Tutus in Paris

I came to live in Paris without social connections when I was about 30 in 1977 after having lived for 6 months in Mexico. I quickly realised that walking into an art gallery opening (vernissage) in Saint Germain, the Art District on the Left Bank around 19.00, was the best place to meet interesting people.

One Wednesday evening, I picked a known Russian artist’s vernissage, dressed up, and off I strode, a little nervous, as I knew almost no one in the Capital of Culture, Paris, the City of Lights.

I knew very little about the Parisian Art World but loved the Impressionists and the Fauves. Mihail Chemiakin was a professional artist and de rigueur. The gallery was packed with branche guests so one could hardly view his paintings on the walls. It was a place just to be seen and not heard. Tired and alone in a crowd of posh people, I sat down on a sofa next to a distinguished much looking older gentleman who was looking bored and detached.

‘Quel est votre opinion de les peintures?’ I enquired innocently.
‘ What do you think of the paintings?’

He glanced at me sideways, uninterested, until he heard my obvious English accent. Speaking English, he suddenly perked up explaining he had lived many years in London in the 1950’s as Baron’s photographic assistant. Baron, who died in 1965, had been the famous London Society’s photographer. Excited to be speaking English again, he rose and took me, gauche half his age Jilliana,
in hand introducing me to his Russian friend, the artist, that ‘Tout Paris’ was talking about. He proudly introduced himself as Genia from Moscow, a Russian Emigre. Never had I met one before nor for that matter since!

I confided in him that I had just arrived in Paris and was living in the Rue Campagne Premiere in Montparnasse. I was thus informed that not only had scenes from the famous film ‘Au bout de souffle’ been shot in that street but also Modigliani had committed suicide by throwing himself out of his studio window. Genia of course was knowledgable in the Arts.

Being my ‘protector’ for the evening and, as it was early, Genia suggested, after a surprise dinner invitation, we should pay a visit to his friend the German fashion photographer Willy Maywald at his studio in the Rue de la Grande Chaumiere, near my street in Montparnasse, who hosted Salons on Wednesday and Saturday evenings.

He went to make a phone call to ask if the Salon was on asking the person who answered the phone if ‘it’ was on.

‘Mais oui!’ Was the reply.

So off we went into the night, taking a taxi and chatting about art and photography which I knew in those early days, nothing about! I had come to Paris to be educated. And educated I was over the coming years!

We arrived at Willy’s studio hidden at the end of a secret garden tucked away in a street famous for its art school, around the corner from the metro Vavin and the famous ‘Le Select’ Brasserie which was to become my second home on the Boulevard Montparnasse. Genia opened the unlocked door and we entered an exciting private world.

There was elderly distinguished Willy on his couch in an original artist’s atelier with a high glass roof, his black and white portraits of famous artists, such as Chagall, Picasso and Braque, adorning the walls, surrounded by Spanish Transvestites wearing shocking pink tutus!! Well not all of them. Some had long evening dresses in garish colours, others dressed in bling and little else, wearing wigs and very heavy makeup. Everyone was laughing and speaking Spanish very loudly so I joined in.

‘Hola. Que tal?’

The outrageous party guests were all shapes and sizes and looked fabulous, having fun. Genia and I realised we had gatecrashed a private birthday party for a cabaret singer called Carla who was presented with a big tiered cake full of sparklers on the top of the pink icing.

Willy rose to greet me in English with a heavy guttural German accent.

‘Genia, you’ve come on the wrong night! Bring Jilliana on a Saturday night, I think she would prefer that’!

He nodded and smiled at me knowingly. A charming man who was later to be rediscovered by Jutta Neiman at the end of his long life as a recognised talented black and white portrait and fashion photographer.

Genia suggested we leave as he had just been propositioned by one of the guests on his way to the bathroom. He assured me women were his preference!

We left and he accompanied me to my nearby abode at 27 Rue Campagne Premiere. However, he hovered at the street front door waiting to be invited in for who knows what saying he was lonely and looking for a ‘relationship’. I thanked him for the evening and agreed to meet him for the Saturday Salon but made certain he understood there would be no ‘relationship’.

Willy Maywald, the fashion photographer of Dior’s ‘New Look’ was the catalyst for my ‘New Life’ in Paris, although he never knew how his Saturday Salons would educate and give me the self confidence I lacked leading me to find my new identity!

Originally written in Brighton in 2015 and updated in 2019.