In Brassaï’s Lesbian Couple At The Monocle Club, 1932“, a delicate woman in an evening gown sits beside her broad-shouldered, besuited partner. The delicate woman’s name is lost to history. Her girlfriend is the notorious Violette Morris.
A French athlete and automobile racer, Morris’ lesbian lifestyle drew the French government’s ire. In 1936, Morris’ racing license was revoked. She attended the 1936 Olympics as Hitler’s guest, then became an SS spy. After informing the Nazis where the Maginot Line ended, Morris was killed by French Resistance fighters. She lies in an unmarked grave.
In Francine Prose’s Lovers At the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, Violette Morris is Lou Villars, a credulous woman whose repeated betrayals warp her character.
Lou’s story is narrated by her acquaintances. Gabor Tsenyi, modeled on Brassaï, is a gifted photographer whose camera documents sailors, workingmen, prostitutes, and nightclub habitués. Suzanne Dunois, Gabor’s girlfriend, is a timid language instructor who becomes courageous in the Resistance. Nathalie Dunois is a contemporary schoolteacher whose precarious mental health threatens her attempts to write Lou Villars’ biography.
The misunderstood Baroness Lily de Rossignol is Gabor’s artistic patron. Her husband, the homosexual Didi, co-owns Rossignol Automobile with his brother, Armand. Like Suzanne, Lily becomes active in the Resistance. The hilariously written Lionel Maine is a mildly diluted Henry Miller, prowling endlessly for women and alcohol.
Then there’s Lou herself. After being knocked out from a swing by her brother, Lou is sent to convent school, where her athletic abilities are soon discovered. Under the supervision of Sister Francis and her brother, Dr. Loomis, Lou begins a strict training regimen that leaves little time for formal education: “Dr Loomis said that athletics were the hope of the future, along with speed, the automobile, and loyalty to one’s country.”
Soon Lou is traveling France to participate in athletic competitions. Hoping to send their protégée to the Olympics, Loomis arranges a skills exhibition at the Vélodome d’hiver. Gabor attends, initially horrified by this muscular Amazon, flexing and strutting, then moved to pity. After the exhibition, he tries speaking to the lone figure:
I should have requested a private interview, but the girl looked so desolate that my cool journalistic instincts gave way to my warmer human ones. I fished around in my briefcase until I found what I wanted. Some higher force moved me to hand Mademoiselle Lou the business card of the Chameleon Club.
Famed for its cross-dressing clientele and naughty floor show, the Chameleon Club doubles as a safe haven for what we today call LGBTQ youth. When Lou is forced to seek shelter there, she lands a dance role partnering the catty, scheming Arlette. Unfortunately, Lou falls in love with Arlette, who dumps her for Paris police prefect Clovis Chanac. In the jealous Chanac, Lou acquires a lifelong enemy.
Rescue arrives via Armand Rossignol. A deeply religious Catholic, Armand belongs to both Opus Dei and the Order of the Legion of Joan of Arc, an organization working to rid France of foreigners—especially Jews.
Armand trains Lou in auto racing while filling her head with proto-Nazi propaganda. After undergoing a voluntary mastectomy (as did Morris) to better fit into race cars, Lou begins winning races. Her success is short-lived; Chanac has her license revoked.
Lou is working as an auto mechanic when a letter arrives from German racing champion Inge Walser. Would she like to attend the Berlin Summer Olympics as a guest of Hitler? The Lou Villars who meets Inge Walser is an embittered woman whose trust has been multiply betrayed: by her parents, by Dr. Loomis, by Arlette, by Armand Rossignol. Her thinking is a mishmash of patriotic love, the cult of sport, and worship of Joan of Arc. That she is ripe for Nazi cultivation isn’t surprising.
Standing beside Hitler as the Olympic teams parade past, Lou watches for the French athletes:
Her heart went out to her dear countrymen in their farmer’s berets, the symbol of their peasant roots, of their love for the land and its traditions. Their visit to Germany would show them that a nation could be healed. They would learn from the Germans how human beings could treat each other with care and loving kindness.
Lou delightedly accepts an invitation to spy for Germany. With Inge at her side, Lou travels the French countryside, meeting women at cafes. But there is only so much information to be had. When it dries up, Inge grows bored. Once again, Lou is left alone. But not for long: Jean-Claude Bonnet works for the French Gestapo: “You know, you’re very good at getting people to say more than they mean to.” With that, Lou accepts her final position at La Carlingue headquarters, interrogating Resistance members.
By the time Resistance fighters shoot Lou Villars on a French roadway, she has become thoroughly detestable. Yet we understand why; we may even find her pitiful. In an interview at the end of the book, Prose remarks:
Lou was by far the hardest character to write. It wasn’t until I hit on the device of ‘biography’ that I was able to do it, partly because I was able to pass my problems along: my problems with, and confusions about, such a deeply conflicted and complex character became the biographer’s problems.
The remaining characters of Lovers At the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 are far easier on the reader’s conscience. At the novel’s close, an elderly Suzanne Dunois even elicits a wry laugh with a scathing letter to French newspaper Libération. Enraged over the paper’s decision to review a self-published book of dubious accuracy, Dunois calls it: “this travesty plucked from the garbage dump of our soulless, America-worshipping culture… self-published by one of those new companies that will print anything its author has the euros to pay for.”
There are humans capable of perpetrating the worst evils upon one another, while the rest of us, to paraphrase Joan Didion, try to explain their actions by telling ourselves stories in order to live. Lovers At the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is one such story.