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WHEN PEOPLE TODAY THINK ABOUT women in Paris between the wars, the names that come to mind are those of glamorous figures who created lasting works while building scandalous reputations: Coco Chanel, the pauper from Normandy who turned high fashion upside-down; the African-American Josephine Baker whose half-naked dancing titillated the city and the world; the openly bisexual best-selling author known as Colette; Simone de Beauvoir, who turned her back on a stiff-necked family to become the companion of Jean-Paul Sartre; American expatriates and sexual nonconformists like Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Janet Flanner. These women inhabited the center of the city, both physically and metaphorically: the stages of Montmartre, the theaters and couture houses of the Right Bank, the publishing offices and literary salons of the Latin Quarter. To understand the world that created an obscure young woman like Violette Nozière, we must first move out of the center of Paris and travel east to a neighborhood where, in the 1930s, famous people and tourists never set foot.
Violette and her parents lived in the twelfth arrondissement, a district on the southeastern edge of the city. Moving east from Notre Dame and the heart of Paris past the Place de la Bastille, one crosses the oldest and most famous working-class district, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Saint-Antoine is where joiners, cabinetmakers, goldsmiths, tanners, and other skilled artisans took to the streets in July 1789 to besiege a hated prison-fortress, the Bastille, and tear it down stone by stone. Farther east is the twelfth arrondissement. The district became part of Paris only in 1860, an item in Baron Haussmann's plan to expand, unify, and recast the city into a marvel of modern urbanism. After presiding over the 1853 completion of Paris's biggest railway station, the Gare de Lyon, Haussmann took over the villages of Bercy and Picpus, which lay east of the station on the way to the castle and woods of Vincennes. The area that Baron Haussmann's plans gobbled up was still mostly composed of farms and convents into which the city's violent history had only once notoriously intruded. During the Revolution, the bodies and severed heads of some thirteen hundred of the guillotine's victims—nobles, priests, nuns, and commoners—were tossed into pits in the burial grounds of a convent in Picpus, and sometime later the remains of one of the heroes of that time, the Marquis de Lafayette, were interred nearby. In the de cades after 1860, boulevards and apartment buildings sprang up where fields had been, but in the early twentieth century farms were still numerous in the area, and many inhabitants got their milk straight from a nearby cow. As late as the 1950s, some streets had no sidewalks, cars were few, and horse-drawn carriages were a common sight.
The twelfth was a popular neighborhood but not a poor one. Wretched poverty could still be found in the northern areas of the city, in the heights around and beyond Père Lachaise Cemetery, where factory workers put in backbreaking days and got drunk at night, and whole families lived in roach-infested fl op houses known as garnis. Belleville, la Goutte d'Or, and other northern districts had earned a place in the mythology of revolution when their most radical inhabitants poured south to reclaim the city during the Paris Commune of 1871, eventually setting aflame monuments in the heart of Paris. For many in those areas, daily wages barely covered the cost of rent and food. But the city contained even greater degrees of poverty. In the 1930s Paris was ringed by shantytowns, in the area known as la zone. In the no-man's-land where the city walls had been torn down, hundreds of jobless and marginally employed people lived in shacks within a subculture, the world of the "fortifications" or fortifs, rife with addiction and violence. "A stench comes out of this strange country," wrote a contemporary, "which, at the gates of the most refined city on earth, offers a sprawling spectacle of a regression to savage life."
A far cry from all this, the douzième was a "good" neighborhood of working-class and lower-middle-class families with its own set of distinctive cultures. Down by the river in Bercy stood the great wine depots for the city of Paris, where reds and whites from all over France were unloaded from trains and barges, then barreled, bottled, and shipped into the city and farther afield. The Bercy men started work at daybreak after an alcoholic breakfast, and paused midmorning to cook the huge steaks known as entrecôtes de Bercy and drink some more. At lunchtime, female office workers hurried to avoid the unwelcome attentions of the ever-inebriated depot men. At night hobos roamed around drilling holes in the barrels, filling up on high-octane Algerian reds. There were a few small factories in the area, such as the tobacco manufacturer's on the Rue de Charenton, where women known locally as "Carmens" rolled cigars.
Mostly, people worked at steady, respectable jobs in workshops, offices, and stores. In the summer, kids swam off the quays of the Seine, buying horse-meat sausages for a snack when they had a few coins; in the winter, they played on the ramps and staircases of the train stations. On Sundays, families went for a stroll in the Bois de Vincennes, where you could play tennis, as Violette and her father did, by stretching a string between two trees. The arrondissement had fifteen cinemas, which drew gaggles of children on Thursdays when school was out, families and young couples on the weekends. Sometimes the people of Picpus or Bercy took the metro or tramway into the heart of the city, to a world so distinct from their own that they often said, "We're going to Paris." For the most part they remained in a district that was very much its own world, a village on the edge of the big city. As Albert Tourneux, who grew up not far from the Nozières early in the century, put it proudly, "I was born on Rue Crozatier. I went two hundred meters to school, three hundred to go work, four hundred to get married. I married a girl from Avenue Crozatier. After my ser vice, we went to live on Boulevard Diderot, about one kilometer away. In the neighborhood everyone knew me."
For neighborhood people, major excitement came once a year. During the three weeks after Easter, circus performers and exotic animals took over the enormous Place de la Nation (formerly Place du Trône) at the northern end of the district, drawing crowds from all over the city. The extravaganza known as the Foire du Trône claimed origins in the twelfth century, when the monks from a local abbey held a yearly sale of spiced pastries, but the fair had really taken off in the nineteenth century as a post-Lent blowout for the Parisian working classes. Esmeralda, "queen of the gypsies," opened the fair in a crown and white dress, riding sidesaddle on a horse; in the following weeks, over two thousand acrobats, jugglers, and animal tamers showed off their skills amid a profusion of food and drink. A leading draw until her death in 1929 was the entertainer known as La Goulue ("the She-Glutton"), once immortalized in posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, who now eked out a scanty living as a dancer-cum-lion-tamer. One woman from the twelfth remembered going to the fair every afternoon as a child to watch the parades with her uncle, enjoying an event "that seemed natural, integrated into the life of the neighborhood." She was surprised that some of her friends were not allowed to do the same: "That is how I learned about social cleavages: there were those who went to the Foire du Trône, and those who did not."
More than the wine depots or the fair, however, the institution that gave the twelfth its identity was the railway. Between the wars the district was home to several smaller railway stations—at Bastille, along the quays at Bercy and La Rapée—all of them dwarfed by France's most famous train station, the Gare de Lyon. Located at the western edge of the arrondissement, the Gare de Lyon had opened under Napoleon III and reached its pinnacle in 1900, when the huge, ornate Art Nouveau building we know today was opened to coincide with Paris's Universal Exposition.
As the hub of France's north-south line, the Gare de Lyon was not just a national railway station but an international one. In pre–World War II Europe, if one traveled by train from London to Nice, Antwerp to Madrid, Berlin to Rome, the route would almost inevitably go through it. Before 1937, France's railways were in the hands of six private companies, the largest of which, based in the Gare de Lyon, had a name that said it all: Paris-Lyon-Marseille. The PLM owned the line that linked France's three biggest and richest cities, its locomotives chugging south along the country's oldest trade route, the Rhône valley. Inside the Gare de Lyon, one can still admire, adorning the famous turn-of-the-century brasserie Le Train Bleu, splendid murals showing the cities served by the PLM on the banks of the mighty Rhône and the shores of the Mediterranean. At the other end of the line, the Saint-Charles station in Marseille, with its monumental staircase and statues of nude women representing France's colonies, was planned as a southern echo of the great Parisian station.
The twelfth arrondissement was shaped, in large part, by movement into the city: barges docking at the quays, trains shrieking into the stations. A large part of its population was made up of railway workers and their families, people of modest origins born outside Paris, for whom a job with the PLM and a move to the big city offered a way out of provincial poverty. Germaine and Jean-Baptiste Nozière were among them.
Germaine Hézard did not work for the railway company; she married into it. Germaine was born in 1888 in the small town of Neuvy on the Loire River, just over a hundred miles south of Paris. The Hézards had lived in Neuvy for generations, as had other large local peasant families, such as the Boutrons and the Desbouis. Germaine's mother, Philomène, born in 1849, was a Boutron. When she was twenty-one, she and her husband, Alcime Hézard, had a daughter, also named Philomène, who married a Desbouis. Their daughter was an only child until nineteen years later. In 1889, having perhaps become careless about contraception, they had another daughter, to whom they gave the much more fashionable name Germaine. Germaine grew up like an only child in what must have been a poor family. Her father worked the land, though the 1906 census listed him as a roadworker. Her mother had no official occupation, but probably toiled in and out of the house all of her life. In 1926, widowed and living with her in-laws, the seventy-seven-year-old continued to work as a day laborer. When Germaine was eighteen and still living with her parents, she was a seamstress, probably taking in commissions at home.
Neuvy had a little over fourteen hundred inhabitants in 1901 and two hundred fewer in 1931. It was a poor place but not an isolated one, located on one of France's main thoroughfares. A river village on the Loire, Neuvy was once a postal relay on the ancient highway from Paris to Antibes. During the interwar years, trucks and cars whizzed by on the Nationale 7, as did trains on the PLM line. Neuvy had never been cut off from the rest of France, and especially not from national politics—for one thing, its inhabitants, unlike those of most French villages, had long spoken French rather than a local dialect. The Nièvre Department in which it is located has a tradition of leftism stretching back to the Revolution. In 1789 Neuvy had a National Guard unit, in 1792 a Popular Society that decreed the local church was now a "temple of Reason," and in 1793 a Surveillance Committee that promised "the death of tyrants and the execution of despots." In 1851 the inhabitants of Neuvy rose up with the rest of the French Left against Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, in 1871 they hoisted a red flag in sympathy with the Paris Commune, and throughout the twentieth century Socialist candidates in the area regularly trounced their right-wing opponents.
Within the community, however, things changed slowly, with opportunities gradually contracting. Neuvy had once been famous for its pottery, but mass production had killed the craft. Located next to Burgundy, the area traditionally boasted great wine; vine growers still assembled every year in Neuvy to celebrate their patron, Saint Vincent, by ceremonially sucking on a Gamay-soaked vine stock and partying their way though a hundred-liter barrel over a couple of days. The Boutrons and Hézards still worked the vine, but that trade had been hit hard by the last century's phylloxera epidemic; by 1900 there were only a couple dozen small vine growers left in the village. In the late nineteenth century, a man named Fougerat had opened a rubber factory, so Neuvy now had a few industrial workers, but for most of the unskilled, there was little besides hard, unprofitable work on the land. A child who did well in school and whose parents could afford to keep him there longer than age twelve might aspire to the most coveted situation: steady employment with the post office or the railway. With options so limited and with river, rail, and road so close, it is hardly surprising that the more enterprising ended up in Paris.
Germaine left Neuvy twice. At age eighteen, she escaped the drudgery of sewing at home by wedding a man named Louis Arnal, a gilder whom she followed to Paris. The marriage lasted only thirteen months, reportedly because Arnal started seeing an old girlfriend. She returned to Neuvy for a while, then moved back to Paris, where she managed a wine store. Germaine Hézard was tall and elegant with pale skin, brown hair, and a classically handsome face, and her status as an "experienced" divorcee probably added to her allure. In June 1913 she met Jean-Baptiste Nozière, whom everybody called Baptiste. There was nothing remarkable about Baptiste's looks: he was on the short side, with thinning hair, a weak chin, and a hangdog expression that his full mustache only accentuated. He came from even poorer peasant stock than Germaine. But he had one big thing going for him: a high-paying, stable job as an engine driver for the PLM.
If you follow the Loire River several hundred miles south from Neuvy, upstream, you get to the part of Auvergne called the Haute-Loire, in the heart of France's central mountain range, the Massif Central. Here Baptiste was born in 1885 in a village called Prades. With a population of around three hundred at the turn of the century, Prades made Neuvy look downright cosmopolitan. A journalist in 1933 described the hamlet as nestled in "a desolate setting of arid hills, its fifty houses with red-tiled roofs dwarfed by a haughty rock that bears the ruins of an ancient seigneurial chateau." The village stood in a gorge of the Allier River, a tributary of the Loire, which ran through a jagged volcanic plateau. Down in the riverbed, land was scarce and poor, and to make matters worse, the river regularly overflowed when the snows melted, laying waste the crops. It was all the local farmers could do to grow enough barley, rye, and potatoes to survive on. Rough bread, cabbage, and the lard from a few pigs barely fed the population through long, snowbound winters.
Excerpted from Violette Nozière by Sarah Maza Copyright © 2011 by The Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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