This blog post is about the research behind an essay I published on Paris Review Daily on 9 February 2018 (accessible here).
I first blogged about Selika when her image went viral in 2012. The best source of information was a commenter called Marie (her profile has since been deleted), who pointed out the source of the six images we have of Ms Lazevski: the French Ministry of Culture’s Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine. I dug around a bit and found out about L’Africaine, the Meyerbeer opera that was likely the source of Selika’s first name. A book about photographer Félix Nadar was published in 2015, and I excitedly assumed that he had taken the images of Selika. First lesson of research: check your sources. I was wrong, but by the time I realised that, people had copied the error and it even turned up in the publicity material for a fictional short film about her, The Adventures of Selika (2017).
So at the beginning of 2017, I decided to research Selika properly. This is a pretty detailed account of where I looked. I had a tremendous amount of fun – for all the long boring slogs through identical newspaper small ads, there were sudden surges of adrenalin as I’d think I’d made a breakthrough. If you, too, want to have fun with archives, Selika and adrenalin, I’ve marked opportunities for further research. Here’s the Culture Ministry’s records and the photographs.
I was informed by an archivist that the information with the photographs of Selika in the dark habit is as follows:
Mlle Lavzeski (Selika), écuyère
Mlle Lavzeski, Nouveau Cirque
and in the light habit as:
date : 1891
Mlle Selika Larzewski, écuyère de Haute-Ecole
Mlle Selika Laszewski, écuyère
And that’s it! So, on with the hunt.
Who photographed Selika?
So, not Félix Nadar but “Studio Nadar”. Félix was no longer working in the Paris studio in 1891. His son Paul was in charge. Dr Jillian Lerner of the University of British Columbia told me that it was likely that “Studio Nadar” meant the images were shot by an anonymous photographer working within the studio. I went to the Bibliothèque Nationale and ordered Paul Nadar’s visitor book, but although it was full of visiting cards featuring names like Monet, Dreyfus, Rothschild, Dumas, Zola and the Comtesse Greffulhe, it was too late for the photographs of Selika. I didn’t order the handwritten letters between Paul and Félix because I didn’t have the time nor the ability to decipher that much nineteenth-century French cursive [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY HERE]
I wasn’t aware of any other collections of the Nadars’ paperwork but I did check Paul Nadar’s photographic journal, Paris-Photographe, first published in 1891, and there was no sign of Selika.
Where does her name come from?
Selika is the name of the heroine of L’Africaine, an opera partially completed by Giacomo Meyerbeer (who is buried in a cemetery near my home in Berlin) at the time of his death in 1864. Meyerbeer had intended to call the finished work Vasco de Gama, and it tells the story of a Hindu princess who is first enslaved by Vasco da Gama and then becomes the mistress of his fate. She frees him to be with his love and kills herself nobly by inhaling poisonous blossom. Somehow the Hindu princess became an African princess when Meyerbeer’s friend, François-Joseph Fétis, repackaged the unfinished opera as L’Africaine for its first performance in Paris in 1865.
L’Africaine was a huge hit. I know this because I typed the name Selika into Gallica, the BNF’s digitised collection, and got 442 hits. I trawled through them all. Not one is a reference to Selika Lazevski, but they did testify to the popularity of Meyerbeer’s heroine. I found not just mentions of performances of L’Africaine, but also a dog, a ship, a horse, a scarf colour, some (white) anti-heroines (a lady lion tamer in 1890’s Papa la Vertu by Réné Maizeroy, Le Pays du Mal: Palotte by Emile de Molènes, and a character in Le Sphinx aux Perles by Gustave Haller), a camel in Aristide Bruant’s Les Bas-Fonds de Paris, and an ice cream bombe all named after her. In another book, L’Enfance de Georges Aymeris, a child has a black doll from America called Selika. I also learned that the first African-American soprano to perform in the White House, Marie Selika Williams, had adopted the name.
So I started to think of Selika as a stage name, chosen either for its exoticism or as resonant of a noble Black woman (depending on who chose the name). I used lots of different search terms to try to find this missing Black horsewoman, and nothing turned up. I also discovered that Félix Nadar photographed Meyerbeer, but this is just the sort of tantalising coincidence that doesn’t necessarily mean a thing and makes one long to write fiction.
(Selika is also a village near Lake Malawi, another name for Seleucia in Iraq and a Hebrew name for a woman; a bellydancer at the Jardin de Paris in 1893, and a few other things I managed to stop myself adding here).
Who were the Lazevskis?
At last count, I’d uncovered twelve different spellings of the name Lazewski: Lazevski, Lazevski, Lavzeski, Lavezewski, Larzewski, Laszewski, Lauzevski, Laszewski, Laschewsky, Lasjewski and Laczewski.
Imagine the fun! Well, there was a Lazewski associated with circus horsemanship. Better still, there were three. One was found for me by the Winkler Circus Archive in Berlin. He’s a gentleman amateur mentioned in Oskar Justinus’ Vom Cirkus (published 1888) riding a full-blood Arab from the empress’ stable. I’ve focused on the French circus scene in my research but, my goodness, the German scene is more than its equal. Who knows what I could have found if I’d expanded my research? I was very lucky that the Winklers looked this up for me. And that the librarian at the Spandau circus collection instantly located more information for me in “Signor Saltarino’s” lexicon of circus artistes:
“Laszewski, Lucian von, haute-école rider and trainer, born on 9 May 1864 in Riga, died young on 20 March 1888 in Riga from consumption.”
So he was dead three years before Selika was photographed.
Now, here’s where you realise that circus research is like the crack of research. So good, so tempting, but it will break you. Names change. People adopt new ones. Dates and places get tricky. Because it turns out there’s another Lazewski, and he’s a much better bet for us. Valli di Lazewski was working at the Nouveau Cirque in the same period that the Ministry of Culture notes said Selika was there.
Here’s Valli, I believe, from a photograph album in the Fonds Soury at the French Ministry of Culture. He’s spelled “Laschewsky”.
According to circus historian Paul Haynon’s notes, Valli was born in Poland on 29 August 1864 (a few months after Lucian so I guess they’re not brothers) and married on 16 February 1888 in Riga (a month before Lucian died). He was trained by E Wulff and made his Paris debut at a hippodrome in 1887. Were he and Lucian related? Were they, as Dominique Jando, the circus historian who runs Circopedia, suggested to me, the same person (the more work you do with nineteenth-century sources, the more you see how errors creep in and slip ups are made)? Again, the dates and locations are tantalisingly close, but I can’t afford to go to Riga to hunt for whatever records might have survived the twentieth century. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]
I have more material on Valli though. He crops up in the papers at Olympia in London and tracking down a runaway horse on a Paris street. For Paul Haynon, he answered a brief questionnaire about his career, which I was enchanted to find in the Paris archives. Haynon also collected the notes of his wife, who was called Laure/Laura/Lara (forgive my bad reading of the handwriting). She was clearly not Selika although she was an écuyère of haute école. A librarian at Bibliothèque Nationale told me she had found a “Mlle Lazewski” in Gallica and I thought for one glorious moment that it was Selika. Then, mindful of my mistake with Félix, I cross-checked it. The Mademoiselle Lazewski was “Madame Lazewski” in other papers that day. It was Laure, not Selika.
Here she is, also from a photograph album in the Fonds Soury at the French Ministry of Culture. She’s spelled “Lasjewski”.
I wildly wondered whether Selika could have been adopted by them, but there’s a strike through the query about them having children in Paul Haynon’s notes. But there was something: Dominique Jando told me that it was common for performers to take the surname of their teacher – so perhaps Valli taught Selika.
Much of this could have been answered if I had been able to find an article called “Valli de Laszewski et son Epoque” by Paul Haynon from 6 March 1937 in L’Inter-Forain. There should be a copy in the Fonds Paul Haynon in the Paris Archives, but after spending a couple of days checking every dusty box in the collection on two separate trips to Paris, I couldn’t find it. I contacted the current publishers of L’Inter-Forain and they don’t have it, and neither do the Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty or the National Fairground and Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield. I would love to get my mitts on it. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]
Did Selika perform at the Nouveau Cirque?
The Nouveau Cirque opened in February 1886 at 251 rue St Honoré in the heart of Paris. It was originally intended to have a dual purpose: from October to May it would be a very grand circus indeed. From May to October it would be a swimming pool. The ring sat on top of the 25m-diameter pool, and sometimes the carpet was peeled back and the cover removed so that circus performers could frolic about in the pool as part of their act or the pantomimes that made up the last half of each show. Here’s a poster for the Nouveau Cirque in its summer incarnation:
Yes, as you can see, it mainly seems to be about white men getting massages from Black men. So here’s a thing: there does seem to be a theme of sorts connecting the Nouveau Cirque to Black performers. Joseph Oller, who founded the circus, was an early adopter: in the 1870s he ran a café-concert venue that featured a series of Black animal tamers, starting with a man called Delmonico. In 1891, three years after Oller departed, one of the Nouveau Cirque’s stars was Rafael Padilla, aka Chocolat, a Black clown. Padilla was probably born a slave in Cuba and travelled with his “owner” to Spain where he was freed, later working for a clown who brought him to Paris and the Nouveau Cirque, where he teamed up with the English clown George Foottit as a hit double act. He also starred in Nouveau Cirque pantomimes which seem to have been written as vehicles for him, albeit massively racist vehicles. If you want to know more about Chocolat, the French historian Gérard Noiriel has written a biography which was adapted into a film (see trailer here). Here’s some footage of the real Chocolat and Footit in action:
In the Fonds Paul Haynon I found a hand-drawn plan of the circus at this time, with a note made even of the horses’ names in some of the individual stables. I went through all the advertisements for the circus in Gallica in 1891 and found no trace of Selika. Both the Fonds Paul Haynon and the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Département des Arts du Spectacle have handwritten lists of some performers in the shows, but I couldn’t find Selika, unless she was there under another name. Nor does she appear on a poster, although I did see an advert for a horse-riding seal at the Nouveau Cirque which was worth the trip in itself.
Maybe Selika performed there under another name? I couldn’t find any references to Black women performing there until the twentieth century, and then as dancers. I made some lists of the names of the Nouveau Cirque’s “clownesses” but there are few pictures and none of them look like Selika.
Chocolat: La véritable histoire d’un homme sans nom (Gérard Noiriel)
Le Cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914 (Ghislaine Bouchet)
“Le Reve de Chocolat” (Sylvia Chalaye) in Africultures, 2013/2 (n° 92-93)
“‘Race’ As Spectacle in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Art and Popular Culture” (James Smalls) in French Historical Studies 26.2 (2003)
Was Selika a haute-école écuyère?
If Selika ever did ride haute école in the circus, she had no impact on critics, writers or artists. Several other Black circus performers of the nineteenth century did, and I had some wonderful sidetracks into their life stories. There was the strongwoman Miss Lala (dizzyingly painted by Edgar Degas), British horseman Pablo Fanque, horseback acrobat Sara l’Africaine (whom I’m currently writing about), Chocolat, and Delmonico to name a handful. But there’s nothing in the press or in the books I’ve checked about Selika.
This doesn’t mean she didn’t ride in the ring, however, as plenty of écuyères performed in quadrilles of twelve or more riders where they were as good as nameless – again, I have a small collections of names that appear once and never again. Perhaps Selika did this, but the surviving lists of performers at the Nouveau Cirque are scant and she’s not mentioned – by that name – on any of them. She didn’t need to be especially talented for this. While some écuyères trained their own horses, others with less riding skill were simply bundled onto a very highly prepared horse and had to do little more than stay on board and give their mounts the right cues.
I did find one reference to a Sélika riding haute école, but it’s fiction and she’s described as Basque, blonde and blue-eyed. It’s a story or extract called “Les Baisers” by J H Rosny, published on 11 January 1908 in Comoedia.
Was Selika American?
Miss Lala and, very possibly, Sara L’Africaine were from America. A careful combing of circus records in the USA might reveal some results. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY HERE]
Was Selika an artist’s model?
Nigel Gosling’s Nadar (1976) captioned Selika as “Mlle Lauzeski, model” (she appears on the same page as another Nouveau Cirque écuyère of the period, about whom I’m also currently writing). This suggests she was posed as a circus écuyère rather than actually being one – something I think is a very real possibility given the nature of her “nom d’écuyère”. I did some digging into the world of artists’ models and found nothing, although I’m sure someone with more familiarity with the terrain could perform a better search [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]. Félix Nadar and Paul both photographed a Black woman known as Maria “l’Antillaise”, a servant in their household from the Antilles. Félix photographed her bare breasted, and I’ve seen some claim she was his mistress. For Paul, she posed fully dressed. But she is not Selika.
Dictionary of Artists’ Models (Jill Berk Jiminez)
The Black Female Body: a Photographic History (Deborah Willis)
What about the Dahomey “Amazons” and Paris’ human zoos?
There is absolutely nothing to link Selika as an individual to what was going on in the Jardin d’Acclimatation but the contrast between her image and the portrayal of the Dahomey women just struck me. There were in fact troupes of Black women performing in European and Russian circuses as Dahomey Amazons (whether they actually were or not I don’t know). I didn’t manage to fit them in the essay, but you can read about them in Irina Novikova’s article, listed here.
La France Noire (Pascal Blanchard)
“Imagining Africa and blackness in the Russian empire: from extra-textual arapka and distant cannibals to Dahmoey amazon shows – live in Moscow and Riga” (Irina Novikova) in Social Identities, September 2013, vol 19, issue 5
Guerrières et guerriers du Dahomey au Jardin zoologique d’acclimatation (Fulbert Dumonteil) February 1891
Le Monde Illustré, 21 February 1891
Le Voleur Illustré, 26 February 1891
Le Figaro, 8 February 1891
Dances with Darwin 1875-1910, Vernacular Modernity in France (Rae Beth Gordon)
Well, there are still many threads to pursue. Selika was real. She existed. I’ve flagged opportunities for further research. If I can pursue them (time and finances willing) I will, but meanwhile, if you are able to research any of these leads, please do get in touch with me. Perhaps she never performed, either because she lost interest, couldn’t ride well enough or met some other mishap or better adventure. Perhaps the circus owners lost their nerve – it was one thing to have a Black clown, acrobat-strongwoman or animal tamer, but another to have a Black woman dressed in the ultra-respectable riding habit, performing the highest equestrian art and wearing a Jockey Club top hat not, like Chocolat, as a joke, but with dignity and aplomb.
Archives and Records Considered
I received incredible kindness and help from archivists on this quest. They let me walk in off the streets and into their stacks, rolled out trolleys full of goodies and searched collections to give me armsful of print outs. They were peerless. So huge thanks to:
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, especially the Département des Arts du Spectacle
Paris Archives/Fonds Paul Haynon
Sammlung Variété, Zirkus, Kabarett at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin
Bibliothèque Musée de l’Opéra, Paris
Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty, Université Paris 3
Zirkusarchiv Winkler, Berlin
National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield
One small boo to the Archives de la Préfecture de Paris, whose receptionist told me emphatically that they had no circus records. I was back in Berlin before I realised that they housed part of Tristan Rémy’s archive [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY].
Thank you also to circus historians alive and dead, from Paul Haynon to Tristan Rémy and Dominique Jando. You’re a unique and dogged breed of scholars. My (top) hat goes off to you.
Quotations in the Paris Review Daily piece:
– “two great seductions, woman and the horse,” is Baron d’Etreillis but I’ve temporarily lost my notes re the source and translator.
– “the troubling beauty of a woman on a horse, this plastic coupling of two curvilinears that are the most perfect creation: the stallion, aggrandizing woman in all her majesty; woman on the creature she rides, posed audaciously like a wing” is Hugues le Rouxin Les Jeux du Cirque et la Vie Foraine (1889) translated by Hilda Nelson in The Écuyère of the Nineteenth Century in the Circus.