The Rise and Fall of La Goulue, Queen of Montmartre

“La Goulue” (“The Glutton”) was the professional name of Parisian dancer Louise Weber (1866-1929) earned from her comical habit of snatching up drinks off of people’s tables and guzzling them during her performances.

The daughter of a Jewish laundress, she began her working life as her mother’s assistant, before getting the bright idea to “borrow” some of the more choice women’s wear as her costume at posh Montmartre night clubs. Initially she performed at Moulin de la Galette and Elysée-Montmartre. When the Moulin-Rouge opened in 1889 she was one of the first to perform there, becoming its reigning star, the muse of artists like Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec (you’ve almost certainly seen her image in some of their better known works). In addition to the drink snatching habit, she was known for performing her own version of the can-can and for her ability to kick one leg so high she could knock off a man’s hat with it — a stunt she often pulled. This mischievous, bold quality is what audiences of the day prized her for, the audacity of a girl of humble origins daring to be so playful with men of power and prestige. For a time she danced with a male performer named Valentin le Désossé (“Valentin the Boneless”); she also maintained a close relationship with female dancer La Môme Fromage (“The Cheesy Girl”). Katherine Kath portrayed La Goulue in her prime in John Huston’s 1952 film Moulin Rouge.

By 1895 La Goulue had socked away a pretty centime and she decide to part company with a good thing, and tour fairgrounds throughout the country with her own self-produced show. Somehow, though, absent the magic of Montmartre, her appeal didn’t translate. While her fame had preceded her, audiences in the sticks recognized one of their own and were not impressed with the cheekiness that had so charmed Parisian patrons. She lost her shirt, took to drink, grew poor and fat.

By the late ’20s the former Queen of Montmartre, no longer recognizable, stood on a streetcorner near her old haunts, hawking matches and peanuts. The photo immediately above is from the collection of Wheaton College; more info about the picture and La Goulue may be found here.

For more on the history of variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous