Scandals and Secrets of Paris’s Père Lachaise

Based in part on a lecture by Historian Andrew Lear

Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery is one of the most visited in the world. Established by Napoleon in 1804, open to all religions, it nonetheless takes its name from confessor to Louis XIV, Père François de la Chaise, who lived in the Jesuit house on the site of the chapel. “If you go,” host/tour guide Andrew Lear tells us, “Enter at the top of the hill, not the front gate. The view is great and it’s much easier.” Maps are available.

When the cemetery opened, Père Lachaise was considered too far out of Paris and garnered only a few graves. Marketing strategy was two-fold – first, it was turned into a garden cemetery, planted pseudo-wild, British style, and touted as a peaceful public park. (Mt. Auburn in Boston is another of these.) Then, in order to attract more visitors, tombs of several famous dead were relocated there. The playwright Molière (1622-1673) became a new tenant.

The tomb of Abelard and Heloise (by Jim Linwood on Flckr; CC BY 2.0)

Also resituated were Abelard (1079-1142) and Heloise (1090-1142), since romanticized in every art form. Peter Abelard, French philosopher and theologian, was repeatedly charged with heresy yet apparently remained unpunished. Captivated by Heloise’s beauty and unusually bright mind, he talked her uncle into allowing him to tutor the girl – and moved in. The two became lovers, the girl became pregnant.

The couple were forced into a secret marriage against Heloise’s wishes. (She was something of a feminist.) While he found them a place to stay or perhaps to give birth to the baby, Abelard left his wife in a convent. Her uncle, assuming she’d been abandoned, sent men to beat up and castrate the betrayer. Abelard became a monk and persuaded Heloise to become a nun, which she also didn’t want to do. They corresponded until respective deaths. Lear tells us the letters are less about love than religion.

The tomb of Oscar Wilde (by Kapsuglan; CC BY-SA 4.0)

Next we stop at the grave of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Robert “Robbie” Ross (1869-1918). Designed by Jacob Epstein, it’s one of the two most frequently visited – the other is that of Jim Morrison. After Wilde’s prison term for indecency= homosexuality, he settled in France. The sad irony is that if, as planned, Wilde had moved sooner to a country where sodomy was not illegal, he may have had a long, fruitful life. There was a vast exodus of gay men after the famous wit’s trial. Ross, his first lover and lifelong friend, lingered so Wilde could see him as he was taken away to prison.

The young man made sure the author’s family received money for what were lapsed copyrights and had his friend moved from an unpretentious grave in Banlieue south of Paris to a monumental one at Père Lachaise. It evidently once bore a silver penis broken off by vandals.

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967) are also interred with one another. “Everyone’s heard of her, but not for the reasons she wanted,” Lear comments. Stein was a writer of experimental prose. Her reputation, however, is for what was likely the most important literary and artistic salon in Paris at the time. An artistic visionary, Stein acted as patron for a large number of artists the world hadn’t yet recognized, many of whom did her portrait. “Here was a short, heavy, American lesbian who ruled the lives of men like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway,” Lear says, bemused. Gertrude’s wife, Alice, the unsung enabler of of their home, wrote a well known cookbook featuring hash brownies.

The tomb of Sarah Bernhardt (by Adam A. Sofen; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was the most important French actress of her century. She toured the world “like a rock star, famous for sleeping in a coffin and having a menagerie of animals…She acted only in French using an operatic style somewhat like silent films.” (Lear) La Dame aux Camelias (1881) was written for the star. She audaciously played Hamlet in 1899. Bernhardt was bisexual and a courtesan, serially supported by extremely wealthy men. She had one son, Maurice, by the Prince of Belgium. When the Royal offered to acknowledge him, the young man said he preferred to be known as Bernhardt’s son.

Ashes of Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) are in the columbarium. Along with Loie Fuller, Martha Graham, and Ted Shawn, Duncan eschewed formal, stylized ballet and invented what we think of as modern dance. “She’s the first person to dance to Chopin, not music composed as a ballet,” Lear notes. Always a free spirit, Duncan was sexually liberated. She had three children out of wedlock, two died in a car crash. After that, we’re told, the dancer met a very young Italian and impulsively insisted on having his baby. Duncan became an alcoholic and died in the south of France when her signature scarf got tangled in the axis of a Bugatti and snapped her neck. The film with Vanessa Redgrave has her preparing to write an autobiography at the time.

The tomb of Edith Piaf (by Aldro Adretti; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lear calls la môme Piaf (the little sparrow) = Edith Giovanna Gassion (1915-1963) the greatest French pop performer of the 20th century. Born very poor, she was deposited at her grandmother’s brothel to be raised. Ten years later, her father retrieved the girl to perform in the streets (his own “profession”). A night club owner hired the waif and her career began. “She sang ‘I-need-that-man songs’ like Billie Holiday,” Lear observes. These were later poignantly autobiographical. The love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash on his way to her. Piaf also endured several crashes becoming addicted to the morphine that would eventually kill her.

The tomb of Frederic Chopin (by Olivier Bruchez; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) had a famous affair with writer George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), a bisexual who applied to police for permission to dress as a man. (It was otherwise illegal.) “He was a dandy, focused on himself, and originally repulsed by her,” Lear tells us. “Letters Chopin wrote to a young man of his social world in Poland have recently been translated. I wonder whether the relationship with Sand was sexual.”

Other graves: Opera diva Maria Callas, Composer Georges Bizet (author of Carmen, partly based on the tempestuous character of his wife who also appears in Proust’s work), writer Honoré de Balzac who may have penned one of the first gay characters for public consumption in The Splendor and Miseries of Courtesans…

The tomb of Colette (by DIMSFIKAS; CC BY-SA 3.0)

We close, by the front gate, with the grave of author Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette 1873-1954), the first woman admitted to the L’Académie Française and the first woman of letters to be given a state funeral. Also a mime, actress, and journalist, Colette is best known here for her book, Gigi, about a young girl raised to be a courtesan as if it was the most natural thing in the world. In France, she’s famous for the autobiographical Claudine books her then husband “Willy” published under his own name. (Colette was locked in her room to deliver her books.) He encouraged her to write about lesbian experiences making the books scandalous.

Eventually Colette left Willy and took up with Mathilde “Missy” de Morny, also known as Uncle Max, another woman who had permission to dress as a man. The lovers provoked a riot when they kissed on stage in Dream of Egypt.

The tomb of Marcel Proust (by Paul Louis; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Andrew Lear is as wonderfully entertaining as he is knowledgeable.

Featured photo: Pere Lachaise (by Kapsuglan; CC BY-SA 4.0)

Saturday May 21: “Josephine, the Mistress who Became Empress”

And a LIVE tour in Paris (July 13-19):

About Alix Cohen (1312 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.