“Welcome to Bacon in the Pan, the podcast about women changing the world." My best friend’s familiar voice pours into my small flat like California sunshine. "Today’s guest is someone I’ve known a very long time.”
Outside, the sky is gray and dark with rain. Beeping scooters whiz by to the ubiquitous cadence of police sirens in the distance. I love my apartment, with it's soaring windows and light wooden floors, and I'm lucky to have it. 98 Boulevard Malesherbes is owned by a businesswoman on a long-term assignment in Australia.
I’m renting it from her for a song.
“Elise VonVleet is an influencer and brand manager living in Paris, and but it’s her blog, Joyau Caché that has made her famous with francophiles all around the world. Welcome, Elise.”
“Thanks for having me, Sara.” I say into my phone. “And yes, the blog has taken on a life of its own.”
“Elle magazine says, Joyau Caché, or Hidden Gems in French,” Sara pauses, a page flips, “...is a rare gem. It's an intimate tour of the best Paris has to offer, highlighting the fierce, feminist side of the City of Light.”
“Well, the blog started as a way to chronicle my adventures here in Paris,” I say into the phone, as rain splashes on the window. “But it’s turned into a way for me to tell the world about all the fascinating women I’ve met here. They’re changing this city, they're changing the world and they’ve changed my life.”
“Speaking of changing your life,” Sara says. “You left everything behind to meet a man in Paris, right? Let's hear about that first.”
“It's all true. The whole sordid tale. I fell in love, sight unseen, and I came to Paris to meet a man.” I say. Sara laughs on the other side of the world. “But, crazy as it sounds, I ended up finding myself.”
I move towards the bedroom, the hem of my dress rustling against my shoes. Standing outside 98 Boulevard Malesherbes, these shoes looked new, but inside this mansion, surrounded by spotless marble, sparkling crystal and the heady fragrance of violets, they look sooty and soiled.
A servant in a crisp apron opens the bedroom door. “Jules Sancerre to see you, Madame,” She says in dulcet tones. I nod in thanks.
The room glows with soft candlelight flickering from the four corners of the most famous bed in Paris. The Valtesse de La Bigne is sitting there, like a tiny bird in an exquisite blue dress.
She turns to me, blue eyes appraising. She is stunningly beautiful, even at her advanced age. I hold my breath.
“You’re a woman.” She says, with a laugh that sounds like a spoon to glass. “Well, it’s about time I was interviewed by someone who’s up to the task. Come, tell me your real name.”
“My name is Juliette,” I say. A silk chair has been placed next to the bed, I move to it and sit. The Valtesse looks at me expectantly. “I'm starting a new magazine for the modern woman.”
“The modern woman,” she considers this for a moment, “And the writers?” Diamonds sparkle from her neck and fingers, glinting in the candlelight.
"All female," I reply. She nods and smiles. "We would like you to be on our cover."
She is a woman of her time, a lorette who became a courtesan, an actress, and very soon after, the most famous woman in Paris. She’s cast a glittering net, catching princes and wealthy men, then throwing them back when she’s done with them. They love her, they hate her, they paint her, they write about her and she uses them all like a master puppeteer.
“I think there’s more to you than meets the eye,” I say. The Valtesse is businesswoman with as many layers as there are petals on a fleur de camélia. Hers is a story I want to tell to my readers. But first, I have to start with the obvious.
“Alors,” I glance up at folds of chartreuse silk cascading from gilded bedposts. “This is the famous bed?”
“Oui bien sur, ma cherie,” she purrs. “It’s true that the only opportunities for women in France are in the bed of a man, non? Well, I decided a long time ago that it was time to change a few things.”
I get up from the bed and walk back into the kitchen. The rain has stopped and the late afternoon sun casts a glow on the trees lining the boulevard.
“Somehow I ended up with a very conventional white picket-fence life,” I say into the phone. “Then I got laid off from my Silicon Valley job, and my husband had an affair with his trainer at the gym. I did what anyone would do in this situation. I drowned my sorrows in cookie dough and travel blogs.” Sarah’s laughter fills the room.
I wince at the memory. For one solid week, I had planted myself on my bed with a bottle of wine, a tube of chocolate chip cookie dough and the flicker of my laptop screen, watching a gorgeous man named Trevor lead me through the cobblestone streets of Paris. It was a dangerous mix of sugar and fantasy, but it pulled me out of my funk. I got up, washed my hair, put on some mascara, and found him online. A few smart and flirty comments later, we had a healthy back and forth going that felt like love. Before I knew it, I had bought a breathtakingly expensive last-minute ticket to Paris.
“So, you did the Eat, Pray, Love thing?” Sara says seriously. She's always been full of questions. Her current job suits her well.
“I had three glorious days with Trevor the travel blogger,” I say into the phone, “He showed me all the jewels of the city. We climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower. We scootered past Notre Dame, we gazed at the city, arm in arm, at the foot of Sacre Coeur.”
I pluck a postcard of a painting from my refrigerator. A woman in a long white dress stares playfully back at me, shaded by a parasol lined in blue. Gervex’s Valtesse de La Bigne. I’ve always loved this painting. I insisted on seeing it the minute I landed in Paris.
“We haunted The Louvre, The Musée D'Orsay, all the museums. We discussed art. It was magical.”
“Then he dumped you.” Sara says.
The Valtesse is not happy that I’ve brought up this piece of her history. “That was long ago," she snaps.
“You had two daughters with him” I say.
Her expression changes. “Good girl. You’ve done your research.”
“It seems to me,” I reply, “that of all the men you’ve been with, he was the one you loved”
“Love comes and goes in an instant…” she says softly, “but like the crimson hues of the sun as it disappears on the horizon.”
Her words are filled with the kind of heartache I know well. Her high-society life, her outsized reputation and her outrageous wealth have blurred horror of her young daughter’s death, having to take her own mother to court to get custody her other daughter, her loss of self in the overwhelming shadow of the male gaze. Even though her backstory shades in the hidden corners of her spectacular life, I’m not here to talk about men.
“I never wanted my daughter to follow in my footsteps,” she says. “Femininity is not to be used unwisely, squandered away. I did what I had to do to survive, to succeed. I think I’ve been a marvelous success, haven’t I?”
“But don’t you want more?” I write in a small notebook, looking up to catch her eye. “You are an author in your own right, a painter, a musician. An activist.”
“And yet most know me as the scandalous Nana.” A sly smile forms on her face. “Hell hath no fury like a petulant writer. Emile Zola is a tiresome man.”
“But better that people hear your name than forget you.”
“Smart girl.” The Valtesse nods, turns to the window and rises from the bed.
“It’s lovely out, ma cherie” she says. “I do my interviews with men in this bed. our interview this evening should be done properly, over an Apertif.”
A servant arrives with my coat over her arm. She leads us down the massive staircase to the foyer. Outside, late afternoon sunshine illuminates Boulevard Malesherbes in soft pastel hues. Horses clip past. Two women walk arm in arm, shaded by a parasol.
I slide my arms into my coat and pull the door shut behind me. I press record on my phone and flip it outward.
Sara says, “Elise has something special for you guys today. She’s going to take us on a little tour of Paris. I'll put a video link in the show notes.”
“We’re headed to my favorite restaurant in Paris, Lapérouse.” I chime in. “But first, I want to show you my favorite park in Paris. I’m taking you on a twisty route to the Left Bank, but aren’t the best things at the end of a twisty route?”
“I can agree with that,” Sara replies. “So tell us what happened next.”
“After Trevor left for Morocco, I was was an outsider looking in here in this beautiful city.” The Boulevard is full of Parisians now, heading home from work, off to apéro with friends. “I wandered the city, wondering what I was going to do. I had no money, no clue how I was going to survive.”
I round the corner onto Rue de Courcelles and stroll into Parc Monceau. It is lovely, green and fresh with rain. Joggers zip by and parents follow laughing children to a Carousel turning merrily next to a small playground.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” I glance up at the stately hotels particuliers lining the park, the lovely colonnade circling the pond. “The city caught me, kept me from falling into the abyss. Every day was like falling in love. I couldn’t think about how bad things had gotten when I looked at the Seine or the ceiling of Sainte-Chappelle. I began taking pictures in my neighborhood and posting them to the blog. Then I got interested in the stories here and people started following me. One thing led to another and now I've been here five years.”
“You landed in a beautiful spot." Sara says. "I read that your neighborhood used to be kind of like a red light district back in the day.”
“Well, not really," I correct. "This has always been a beautiful area. It's where the courtesans lived, many of them. You know how Cardi B used to be a stripper? Everybody cares, but nobody cares, right?"
"Yup," says Sara. I skirt around the long line at the crepe stand and head out through swirling green gates edged in gold.
"Well, that’s how people saw the courtesans. They were high society, fashionistas. Some of them were actors and singers too. People looked down on them, but they followed them religiously. They actually had a lot of power. And a ton of money.”
“Kind of like today’s reality stars,” Sara chimes in.
“Yeah. I mean, women had to get permission from the police to wear pants back then. That law was on the books until 1993, by the way.”
I'm almost to the Place de l’Etoile, where the Arc de Triomphe stands like a stately bookend to the glitzy, touristy Champs Elysees.
“Meanwhile, these women were commissioning mansions and engaging top politicians in witty banter. They were smart and educated. In fact, pretty much the only other women allowed to get an education were in convents. ”
A river of chic Parisians and gaping tourists carries me past McDonald’s Lauderée, Monoprix, Louis Vuitton. I catch my reflection in the plate glass windows.
“Today’s Paris is still ruled by smart women, except now they’re taking Paris by storm on their own terms.” I say, as I arrive at the Georges V metro stop. I dip down inside, warm metallic air greeting me with a screech of wheels on steel tracks. A train arrives, doors whooshing open. I step in.
The carriage takes us through the city and to the banks of the Seine. The river moves slowly under grand bridges arching gracefully, topped with golden statues. The Notre Dame sits regally on the Ile de la Cité, gazing over Paris, her graceful towers rising eternally to the sky.
“When I was a girl,” the Valtesse gestures with her hand, “These streets were filled with sweet shops, clothing stores, sewing shops, staffed entirely by women. I started working here when I was ten years old, first in a sweet shop and then as a dressmaker.”
The Valtesse surveys the busy avenue. The lamplighters are moving along each side, setting glass globes aglow. Flaneurs move slowly by in the fading light of the setting sun.
“I thought this place would take me out of my squalid life. Instead, we were paid pennies, abused, shoved into the shadows. We were prey.” Her face dips slightly, then she looks at me. “It was the kind of horror most can only imagine. But I survived it, and with the help of the women here, I learned how to climb out, one rung at a time.”
“But the only way to escape was to sell your soul,” I say.
“And once your soul is sold, what is there to do?” The Valtesse catches my eye, holds my gaze. “You either drown or you swim. I chose to fly.”
We arrive in front of the most beautiful restaurant in Paris. I’ve never been here. I sigh. The Valtesse looks at me, her expression softening.
“Welcome to Lapérouse, Juliette,” Valtesse says. “Let’s have a drink.”
Fashionable people step down from carriages. We follow them into the opulent room.
“If you want to get to the essence of the Parisian mystique,” I say, tucking my phone discreetly into my hand, “you have to visit Lapérouse. The Paris of the past meets the Paris of the present right here.”
“Elise,” says Sara from the screen, “This place is amazing.”
“Oh, wait ‘till you see the mirrors. The courtesans used to scratch their diamonds on them to make sure they were real.” My reflection shimmers in the ancient glass. “And people still do it today. This is place has seen it all.”
I walk into the bar, flipping my phone discreetly to show Sara the beautiful room. She gasps. “And this is where you have your monthly book club?”
“It started as a book club,” I say. “But it ended up being a lifeboat. Now, let’s stop talking about me. These are the women you all need to meet.”
My friends are expecting me. Their faces represent every corner of the globe, their accents a beautiful symphony. They are painters, writers, illustrators, journalists musicians, activists. Changing Paris for the better, changing the world.
They circle the table expectantly, their faces turned toward me like flowers in a springtime bouquet.
“Juliette,” says Clothilde, my newest reporter. “We can’t wait. You must show us the cover!”
I can hardly contain my smile. The first issue of our new publication is pressed to my chest. On the cover is a portrait of The Valtesse, a photograph. My interview and article about the “other side” of the famous courtesan is our first feature. I turn the magazine towards my colleagues.
“We did it,” I say. “Each of you has brought this dream to life. Your articles are perfection.” They cheer as I pass them their copies, heads bowing over bylines, their own names in black and white.
“Today, the past meets the present and the future. You are all pioneers with incredible talents for telling the stories that matter to modern women. I am honored to be in your company.”
Outside our building, next to the Bon Marché, a woman stops at a newsstand. Horses clip by on the street and the sun beams down onto a stack of magazines. She pauses, picks one up, and begins to page through it. She reaches into the bag hanging from her wrist and hands a coin to the boy behind the counter. She walks away slowly, open pages fluttering in the soft breeze. She is lost in the magazine, people step around her on the busy sidewalk.
Her face, partially hidden behind a photograph of The Valtesse de la Bigne, is reflected in the glass window of a dress shop.