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Sin city: show celebrates the Paris brothel that was loved by Cary Grant

A new exhibition in Paris sheds light on the risqué establishments where stars, men of letters and royalty mingled

It was sleaze all right, but sleaze of a refined and exclusive kind. Throughout their long heyday, the brothels of Paris were as alluring and luxuriously chic as any gentlemen's club or aristocratic salon.

Before he became King Edward VII, the Prince of Wales was a regular client of the brothel at 12 rue Chabanais, the city's most famous, and endowed it with a "love-chair" in memory of happy times. Others who graced the premises included the Hollywood film stars Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant.

And now the lost world of these establishments is being brought back to life in a retrospective exhibition, curated by Nicole Canet who describes herself as an "archaeologist of eroticism". With hundreds of rare photographs shown alongside phallic door knockers, whips and other instruments of the trade, the show recreates a world where money and class put moral judgements in abeyance.

The brothel at 12 rue Chabanais, said Ms Canet, opened in 1878, and was known in certain circles throughout the world. When heads of state came to the Elysée, they would have time marked in their diaries for a "visit to the President of the Senate", a euphemism for a session at rue Chabanais.

But it was not just men who frequented these places. The actress and singer Marlene Dietrich treated it as an alternative nightspot to the Hotel Ritz. "She would drink enormous quantities of champagne there," Ms Canet said.

She went on: "These places capture a world of sensuality and worldliness in Paris in the Belle Époque and Roaring Twenties, reflecting an art of living fuelled by desire and eccentricity; a forgotten world of champagne bubbles and the comings and goings of girls and their clients under the watchful eye of the choreographer who was the hostess."

The exhibition also features a section on male brothels, the most celebrat ed of which was Hotel Marigny, near Opera in the second arrondissement, inaugurated in 1917. Ms Canet remarked: "There were homosexual prostitutes who were very discreet. Lots of military would visit, and Marcel Proust would come by under an assumed name almost every day."

France's brothels were abolished by law in 1946. At that time there were 1,500 of them across the country, with 177 in Paris alone. Ms Canet believes the city would be improved if they were brought back. "It would be much better for the women working who don't want to be outside on the streets," she said. "But as it's illegal to demand money for sex, this seems very unlikely."

The exhibition at 12 rue Chabanais runs until 31 January 2010.