Paris has been a centre of art and culture for so many centuries, it’s hardly surprising that its cemeteries contain more than their fair share of celebrities. Père Lachaise Cemetery is no exception – the largest cemetery inside the city limits, it is the final resting place of tens of thousands of people, and nowadays attracts more than 1 ½ million people every year.
Located near the ‘Gambetta’ metro stop on line 3, Père Lachaise stretches across 109 acres, so wear some comfy shoes. The cemetery is a great place to wander without agenda, taking in the picturesque historic graves and monuments as you go. Many visitors, however, come armed with maps so that they can pay their respects to some of the most famous people from the worlds of art, science and literature.
The internet is full to bursting with the famous names that can be found in Père Lachaise, from Oscar Wilde and Chopin to Moliere and Jim Morrison. Women, however, do not feature nearly so prominently on these lists.
We here at Go! Girl Guides are going to change that! In an effort to fight the erasure of women from history, today we’re tipping our hats off to ten famous ladies well worthy of your respect if you’re visiting Père Lachaise:
1. Héloïse d’Argenteuil (1100-1164)
Heloise was a rich young noblewoman who fell in love with her tutor Aberlard, one of the foremost philosophers and logicians of the day. Tragically, their secret marriage and illegitimate child led them both to an unfortunate end – she banished for the rest of her days to a nunnery, and he castrated. They continued to correspond with one another from afar for the rest of their lives, and their letters now stand as proof of the one of the greatest romances of the Middle Ages. Their bones were reunited at last at Père Lachaise in 1817 in a grand tomb; today, it is traditional for modern couples to leave letters there.
2. Rosalie Duthé (1748-1830)
One of France’s most celebrated and famous courtesans, Duthé will forever go down in history as “the first officially recorded dumb blonde”, due partly to her habit of pausing for extended periods before speaking. Today, paintings of her can be viewed in galleries around the world.
3. Sophie Germain (1776-1831)
Being a female mathematicians, physicist and philosopher was no easy feat in the 18th Century – but Germain managed to overcome barriers and prejudice to become a pioneer of elasticity theory, for which she won the grand prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences. Although she could not make a career out of mathematics, an honorary degree was bestowed to her by the University of Göttingen six years after her death.
4. Sophie Blanchard (1778-1819)
Blanchard was the first woman to work as a professional balloonist, and was the ‘Official Aeronaut’ to both Napoleon and Louis XVIII. Sadly, in 1819 she gained the second – more dubious – honor of becoming the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident, when the fireworks she was launching above the Tivoli Gardens caused her gas to ignite. Hey, at least she went out with a bang.
5. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899)
A French realist artist and sculptor, Bonheur was widely considered to be the most famous female painter of the 19th Century. Her two most famous works – Ploughing in the Nivernais and The Horse Fair – are now on display in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, respectively.
6. Jane Avril (1868-1943)
A can-can dancer immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec, Avril was nicknamed ‘La Mélinite’ after an explosive, on account of her “jerky movements and sudden contortions” – now thought to be symptoms of the movement disorder Sydenham’s chorea. Her success at the legendary Moulin Rouge (the character of Satine in the musical is in fact loosely based on Avril) led to her headlining at the Jardin de Paris, a major concert, in which Toulouse-Lautrec painted her for the event’s poster, thus bolstering her fame even more. Often described as aloof, graceful and poised, Avril travelled internationally through her dancing, and was only brought to ruin through an unhappy marriage to philandering German artist Maurice Biais, whose death in 1926 left her destitute.
7. Colette (1873-1954)
Anyone successful enough to go by a mononym has got to be worthy of our respect – and Colette, the first woman in France to receive a state funeral, was certainly that. As well known for her unusual love life as for her writing, from her public relationships with women (one on-stage kiss in the Moulin Rouge during a pantomime nearly caused a riot) to a much-talked about affair with her stepson. Acclaimed as one of France’s greatest women writers, Gigi was her most famous work – and it was while making the Gigi movie that Colette spotted a young Audrey Hepburn and cast her on sight. Truman Capote’s short story ‘The White Rose’ is based on Colette.
8. Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
An American Modernist author, poet and playwright, Stein was a key member of the Left Bank crowd of expatriated artists, and her salons were the stuff of legend (as described by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast). Today, she is buried in Père Lachaise along with her lifelong partner, Alice Toklas.
9. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade (1909-1989)
Fourcade led the French Resistance network ‘Alliance’ in World War Two, during which times she was captured by the Nazis but managed to escape not once, but twice. After the war, she created and was President of the Alliance Friendly Association, which cared for over 3,000 resistance agents and survivors. In 1968 she published a memoir detailing the history of the group entitled Noah’s Ark, which was an immediate bestseller.
10. Edith Piaf (1915-1963)
Edith Piaf was the legendary French singer whose turbulent life and incredible talent were immortalized in the movie ‘La Vie en Rose’. When she died at the age of 47 in 1963, she was denied a Roman Catholic Mass due to her lifestyle (lovers, illegitimate children and the like) but nonetheless, her funeral procession brought the streets of Paris to a standstill unheard of since the War. Today, her grave is permanently adorned with flowers.