcel takes his madame Fabienne as a mistress. Doriane finds a lover and leaves The One. Marcel marries Fabienne during the German occupation of France, in an orgy of champagne. The day after the liberation of France, Parisians will vote against the rights of brothel managers and so the couple's story end on the 7th October, 1946. The Marthe Richard Law establishes the end of a period of tolerance towards prostitution. All Parisian brothels must close. The party is over.

This article originally appeared on VICE FR.