• K.E. Berringer

Rafael Padilla

Chocolat Days

Rafael Padilla, also known by his stage name of Chocolat, was one of the most famous performers during the late 1800s. For over a decade, he worked as a clown and his name would be known across France. Even today, he remains possibly one of the most famous clowns to have ever performed.

Rafael pictured during his time in the circus.

Early Life

Not much of Rafael's early life is known. He was born simply as Rafael (also spelt Raphael) sometime between 1865 and 1869. Both of his parents were slaves, forced to work on a plantation in Cuba. At a young age, he would be left parentless, though it is unclear what exactly led to this. Some stories say that his parents smuggled him out of the plantation when he was six, while others say he was orphaned.

Either way, he was taken away from the plantation he had been born on and ended up in Havana. There, he came into the care of an older woman, though little is known about her or why she took the young boy in. It is said that she later traded him for peanuts (not a small fee, literal peanuts) to a merchant from Bilbao, Spain.

When Rafael was around the age of 10, this merchant took the boy from Cuba to Spain. European law at this time stated that slaves could be brought from foreign countries, but they were to be granted their freedom as soon as they reached European soil. But upon reaching Spain, Rafael was not given his freedom.

Instead, he was made a labourer on the man's estate and was forced to work long, gruelling hours for no pay. Not only that, but when his days were over, he suffered through nights of abuse. The family of the Spaniard who had bought Rafael, specifically his wife (known only by her maiden name of Padilla), were said to have been cruel to the young Rafael. Among other abuses, they regularly scrubbed Rafael with a coarse horse brush in an attempt to lighten his skin.

After four years, Rafael escaped from the estate. Though he had finally gained his freedom, he had no money, nowhere to go, was illiterate and could only speak Havanese Creole. He took on various odd jobs in Bilbao, sometimes working as a baggage handler, as a coal miner and often in the quarries. On Sundays, his only day off, he would frequent the local pubs and taverns with the other miners. There, he would sometimes dance for tips, replicating the dances he had seen slaves performing in Havana.

One day, Rafael was spotted by British clown Tony Grice. Where exactly they met is unclear; Grice had spotted him either dancing in a pub, working on the docks, or passing time with other miners. Wherever it was, something impressed Grice. Unlike many of the other miners, who were small and sickly, Rafael had a tall physique and a natural ability for performing. Grice needed an assistant, and he asked Rafael to fill that role.

Rafael knew that this would likely be his only chance at ever getting out of Spain, so he agreed. The two began a tour throughout Europe, with Grice performing as 'The White Clown'. While with Grice, it is possible that this is when Rafael earned the nickname of 'Chocolat'. The name may have been -- more or less -- coined by Grice, who would have used the name to describe Rafael's complexion. It was a common word used then to describe someone of African descent, and though it was not exactly a slur, it would not exactly have been said under the kindest of terms.

Eventually, the duo settled in Paris, where Grice did regular performances at the Cirque Medrano and the Nouveau Cirque de Paris, two of the largest circuses in Paris. But Rafael had trouble fitting in in France. He struggled to speak more than Havanese Creole, though he had learned some English. However, as he spent more and more time with Grice, Rafael began to figure that a clown did not need to speak.

While Rafael had yet to formally make his stage debut, he had become a part of Grice's show. He had only been tasked with carrying props on and off stage but he used this brief spotlight to entertain the audience, often performing dances and slapstick. He also began to perform physical stunts for Grice, not just because he had a larger physique, but because he was seen as more expendable if something was to go wrong. Before long, the Parisian upper-class who visited the circus could not get enough of him.

It is important to remember exactly where Rafael would have stood socially at this time. There were very few black people within France; the population was likely only around 1000 people. Not all of them had come as slaves, and many of them had been born in France, but they still had a very low-class standing. Most were seen as nothing more than a source of entertainment, and many black people were put into freak shows or displayed at human zoos. However, Rafael would not let himself be seen as just a commodity. If he was to entertain the people, then it would be on his own terms.

Rafael's role in the show became bigger and bigger but the partnership soon ended. It is unclear exactly why, but it has been said that whilst at the baptism of Grice's baby, Rafael accidentally dropped the gravy boat onto Grice's wife. Furious, Grice fired Rafael on the spot. No matter the reason behind the end of the partnership, Rafael was now on his own.

Circus Career

Despite this, it did not seem to affect Rafael much. He had outgrown Grice and was ready to enter the circus on his own. In 1888, Rafael was invited to make his debut alongside several established clowns, including Gerónimo Medrano, owner of the Cirque Medrano. Adopting the stagename of Chocolat, Rafael would make his debut.

A poster for 'La Noce de Chocolat'.

Later that year, the Nouveau Cirque hired Rafael to star in his own show, La Noce de Chocolat, or the Wedding of Chocolat. It would be a huge hit. People flocked to see it, and the man at the centre of the show. Just like that, Rafael was an overnight star.

In attendance at one of Rafael's shows would be George Foottit. Foottit (also spelled Footit or Footitt) was a successful English clown, then in France with hopes to expand his success into the country. After the show, Foottit was so impressed with Rafaels performance that he would propose a partnership. Rafael accepted and the duo of Foottit and Chocolat began.

During this period in France, there was a large focus on culture and art. This would come to be known as the Belle Époque. It would be a period in which circuses would see a rise in popularity. Previously, only the upper classes had had the ability to attend circus performances, but now lower classes had the ability to attend, too. This led to acts such as clowns becoming especially popular since they could make both aristocrats and the poor laugh, and this led to Rafael and Foottits act becoming one of the biggest successes of the circus.

An ad using Chocolat and Foottit's image to market Félix Potin grocery stores.
'Chocolat dansant dans un bar' by Toulouse-Lautrec, 1896.

While the two first began performing at smaller circuses, they were soon picked up by the Nouveau Cirque. While the two were both beloved in their own right, Rafael especially became France's darling. He was soon everywhere, becoming the face of multiple advertisements, with various products and toys using his likeness to push their products. His photos would be used on postcards, which would be sent across the world. He was even painted and drawn by famed Bohemian Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

By the early 1890s, Rafael was already one of, if not the, biggest star in France. Another reason as to why Foottit and Rafael attracted so much attention was that the act was entirely different from any others of the time. While the two had not necessarily been the creators of their style, they were the ones to perfect it. Even when others tried to copy them, they did it unsuccessfully.

In the act, Foottit would play a strict clown dressed in nice clothes and white makeup. Opposite him would be Rafael, bumbling and clumsy and dressed in shabby clothes. In technical terms, Rafael was the Auguste. Each strictly played these roles, which meant that their shows always followed a similar -- but proven -- formula.

Chocolat would come onto the stage first, finding a way to accidentally ruin something in the process. Foottit's character would soon join him and would scold him, often resulting in Chocolat being beat by Foottit. Sometimes, the roles would switch by the end of the act, with Chocolat getting his revenge against Foottit.

Of course, the act was symbolic of racist sentiments of the time, with the black character portrayed as less superior to the white character. Rafael was essentially playing a caricature of black people. Notable in his outfit are white gloves, a symbol of the minstrel shows that were playing in America at the same time.

Foottit and Rafael in their clown costumes. Usually, Rafael would have been dressed in a bright red jacket.

Rafael did his best to ignore the blatant racism. While the part essentially told him where he belonged within society, it was an opportunity at a better life, and a role that brought him success. So, he played his role the best that he could. He enjoyed performing, and Chocolat, no matter what, was his own creation and something to be proud of.

Personal Life

To anyone who met Rafael, it was quite clear that he was nothing like Chocolat. While Chocolat was clumsy, idiotic and the butt of the joke, Rafael was confident, charming and intelligent. He had long grown past the shortcomings of his upbringing and had grown into a cultured man. Not to mention, he was also handsome and caught the eye of many women. At some point, Rafael would meet Marie Hecquet.

It is unclear exactly how Rafael and Hecquet met. Either they met in 1887 while Rafael's troupe passed through St Valery-en-Caux, where Hecquet was living. It could have also been around 1889 or 1890 after Hecquet saw Rafael performing during a show in Paris. Either way, they quickly fell in love.

However, Hecquet was already married to another man, named Enrico Grimaldi. Grimaldi was a customs officer about seventeen years Hecquet's senior. It was not necessarily a happy marriage; Hecquet had only entered into it after her father's death, which left her financially unstable at only seventeen years old. Despite this, Hecquet and Rafael would begin an affair.


In 1891, Hecquet gave birth to a son named Eugène Grimaldi. Three years later, she gave birth to a daughter named Suzanne Grimaldi. The next year, Grimaldi would file for divorce. He would cite Hecquet and Rafael's affair as an abandonment of the family structure, meaning he could no longer continue the marriage. Hecquet no longer had a source of income and more than that, she could have been placed in a correctional institution for being a divorcée.

After hearing of this, Rafael invited Hecquet and the children to live with him. This would be enough to save Hecquet from punishment, and it meant that she and Rafael could be together. Although, her family would end up disowning her.

Hecquet would later be given full custody of her two children, and Grimaldi would refuse to even acknowledge them as his. Rafael, in response, promptly adopted them. While Grimaldi's actions were unfair, his suspicions that they were not his children were not unfounded. Both kids would be described as having dark, curly hair and dark skin, unlike the caucasian Grimaldi.

Rafael and Hecquet would eventually attempt to get married. Interracial marriage in France was made legal by this point, so they should have been able to do so. However, since Rafael had been brought to Europe from Cuba, he had no documentation to identify himself and though he had adopted Chocolat as his last name, it was not legally recognized. So, he was unable to legally marry.

Still, the two would live together for over twenty years and always referred to themselves as husband and wife. For the rest of her life, Hecquet would even refer to herself as Madame Rafael Chocolat.

Rafael would later get his family involved in the circus. He would take Eugène to practice with him and Foottit, where he would show him the tricks of the trade. Suzanne would join him at the Nouveau Cirque and learn to ride horses, juggle and perform acrobatics. Hecquet would also make costumes for acts and served as a secretary for Rafael, who still struggled to speak French.

Later Career

Throughout the 1890s and into the early 1900s, Rafael and Foottit would continue their success. They had a regular spot performing, but they also began to perform at operas, as well as for politicians and aristocrats. In the late 1890s, they would even appear in several of the films of the Lumière Brothers, including Gigi and Rocking Chair. Rafael would have been one of the first people of colour to appear in a moving picture.

In 1901, the duo would reinvent their act. They added dialogue, no longer relying on the now out-of-style slapstick that had once made up their act. For the next four years, they continued their reign as leaders in circus comedy.

But everything would change in 1905 when the Dreyfus affair shocked the upper-class of Paris. This saw the conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish man falsely accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. Not long after he was charged with treason, it came out that anti-semitic sentiments were what had led to his conviction. The upper class of Paris were forced to reexamine their prejudices. At the very least, they were made uncomfortable by them. The idea of a white clown attacking a black clown soon lost what exactly had made it so funny. Ticket sales plummeted and when the Nouveau Cirque came into new ownership in 1905, Foottit and Rafael's contract was not renewed.

A poster advertising one of Foottit and Chocolat's shows.

For five more years, Foottit and Rafael attempted to continue their partnership, albeit in a dying business. Circuses had lost a lot of their popularity over the years, especially as technology had begun to take off. Movie theatres had begun to take off since they were cheaper and more accessible. Along with that, other forms of entertainment such as late-night boxing and cabarets, which utilized light shows, rose in popularity. People just did not want to visit the circus anymore.

When Rafael fell ill in 1906, it only brought more uncertainty to the future of his career. This left the family financially unstable, as Rafael had been the breadwinner and now had to take off extended periods of time. A reporter who had previously written on the family heard that they were struggling financially, and pleaded with readers to give donations to the family. They did and were able to successfully raise ₣1043, just enough for Rafael to recover.

Then, after a period of unsteady work, Foottit and Rafael finally signed into another contract, this time at the Folies Bergère. This only lasted until 1909, at which point the duo returned to the Nouveau Cirque, this time under the title of a new act -- Chocolat, aviateur d'Henry Moreau, or Chocolat, aviator of Henry Moreau. This act would prove to be a success.

Foottit and Rafael still faced the same problem, though; there was little money left in the circus business. Even with their success, there was no opportunity to sustain it. The two began to drift apart, both became more interested in performing with their children instead. In 1910, the duo of Foottit and Chocolat officially split up.

Foottit's later career would be rather unsuccessful. Though he attempted to perform with his children, it did not result in the expected profits. The act quickly broke up and Foottit turned his attention to the theatre. However, his acting career never took off. After, he attempted to begin his own circus, with no success. He would not find success until he left the circus world completely, opening a bar in Paris.

Rafael would have his own ups and downs. First, he teamed up with Suzanne and Eugène, although this would be short-lived. In 1910, Suzanne became sick with tuberculosis and Eugène joined the army in 1911. Rafael soon found himself struggling financially once again. With Suzanne sick and Hecquet out of work, the family was reliant on Rafael. He also tried his hand at acting, performing in a showing of Othello. But this was similarly unsuccessful. His French was still conversational at best, and the audience had difficulties taking Rafael seriously in the role.

Chocolat performing for sick kids. Circa 1909.

Though the worst of his struggles he would find himself facing alone. He had always been close with his children and watching one of them slowly die pained him to no end. Still, he wanted to make others feel better. He began to perform as Chocolat for sick and disabled children. This would come to be the beginning of laughter therapy. Rafael had unintentionally begun this new form of therapy and would later win an award for his work. Rafael and Foottit would even reunite every once in a while to perform for the children.

In 1912, Eugène returned home and began to work with Rafael in a new act, entitled Tablette et Chocolat. This new act experienced a bit of success, though it was lacklustre compared to Rafael's previous success. It ran very briefly, ending the same year.

By 1913, Rafael's life took a downturn. Suzanne, aged only nineteen, died. Rafael sunk into a heavy depression and a crippling drinking habit followed. He took on any job he could find, barely supporting his family, with most of his money going to fund his habit.

In the fall of 1917, Rafael joined the Cirque Rancy. On November 3, they stopped to perform in Bordeaux. This would be Rafael's final show. The next day, he had a heart attack. He died, aged around 50.

When Foottit died in 1921, he would be laid to rest in a lavish ceremony in the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. When Rafael died, his body was buried in a Protestant cemetery in a mass grave, the same way in which a poor or homeless person would be buried.

It was after his death that he was given the name of Padilla. Legally, he had to be buried with a surname, and Chocolat was deemed unsuitable. First, he was given the name Leios, then Patodos, before finally being given Padilla, the maiden name of the wife of the Spanish aristocrat he had escaped so long ago.

Eugène and his partner Ceratto in costume for their act.

Legacy

After Rafaels death, Eugène would begin his own circus act. In the 1920s, he would adopt the same stage name as his father and go on to perform alongside different partners. With the name Eugène had behind him, he would go on to be rather successful. At some point, he had his own family, and his descendants still reside in France. Throughout the 1920s and into the 30s, Eugène would perform. He would die in 1934.

After Rafael's death, there were few left to fight for his legacy. The loudest of those who did was Hecquet, who refused to let his legacy simply fade away. She fought for him, until she herself neared the end of her life. When she realized she was dying, she begged to be buried under the name of Veuve Chocolat, or Widow Chocolat. When she died on February 7, 1925, she would instead be buried under the name of Divorcèe Grimaldi.

Even with his strongest supporters gone, his memeory was not completley forgotten. His image would appear in An American in Paris and in the 1952 film Moulin Rouge, which centres on Toulouse-Lautrec as its main character. It is possible that he served as the inspiration for the character Lucky in Waiting for Godot, and 2002s Moulin Rouge! would feature a character named Chocolat, after Rafael. In 2016, almost 100 years after his death, Rafael would be given his own film, Monsieur Chocolat.

Conclusion

It is an unfortunate truth that Rafael's legacy will always be associated with the racism of his day. He played a caricature of racist sentiments, and France's quest to move on from those times is likely what has led to him being so forgotten. However, what Rafael did was impressive, no matter what he had had to build it on. At the end of the day, the character he played was his own creation, and the success he achieved was something for him to be proud of. It was his decision that if he was to be seen as nothing but a circus act, then he would be the most popular one.

But for someone who had once dazzled all of France, it is sad to see how Rafael's memory has been preserved, especially for someone who defied odds in the ways that he did. At the end of his life, there were few people who loved him compared to the crowds of the years before. Though, those who still remained were the most important to Rafael, who surely had never expected to be so loved in so many ways after the way his life had begun.

No matter how his legacy remains now, it is the brightest stars who will always find a way to shine. Rafael's astonishing career is slowly being restored to public memory, and there as those who will not let his work be forgotten. The country and the people who once adored him may soon begin to adore him once again.


Notes

  • Throughout this article, the subject is referred to by the name of Rafael Padilla. However, during his life, he would not have been known by this name. Rather he would have been known as Rafael Chocolat, with Rafael being his given name and Chocolat being a name of his choosing. In order to minimize confusion, and differentiate the man from his character, here he is referred to as simply Rafael.

  • To find an archive of photos of Rafael, click here.

Further Resources

  • Chocolat: La véritable histoire d’ un homme sans nom (or Chocolat: The True Story of a Man With No Name) is a novel by Gerard Noirel, who is commonly credited with restoring the forgotten legacy of Rafael. It has also been made into a documentary.

  • The 2016 movie Chocolat or Monsieur Chocolat is loosely inspired by the events of Rafael's life. While it is not wholly accurate, it does offer a look into the final years of Rafael's life.

Sources

Photos