Three Not-So-Demure Ladies

By Susan Lemprière

Marie-Josèphe Angélique, rebellious slave

They say that Marie-Josèphe Angélique was spirited, talkative and, on occasion, insolent. She was born in Portugal in the early 1700s and sold to a rich Montreal merchant, François Poulain de Francheville, founder of the St. Maurice Ironworks. We do not know her real name: Marie-Josèphe was her slave name, to which the Franchevilles added Angélique, after their first daughter who died in infancy.

Marie-Josèphe was one of thousands of Black slaves who worked for rich merchants in New France. When she arrived at the Franchevilles on St-Paul St. in 1725, Montreal had only 5,000 inhabitants. She adapted rapidly to her new life, perhaps relieved to end up in North America rather than the Antilles, where it was said slaves were treated even more cruelly than in New France.

In the nine years she spent at the Franchevilles, Marie-Josèphe had several lovers, including César, a Black slave who lived in the neighborhood. Like many others, they no doubt met up secretly at night under the ramparts. Marie-Josèphe had three children with César, all of whom died while still in the cradle.

After François de Franchville died in 1733, his widow hired a man named Claude Thibault to do some repairs. Thibault had fled to New France to avoid a life in the galleys after being caught smuggling salt. The young slave and Thibualt fell in love and hatched a plan to run away together. They made a dash for it on February 22, 1734, but were quickly apprehended by the police.

Marie-Josèphe was allowed to return to the Francheville household, receiving just a reprimand from Madame. But Thibault was thrown in jail for several weeks, where Marie-Josèphe continued to visit him. She also let it be known that they were going to run away again and that soon she would be a free woman.

Thibault was released from prison on April 9, 1734. The following day, a terrible fire destroyed more than forty homes and numerous buildings owned by the Grey Nuns. It was discovered that fire had started in the attic of the Francheville home.

It wasn’t long before Marie-Josèphe was accused of setting the fire. She was arrested but after many weeks of testimony the judge still did not have enough evidence to convict Marie-Josèphe. Then a final witness was called: 4-year-old Amable Monière, who swore that she had seen the slave light the hearth in the attic. This was all it took to condemn Marie-Josèphe to death.

Before being hanged and her remains burned, Marie-Josèphe was subjected to endure “ordinary and extraordinary” questioning, an exercise in which the condemned would be “given the opportunity” to confess their crime and denounce their accomplices. After many hours of interrogation, Marie-Josèphe confessed to the crime and, in the same breath, begged her torturers for a speedy death. But to the very end, she insisted Thibault had played no part in the crime.

She was executed on June 21, 1734. Claude Thibault fled just after the fire and was never found. No doubt, his ancestors still roam the streets of Montreal.

Lili St. Cyr, burlesque star

At the corner of Ste. Catherine and Clark Streets in Montreal stands a building designed in 1912 by the architects Ross & McFarland (now Ross & Macdonald), whose firm was responsible for such famous landmarks as Toronto’s Union Station. Today this building is home to one of Montreal’s best-loved theaters, the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. But it used to house the Gayety Theater, owned by the Canadian Amusement Company, a hot spot for vaudeville and a focal point in Montreal’s Red Light District. And it was here that the burlesque performer Lili St. Cyr shot to stardom in the 1940s.

Lili was born Marie Van Schaack in Minneapolis in 1917. Although she took ballet classes as a child, few would have predicted such an illustrious career in show business. She quit school at an early age and was far from an overnight sensation, working as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant before starting her career as a showgirl.

Lili arrived in Montreal in 1944, and she saw her first great success on the stage during the seven years she spent there. She owed her success to Montreal’s social climate at the time. Montreal cabarets had flourished during the Prohibition Era in the US, and they were still going strong.

The (in)famous bubble bath number that Lili St. Cyr performed night after night at the Gayety Theatre catapulted her to stardom in the world of burlesque. This ingenious act, designed to circumvent the laws of Montreal’s Public Morality Squad, consisted of a striptease “in reverse”. The law stipulated that a performer could not leave the stage wearing fewer clothes than when she came on. So Lili began her number sitting naked in a bathtub. She then stepped out of the tub and slowly, ever so slowly, put back on all her clothes in front of, no doubt, a very appreciative audience.

They say that Lili even inspired Marilyn Monroe, who attended some of her shows early in her career. While Lili never became as famous as the blonde starlet, she did garner just as much attention from men. Marilyn, with her three husbands, seems positively sedate compared to Lili and her six honeymoons.

“God bless Lili St. Cyr!” sings the adorable Janet Weiss (played by Susan Sarandon) in the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show. And this is what those in the audience at the Gayety must have been murmuring to themselves, like a prayer, as Lili emerged naked and triumphant from her bubble bath.

Denise “Baby Face” Cassidy, bar owner

“I’m from the East End, I’m butch and I wear gold lamé.” That’s how Denise Cassidy, aka Baby Face, once described herself. While she may have had a baby face, she was also the toughest guard dog around. Starting in the 1960s, she was the bouncer at a string of Montreal bars, where she would stand at the entrance, baseball bat in hand, keeping a careful eye on the comings and goings of patrons.

The night-time revelers that Baby Face was protecting were all female: Denise Cassidy was a pioneer in Montreal’s gay and lesbian community. She opened the first lesbian-only bar in Montreal, and that baseball bat was to prevent men from entering the bar and harassing her patrons. She knew how to get respect, as she told the Montreal weekly Hour in 1996, one of the rare interviews she gave to the press.

Baby Face Disco c.1975Baby Face started as a busgirl in the mixed gay/straight cabaret Ponts de Paris, before moving up to waitress at La Cave. She then went on to manage the bars La Source and La Guillotine from 1968 to 1972. She opened her own bar in 1973 and called it the Baby Face Disco, using the nickname she had inherited from her short career as a wrestler. It later became Chez Baby Face, then Face de Bébé, until its closing in 1983. This name change was in response to Quebec’s new language laws (Bill 101) in the late 1970s—Baby Face could be known to follow the rules too! In fact, while the legal drinking age at the time was 18, her patrons had to be 21. One couldn’t be too careful!

We know very little about Baby Face other than her important place in Montreal’s nightlife. Today she would be well into her 70s. Perhaps she is enjoying a well-deserved retirement in the Florida sun? At least that is what the photographer Suzanne Girard believes. Girard, now director of Montreal’s annual gay pride extravaganza, the Divers/Cité Festival, did a number of portraits of Baby Face in the 1970s and 80s, but then then lost touch with her.

Today, all that remains of the Baby Face Disco in downtown Montreal is a parking lot, just a stone’s throw from the chic restaurant La Queue de Cheval. But what does endure is the image of this audacious women, dressed in gold lamé and armed with a baseball bat, ready to defend her sisters.

Translation of Femmes fatales, by Julie Buchinger, published in Zinc, issue 27 (2012)


Susan Lemprière is originally from Ontario but now lives in an old school house in St-Mathieu-de-Beloeil, Quebec. She is a writer and translator ‒ her latest short story appeared in The Fieldstone Review, and her latest translation in carte blanche.