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Letter from Paris

The possibility of having the time of your Afterlife in Paris is greatly enhanced by the fact that the dead here are taken as seriously as the living.

Dateline: July/August 2014. I started thinking about this Letter on 14 July, Bastille Day, the French national holiday which proudly marks the overthrow of the eponymous Paris prison/fortress/arsenal by sans-culottes.

But behind every holiday’s back, history has a way of pickpocketing its cover story. In fact, there was only a handful of inmates in the Bastille when its portals were stormed, and its most notorious convict had already been transferred out of his well-appointed cell to another prison.

And so, because of the haphazard removal of a single recidivist from a crumbling fortress, the French Revolution’s first scuffle in the service of equality and fraternity (but never sorority or mercy: the thirty-year-olds-with-theories who led the Revolution were anything but merciful) missed, by a scant few days, being labeled for posterity as “The Liberation of the Marquis de Sade.”        


Now that July is over, my Paris quartier looks very much like a ghost town. Haunted by history, it has been disinhabited by humans.

The streets around the Place Saint-Sulpice – the place on which I live – emptied out this year like brimming basins whose pipes had suddenly been unblocked: abruptly, and with a kind of gravity-assisted whoosh. Today, there are more buildings than residents, and more seagulls than pedestrians. (No one knows why, but seagulls flock to the skies above Saint-Sulpice.) Meanwhile, visitors dawdle and gape on the place, as they point their camera phones in the direction of what they think is Catherine Deneuve’s apartment.

Catherine Deneuve is a long-time resident of Saint-Sulpice (and her privacy, style français, is religiously guarded by all), but tourists always mistake her building. The edifice they point to – if only they knew — was once inhabited by a woman at least as distinguished as Mlle Deneuve: the great French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand, who set up her studio in the Place Saint-Sulpicein the 1920s.

Aside from the tourists, the two most reliable harbingers of midsummer — Paris Plages and the Dernière Démarque — have been advertising themselves all over town.

Paris Plages is the rubric given to the four weeks in July and August when the quais of the Seine are turned into the Côte d’Azur.

Five thousand tons of sand have been evenly spread over scalloped wooden platforms set up on the quais, and chaises longues, pale beach umbrellas, huge potted palms, and overhead sprinklers are just as equitably distributed. There are performances of every description in the evenings, and somewhere, I am told, a Lido is floating peacefully on the Seine.

The sky stays light here until very late in summer — so, although the city’s famous buildings are illuminated as theatrically as opera sets at night, Paris’s offical lighting designer (the city, naturally, has its own lighting designer) is not much needed for Paris Plages.

Place St-Sulpice: its fountain and famous church.
Place St-Sulpice: its fountain and famous church.

As for midsummer’s second signal, the Dernière Démarque – the last big discount on the summer sales — signs for that were put up two weeks ago in all the shop windows. And so the fetching amethyst imperméable I’ve been flirting with for days is hanging in my closet at last; purchased at Aigle, the L.L. Bean of the château set, located directly across the boulevard from the Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Près, the church which gave Oscar Wilde his surreptitious send-off. In Paris, even a rain jacket at a reduced price can implicate itself in history.

Now, the unofficial discounts continue with soldes flottantes in the back rooms. Sauve qui peut.


Ambulomancy (divination by walking) has always been a rich source of inspiration for writers, as well as a regular way of life for flâneuses. In Paris I am both, and midsummer, when my quartier is flensed of its population and flaunting its architectural bones, is a terrific time to take a walk.

With a little visual editing, I can be alone with the vacated buildings, memorial plaques, historical markers and – if I care to leave the 6ieme – the four fantastically distinctive city cemeteries (Montparnasse, Montmartre, Passy, and Père Lachaise), with their elaborate mortuarial art and tombal architecture, their funereal plantings, their discretely displayed lists of celebrity residents.

At least in the cemeteries, the word “celebrity” has a strict usage: it is confined to persons whose notoriety is justified by actual accomplishment.

Palais du Luxemburg: The house that Marie de Medecis built so she could leave the Louvre. Photo: Joan Schenkar
Palais du Luxemburg: The house that Marie de Medecis built so she could leave the Louvre. Photo: Joan Schenkar

Janet Flanner – who helped set the New Yorker’s early insouciant style and spent half the Twentieth Century in Paris — said that writers, like camels, live on their pasts. But Paris makes it possible for those who stay (and for those who visit conscientiously) to live on everyone else’s past as well.

In my Left Bank neighborhood — the narrow cobbled streets, shaded passages, elegant small squares and larger places of the 6eme arrondissement between the river Seine and the Jardin du Luxemburg — a gossamer shroud of gossip wraps the honored dead in anecdotes as inviting as the morning scent of brewing coffee and warm baguettes.

But the wafting notes of good, strong tobacco smoke –- as important to sense-memory in summoning Paris’ past as the crunch of a tartine for breakfast or the faintly oily texture of a Pernod in the late afternoon – have vanished from the cafés now that smoking indoors is banned.

The absence of smoke is felt much as Absinthe was felt when it, too, was banned in France in 1915: as an absence of inspiration. But Absinthe is back and smoking is not.

Everyone in this literary quartier — where most of the major publishing companies have (or had) their offices, where there is a bookstore every fifteen metres, and where the two grand cafés, Les Deux MagotsLes Deux Magots and Le Café de Flore, and one chic upstart, Les Editeurs, award their own literary prizes — knows where the famous bodies are buried. And they want you to know it, too. The possibility of having the time of your Afterlife in Paris is greatly enhanced by the fact that the dead here are taken as seriously as the living.

A stroll down any of the streets in the 6eme arrondissement of the metropolis Walter Benjamin called “the capital of the nineteenth century” offers usable proof that Marcel Proust and his cousin-by-marriage Henri Bergson were right about Time: the veil between time lost and time regained is as flimsy as voilage and just as easily lifted.

Experience is proustified in Paris, as in that well-known madeleine dipped in limeflower tisane — and geography quickly turns to history, literature, aesthetics. An example of this lies just around the corner from where I live: the hotel at 14 rue des Canettes, opened after her employer’s death by Céleste Albaret, Proust’s remarkable gouvernante. Recognizing this hotel for its history led me straight to Mme Albaret’s memoir, Monsieur Proust, and then on to an awed re-reading of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu –- some of whose lengthy divigations snaked their stylish way into my biography of Patricia Highsmith.

Paris is full of such sudden revelations for the writer. They allow the past to inflect the present and inform the future – and they often start with a simple street view. Looking around here means learning something; learning from those who are gone.

Photo: Joan Schenkar

Roads and squares, ponts and passerelles are called after the illustrious dead. Every other street has a tablet honoring someone who fell – on the spot – under German bullets during the Second War. And there are large, paddle-shaped markers to proclaim the histories of Paris’ most interesting buildings, while the names, dates and disciplines of their accomplished (and departed) residents are put up on plaques on exterior walls.

Sometimes those walls hold more than just plaques. Across the place from my apartment, on the rue Férou (D’Artagnon’s street, for those who remember their Dumas, père) every verse of Le Bateau Ivre has been beautifully inscribed on a long wall outside the municipal tax building. It commemorates that exceptionally foul-mouthed little genius, Arthur Rimbaud, and his first public reading of his poem at seventeen in 1871 at –- where else? — a café on the Place St-Sulpice.

Arthur Rimbaud
Arthur Rimbaud

And who among us did not pin that photographed poster of Arthur Rimbaud’s head and shoulders –the Shock-Headed Peter of 19th century punks – to her or his bedroom wall and dream of behaving badly in Paris?

In my quartier, the ley lines of past accomplishment cross each other constantly. Gérard Philippe – the great, (gorgeously handsome, dead at 36) talent of French theatre and film of the 1940s and 1950s has a street named after him in the 16eme arrondissement. But in the 6eme, as though Philippe had been a beautiful building himself, there’s a large paddle-shaped marker with all his details on it firmly fixed in front of his

Gerard Philippe with ... in 'The Red List.'
Gerard Philippe with Micheline Presle in ‘Le Diable au Corps.’

former apartment in the rue de Tournon. And that fulsome display is cater-corner to the writer Joseph Roth’s plaque above the Café Tournon (where The Paris Review founders convened their earliest meetings) and just across the street from 10 rue de Tournon where Theodora Roosevelt Keogh –- Theodore Roosevelt’s fascinating granddaughter — wrote one of her most transgressive novels (Street Music) in the 1950s.

And if the names of dead writers are missing from the buildings they lived in – well, this is a readers’ city so the neighbors will know and are happy to tell. Only the secrets of the living are withheld in Paris – along with too many of the plaques which should be celebrating the women of substance who made Paris their creative home.

Where is Eileen Gray‘s plaque on the rue Bonaparte? Nancy Cunard‘s on the Place du Furstenberg? Sylvia Beach‘s on the rue Dupuytren? Djuna Barnes‘ on the rue Saint-Romain? Berenice Abbott‘s, Gisèle Freund‘s, Romaine Brooks‘s? Nancy Mitford‘s at 7 rue Monsieur?

And surely the fifty legendary years of the writer Natalie Clifford Barney‘s literary salon — the most important literary salon in 20th century Paris – have earned their own marker at 20 rue Jacob.

The author in her Triumph at 20 rue Jacob. Photo: Laurence Parade
Joan Schenkar in the courtyard of Natalie Barney’s pavilion, 20 rue Jacob. Photo: Laurence Parade

Still, in the whole of New York City only four statues of women are on public display (Alice in Wonderland, The Statue of Liberty, Eleanor Roosevelt and Gertrude Stein — the last two of whom had tea together at The White House in 1934 before Mrs. Roosevelt became a statue herself; Miss Stein, always en avant, had been a statue since 1920) while the Jardin du Luxemburg (created in the early 17th century by Marie de Médecis, an Italian-born Queen of France longing for home) has its allée des reines (Queen’s Walk): an elevated, ballustraded promenade encircling the enormous parterre in front of the Palais du Luxemburg (where the French Senate meets), on which statues of twenty “illustrious” women stand.

The allée des reines (Queen's Walk).
The Allée des Reines (Queens Walk). Photo: Joan Schenkar

Most of these figures were commissioned in the 1840s and all of them represent women whose lives were crucial to the history of France.

A statue of Marie de Medecis in the Allee de Reines.
A statue of Marie de Medecis in the Allee des Reines. Photo: Joan Schenkar

And I doubt very much if there’s another garden in the Western World that dares to display so many statues of prominent women with their clothes on.


Ever since Baron Haussmann, in the service of Napoleon III, destroyed much of Paris’ medieval center (visible now only in Charles Marville’s marvelous photographs) and replaced it with the broad boulevards and Haussmannien buildings we think of as essentially Parisian, the city has fiercely preserved its past.

Simon de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir, Cafe de Flore, 1947. Hulton-Deutsch Collection.

Within a few blocks in my quartier, I can raise a glass in the 17th century café/restaurant where my high school hero Voltaire once raised his (Le Procope, in the rue de l’Ancienne Comédie); see a classic Noir film across the street from the last apartment Alice B. Toklas shared with Gertrude Stein in the 1940s (the apartment where Alice spent most of her long viduity: 5 rue Christine); drop in for a drink at the hotel in the rue des Saint-Pères to which Patricia Highsmith retreated between her restless bouts of wandering Europe; have a coffee where Djuna Barnes took notes for Nightwood long after dark in the 1920s (Café de la Mairie in the Place Saint-Sulpice, where Georges Perec also sat for three days in 1974, constructing a book from every single thing he observed from the café window); scan Marguerite Duras’ newly-erected plaque celebrating her 54 years in the rue Saint-Benoit; pass the hotel in the rue des Beaux Arts where Oscar Wilde succumbed to his wallpaper in 1900 (around the corner from the Barney salon where his niece Dolly Wilde performed in the Wilde style); linger in the miniscule lobby of the Hôtel La Louisiane in the rue de Seine where Room 50 was occupied by Simone de Beauvoir; stroll the approximate patch of the rue Servandoni from which Berenice Abbott, in less forgiving times, was hauled off to jail in a raid on a lesbian bar.

And I can – and do — pause every single time I walk the rue de l’Ecole-de-Médecine in front of the plaque which distills for me this city’s continuing conversation with its history.

It’s the plaque marking the birthplace of Sarah Bernhardt, still the world’s most celebrated actress. A plaque put up for a matrilinear Jew in 1944, when Paris was still occupied by the Nazis.


Ici naquit Sarah Bernhardt” the inscription begins, “Gloire de Notre Théâtre.”

The glow in the “glory” of that radiant phrase –”Gloire de Notre Théâtre” – and the gallant effort made by the great Bernhardt’s admirers to let it shine out in a darkened world — tells me everything I need to know about what the dead can do for the living in the city of Paris.

And vice versa.

(To be continued.)


© 2014 Joan Schenkar



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