“It will come as a shock to every Englishman who has studied in Montmartre to know that the famous Bibi la Puree has been locked up for forgetting to pawn some clothes of a brother bohemian and putting them on himself. The downfall of this strange character, with his long hair and historical looking clothes, dates from the night when poor Paul Verlaine, the decadent poet, took him home and housed him for a few days. The poor fellow came back severely stricken with poet mania and has never done a stroke of work since, and never will. I believe he belongs to one of the most aristocratic families in France.”
The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Volume 38, May 7, 1902
Well, that would be a “no” on most points.
Such downfall as Bibi (nè André-Joseph Salis de Saglia) enjoyed had happened years before he met Verlaine the decadent poet, and it is doubtful he had done a stroke of real work much before that. As to his family, though he might introduce himself to strangers (and the Magistrate when he was hauled before them) as Lord of Salis, his father was in fact a wine merchant from Angouleme, his uncle was the Abbé Salis whose chief claim to fame was as tutor to Sir Roger Tichborne and deponent on the ensuing scandal when an imposter tried to claim the title and fortune (a story for another day).
What was Bibi doing in Paris? As little as possible, really. He liked fresh air, reading, and freedom of movement, and didn’t much care about his surroundings. He had the benefit of three (or perhaps four) hundred francs per annum remittance, paid June 21 (or in quarterly installments), and burned through it in 24 hours. “One day a year, I live like a millionaire!”
On the other days, he did what he had to to get by. Flattering, scrounging, mooching, and petty theft both from strangers and friends. He had a penchant for umbrellas, useful in a city as rainy as Paris. His clothes were cast-offs, but always stylish in a trampish sort of way. Top hats, flower in his boutonniere (freely given to women of quality), spats, and scarves around the neck, cigar or cigarette hanging off his lips. He shaved regularly and when the pong of doubtful hygiene got too much, washed it off in the Seine. He was sometime poet (for of all the arts, it is the least demanding of capital expense and easiest to bluster), and great admirer of the creative types who over the years came and went through the quarter.
He might be even more obscure than he already is, figure of genial and not so genial fun to the students and artists of the quarter, had he not become chief courtier to the downward spiraling Paul Verlaine in that man’s final years. The story goes that Verlaine was sitting in the café Procope in once good clothing, and felt someone fiddling about his leg. It was Bibi, attempting to darn the frayed ends of the fellow’s trousers. As Harold Nicolson tells it: “He explained to Verlaine that it was illogical that he, a mere sparrow of the boulevards, should have threat and needle while the greatest of living poets should sit there exposing his tatters to an uncharitable world.”
And so began his career as oddjobsman for that absinthe soaked genius, not least of all making sure that the fellow got home and to bed in one piece after a night on the town. (Some say he was a fellow drinker, others that he was a teetotal, others that he was simply able to hold his drink better than others.) It was from Verlaine (whom he called Le Maitre) that he got the monicker Bibi la Puree (a bit passive/aggressive – être dans la purée translates loosely as “to be in the soup”).
How well they clicked is difficult to say. Some accounts have them sharing digs, even perhaps the same bed. Others that Verlaine initially found the fellow a nuisance and would try to avoid him. According to this version, the man had an obsession with shining Verlain’s shoes, will he nil he. So annoyed was Verlain that he went out one day barefoot. To no avail. Shoe polish and brush were applied to the great man’s man’s feet. In any event, Bibi warranted a brief poem from the man he called Maitre:
Bibi Purée Type épatant Bibi Puree, what a capital fellow
Et drôle tant ! And so amusing!
Quel Dieu te crée That God should have made you
Ce chic, pourtant So chic, yet
Qui nous agrée. » So pleasing to us.
When the meal ticket died in 1896, the literary minded who had more or less allowed the great national poet to drink himself to poverty and death roused themselves to provide a state funeral befitting to great national treasure. Among these people of quality and clean clothes, Bibi was something of an embarrassment. Certainly he was not going to be a pall bearer, that much was certain, and as he pushed forward, teary eyed, to be close to the cortege, he was shunted off to the back. (Or, says another, he represented the family and led the procession of mourners, and afterwards nicked the umbrella of Francois Coppée. He does gets mentioned in Paul Fort’s poem on Verlaine’s funeral, and could at least claim to be a beneficiary of Verlaine’s will. He got three old shirts.)
This ill treatment at the funeral seems to have worked on their consciences. On the anniversary of this event, a second graveside memorial was sponsored, and well wishers collected money for a new coat for Bibi. He wept openly at the grave side, and the crowd backed off enough to give him his moment, and then conspired to treat the old man to a bang-up meal. When they returned their attention to him, however, he was gone. So were at least fifteen umbrellas, last seen leaning against a tree.
A word on his thievery – it seems to have been more or less compulsive, spontaneous, and without malice. It was also open handed – what he filched from Peter he was apt to give to Paul. Jules Depaquit tells the story of Bibi’s observing that he, Jules, needed a new hat. Ever helpful, Bibi came back the next day with twenty hats on offer, and no mention of where they might have come from. Nor would he accept money for this sort of favor, not from friends. He was, in his mind, a gentleman.
Gentleman or not, everyone needs at least some money, and Bibi had to consider the means of the getting. Something according to his station. He decided to become a bootblack to the quality. “He would not prostitute himself to just anyone. He chose his clients. His pride disdained foolish bourgeois, the johnny-come-latelys, the titans of finance. He would prostrate himself only at the feet of artists.”
He also traded on his association with Verlaine, selling autographs and inscribed books while the man lived, and facsimiles of them after his death; he also peddled the old man’s walking cane to tourists desiring souvenirs. Many times.
By the turn of the new century, he had become a fixture, someone to be pointed out to newcomers and outsiders, indulged by locals and most particularly the management of the Procope. He got a brief write up along with Mere Casimir, ancient veteran of the Opera and companion of princes and marquises, as quaint cast offs in the Saturday Review. (Others say they blackguarded each other, though that sounds out of character for him.) Picasso, who arrived in Paris in 1901, sketched him four times, painted him at least once (not flatteringly- that’s him at the top of this piece). So did Jacques Villon (that’s him below) Jean Bailleul cast a bronze sculpture of him (left). Now forgotten singers sang of him and his umbrellas. After he died, Maurice Champreux and Leo Joannon put him on the big screen. He appears in August Morel’s French translation of Joyce’s Ulysses in the Leopoldi [Bloomis] autem generatio:
” … Christbaum begat ben Maimun and ben Maimun begat Dusty Rhodes and Dusty Rhodes begat Benamor and Benamor begat… .“
Morel gives it as:
“… Christbaum engendra ben Maimun et ben Maimun engendra Bibi-la-Purée et Bibi-la-Purée engendra Benamor et Benamor engendra…”.
Of course he must. Die, that is. Tuberculosis, and final days in the Hotel-Dieu Hospital where he is said to have entertained the other indigent inmates with comedic takes on their several maladies before he himself lost his reason entirely. His last moments involved his standing up on his hospital bed, wrapped with sheets, his chamberpot on his head, convinced that he was Pope Leo XIII. He blessed all those present, then fell back on his bed, stone dead.
Word of his death actually crossed the Atlantic. The New York periodical Current Literature made polite noises, but ultimately dismissed him as having been “only picturesque, and anybody can be picturesque today.”
Pretty cold, even by New York standards.
The numerous anecdotes about Bibi get confused, confusing, overlapping, contradictory. Not that it much matters. If you have French, try getting a hold of Christian Gury’s biography, BIBI-LA-PURÉE – Compagnon de Verlaine