François-Émile Morin was not accustomed to needing to woo anyone. His business prowess and correlating bank account spoke for itself. Yet he could feel his wife, Madame Morin a.k.a. Amélie Suzanne Kelsen, somehow slipping away from him. As though, now that they were married, she would feel obliged to grow bored, to seek “other outlets” as a means to amuse herself while he toiled at his work. The operations at Le Bon Marché weren’t going to direct themselves, after all. Even if the shareholders tried to tell themselves that they were ultimately doing all the heavy lifting (in never raising so much as a finger unless it was to point it) while François-Émile reaped all the true financial benefits. Among those shareholders was a dear friend (so he thought) of François-Émile’s, Joseph Plassard. Son of Jules, a major influencer in the operations of Le Bon Marché in his own right.
While Joseph considered himself a lawyer, he seemed congenitally wealthy enough to never have a client. One supposes that’s what gave him the free time to pursue Madame Morin while François-Émile made plans to bequeath her with a lavish architectural gift for her upcoming birthday, planned and executed diligently by Alexandre Marcel, eager to showcase his chops in the art of Japanese-themed aesthetics through the lens of Belle Époque stylings. In truth, this would be the first project to allow him to prove his worth in the field, later leading to his reconstruction of the Japanese Tower at Laeken for King Leopold II. One could say that perhaps the entire reason for La Pagode’s existence was solely to serve as a launching point for Marcel’s career. Because it certainly did nothing to fortify the marriage of the Morins–though they did enjoy playing dress up as a Chinese emperor and empress (despite the motif of the structure being rooted in japonisme) at one of their many fêtes in honor of what would become an institution among Paris’ premier cinema palaces. And a palace it was indeed, crafted in the finest materials and structured with a rectangular plan capped off by rotundas at each end of the edifice.
And yet, like the seeming majesty of the Morin marriage itself, La Pagode was a study in trompe l’oeil architecture. Marcel’s masterful displays were just that, emphasizing decor as opposed to anything genuinely culled from the Japanese traditions (e.g. ornate beams, balustrades, decadent columns or etched consoles). It was strictly fashion over function, as was the nature of bourgeois pursuits–in effect, the very phenomenon that led to the construction of François-Émile’s Bon Marché in the midst of the nineteenth century in the first place. Amélie seemed contented with her bestowment–or at least placated–for a brief while. But all the pageantry was not enough to mitigate the fact that she found François-Émile to be utterly banal. Not just in personality–with Amélie herself being the one responsible to bring all the panache to public events–but in their boudoir as well. Amélie was lucky if she could finagle even one orgasm out of her husband in the span of six months. This, to her, was no way to live. Which is why, she supposed, Joseph, with his debonair dashingness, managed to so easily catch her eye when she happened into the store one day to buy herself a pair of leather gloves with fur trim.
She had lost her favorite pair somehow–or maybe the must-have winter accessory was simply buried somewhere amid the many luxuries of their sixth arrondissement manor. In any case, the fall season had crept upon her as unexpectedly as her ennui with married life, and she decided she might as well take advantage of her status as the boss’ wife in purchasing some highly expensive gants. It was at the register that Joseph was exiting himself from a meeting with Jules and François-Émile, whom Amélie did not even bother to inform one of his associates that she was there. She knew better, that his work was his mistress and she would only serve as an unwanted distraction.
Thus, when Joseph offered to take her to lunch as their conversation intensified on the way out the door, she didn’t feel like it was any kind of affront to François-Émile in not letting him know. He was too “busy and important” to be bothered with such trivial details. One supposes Amélie even managed to tell herself that having an affair was a “trivial detail.” Carrying on with her dangerous liaison even as parties she held with François-Émile at La Pagode ramped up over the course of the year. His blindness to her disgust for him so complete that it was as though he deliberately chose not to process the sight of Joseph fingering his beloved when he walked in on them in the men’s bathroom together. Amélie could have sworn she had locked the door, but then, she also knew that a not so subconscious part of her wanted to be caught. To be freed from the burden of being “Madame Morin” for another second.
Yet she realized she would need to slap François-Émile over the head with the information if she was ever going to be released. Even if she thought that’s exactly what she had done by inexplicably being in the wrong bathroom for her gender with Joseph. So it was that she, still dressed in her “Chinese Empress” attire from that evening, poured him a drink when they arrived home, ensuring that he finished it all before spilling her own liquid venom. “Darling, I love you. Really. But I think that love has come to represent something to me that’s more paternal than sexual… and it is for this reason I have fallen for another. Your friend, in fact. Joseph.”
So she had said it. There was no going back. And though she knew he might strip her of everything–the jewels, the real estate, the wealth–she could not go on living with this man. The man she was forced to let lie on top of her practically every night emitting guttural sounds of pleasure while she exited her body and waited for it to be over. She wanted to be a geisha no more. That François-Émile had seen fit to give her what amounted to a geisha house was telling of how he viewed her. Well, she could not stand being viewed that way for another moment.
After he heard her say the words, François-Émile could no longer ignore the truth. Of course he had been aware of Joseph’s designs on his young, attractive wife. Just as he had designs on the position his father, Jules Plassard, held at the Bon Marché. But he did what he could to write these suspicions off as insecurities. His fear of getting too old to be seen as being in any way desirable to Amélie, no matter how much he lavished her. And yet, despite her betrayal, he did not bear her any ill will–still wanted only the best for her. Which was why he left La Pagode in her ownership, as part of her dowry, so to speak, when she wed Joseph soon after their separation (well, “soon after” by early twentieth century standards).
He would be lying if he said it wasn’t the most painful day of his life–their wedding day, June 12, 1911. To know, once and for all, that she would never be his again. But, as it is said, to know love is only to know loss. He wasn’t so sure he bought into that other cliche about it being better to lose someone than to have never loved at all. As he sat smoking a cigarette on the terrace of the room he once shared with Amélie, the only wish he made was that La Pagode might endure forever as a testament to the love he had for her… even if it was not entirely reciprocated by Amélie.
Of course, when she died in 1917 (making her marriage to Joseph brief enough to seem rather unworth all the trouble), the knife was twisted further when Plassard kept the building within the assets of his own Estate, soon after marrying another woman, Antoinette Mougel, who then became the “little hostess” of events at La Pagode, which was not even named as such until 1931 (when ownership again shifted). The tainting of this gift continued to amplify over the years after Plassard and Mougel surrendered control of the building, no longer having the energy for the tasks involved in its upkeep. Even McDonald’s tried to get its clutches on the location in 1990, prompting the French government to list the building as a historical monument. But no amount of nostalgic value could seem to prevent La Pagode from suffering a destiny worse than death: a gradual evisceration as it ceased to resemble even a hollow shell of its original self.
The horse chestnut, the gingko biloba and the weeping beech (alive no longer to continue weeping for the degradation of La Pagode) trees were all disemboweled in the name of “renovations.” While the cenotaph had continued to degenerate and deteriorate with each passing decade, finally closing as a result of that decay in 2015, no one could imagine this would be its ultimate fate. Of course, the French people were promised plans to renovate and reopen after ownership switched hands. Part of those “plans,” evidently being to cut down and rip out the structure’s famous arbres at the removed from the situation hands of the property’s latest owner, Charles Cohen. Just another American in Paris completely devitalizing all sense of Frenchness.
Soon after the denuding of the former palais, a graffitied message beneath the planning notice scolded, “Shame on you for chopping down the gingko and the weeping beech. This garden was magnificent; you have turned it into a wasteland.” Perhaps it was written from the quivering fingertips of the ghost of none other than the former Madame Morin. But then, what did she expect to become of a symbol of her broken relationship? The very one she worked so diligently to tear out at the roots herself.