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.
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.
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.
Vi sono talvolta delle estreme frange dell’erotismo che prestano il fianco ad una facile ironia. Eppure, appena smettiamo di guardare gli altri dall’alto in basso o attraverso il filtro dell’umorismo, e cerchiamo di comprendere le emozioni che motivano certe scelte, spesso ci sorprendiamo a riuscirci perfettamente. Possiamo non condividere il modo che alcune persone hanno elaborato di esprimere un disagio o un desiderio, ma quei disagi e desideri li conosciamo tutti.
Parliamo oggi di una di queste culture underground, un movimento di limitate dimensioni ma in costante espansione: il female masking, o rubberdolling.
Le immagini qui sopra mostrano alcuni uomini che indossano una pelle in silicone con fattezze femminili, completa di tutti i principali dettagli anatomici. Se il vostro cervello vi suggerisce mille sagaci battute e doppi sensi, che spaziano da Non aprite quella porta alle bambole gonfiabili, ridete ora e non pensateci più. Fatto? Ok, procediamo.
I female masker sono maschi che coltivano il sogno di camuffarsi da splendide fanciulle. Potrebbe sembrare una sorta di evoluzione del travestitismo, ma come vedremo è in realtà qualcosa di più. Il fenomeno non interessa particolarmente omosessuali e transgender, o perlomeno non solo, perché buona parte dei masker sono eterosessuali, a volte perfino impegnati in serie relazioni familiari o di coppia.
E nei costumi da donna non fanno nemmeno sesso.
Ma andiamo per ordine. Innanzitutto, il travestimento.
L’evoluzione delle tecniche di moulding e modellaggio del silicone hanno reso possibile la creazione di maschere iperrealistiche anche senza essere dei maghi degli effetti speciali: la ditta Femskin ad esempio, leader nel settore delle “pelli femminili” progettate e realizzate su misura, è in realtà una società a conduzione familiare. In generale il prezzo delle maschere e delle tute è alto, ma non inarrivabile: contando tutti gli accessori (corpo in silicone, mani, piedi, maschera per la testa, parrucca, riempitivi per i fianchi, vestiti), si può arrivare a spendere qualche migliaio di euro.
Per accontentare tutti i gusti, alcune maschere sono più realistiche, altre tendono ad essere più fumettose o minimaliste, quasi astratte.
Alla domanda “perché lo fanno?”, quindi, la prima risposta è evidentemente “perché si può”.
Quante volte su internet, in televisione, o sfogliando una rivista scopriamo qualcosa che, fino a pochi minuti prima, nemmeno sapevamo di desiderare così tanto?
Senza dubbio la rete ha un peso determinante nel far circolare visioni diverse, creare comunità di condivisione, confondere i confini, e questo, nel campo della sessualità, significa che la fantasia di pochi singoli individui può incontrare il favore di molti – che prima di “capitare” su un particolare tipo di feticismo erano appunto ignari di averlo inconsciamente cercato per tutta la vita.
Trasformarsi in donna per un periodo di tempo limitato è un sogno maschile antico come il mondo; eppure entrare nella pelle di un corpo femminile, con tutti gli inarrivabili piaceri che si dice esso sia in grado di provare, è rimasto una chimera fin dai tempi di Tiresia (l’unico che ne fece esperienza e, manco a dirlo, rimase entusiasta).
Indossare un costume, per quanto elaborato, non significa certo diventare donna, ma porta con sé tutto il valore simbolico e liberatorio della maschera. “L’uomo non è mai veramente se stesso quando parla in prima persona – scriveva Oscar Wilde ne Il Critico come Artista –, ma dategli una maschera e vi dirà la verità“. D’altronde lo stesso concetto di persona, dunque di identità, è strettamente collegato all’idea della maschera teatrale (da cui esce la voce, fatta per-sonare): questo oggetto, questo secondo volto fittizio, ci permette di dimenticare per un attimo i limiti del nostro io quotidiano. Se un travestito rimane sempre se stesso, nonostante gli abiti femminili, un female masker diviene invece un’altra persona – o meglio, per utilizzare il gergo del movimento, una rubberdoll.
Nel documentario di Channel 4 Secret Of The Living Dolls, questo sdoppiamento di personalità risulta estremamente evidente per uno dei protagonisti, un pensionato settantenne rimasto vedovo che, avendo ormai rinunciato alla ricerca di un’anima gemella, ha trovato nel suo alter ego femminile una sorta di compensazione platonica. Lo vediamo versare abbondante talco sulla pelle in silicone, indossarla faticosamente, applicare maschera e parrucca, e infine rimirarsi allo specchio, rapito da un’estasi totale: “Non riesco a credere che dietro questa donna bellissima vi sia un vecchio di settant’anni, ed è per questo che lo faccio“, esclama, perso nell’idillio. Se nello specchio vedesse sempre e soltanto il suo corpo in deperimento, la vita per lui sarebbe molto più triste.
Un altro intervistato ammette che il suo timore era quello che nessuna ragazza sexy sarebbe mai stata attratta da lui, “così me ne sono costruito una“.
Alcuni female masker sono davvero innamorati del loro personaggio femminile, tanto da darle un nome, comprarle vestiti e regali, e così via. Ce ne sono di sposati e con figli: i più fortunati hanno fatto “coming out”, trovando una famiglia pronta a sostenerli (per i bambini, in fondo, è come se fosse carnevale tutto l’anno), altri invece non ne hanno mai parlato e si travestono soltanto quando sono sicuri di essere da soli.
“Provo un senso di gioia, un senso di evasione“, rivela un’altra, più giocosa rubberdoll nel documentario di Channel 4. “Lo faccio per puro divertimento. È come l’estensione di un’altra persona dentro di me che vuole soltanto uscire e divertirsi. La cosa divertente è che la gente mi chiede: cosa fai quando ti travesti? E la risposta è: niente di speciale. Alle volte mi scatto semplicemente delle foto da condividere sui siti di masking, altre volte mi succede soltanto di essere chi voglio essere per quel giorno“.
Al di fuori delle comunità online e delle rare convention organizzate in America e in Europa, il feticismo delle rubberdoll è talmente bizzarro da non mancare di suscitare ilarità nemmeno all’interno dei comuni spazi dedicati alle sessualità alternative. Un feticismo che non è del tutto o non soltanto sessuale, ma che sta in equilibrio fra inversione di ruoli di genere, travestitismo e trasformazione identitaria. E una spruzzatina di follia.
Eppure, come dicevamo all’inizio, se la modalità adottata dai female masker per esprimere una loro intima necessità può lasciare perplessi, questa stessa necessità è qualcosa che conosciamo tutti. È il desiderio di bellezza, di essere degni d’ammirazione – della propria ammirazione innanzitutto -, la sensazione di non bastarsi e la tensione ad essere più di se stessi. La voglia di vivere più vite in una, di essere più persone allo stesso tempo, di scrollarsi di dosso il monotono personaggio che siamo tenuti a interpretare, pirandellianamente, ogni giorno. È una fame di vita, se vogliamo. E in fondo, come ricorda una rubberdoll in un (prevedibilmente sensazionalistico) servizio di Lucignolo, “noi siamo considerati dei pervertiti. […] Ci sono moltissime altre persone che fanno di peggio, e non hanno bisogno di mettersi la maschera“.