When I was asked to participate in a reading of my current book Goddess of Love Incarnate (the biography of stripteuse Lili St. Cyr) at the flagship salon of Naked Girls Reading in Chicago, I was intrigued. Naked Girls Reading sounded like a fabulous evening; naked beauties sitting around reading literature to a paid audience. What a novel idea for a literary salon. But which came first, the nudity or the literature?
NGR was started by international burlesque artist Michelle L'amour and her husband Franky Vivid after an inspired afternoon at their home. Franky was admiring his well-read wife who happened to be reading in the all-together. Something clicked. Beauty. Naked. Literature. About a year later their salon commenced. The readings would be theme-based (my event is Goddesses, naturally) and the first was "courtesans." Many years later and NGR salons have sprouted up in Warsaw, Tasmania and Cape Town, just three of the 25 active chapters throughout the world.
In the 16th century those sensual Italians who, if not invented the salon certainly fostered it. Many countries eagerly took up the tradition, with the French perhaps the most well known today.
The word salon first appeared in France in 1664 (obviously the root being salone, or sala, an Italian word for a large room in which to receive guests). Before the end of the 17th century these gatherings were often held in the bedroom of the hostess, who usually lay in bed with friends and patrons surrounding her. In their research L'amour and Vivid kept "stumbling upon all this artwork throughout history depicting naked women reading." I'm assuming these were the very same hostesses above-mentioned, reclining in all their glory.
(Kiss night at Naked Girls Reading - Chicago)
Salons were held not only to amuse guests, but to cultivate the hostesses' taste and increase knowledge through readings and conversation. As the Roman poet Horace claimed the goal of poetry (writing, art, etc.) was "either to please or to educate." These hostesses, or salonnières, knew how to do both. The salon came of birth in a time of great change in the 17th Century, a time of advancement, ideas and the widening gulf between the classes. Often it was the only safe place to express and foster radical ideas.
Salons were a sort of casual "university for women in which women were able to exchange ideas, receive and give criticism, read their own works and hear the works and ideas of other intellectuals. Many ambitious women used the salon to pursue a form of higher education." (Research study, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, by Hannah Zundel, Sophie duPont, Emily Olsen and Marisa Rondinelli) This allowed women in a male-dominated society to safely share their opinions and their work, effectively having a very real influence on the world in which they lived; one of the only ways in which they could impact their world. Salons were in fact so influential it is believed the French Revolution was born in the salons of France, headed by forward-thinking women. Salons would also open the way for the women's movement.
The salon was mostly under the rule of the salonnière, a woman who not only encouraged writers and artists but supported them. It was rare for a playwright, poet or author to find success without the help of a salonnière and the society she invited to her home to introduce the artist and his work to.
One early salonnière of note was Marquise de Rambouillet, Catherine de Vivonne. The Roman born beauty married at the age of 12, moved to Paris where, sometime around the 1620s she began to invite prominent guests and artists to join her in her chambre bleue, a small intimate room with blue walls where her royal and artistic friends could mingle together exchanging beliefs and carry on lively conversation. So powerful was the Marquise that her influential salon lasted nearly 50 years.
In the mid-1600s the multi-hyphenate (as in author and courtesan) Ninon de Lenclos supported both Molière and Voltaire along with playwright Racine. Of her many lovers was the French King's cousin. She was said to be brilliant with refined taste. It was at her hôtel (home) that Molière first read Tartuffe, before an exultant audience which included the Italian born composer, and master of the baroque style, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Racine. Tartuffe is considered to be the greatest comedy Molière ever wrote, scandalously attacking religious hypocrisy, banned by church and King Louis XIV.
The fiercely independent Ninon forswore marriage, dying at the age of 84 with great wealth, convinced she neither had a soul nor a need for one.
In the 1700s the Marquise du Deffand hosted a salon in Paris that attracted and fostered scientists, writers, wits, and all who were of any consequence in the world of letters and in society. She too was a close friend of Voltaire.
Mme. du Deffand's distinction besides being one of the most brilliant women of her day was that of a cutting wit she used like a sword, slaying those in less command of the language in which she dealt. Born in the reign of Louis XIV, she witnessed the birth of the Enlightenment and died a few short years before heads began rolling on the Place de la Concorde. Like so many women of her time, du Deffand was married at an early age to a near stranger. Later she was said to have had an affair with Louis XV's cousin, Philippe II of Orleans. Ironically this mistress of royalty ran her salon in the Convent of St. Joseph in Paris. She influenced France's literati for nearly four decades.
Skipping forward several centuries we cannot leave out American-born, French-living writer Gertrude Stein who brought together Picasso, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thornton Wilder, to name just a fraction of talent she mentored. Her Saturday salon at 27 rue de Fleurus were formal, commencing in the evening, allowing Stein time to write during the day, uninterrupted by impromptu guests hoping for her mentorship. It was Stein's lover, Alice who took up the role of salonnière, attending to the wives and girlfriends of the geniuses clinging to Stein's skirts in a separate room away from the lesser minds assembled.
Distractions soon brought the death of the formal salon petering out by the 1940s; there would be WWII, radio, television. People would prefer to gather around their personal devices in the years to come. Exchanging of ideas happened over the internet.
Thus it is a pleasure and a relief to see the Naked Girl Readings thrive and grow in popularity, bringing together an exchange of ideas, fostering talent, with "actual feel-in-your-hand books." Brava Michelle L'amour. L'amour noted that after her first salon it was obvious something big had just happened, something spiritual. Emails started coming in from cities all over the country from ladies interested in starting their own literary evenings. The NGR salon are stripped, exposed, "intense vulnerable" says L'amour who cares little about her exposed body, but more about exposing feelings and ideas and a shared experience. And more importantly "Reading is sexy. Books are sexy," L'amour says. "You know that smell of a great old bookstore or of a library? It's a smell of knowledge, passion, creativity and excitement."
April 1, 7:30 pm. 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave., Suite 205, Chicago. Tickets and information www.nakedgirlsreading.com
Leslie Zemeckis is the author of "Goddess of Love Incarnate; The Life of Stripteuse Lili St. Cyr" and "Behind the Burly Q", the definitive history of burlesque. She is the director, producer of the award-winning documentary Bound by Flesh, about Daisy and Violet Hilton of Sideshow fame. Her next project is a documentary on legendary tiger trainer Mabel Stark, out in 2016 and is currently writing her third biography on some influential women in burlesque. Zemeckis owns one of the largest collections of burlesque memorabilia. Follow her on instagram, twitter and facebook @lesliezemeckis, www.lesliezemeckis.com