Paul Grappe, the diserter transvestite

Sometimes the most unbelievable stories remain forever buried between the creases of history. But they may happen to leave a trail behind them, although very small; a little clue that, with a good deal of fortune and in the right hands, finally brings them to light. As archaeologists dig up treasures, historians unearth life’s peculiarities.

If Paul Grappe hadn’t been murdered by his wife on the 28th of July 1928, not a single hint to his peculiar story would have been found in the Archive of the Paris Police Prefecture. And if Fabrice Virgili, research manager at the CNRS, scrutinizing the abovementioned archives almost one hundred years later to write an article about conjugal violence at the beginning of the century, hadn’t given a look at that dossier…

The victim: Grappe Paul Joseph, born on the 30th of August 1891 in Haute Marne, resident 34 Rue de Bagnolet, shot dead on the 28th of July 1928.

The culprit: Landy Louise Gabrielle, born on the 10th of March 1892 in Paris, Grappe’s spouse.

This is how the life of Paul Grappe ended. But, as we go back through the years starting from the trial papers, we discover something really astonishing.

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In the 1910s Paris sounds like a promise to a young man coming from Haute-Marne. It was mainly a working-class context and like everybody else the twenty-year-old Paul Grappe worked hard to make ends meet. He hadn’t received a proper education but the uncontrollable vitality that would mark out his entire existence encouraged him to work hard: with stubborn determination he obliged himself to study, and became an optician. He also attended some mandolin’s courses, where he met Louise Landy.

Their modest financial means didn’t interfere with their feelings: they fell in love and in 1911 they tied the knot. Shortly afterwards, Paul had to leave for military service, but managed to be appointed to stand guard over the bastions of Paris, in order to be close to his own Louise. Our soldier was a skilled runner, he could ride, swim (which was quite uncommon at the time) and he quickly distinguished himself until he was appointed corporal. Having spent the required two years on active service, Paul thought he was finally done with the army. But the War clouds were gathering, and everything quickly deteriorated. In August 1914 Paul Grappe was sent to the front to fight against Germany.

The 102nd Infantry division constantly moved, day after day, because the front was not well defined yet. Then gradually came the time to confront the enemy: at the beginning there were only small skirmishes, then came the first wounded, the first dead. And, finally, the real battle began. For the French, the most bloody stage of the entire world war was exactly this first battle, called Battle of the Frontiers, that claimed thousands of victims – more than 25,000 in one day, the 22nd of August 1914.

Paul Grappe was at the forefront. When Hell arrived, he had to confront its devastating brutality.

He was wounded in the leg at the end of August, he was treated and sent back to the trenches in October. The situation had changed, the front was stabilized, but the battles were not less dangerous. During a bloody gunfight Paul was wounded again, in the right index finger. A finger hit by a bullet? He was strongly suspected of having practiced self-mutilation, and in such situations people were not particularly kind to those who did something like that: Paul risked death penalty and summary execution. But some brothers in arms gave evidence for him, and Paul escaped the war court. Convalescent, he was moved to Chartres. December, January, February and March went by. Four months seemed to be too much time to recover from the loss of one single finger, and his superiors suspected that Paul was willingly reopening his wounds (like many other soldiers used to do); in April 1915 he was ordered to go back to the front. And it was here that, confronted with the perspective of going back to that horrible limbo made of barbed wire, mud, whistling bullets and cannon shots, Paul decided that he would change his life forever: he chose to desert.

He left the military hospital and, instead of going to the barracks, he caught the first train to Paris.

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We can only imagine how Louise felt: she was happy to learn that her husband was safe and sound, far from the war, and afraid that everything could end at any moment, if he was discovered. During the spring of 1915 the army was desperately in need of men, even people declared unfit for military service were sent to the front, and consequently the efforts to find the missing deserters were redoubled. For three times the guards burst into the home of his mother-in-law, where Paul was hidden, but couldn’t find him.

As for Paul – that had always had a wild and untamed temper – he couldn’t stand the pressure of secrecy. He was obliged to live as a real prisoner, he didn’t dare stick his nose out of the door: simply walking down the streets of Paris, a young man in his twenties would have aroused suspicion at that time because all the young men – maybe with the exception of some ministry’s employees – were at the front.

One day, overcome by boredom, joking with Louise he chose one of her dresses and wore it. Why not dress up as a woman?

Louise and Paul took a turn. He had a careful shave; his wife put a delicate make-up on him, adjusted the female clothes, put his head into a lady’s little hat. It wasn’t a perfect disguise, but it might work.

Holding their breath, they went out in the streets. They walked down the road for a little while, pretending to be at ease. They sat down in a café, and realized that people apparently didn’t notice anything strange about those two friends that were enjoying their drinks. Coming back home, they shivered as they noticed a man that was intensely gazing at them, fixing them… the man finally whistled in admiration. It was the ultimate evidence: disguised as a woman, Paul was so convincing that he deceived even the attentive eye of a tombeur de femmes.

From that moment on, to the outside world, the two of them formed a couple of women who used to live together. Paul bought some clothes, adopted a more feminine hairstyle, learnt to change his voice. He chose the name of Suzanne Landgard. For those who take on a new identity, it is very important to choose a proper name, and Landgard could be interpreted as “he who protects (garde) Landy?”.

Now Paul/Suzanne could go out barefaced, he could also contribute to the family economy: while Louise worked in a company that produced educational materials, Suzanne started working in a tailor’s shop. But maybe she struggled to stay in her role, because, as far as we know, she frequently changed job because of problems concerning her relationship with her colleagues.

War was over, at last. Paul wanted to stop living undercover, but he was still in danger. Like many other deserters used to do at the time, also our couple left for Spain (a neutral country) and for a short time took shelter in the Basque Country. They returned to Paris in 1922.

But the atmosphere of the capital had changed: the so-called “crazy years” had just begun and Paris was a town that wanted to forget the war at any cost. It was therefore rich in novelties, artistic avant-gardes and unrestrained pleasures. Louise and Suzanne realized that after all they may look like two garçonnes, fashionable women flaunting a masculine hairdo and wearing trousers, shocking conservative people. Louise used to paint lead toy soldiers during the evening, after work, to make some extra money.

Paul couldn’t find a job instead, and his insatiable lust for life led him to spend some time at the Bois de Boulogne, a public park that during those years was a well known meeting point for free love: there gathered libertines, partner-swappers, prostitutes and pimps.

Did Paul, dressed as Suzanne, whore to bring some money home? Maybe he didn’t. Anyhow, he became one of the “queen” of the Bois.

From then on, his days became crowded with casual intercourses, orgies, female and male lovers, and even encoded newspaper ads. Paul/Suzanne even tried to convince Louise to participate in these erotic meetings, but this only fuelled the first conflicts within the couple, that was very close until then.

His thirst for experience was not yet satiated: in 1923 Suzanne Landgard was one of the first “women” that jumped with a parachute.

You are not tall enough, my dear, I am a refined person, I want to get out of this mass, this brute mass that goes to work in the morning, like slaves do, and goes back home at evening”, he repeated to Louise.

In January 1924 the long awaited amnesty arrived at last.

The same morning in which the news was spread, Paul went down the stairs dressed as a man, without make-up. The porter of the apartment building was shocked as she saw him go out: “Madame Suzanne, have you gone crazy?” “I am not Suzanne, I am Paul Grappe and I am going to declare myself a deserter to apply for the amnesty.” As soon as the authorities learnt about his case, even the press discovered it. Some newspaper headlines read: “The transvestite deserter”. Prejudices started to circulate: paradoxically, now that he was discovered to be a man (so the two supposed lesbians were a married couple) Paul and Louise were evicted. The Communist Party mobilized to defend the two proletarians that were victims of prejudices, and in a short time Paul found himself at the core of an improvised social debate. The little popularity he gained maybe went to his head: believing that he may become a celebrity, or have some chance as an actor, he started to distribute autographed pictures of him both as a male and as a female and went as far as to hire a book agent.

But the more prosaic reality was that Paul told the fantastic story of his endeavours mostly in the cafés, to be offered some drinks. He showed the picture album of him as Suzanne, and also kept a dossier of obscene photographs, that are lost today. Little by little he started to drink at least five litres of wine per day. He lost one job after another, and turned aggressive even at home.

As he recovered his manhood – that same virility that condemned him to the horror of the trenches – he became violent. Before the Great War he had shown no signs of bisexuality nor violence, and most probably the traumas he suffered on the battlefield had a share in the quick descent of Paul Grappe into alcoholism, brutality and chaos.

He used to spend all the salary of his wife to get drunk. The episodes of domestic violence multiplied.

In a desperate attempt of reconciliation, Louise accepted to participate in her husband’s sexual games, and in order to please him (this is what she declared later in her deposition) took an attractive Spanish boy named Paco as her lover. But the unstable Paul didn’t appreciate her efforts, and started to feel annoyed by this third party. When he ordered his wife to leave Paul, Louise left him instead.

From that moment on, their story looks like the sad and well-known stories of many drifting couples: he found her at her mother’s home, he threatened her with a gun, and begged her to go back home with him. She surrendered, but she quickly discovered she was pregnant. Who was the father? Paul, or her lover Paco? In December 1925 the child was born, and Louise decided to call him Paul – obviously to reassure her husband about his fatherhood. The three of them lived a serene life for some months, like a real family. Paul started again to look for a job and tried to drink less. But it didn’t last. Crises and violence started again, until the night of the murder the man apparently went as far as to threaten to hurt his child. Louise killed Paul shooting twice at his head, then ran to the police headquarters to give herself up.

The trial had a certain media echo, because of the sensationalist hues of the story: the accused, the wife that shot dead the “transvestite deserter”, was represented by the famous lawyer Maurice Garçon. While Louise was in prison, her child died of meningitis. Therefore the lawyer insisted on the fact that the widow was also a mourning mother, a victim of conjugal violence that had to kill her husband to protect their infirm child – on the other hand he tried to play down the woman’s complicity in her husband’s desertion, transvestism, and shocking behaviours. In 1929, Louise Landy was declared innocent, which rarely happened in the case of trials for murder of the spouse. From that moment on Louise disappeared from any news section, and there was no more news about her except that she got married again, and then died in 1981.

The story of Paul Grappe, with all that it suggests about those troubled times, the traumas of the soldiers, the inner conflicts implied by gender, was discovered by Fabrice Virgili who told it in his book La garçonne et l’assassin : Histoire de Louise et de Paul, déserteur travesti dans le Paris des années folles (the title is ironical, and the garçonne is obviously Paul, whereas Louise is the murderer), and also inspired the comic strip by Chloé Cruchaudet entitled Mauvais genre.

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Designpanoptikum

 

Articolo e foto a cura del guestblogger Gordon Orbetello

 

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A cosa sarà servito questo macchinario? A salvare la vita? O a toglierla? Come può la mente umana concepire qualcosa di così inquietante, ma che allo stesso tempo serve a dare sollievo a dolori lancinanti? Come possono due strumenti, concepiti per scopi diametralmente opposti, essere uniti a formare qualcosa di completamente nuovo e dall’utilità tutta da scoprire?

Queste sono alcune delle domande che vi porrete al Museo Surreale degli Oggetti Industriali di Berlino, il Designpanoptikum.

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Entrando in questo museo, sarete immediatamente sopraffatti da un senso di inquietudine mista a curiosità, piacere della scoperta e terrore nell’immaginare cosa potesse accadere con tali strumenti.

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Nelle varie sale troverete oggetti e strumenti, assemblati nei modi più curiosi, che vi faranno riflettere sull’evoluzione che la scienza e la tecnica hanno avuto nell’ultimo secolo, e su come la sperimentazione abbia talvolta richiesto sofferenza per arrivare al benessere di cui oggi possiamo godere.
Magari scoprirete che quel particolare marchingegno di metallo, dagli angoli appuntiti, era in realtà stato progettato negli anni ’30 per scopi lontani da quelli che la forma minacciosa fa oggi presagire. Sta a voi, e alla vostra immaginazione e creatività, trarre le conclusioni: Vlad Korneev, il creatore del museo, vi darà suggerimenti, vi racconterà i retroscena e la filosofia che stanno dietro a questo spiazzante museo e ai suoi oggetti, ma in fin dei conti spetterà a voi far lavorare la mente per trovare risposte agli infiniti punti interrogativi che l’esposizione genera.

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Il museo, che Vlad ha creato con pazienza, passione e dedizione, è un work in progress in costante evoluzione. Una meta imperdibile nella capitale tedesca per chi non si accontenta delle classiche destinazioni turistiche.

Ecco la pagina facebook ufficiale del Museo.

Il volto del dolore

All’inizio del secolo scorso la medicina stava entrando nella sua età più matura e progredita; eppure, come abbiamo spesso notato (vedi ad esempio i metodi per aprire una bocca descritti in questo articolo), la pratica terapeutica mancava ancora della doverosa attenzione per il paziente e per la sua sofferenza.

Nei primi anni ’30 il Dr. Hans Killian, uno dei più conosciuti anestesiologi e chirurghi tedeschi, sentì che era tempo di cambiare l’attitudine dei medici nei confronti del dolore. Secondo il Dr. Killian, non soltanto ne avrebbero beneficiato i pazienti in quanto esseri umani, con una propria dignità e sensibilità, ma perfino la pratica medica: riconoscere i sintomi della sofferenza, infatti, avrebbe dovuto essere parte integrante dell’anamnesi clinica. Come esporre la questione in maniera scientifica e al tempo stesso incisiva?

Il Dr. Killian era appassionato di arte e fotografia, ma fino ad allora aveva tenuto ben separati i suoi interessi estetici dalla professione medica. Il suo primo libro di fotografie, intitolato Farfalla, mostrava suggestive immagini delle farfalle che lui stesso allevava, e venne pubblicato sotto pseudonimo, per non mettere a repentaglio la “serietà” del suo status di chirurgo. Questa volta, però, la posta in gioco era troppo alta per non rischiare. Così il Dr. Killian decise di pubblicare a suo nome (anche a discapito della sua carriera) il progetto che più gli stava a cuore, e che avrebbe contribuito a cambiare il rapporto medico-paziente.

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Il suo controverso libro, pubblicato nel 1934, si intitolava Facies Dolorosa: Das schmerzensreiche Antlitz (“l’aspetto del dolore”). Si trattava di 64 fotografie di bambini, uomini e donne di ogni età, ricoverati all’ospedale dell’Università di Freiburg in cui egli stesso esercitava come chirurgo. I soggetti dei ritratti erano suoi pazienti, alcuni dei quali terminali, fotografati nei loro letti.

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Sfogliando il volume, si avvertiva subito un’evidente (e feconda) ambiguità. Da una parte, la raccolta poteva essere interpretata come testo prettamente medico, un’osservazione empirica relativa al primo stadio di ogni diagnosi, cioè l’esame esterno del paziente: in questo senso, il libro aveva lo scopo di illustrare e catalogare tutti i diversi modi in cui la malattia può manifestarsi sul volto, influenzandone l’espressione. Veniva per esempio mostrata la facies tragica dei malati di ipertiroidismo, in cui la retrazione spastica della palpebra superiore causa una peculiare mimica con “occhi sbarrati”, assieme a diversi altri tipi di “maschera” che indicano specifici disturbi.

 

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Ma la forza del suo libro, il Dr. Killian ne era ben conscio, non stava nella cornice scientifica – che era anzi poco più che un alibi. Molte delle sue fotografie, infatti, non mostravano affatto i segni evidenti della malattia, bensì si focalizzavano sull’ansia, la tristezza e lo sconforto infinito veicolato dagli sguardi dei pazienti. Con la sua Rolleiflex, Killian si prefissava di catturare gli effetti della malattia sull’umore di quelle persone, il loro stato psicologico, la loro essenza umana sotto la fatica e la debilitazione.

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Al di là dei dati statistici e misurabili, Killian era alla ricerca di ciò che definiva das Unwägbare, “l’imponderabile”: a suo dire, infatti, ogni diagnosi si affidava anche a una sorta di istinto suggerito dall’esperienza, una fulminea “impressione” che il medico aveva guardando il paziente durante la prima visita. Certo, le analisi in laboratorio avevano il loro peso, ma per Killian l’arte medica viveva innanzitutto di questo genere di intuito.

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L’opera del Dr. Killian è tutta racchiusa in questa duplicità, in questa tensione fra la solidità apparente della presentazione scientifica e la dimensione emotiva della sofferenza. Paradossalmente le fotografie di Facies Dolorosa, nonostante non mostrino morbi o deformità particolarmente scioccanti, colpiscono in maniera ancora più profonda l’osservatore: in luogo dell’asetticità che ci si aspetterebbe da un atlante medico, propongono una visione partecipe dello sconforto e del dolore dei soggetti rappresentati. Talvolta i malati guardano in macchina, talvolta il loro sguardo sembra perdersi oltre l’obbiettivo, in una commovente contemplazione della propria condizione. I pochi e spogli dettagli, oltre al volto, concentrano tutta l’attenzione sul corpo, divenuto una gabbia penosa e desolata.
Che l’empatia fosse ciò che davvero interessava a Killian risulta evidente nei due casi in cui l’intimità dell’obbiettivo si spinge fino a fotografare il soggetto prima e dopo la morte.

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Il libro ebbe probabilmente un ruolo fondamentale nell’evoluzione del rapporto medico-paziente; oltre a questo, Facies Dolorosa scavalcò coraggiosamente i confini tra scienza ed arte in un periodo in cui queste due discipline erano largamente considerate contrapposte. La sua aura di poetica umanità colpisce anche oggi, tanto che l’esperto di storia della fotografia Martin Parr lo ha definito “forse il più melanconico di tutti i libri fotografici”.

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