On sale this week, New York Times bestselling author Francine Prose’s new novel, LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB, PARIS 1932, explores the genesis of evil, the unforeseen consequences of love, and the ultimate unreliability of storytelling itself. Stunningly inventive and told through a complex web of narrative voices, the novel centers on a historical photograph. In her letter to readers below, Francine reveals her inspiration for the story.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 began with a Brassai photograph I saw at a museum show in Washington. I was familiar with the photo, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932”: a portrait of two women sitting at a table in a bar, one in a sparkly evening gown, the other in drag, with short hair and a tuxedo. But the wall text said something I hadn’t known, which was that the woman in the tuxedo, a professional athlete named Violette Morris, had worked for the Gestapo during the German occupation of Paris and later been assassinated by the French Resistance.
A little research turned up an even more interesting story. Morris was an Olympic hopeful and a professional auto racer. When her license to compete as an athlete was revoked by the French government, as punishment for being a public cross-dresser, Hitler somehow got wind of it, and invited Morris to be his special guest at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. By the time she got back to France, she was not only spying for the Germans, but she was the person who told them where the Maginot Line ended: where they could breach the French defenses. During the Occupation, she did indeed work for the Nazis, and was killed by the Resistance in 1944.
It was such an amazing story that I considered writing it as nonfiction, but I soon decided that I would have more liberty, and that I and my readers would have a lot more fun, if I wrote it as a novel. As the process went on, the novel became less linear, and about all sorts of things besides Violette Morris (in the novel named Lou Villars). Moving back twenty years from the date of her death, I found myself writing about Paris in the ‘20s, and using several different voices. Gabor, the photographer, is writing letters home to his parents in Hungary, as did Brassai. An American, Lionel Maine, is writing a novel/memoir about expatriate life, a little like Henry Miller. There are several other faux-memoirs, some “published,” some not, one by a baroness, one by Gabor’s wife. And Lou’s story comes to us in the form of a life history by her “biographer,” Nathalie Dunois, a teacher at a regional high school, who cannot seem to separate her own life and her own problems from her subject’s. Hitler and Picasso make cameo appearances.
Each person has his or her version of the truth about the bright and glorious days of Paris in the ‘20s, the theatrical spectacle and intrigue of Berlin in the ‘30s, and the darker era that began when those two worlds came together. As always, the novel ended in a very different place from where it began. I started off writing about a woman in a tuxedo and wound up writing about art, love, evil, money, auto racing, espionage, insomnia, seduction and betrayal—and the way that history changes, depending on who tells it.