On a recent hot afternoon, Tony Perrottet, veteran travel writer, journalist, historian, raconteur, man of ribald curiosity, invited me up to the poolside bar on the rooftop of the Soho House to discuss his latest book, The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey through the Historical Underbelly of Europe.
For the book Perrottet sought out arcane places, characters, and objects of decadence and sex, from London to Capri: the Marquis de Sade’s castle in Provence; the pornographic bathroom, painted by Raphael, in the Pope’s Vatican apartments; the notorious “sex chair” of King Edward VII.
As we talked, bodies in bikinis and shorts drank cocktails, jumped in and out of the pool, and surrendered to the sun, the Hudson River, Chelsea, and the West Village stretching languidly below us.
The Rumpus: Your passion for history comes through. Obviously there’s a thrill for you personally in finding these relatively untouched pieces of the past, relics like the sex chair, notorious brothels of earlier eras. How does your focus on sex and vice serve your stories?
Tony Perrottet: With history you sort of have to seduce people; you have to lure them into it. If you just started talking about the 18th century or Belle Époque Paris, then their eyes would glaze over and they’d drift slowly away. On one level my choice of subject matter seems sensational, but it’s not. To understand why people in the past were giving each other pubic hair as souvenirs, or wearing pubic hair wigs, suddenly you’re learning other things by accident.
Rumpus: It makes all of the history around it more palatable, it seems. It’s certainly an entertaining prism through which to view things.
Perrottet: How do you relate to people in the past? There’s a basic biological connection. You look at what people eat—you can relate to that; you look at what people wear; and then you look at their sexual practices. To understand why the ancient Greeks, or ancient Romans, thought it was great for older guys to be fucking adolescent boys, why that was considered a splendid way to educate young men, for example—you get an insight into the broader culture. It’s very exotic for us, and yet physically we’re the same, so the connection is there. I don’t mind luring people into something as long as it’s not too extravagant or extreme.
Rumpus: It seems to me that people see pretty quickly that the focus on sexual matters provides a window. The window may be draped with red lace, but it’s a window nonetheless.
Perrottet: They are erudite stories as well, and there’s a hope that people will see that there’s a huge amount of research that goes into them. In America sometimes, when people hear what the book’s about, they go, “Oh, shit, that’s interesting.” They love talking about it, but still. Editors shy away a little bit; radio interviewers can be not as forthcoming just in case I might say something completely off the wall.
Rumpus: This book, The Sinners Grand Tour, started as a series you did for Slate.
Perrottet: That’s right. It was called the “Perverts Grand Tour” at that stage. I had to change the title; my U.S. publisher thought it was a little too risqué, shocking. They thought it sounded like a guide to little boys in Bangkok basically, sex tourism. The word pervert has a much more ironic level in Australia and England. In England no one would seriously call a book the “Perverts Grand Tour” and have it actually be about perverts.
Rumpus: Do you think Americans are pruder than Europeans?
Perrottet: If you go to San Francisco or New York, no, but the overall culture, I think so. The TV ads in Australia are more raunchy and erotic than here; they’re much more sexualized. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing I don’t know. I think there’s a hesitation here in the official media. In New York there’s all sorts of things going on, probably wilder than anything you get in Europe, but the overall culture tends to have a deadening effect on it.
Rumpus: It’s so often attributed, of course, to our Protestant, puritanical roots. But there are those that say purity is something found by embracing all of those carnal things, our biology, eating, our bodies and sex. I love the Walt Whitman line in Song of Myself, “The scent of these armpits [is] aroma finer than prayer, this head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.”
Perrottet: American poet par excellence. There’s such a kaleidoscope of competing forces that it’s hard to talk about. You look at Australia, where I was bred and brought up. It was settled by convicts, so there’s sort of this drunken Irish thing going on there. Also being in such a hot, weird, isolated place breeds hedonism that you don’t really see here. Maybe in California.
Rumpus: Hot and weird. That’s what you encountered on the island of Capri, off the Italian coast, right?
Perrottet: In the 19th century an artists’ colony started there while the rest of Europe became more conservative. It was a refuge for gay people, for women if they wanted to experiment, to live unbothered. It was a very freethinking place, like Paris during the Belle Époque. Oscar Wilde went there…
Rumpus: Tasting the fruits of all the trees in the garden.
Perrottet: Exactly. The queen of Sweden went there and had this long-running affair with a Swedish doctor who lived on the island. Royals. Everyone who wasn’t comfortable doing those things at home went to Capri.
Rumpus: How much time did you spend there for the book?
Perrottet: I visited several times actually. I spent a week there for Smithsonian magazine. It was like going there over Labor Day. I got the last place on the island to stay. It was a tiny dismal room underneath a ruined, gorgeous villa. In the course of being shown around, I realized that the villa was empty upstairs. It had a giant terrace looking out over the ocean and these weird mountain spikes that resemble shark’s teeth. It was an incredible experience.
Rumpus: Another weird and compelling experience you had and shared in the book: King Edward VII’s sex chair. Tell me about that.
Perrottet: The sex chair story is centered on Le Chabanais, a fantasy sex brothel in Paris, where every room was designed with a different theme. King Edward particularly liked the Hindu room, and he became a regular. His appetites were huge, and he decided to have a special machine built, a chair, so that he could have sex with women without crushing them with his bulk. The chair became this legendary object. It’s ornate, beautifully made in Renaissance style, with raised handles and foot stirrups that swivel.
Rumpus: There are some people today who could use one of those. Maybe Rush Limbaugh, or Shaquille O’Neal.
Perrottet: Newt Gingrich is pretty portly, right? It’s interesting to think of who might of used it over the years before it disappeared. Fatty Arbuckle used to visit Le Chabanais. The Nazis took the place over in the 40s. Hermann Goering almost certainly used it; he was a big regular. So that’s pretty gross. If you paid for a night in the Hindu room, then you could use it. There was a beautiful bath there as well, made out of copper, and they would fill it with champagne and then you could make your way over to the sex chair. There was a campaign to close the luxury brothels after the war. The prostitutes were used as scapegoats and accused of “horizontal collaboration” with the enemy.
Rumpus: What a great phrase. Vertical collaboration was probably a bit more costly.
Perrottet: The prostitutes were forced to go with the Nazis, of course. Some of them are on record, though, as saying they preferred the Germans because they were cleaner and paid well. The contents of the brothel were sold off in 1951 and the sex chair disappeared from sight.
Rumpus: And you tracked it down.
Perrottet: I did. In Paris I found the great-great-grandson of the guy who made it, and then was lucky to find the chair itself.
Rumpus: Some of these sexual items from the past that you write about are highly crafted, with lots of technique and care involved. Artwork essentially.
Perrottet: The Vatican pornographic bathroom is the most extreme example of that—painted by Raphael, no less.
Rumpus: What about today? What’s the modern equivalent?
Perrottet: Maybe some clothing that’s made, that’s very expensive, erotic, used in bondage, with plumes and such. Fantasy costuming.
Rumpus: The Vatican bathroom had me thinking again of how it’s the mental aspect, the presence of opposing poles, that leads to so much of the excitement. The forbidden, the taboo…
Perrottet: The chase. When you get into the room, which was no small task, it’s an amazing room, but you’d see more striking hardcore stuff in porn any day of the week. The Simpsons is ruder than most of the stuff in the Vatican bathroom, yet to have it right in front of the very citadel.
Rumpus: You speak of how the erect phallus on the depiction of Pan had been scraped out, effaced, and yet that rendered that section of the painting even more outstanding, more obvious. I love that irony. The more you try to stamp it out…
Perrottet: The more it comes out some other way. There’s a chapter in the book on Casanova. He’s a very literary figure. The manuscript of his memoir, written in French, sold for 9.3 million dollars, a world record. Casanova made the observation, “Whatever is ignored is forgotten.” He was arguing about the Vatican index of forbidden books. You put it on the index and suddenly everybody’s like, Ah what’s this, let’s go check it out. If you try to control it, it has the opposite effect of what was intended.
Rumpus: Nature’s a real bugger that way.
Perrottet: There’s always various ways people try to control sex, sexual urge, repress it, and it just comes flooding out some other way. You see it in the Middle Ages, in the Victorian age, in the 50s here.
Rumpus: You did research for this book in the New York Public Library, the National Library of Paris, and the Vatican library, which you wrote about. Is there anything erotic about a library other than a scholar’s thrill?
Perrottet: The Vatican library must be the most beautiful library in the world. I find a great pleasure in being in an academic environment and being able to summon medieval manuscripts that describe three ways, and ravagings, virgins. Then there’s the funny fact of the Vatican having Wi-Fi. A friend dared me to download some porn while I was in there, and so I did. I put in some hardcore site and it was coming up and I was looking over my shoulder. I’d talked to some Vatican scholars and they said that after about 30 seconds you’d be shut down. Anything vaguely sexual comes up as inappropriate content and then you have to go to the Vatican Webmaster. I closed the site immediately, kept it under thirty seconds.
Rumpus: I love the pang in my gut that I get from being in old, abandoned places even, where you can feel the history, the old energy left behind. Obviously, the traveling that you do is a big part of the storytelling.
Perrottet: The spirits are still there. Yeah, traveling to a place, you’ve got to feel it for yourself. Historians tend not to do that. I’ve always found it kind of weird. They’ll write a great text or giant tome without going to the place. When you’re wandering around the area that was nicknamed the Clitoris of Paris—attributed to Lord Hereford—but if you walk around that area you get this incredible sense.
Rumpus: Great name.
Perrottet: It does kind of capture it, the triangle of streets.
Rumpus: Another detail from the book that I loved deals with that amazing confluence of personalities and creative decadence when Shelley and Lord Byron and others gathered at Lake Geneva in 1816. Shelley hallucinating that his young bride Mary’s nipples were eyes.
Perrottet: All these incredible creative minds stuck in this lakeside villa. Lightning is crashing down, there’s rain and wind; it seems like the world is going to end.
They’re drinking the opiate laudanum and the wine is flowing, and you get a sense of just how crazy it was. Shelley went running out. Byron had to leap up and go calm him down. Dr. Polidori had to talk him down.
Rumpus: Perhaps her breasts were seeing right through him. I think many of us have had similar moments. A lot of the stories are about people with leisure time and money. The privileged, the aristocracy. What about the lower classes? What did the poor do to get their kicks?
Perrottet: The problem is that as you go back in history it’s the ruling classes that had time to sit down and write about what they’re thinking about and what they’re doing. There’s a chapter in which I address this directly. There’s almost no record of what peasants thought in the Middle Ages, for example. It’s all monks or whatever. But what happened is that in this one little village in the Pyrenees in the 14th century everyone was arrested by the Inquisition, and they were all interviewed. And these records were found in the Vatican library in the 19th century. The love lives of peasants, who was sleeping with who, shepherds running off with chatelaines, gay scenes, bed hopping, affairs—it’s an extraordinary vision of what life was like.
Officially their religion, the Cathar religion, was very self-denying, but the common people were doing whatever they liked, it seems.
Rumpus: What about this idea that sex has been democratized through the Web. Do you think the Internet has wiped away class differences?
Perrottet: Well, sure, anyone can see stuff now with the click of a mouse. It would curdle the blood of my parents. Yeah, I’m sure it has wiped away some of those differences, at least in the First World. Of course, a large portion of the world still doesn’t have Internet. But I wonder what the super rich are up to, what depravities. We probably won’t find out about it for another fifty years or so, and suddenly the word will come out about what was going on.
Rumpus: It seems like there was such a rich fetishizing of sex and pleasure in the past you revisit, a relative newness to all of it still, these earlier moments in our sexual evolution. Are we bored now? Have we, in a sense, fucked ourselves out?
Perrottet: Well of course we’re saturated with sexual imagery, so it’s very blasé.
If everything’s just out there, it’s not as exciting. There’s a real attraction for furtive things. Just catching a glimpse of something can be so much more alluring. But the big question is, is society really as liberated as it thinks it is. My mate, who wrote Sex at Dawn, thinks we’re in some sort of sexual purgatory because we’re saturated with images.But people are very adventurous. There’s going to be something else coming up. Not necessarily a lewd sexual position that nobody’s ever heard of, but some situation, some story that gets people’s imaginations going. Going back into history may serve that.
Rumpus: You’ve set yourself up for a very personal question. With all your knowledge of these matters, has it improved your sex life?
Perrottet: Definitely. Riotous. Riotous. No, I’m a writer. I don’t actually have sex. I think about it a lot.
Rumpus: You did much of the travels in Europe on this hunt with your family, right?
Perrottet: It’s true. It was sex-ed. After I did the five-part series for Slate and we decided to turn it into a book, I thought, Wow, I could do a three-month trip in summer, starting in London, ending up in Capri, going to all these perverted sites, and I’m telling my wife, and she said, “That’s great, but we’re coming, too.”
Rumpus: That must have made for a crazy itinerary. At 2:30 we’re going to the Louvre and at four…
Perrottet: At four I need to be hoisted up in the sex chair. Up in Scotland it got a little hairy. We were wandering around and it was pouring rain and Liz was looking at me like, What the fuck are we doing here? But then we go to Paris, or we’re stuck in a village in Provence for two weeks.
Rumpus: There are certainly worse fates.
Perrottet: Paris was kind of funny. My kids were four and ten, and the four-year-old kept saying, “When are we going to the Eiffel Tower, when are we going to the Eiffel Tower?” And I said, “Man, you don’t want to go to the Eiffel Tower. It’s too dull, too touristy. I want to follow around an 1883 prostitute guide.”
Rumpus: You didn’t actually tell him that, did you?
Perrottet: No, they’re not that interested. Yeah, yeah, dad’s doing his whatever. I had an Irish Catholic upbringing. The idea that there are secret forbidding things still around is fascinating to me. I’m still shocked by things. Maybe my kids won’t be.