By tokyobutterfly, Sep 24 2017 04:14PM
Mel Gordon’s reputation as the preeminent scholar of early 20th-century sex culture was established with Feral House’s publication of his landmark 2000 tomeVoluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin. That book has remained in print for fifteen years, seeing multiple revisions and expansions as well as a companion piece, 2006’s The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber, further exploring Berlin’s vintage nightlife via a biography of the notorious nude dancer. 2015 finds Feral House issuing the long-anticipated release of Voluptuous Panic’s sister volume in the form of Horizontal Collaboration: The Erotic World of Paris 1920 – 1946—a book that brims with titillating pleasures like an overfilled coupe of champagne.
The history of demimonde culture is largely an oral and ephemeral one, making Gordon’s undertaking in Horizontal Collaboration a more monumental one than it might seem at first glance. Relying on vintage guidebooks, photographs, pulp magazine articles, and personal diaries, Gordon weaves disparate scraps of material into a comprehensive narrative that reveals hidden aspects of Parisian culture. Though it’s tempting to imagine “European cabaret culture” as something monolithic, the book takes a great deal of care to differentiate the conditions under which Parisian sex culture developed from the ones that led to the unique character of Weimar Berlin’s sexual underground. France’s tolerant attitudes towards prostitution, sexual satire, and prolific heterosexual coupling created a far bubblier, celebratory atmosphere than the doom-haunted, paraphilic world of Berlin’s sex culture during the twenties and thirties. The imagery in the book underscores this luminous sexuality. In fact, Horizontal Collaboration may be 2015’s leggiest publication: scores of well-turned gams adorn its pages, topped by beckoning bosoms and flashing smiles. It’s a visual tribute to Jazz-Age beauty of the most inviting variety.
Nowhere is Gordon’s thorough research and contextualization displayed more vividly than in the chapter on gay and lesbian nightlife. The brief flowering of interwar gay nightlife in Paris left behind little concrete evidence and no cohesive narrative. Strong legal and cultural taboos against gay sex plus a relative absence of gay counter- cultural social links meant Gordon dug through police blotters, memoirs, and rare photographic documentation to create a the first full picture of the history of gay Paris. The resulting text illuminates the lives of otherwise anonymous faces. One especially vivid example is found in the person of a butch lesbian dubbed “Fat Claude” in a Brassaï snapshot. She is identified as Violette Morris, a gifted woman athlete who would ultimately cast her lot with the Nazis, working as a spy with the SS and revealing French state secrets. Her collaborationist activities would escalate to the torture of female Resistance members until she met her end in a hail of commando gunfire in 1944.
All of this leads up to Horizontal Collaboration’s provocative heart and the source of its title: a chapter detailing sex culture during the Nazi occupation of Paris between 1940 and 1944. Rather than characterize the occupying forces as rapist Huns (as was the fashion in the Allied mass media), the book offers evidence that Paris’ status as a beyond-the-borders playground for the German military resulted in economic well- being and open-minded treatment for a majority of participants in the Parisian sex industry. First-person accounts of the time are quoted in which it’s revealed that jazz, though banned in Germany, was permitted on Parisian stages, and Nazi officers and soldiers are characterized as model clients by the prostitutes who serviced them. This combination of tolerance for performed exotica and an attitude of courtesy towards sex workers belied the genocidal purges and Gestapo tortures taking place beneath the city’s glittering surface. A thirst for vengeance in the aftermath of the war led to theatrical public abuse of women who slept with Nazis, and would result in a new puritanism that forever altered the landscape of erotic life in Paris.
Beyond simply cataloging a period in time, Gordon’s approachable, witty prose brings the naughtiness of vintage Paris to life. The author approaches his material with refreshing directness and affection, allowing the facts he presents to exist without the stain of contemporary politics creeping into frame. There’s a humor to Gordon’s phrasing that complements the avalanche of risque imagery. On the nude revues at Les Folies Bergère:
“U.S. Army guidebooks in 1946 maintained that more than sixty million spectators had been “fleeced” ... since the Armistice. (There was no need to know French in order to follow the vapid stage dialogue. In fact, linguistic ignorance was thought to be a singular advantage.)”
In passages such as these, Gordon presents fact and flavor side-by-side, entertaining as he educates.
In terms of presentation, the book makes a lovely shelf-mate to Voluptuous Panic. Saturated, full-color imagery and glossy stock mean that Horizontal Collaboration begs to be picked up and experienced. The hundreds of rare photographs and illustrations could easily overwhelm the text, but the combination of Gordon’s skillful writing alongside intelligent layout choices ensure readability and flow of information. That having been said, the experience of reading Horizontal Collaboration evokes the sensory overload of Parisian nightlife: one’s eyes are spoiled for sensual choice no matter where they land.
In an environment where provocative imagery is increasingly detached from historical context on image-sharing sites and social media, Gordon’s painstaking work in tracking down and cataloging the stories behind the bounty of images included in Horizontal Collaboration is to be celebrated. A passion project by any definition, Horizontal Collaboration is the rare book that is both a scholarly achievement and a steamy delight.