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A Parisian Affair of 1904, Part 2 - Pastry, Champagne and Bananas

by Caspar Wintermans in History & Politics , 13 augustus 2011

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Ernest Boulton, painter. You won’t find his name in the biographical dictionaries. There is no museum where you can admire his works. No student has chosen him as subject for his thesis. Yet he did get a lot of publicity during his lifetime, publicity he did not like in the slightest and which proved fatal to him in the literal sense of the word. This Englishman, born in London and a graduate of the University of Oxford, aged 32 when he got in the news, had settled at Paris in 1902.

He lived in an apartment in the boulevard Raspail; his studio was situated in the boulevard Montparnasse, n° 83. He arrived there every morning at ten o’clock sharp. Initially the caretaker had a good impression of the clean-shaven artist. Boulton dressed in the height of fashion, he was friendly and well-mannered. A real gentleman.

Mrs Bernard (that was the caretaker’s name) rather pitied him, for his health was precarious; his skin was pale, he looked tired and he had a persistent cough. “The consumptive of n° 83,” she called him. He also had a limp in his gait, the result of an unfortunate fall he had made when an infant. One couldn’t possibly expect excesses from such a person...

Some First-Class Recruits

At six p.m. Boulton’s work was finished. He then cleaned his brushes, left the premises, dined at his favourite restaurant and returned home. In his sumptuous rooms he often received a visit from a fellow countryman, known to Boulton’s neighbours as his “inseparable pal.” The painter was supposed to spend many a Saturday evening at the British Embassy where he was a popular guest, or so he said. It is possible that he showed up there from time to time; but anyone shadowing him would have discovered that instead he usually headed for the boulevard Montparnasse again. He organised parties there, which really couldn’t pass muster.

At least, that was the opinion of an anonymous person who around 16 March 1904 sent a letter to the head of police, who was told that before long — and not for the first time! — “an orgy” was to be on the programme in Boulton’s studio. “This Boulton is an immoral man,” the writer concluded. “I don’t wish to add anything more, Monsieur le Préfet, except that young telegraph messengers are cast for the principal part in these beastly scenes. I thought it my duty to inform you about this.”

It was decided to investigate the matter and to place the studio under surveillance. A note addressed to Boulton that was intercepted on Saturday 19 March revealed that the party was indeed forthcoming, yes, that it was going to be given that very night.

“I have done what is necessary and have found some first-class recruits. I think we shall have a brilliant group of soldiers tonight. Don’t forget to bring costumes, flowers and the indispensable accessories. I do hope there will be champagne as well. If everyone is in the same mood as I am, and if they are equally ardent, it promises to be a wonderful party.”

These lines were signed “Phoebe.” A pseudonym, of course. The writer could not foresee what was hanging over the heads of his friends and himself...

A number of detectives was drummed up who discreetly took up their positions at about eight o’clock. Mrs Bernard had been previously told about the operation near at hand. She promised her full support; for ugly rumours about her tenant had recently reached her ears as well.
Boulton appeared, oddly dressed. He wore a fez, an Algerian burnous and ample, white trousers; his feet were cased in Eastern slippers stitched with gold-wire. He called the caretaker.

“I shall receive some people tonight,” he told her, “who will ask after me. You would greatly oblige me if you would show them the way to my studio.”

On 31 December 1904 the satirical magazine ‘L’Assiette au beurre’ published this cartoon, poking fun at the homosexual tastes (the ‘cult of Antinoüs’) of some Parisian artists. Fancy dress, wreaths of flowers and the location - a studio with a window in the roof - may refer to the Boulton affair. Collection of Raimondo Biffi, Rome

Mrs Bernard noticed that the atelier looked altogether different than usual. The walls were covered with white and red draperies. Rose-petals were strewn on the floor. Perfume was burning in the corners of the room. Cast iron lamps hung from the ceiling. Boulton had displayed various titbits, liquor and champagne on a big table. In the back the lady perceived a bed, covered with a lion’s and a tiger’s skin; on a small table were placed “a few instruments on the nature of which it is difficult for us to enlarge” — to quote a long article from “Le Matin” that subsequently appeared on the front page.

In the Name of the Law!

Slightly perplexed, Mrs Bernard told the policemen what she had seen. The wait for Boulton’s guests now began. They came on foot, in a cab, in a car. Eighteen persons in all (the youngest was sixteen, the eldest 46), mounted the stairs leading to the studio where the champagne corks popped and the “orgy” commenced. There was laughter and singing; someone played an organ. Now the eavesdroppers wished to see as well as hear what was going on. Some detectives, accompanied by the Bernards, therefore mounted the roof and sneaked to the window that was placed there. Without being noticed, they could see just how Boulton and his friends were amusing themselves.

Two boys, fully naked, were crowned with wreaths of roses by a partygoer dressed in a military uniform. Boulton, sitting cross-legged on a sofa, struck a gong, whereupon a song was struck up. The ceremony resembled a wedding: the couple lay down on the bed, and was covered with a sheet; they consummated the marriage, so to speak, while the soldier took another youth aside and “conversed with him in a peculiar way.” Time to interfere, the police thought.

Around midnight the door of the studio was banged.
“In the name of the law, open up!”
The consternation of the guests may be imagined. It was impossible to escape; policemen were blocking all outlets. The leader of the police team instructed those caught red-handed to get dressed. His inferiors burst out laughing when one of the unlucky fellows (the organist) donned a Scottish kilt.

The seventeen-year-old telegraph boy shed bitter tears while buttoning his uniform jacket. He pretended to have delivered a petit-bleu to Boulton, and deplored not to have left immediately. Boulton’s assurance that he “had not noticed any bad behaviour shown by his guests” was equally incredible.

The men were brought to police headquarters where the first interrogations started at three o’clock in the morning.

Policemen on the roof of Boulton’s studio. A cartoon by Abel Faivre published in ‘Le Journal.’ ‘Come on, we’ve seen enough. It only remains for us to arrest them.’ — ‘But there’s no hurry, chief... They don’t seem to ill-treat each other.’ Illustration taken from: Régis Revenin, ‘Homosexualité et prostitution masculines à Paris 1870-1918’

‘Vile Caresses’

On Monday the newspapers reported on the “antique orgies” of the boulevard Montparnasse. Once again, “Le Matin” thundered, proof was produced of “the utter depravity of some individuals who, under the cloak of re-enacting pagan practices, organise revolting saturnalia in the very centre of Paris, saturnalia our modern laws rightly condemn when their noise outrages public morality.”

To Viscount Henri-Charles-Bernard-Théodore-Médéric de Valles, examining magistrate, the task was given to interrogate the prisoners, investigate their background and persuade them if possible to make a confession. He would record his findings in a report that would be submitted to the judges of the eighth chambre correctionnelle, who could thus get a clear picture of the case. De Valles’s opinion would carry considerable weight with these gentlemen; he also determined which suspects were finally going to be indicted and which were going to be released.

Undoubtedly de Valles had a feeling of déjà vu. In the summer of 1903 his attention had been drawn to another sex scandal focussing on parties given by the gay poet Baron Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen and his companion, Count Hamelin de Warren. After a sensational trial in December the two had been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and a fine.

The affair, blown up to monstrous proportions by the newspapers, had pulverized their reputations; it is, therefore, most peculiar that their misfortunes had not warned Boulton & Co. to be more discreet and to produce less noise. People living near the studio paid a visit to De Valles to tell him about “the obscene expressions, the terms of endearment and the suggestive sounds” they had heard.

Viscount de Valles, examining magistrate. A picture that appeared in ‘L’Illustration’ on 13 November 1909. Courtesy of the Royal Library, The Hague

A head of a family said the din had irritated him so much that he had been about to move house. This was no longer necessary now that Boulton was behind bars, so his relief was considerable. Some newspapers published a list setting forth the names of those arrested, their profession, nationality and age. These lists were not without mistakes; thus “Le Matin,” which initially claimed the artist came from the United States, spelled his name as “Bulton.”

The company he had received was highly diversified. It consisted of Frenchmen as well as an Irishman, two Englishmen, a Cretan, an American, a Dutchman and a Pole of Russian descent. “The shared vice” had indeed “removed every social distinction”: rentiers, a merchant, two authors, two draughtsmen, a journalist, a law student, an insurance agent, a bookseller, a nurse, a soldier, a valet and a telegraph boy “had exchanged their vile caresses” in the studio (and elsewhere).

They formed a piteous sight when, handcuffed and flanked by guards, they were brought up in the Palace of Justice. Their faces showed fear and fatigue. It seemed as if a bludgeon had hit them. They were still wearing their festive clothes, clearly discernable between their long overcoats with upturned collars. The reporter of “Le Matin” admitted he could not suppress a feeling of pity. That sentiment increased when one of the youngest suspects had a fit of hysteria.

A Charming Hussar

In spite of their awkward situation, most of the men refused to be intimidated. Some of them declared that their behaviour was their affair and that the authorities did not have the right to interfere with their private life. Jacques-André Schwob, on the other hand, the correspondent of a local newspaper and the writer of the note to Boulton that had been intercepted, feebly alleged in his defence that he had merely wanted to make an étude de moeurs, “a study of morals.” Alexandre-Théophile Queneville, soldier of the fourth regiment of Zouaves, on leave when he had been invited to the party by one of Boulton’s friends, and who in the studio had succumbed to the charms of the telegraph boy, did not try to wriggle himself out of it. He thought it strange that so much fuss was made of “such futilities.” Were there no more pressing things for the police to deal with?

During the following days a minute investigation into the lives of the suspects was carried out. Their houses were turned upside down, the public eagerly taking cognizance of the results of this ferreting. It was clearly shown that Boulton’s guests formed a close-knit society; they knew each other well.

When the police rang the doorbell of the oldest member of the group, a Dutchman called Alexis Duco Harmens, who was living in the quartier de l’Étoile in a sumptuous place “with bathroom and telephone,” the door was opened by a liveried valet. After his employer’s arrest this man had sped to Mrs Bernard to offer her one thousand francs if she would pretend never to have set eyes on Harmens before the fatal Saturday night. The incorruptible lady had turned down this proposal.

Was the “devoted servant” ever prosecuted for attempted bribe? Our sources don’t tell. He perforce led the inspectors to Harmens’s study, where they found letters which a young man “of special morals” had addressed to the merchant. He called himself “Banville”; the police knew him quite well.

Marcel Chabrier was the son of the composer Emmanuel Chabrier. At his home, illustrated pornographic novels were seized along with explicit letters a certain Léon from Caen had written to him. Léon had recently met a former classmate. “He is a charming hussar now, and I have high hopes I may succeed in making him abandon his mistress so that he may be entirely mine.” A subsequent epistle showed that this project had come to
“I’ve got him, my tiny hussar, I’ve got him, I’ve got him! My mother had allowed me to receive a few friends in my room after the performance in the theatre. There was pastry and first-class liquor. There were four of us, including the hussar... So you can understand what happened. Fancy there are still people maintaining that one cannot amuse oneself in Caen!”

Singular Services!

Léon’s predilection for soldiers was shared by Ernest Harold (or Arnold) Vere, who had dressed-up as a Scot. He collected wooden toy soldiers and liked to be photographed along with Zouaves and cuirassiers. At this stage of the investigation he was still wearing his kilt; and as it was chilly, he had caught a severe cold. He therefore asked the manager of the hotel where he had been staying, kindly to send him his trousers. They were duly delivered at the prison; but unfortunately Vere had forgotten that there were compromising letters in its pockets that were discovered by the warden who forwarded them to Monsieur de Valles. As a result, the possibility of the Irishman’s release on parole was completely off.

The visiting card of the twenty-year old nurse, Hubert Roger, was found at the premises of nearly all those arrested. It ran:


Enchantment – purification


“These are business cards,” he imperturbably told the examining magistrate. “I offered my services to these gentlemen.”
“Singular services!” de Valles commented.

On a table the police had found an envelope containing a letter Roger had not yet posted. It was addressed to Louis P***, attached to the French Embassy in Italy. The tone of this letter, Marc-André Raffalovich wrote in an article about the affair published in 1907, was “extremely intimate.” “It teemed with indecent details. We cannot even begin to describe the subject, it is vile.” “Le Matin” sufficed with a short quotation: “I hope you are amusing yourself as much in Rome as we here in Paris.” The letter was sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where disciplinary measures against P*** may or may not have been taken. The newspapers say nothing about his rank or his subsequent fate.

At Boulton’s apartment a portrait of Roger made by the “artist” was found (it is significant that “Le Matin” put the word between inverted commas). “Good Lord, what a portrait!” Raffalovich wrote. He did not dare even to mention the title of Boulton’s favourite book. Letters were discovered from soldiers Boulton had met during a journey to Tunisia, as well as bills from caterers showing that for the party on Saturday he had paid eleven francs for pastry, 230 francs for champagne and thirty francs for bananas.

The Briton was far from well. His mother and sister wished to talk to him and went to the Palace of Justice; but he refused to see them, and the ladies, dressed in black, left the building in tears. In April Boulton fell victim to “veritable erotic madness.”

The psychiatrist who examined him concluded there was no question of simulation. Boulton’s wardens, whose indiscretion would undoubtedly be severely punished today, disclosed that he was eating his own excrements. “His state is attributed to his detention which has increased his nervousness.” Ernest Boulton would never appear before his judges. He was placed in a lunatic asylum, and probably died there.

A Sigh of Relief

The newspapers continued to publish particulars about the suspects. Jules Julitte, the telegraph boy nicknamed “Phylis” by his gay friends, had been turned out by his mother and stepfather a few months earlier “on account of his notorious ways.” He had perforce exchanged the paternal home in Fontenay-sur-Bois for a tiny room on the fourth floor of a warren in Paris. “Even his colleagues at the Post Office were fully aware of his scandalous life.”
A weeping mother of young Henri Kessler told the police she had always feared her son, who had a job at an insurance office, would end badly. Raffalovich smirkingly remarked the lad passed his time polishing his nails.

It was revealed that Charles Noblet liked to be photographed with “individuals one should not wish to meet at night in an out-of-the-way spot in a forest.” His namesake, Mr Charles Noblet from Boulogne-sur-Seine, begged the editor of “Le Petit Parisien” to state that he should not be confused with the one seized in Boulton’s studio. Mr André Schwob had previously informed “Le Matin” that it had been his brother Jacques, not himself, who had attended the notorious party. Monsieur de Valles continued his work even on Good Friday. The journalists highly commended his diligence.

The affair meanwhile had spread to such an extent, there had been found so many pederasts’ names in the suspects’ correspondence, that the examining magistrate announced he was going to restrict his enquiry. Many a homosexual is likely to have heaved a sigh of relief.

An architect concluded that people living near the studio had not been able to catch a glimpse of the “orgy”; and as the observations of the policemen and Mr and Mrs Bernard were insufficient to constitute the “publicity” necessary to obtain a conviction (the spies, remember, had had to climb the roof to watch the party guests), de Valles feared that Boulton’s friends might get away with it. His decision not to prosecute the four minors must therefore be seen as a tactical move on his part.

This much was clear: none of them had stripped unwillingly. There had been no ill treatment whatever. If the boys were indicted, they could not be seen as victims. By releasing them de Valles hoped to increase the chance of the adults being found guilty of excitation des mineurs à la débauche, incitement of minors to debauchery.

Scandalous Habits

While the magistrate was putting the finishing touches to his report, the prison gates opened to release most of the suspects on bail. Marcel Chabrier had to pay a considerable sum, 5000 francs. The director of the Opéra and a famous tenor had surmised that Marcel might be irresponsible for his actions, as he was, perhaps, a victim of heredity; for his father and mother had both died in a mental institution. Should their son not be medically examined? De Valles had turned down the suggestion.

Only the Zouave intimated he wanted to stay where he was. “If I am sent back to my regiment,” he said, “they’ll lock me up in a military gaol; I prefer to remain here until the trial begins.”
On 5 May the case opened, presided by Monsieur Puget. The assistant district attorney requested a huis clos, which was granted. “Women and priests must leave the Court,” Puget ordered.

The press gallery did not have to be cleared. When Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen and Hamelin de Warren had been judged behind closed doors, journalists had written extensively about the proceedings, but the denouement of the affair of the boulevard Montparnasse was summed up by them in but a few lines. That is a pity, for it would be interesting to learn more about the cross-examinations, the “elegant and energetic” speech for the prosecution and the pleas of the defence lawyers.

The verdict was tough. Terms of imprisonment ranged from eight to eighteen months. To these were added various fines. The judges spoke of “terrible acts,” “scandalous habits” and “unnatural vice.” They rebuked Schwob in particular.
But the condemned men entered an appeal. This was heard on 29 June and ended in an acquittal for all of them. The newspapers gave no details of this phase of the case either. The Court reversed the original verdict because “an indispensable legal element” had been lacking in the indictment: l’habitude, i.e. the habit. And thus it turned out that Boulton and friends had not, after all, broken any law during that traumatic night. Cold comfort to the mother of the overstrained artist.

Antique Orgies

Did his guests succeed in rebuilding to their lives? In 1905 one of the accused draughtsmen, the American Claude Simpson, produced the cover of “Messes noires: Lord Lyllian,” the autobiographical novel (recently reprinted) by d’Adelswärd-Fersen. In “Akademos,” the gay monthly magazine Fersen edited in 1909, jointly written contributions appeared by Marcel Chabrier and his friend André Legrand, who had also been arrested in the studio.

Chabrier died in 1910, Legrand in 1949. The latter published his work under the name of Chabrier-Legrand, an indication of the strong bond that had linked the two men.

Claude Simpson’s 1905 cover illustration for ‘Messes noires: Lord Lyllian,’ the autobiographical novel by Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen

The “Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant” reported on 21 September 1910 that Alexis Duco Harmens, our compromised countryman who was born on 6 February 1858 in Harlingen, had died in Naples after a short illness. The unmarried merchant was living in England where he owned houses in London and Bayswater. And what has become of Vere, the Irishman with his fixation on soldiers? What happened to Jules Julitte, to Kessler, to Schwob and the others who had enjoyed Boulton’s pastry, champagne and bananas? In all likelihood we shall never find out.

Turning over the pages of “Le Figaro” I came across an article published therein on 28 June 1904, that is to say, shortly before the acquittal of the convicts. The account of a lecture given in Paris by Alfred Gayet about his recent excavations in Egypt. The event had attracted “an elegant audience,” “so big that the hall was filled in no time and many persons were unable to obtain a seat.” Archaeology, the journalist wrote, generally does not create so much interest, but the findings of Monsieur Gayet “are not just of great scholarly value, they also charm to a degree and captivate all lovers of art and whoever is gripped by the magic of the past.”

And where exactly Gayet had been digging, what place had he unearthed in the desert? Antinoé... Antinoé! The city Hadrian found in memory of Antinoüs who had drowned in the Nile, a monument to the favourite of the “perverse” Emperor, decried by the Church Fathers!

It struck me that a lecture on Antinoé of all places assembled so many people just when the affair of Boulton’s “antique orgies” was in its final stage.

The French illustrator Paul Avril drew Hadrian and Antinoüs in 1906. His erotic lithograph is rather funny, not least because of the presence of a naked slave girl fanning the couple; yet it is also nice and inspiring, happily proving that during the Belle Époque there were also people who did not, thank Heaven, bother about homosexuality.
The Marchioness de Casa-Fuerte belonged to this enlightened minority. She had a ready tongue, and will get the final word.

Hadrian and Antinoüs depicted by Paul Avril (1849-1928). The illustration appeared in a beautiful French edition of Friedrich-Karl Forberg’s ‘Manuel d’érotologie classique (De Figuris veneris),’ translated from the Latin by Isidore Lisieux (Paris: Charles Hirsch, 1906)

One day an aristocratic lady drew her attention in the presence of others to her son’s “suspicious friendships.” It was a provocation. The Marchioness kept calm. Smiled. “So much the better, Madam,” she said mellifluously. “So much the better. At least he won’t be sleeping with you.”

Our thanks to Raimondo Biffi, Sander Creman, Jean-Claude Féray and Paul Snijders.



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