Looking for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in Los Angeles

Painter, proto-drag queen and mouthpiece of Montmartre's Belle Époque bohemians, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec understood the beauty of a city's underbelly. For his 150th birthday, one writer looks for Lautrec's spirit in the seedy dive bars of Playa del Rey.

It’s mid-afternoon on a Monday and every barstool at the Harbor Room in Playa del Rey is taken. I am sandwiched between a platinum-haired dog-sitter named Lisa and a rotund yacht salesman named Paul, who leaves his stack of hundred dollar bills out on the bar and has already ordered me a second gin and tonic. I’m only halfway through the first one.

Lisa leans in and tells me she’s been coming here since the 1970s, and tending to homes and dogs for the local aristocracy ever since. She scrawls her name and number on a scrap of paper and I do the same; I used to dog-sit, and sometimes she gets overbooked. She takes a sip of Absolut on the rocks and sets her icy, messily lined blue eyes on mine. “Everyone knows everyone here,” she says. “We know all each other’s demons.”

I wonder whether I want to know her demons. I finish my first drink and Bobby the bartender languidly clears it. The men are talking about their next golf trip, a thrice-yearly bacchanalia they’ve being doing for decades. “You have to pay for the room and all the cocktails, but you can win money in the tournament,” Paul explains. Beside him is a retired Major League Baseball umpire, graying but youthful in that ambiguous California way; he could be 45 or 70.

“This is like God’s waiting room,” Lisa says under her breath. She reaches into her red leather purse and pulls out a pack of Mistys. I glance down and catch a quick glimpse of her bedazzled canvas sneakers. “Bad habit,” she says, nodding at the cigarettes, “Whatever.”

Playa is a little bit off, a strange underbelly of LA where wealthy retirees, blue-collar workers and frustrated creatives convene to drink hard in moldy dive bars. Its narrow sand-swept streets and towering bluffs feel removed from the city’s juice-cleansed glow. And while it may sound like a stretch, beyond its eccentricity there’s something about Playa’s willingness to explore its own dark side that recalls late 19th-century Montmartre, whose hilly environs and distance from Paris proper set the stage for an underground cultural renaissance. Playa may lack the artistic and intellectual cachet of Belle Époque Paris, but it does attract the sort of dichotomous personalities and exchanges sought by artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Whether painting prostitutes, befriending anarchists or throwing raucous cocktail parties, Lautrec propelled the Montmartre scene by putting himself at the center of its dysfunction. With his 150th birthday approaching, I headed to Playa seeking a misfit version of the city that he would have appreciated.

Mo is the closest thing Playa has to a cabaret star. His weekly costumed appearance, while mostly apolitical, has all the vulgarity and crowd appeal of a show by Lautrec’s favorite performer, Bruant. Although Bruant drew hoards with savvy social commentary disguised as song, Mo attracts a loyal flock of sports fans by offering a similar service: escape.

Born to an inbred aristocratic family in 1864, Lautrec is famed for his paintings of Parisian nightlife and the Moulin Rouge. But this charismatic dwarf, crippled by a hereditary disease and fated to die young of alcoholism and syphilis, had another lesser-known talent: cocktails. After settling in Montmartre amidst writers and artists, he quickly became as comfortable partying in the cabarets, brothels and wilder bashes of Belle Époque Paris. A nightlife fixture, he whipped up lavish meals and intense drinks, like sardines in gin flambé with port, or Tremblement de Terre, combining absinthe with cognac, according to cookbook Toulouse-Lautrec’s Table.

He often dressed up in costumes, from choirboy to Carmen, raiding his girlfriends’ closets for attire. But beneath his jovial charm, Lautrec related to the underlying angst of the time, fraternizing with Oscar Wilde and anarchist literary critic Félix Féneón. Realist performer Aristide Bruant, whose crude lyrics illuminated a seedier Paris, captivated Lautrec and directly inspired six of his paintings, writes biographer David Sweetman in Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin-De-Siécle. And while he tried painting ballerinas, Lautrec always returned to the circuses and cabarets, delighting in the ability of louche working-class performers to draw hoards of moneyed spectators.

The Harbor Room feels like an everyday circus, a place where class boundaries blur, liquor flows freely and pretty much everyone has a sad story to tell. It’s also the smallest bar in Los Angeles, a stuffy triangle with wood paneling, red vinyl barstools and photos of bygone movie stars. I look down the bar. Ron, a messy, late-career lawyer, is several vodkas deep and barely keeping his head up, while a baby-faced standup comedian discusses his idea for a podcast. Paul, the yacht salesman, sits next to me like a mound of dough, ready for the afternoon to mold him any which way. He is sipping whiskey and telling me about his flexible schedule. If I ask for it, I get the feeling that he’ll show me a yacht. But his breath smells like decay, and the sun is beginning to fade. I say my goodbyes and head across the street to Mo’s Place.

Mo is the closest thing Playa has to a cabaret star. His weekly costumed appearance has all the vulgarity and crowd appeal of a show by Lautrec’s favorite performer, Bruant. Although Bruant drew hoards with savvy social commentary disguised as song, Mo attracts a loyal flock of sports fans by offering a similar service: escape. Every Monday night, locals of all stripes descend to drink excessively in a thick haze of fryer grease as they await the big reveal. Mo’s surprise get-up changes weekly during football season.

I sit at a high top near the arcade games and scan the rec room-like space. Cooks plate onion rings and flip burgers in the open kitchen. Monday Night Football is showing on several TVs. Some wear team jerseys. Everyone drinks Jack Daniels. I spot Mo over by the bar, greeting people with hugs and warm handshakes. His gray hair is slicked back and his shirt unbuttoned to show off a silver chain. He stops to pose for a photo between two blondes with impressive cleavage, and his diamond earring catches the fluorescent glow.

I order a drink from a waitress named Jan with a hummingbird tattoo on her left shoulder. A personal trainer at the next table tells me that Mo wore a chef costume last Monday, and that he always gives out prizes. “I got to throw a pie in his face,” he says with a smile. Nearby, a graying woman chomps on a piece of popcorn shrimp, holding another within centimeters of her lips, as if it will swim away if she lets go. Jan is offering three-dollar Fireball shots and handing out raffle tickets. Someone orders a Surfer on Acid.

At the end of the game, Mo reemerges in a skirt, black wig and full makeup. He circulates the room doling out long-stem red roses from a huge bouquet as the seventies hit “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” blares. Grabbing a microphone, he calls out raffle numbers, gifting people with kitchen appliances: giant griddles, electric mixers and cookie jars. Someone wins a chocolate fountain, which Mo delivers with user advice couched in a sexually explicit joke. A porn DVD and a ticket for a free shot are taped to each prize.

The room has reached a perfect state of drunkenness, which arrives simultaneously with a trace of heartbreak: We are racing toward the end of the night. The personal trainer suddenly wants to talk about his love woes. The comedian from Harbor Room has joined us, gulping whiskey and sloppily devouring a French dip sandwich. He says scooping ice cream is squashing his creativity. This scene, messy with honesty and excess and an undercurrent of struggle, feels like one Lautrec would have taken solace in and perhaps artistic direction from. I suddenly feel ready for a juice cleanse, so long as I know its enemy is also free to exist.

Someone has bought a round of cherry bourbon for the bar. I drink it quickly and head off into the night.