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.
Painting leaves traces, singing goes with the wind. Foujita’s and Kisling’s paintings, Man Ray’s, Kertész’s and Brassaï’s photographies, Calder’s sculptures all testify of Kiki’s existence: a peripheral legend of art history. The traces of Kiki the singer are thin. Yet it was her main activity for more than two decades, between the twenties and the forties. The legend of Kiki overshadowed her artistic reality.
In a text published in 1950, she remembers her childhood. The action takes place in Burgundy. The young Alice, not older than 10, goes with her godfather, a bootlegger, on his rounds.
“ My godfather liked to go for drinks and as I was quite wild, he would take me to bars. I would have my juice and finish all the wine glasses! In those days it was the real Pernod which was drunk. I would sing away, standing on the table (…) and I would pull up my trousers to show off my laces”
Kiki waited until 1923 before standing on another table and to sing in front of an audience. It was a night where she was probably celebrating with Man Ray, Desnos or Tzara. They would have been at the Jockey, an American dance hall in Montparnasse, and by this point Kiki would have been quite tipsy. At the Jockey, anyone could take their turn to entertain the patrons and Kiki threw herself into a rendition of military classics. It was a triumph and the first act of her singing career.
At the corner of Rue Campagne Première and Boulevard du Montparnasse, The Jockey, was one of the few places in the neighbourhood where you can both drink and dance in 1923. An orchestra, headed by the American painter Hilaire Hiler at the piano, introduced the Parisians to jazz and Charleston. It was the epicentre of the Roaring Twenties and the most popular club on the planet, as Paris was the whole world at that time. Celebrities mingled with ordinary people. Kiki described the wonderful mix of clientele best : “You can see a pretty silver shoe flirting with an espadrille, a fancy ermine coat neighbouring with a worn out artist jacket”. While the falling night soothed away class struggles, Kiki sang in a place where enthusiam and joy were all that were required. In Kiki’s own words: “It was “homey”, with a little extra nudity of course! We allowed eyes to enjoy and mouths to whisper tender words, but that was all.” Ten years later, the barman confessed to Kiki that the secret ingredient of his potent cocktails was rubbing alcohol. That could go some way to explaining the bacchanalian atmosphere of the place.
Kiki was a singer who was meant to be seen and appreciated live. Her talent did not translate so well to recordings. One must imagine her captivating her audience, men and women, with the sheer force of her presence. Put simply, she was a siren, her singing drawing the looks and attention that she so desperately craved. “And I must admit that I was the one who sang the most racy things. To a point that I could have made a man who had measles blush.” She scandalized the bourgeois and silenced the critics with her wit and charm.
It was in the Jockey that Kiki served out her apprenticeship as a singer, amidst the smoke and vapours of sleepless nights. At first, she performed for pure pleasure, then later with a hat in hand. It was a lucrative enterprise, she could earn up to 400 francs a night. It was not long before she had become the star attraction of the Jockey, and with that star power came the adoration of the richest and most powerful men in Paris. André Citroen wanted to drag her to his orgies, a Mexican diplomat begged her to marry him. The star of the silver screen, Yvan Mosjoukine whisked her away on his Torpedo. Every now and then Man Ray would put up a fight for her. It was futile battle as, thriving on scandal and attention, Kiki did her best to keep all eyes on her. An effective method of keeping a crowd of men captivated was a swing of her skirts, for when Kiki sang on stage at the Jockey, she never wore underwear.
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)