London Life

London Life | 1940

Confessions Of A Lover Of The Limbless

Being Memories of Paris Nights and Days.

by Wallace Stort

In our treble number published on February 24 the author of this remarkable story told us of the many limbless beauties he had met with in his travels. One of the many excellent stories Mr. Stort relates is of a trapeze act he saw in Paris. The artistes consisted of two beautifully developed athletic men and a charming blonde girl. The girl had only one leg. The other had been amputated above the knee as the result of some unfortunate accident. This was covered with a special tight and a dainty frilled garter. The girl used no crutches during her act and hopped about the stage with marvellous grace and celerity. On the trapeze unhampered by the loss of her leg she performed the usual somersaults and catches.

There is an amazing story related of two one-legged beauties, Pierette and Desire. The story of their rivalry is both romantic and surprising.

Mr. Stort has accumulated a number of anecdotes of the limbless ladies who, despite their misfortunes, cultivate the art of attraction, earn their living unchecked by the loss of one or more limbs, and are living examples of the world of courage and enterprise.

Mr. Stort's story which we now publish is a continuation of his many adventures with the limbless fair.

La Belle Annette.

The armless and one-legged girl I knew in Paris about this time, and to whom I have also referred in earlier articles, was also not a member of our set at the Two Pigeons. She was, as may perhaps be recalled by more long-memoried readers, a star sideshow attraction and was, at the time I knew her, a very wealthy woman, making a small fortune in salary and percentages during the time she toured the shows of the world.

I saw her first at one of the big annual fairs at Neuilly, in the Paris environs, were she was billed as "La Belle Annette Phenomene Extraordinaire et Epatant, Sans Bras et a Une Jambe." And I got to know her (as, in fact, I got to know most of my side-show friends) by the simple expedient of seeing her after one of her shows, expressing my interest in her and getting her to talk about herself.

We became very friendly and corresponded with each other for years after that meeting. She wrote me letters from all over the world - incidentally giving me a lot of information about other "limbless beauties" on show. She wrote all the letters herself, and nearly always put at the end of her letters, "written with the toes of her only foot" - a joking echo of her show procedure, that phrase always accompanying her signature on the photo postcards of herself she distributed to members of her audience.

And another engaging little habit of hers when writing to me was to sign herself "Votre Annette devauee, sans bras et a une jambe." ("Your affectionate armless and one-legged Annette.")

She was a very attractive girl in a dark, Southern way, about 27 at this time - three years older than myself, in fact - and she was as strong and active as a perfectly trained athlete which, indeed, she was. She was entirely without arms from the shoulders, having been born so, and had only her left leg.

It may seem an extraordinary thing that an already armless girl should later lose a leg; but that was what had happened to Annette. And, more unusual still, that a lion, of all things, should have been responsible for the loss.

She was about 17 at the time, and had already appeared since the age of 10 or so, as an armless wonder girl. One of her acts was to go into the lions' den as the "beautiful one and only armless girl lion tamer." This was, of course, only a stunt, as a qualified male tamer was always in the cage with her. But it ended in disaster, for one night a lion turned on her and so mauled her right leg that it had to be amputated.

She was out of show life for some years, recovering from her injuries but she had notion of retiring, and spent a good deal of the latter part of her enforced leisure preparing for her return to the shows. She had, for instance, to train herself to balance and move easily and naturally on her remaining leg - a feat made more difficult in her case because of her lack of arms. And she had also to train the toes of her left foot to do everything that had normally been done by those of her right. That was not so difficult, as she had, of course, used her left foot as one uses a left hand, from childhood.

But with the strange philosophy of side-show folk, she came later to regard the accident as a sort of queer blessing in disguise. She was now "La Belle Annette - Extraordinary and Amazing Phenomenon - Armless and One-legged!" to quote her billing again; probably the only example of her type in the world. She was a side-show queen, getting a fee for her services that other attractions regarded with envy, as colossal and unprecedented.

She told me all this herself in a sort of self-congratulatory and triumphant manner, without the slightest idea that I should find the slightest idea unusual in her point of view. The fact that she was only a beautiful fragment, just one limb removed from being a completely limbless and helpless torso, didn't seem to occur to her, and certainly did not worry her, in fact her only worry was lest there should be another armless and one-legged girl on show anywhere in the world. And it was instructive as well as amusing to find constantly in her letters to me - from Germany, Spain, Italy, and other Continental countries, as well as North and South America, and even China and Japan - the phrase "Still the one and only," by which she meant that so far she had not come across a hated rival.

I have said she was strong and active. For a girl with only a single limb, she was phenomenal. During her act on the stage of her special booth, clad in her very attractive and form-fitting tights, she moved about most of the time on her single foot in its neat, acrobatic heelless slipper, with perfect control and without the slightest suggestion of awkwardness.

(One has to see a professional and practised one-legged girl hopping, by the way, to discover, with surprise, how easy and natural the action is. As easy and graceful in its way as the effortless balancing and dancing on one leg of a prima ballerina.)

But Annette did not confine her virtuosity to her public appearance. She behaved in exactly the same way at home - in the charming flat near the Bois, which she kept permanently in Paris, and to which she retired for at least three months every year. The only occasions on which she was carried, usually by her personal maid, but on many privileged occasions by myself in fact, was in the street, and that only to and from her big, chauffeur-driven motor-car. Otherwise she moved about at home just as any normal person does. Her indoor frocks were all made with very brief skirts, in some cases only a few inches above the knee, and with them she wore a series of little coatees made without sleeves but closed at the shoulders.

Now and then she would leave her leg and foot bare for use, but usually she wore one of her favourite long, hip-length stockings, mittened as usual at the toe.

(This "mittening," I may explain, was not just a simple business of cutting off the tip of the stocking foot and binding the cut silk with stitches. The stockings and her tights were specially made in their mittened form, with a series of five delicately fashioned slots, instead of the usual closed end of the stocking foot, through which the long, bare toes emerged. I always found these toe-revealing stockings very attractive in use.)

Her evening frocks were, however, made on ordinary normal lines, and left her really beautiful, perfectly rounded armless shoulders, of which she was actually very vain, attractively bare. Her show-tights were also made with very low-cut, revealing corsages, displaying to full advantage the alluring curves of her magnificent bust and perfect shoulders.

She had a large collection of attractive little single slippers, all of the low-cut, close-fitting "acrobat" type, made entirely without a heel. This latter feature was, of course, a necessity, as hopping about on a heeled shoe is a difficult and very dangerous business. All the same, she was as fond of ultra high heels as any other pretty woman, and had a number of dainty evening slippers with 3 inches or 4 inches heels. These she usually wore only when entertaining and, of course, only when seated. If she wanted to move about, as she was always sure to do, as she was a most restless person, she just kicked off her slipper and hopped gaily around on her silk-stockinged foot.

One of the interesting features of the flat was that all the tables likely to be use by her, including the dining table, were very much lower than usual, though the chairs were of normal height. This enabled her to use her leg and foot much more comfortably when eating and drinking a cocktail, or taking cigarettes from the many ornate boxes scattered about the flat on as many little tables.

And another unusual and most intriguing feature was the presence in every room of a curious "gadget" that piqued one's curiosity until one saw it in use. It was a sort of stand or pedestal, a little over 2 feet in height, consisting of a slender, oxidised metal stem on a broad, spreading, circular base and topped by a short, narrow, spoon-like or scoop-like affair, tilted slightly downwards and heavily upholstered in dark red velvet. There were two of these mysterious gadgets in the salon alone, one running on tiny wheels concealed beneath the broad base.

It was only when one saw Annette settle herself comfortably in the scoop-like top that one realised the ingenious and useful contrivances they were.

Seated in this way and perfectly supported, she could talk with one at a normal height and at the same time lift her leg to use her toes to smoke a cigarette or have a drink.

It will be obvious to readers of my stories that I modelled the character of Tina, the armless and one-legged beauty who has played a leading part in more than one of my yarns, upon Annette. Only, for obvious reasons, I gave Tina a right leg - one uses a right limb more naturally than a left.

Annette had all the little tricks I have given to Tina. She obviously loved to hop about in her effortless and graceful way to impress her virtuosity mainly on myself, but also on all her guests. For the same reason she liked to dispense tea, doing everything necessary with the shapely toes of her only foot. And that little trick of taking a cigarette from a box, placing it on one's lips and lighting it, all with her toes, was one of Annette's.

She had one little trick that, when first seen, was really startling. She could conceal her leg so as to give the disconcerting impression that she was entirely legless as well as armless. As a matter of fact, the trick is one that most contortionists do quite easily, and usually include in their routine.

In her case, the trick was done, as she sat on her couch, by raising her leg upwards and sideways, which of course she did as easily and naturally as a normal person raises an arm. Then, bending the limb at the knee, she slipped it flexibly and without effort behind her back, sliding it lower and lower until the bent knee was hidden behind the right shoulder blade and the foot somewhere near the base of the spine.

In that position she lay back on the soft, yielding cushions behind her, which not only allowed her to sit comfortably, but also helped by their enveloping softness, to cover the leg behind the back. The effect, as I have said, was startling. Looked at slightly obliquely, she appeared quite legless. And, with a little clever draping of a silk scarf or something of the kind, she appeared so from any angle.

I remember she worked the trick on me one afternoon when I was expected for tea.

Louise, her attractive maid, let me into the flat and ushered me, with a demure smile, into the salon. Annette sat, apparently as usual, in a corner of the big couch, laying back lazily on a heap of comfortably arranged cushions. The first thing that struck me as unusual was the fact that she did not jump up, as she always did, and hop blithely across the room to kiss me.

Then I saw her fully and must have stopped dead. She was wearing one of her usual little sleeveless coatees, a colourful affair in some sort of Chinese embroidered silk, and one of her very brief frocks. Ordinarily, with such a frock, when seated, not only was her leg fully revealed, but also the little shapely silk-clad stump.

Now, I goggled with sheer amazement; and Annette, unable to suppress it, suddenly broke into a little gurgling laugh. But where on earth was her leg? There she lay, now smiling a little wistfully, apparently quite legless - and not so apparently, either. The illusion was perfect.

She shook her head with a little sorrowful smile.

"Yes, cherie," she said, "it's gone! I don't know how it happened. I just looked down, and presto! - it had vanished." She made a twittering little noise with her lips. "Just like that! What are you going to do with your poor Annette? Une demi-femme sans bras et sans jambe! Helas! Je pleur - je pleur..." And she burst into a remarkably good imitation of a flood of tears.

Of course, as soon as I had recovered from my first surprise I knew it was a trick, and a very effective trick, too.

"All right", I said sternly, "Belle Annette is no earthly use to me now. We can't have the place littered with armless and legless torsos. Let's just chuck her out of the window!"

But as I reached her she shot up like something released by a spring and, flinging the newly found "lost single leg" around me, she hugged me close.

She played exactly the same trick on a girl friend she had not seen for several years - a very attractive German acrobat, who had toured with one or two big circuses with her. The girl accepted the situation as absolutely the fact it seemed, and commiserated with her on the loss of her only limb. But with a thoroughly German lack of humour she did not see the joke when at last the leg was "found" again. Probably that was why Annette, who had a freakish sense of humour, played the joke upon her.

She was altogether a marvellous sort of person, such as I don't suppose I shall ever meet, at any rate on the same terms, again. We became very fond of each other, but in the end we very sensibly agreed that marriage, which we discussed many times, was not really in the realm of practical politics for us. Finally, we agreed not to see each other again, and went our ways. And though perhaps, working in a little fiction in a previous article, I may have said that she married well, actually I never heard that she did, though she left the fairs some time after we parted.

But for years I treasured many intimate little souvenirs of her - her letters, "written with the toes of her only foot," a host of photographs in all kinds of costume, but mainly in her attractive silk tights, a long, hip-length, diaphanous, chiffon stocking with its delicately mittened toe, a little, soft, heelless slipper, and a little wisp of filmy silk.

To return to the Two Pigeons. We naturally discussed many topics connected with our interests, some of which I see are still exercising the minds of readers to-day. For example, there has recently been an exchange of opinions in these pages, on which is the more useful - a single crutch or a pair. We often discussed that interesting point. Personally, I am on the side of the single crutch - but not, I am afraid, on account of its usefulness.

If I may say so, I do not think the lady who recently and eloquently put forward her reasons for adopting a single crutch quite made out her case. As a fact, it is generally agreed upon by doctors, surgeons, orthopaedists, and other experts, that the use of a single crutch, save in exceptional circumstances, is to be strongly discouraged.

It puts a tremendous and unnatural strain on the armpit in use, and is therefore a fruitful cause of what is known as "crutch palsy" - in other words, paralysis of the nerve centres under the arm. In any case, it tends to induce great fatigue. It throws the whole balance of the body out of line, may cause greater or lesser deformity of the spine and, in fact, is thoroughly bad for the whole system. Its use by a heavily built person is considered definitely dangerous. The one advantage the practice possess is that it leaves one hand free to use - and that, of course, weighs considerably with the user.

I know that constant practice, and the fact that the armpit usually, though not always, becomes hardened to pressure, often results in the user being quite comfortable on a single crutch. But even then damage may be caused without the user being aware of the fact. Sometimes, of course, only a single crutch will serve. My wife once met at the orthopaedist's (where, incidentally, she has become acquainted with many charming one-legged and otherwise limbless women) an attractive but unfortunate young girl who had lost the left arm at the shoulder and the left leg near the hip. (She had been crushed while riding pillion on a motor-cycle, by the way.) The use of an artificial leg was found to be impracticable and she was accordingly fitted with a single crutch, with some special supporting gadgets, the whole concealed beneath a cape. She learnt to walk tolerably well, but as the crutch was on the wrong side she had to acquire an entirely new method of balance which must have had a definitely harmful effect on the system generally. That, however, is an exceptional case, and the expert in charge had to make the best job he could.

The use of a pair of crutches doesn't eliminate all the dangers mentioned above. Some unfortunate people never get used to the pressure of the crutch heads on the armpits. And until the "elbow" type of crutch was introduced, they had a very uncomfortable time. But a pair of crutches does help to distribute the weight of the body evenly, maintains the natural balance of the body, and is definitely very much more comfortable in use than a single support.

There is no doubt that at all the "elbow" type of crutch is very much superior to all others. In this type, the crutches are merely kept in position by either a grip round the elbow, or by a ring round the arm just above the elbow. The weight of the body is taken by the hands, and accordingly the armpits are never brought into play. The only objection to them is that a pair must always be used together. A single crutch of this type is of no more use than a walking stick.

As to why in these circumstances, a girl uses a single crutch (except that she prefers to put up with the discomfort in order to have a hand free), my own opinion, for what it is worth, is just this: It is the man friend of the one-legged girl who prefers her to use a single crutch; and it is often simply because of this preference that she consents to adopt the practice. At any rate, that has been my experience.

Another curious result is that the girl appears to be more "one-legged" than if she is more evenly balanced on a pair of crutches. I don't know why this is so, either; but, as far as I am concerned, it is an interesting fact.

This reason of mine will not, of course, account for the use of a single crutch in every case. The girl may herself find something attractive in the slow, flexible swing of the body, or she may know that it is found attractive by others. But in my own experience it has usually been the man who has influenced the girl.

My wife definitely does not like the single crutch. She prefers the "elbow" type, though she has several pairs of the armpit variety. But when out of doors with me she often uses a single crutch, simply because she knows I prefer it. She manages it very gracefully, but she always finds it very fatiguing. In the house, of course, as I have mentioned before in these columns, she rarely, if ever, uses a crutch at all.

There was very little doubt about what was the focal point of attraction for the boys and older men, or at any rate the "regulars," of my set in Paris. They were all drawn into the net by the attractive single legs, or the lack of legs at all, of the girl members of the circle. All the girls I knew had their own special boys as well as other admirers, and all of them married well eventually.

Curiously enough, I did not choose a wife from the set. If I may say it, without appearing piggish, I could very easily have made a match of it with the very alluring Zelie, who regarded me as her own special property. Zelie had many attractions for me but one in particular. She had lost her leg when only a child of three or four, and had grown up on a single leg and crutches as, for her, the natural order of things. That fact, and her own many and varied experiences of the attraction her dainty one-legged figure exercised, had influenced her whole outlook. Of all the girls I knew, she was the most definitely convinced that being one-legged was as desirable for its own sake as beauty of face and figure, or glorious hair, or any other typically feminine charm.

It may have been a pose - I don't deny the possibility - but if it was, it was a very consistent and unshakeable one. I know that if anybody had dared to call her a cripple she would have become a fighting fury, as she could very easily do on occasions. She merely regarded herself as "different" - and very wonderfully and attractively different. I have actually heard her say of a very pretty and charming girl friend of hers, whose obvious attractions I had been tactless enough to refer to approvingly:

"Yes, she is a darling, and terribly sweet. But you know, cherie, she's just 'one of them' after all. The poor child has two legs!"

And on one or two other occasions when we discussed the usefulness or otherwise of artificial legs, she witheringly dismissed such supports as unnecessary, crippling (!) and very unsightly.

She added:

"If you offered me a flesh-and-blood leg, I shouldn't dream of having it. It would make me just like others - ordinary. Terribly, my dear!"

No doubt, all part of her odd sense of humour. But, pose or not, it all appealed to what I suppose would be called my own twisted outlook. I was otherwise attracted to Zelie, who was a really dazzling blonde, dainty and petite, and by far the most daring dresser of all the girls of our crowd. But matters were complicated by my friendship with Annette, about whom Zelie knew absolutely nothing - nor did Annette know anything of her. I did not dare bring the two girls together!

So, in the end, I married neither. In fact, as I revealed years ago in these columns, I married the pretty and charming English girl whom I met after I had left Paris and settled down in England, and who remains my very attractive and understanding consort to-day. Fortunately, she is very human and broad-minded. She knows all about my earlier adventures and of my peculiar outlook on life. But as she is herself a perfectly happy "monopede," with something of Zelie's way of looking at the matter, she is as much an interested reader of my stories and revelations is these columns as anybody.

Zelie married a popular cabaret entertainer some years after I left Paris - not a member of our gang at the Two Pigeons. And characteristically, she caused something of a sensation by having a most elaborate wedding - "fully choral," I suppose we'd call it over here. In full bridal attire, she swung up the aisle at her bridegroom's side on beautiful white lacquered crutches with silver fittings, accompanied by no fewer than four attractive one-legged bridesmaids on crutches of similar design.

I have referred to the discussions that took place at the Two Pigeons. Naturally, in the odd, unusual circumstances, we discussed some very bizarre topics and an extremely bizarre aspect of the "complex" that cropped up every now and then and intrigued us all very much was the possibility of a girl submitting to amputation at the wish of an admirer.

I suppose it really started through the agency of a very pretty, but - well, potty and irresponsible girl in our set whom we shall call Jacqueline. Jacqueline, like most of our girl members, of course, was one-legged, her right leg having been amputated at the hip joint.

Her story, when she was feeling more than usually romantic and exhibitionist, took this extraordinary form:

When she was 17 - she was now about 22 or 23 - and before she lost her leg, a very wealthy man had fallen desperately in love with her. He was at least twenty years her senior, and a widower; but, from Jacqueline's description of him, he was a young girl's dream come true.

The curious point was that his first wife, a very beautiful woman, had been one-legged; and, in consequence, only one-legged women appealed to him now. h. Psychologists agree .

(That, by the way, was a realistic touch. Psychologists agree that from such a jumping-off place many a "complex" has been formed. Nearly all our men members traced their "kink" back to a first love affair with a one-legged or otherwise limbless girl.)

Jacqueline (so Jacqueline said) was, in his eyes, the most perfect and adorable girl he had ever met - except just for that one flaw! If she were only one-legged, she would be the ideal of all the world! Then gradually he began to cajole her gently but persistently into qualifying for absolute perfection in his eyes. If only she would consent to have her leg removed - preferably her right, as that was the leg his wife had lost - he would marry her, and lay his fortune at her feet - or, rather, her single foot.

Well, according to Jacqueline, she at last consented. Her beautiful right leg was amputated in one of the most exclusive nursing homes in Paris, by a famous, but anonymous, surgeon at enormous cost. The trouble was that the dirty pig didn't marry her, and forgot to lay his fortune at the single foot she now possessed!

Fleurette, who was her friend and had introduced her to our set, laughed at the whole story and told us that, as far as she knew, Jacqueline had lost her leg in a street accident as a child. But the fact that there was a doubt about it made the yarn intriguing, and more than one of the men liked to believe it and found Jacqueline highly romantic in consequence.

My own theory was that there was possibly a grain of truth in the story. Jacqueline, one-legged, of course, may have met a wealthy old man who tried to persuade her to have the remaining leg removed - not by any means as incredible a possibility as it sounds. Jacqueline scouted the notion, but her fertile brain turned the adventure into the romantic story she liked to tell. One the other hand, the whole thing made have been an elaborate fiction.

There were, however, one or two stories of a similar bizarre nature floating round Paris at that time. The most persistent, and the one generally accepted by our crowd, concerned a beautiful Folies Bergere dancer who had left the stage and had married an elderly but extremely wealthy "boulevardier" (man-about-town). The story was that she had consented, in consideration of his marrying her and settling a large fortune on her, to agree to the extreme and amazing step of having both arms amputated at the shoulders and both legs at the hips.

(I am not the only one to tell this story, by the way. It found its way into a prominent and highly reputable British medical journal only a year or so ago. As I had referred to it previously some years before that, I can't be accused of taking the story from that source.)

About the actual facts - that the girl and the man existed there was no dispute. The girl had been a Folies dancer, and the marriage had actually taken place. We all knew both of them by sight, as did most habitual theatre-goers at that time. There was no doubt at all that the lovely young bride of the elderly roue was merely a beautiful limbless torso, entirely without either arms or legs. Nor that the amputation of all her limbs had taken place over the period of a year or so after she had left the stage. The marriage, so we understood, had taken place quietly somewhere outside Paris about a year after her convalescence from her final operation.

The girl was not generally seen in public nor in any of the usual resorts or night haunts - though the husband was an assiduous patron of all of them. But the pair were - or perhaps it was the girl herself - devoted to the theatre, and they attended practically every "premiere" and were looked for by the audience among the other celebrities attending.

I saw her many times carried tenderly into the theatre by her obviously adoring husband, swathed in her luxurious, all-enveloping evening wrap, which floated with filmy emptiness over his arms below the slender, legless body. There was no hint of unhappiness in her attractive, piquant face as she sat, her limbless contour still concealed beneath her wrap, in her fauteuil by her husband's side. She chatted gaily, thoroughly enjoyed the show, and smoked interminable cigarettes placed in her lips and lighted by her husband.

And I have watched her interestedly in the foyer afterwards when, comfortably settled in her husband's arms, she gossiped in the gayest manner with a circle of friends and accepted kisses from women intimates.

Only one photograph ever appeared in the Paris papers smuggled out, it was said, from a large collection in the husband's possession through the agency of a maid. It appeared before it could be suppressed, in one of the illustrated weeklies specialising in photographs, and showed her reclining in the cushioned corner of a beautiful period couch. She was clad only in a diaphanous, skin-tight, black silk "maillot" revealing her as a slim but voluptuously curved torso.

It was also said that several portraits in oils by well-known artists hung on the walls of the big mansion outside Paris. And the final tid-bit - though that remained an uncorroborated story, but one we liked to believe - was that all the very attractive maids in the house were one-legged and swung about their duties on slim, single crutches - a piquant touch which I have adopted in more than one of my own stories.

Well, there was the legend. The story the general public believed was that the unfortunate girl had developed a progressive necrosis of some kind that forced her to leave the stage and eventually resulted in the successive amputation of all her limbs. And that her elderly admirer had gallantly stuck by her and married her in spite of her completely maimed condition.

That, of course, may have been the truth. But, on the other hand, there were many odd and bizarre aspects of the case which were significant only to a crowd like ours at the Two Pigeons. And they inclined us to believe the legend. But then, naturally, we should!

I leave the problem there and with it conclude this record of odd but, I hope, entertaining experiences culled from my life as a young man in Paris.

London Life March 30, 1940 p. 27 - 31, 43
London Life | 1940