Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Frenchtown vs. Little Paree

This entry is going to discuss some of old LA's unsavory history. Let's just get that out of the way.

I've mentioned previously that generally speaking, the French citizens of Los Angeles were a law-abiding bunch. There's a reason Michel Lachenais was lynched by a largely French-speaking mob.

There was, however, a French criminal element. In fact, there were so many French gangsters running saloons and brothels that they lent a nickname to vice-district undesirables in general. Dubbed "les mecs" ("the guys"), they were Anglicised in the English-language press as "macs". Readers of the historical novel Sporting Guide: Los Angeles, 1897 will know that "mac" referred to the gangsters and pimps who ran the vice district. (Beret-tip to David Kimbrough for that tidbit.)

Early LA's vice district stood east of Olvera Street and the Plaza. It was torn down, along with the original Chinatown, to make way for Union Station.

Frenchtown was south/southeast of the vice district. One old map shows brothels within half a block of the Hotel de France in either direction. (The Hotel de France stood on the northeast corner of Alameda and Aliso - the hub of French Los Angeles.)

The king of the vice district was Bartolo Ballerino, a Chilean immigrant of Italian descent. He wore several hats - crime boss, slumlord, and most notoriously, pimp.

Ballerino arrived sometime in the 1850s. After making some money as a vintner, he began buying up already-aging housing along and east of Alameda Street, and turned the area into one big open-air brothel. Frenchtown, just to the south, was growing exponentially due to a large wave of French and French-speaking immigrants.

Ballerino's business partner was a Frenchman from Alsace-Lorraine, formerly one of the world's very best wrestlers, by the name of Theobald Bauer. In fact, one of the vice district's passages was named Bauer Alley. The fact that the brothel district was often called "Little Paree" may not be coincidental. (Bauer reportedly told his family back in France that he had gone into the hotel business and owned the best hotel in town. He most assuredly had not and did not.)

A news article from 1900 strongly implies that Bauer, who by that time no longer ran Little Paree, still wielded a lot of power. The article names three different men, all with French surnames (one with a known address in Frenchtown), who had been charged with vagrancy and were suspected of, ahem, trafficking women. Bauer bailed out two of the men and made an appearance in the courtroom. (It gets worse: one of the men had recently arrived from Belgium with a young woman, who he placed in one of Little Paree's cribs. Her family repeatedly wrote to the Belgian consul requesting her safe return, stressing that the newcomer had lured her to Los Angeles under false pretenses and that she had only recently been released from a mental hospital.)

Just one year later, an article on Bauer claimed that he drank, from opening to closing, on a daily basis, at every bar around Alameda and Aliso. Bauer had made a lot of money on Little Paree, but also spent it as fast as he earned it. Unable to handle his own money responsibly after his wife died (she had always managed his finances very carefully), Bauer sold out to a prominent Chinatown pimp in an arrangement that gave him $5 a day for life, and proceeded to spend the rest of his life drinking away that daily $5.

Another infamous mac was Jean Rappet, a dark, black-eyed Frenchman with moles on both cheeks, who ran 32 cribs and owned the Basket Saloon at 719 N. Alameda Street along with his deaf wife Blanche. When the police began to crack down on vice in 1893 and took issue with saloons allowing prostitutes to mix with customers, Rappet simply made the saloon men-only. Rappet then fixed up an electric buzzer system that allowed the prostitutes (or their clients) to order drinks without having to leave the crib. The Los Angeles Herald decried this, as Rappet was effectively serving alcohol in 33 places instead of just one, and couldn't possibly keep a good eye on his customers' level of intoxication. The matter was referred to the City Attorney and Rappet faced the very real possibility of losing his liquor license.

The Rappets had bought some time, but they would have to face the music ten years later in December 1903. The city finally cracked down on the vice district once and for all, issuing warrants for all the crib owners. Jean had the good sense to turn himself in. Blanche was the last pimp to be arrested.

The Rappets couldn't pay their lease once the police had arrested or driven away all the prostitutes. One of the property owners, George Shaffer, suggested the Rappets convert the cribs into a hotel. Jean Rappet declined, and the lease was canceled.

In March 1904, the Rappet cribs were demolished. This had nothing to do with the crackdown - the Shaffer family decided they would only rent their land for industrial purposes going forward and planned to build warehouses on the site. The Ballerino cribs, by contrast, were reopened before too long.

Speaking of which, Maria Amparo Ballerino sued her husband for divorce in the 1890s - not because of his line of work, but because of a neighboring lady "causing trouble". The court system denied her petition for divorce, but the Ballerinos did separate. After this, the womanizing Bartolo Ballerino would fall into a pattern of luring young women with false promises. In particular, he would hire them as housekeepers, woo them, and dispose of them when he tired of them.

At least one of these young women, Jeanne Uhalt, was a new arrival from France. Ballerino asked her to marry him (fifty times, she claimed) and began to introduce her as his bride-to-be. He told her that he had been previously married, but withheld the fact that the courts had denied his wife's divorce petition.

He also hired Mlle. Uhalt as his housekeeper, but never did get around to paying her wages. She was understandably quite upset to discover that her employer was the biggest pimp in town. She was also quite upset about not being able to line up a different job and being snubbed by all her friends.

After three years as Ballerino's unpaid housekeeper, Jeanne asked him to set the wedding date. He finally had to come clean - he was still legally married. With no chance of respectable marriage prospects and no chance of getting another job, Jeanne Uhalt sued Ballerino for breach of promise and demanded three years of back pay in a separate complaint. She left Los Angeles for greener pastures in Australia, but returned for court. Unfortunately the court ruled that she hadn't sufficiently proven her case.

Jeanne contested Ballerino's will when he died a few years later. Ballerino had left multiple wills, one of which named her as a beneficiary. (He also claimed to have buried $500,000 in cash, allegedly for Maria, but refused to tell her where it was. The money, which may have been buried in a suburban lot he owned, has never been found, but it would not be out of character for Ballerino to lie. It's possible the money never existed and he made up the entire story to torment Maria.) Another will named Ballerino's nurse as the beneficiary (again, he had a habit of making promises to young women). Ballerino's wife and children, all disinherited, contested the will. It isn't clear if Jeanne ever got a cent.

Ballerino did get taken down a peg by another woman from Frenchtown, however.

Felix Clavere and his wife Marianne owned and operated Clavere House, a saloon and boarding house at 226 Aliso Street.

Ballerino had been getting a little too friendly with Marianne's 22-year-old sister, and suggested that she move in with him. The Los Angeles Herald reported that she relayed the story to Marianne instead.

Marianne Clavere promptly went to see Ballerino, insisting he talk with her outside. Ballerino finally relented and met with her out in the street. Marianne demanded Ballerino explain himself. When he could not do so to Marianne's satisfaction, she gave him a serious thrashing with her bare hands and a horsewhip. Ballerino sustained two black eyes and a severely bruised face (and, presumably, some markings from the horsewhip).

Felix, who had accompanied his wife to ensure her safety, reportedly watched the entire beating.

In an interesting twist, Marianne Clavere's maiden name was Marianne Uhalt.

Was Jeanne Marianne's little sister? I have been unable to find a family tree, and the details of Jeanne's story don't quite match the story of Ballerino's walloping. That said, Jeanne was about the right age, the time frame is about right, Uhalt is a rather uncommon surname, and Los Angeles was still a small city. It's very likely they were sisters or at least related in some way.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: don't mess with French women. We may be small (except for Marianne Uhalt Clavere, who was described as stout), but we can still inflict a lot of damage when the situation calls for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment