PARIS, France (AFP) — Helene Martini, the Polish showgirl who became the “empress” of postwar Paris nightlife after she won the lottery and married a spy, has died on the eve of her 93rd birthday, her lawyer said Tuesday.
A striking beauty who began as a nude befeathered model in the legendary Folies Bergere cabaret, she ended up owning it and 16 other theatres and clubs in the French capital, including Frank Sinatra’s favourite, Le Pussy Cat.
Martini was known as the “Countess” and lived “marvellously alone” to the end in a vast harem-themed apartment above her Folies Pigalle club, complete with a bubblegum pink boudoir.
Iron-willed and eternally optimistic, she was the only member of her aristocratic polyglot family from what is now Belarus to have survived World War II.
She was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp only to be sent to another camp by the Russians before making her way to Paris in 1945 with “empty pockets and half a comb”.
Won the lottery
A friend dared her to ask for a job at the Folies Bergere — where Maurice Chevalier, Ella Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker regularly topped the bill.
She was hired on the spot and was soon wearing 20 pounds of feathers and little else in its raunchy revue.
“I didn’t know how to do anything, but what I lived through was a school of survival,” she said later. “When you can come through all that you laugh in the face of difficulties.”
But life got dramatically better when she won three million francs on the lottery.
Diving into the teeming intellectual life of Paris as a woman of ease, she met a Syrian-born lawyer and former secret agent called Nachat Martini in a Left Bank bookshop.
They married in 1955 but her itch for the fast lane soon had them taking the plunge into the swinging cabaret scene as club owners.
“Everyone was dishonest and we were robbed,” Martini recalled.
The scholarly Martini died of a heart attack five years later, leaving his wife to build up her empire on her own.
She, however, was made of sterner stuff.
“Theft in business never stops, but it must be done with elegance and kept to a minimum,” she once said.
Having added some of French capital’s most famous theatres to her portfolio, Martini treated herself by creating the luxurious Russian cabaret the Raspoutine, where she had a 50-man violin and balalaika orchestra play the Red Army anthem “There March the Soldiers” twice a night.
“It was my pleasure. I love everything Russian — but in Paris,” she laughed.
Woke every day at 2 pm
She also hired and befriended the celebrated White Russian designer Romain de Tirtoff, known as Erte, to makeover her apartment, and “taught him how to swear”.
Getting up in the early afternoon, she spent her nights doing the rounds of her clubs and theatres, always finishing at dawn at table 18 of the Raspoutine with a herbal tea.
Yet she rarely mixed with her celebrity clientele. “It amuses me, but I am outside of it,” she said.
When she tired of the staggering view of Sacre Coeur from her Montmartre lounge, she would adjourn to the chateau near Paris where she will now be buried in the vault alongside her husband.
Martini sold off most of her clubs in the last two decades, putting some 6,000 can-can dresses, fox capes, plumed headdresses and feather boas from the Folies Bergere under the hammer in 2012.
“It’s time for me to let it all go. I’ve worked enough! I am nearly 90 after all,” she told AFP before the sale, saying she was keeping just two embroidered Hungarian dresses to wear around her chateau, which she had decorated to “look like Walt Disney had come through”.
Mostly, however, she liked to be close to the action in Paris even if she bemoaned how her beloved rakish Pigalle had lost its racy charm.
Its prostitutes now “work on the Internet and (her old transvestite cabaret) Le Narcisse has become an organic supermarket,” she said. “How dull is that?
“What they should have done is turn it into a little restaurant serving sauerkraut with an accordionist. That would have worked,” she said.