London Life

London Life | 1940

Confessions Of A Lover Of The Limbless

Memories of Paris Nights and Days.

by Wallace Stort

Dear Sir, - I was very interested in the recent letter from the lady who signed herself "One-legged Parisian." This for many reasons, but chiefly because of the fact that she is French and her references to her friends and experiences in Paris, where I lived for many years, and of which I have the happiest recollections. If she will forgive my impertinence, however, there were several errors in the letter which rather puzzled me.

Why, for instance, should she sign herself "One-legged Parisian?" I am sure she must have intended the correct and much more attractive "Parisienne." Then her references to what she calls "La Circlet de Moignon" were also a little astray. I don't wish to be dogmatic, but I do not think there is such a word as "circlet" in French. It is, I think, purely English. There are "cercle," "petit-cercle" and bracelet-cerclet"- all meaning bracelet or bangle; also, of course, the word "anneau," a ring.

But actually the French coin words for special purposes, just as we do; and for the particular ornament your correspondent refers to, the word would inevitably be "moignoniere." The nearest we could get in English would be "stumplet," just as the word "chevilliere" means anklet or "jarretiere" leglet, or, in other words, garter. You won't find the word in the dictionary, and the ordinary Frenchmen wouldn't know it, but this is the natural way the word would come into being - and, I feel quite certain, did come into being when I was a resident of Paris. The charming one-legged ladies I knew at that time, as matter of fact, called there stump garters "moignonieres," and the particular jeweller who supplied these little adornments in gold employed the same word.

Finally referring again to your correspondent's letter, I imagine the word "biguile" for crutch, near the end of the letter, was a misprint. The word should, of course, be "bequille."

Words created for special purposes are always stumbling blocks, I know. And ordinarily one cannot be expected to be aware of their existence. The word "monopede," for example, now well known to readers of "London Life," will not be found in any English dictionary. It was, if I may say so, coined by myself in my first stories and articles contributed to these pages, and has now become accepted by readers as a synonym for a one-legged girl.

In the same way the French have no generally known word corresponding to "monopede," but even over there a special word has been coined for the purpose, except that it applies to either sex. The word is "unijambiste," literally a "one-legged person."

I came across the word first of all when I was in Paris, on the placards outside a variety theatre. One of the turns announced was "Les Trois - something or other - Artistes Aeriennes Extraordinaiees au Haut Trapeze" (in other words, trapeze artistes) - with "La Belle Suzy, Unijambiste, Exquise, La Plus Merveilleuse du Monde!" - and a lot more on the same lines! I hadn't met the word before, but I guessed its meaning at once, and I was in that theatre that night - and in the front row "a paradis" - (in the "gods").

The act was a very ordinary trapeze act given by two men, both normal, two-legged individuals, and a girl. But it was the girl who made the show for me. She was a pretty blonde, and petite, and she was undoubtedly an "unijambiste," as her dainty flesh-pink silk tights fully and attractively revealed.

She had only one leg; a very shapely limb it was, too. But it was close up against her right hip that she had lost her other leg. She wore there what one could call a "moignoniere," in the shape of a dainty, frilled, satin garter. She used no crutches during the act, and was perfectly at home on her single leg, hopping about with the greatest ease and agility. And when the trio took their many bows at the end of the act, she hopped on and off with the other two with the same effortless ease and grace.

It may interest newer readers that I referred to this particular girl in an earlier series of mine in these columns, though I did not then attribute the experience to myself. However, I was actually the young man in the case, and it was I who played the impudent little trick of taking round, after the act, to deliver an imaginary parcel, which I "had orders" to Mlle. Suzy herself in her dressing room.

She roared with laughter when she discovered the trick, and immediately nearly gave me a nervous breakdown by pinning me in her arms and kissing me fondly. She was probably 27 or 28, and I was 17, and I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. But she knew everything there was to know about the "monopede complex," It was actually my first personal encounter with a one-legged girl.

She was still in her enchanting silk tights, drinking a glass of wine out of the bottle brought in by an attendant, and smoking a cigarette, and she sat beside me with her arm holding me close, and made me talk about myself.

The two men were meanwhile getting into their street clothes French artistes of both sexes, members of the same act, at any rate, have no qualms at using the same dressing room - and threw across a grinning, ribald remark every now and then. Eventually the girl, just amused as they were, though I wasn't aware of the fact, told them to "chuck it." "Shut your trap. The kid has taken a fancy to my little stump."

At last, when she had had enough of my boyish ardour, she saw me to the door of the dressing room - this time using a single, black pole crutch which stood in a corner - and kissed me. She promised to send me a special photo of herself in silk tights, and then pushed me into outer darkness.

I never saw her again, not even on the stage, but she was certainly considerate enough to send me, from the next town in which the act was appearing, a large photograph of herself. I treasured it for years - in fact until it fell to pieces. That was my very first experience of the kind, and obviously it left its very deeply engraved and permanent imprint on my mind and character.

To return, however, to the interesting question of the "moignoniere." I believe I was also the first to introduce this particularly intriguing and intimate adornment to these pages in one of my stories, and have used it in other stories since. I took the fashion from life - as I do most of my characters, and frequently even my plots. The fashion of wearing a dainty, frilled garter, or a circlet in flat, expanding gold mesh on the remaining portion of a missing limb was common among the one-legged ladies I knew in Paris in those days, and is, I know, quite as common now both in France and England.

Of course, the practice is not confined to one-legged ladies. Many chic French women at least wear a gold circlet on the thigh instead of a garter. But in at least one particular goldsmith's in the Quartier Latin, the circlet is known as "moignoniere," and it is understood that it is intended to adorn a shapely stump. In the same way silk stump socks are frequently specially made for one-legged lady customers, with either a satin garter or an expanding circlet in gold or platinum, attached to the mouth as part of the sock. My wife has several of the former - and the satin gartered sock - and one of the latter in her outfit, an expensive item, for very special occasions. I recommended both types to interested one-legged lady readers.

It is most interesting to learn that at least two of your lady readers have adopted the gold circlet fashion. And it is also very interesting to me to learn that your correspondent "One-legged Parisienne" was one of a circle of limbless ladies when she lived in Paris.

I don't suppose she encountered the little crowd I knew - in fact I realise she couldn't have done so, as she has only recently arrived from Paris, while my memories of that delightful city go back at least twenty years. She probably knows, at any rate by sight, the famous "pierette," however, the pretty and exotic "free lance" who flaunts her single shapely leg below an extremely short and narrow frock, her small, neat foot in an incredibly high, stilt-heeled slipper, as she swings provocatively on a pair of slim, expensive crutches about the boulevards and the night haunts of Paris. And also, perhaps, her rival, "Desire," a voluptuous blonde who manages a beautifully made and very expensive hip-length artificial leg so well that most people think she has only an attractive little limp. Desire frequents only the small, exclusive night clubs, corresponding to our more expensive "bottle parties" and clubs of that type. Her "stunt" is to arrive at the club, limping attractively, gather a string of admirers about her table, and then, making an excuse, leave them. She returns, having removed her leg and left in the dressing room, and hops back to her table without crutches - with which, by the way, she is never seen. She moves about, dances, etc., during the rest of the night, quite expertly on her single leg, revealing in her gyrations, to astonished newcomers, that the little limping lady has in fact no right leg at all. when at last she leaves and goes on to another club, she resumes her leg and goes expertly upon it.

In Paris, certain types always gravitate to certain rendezvous, and in my time it was the odd little "Cafe des Deux Pigeons Bleus," in Montparnasse, a discreet place of alcoves and shaded lights, that the queerest and most original characters were to be found. There was one corner sacred to the little crowd of "Amputee Jolies" and their admirers who frequented it. And as "one of us" - the term used among themselves of the exclusive band of queer people with the "limbless beauty" complex - I was a privileged member of the circle.

I was first taken there by Zelie, an attractive little one-legged blonde, with the slenderest black crutches and the highest heeled single slipper in Paris. Zelie, I am afraid, had no qualms about letting the world know she was one-legged - no more, in fact, than any pretty girl has in showing off what she regards as her principal attractions. Zelie herself had no doubts about what was her most alluring charm, - her very shapely single leg.

It was the day of ultra short skirts, and Zelie's were always so brief as to attract incredulous stares, wherever she swung saucily along on her slender crutches, with her slim, shapely leg very much in evidence. In fact it was a most embarrassing business to accompany her along the boulevards. Added to that, her frocks were made to fit her attractive curves with skin-fitting tightness.

I remember on that first occasion when Zelie took me to the "Two Blue Pigeons," that I met Fleurette and Julie. At the table in the discreet alcove, Fleurette, another very dainty little blonde, was seated in such a way that I saw at once that she, too, was attractively one-legged. Also, incidentally, her slipper was lying on the floor, where it had been kicked off, and her little silk-stockinged foot was softly caressing the ankle of the boy seated at the near-side edge of the table with his back to me.

Julie was seated at the other end of the table right inside the alcove, with a somewhat older, but still young and strikingly handsome young man. She was a dark, exotic, alluring type, plump, but only attractively so, with marvellous white teeth, which she showed a good deal of in wider generous smiles.

I wondered about Julie, and did so casually on and off until the somewhat scratch band began to play a dance tune. I was not surprised to see Fleurette and the boy get up to dance, as I knew that Zelie danced with marvellous ease and precision on her one leg, and I had no doubt that Fleurette did likewise, which, by the way, she did, clinging closely to her partner for support, but dancing quite naturally on her very slender, black silk-stockinged leg.

But I was surprised when Zelie, in an aside, told me to ask Julie to dance. That was not like Zelie, who was rather possessive, and somehow I suspected some subtle joke. However, I asked Julie and she laughingly consented. I went round the table and, as if with a kind of affectionate embrace, she put her arms about my neck; and, though I didn't realise it at the time, I must have actually lifted her into my arms.

Julie suddenly burst into peals of laughter, and I heard Zelie laughing behind me. By this time I had seen the "joke," but I must admit I was startled. The amazing truth was that the lovely and exotic Julie was entirely legless!

That was Julie's favourite joke with newcomers to the circle. She seemed to get a real kick out of luring unsuspecting boys into asking her to dance, and then watching their dismay when they discovered that the lovely charmer didn't exist below the hips! Sometimes, however, the boy turned the tables and went careering round the floor with the legless body in his arms, whirling madly round and round to the music. Poor Julie would cling desperately to her partner as her empty skirts floated away beneath her, imploring him not to drop her.

"Nom de nom!" I have heard her say, when she was at last restored to her chair. "I don't mind - only I am so deadly afraid of being dropped!"

Julie was by far the most interesting, psychologically, of all the "types" I met in Paris at that time. Her life story gave me the clue to her character and to what the normal individual would regard as her unusual outlook on life. She had not always regarded her leglessness as something interesting. She was a very beautiful girl of 17 (she was thirtyish at the time I knew her) in her native Lyons when she lost both her beautiful legs in a train smash. When she fully had realised the disaster that had befallen her she was in complete despair and made repeated efforts to commit suicide. She told me for instance, that she had once actually got out on the balcony of her parent's house, after dropping from her chair and swinging along by means of her hands, before she was caught.

The publicity attaching to the case, mainly because of her father's position and her own unusual beauty, had, however, brought her hundreds of letters of sympathy and affection from all over the country and even from other countries. One in particular came from the wealthy son of a millionaire Paris banker.

Without going into all the details of that extraordinary courtship - with Julie at first uncomprehending and dismayed that any man, not to mention a young, wealthy and particularly handsome man, should actually wish to marry an entirely legless girl who, as she put it, would make him only half a wife - the outcome of which was that Julie at last allowed herself to be persuaded. The wedding took place quietly in Lyons, and Georges, her husband, carried her (literally, at any rate, at intervals!) back with him to Paris!

That was the beginning of a beautiful and perfect romance in married life. Georges from the outset had made no secret of the fact that he found her leglessness one of the most attractive charms. And gradually she came to accept his peculiar but heady and insidious adoration and to adapt her own point view to it. Her husband was a rich man and could give her everything she desired. He was, in fact, her willing slave, and surrounded her with every luxury and comfort.

All this had its natural effect on Julie. She responded to his love and care like a beautiful flower opening to the warmth of the sun. So by the time I knew her she had so far forgotten the terror and despair of those early days as to have become as fervent a worshiper of her own and incomplete loveliness as her husband.

Though she was a member of our set at the "Two Pigeons" - in many respects a wild and irresponsible lot - she had no eyes for everybody but her beloved Georges, who, whenever possible, accompanied her to our little gatherings, carrying her tenderly and proudly in his arms to and from the big car. It was he who sat with her on the first evening when I was lured into asking her to dance.

A rather different and in its way as interesting case was that of Cecile's, whom I also met first of all at the "Two Pigeons." Cecile was an attractive one-legged brunette, charming and likable, but always a little sad and silent. This was not altogether surprising. She had lost her right leg, close to the hip, in a car smash, and her remaining leg had been so badly injured that it was saved only by a miracle. It gave her constant pain and trouble all the time I knew her, and she had now and then to undergo minor operations in connection with it.

It was no wonder, therefore, that she had periods of depression when she was completely fed up with life. She used to look across at the happy, laughing Julie with something very near envy, and, in a bitter aside to me, wondered why they hadn't taken off her other leg and saved her all this wretchedness. The sequel is interesting and curious - and incidentally, perfectly true.

I had left Paris about six years - returning for a day or two only at long intervals during that time. On one of my visits I was walking along the Rue de Rivoli on a sunny afternoon in May, when suddenly I heard my name called and saw Cecile beckoning me excitedly from a big car drawn up by the pavement, with an uniformed chauffeur at the wheel.

I went across, and at once noticed the difference in her. She was as gay and happy as she had previously been depressed. On her invitation I got into the car and sat down beside her to talk over old times. Immediately I saw light. Her thin, chiffon skirt hung slack and empty over the end of the deeply recessed seat. Cecile was as legless as Julie - even more so than Julie, as was very evident then and as I verified later. Both legs were now absent from near the hip. And she was happy at last!

Her story was simple. She had married a persistent admirer, much older than herself, a well-to-do business man who adored her, as elderly husbands usually do young and pretty wives. He was evidently also a man of plain, straightforward common sense. When the trouble in connection with Cecile's remaining leg appeared to show no signs of ever yielding to a treatment, he went straight to her surgeon and discussed the matter as man to man, the surgeon admitted that the only and logical cure was amputation. It would have been very much better if that had been done long ago. But he had never put such a drastic suggestion forward because of his hesitation to condemn a young and pretty woman to a life of almost complete helplessness.

The husband returned and in just the same straightforward manner discussed the matter with Cecile. But, she asked, a little incredulously, wouldn't he mind having a completely legless wife? He had shaken his head stolidly. He wanted a happy, healthy and contented wife. He had found her fascinating with only one leg. He was prepared to find her just as attractive without legs at all!

Cecile was frightened - but impressed and hopeful. Eventually she agreed; arrangements were made and the offending limb removed from the hip. All that had taken place over two years before. The operation had been a complete success; all the troublesome symptoms vanished. And so, there was Cecile, now indeed completely legless, but radiant and happy, and prettier than she had ever been, with an adoring and indulgent husband she had learnt to love as well as respect, and who, she told me with a happy laugh, seemed to find his legless wife even more adorable than he had found a one-legged one! Which was true, for I met him later, and it was very evident that he had doted on the pretty and vivacious half-woman who, when he came in the evening I was there and sat down beside her on her couch, swung herself lithely on to his knees and hugged him fondly and unashamedly.

We never had the pleasure of including in our little crowd at the "Two Pigeons" an armless girl, though there was such a girl frequently seen in public in the Paris of that time. I knew her well by sight, and often about the boulevards, and one or two occasions in one or other of the more exclusive resorts. She was an unusually pretty, Titian-haired girl; in fact she was always referred to in the gossip columns of the newspapers as the "Venus Sans Bras" ("Armless Venus").

Seeing her in the street, you would never guess that she was armless, as her outdoor frocks and suits were all fitted with neat, hip-length capes that attractively hid her deficiency. But that didn't mean that she was concerned about her armlessness or embarrassed at its display. One of the best-known stories about her - and there were many - was that she was seen on a bright June morning in the Rue de le Paix of all places, crowded with fashionable shoppers at the time, calmly paying off a taxi outside one of the big shops.

One little high-heeled slipper lay on the pavement where she had kicked it off and, balanced easily on one leg, she calmly opened her bag - which hung from a girdle at her waist - with the dainty, flexible, bare toes of the other foot, took out the necessary francs and paid them over to the grinning taxi driver. Her very short, barely knee-length skirts were neatly pleated so that they spread to the necessary fullness when she used a leg. And, as she performed her effortless and fascinating bit of contortion, the interested onlookers were treated to a vision of quite a lot of her upraised, very shapely right leg, in a hip length, beautifully fitting wide mesh silk stocking, daintily mittened to leave her long, slender toes bare. At the end of the transaction she calmly resumed her slipper and walked into the shop, where no doubt she again used her toes when examining and choosing the materials she had come to buy.

I saw her on two occasions in a discreet corner of the big cocktail lounge of the Cafe Strasbourg, which was once a very exclusive resort in the Champs Elysees. She was on each occasion with one of the rich young men of the town, and her very effective evening frock, moulded to her very perfect figure, was fitted with tiny lace epaulets hanging emptily over the rounded off ends of her beautiful armless shoulders.

There was a good deal of undisguised staring from all parts of the lounge - much more than there would have been in a place of the same standing in London; but habitues for the most part took her for granted. In any case, she wasn't at all disturbed. It was interesting to observe that her evening frocks - at that time not so long as they have since become - were slit from the hips at various points, so that when she wanted to use a leg and foot she slipped the limb through one of the slits and so employed it unhampered by clinging drapery.

When I saw her at the Strasbourg, a long, shapely leg, clad, not in a silk stocking, but in silk tights of filmily diaphanous black chiffon and delicately mittened at her toes was well in evidence. Naturally so as she had constantly to use her bare, beautifully kept toes, as supple as fingers, to carry her cocktail to her lips or to manage her cigarette in its long jade holder. Through the transparent chiffon of her tights, a flat, gold anklet, worn as a permanent adornment, could be seen on her right ankle; and on the slender toes of both feet she wore several miniature jewelled rings.

We never learnt whether she was born armless or had lost both her arms in an accident; nor did we learn where she had come from. But she was for some years one of the interesting and intriguing phenomena of the gay life of the Paris of that time, and she had obviously very early on decided to make her armlessness a charming asset rather than a handicap. She left Paris suddenly, and the legend had it that a young Indian prince had fallen for her armless charms and carried her off to India with him.

There is, by the way, another "Venus Sans Bras" in Paris at the present moment, a young, slim and pretty girl, born entirely without arms. But she is a variety artiste and cabaret attraction, and has appeared many times in variety and revue at one or other of the vaudeville theatres. She puts on a clever show, including drawing and painting with her toes in the usual highly trained manner. And a handsome armless woman, now nearing 60, runs a small cafe off the Boulevard St. Michel on the south side of the river. She, of course, has no tricks and is never seen to use her toes in public, though she sometimes pencils in an "addition" with the pencil held in her teeth.

(To be continued in our March treble issue.)

London Life February 24, 1940 pp. 47, 48, 65, 66
London Life | 1940