Piscine Molitor: The swimming pool where Tarzan was a lifeguard
- 20 May 2014
- From the section Magazine
Piscine Molitor, once one of Paris's most fashionable public swimming pools, reopened on Monday 85 years after Parisians first entered its tiers of art deco cubicles. This time, though, it's part of a swish hotel - and a day's swimming will cost 150 euros (£120, $200).
Just how chic the Piscine Molitor once was can be judged by the fact that the US Olympic gold medallist and future Tarzan actor, Johnny Weissmuller, was a lifeguard.
He'd won three gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics and two in Amsterdam in 1928 but spent a season at Molitor giving swimming lessons and rescuing bathers in distress.
Molitor's pool, rowing machines and punchballs, meanwhile, helped him stay in the right shape to land the Tarzan role a couple of years later.
Decades later women were routinely going topless, as well as men, and Molitor slowly crumbled, becoming - after it closed in 1989 - a venue for raves and a canvas for graffiti artists.
The baths were intended to resemble an ocean liner, with different levels, white railings and circular windows. There was a covered indoor pool, for use in winter, and an outdoor pool with sand for sunbathers.
In Yann Martel's 2001 novel Life of Pi, the eponymous hero is named Piscine Molitor because his father wanted his soul to be as clean as the pool's water - a family friend used to swim there while in Paris. (He changes his name to Pi, because of the rude jokes about "Piscine" he was subjected to at his Indian primary school.)
One historic moment that occurred there was a photoshoot in July 1946, when the modern bikini was revealed to the world for the first time.
The model was the one-time nude dancer, Micheline Bernardini - who is then said to have received more than 50,000 excited fan letters.
But Molitor is also remembered by Parisians for its transformation in winter into a skating rink.
"I remember a quite confined, very crowded place, we used to turn endlessly, bothering each other," says Corinne Laederich, a Parisian schoolgirl in 1958.
"It was a place where rich kids from the 16th arrondissement and Boulogne-Billancourt picked each other up. All the girls wore crew neck cardigans buttoned on the back and Hermes scarves crossed in the front and tied up on their backs."
Others have provided Molitor with memories of school trips to the pool.
"It was impossible to hide our pleasure to jump noisily in the special bus sent by Saint-Jean-de-Passy High School, each Tuesday," went one recollection of 1961.
"We arrive, rush through the entrance gate and dash in our little changing rooms, in line and identical. For us, going to Molitor means, above all, no classroom, no homework, and that fantastic atmosphere…The teachers Bourbon and Santini, return us to order with their shrill whistles."
Another remembered adolescent flirtation. "We run when forbidden, we shout, we are so happy we are breathless. Sometimes we pass by some pretty demoiselle, we swim next to them, exchanging glances."
In the mid-80s, photographer Gilles Rigoulet began a long-term work photographing Molitor and other pools across Paris, France and the world.
His images reveal the freedom enjoyed by Parisian swimmers at the time.
"We ran and bombed, the children jumped. Hair and bare breasts were everywhere, it was a time of fun pools, extremely alive," he remembers.
By 1989, though, the 60-year-old building was decaying. The city of Paris didn't have the funds to make it safe, so it closed. Its use as an ice rink had already been discontinued 11 years earlier.
The complex was going to be made into flats until local activists stepped in to save it. SOS Molitor held occasional events to raise fund for the hoped-for future resurrection, but the rest of the time, the empty building was a magnet for young people - including graffiti artists.
"To start the graffiti was outside and the town did not accept that, so it was painted over," says Claude Weill, 87, whose history of the baths will be published this week.
"After this more and more people climbed over the roof to come to make graffiti inside."
One rave in 2001, by French techno collective Heretik, drew a crowd of 5,000.
The swanky new Molitor hotel has incorporated some of the features of the original building, including some art deco stained glass, and the "yellow tango" colour of the façade. But it's far more exclusive than it ever was before.
Weill, the historian, is not bothered by this. Some 81 years after he first swam in the baths, he was planning to stay at the hotel with his wife after the opening on Monday night.
"I hope to go swimming! It will be a great pleasure to be back after all these years," he said. It was now not a pool, he added, but "a palace with a pool".
For many Parisians, however, it will be an unaffordable luxury. People can use the pool if they stay at the hotel (from 215 euros per night), join the Molitor club (3,000 euros per year) or pay for a one day membership (150-180 euros).
But pupils at schools in the neighbourhood will still be invited to exercise in the water - exchanging glances perhaps, as they swim past each other.