This exclusive four part blog piece has been illustrated by Catel, the artist behind multi-award winning graphic novel biography Kiki De Montparnasse. Jose-Louis Bocquet is an editor at French publishing house Dupuis and the writer of Kiki de Montparnasse.
In the interwar years, an American traveller in Europe who didn’t visit Montparnasse wouldn’t have drunk at the Jockey Club and would’ve missed the best the city had to offer – hearing Kiki sing. For many of the Paris’ lost generation, Kiki was inescapable. Frederic Kohner is one young American who did make it to the lively streets of Montparnasse. In his novel Kiki of Montparnasse, published in the sixties, Kohner gives over a large part to autobiography. If a dazzling love affair with Kiki is not certain, his description of The Jockey Club is a valuable testimony. Kohner, a student at the Sorbonne, walked into the Jockey for the first time in 1924.
‘We’ve lost only one customer. He died.’ and ‘If you don’t like to laugh, leave’
On the tiny dance floor, the dancers seem to be a unique plastic entity. The customers never stopped coming and going, jostling each other, stepping on each other’s feet and chatting in every possible language. I would find myself between a character of La Vie de Bohème and two short-haired girls. One was blond, the other a brunette, and they held each other like two lovers (…) a short while later, I found myself facing a pile of four saucers, indicating the number of drinks that had been served to me. After finishing the first glass of this colourful liquid, I felt pleasantly dizzy. As for what happened after the second glass, I can only relate it in a very disjointed way. (…) Later glasses were smashed against the walls, shards jumping everywhere, and the audience started shouting together
‘Kiki! Kiki! We want Kiki !’
She was wearing a very simple black dress. Her body, quite plump, did not agree with the fashions of the time, which loved sporty figures. But with Kiki it was her face which was unforgettable: a face which is not one of a child but not yet one of a woman. When the silence descended, she started to sing in a husky voice:
‘The girls from Camaret say they are all virgins/ but when they are in my bed/ They’d rather hold my stick/ than a candle, a candle, a can-dle”.
I didn’t really understand the words, but Kiki helped with the meaning. She grabbed a candle which she pointed in an excessively delicate gesture, between her thighs. The room went wild.”
The years Kiki spent performing at the “Boeuf sur le Toit” is the second major stage in her career. Of all the bars created during the Roaring Twenties, it is the only one to have gained legendary status. Louis Moysès, the owner, named it in honour of the Cocteau and Milhaud show. As a result, the bar becomes their headquarters. On the walls were hung pictures by Man Ray, paintings by Francis Picabia including the famous “Oeil cacodylate”. Jean Wiener was at the piano and the best jazz was played, as well as the best singers heard; Marianne Oswald, Yvonne Georges. All of Paris was there: Radiguet, Cendrars, Lifar, Toutain, the Comte de Beaumont, the grand Duc Dimitri, the publisher Gallimard, Satie, Missia Sert, Simenon, Chanel, Max Jacob, Picasso, the Prince of Wales and the Russian Ballet. Sometimes, Jean Cocteau would sit behind the drums and play.
Kiki started patronising this bar as soon as it opened in January 1922. After her apprenticeship at the Jockey, Moyses became her manager, bringing with him his wisdom and knowledge.
“I owe him the audacity of neglecting my military repertoire to devote myself to the works of Legeay, Xanroff or Bruant.”
Kiki became a professional, but in Moysès’ establishment the artists do not work for money. The “Boeuf sur le toit” is the anti-Jockey. In her Memoirs, in one sentence, Kiki describes the bar and its master :
“While chatting, Moysès looks around, calls a head-waiter, gets him to turn off a light which bothers the eye, stands up to arrange a bouquet which decorates a corner of the bar and everything is perfect.”
The repeated complaints for late-night opening forced Moysès to move on. He leaves Rue Boissy-d’Anglas for the Rue de Penthièvre. Kiki followed him and appeared regularly on the “Boeuf sur le toit” programme until the forties. In her 1938 Memoirs, Kiki honoured Moysès as the first to have acknowledged her as a singer, not only as a distraction.
“The greatest reward of my career as a singer was to sometimes see a tear at the corner of your eyes, nights of blues when our soul was aching and that I sang a song that you loved, the little tear which paid for all my anxieties and lack of self confidence”
In 1929, Kiki was at the height of her fame. She was everywhere. She lends her body to a series of four pictures taken by Man Ray and printed in a collection of pornographic parodies of Christian canticles written by Aragon and Benjamin. Man and Kiki are shown making love, but they are not recognisable. The 215 copies are confiscated.
In April, she sang at the “Boeuf sur le toit” Rue Penthièvre. Cocteau celebrates her and gave her
“a necklace worthy of a queen”
In May, at the Bobino music hall, Kiki took part in a charity gala with Foujita, Roland Toutain and other great characters from the neighbourhood. Kiki sang her saucy songs. After the show, she was elected Queen of Montparnasse. To celebrate this triumph, a hundred guests accompany the bohemian monarch to La Coupole.
In July, the publication of Kiki’s memoirs. The cover is designed by Kisling, the introduction is by Foujita. The text is illustrated by the author’s paintings and drawings but also with pictures by Man Ray. The following year, the American production will contain a foreword by Ernest Hemingway.
In December, Kiki is asked to exhibit her paintings alongside Pascin, Hermine David and Touchagues.
The same year, the young journalist Roger Vailland pays tribute to Kiki
“Is her life different because she is famous all around the world and that not a day goes by without a mention of her in at least ten newspapers in Sydney, Oslo or Paris ? Despite her made up face, her red blouses, her simpering, Kiki isn’t just a ‘picturesque image of Montparnasse’ like some American journalists would like to show her. She is the woman before the original sin, who stays innocent while singing obscene songs or rising her leg above the table of a coffee house.”
To celebrate the publication of this biography (that won the top prize at the Angouleme Festival and was named ‘Graphic Book of the Month’ in The Observer) – double signed first editions of Kiki de Montparnase are available through the following retailers (and via their mail order services) while stocks last:
Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road (London)
Dave’s Comics (Brighton)
Forbidden Planet Megastore (London)
Foyles Charing Cross Road (London)
Gosh! Comics (London)
Mega City Comics (London)
OK Comics (Leeds)
Orbital Comics (London)
Plan B Books (Glasgow)
Travelling Man (Leeds)