Horizontal Collaboration: The Erotic World of Paris, 1920–1946

Image of Horizontal Collaboration: The Erotic World of Paris, 1920-1946
Release Date: 
October 6, 2015
Feral House
Reviewed by: 

an illuminating linguistic, cartographic, and historical exploration of Parisian lusts.”

Paris became the epicenter for expatriate American writers and performers following the First World War. It welcomed this Lost Generation with cheap rents, free-flowing booze, and libertine morality. The United States, in the chokehold of Prohibition, characterized itself as a City on the Hill, a place of freedom and individuality. These have fed into the commonplace notion of American exceptionalism. But America was not the only place that took pride in standing out. Horizontal Collaboration: The Erotic World of Paris, 1920–1946, by Mel Gordon presents the notion of French hedonistic exceptionalism in all its glory.

Until 1946, Paris had legalized prostitution. Gordon, Theater Arts professor at the University of California-Berkeley, illuminates this once-hidden world of brothels, dance halls, and criminality. Horizontal Collaboration is the companion work to Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimer Berlin. Like Voluptuous Panic, the book functions as an erotic history of the Interwar period. The text is supplemented by a rich visual presentation. Gordon's adept use of visual and material culture provides depth and perspective. Playbills, brochures, photospreads, comics, illustrations, and paintings cover almost every page.

Adding support to the historical narrative are lists of slang terms, maps, and a guidebook. The guidebook, assembled by Gordon from actual guides to Paris's disreputable establishments, provides a thumbnail sketch for the curious traveler. The brothel's location, décor, clientele, and cuisine are explained, along with the years each flourished.

In an introductory section, Gordon traces Paris's hedonistic exceptionalism back to the reign of King François (1494–1547), “the warrior-king, whose love of Italian culture and slim-hipped women nearly bankrupted the monarchy by the end of his reign.” Despite the “provisional divisions and maddening allegiances to a wide spectrum of creeds, dialects, extended clans, occupations, and political faiths, the inhabitants of fractious Gaul were united by a devotion to their cornucopia of earthly indulgences.”

Obsessive devotion to pleasure surfaced in the anti-clerical bawdiness of Gargantua and Pantagruel, by François Rabelais (1483–1553). During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin accommodated himself to Paris's sex tourist trade. Although sometimes the quest for sybaritic bliss went too far, as seen in the literary career of the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), imprisoned in every French regime from Louis XVI to Napoleon. Paris's notoriety continued into the 19th and 20th centuries when the Decadence movement flourished prior to the conflagration of the First World War.

Gordon explores various aspects of Paris, from dance clubs to brothels to the criminal underworld and gay and lesbian subcultures. Each subset has its own slang and its own cultural mores. Brothels ranged from the high-class (maisons de société) to the unhygenic (maisons d'abattage; literally “slaughterhouses”).

The investigation into gay collaborationist activity represents a peculiar slice of life during the Black Years. Gordon profiles two notable gay collaborators, Violette Morris (also known as “Fat Claude”) and Maurice Sachs. As with the recently published Stormtrooper Families, the presence of gay collabos complicates the sexual politics and ideological seductions of the era.

In his summary of actions taken against collaborationists, Gordon points out that only heterosexual women met the most vicious retribution. It manifested France's attempt to reconcile sexual desire and to regain its lost honor. Despite the public face of these retributions, France had its own long history of anti-Semitic attitudes, most notably in the Dreyfus Affair. When France finally abolished legalized prostitution in 1946, many in the sex industry lamented the Nazi Occupation as a bygone era of business prosperity. Paris's erotic exceptionalism created such contradictory and perverse attitudes.

Mel Gordon's Horizontal Collaboration necessitates inclusion in the library of any discerning voluptuary. By turns titillating and prurient, Gordon's book offers an illuminating linguistic, cartographic, and historical exploration of Parisian lusts.