Words: Jeremy Miles Photographs: Hattie Miles
What a bohemian life we lead! I’m in Paris leaning on a grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery chuckling as my wife photographs a man’s erection. Right! Now I have your attention let me explain. The man in question is in effigy form.
It is the bronze memorial to 19th century journalist Victor Noir, the pen-name of hapless hack Yvan Salmon, who was gunned down in his prime in 1870 and, for reasons lost in the mists of time, commemorated with a statue that features him in a state of perpetual sexual arousal.
It is an extraordinary life-size memorial which ostensibly portrays Noir’s untimely death, but there is more. Frock-coat open, he lies on his back, shirt undone, bullet wound in his chest, his top-hat lying on its side at his feet. His trousers are partially unbuttoned too and there is a very obvious bulge in the crotch area. In a bizarre twist of fate Victor’s sculpted image has gradually found fame as a fertility symbol. Childless and lonely women leave messages and flowers in his hat, kiss his lips or even rub the lump in his trousers. For those unlucky in love the belief is that they will find a husband within a year while the childless will miraculously be able to conceive.
This myth is believed to have emerged after tour guides contrived to invent a story that made some kind of sense of this strange grave. However no one really knows the truth or indeed why sculptor Jules Dalou chose to immortalise Victor Noir in such a manner. All indications suggest that the newspaper reporter behind the nom de plume, Yvan Salmon, was a relatively mundane fellow. What’s more he was just 22-years-old and though engaged to be married, very probably still a virgin.
What is clear is that visits from desperate women are frequent and often. There are wilting flowers in his hat and the bronze figure is covered in an oxidised patina of verdigris except in the trouser area, which along with his lips, positively gleams from the attention received.
Victor is one of the more intriguing residents of the huge Père Lachaise cemetery – final resting place of thousands of the great, the good, the notorious and of course the thoroughly ordinary folk of Paris. Among the more famous figures occupying graves in this hauntingly beautiful Parisian city of the dead are Chopin, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Molière, Colette, Isadora Duncan, Edith Piaf and of course American rock star and poet Jim Morrison whose grave can be found by following fans graffiti and the faint lingering smell of marijuana.
It’s a cast list that ensure that this vast cemetery which climbs a tree-swept hill to the north east of the city remains high on the list of must-see Paris attractions. Père Lachaise is a magical world of cobbled pathways and monuments that range from magnificent sepulchres to crumbling, broken memorials to long forgotten souls. It’s a compelling place full of ghosts of the past and many stories that remain untold, half-told or reinvented.
The strange case of Victor Noir is a fascinating example of how both life and death can sometimes take an unusual turn. It all began when Victor’s pro-revolutionary editor at the newspaper La Marseillaise became embroiled in a political row with Prince Pierre Bonaparte – nephew of the late Emperor. Angry words were exchanged and the hapless Victor was despatched to fix the terms of a duel. Bonaparte was incensed that a mere minion had been sent to demand that honour should be satisfied, a scuffle ensued and Victor was shot dead.
Although he was just an ordinary newspaper reporter, a rather unremarkable individual by all accounts, the slaying proved a catalyst for protest and demonstrations across the city. Before long the name of Victor Noir became inextricably linked to the causes of revolutionary activists. So much so that 20 years after his death Victor’s body was exhumed from a family grave near his home in the suburb of Neuilly and taken to Père Lachaise where he lies to this day beneath the extraordinary memorial created by Jules Dalou.
Not surprisingly perhaps the Victor Noir grave has not been free from controversy. As recently as 2004 the authorities fenced the site off to prevent what they described as “lewd acts” being performed on the effigy. A BBC report at the time stated: “Officials concerned about damage to the icon’s groin area have erected a fence around the grave, and a sign prohibiting indecent rubbing.” More than a decade on there is no fence, no sign and a distinctly relaxed attitude to how visitors may or may not choose to express themselves.
Other graves at Père Lachaise have given cause for concern too. Devotees of Oscar Wilde smothered his exotic memorial – painstakingly carved from a 20 tonne block of Hopton Wood stone by Jacob Epstein – in so many lipstick-slavered kisses that it was feared the monument would be permanently damaged.
In 2011 a glass screen was erected to protect it. It is now only the climbers who manage to plant a crimson smacker on the Wilde tomb which depicts a sphinx-headed winged messenger. Epstein gave it a spectacular pair of testicles too but not only did these cause trouble from the French police who maintained that they were “unusual” and should be covered up but, once revealed in all their glory, they became the target of vandals who finally removed them in 1961. Legend has it that the ‘Wilde bollocks’ were then pressed into service as a paperweight by the cemetery manager. Whatever the truth they are now missing.
Vandals also managed to make off with a large stone bust of Jim Morrison sometime in the early 90s. The lead singer of The Doors died, aged 27, in mysterious circumstances in Paris in 1971. The official account of his death stated that he died of heart-failure while taking a bath at the apartment he was renting with his partner Pamela Courson. However the fact that there was no autopsy and a hastily issued death certificate allowed his body to be released for burial before too many questions could be asked led many to suspect that he actually died of a heroin overdose. Other theories maintained that he was murdered or that he faked his death in order to escape public attention. For years rumours persisted that he had changed his identity and was working as a bank clerk in Los Angeles. As if! But then who would have believed that mild-mannered reporter Yvan Salmon would end his days shot by Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, become a martyr for the Republic, be immortalised as a randy ladies man and ministered to almost daily by strange women?
Fact file: Père Lachaise, which covers 110 acres was originally opened in 1804. It was the city’s first garden-cemetery and though it initially contained only 13 graves, it now contains an estimated one million bodies. It is easily found adjacent to the Boulevard de Ménilmontant in the city’s 20th arrondissement. The Philippe Auguste station on Metro line 2 is closest to the main entrance, although many people prefer to head for the Gambetta station on line 3, which allows them to enter near the tomb of Oscar Wilde and then walk downhill to visit the rest of the cemetery. Don’t make the obvious mistake and get off at the Père Lachaise Metro station as it is 500 metres away and near a side entrance that has been closed to the public. You can buy a plan of the cemetery at the conservation office near the main entrance or download it in PDF form from the internet. Armed with this you can navigate your way around the famous graves and trace some of the key events and characters that have shaped French history. There are three memorials to the First World War and Père Lachaise is also the site of The Communards’ Wall – Mur des Fédérés – where 147 Communards, the last defenders of the workers’ district of Belleville, were shot on 28 May 1871 – the last day of the “Bloody Week” in which the Paris Commune was finally crushed.