This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.
Located at the juncture of the 6th and 7th arrondissements on the Left Bank of Paris, the rue de Babylone stretches just over 850 meters, connecting the Boulevard Raspail with the Boulevard des Invalides. Narrow and seemingly typical of its quietly prosperous neighborhood, it boasts bakeries and butcher shops, a pharmacy, a café, a tabac, florists, a bookshop and antique dealers. But it also stands apart: anchored by the great department store Au Bon Marché it is the address for both the Hôtel Mantignon, home of the Prime Minister, and the storied cinema La Pagode, a modern movie house built within an ancient pagoda imported from Japan by Aristide Boucicaut, the founder of the Bon Marché, who imported the original structure as a gift for his wife. In fact, the rue de Babylone is a bit strange, and its particular eccentricities have to do with its position as a site for salons and gatherings that have brought the haute monde into contact with innovative artists from the 18th century down to the present day.
As late as 1714 only two houses stood on the street, which reverted to an unkempt path beyond a college for foreign missionaries founded by the Bishop of Babylone, Bernard de Sainte-Thérèse, in the 1640s. Between 1720 and 1765, however, the aristocracy decamped from the court at Versailles and moved in, improving and enlarging the street and building mansions and gardens. By the early 19th century the rue de Babylone was a stylish if still remote address, and one of its first notable inhabitants was a woman who was both fashion icon and musical muse: Thérésa Tallien, née Cabarrus (1773-1835).
Thérésa moved to the rue de Babylone in 1805, after her third marriage, to François Riquet, later the Prince of Chimay. Their 18th-century mansion, surrounded by an extensive park, was the site of salons and festive evenings that included her partner in revolutionizing fashion, Joséphine de Beauharnais, later the wife of Napoleon I and Empress of France. The two women had met in prison, where Thérésa had landed after divorcing her first husband, Maurice de Fontenay. Arrested, jailed, and sentenced to death on grounds that she had broken an aristocratic bond, she was rescued by Jean Lambert Tallien, the Revolutionary leader notorious for his zealous guillotining of opponents during the Reign of Terror. They married in 1794 and until their divorce in 1803 reigned as one of the most powerful and stylish couples in the French capital of the Directory.
On the fashion front, Thérésa and Joséphine were leaders of “Les Merveilleuses,” a group that popularized risqué styles harking back to the draped tunics of ancient Greece and Rome. Flaunting the prevailing taste for heavy fabrics and confining silhouettes, the Merveilleuses sported revealing, corset-less dresses made of flimsy fabrics, with narrow skirts and no defined waist. This was fashion as political statement, informed by culture, founded in rebellion, and directly addressing female sexuality. These qualities are captured in a caricature portraying Thérésa and Joséphine as semi-nude strollers on the Champs-Elysées and as naked dancers who wantonly entertained Thérésa’s lover, banker Paul Barras.
Thérésa also rallied to the cause of the new Conservatoire de Musique, founded in August 1795 with mandate to provide free musical education to all. Patron, muse, and promoter, she hosted intimate musical performances in her home, welcoming Etienne-Nicholas Méhul, the first composer elected to the Institut de France, as well as stars of Paris opera, including composers Daniel Auber and Luigi Cherubini and renowned soprano Maria Malibran.
After her death in 1835, the sensibilities Thérésa cultivated on the rue de Babylone resonated with occupants of the street. By the early 20th century, an apartment built on her property was home to Catalan artist José-Maria-Sert (1874-1945) and his wife, the pianist, socialite, and Ballets russes patron Misia Edwards. One of the top clients for Parisian couture, Misia was especially close to Coco Chanel—indeed, the most recent Chanel fragrance is named for her. She was also a devotee of couturier Paul Poiret, who in 1909 revived the silhouette of the Merveilleuses for modern women. Couturière Jeanne Lanvin lived just around the corner from the Sert’s apartment until her death in 1946; Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé called 58 rue de Babylone home together for a number of years and Saint Laurent lived there until his death in 2008.
Perhaps the truest carrier of Thérésa’s legacy as animatrice of the street was Anna-Laetitia Pecci Blunt, known to friends as Mimi. A client of the avant-garde Italian couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, Mimi regularly wore ensembles that mixed expert tailoring and Surrealist aesthetics. Born in Rome in 1885, she settled in a lavish mansion at no 32 with her husband, Cecil Blunt in 1919. There, she welcomed Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Max Jacob, André Gide, André Maurois, Igor Stravinsky and the younger French composers known as Les Six, along with young Italian musicians. The lavish fêtes Mimi and her husband hosted climaxed with the Bal Blanc of 1930, for which all-white costumes were de rigueur; films were projected in the garden onto the white-clothed guests, while Cocteau and his cohort re-enacted the myth of Ariane’s awakening, in white masks that, according to Man Ray, gave them the look of “classical Greek statues.”
Today, the hub for style on the rue de Babylone is the Bon Marché. Once the fictionalized subject of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur de dames, the store has been acquired by luxury group LVMH and reinvented as an emporium where upscale products are on offer in a milieu that includes art, music, and visual displays. I walked through the store’s elegant spaces this week, admiring the lavish displays, coveting nearly everything I saw. And as I emerged into the sunshine and strolled through the park named for Aristide Boucicaut, bursting with spring flowers and blossoming trees, I smiled at the notion that Thérésa Tallien would have been a regular shopper in the store.