:: The articles in this series were originally
:: published in Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


The Boeuf chronicles

Au Temps du Boeuf sur le Toit
5. Maurice Sachs.

Laurent Gloaguen

24 July 2004

Jew, homosexual, collaborator: Maurice Sachs.

First edition, 1939 (courtesy of Laurent Gloaguen)

The son of a great family of Jewish jewellers, Maurice Sachs was born in Paris in 1906. His real name was Maurice Ettinghausen. Adventurer, seducer, sensualist, thief, con man, amoral, dilettante, snob, drunkard, charmer, cynic, naïf, liar, hedonist, opportunist, irresponsible, the man can’t leave you indifferent, all this without taking into account his having traversed the entire literary and mondain life [in Paris] between the two world wars.

Written in haste in 1939 by a debt-ridden author, driven by a promise of publication in the Nouvelle Revue Critique of Alfred and Fernand Keller, Au Temps du Boeuf sur le Toit is a patchwork of anecdotes and malicious gossip, disguised in the form of a diary, fictitious in great part, pompously subtitled journal d’un jeune bourgeois à l’époque de la prospérité, (14 juillet 1919–30 octobre 1929).

The fashionable bar-dancing of the 1920s, Le Boeuf sur le Toit owes its name to the “farce pantomime” produced in February 1920 at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées by Jean Cocteau, based on music by Darius Milhaud, with sets by Raoul Dufy. The Boeuf, managed by Louis Moysès, opened in December 1921 at 28 rue Boissy d’Anglas, succeeding the Gaya of rue Duphot. In this musical bar one could hear the virtuoso pianist Clément Doucet, and of course much jazz, not to mention the clients who sometimes delivered an improvised “boeuf” [jam].

At the Boeuf one could run into Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau, Jean Wiéner, Francis Poulenc, Honegger, Aragon, Breton, Germaine Tailleferre, Raymond Radiguet, Blaise Cendrars, Brancusi, Francis Picabia, Picasso, Marcel Herrant, Coco Chanel, Yvonne Printemps, Derain, Éric Satie, Georges Auric, Fargue, André Gide, the maréchal Lyautey, Gaston Gallimard, Artur Rubinstein, Marcel Jouhandeau, Paul Bourget, Marcel Aymé, Max Jacob, Tristan Bernard, Paul Claudel, Pierre Reverdy... It was the epicenter of Paris during the Roaring Twenties. The only one who never appeared there was Marcel Proust, owing to his precarious health. In the wake of Cocteau, one also met there the young Maurice Sachs, who dreamed of greatness, and above all of replacing Radiguet in the heart of the great master of surrealist ceremonies. And the Boeuf sur le Toit was so much a token of its time that the title Au temps du... naturally lends itself to a book that purports to retrace the memorable social and artistic moments of this crazy decade, made of illusions and facilités.

The book begins on the emblematic day of 14 July 1919, the first national holiday after the Great War, the one of the great parade in the summer heat, an explosion of tricolored gaiety that concludes with this statement: “One will never see an equal spectacle. Because there will never be another war.” And this date was to inaugurate a decade of apotheosis, the world would be permanently ready to parade, to get drunk, to have fun in the street, until the dramatic conclusion of the great crash in 1929. It’s this strange festive and creative parenthesis between world massacre and economic debacle that the book illustrates with memories already nostalgic.

The young narrator, dandy snob and tête à claques, Political Science student, leaves for Deauville amid Potinière, tennis, and promenades on the boardwalk. The details of his life place him within the dilettante upper bourgeoisie. He describes for us in detail the feminine attire: “the sensation on the beach was Gaby Deslys; this summer she entered the sea in splendor, wearing a clingy pink maillot laced with black satin, pink shoes with black heels, and a turban with pink aigrettes. But she escaped the waves quickly while emitting a cry” and many other such details of the air du temps.

In Paris, he had sufficient means at the age of eighteen to prefer lodging in a hotel rather than live with his parents. He tells us that he plays the stock market, and that constitutes his income. His only lucidity is restricted to “Good God, how frivolous I am [...] there’s champagne in the air” — “God! how an idle man is busy! I have never been bored for an instant, boredom being nothing but the fruit of incuriosity.” A hero identified as heterosexual (and even a homophobe), in contrast with his author: “Louise and Violette d’Espard are both lovely. Unhappily, one thinks of marrying Violette, but one wants to go to bed with Louise. A rather insoluble moral problem.”

“Rue de Lappe, 1932” by Brassai

This young bourgeois readily goes slumming on rue des Martyrs or rue de Lappe, in pursuit of less noble flowers, for the high-society girls aren’t available for a caper. “She was a little more ‘of the people’ than my usual girlfriends and was only tastier for it.” A young man who savors this capital city that offers itself to the ambitious. “The Parisians who left on vacation are unaware that their capital cheats on them until the small hours, and like a mad woman, with all her might: she laughs, cries, kisses and lets herself go; she doesn’t even have time to sleep. When her heart is dozing at la Concorde, her temples beat in Montmartre.”

1 October 1919. The girls are funny; I clutched Louise so tightly while dancing that it was impossible for her not to notice the enthusiasm she provoked in me and far from moving away, her body deliciously conformed to mine; but when I was seeing her back home in her car, I wanted to put my arm around her shoulders, and she disengaged herself as if I had manifested the most notorious shamelessness, as if, well!, it had been to rape her rather than to brush against the nape of her neck, when just a while ago... (and with ten people looking on) while dancing, we weren’t separated from the greatest intimacy except by very thin fabrics, through which our body heat mixed so freely that instead of going home to dine, I hurried to the young ladies of rue des Martyrs to ask them to throw some water on this fire, and one of them acquitted herself in such a way as to leave me broken with fatigue, quite sullen, not very pleased with myself and terribly in love with Louise.

The narrator frequents the salons, crosses the path of André Gide, Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, Francis Jammes, Max Jacob. He reads the Nouvelle Revue Française, from which he extracts numerous citations, like this one by Paul Valéry:
We other civilizations, we know now that we are mortal.
And we see now that the abyss of history is big enough for everybody.
The great virtues of the Germanic peoples engendered more ills than all the idleness created by vice.

[...] Peace is perhaps the state of things in which the natural hostility among men manifests itself by creation, instead of being translated into destruction, as happens at war.

Literary tastes tainted by filthy lucre fill him with indignation, and he commends an author who published at his own expense, a certain Marcel Proust. He discovers with circumspect enthusiasm the novelties that begin to turn the age upside down: cubism, jazz, negro art, cinema. And the diary format provides the opportunity to mention artistic manifestations, books, plays, concerts, exhibitions, which shook the esthetics of this post-war era in a kind of agenda of the Arts, to hover over the period, retaining from it only the historic and anecdotal foam. Claude Monet died in 1919, but his age was already dead. The Twenties are those of all the audacities, all the revolutions. Sachs notes their major dates through the intervention of his light, imaginary chronicler, distanced from events by choice. The fact that he writes in 1939 permits him also several false predictions, author’s deceits.

The diary is also an opportunity for Maurice Sachs to get back at his friends and ex-friends and to hurl some mortal arrows. Max Jacob is presented as an eccentric M. Punch, Picasso as an evil calculator, Cocteau as a hypocritical schemer: “As he asked me to do, I went to see Jean Cocteau at his house; I found him quite different than [he had been] at the play: gay, charming, familiar, and constantly amusing. But from the moment that the telephone rings, the lie is released in him together with the lively timbre. I don’t know his life sufficiently to judge positively if he tells the truth or not—but I hear his voice lying.” “He hasn’t written anything that is worth half an hour of his conversation.” “He has a je ne sais quoi of [surface] glaze and falseness.” Having time and again taken advantage of Cocteau’s kindness, Maurice Sachs demonstrates an underhand resentment in his respect. He reports the boundless admiration that he had once nurtured for the personages of Alias and Blaise, friends of the narrator.

Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, Les Cahiers Rouges, 1987

Made in the author’s image, the narrator is a dilettante and irresolute. If he notes on 23 December 1920 “Let’s resolve to maintain these journals daily,” the following date is 28 June 1928, with almost eight years having gone down the trap door. And in the second half of the book, the diary format is forgotten for the sake of a pasteup of memories and scraps, in an attempt to resurrect these undocumented years, like a disjointed copy-paste accumulation made of bric-a-brac, an indigestible so-called collection consisting of notes lent to the friend Blaise Alias; either because the hero’s life was too exhilarating and full to maintain a diary between 1920 and ’28, or because the author, seized by urgency and tired of the enterprise, botched the format, using the turbulence of life as an excuse.

Sachs looks back on the formidable revolution of mores in this post-war period, on the frivolity and people’s appetite for easy pleasure, on the surrealist farces that amazed and amused the bourgeois. The triumph of the genre, it was later Dali: “I piss on you,” he cried in a conference. “Bravo! Bravo!” exclaimed the women, delighted by the intelligence. It’s useless to try to shock anymore. Nothing shocks. He also talks about the art market and of speculation, domains he has known well. He goes over the folly of the Ballets Russes, soon folowed by the Ballets Suédois, evokes Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, Relâche, La Création du Monde...

At the end of the book, the narrator takes up a melancholy tone, as if seized by a strange presentiment of the end of a reign, in an ambiance of a ball coming to its end. We are in 1929. “Yesterday there was a terrible monstrous crash on Wall Street.” The footlights dim, the iron curtain is lowered, and there’s nothing but the glimmer of the service lamp to light the faded decorations left over from old parties.

Au Temps du Boeuf sur le Toit was published in 1939, and a whole other story begins. The 1920s are already a lost paradise. For Maurice Sachs, there’s only a little time left for burning the candle at both ends.

The end of Maurice Sachs resembled his entire life. Employed by the Gestapo of Hamburg as infiltrator into the French ranks of STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire), he led in 1943 the life of an adventurer and stool pigeon in the shady sphere of black marketeers, frolicking with young Frenchmen of the LVF (Légion des Volontaires Français), intoxicated on easy pleasures, living on schemes and scams, and denouncing without respite to gain bonuses. Soon known under the sobriquet “Maurice la tante” [Maurice the nellie], many have sworn to kill the “balance” [stoolie] at the right moment. He lived with two young French homosexual collaborators, Philippe Monceau and Paul Martel. In November 1943, he was arrested by the Gestapo, which had tired of his misguided ways, his imprudence, and his false reports. He was imprisoned in Fuhlsbüttel, where he had caused many people to be sent. In 1950, Philippe Monceau claimed in his book Le dernier sabbat de Maurice Sachs that Sachs had been lynched by the other prisoners following the wardens’ departure in 1945, and that his cadaver had been thrown to the dogs. But his end was less spectacular and novel-like. In the spring of ’45, upon the advance of British troops, the Fuhlsbüttel prison was evacuated to Kiel, a long march of many days. The third day, 14 April 1945, at 11 am, Sachs was exhausted and couldn’t continue marching. He was killed with a bullet to the back of the neck, his body abandoned by the side of the road with that of a companion in misfortune.

Maurice Sachs

Maurice Sachs quoted:

“The majority of the men in the French camp is of a distressing stupidity and vulgarity. One notices in all of them a terrible degeneration of the will. [...] When one thinks that they voted thanks to universal suffrage, one is obviously appalled.”
(Letter from Hamburg)

“National Socialisme appeals to me among other reasons because it has removed the lustre from commerce and placed it at its just and mediocre level.”

“The Jews, chosen people. Chosen by malediction.”

“The Gestapo people are magicians; with one telephone call they transform the fate of a man.”

“My life was nothing but a long complicity with the guilty. I have always been on the side of the pariahs of my family and since my childhood I have felt the most guilty of all, for their capital faults (of which I knew nothing, but whose weight I felt) were augmented by mine, whose detail I knew all too well.”
Le Sabbat

Further reading:

Maurice Sachs biography in eleven chapters
by Emmanuel Pollaud-Dulian, published in Les Excentriques.



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