Helene Martini, the showgirl-turned-cabaret impresario who beguiled Parisian audiences for decades to become known as “the empress of the night”, has died on the eve of her 93rd birthday, her family said.
As maitre d’ of the legendary Folies Bergere in Paris’ Pigalle red light district, Martini was a fixture of the capital’s social circuit and cheerleader for some of its most iconic nightspots.
The Polish-born Martini landed in Paris aged 20 after the end of World War II, having lost much of her family, and narrowly escaped death herself. Starting out as a showgirl at the Folies Bergere, she went on to run half a dozen Paris nightclubs, first with her Syrian husband then alone after he died.
“My husband promised me the Folies when he was alive, but it was not for sale,” she once told The New York Times. “So I was only giving myself what he wanted me to have.”
Her career as a cabaret performer saw her delight audiences at some of Paris’ most renowned theatres and dance halls, including Les Bouffes Parisiens, Mogador and Le Raspoutine.
In 2012, the queen of Parisian cabaret auctioned off some 6,000 outfits she had worn over the years, from can-can dresses to fox capes, as well as plumed headdresses and feather boas.
“It’s time for me to let it all go. I’ve worked enough! I am nearly 90 after all,” she told AFP at the time, saying she was keeping just two embroidered Hungarian dresses to wear for fun around the house.
The Folies Bergere is perhaps best known for having launched the career of the African-American Josephine Baker, who became an overnight sensation when she performed in 1926 wearing a skirt of artificial bananas and little else.
Built in 1869, the music hall offered a mix of fare ranging from operettas to scantily clad showgirl revues, but also performances by top artists such as Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Ella Fitzgerald.
Martini ran the venue from 1974 until 2011 when it was acquired by a consortium.
As if her career wasn’t charmed enough, she once won three million francs on the lottery, allowing her to indulge in hobbies such as dress-buying and reading.
Since retiring, Martini passed her days between her Pigalle residence and a chateau outside of Paris.
Martini, who according to her family’s lawyer died on Saturday after a long illness, will be buried next to her husband in the family tomb near the capital.