Circus matriarch Madame Rosa remains active at 103
PARIS -- Madame Rosa appears at the circus apartment doorway in sparkling diamonds, red lipstick and a walking frame -- and sits down beside her leopard skin rug.
"That's Mickey," exclaims the 103-year-old doyenne of Europe's most famous circus, pointing to all that remains of her former pet.
"He died of old age. We had him a long time," she says nostalgically, while offering a visitor one of her luxury Swiss chocolates.
Soon, anecdotes from the matriarch of Paris' famed Winter Circus come pouring out: how she got married in a lion's den, once entered a posh hotel carrying a baby primate in a hat box, and helped raise a parrot known for its foul use of the French language.
The great Madame Rosa is now considered the big top's most eccentric, and oldest, character.
Born Rosa Van Been to a performing family in Belgium just in time for Christmas in 1910, two years before the Titanic sank, she went on to find fame and success in Paris by marrying businessman Joseph Bouglione, whose claim to fame was buying the Winter Circus in 1934.
She's now a French celebrity in her own right.
She was close friends with Josephine Baker, the American-born French dancer, singer and actress. Madame Rosa also rubbed shoulders with opera diva Maria Callas and actresses Ingrid Bergman and Rita Hayworth -- and outlived them all.
Madame Rosa, who now has 53 grandchildren and great grandchildren, survived two world wars and the Nazi occupation. But the matriarch of the Winter Circus never let the petty trials of the 20th century spoil her zest for life.
She married her husband in a lions' cage instead of a church. She remembers advising the pastor against entering the den for fear he'd get eaten by the big cats and not finish the service.
Her protective elephant respected the sanctity of this marriage so much that he once squashed Callas in retribution for getting too close to her husband after one show.
"The elephant practically knocked her over. ... He was jealous," said Rosa, with a laugh that makes her look decades younger.
Laughter, it becomes apparent, is this incredible woman's lifeline: the memories and anecdotes she's told a thousand times still make her wrinkled face light up with a touching naivety when she remembers a punchline or conjures up an image that had been sitting for years undusted in her memory archive.
Nevertheless, she feels the need to bring along to the interview her 80-year-old son Emilien as her "memory aid" to help her fill in the gaps. Once she gets started, the stories pour out.
There was her other "child" -- a male gorilla she somehow named Jackie. She and her husband once turned up at a top hotel with the baby primate placed in the hat box. The footman said, "Gosh. Madame's hats are pretty heavy," said Rosa, chuckling and saying that for the month they were at the hotel no one noticed the gorilla in the room. Jackie also had a taste for wine.
The couple's foul-mouthed parrot, Coco, was equally loved, but less jovial. He lived to 45 and would squawk profanities at Rosa, if he was ever ignored. "I cannot tell you what he would call me ... They are very, very intelligent words. He could speak very fluently," she said.
Her stories are fantastical, but photos, pictures and her son bear witness.
Take for instance her sea voyage to Latin America with her circus in the '50s.
In scenes reminiscent of "The Life of Pi," she says there was a freak storm, which caused the captain to order that the 12 elephants be thrown overboard to save the ship from sinking.
Her son, who was aboard, calls it a "miracle" when suddenly the storm subsided and the boat remained afloat with the animals safe.
"That was an adventure," says Madame Rosa.
Then there were the celebrities.
"So many, so many," says her son, who remembers sitting with stars Bergman and Hayworth who had flown in from Hollywood to attend the circus perform beneath the Eiffel Tower.
Madame Rosa met Callas, who loved the circus, many times, and had a close relationship with Baker, who died in 1975.
"She was a friend. Amazing," Rosa says, adding that she used to share costume ideas with the black icon that went on to become a global star for her groundbreaking banana dance.
There's a slight sadness when she reminisces over characters in her old stories. "They're all dead. ... They're all dead," Rosa repeats several times, sighing in front of the portrait of her husband, who died decades ago.
But now that her huge family includes contortionists, acrobats, jugglers, and lion tamers in the popular annual Winter Circus spectacle, their many theatrical get-togethers stop her dwelling on the past.
She says the secrets of her eternal youth include hard work, sleeping very little and deadly animals.
"I've always, always been with lions, with panthers, with wolves, with hyenas," she says. "I was never scared."
As the interview concludes, Madame Rosa can't resist revealing one more secret of her longevity.
"Fries," she said, and paused. "I'm Belgian."