The story of Monsieur Noir is legend amongst those interred within the walls of the Père Lachaise Cemetery. A legend that has led to his life-like bronze effigy becoming a sexualised fertility symbol. His death in 1870, and its consequences, seems of less interest to modern-day visitors than the contents of his trousers. In particular, the rumoured size of his genitals. It would be fair to say, the groin region of his statue does have a somewhat ‘exaggerated’ bulge.
Napoleon III, who was the nephew of the original Napoleon, became the first elected President of the 2nd French Republic in 1848. It didn’t take him long to seize power in a military coup and declare himself Emperor in 1851. In many ways, his later reign was an enlightened one, but in the early years he favoured repression, military force and deportation for his enemies.
Victor Noir was a journalist at La Marseillaise newspaper. The paper was owned by Henri Rochefort, who used it to oppose Napoleon III’s reign and attack him and his relatives. This included Prince Pierre Bonaparte, who decided to challenge Rochefort to a duel. As one of Rochefort’s seconds, Victor Noir was sent to negotiate terms with Pierre Bonaparte.
An argument broke out and Noir was killed. Pierre Bonaparte was cleared of any crime, sparking violent protests across Paris. Over 100,000 people attended Noir’s funeral. Later the same year France lost a war with Prussia, and the Emperor Napoleon went into exile. That might have been the end of Noir’s fame, but his memory has been kept alive by tales of his alleged sexual exploits, including many affairs.
When I was at school, doing a brass rubbing in a cemetery involved tracing paper, charcoal and an ancient monument. One look at Victor Noir’s crotch and you can see that brass rubbing has a very different meaning today. Most rub his genitals for the supposed sexual boost it’s rumoured to provide; some kiss his metal lips; others climb on top and simulate sex with the brass sculpture. It’s pretty strange.
In other genitalia-related weirdness, somewhere in the world someone has the main part of the stone genitals from the sculpture that adorns the grave of Oscar Wilde. Quite what motivates someone to steal stone genitals is beyond me. This theft, and the fact that people couldn’t stop themselves from damaging the grave, have led to a protective glass barrier being erected (no pun intended) around it.
The genitalia of the Sphinx-like creature was a point of controversy from the very beginning, when Wilde’s tomb was being carved in 1912. At first they were covered with a bronze butterfly, but in 1961 someone hacked the testicles off and stole them. People used to kiss the tomb leaving lipstick marks on it. In 2011 the glass barrier was added and people now kiss that instead. This is also pretty strange.
What King Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François de la Chaise, after whom the cemetery is named, would have made of this state of affairs can only be imagined. We continued our walk, unearthing other celebrity inhabitants of Père Lachaise, as well as passing less illustrious members of Paris’ most famous last resting place.
We found our way to the graves of husband and wife, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. Signoret, one of France’s greatest actresses, played the Oscar-winning role of Alice Aisgill in the 1959 British film, Room at the Top … or “a savage story of lust and ambition” as the film was dramatically advertised. Signoret married Montard, an actor and musician, in 1951. They died six years apart but were reunited in Père Lachaise.
We made an obligatory stop to pay our respects to Edith Piaf, before discovering a series of monumental sculptures to some of the 19th and 20th Century’s most devastating events: the killing of 147 people here during the Paris Commune in 1871, the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi Death Camps. It was a very moving end of our trip around this extraordinary place.