CÔTE D'AZUR QUEERS
This chapter explores queer historical figures that lived or worked, or died in the French Riveria region. The eight pilgrimages we made in October 2019 were to the gravesites of Suzy Solidor, Witold Gombrowicz, Jacques Morali, Jean Marais, Klaus Mann, Aubrey Beardsley, Josephine Baker and Magnus Hirschfeld. Creativity defined their lives but also contributed to their personal struggles living outside the normative structures of society.
The origins of this chapter's research came from a previous chapter called Queer Expats of Paris, where we researched ten people who lived and died in Paris who were not French nationals. That research led to the discovery of the French Riviera being another focal point for queer diaspora. The French Riviera has a long association of privilege and excess and is a magnet for entertainers, writers and artists. All the people we chose came from a creative field, and all had the economic freedom to move to this region, but they relocated here for different and varying reasons. Still, a common theme that runs through their stories is escaping.
Magnus Hirschfeld and Klaus Mann were escaping the persecution of their religion, sexuality and political beliefs from Nazi Germany. Witold Gombrowicz was escaping from the repressive communist regime in Poland. Josephine Baker escaped a life of racism and discrimination in her birth country of America. Aubrey Beardsley was escaping the backlash of his association with Oscar Wilde and trying to escape death from chronic tuberculosis. Suzy Solidor was escaping her past as a collaborator during World War 2. Although tragedy and persecution are a dominant theme in most of their biographies, they all left a significant mark on their field and the people they associated with.
Born in Brittany at the turn of the century, your house cleaner mother became pregnant by her employer, resulting in her being fired and raising you as a single mother. Destined for bigger things, you left home at seventeen to become an ambulance driver during the First World War. You always wanted to be the centre of attention from a young age, and you set out for Paris to start a singing and modelling career. Using your looks and personality to charm audiences, you became a sensation in the Paris clubs. As a self-identifying womaniser, you seduced the public with your risqué lyrics by suggesting the ladies open their two trembling knees for you.
Everyone desired your aesthetic and erotic ambiance; after a brief affair with Tamara de Lempicka, she immortalised you in one of her paintings. Other artists scrambled to depict you, including Bacon, Cocteau, Picasso and Ray, helping to make you the ‘most painted woman in the world’. In 1932 you opened the nightclub La Vie Parisienne becoming the first female club owner in Paris. It became a hot spot for the rich and famous with regulars such as Piaf and Dietrich. You adorned the club with the hundreds of portraits painted of you, with the less flattering ones hanging in the toilet.
During the Second World War, the occupation brought a different clientele to the club, becoming popular with the occupying Nazi soldiers. After the war, you were put on trial as a collaborator, sullying your reputation and drifting from the French public eye. Moving to America to escape your past, you toured your old stage act and became a minor hit. In 1960 you moved back to France and settled in the Côte d’Azur, opening up a new club to recreate old glories. Later, as you lost your looks, the performativity of a sailor’s uniform transferred you into ‘the admiral’. Finally fading into old age by the Riviera.
Cimetière Ancien, Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, 2019
Born into the dying Polish gentry lifestyle, you began to study law but quickly rejected its stifling restraints to pursue a life of letters and lust. Your first novel Ferdydurke launched you into the literary world with a battle cry against phoniness and an ironic take on the humiliation of accepting cultural norms. But it didn’t bring the fame you hoped. A month before the start of the Second World War, you sailed on the MS Chrobry, covering the maiden voyage as a journalist bound for South America. After learning your ‘homeland’ was invaded, you were stranded in Argentina with little Spanish and no money.
In a constant state of depression, you spent your days in cafes playing chess with the local youth. Working as a bank clerk to survive, you continued to write, with fellow Polish author-in-exile Zofia Chądzyńska translating your works into Spanish and helping you integrate yourself with the local cultural elite. Becoming a diarist, you chronicled your health problems, poverty, struggles for recognition and your coded sexual adventures with soldiers and paperboys. When published, the diaries were a hit in Paris but condemned in Poland. With fame and glory finally closer, you took up an invitation to return to Europe after twenty-four years of exile.
On your return, you spent a year in Berlin, where your enjoyment of the local youths continued. Residing so close to Poland worried the regime, and they produced propaganda to discredit you as a Fascist, turning several critics against you and resulting in you never returning to Poland. Soon after, your worsening health reduced your ability to write, and you moved to Vence and married your Canadian secretary Rita. Your reputation grew stronger after your death, and your works were finally honoured in Poland.
Cimetière de Vence, Vence, France, 2019
Born into a turbulent childhood of divorce, your World War One veteran father abandoned the family and, at age four and your mother moved the family to Paris. Your mother’s violent temper and incarceration for her kleptomaniac tendencies forged your independent spirit. Hinting at your theatrical future, you were expelled from school for dressing as a girl and flirting with a teacher, but the Paris Conservatory drama school rejected you.
Getting a job as a Photographer’s apprentice, you persuaded an artistic life. In 1933 while selling one of your paintings to film director Marcel L’Herbier you used your looks and charm to get a role in one of his films, but your limited acting ability only led to more bit-part roles. When you were twenty-four, you had a chance meeting with Jean Cocteau that changed everything. Double your age, Cocteau adopted you as his muse, lover for the next decade, giving up his addiction to opium for a new dependence. Cocteau cast you in several leading roles, and stardom came your way as a swashbuckling heartthrob and a charming man. While his connections kept you safe in occupied France.
As your and Cocteau relationship evolved into a friendship, you had a very brief marriage to your co-star in Beauty & The Beast and a rumoured love affair with Umberto, the last King of Italy, but you eventually fell in love with American dancer George Reich. After you parted with Cocteau, your pulling power was still strong, but as the decades passed, your stardom slowly dimmed. Later in life, you adopted your son Serge, and your attention moved back towards art. Dying in the department of film stars, grave robbers stole your beastly bust from your tomb, but your beauty will still live on.
Cimetière de Vallauris, Vallauris, France, 2019
Born into an unloving and unsupportive family, you were constantly under the weighty shadow of your father, Thomas, who saw you as a rival and ridiculed your ability. Thomas may have had the gravitas, but you had the bravery to be open about your sexuality, publishing one of the first German queer novels 'The Pious Dance' at age nineteen. You were always in a perpetual search for love but mostly found rough trade along the way.
Jaunting around the world with your sister and 'fellow traveller' Erika, you built a like-minded community of queers and anti-Fascists. In 1933 with Erika, you took part in the political cabaret The Pepper-Mill, putting you under the spotlight of the Nazi's. With your books being burned, you escaped Germany and went into exile, travelling around Europe, where you became a prominent critic of the new regime. Your closeted, Nazi collaborating ex-brother-in-law inspired your best work in the pre-war years, but Mephisto wouldn't reach a German audience until decades later. With depression about the world's state and a desire to increase creativity, you turned to opiates, but addiction soon followed.
While passing through Budapest, you met a young American student Thomas' Tomski' Quinn Curtiss, falling for each other's charm. As the war was about to break out, you moved with Tomski to the U.S, where the FBI investigated your sexual tastes. Eventually, you became a citizen and joined the army, where you were known as 'The Professor'. After the war, loneliness and financial troubles took over. Your life-long obsession with both drugs and your mortality came together for one the final time, passing away from an overdose of sleeping pills in a hotel room in Cannes. Breaking Erika's heart, but Thomas didn't want to interrupt his lecture tour to attend your funeral.
Cimetière du Grand Jas, Cannes, France, 2019
Born into illness and a recently impoverished upper-class family you were a gifted artistic child. Your mother pushed you and your sister to perform concerts publicly and dubbed you the ‘infant musical phenomenon’. Teaching yourself to draw from a young age and taking inspiration from Japonisme, you illustrated your way to infamy by being a foppish dandy artist who satirised Victorian morality. Fascinated by transgression and the perverse, you once proclaimed, “If I’m not grotesque, I’m nothing”. Your prolific output brought you much attention, becoming entwined with the British Decadents.
Your big break came when Oscar Wilde commissioned you to illustrate his play Salome. He saw you as a ‘kindred spirit’, but your relationship was not always easy. After founding the boundary-pushing literary periodical ‘The Yellow Book’, you forbid him from contributing, but it’s rumoured he was reading a copy when he was arrested. When Wilde went on trial for being a sodomite, your name wasn’t mentioned, but guilt by association in the public eye resulted in losing your job and standing. You managed to find a patron and fancier in French poet Marc-André Raffalovich who paid you a stipend for your attention. Rumours about your personal life were numerous, including crossdressing, involvement in the occult, and an incestuous relationship with your sister Mabel, who became pregnant then miscarried.
The tuberculosis that plagued your entire life returned, severely affecting your health and spirit, resulting in you converting to Roman Catholicism. Moving to the warmer climate in the south of France with your mother, your health only deteriorated more. On your deathbed, you sent a letter (or possibly your mother forged it) instructing your publisher to destroy your obscene legacy, but he thought better and saved your work. You passed away under the hill at just twenty-five.
Cimetière du Trabuquet, Menton, France, 2019
Born into poverty in St Louis at age eight, you worked as a domestic servant for a White family who abused you severely. While living as a street child, you married at age thirteen but divorced within a year. You taught yourself to dance and sing and joined a street performance group. After another short marriage in your mid-teens, you shuffled to Broadway during the Harlem Renaissance to become a chorus line girl.
You later toured in Paris performing almost naked in a Cocteau banana skirt, sending the European cultural elite into hysterics. Your star kept ascending, becoming the first African-American to feature in a major motion picture, and the highest-paid entertainer in Europe. A disastrous return home, where the audiences couldn’t handle a black woman with sophistication and power, led you to renounce your American citizenship. You used your celebrity power to access the political establishment during the Second World War, collecting and passing notes hidden in your underwear for the French resistance.
During the 1950s you toured America again. Many hotels and restaurants refused to allow you to make a booking. Angered by the blatant racism, you wrote several articles about your experiences and provided a powerful voice to the civil rights fight along with refusing to play to segregated audiences. While living in a castle in the south of France wanting to prove the possibility of racial utopia, you adopted 12 children from around the world calling them your rainbow family. Despite your own relationships with Kahlo, Coletter and Bricktop, you couldn’t accept your own son being gay and had him deported, afraid that he could infect his brothers. After being evicted from your chateau for unpaid debts, Princess Grace offered you a place in her Monégasque abode. You kept touring and performing until the final curtain call.
Cimetiére de Monaco, Monaco, 2019
Born into a Jewish medical family, you followed the family profession and studied for a medical degree in Berlin. Travelling after medical school, you sought out homosexual subcultures and were struck by the similarities in different parts of the world. The trial of Oscar Wilde greatly affected you, and along with several of your queer patients who killed themselves, you became an outspoken advocate for sexual minorities. Founding the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the first group for advocacy of homosexual and transgender rights.
You made your name trying to repeal Paragraph 175 that criminalised same-sex activity, managing to get Einstein, Mann and Tolstoy to sign your petitions. You also felt a solidarity with the women’s rights movement, taking up the fight for abortion law reform. You testified in court during the Eulenburg affair; outing a Prince and a General. You had hoped that exposing high-ranking queer individuals would help advance your cause, but instead, it caused public outrage. Incurring anti-semitic and homophobic attacks that eventually resulted in near-death beating by a group of nationalist thugs.
After the First World War, in the more liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, you opened the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a sexology research institute in Berlin where your life-partner Karl Giese became known as its ‘woman of the house’. Later that year, you co-wrote and acted in the feature film, Different from Others, the first to have a leading queer character. But the free times didn’t last long, and just months after the Nazi’s rise to power, the SA stormed the Institute attacking your staff and burning your research, leading you to exile to Paris. While touring in China, you met Li Shiu Tong and brought him back to Europe, settling in the South of France with Karl in an uneasy ménage à trois until Karl got deported for public promiscuity. You worked until the end, dying on your birthday - still as an outsider to both society and the academy.
Cimetière de Caucade, Nice, France, 2019