Thank you for this opportunity Craig. I’m thrilled that after all this time there is still an audience who share an interest in my life.
Let’s start at the beginning – what do you remember from your childhood? I remember from an early age, 3 I think, that I lived with my grandparents in Etampes. This coincided with the Franco-Prussian war so it wasn’t unusual for our home to be billeted by Prussian soldiers who I liked to tease. I think they saw me as their own daughter and maybe gave then a sense of home.
I used to love helping my grandmother in our red tiled kitchen. It was a wonderful childhood and I adored my grandparents, in many respects they were my parents.
After they passed away I was an orphan but my grandparents ensured that after their deaths I would be looked after by the nuns at the local convent where my education would continue, they looked after me and gave me a good standard of education. Things were going fine for me until my mother reclaimed me at the age of 9.
I know the next question won’t be an easy one to answer but what was your mother like?
Oh my, my mother? Well, she was a monster who thought nothing of raining down blows unmercifully on me in frenzied attacks and also shouted abuse at me. She made me do all the housework chores and I became in effect her slave, whilst my mother played the role of a woman of ill repute. She played the role to perfection.
I did my best to avoid encouraging her bad moods and beatings. “I was too proud to cry, but anyway, my mother threatened me with such terrible vengeance if ever I breathed a word to anyone, that that alone froze me into silence. Ah, the nights I spent with my body black and blue and aching from her beatings! But she was clever, as clever as she was evil, for she took care never to mark my face. As the blows rained on me I used to whisper deep down inside myself "oh, stop...stop...stop" But no one ever heard my plea."
I know that your education continued at the Academy of the Demoiselles Désir which was financed by a previous lover of your mother.
Yes, it was and thank goodness. They were very good to me at the Academy and my education was lifted to a higher level, I was very happy there and the good sisters protected me from my mother’s moods and beatings.
After the finance stopped you returned home and later ran away.
Yes, I had little choice and fled to family friends they secured my entry to the Salpêtrière Hospital were I could continue my education and became a refuge. I certainly wasn’t sent there because I was mad as some would have you believe.
For your own safety you were placed under the care of Dr Jean-Martin Charcot how would you describe your near 2 year stay there?
I was placed in the ward of the Grandes Hystériques mixing it with mad, sick, maimed and backward children as well as the aged men and women. I had no problems fitting in and didn’t feel at all affected by the surroundings to which I found myself. I met Sarah Bernhardt here you know she was researching real life scenes of madness for an upcoming role.
Before I left I attended a huge costume ball and I think they saw it as my leaving party, it was wonderful. I remember dancing quite spontaneously and when I finished everyone responded with applause and told me how wonderful I was. I was so embarrassed.
“What sweet and melancholy memories I still have of those days...the old fashioned charm of it all sank deeper within my heart.
In those days life for me was one long remote dream in a world of my own; I knew nothing of the real life around me. I just flitted through the days, the weeks, the years like a butterfly, careless and happy, sipping honey from each flower.”
What happened after you left?
I returned home and the beatings started again, I was beaten to within an inch of my life. Money was scare and my mother whose charms were on the wane wanted me to become a prostitute which I completely refused to do and so well it happened all over again.
I ran away for the final time and vowed never to return. Oh, I had thoughts of ending it all and joining all those who ended their lives in the Seine but my heart wasn’t in it.
Let’s leave that there.
You really made your name in the Latin Quarter at the Bal Bullier could you describe your time there?
“I let myself be driven and directed, dumbfounded as much as dazzled, opening my eyes wide to the discovery of this new life that offered itself to me. I thought I was dreaming....And so off I went to dance and leap, like a runaway goat, or better, like the mad woman that I must have been to an extent.”
Looking at the other famous venues say the Elysee Montmartre what was the atmosphere like there?
“Women with a shameless air danced there in a way I found indecent, arm in arm with book-makers who looked like butchers or worse...I did not like the place. I preferred the dancing at the Moulin Rouge.”
Why was that?
“Dancing solo, I created a sensation....Zidler, full of enthusiasm, offered me quite a price to accept a contract. I refused, preferring to keep my fine independence."
Funnily enough Craig, despite its exterior as a windmill, "all it ever ground was the customer's money."
It was at the Moulin Rouge that you met the legendary Louise Weber could you describe her and the relationship you had with her?
“It was tough to please Louise, but always easy to make her happy. Just tell her she is the Queen of France and everything will be fine.
A superb girl, with an insolent beauty, bursting with freshness and health, so desirable, yet extremely vulgar in her language and her bearing. One of the, "delights of the flesh" kinds.
She was Paris by night.” She played the part superbly!
Louise Weber was famous for the cancan, some would go as far as to say she created it. Could you describe the dance?
I think your readers will be more than aware of the dance but the outfits, my-my, “The dancer's skirts, some twelve metres in circumference, were of panels and frothy lace, as were the drawers. The effect of the black stockings against this snowy whiteness was to emphasise the shape of the legs.”
You worked often with Toulouse – Lautrec often posing as a model at his studio and when he caught you dancing live at the Moulin Rouge. I think he completed 38 pieces that feature you, is that right?
Really, that many? Well, I didn’t know that as I wasn’t one to keep a record. He must have seen something in me that was worth persevering with. Perhaps it took that many efforts to get me just right ha-ha!
Tell me about him?
I adored him and felt very protective towards him. He was such a giant when it came to his art and died too young, to think what he could have gone on to achieve? I do miss him terribly. He was only 37.
“Without a doubt I owed him the fame I enjoyed from that very first moment his poster of me appeared.”
What was his attitude towards his other less famed models?
“They were his friends as well as his models. He in turn had an uplifting effect on them. In his presence they were just women, and he treated them as equals. When he ate with them, often bringing a party of friends, they held their knives and forks daintily, restrained their conversation, had the feeling of being women of some standing. Lautrec's almost womanly intuition and sympathy shone like a light for them.”
Who would you say were your greatest influences?
Oh, I would have to say dear old Theodore. “I'll never be able to say how much good he did for me....He had the soul of a saint! It was the strangest and most beautiful friendship of my life. I have never met a being who could be compared to him.” He proposed marriage to me on more than one occasion as did others but my answer at this time was always no.
He was my greatest friend and I do not think that was a good basis for marriage. It is true that often friendships can outlast a marriage. In his case that was certainly true until his untimely death as you well know my marriage was not the success I had hoped it would be.
Who else influence you?
Well, Robert Sherard was another who had a major influence on my life. Without him, I’d still be without my name Jane Avril. Jane being the English for Jeanne and Avril representing the month of April the time of the year we collaborated together to create my name. It gave me protection from my mother as my fame grew. I’ll always be thankful for that.
He was English you know. I adore England and the English. You are English, Craig, are you not?
I am, but why the English?
“Over there, one lives freely, without bothering others or making fun of them, as happens so often at home. There, sometimes I saw people who were comic or ridiculous in their looks or comportment, and who would have attracted a crowd of nosy-parkers in our Parisian Streets, go relatively unnoticed.”
We have mentioned artists such as Lautrec, Sherard and Théodore De Wyzewa but of course there were others, such as Oscar Wilde what effect did keeping such distinguished company have on you?
“Living in the midst of these charming beings who exuded so much brilliance...I wound up, so I have been told, having a little myself.”
Jane, how would you describe your philosophy to life?
"I was loved and in return I love, I loathe the material side of existence. I wanted life to be all love, all Happiness." I think I lived up to that.
Unlike today’s public figures you do not tend to court attention, is this deliberate?
I think it is always a good thing to hold back on some of the more private aspect of ones life "I have fluttered my way through our epoch without revealing an inkling of the depths of my innermost soul..." and that’s as it should be.
As advanced in years as you are now, are you still able to dance?
Well, "Despite my gray hair, I shall be able to do it. It is perhaps one of those multiple expressions, so convenient to call “madness”. And if it is this one…it has always been sweet and comforting to me. It helped me live and to it, I shall remain its enchanted slave. If in the other world, there is dancing, then, it should not be impossible that I might be invited to interpret the dance macabre!"
Thank you Jane it has been a most informative interview.
You’re most welcome Craig, perhaps you could buy me a drink, I believe the Chat Noir will still be open.