Published on December 28th, 2017 | by Christopher Cipollini2
Louise Weber: The Glutton of Paris
Louise Weber, better known as “La Goulou”, was a famed cabaret dancer in the infamous Moulin Rouge. Her life was as bawdy and brassy as the infamous nightspot where she gained notoriety. Immortalized by iconic print maker Toulouse Lautrec, she was known for her high kicks, hard drinking and table dances. Weber personified the joie de vivre and splendor of turn of the century Paris nightlife.
Louise Weber was born on July 13 1866. She was born to a lower middle class family in the Jewish District of Paris. Her father was a cabbie and her mother was a laundress. Louise was by all accounts, a mischievous and imaginative girl. She had a stifling and strict childhood she longed to escape. A habit of hers was to “borrow” clothing of some of her mother’s wealthier patrons and sneak of to dancehalls and nightclubs, where she would attempt to mix and mingle with the glamourous upper echelons of society. Watching the dancers perform on the stage, she dreamed of one day being just as splendid, and becoming a famed cabaret performer herself.
Home life was unbearable for Louise. Her mother would beat the girl when she found out about her daughter’s exploits. Unable to deal with her deeply unfulfilling domestic situation, stern family and low rank in society, Weber set out to become a dancer and she trained under such veterans as Grille d’égout and Céleste Mogador.
Louise worked through a series of clubs and cabarets. With her magnetic personality and brash performance style, she left an indelible mark on each venue. Her trademark look was her orange coiffed hair, done up just above her headpiece into a bun. She made an impression on her clientele with signature high kicks, kicking off gentleman’s top hats and then flashing the embroidered heart on her backside.
Irreverent and ostentatious, Weber knew how to get attention and relished every bit of it. Earning her nickname “La Goulou” which meant “greedy glutton”, since it was her habit to seize her customer’s drink right off the table. Weber’s over the top personality and large presence did not always make her popular with more high society patrons or with fellow entertainers, though she was never one to back down from a scuffle. Louise finally landed a spot at the premiere destination for nightlife in Paris-the Moulin Rouge. Located near Pigalle on the Boulevard de Clinchy, it was the birth place of the Can-Can, then also known as le Grande Quadrille, and already held an impressive lineup of performers and entertainers such as Jane Avril, the waif like dancer and songstress, Yvette Guilbert, the actress with her long and lacy gloves, Cadieux, the rotund comedian and the frolicsome assembly of Can-Can girls.
However, the most famous patron of the venue was not a performer at all. The artist Toulouse Lautrec was a regular at the club and became fast friends with Weber. He enjoyed her freewheeling irreverent style and off-color remarks. Weber’s notoriety at the club eventually caught fire when Lautrec commissioned a print of her performing her famous kick amid several well dressed onlookers and dancers. In the foreground is Valentin le Désossé-also known as “The Boneless”, due to his suppleness in dancing. The image cemented itself, and became not only the most iconic of La Goulue, but of Lautrec’s career.
Louise became the toast of the city and was eventually christened “Queen of Montmartre”, earning more than any other performer of her day. The girl from the laundry eventually became synonymous with Paris nightlife and the Can-Can.
Eventually, Louise married and had a child who she named Simon.
However, with fame came a big ego, and Weber, feeling she was ready for bigger pursuits, decided to strike out on her own and form her own dance troupe, part of a traveling fair. Sadly, the business was a dismal failure, as Weber had little to no business skill. Outside of the Moulin Rouge, Weber didn’t seem to have a home for her special brand of performance. The fans thought so too and the traveling show dried up.
For a time, Weber tried a stint as a lion tamer but that also failed miserably. To make matters worse, she lost her son to illness. Weber turned to her favorite vice, the bottle and fell into alcoholism and deep depression. In only a few years time she had gone from the most celebrated dancer in France to an unrecognizable has been living on the outskirts of the city, selling cigarettes and peanuts at carnivals.
Destitute and lost in alcoholism, Louise Weber died in obscurity in 1929.
The story of this Queen of the French Can-Can and accidental icon of turn of the century poster art could serve as a cautionary tale about vice or the fickle nature of fame. However, the story of La Goulue isn’t a tragedy. Louise Weber lived life with zeal and zest, without apology and now, almost a century after her death, she has achieved something she could have dreamed of rummaging through borrowed finery in a laundry. Through the eyes of an artist’s palette and the passage of time, through the medium of dance-La Goulue, “The Glutton”, has achieved immortality-and that certainly deserves a high kick!
This article was translated in French by Sandrine Sweeney.