Herbert Asbury appears to have had an affinity for ferocious female figures, from Gallus Mag [real, but not documented as savage] to Hell-Cat Maggie and Sadie the Goat [fictions] to “Battle Annie” Walsh [research pending, but very questionable]. In Chapter IX, Section 1 he throws into the mix “the French Madame,” the proprietor of a cafe/sex show in Thirty-First Street near Sixth Avenue. She was described by Asbury as obese and bewhiskered. He wrote:
“She acted as her own bouncer, and acquired great renown for the manner in which she wielded a bludgeon, and for the quickness with which she seized obstreperous women customers by the hair and flung them into the street.”
This nugget of information needs sorting out, because there were at least four different women–all operators of notorious New York establishments located in many different locations–who were popularly known as “the French Madame.” Two of them, Eliza Porret and Matilda Herman/Hermann, come close to matching Asbury’s physical description, at least in girth. Three of these four came to public notice, but little is known of the fourth other than that she was identified by Porret as the first and original “French Madame.”
Let us start by looking at the other clue that Asbury offered, the locale of Thirty-First Street near Sixth Ave, for this seems to confirm that he was referring to Eliza Porret. In the early 1880s, she ran the Cafe Riche (named after a much more illustrious Paris nightspot) at 54 West Thirty-First Street, near the intersection with Sixth Avenue. Later in the 1880s, the Cafe Riche moved to 40 West Twenty-Ninth Street, and after being shut down, moved again and resurfaced as the Cafe Bijou. But many referred to her places as “the French Madame’s.” The entertainment they offered was similar to that found at McGlory’s and The. Allen’s: young women dining with men and encouraging them to drink, can-can dancers, and private rooms offer more intimacy. The healthy profits her places made were mainly on liquor sales.
Her 1888 marriage reveals that her maiden name was Elise Zimmer of Bern, Switzerland, and that the name Porret represented her first marriage. Her 1888 nuptials in New York City were to Friedrich Carrard, also from Switzerland, but she never used his name in her dealings. As much as she made, she lost huge sums in legal disputes with disreputable partners and patrons, not to mention the bribes needed to keep her places open. After the city Excise Board denied her liquor license in 1889, she retired to a farm in Flemington, New Jersey and lived off property incomes until her death in 1891. While not quite the terror that Asbury described, the New York Herald did note that she was “a large, fat, evil-looking woman, with a masculine manner and an imprudent stare.” Yet a different writer for the same paper saw her as a “well-preserved and dignified-looking woman of middle age,” attired in rich furs.
Eliza Porret told the newspapers that she had taken over the Cafe Riche from the original French Madame, whom she called Mme. Aimee Vermorel, who died in Paris in 1877. It is possible that Porret was alluding to Vermorel as the operator of the old Parisian Cafe Riche, but there are other references that suggest that Porret had been the protege of a “French Madame” in New York.
Luc Sante, writing in Low Life, Lures and Snares of Old New York, also said the French Madame was fat and bewhiskered, and ran her dive at Thirty-First and Sixth. Again, Sante seem to be talking about Eliza Porret, but names her as Matilda Hermann. In this, Sante is almost certainly mistaken, because Matilda Hermann was a brothel madame who owned several houses on Third Avenue. She was dragged in front of the Lexow Committee in 1894 to detail the bribes she had paid to local policemen to stay in business, and then left the country to help form a criminal community in South Africa with the notorious Joseph Lis. It was the reports of the Lexow Committee that called Matilda Hermann “the French Madame,” so that is likely where Sante found that association.
The fourth French Madame was a contemporary of Eliza Porret, known to New Yorkers as Louisa Chaude. Her maiden name was Louise Fichet, born in France, who came to America and married a Frenchman, Eugene J. Chaude in 1875. They later separated, but she remained known as Madame Chaude, the French Madame, proprietor of the Maison Tortoni. The Tortoni was located on the northwest corner of Lexington Ave and Thirtieth Street.
The Maison Tortoni was a step above a dance-hall dive, and earned a reputation of having excellent food and drinks, as well as being finely furnished. Yet it, too, thrived on offering dances in private rooms. Like Matilda Hermann, Louisa Chaude was brought before the Lexow Committee in 1894 to detail the bribes she had paid to the police and city officials. The Maison Tortoni had closed its doors several years earlier. During its heydey in the 1880s, newspapers often called Mrs. Chaude “the French Madame.”
It seems that wherever you turned in the Tenderloin–Satan’s Circus–there was a different French Madame waiting to entertain you.