The Strange Life of a "Fartiste"
by Garrick H.S. Brown
HE MAY FALL slightly outside the standard RETRO 20th century timeframe, however we felt compelled to introduce you to Le Pétomane, one of the most bizarre and unique performers of fin de siècle France.
||So, you thought that the French obsession with Jerry Lewis was some
sort of an anomaly; some, weird, inexplicable blight on a culture that
is usually the epitome of the sophisticated. Well, Continentals, sit back
and enjoy the absolutely true (I swear!) story of the highest paid and
most popular French performer of that gilded time. The story of a man who
hobnobbed with artists like Renoir and Matisse. A genius who it is said
was beloved by classical giants Ravel and Faure. A man of whom Sartre would
supposedly later proclaim: "He gets it!"
Joseph Pujol was born in Marseilles on the Cote d'Azur in 1857. He came from a close-knit and loving family and seemed no different than other children his age. However, the young Pujol (even by the tender age of 3) was displaying the precocious behavior of a natural-born entertainer -- singing and dancing whenever he could for his doting parents and their guests. It was this love of performance, combined with his early passion for music (he played the trombone), and bran muffins (his father was a baker), that many speculate set him on his path to glory.
The story goes that Pujol first learned of his bizarre talent on boyhood visit to the seashore. While preparing to dive beneath choppy ocean waters, he took a deep breath--inadvertently contracting his abdominal muscles. Suddenly, he was pierced by an icy sensation. Panicked, he returned to shore--where he noticed a flood of seawater emanating from his bottom.
He eventually realized that (unlike other boys) he could suck water up his hind end at will and then project it out with frightful force. (French proctologists would later record a record five meter spout from the adult Pujol). At school, the young man suddenly found himself transformed from socially awkward teen to life of the party. It was said of the young Pujol that "he could wash your walls with just a bucket and a squat."
Obviously an experimental youth, Pujol soon discovered that water wasn't the only thing his rectum could take in. Through a weird mixture of motions, extortions and contortions, Pujol could "inhale" as much as two quarts of air (as measured by Dr. Marcel Baudouin in 1892) through his distended bottom. The young man quickly found that by varying the force with which he expelled this air, he could produce musical notes of varying pitch and timbre. He soon mastered simple tunes, and found himself entertaining astonished school chums with impromptu Bel cantos and arias.
It was while serving in the army that Joseph Pujol was first dubbed "Le Pétomane" (rough translation: fart maniac or "fartiste"). Upon his release from the service, he returned to Marseilles where he tried to earn his living at first by running a bakeshop. Though it is said that he made the finest bran muffins in the South of France, Pujol felt unfulfilled. Feeling as if though he "would burst" with pent-up talent, he soon began spending his evenings at local music halls. He tried playing the trombone for profit, but soon found that it was his other wind instrument that the crowd clamored to hear. He developed an act which became an overnight success. He closed his bakery, and soon began touring throughout France. By 1892 he was ready for his big premiere at the 19th Century's most famous entertainment hall... The Moulin Rouge. Upon arriving in Paris and seeing the enormous red windmill, Pujol is said to have remarked, "The sails of the Moulin Rouge... what a marvelous fan for my act!"
Pujol was an overnight smash. His act is said to have been so funny that it caused at least one man to die of a heart attack due to uncontrollable laughter. Countless women fainted at both the hilarity and the spectacle of Le Pétomane's 90 minute show. There was no nudity or shockingly exposed body parts (after all, this was fin de siècle France). No, Pujol would appear fully dressed on stage in formal wear. The only abnormality in regards to his clothing was the rubber tube which dangled from his backside. It was this tube (connected to the proper orifice, of course) that allowed him to "breathe" and to do a number of astonishing feats. Besides blasting out melodies, Le Pétomane could do impressions of famous figures and politicians. He also had a staple of tricks which he would perform each night, such as blowing out a candle from meters away, and smoking cigarettes from both ends at the same time.
He would pack houses at the Moulin Rouge for three years; playing to royalty and bourgeoisie alike. He often held special "in-the-buff" private shows for the wealthy elite (men only), proving to detractors that there was "no trickery in this anus". It was also during this time that a number of France's leading doctors would examine and confirm the thunderous talent of Joseph Pujol. Dr. Adrien Charpy would comment in a treatise (not published until 1904) that "Le Pétomane uses his abdominal cavity like a bellows." An even more widely read probe of the subject appeared in an 1892 edition of La Semaine Medicale. This piece, by the afore-mentioned Dr. Baudouin, was simply entitled: "An Extraordinary Case of Rectal Breathing and of Musical Anus," While at the Moulin Rouge, Joseph Pujol became the highest paid entertainer in the world. He would later comment that this was one of the happiest periods in his life, yet, little did he know that this bliss would be clouded by the stench of litigation.
Unfortunately, after serenading a few in public at a friend's bakery, Pujol was sued by Monsieur Oller (the owner of the Moulin Rouge) for breach of contract. Pujol's defense of "you can't own the wind!" didn't float with an unamused judge. Instead, the slimy club owner won, and, after paying the court ordered damages, Le Pétomane left in disgust to open his own nightspot, Le Theatre Pompadour. There, he revamped his act with entirely new material and set about producing what was essentially musical theatre for the deranged. He surrounded himself with a talented troupe of mimes, magicians, and clowns who recreated various folk and fairy tales, set to Pujol's "music."
His former boss at the Moulin Rouge, hardly content with the size of his settlement versus the loss of his greatest moneymaker, immediately debuted a new star: La Femme-Pétomane! Her act, of course, was a blatant rip-off of the pioneering Pujol. Adding insult to injury, it quickly became apparent that (on top of everything else), this woman had no natural talent. It was revealed to a furious Le Pétomane (who could hardly contain himself) that his female rival kept a bellows hidden beneath her petticoats! Sacre bleu!
The newspapers couldn't get enough of the proceedings. Headlines like "Money Doesn't Smell" and "One Fart Chasing the Other" fueled the public frenzy for all things Pétomane. When it was revealed that La Femme-Pétomane was a fraud, the management of The Moulin Rouge found itself having to issue a public apology for its "ill-conceived joke." Pujol won and, in what he would later describe as a highlight of his life, emerged from the courthouse to the thunderous noise (some of it applause) of thousands of enthralled fans.
Le Pétomane continued to perform as one of France's highest paid entertainers until 1914. Although his retirement is often blamed on the outbreak of The Great War, one fact that you should keep in mind is that that is also the year in which the French government finally outlawed the manufacture, sale and consumption of that mind-numbing, all-consuming, highly toxic favorite drink of the 19th Century... Absinthe. And although Pujol himself was a teetotaler, vegetarian, and all-around health nut (who--Thank God!--it is said indulged in up to 5 enemas a day), one simply cannot help but see the connection
One last note: when he died in 1945 (at the age of 88), a Parisian medical
school offered Pujol's family the sum of $25,000 francs for the privilege
of exploring the late, great entertainer's rectum. And though his son's
would later admit that their easygoing father would probably not have minded,
and that their family could have used the money... they simply could not
take such an offer under any circumstances, his eldest son Louis exclaiming,
"there are some things in this life which simply must be treated with reverence."
Garrick H.S. Brown is a regular contributor to RETRO. He believes that Beano should be a part of everyone's healthy diet.
Jim Lowe adds, "Apparently, a cylinder recording of Le Pétomane's "entertainment" was made, and is a great rarity. For those interested, the book "The Moulin Rouge" (1989) by Jacques Pessis and Jacques Crepineau, contains what purports to be the transcript of a conversation between Le Pétomane and Charles Zidler, who contracted him to play the Moulin Rouge, February 11, 1890."
Garrick Brown and Le Pétomane appear here this month with the kind permission of Lounge Magazine.
Date: Sat, 4 Oct 2003 16:57:24 EDT
Subject: Le Petomaine
Hey, thanks for featuring my article on your site. Unfortunately, Retro went under, but it was a kick to have a friend contact me and let me know that they found my article from a few years back on Google. I actually live in Sacramento now so it was cool to see people from Davis that took an interest in it. Thanks again.
|Date: Thu, 09 Oct 2003 06:09:45 -0700
To: Garrick Brown <Garrickhsbrown@aol.com>
From: Jay Helms <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Your Retro Story on Le Petomane
Well I guess this proves that once something appears on the Internet it never dies. Your article was the source of great inspiration (and amusement) to our hiking group (www.petomanes.com), which took the name "Les Petomanes" in 1994. Glad to hear it was penned by a fellow northern Californian!