In Paris, wealthy women are expected to collect jewels and clothes. But not Hélène Martini, a 51-year-old Polish refugee and former nude showgirl known as “The Countess”; she collects cabarets. In fact, she has 10 nightspots scattered across Paris, including the luxurious Russian cabaret Raspoutine and Frank Sinatra’s favorite, Le Pussy Cat.
Crowning them all, and making Martini the undisputed countess of Paris nightlife, is the Folies Bergère, the famous music hall that launched both Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker. Redecorated and with a new revue, the Folies has become Martini’s personal triumph. Once again the theater is playing to packed audiences and critical applause. For Martini, owning the Folies means a return to the stage where she began her career 29 years ago.
Hélène was 14 when the Russians occupied Poland in 1939, a period she recalls as “waiting for death.” Two years later, in 1941, she was deported to a Nazi concentration camp. Three and a half years later she was liberated, the only member of her aristocratic Polish family to survive. She emerged determined to live life as “a continual rebeginning.” She chose France and arrived in Paris for her first visit with “pants I had sewn by hand, empty pockets and half a comb.” By chance she saw the Folies Bergère, and a girlfriend dared her to ask for a job. The statuesque Hélène was hired on the spot.
For the next four months she paraded in the Folies revue, wearing rhinestones and 20 pounds of feathers. But it was at a Left Bank bookshop that Hélène met the man in her life, Nachat Martini, a scholarly lawyer and a political refugee from Syria, who became her adoring husband.
They decided to pool their talents and open a cabaret in Pigalle, then the center of Paris’ swinging, raunchy nightlife. Eighteen months later the two novices were out of business. “Everyone was dishonest and we were robbed,” Hélène says today. Theft in business never stops, she admits, but adds icily, “It must be done with elegance and kept to a minimum.”
Until her husband died in 1960, the Martinis bought and sold cabarets (in time, a new cabaret became Nachat Martini’s favorite birthday gift to his wife). For the past 17 years Hélène, living “marvelously alone” in her penthouse overlooking the neon glitter of Place Pigalle, has been solely in charge of her expanding nightlife empire.
She rises daily at 1:45 p.m. to tapes of Russian gypsy music. “I adore everything Russian—but in Paris,” she smiles. Until 7 a.m. the next morning she is on her rounds, visiting each of her establishments and greeting her 900 employees in any of five languages. Her favorite after-midnight spot is the Raspoutine, decorated in deep-red velvet and the furs of Siberian wolves, where she prefers a dark corner table. She rarely mixes with her celebrity clientele. “It amuses me, but I am outside of it,” she shrugs.
It is at the Raspoutine that she observes a ritual that is her quiet revenge for the destruction of her happy childhood. She orders the 50-man violin-and balalaika orchestra to strike up the Red Army marching song which once so terrified her Polish countrymen, and then has the whole troupe sing it—as entertainment. “It’s my pleasure, twice a night,” she explains.
On weekends she goes to her small chateau 18 miles outside Paris, where she has constructed a small private river for sailing and decorated her rooms so they “look like Walt Disney came through.” When she is bored, she travels abroad. And if her neon-lit empire collapses, would she ever go back to the Folies? “Yes,” she smiles, proudly patting her figure. “Everything is still fine.”