My brother sent me the most fascinating article last week about an apartment discovered in Paris that had not been touched in 70 years! I studied the pictures taking in every detail, and I knew I had to share it with you! You can find a few articles online about this amazing real estate find, but after a little research, I found there was quite a bit of incorrect information floating around. Therefore, I got to googling, used lots of Google Translate to help me decipher the articles in French, spent a ridiculous amount of time on French genealogy sites, and have for you all of the information there is to know. I believe this article to be the most comprehensive available in English, so enjoy!
The discovered apartment in France is near the Pigalle Red Light District (where Moulin Rouge is located), in the ninth arrondissement (this basically means “district” – Paris is divided into twenty districts, and you can tell which one you are in by the last number in the zip code – Paris goes from 75001 to 75020). Marthe de Florian was the apartment’s owner in what is called The Gilded Age (1870’s to turn of the century), which was a time of great growth in the arts. In fact, the great find of the apartment after it was opened was a beautiful original painting by the legendary artist, Giovanni Boldini. The muse? Marthe de Florian herself.
So who was she? Well, many will tell you she was an actress, and she may have been, but the reason she had great wealth was because she was in a group referred to as demimondaines. (also sometimes called courtesans) Demimondaines were basically elite prostitutes. They didn’t live on the streets, but in fancy apartments and hotels. Known for drinking, gambling, and excessive spending, they always had the highest of fashion and a long list of well-known and wealthy lovers. (Side Note: Have you ever seen the movie Gigi? I believe Gigi was being trained by her aunt in the movie to be a demimondaine, like she was. In the end, Gaston, of course, decides he would much rather have her as his wife than a mistress. So he marries her, and they live happily ever after. No wonder I never really understood this movie as a child, geez. My husband would probably liken this to the fact that I used to think “geisha” meant “princess”.)
The painting was identified as being an original Boldini, known as the “Master of Swish” for his flowy style, and it collected a cool 2.1 million pounds (or $3,454,080 USD) at auction. Because of love letters found in the apartment from Boldini to de Florian and a reference to the painting by Boldini’s widow in an old memoir, historians pieced together that the woman in the painting found in the apartment was indeed Marthe de Florian.
Marthe de Florian was born on September 9, 1864 in Paris. Actually, her real name is Mathilde Heloise Beaugiron. (she probably took Marthe de Florian as a stage name) A record from 1882 shows she was a seamstress (she would have been 18), but of course, that did not pan out. She never married, and I cannot find a death record from anywhere, but she did have a son; rather, she had two. Marthe de Florian had a son and named him Henri in 1882, and he died in 1883. (so she would have been a seamstress at the time) In 1884, her second son Henri was born. He lived until 1966 and died in Paris, and many have thought he did not marry nor have children. However, he may have fathered a child named Solange Beaugiron. (read on for more details) Something interesting about the second Henri is that the midwife recorded that his mother was Mathilde Vaugiron with no known occupation. In 1889, an addendum was made that said Mathilde Beaugiron had recognized the boy as hers. It is unknown why there was a discrepancy, it could have been a simple mistake or a cover-up for having a child out of wedlock. And perhaps she went from seamstress to demimondaine because she had a boy to support?? The above Boldini painting was said to have been painted when Marthe de Florian was 24 years old, which would have been 1888/1889, when Henri was around four or five years old.
So how did this apartment stay locked up for seventy years? Well, there is some mystery here, and I have not been able to decipher what exactly happened, but here’s what I know. The apartment had been passed down to the granddaughter of Marthe de Florian (referred to in the press as Madame de Florian), and she lived there until 1942, when the Nazis invaded Paris (“The Fall of France”). She never returned, but continued paying for the apartment until her death at the age of 90 (some articles say 91) in 2010. The apartment was deeded to her estate, and when some evaluators were sent to check out the mysterious real estate, they found the space untouched, “smelling of old dust”, and full of exotic taxidermy (a sign of wealth at the time), representing a life nary a fingerprint since World War II. (notice the Mickey Mouse!)
You may be wondering, like me, why the name of the granddaughter that kept ownership of the apartment has been shrouded since her death in 2010? Apparently, France has very stringent family privacy laws, and most everyone is keeping their lips sealed. I did translate an article, however, that suspected Marthe de Florian’s granddaughter may have been a woman named Sonlange Beaugiron. She was a young playwright, and at age seventeen (1938), and under the pseudonym “Solang Beldo”, wrote and submitted a play called “Miss Mary”. She was later quite upset when she found her manuscript was copied and turned into another successful play called “Heat Breast”. The case was eventually settled between her father (since she was not of age), and the theater company, and all was well. (In the article, her father was stated to be a pharmacist – perhaps Henri Beaugiron???)
Something I thought was interesting when looking through all of these articles that I did not see mentioned in any of the American news stories was that Marthe de Florian kept her lovers letters together by a colored ribbon system – a different color for every lover. (a woman after my own heart – she likes pretty organization!) Her son and granddaughter kept them together just as she had left them all those years ago. Wouldn’t you love to read them?
Looking at these pictures is like looking at a history book, you can almost see storylines in the dusty papers and peeling gilt. A seamstress turned demimondaine supporting a son hidden away that she desperately loved…Amidst the string of wealthy politicians and businessmen and artists she entertained, Boldini was her one true love…She may have died of a broken heart, and her scented perfume still lingers in the apartment she lived her life so long ago. Long ago in Gay Paris. Of course, these themes are just my musings, but I would love to know more of the story, wouldn’t you?
Since the apartment belongs in the de Florian/Beaugiron estate, it still exists somewhere in Paris, securely sealed, left exactly as it was found when it was opened for the first time in nearly seventy years in 2010. Of course, the Boldini painting has been sold at auction, but everything else remains there, untouched and “smelling of old dust”. As of now, there are no plans to open it to the public.
Michelle Gable (Michelle Gable has actually written a ficticious book called “The Paris Apartment” due out this year.