Kiki de Montparnasse, Immortal yet Forgotten Queen

Noire et blanche by Man Ray
Noire et blanche by Man Ray

Last week I introduced readers to the larger-than-life Kiki de Montparnasse. Kiki was a flamboyant artist’s model and muse of many notable painters, sculptors, and photographers living in Paris during les années folles, or 1920s. Born into poverty and abandoned by her parents, Kiki found herself alone on the streets of Paris at the age of 16. To survive, she turned to modeling. Within a few short years, she had posed for many budding prodigies. These men went on to gain superstar status across the globe. Kiki, while immortalized on canvas, fell into ruin and oblivion.

A Woman of Many Talents

In describing the mindset and energy of 1920s Montparnasse, the author Robert Brasillach wrote, “We discovered drugs, pederasty, travel, Freud, escape and suicide – all the elements of the sweet life.” Unrestrained self-indulgence ruled the day. Although Kiki was the appointed Queen of Montparnasse, she was much more than a party girl willing to take off her clothes. The portrait she drew of Fujita (described here) was just the beginning of her artistic endeavors. Additional works followed, largely comprised of paintings of childhood scenes and portraits of friends. In 1927, the gallery au Sacré du Printemps mounted an exhibition of Kiki’s work, which sold out on the opening night.

Following her breakup with Man Ray, Kiki took up with journalist Henri Broca. Broca was the founder of a popular magazine, Paris-Montparnasse. He encouraged Kiki to create feature stories based on her life for the boutique periodical. These articles form the first chapters of Kiki’s autobiography, Les souvenirs de Kiki, first published in 1929. An English translation followed in 1930, complete with a new introduction by the muse’s friend, Ernest Hemingway. The memoir was banned in the United States due to salacious content.

Kiki gradually became an internationally acclaimed cabaret singer. Many who traveled to Paris came to see the Eiffel Tower and Kiki of Montparnasse. She performed at the most uproarious and trendy clubs in the city: La Jungle, L’Escale, La Coupole, and Le Jockey, to name a few. In 1937, she opened her own cabaret, Babel chez Kiki. Her lover at the time was André Laroque, a pianist and accordionist who along with Kiki performed in her club. Laroque purportedly helped her kick her opioid addiction and also assisted in typing up her second memoir, Souvenirs retrouvés, which wouldn’t be published until 2005. Neither Kiki’s relationship with Broca nor the club was to last.

Ernest Hemingway wrote that Kiki “dominated the era of Montparnasse more than Queen Victoria ever dominated the Victorian era.” The Queen of Montparnasse is credited with describing her lifestyle a bit more simply, saying, “I never do the same thing for three days in a row – never, never, never!”

A Heartbreaking End

It seems that all who encountered Kiki, saw her as a bon vivant. She loved parties, food, wine, and sharing her good fortune with friends. She was a woman who would, upon entering, light up a room. Many who knew Kiki claimed that her vivacious personality was impossible to capture on canvas or film. Nevertheless, like many neglected children, the flamboyant cabaret entertainer developed a dark and self-destructive side. In many ways, Kiki was one of the early trailblazing women who defied society’s expectations, in part by asserting her sexual independence. Viewing her through the lens of time, however, I find myself wondering about the possibly injurious aspects of her perceived autonomy.

Women in Kiki’s day had very few options. Using sex was one way to obtain a degree of control over one’s destiny. Kiki slept with so many men, however, that it’s difficult to imagine she found all of them appealing. I have to wonder who was using who. At the end of many of her calamitous relationships, Kiki found herself back on the street, looking for her next liberator. Meanwhile, the man she’d been with continued on as he always had, passionately focused on his artistic career. Drugs and alcohol would have taken the sting out of any loss Kiki might have felt while at the same time injecting levity and enthusiasm into the pursuit of a new devotee.

In Catel & Bocquet’s book, they described a brief period when Kiki longed to have children. She was living with Man Ray who looked upon the idea as an impossibility. The couple argued heatedly, each unwilling to end their relationship yet also unwilling to change their stance on the matter. At some point, after having gone through a number of abortions, Kiki was no longer able to get pregnant and the dispute ground to a halt.

Not surprisingly, years of excessive drinking, eating, and drug use took their toll. No longer able to gain a living as an entertainer or artist’s model, Kiki survived on help from friends and odd jobs that often served the sans-abri of Montparnasse. Toward the end of her life, Man Ray ran into his former maîtresse in the cafe La Rotunde. Ray had returned to America during the Nazi Occupation and was back in post-war France, looking to relive some of Montparnasse’s earlier heyday. Startled by Kiki’s physical condition, Ray insisted upon giving her money. Ever the generous free-spirit, however, upon leaving the famous brasserie, Kiki handed the cash to a beggar in the street.

At the age of 51, Kiki’s body finally gave out. Suffering from dropsy, she collapsed outside of her Paris apartment. Her obituary appeared in periodicals around the world, including a write-up in the New York Times and a 3-page spread in Life Magazine. Man Ray received phone calls from dozens of journalists looking to obtain never-before-seen images of Kiki. Ray angrily refused all offers, unwilling to exploit his former lover’s death. Kiki’s life-long friend, Tsuguharu Foujita, is said to have been the only person present at her burial. The Japanese master vowed that he would never again return to Montparnasse. It wouldn’t be the same without Kiki.

1924 Film by Fernand Leger

The Interminable March of Exploitation

I find heartbreaking the fact that Kiki died alone and penniless when so many have reaped enormous profits from her image and life story. Indeed, people are still cashing in and will for decades to come. In gathering images for this post, I got a feel for the profiteering that still takes place around Kiki’s impressive legacy.

Among other things, I was hoping to locate a readable version of Kiki’s memoir to peruse. The University of Michigan libraries have a few hard copies but for a variety of reasons, I’m not able to easily access them. My search for an affordable copy online also failed. One listing on Amazon asks $9,899.99 for a 1929 original publication of Hemingway’s introduction to the English translation of Kiki’s Souvenirs.

Almost everything I read about Kiki, claimed that she also modeled for Picasso and Modigliani. Yet, I had significant difficulty finding any online images of Kiki attributed to these well-known and strictly-licensed masters. Below, are the only two Modigliani portraits, believed to be of Kiki, that I could find. In June of 2013, the FarsettiArte auction house sold the representation on the left to a private collector for 260,000 euros. A very similar painting, shown on the right, hangs in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

There may indeed be Picassos of Kiki, but I suspect they are privately owned, or tucked away in museums, or nestled on the pages of copyrighted coffee table books. As of now, none seem to be within the grasp of Google’s search engine. One can only guess what such a painting might be worth to its owner. Interestingly, I came across a possible fake, shown below. The owner claims that the portrait is of Kiki and that in 1923, Picasso gave it to the owner’s father who was living in Paris. It may look legitimate to a pushover like me, but the Picasso Association rejects its authenticity.

Disputed Picasso
Disputed Picasso

In a Class By Herself

The coveted introduction that Hemingway wrote for Kiki’s translated memoir is striking in part because Hemingway hadn’t wanted to write it. He felt that no translator would be able to produce a satisfactory English version of Kiki’s account and he hesitated to add his name to such an effort. Hemingway criticized the book’s translator, Samuel Putnam, all the while admitting that he hadn’t bothered to read Putnam’s work. Putnam, a noted scholar of romance languages, defended himself in his own introduction saying that if he was good enough for Rabelais and Cervantes, he was certainly good enough for Kiki. In the end, Hemingway acquiesced, inserting a plea to readers to please read Kiki’s memoir in the original French.

I’ll close with Hemingway’s final paragraph, allowing one of Kiki’s literary contemporaries to sum up her remarkable spirt.

“This is the only book I have ever written an introduction for, and God help me, the only one I ever will… It is written by a woman who, as far as I know, never had a Room of Her Own… If you ever tire of books written by present day lady writers of all Sexes, you have a book here written by a woman who was never a lady at any time. For about ten years she was about as close as people get nowadays to being a Queen but that, of course, is very different from being a lady.”


For a modern-day visit to the streets of Montparnasse where Kiki once kicked up her heels, take a few minutes to watch the following video. It features largely unchanged boulevards and La Rotunde, the brasserie where Kiki and Man Ray last saw each other. Today’s menu offers some of the finest cuisine you’ll find in Paris. As you watch the sumptuous meal unfold in the second half of the video, keep in mind this quip that Kiki is often quoted as saying “all I need is an onion, a bit of bread, and a bottle of red [wine]; and I will always find somebody to offer me that.”

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About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.



    Fantastic post. With all their (so human) shortcomings the artists of that time had amazing talent. I’d never seen Léger’s film, thank you.
    As for Kiki, she reminds me of Nusch Eluard, who did start “on the street”, then inspired to Paul Eluard one of the greatest French poems “J’écris ton nom”. Nusch died even younger…
    I’ve done a couple of posts on Dora Maar which illustrate that period well. If you like I’ll send you the link.

    • I saw one of your posts on Dora Maar and yes it really reminded me of Kiki, mainly because of the crowd she hung with. Please do send both links so I can see the other post. Thanks.

  2. I suppose you also know of the lingerie company bearing her name. The prices are astronomical, too and the spokesmodels are celebrities. Ironically, I would never have known about her had a not seen an ad starring Rosie Huntington. That’s when I went down the rabbit hole and did research. It is rare to meet people who actually know who she is outside of the French-speaking world.

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, I did know of the lingerie line. It’s rather ironic since Kiki was also known for arriving at an artist’s studio, ready to pose, wearing nothing other than a large overcoat. She wasn’t a fan of under-garments. Since I wrote this post, all of my French friends who have weighed in have said they too had never heard of Kiki.

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