Today’s Friday Fierceness will probably be unknown to many of you, although you’ve seen her a thousand times. Louise Weber, also known as La Goulue (The Glutton, a nickname given to her by journalist Gabriel Astruc who was bemused by her habit of dancing on a gentleman’s table, kicking off his top hat with her toe and taking his drink while he chased after his chapeau) was the Moulin Rouge’s first major star and is credited with creating the can-can.
The illegitimate daughter of a washerwoman, the outgoing Louise was hired as model by Pierre-August Renoir and soon became a favorite artist’s model in the Montmartre district, more in thanks to her over-the-top personality than any great physical beauty.
She was also one of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec‘s favorite subjects, painting her first for promotional posters:
and then for his personal work at the Moulin Rouge where she was known as “The Queen of Montmartre” the headlining act, supported by Jane Avril –another Toulouse-Lautrec star– Nini Patte en l’Air (Nini Legs-in-the-Air) and of course the larger-than-life Môme Fromage (Kid Cheese) who was a big girl all through her career and was played by a size-22 actress Lara Mulcahy in the well-costumed but otherwise inexorably horrid Luhrmann flick, Moulin Rouge!
At the height of her fame she danced nightly with Valentin le Decosse, a businessman who took an assumed name –his real name was Jacques Renaudin– and lived a sort of double life. The shadowy figure in the foreground of La Goulue’s Moulin Rouge poster is Valentin, and was a sort of inside joke as everyone in Paris knew of his “secret identity” much to the shame of his business-minded family.
La Goulue was prone to plumpness –the success she found as a model with a trimmer figure can be attributed to her life of borderline malnutrition– and although she was corseted within an inch of her life and dancing non-stop for up to five hours a night rumor has it she left le Moulin at the height of her fame partially because famed manager Charles Zidler made comments about Jane Avril‘s more slender figure and put her, not La Goulue on the newest Lautrec poster.
La Goulue left le Moulin in April 1895 after what could generously be called “artistic differences.” She was wealthy and famous and didn’t take well to being bossed so when the managers asked La G to tame some of her more raucous dancing and behavior –they were getting in trouble with the police bureau–she essentially said “screw you guys, I’m outta here” but, you know, in French.
In retrospect, this was not her brightest move and she quickly lost her Moulin money through a series of failed business attempts and by the end of her life, she was living in a caravan and selling cigarette and peanuts on the streets where formerly she reigned as queen, suffering with severe depression and alcoholism.
Two years before her death in 1927, a journalist tracked down the former star and recorded just about a minute of silent footage where –with her trademark smirk and twinkle– she treated the young filmmaker to a brief glimpse of the dance she made famous.