Letter from Paris
DATELINE: Late Fall/Early Winter 2014-2015, Paris and Greenwich Village
In late autumn, when the slants of light incline towards melancholy, when the vegetable world is shadowed by decay, and when I –– perversely and right on cue –– am full of bright cheer and boundless creativity, the temptation to drop in on my favorite Paris cemetery is irresistible.
I am not alone. The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner, daughter of an Indianapolis mortician, made certain that the first thing she did in Paris in 1921 was to go to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise to lay a single black iris on Oscar Wilde’s tomb.
Exotic bloom in hand, Miss Flanner was taken aback to find the grave closed to visitors –– and for an unusual reason. The local lycée students, attracted by the nude, male, flying Sphinx adorning Oscar’s headstone, had been hopping the cemetery fence at night to hack off the Sphinx’s marble genitalia.
That Sphinx, created by the American-born English sculptor Jacob Epstein, can still be seen on Oscar’s tomb in Père-LaChaise with all its missing parts still missing. But because this generation’s hacker/fans have insisted on covering the sepulchre with a thick layer of lipstick kisses (lipstick degrades marble as well as lending it a gaudily leprous appearance), the entire monument is now secured behind a tall, transparent barrier.
Still, no one would appreciate the implied joke and its subsidiary set of paradoxes more than Oscar Wilde himself –– who is, once again (but this time for good reason) — walled away from a love that dares to speak its name.
There are eleven burying grounds in the city of Paris (not counting the Catacombes, where the ossuary of six million deceased Parisians is situated in caves 132 steps under the 14ème arrondissement). Each one has its own particular charms and peculiar poignancies.
My favorite is the elegant, little-known Cimetière de Passy in the 16ème arrondissement. I spent an afternoon there just before my return to Greenwich Village.
Like all good things in Paris –- like all the best things –- the Cimetière de Passy is easy to find if you already know where to look for it. Just behind and to the southwest of the vast Place du Trocadéro, it is hidden by the giant retaining wall which encircles and supports it. The wall is itself a memorial: faced with an haut-relief monument to the French soldiers who fought and died in the First World War.
To visit the cemetery, you follow the high wall as it curves to the left and up the rue du Commandant Schloesing. The entrance –- it appears out of nowhere — is unmistakable: a huge, double gate in the Art Deco style whose cynosure is an elegant salle d’attente. Like almost everything about Passy, it is exceptional: the only heated cemetery waiting room in Paris.
In better times than these, the histories (i.e., the gorgeous rumors and aerobically unstable facts) buried with Passy’s permanent Parisians would be brought to you by the likes of Marcel Proust, the brothers Goncourt, and Nancy Mitford. But Proust has been in Père-LaChaise since 1922, the Goncourt frères are entombed together in the Cimetière de Montmartre, and Miss Mitford, despite expressing a preference for Père-LaChaise in her Will, was repatriated to her local churchyard in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire in 1973.
Still… autre temps, autres tuyaux. So the news from this concealed corner of Paris is coming to you from an American writer whose mind has been usefully concentrated on death by long exposure to the kinds of stories only the French know how to tell.
Since its establishment in 1820, the Cimetière de Passy has been the necropolis of choice for a tangled bank of aristocracies: exiled monarchs, society figures from the Faubourg St-Germain, wealthy industrialists/entrepreneurs/inventors, successful politicians, and artists celebrated in every field.
Harder to get into (in a permanent way) than any club privé, Passy’s burying grounds measure just 1.75 hectares — not quite enough land to graze two dairy cows. The cemetery’s size and recherché location have always guaranteed its exclusivity, and vacancies here are infrequent enough to be nearly apparitional. But on this visit I found one.
A discrete card placed on an empty tomb (see photograph) signals the possibility of a concession à perpétuité — Eternity’s equivalent of a room of one’s own at a very good address. And the neighbors are fascinating.
To begin with, there’s a duo of famous male aviation pioneers, neither of whom are recessive in death. Dieudonné Costes has the two hemispheres of the globe inscribed in bas-relief on his gravestone, while Henry Farman, the first airplane designer to make a closed-circuit flight of one kilometre (about six-tenths of a mile) vaunts himself in stone as “the man who gave wings to the world.”
Then, there’s a full flacon of society parfumeurs and designers –- all of whose names still resonate in the world of la mode: Guerlain, Jean Patou, and Givenchy. They are buried within convenient greeting distance of some of their best clients.
One of those clients was Natalie Clifford Barney, the American femme de lettres, who wore Guerlain’s Jicky perfume until her death at 96 in 1972. An heiress from Cincinnati in an age when her carefully-conserved 6 million dollars bought her a private world of pleasure, she lived her unconventional life with panache, wrote her works in perfect 18th century French, and hosted, for much of the 20th century, Paris’s most international literary salon in her pavillon at 20 rue Jacob. She shares a simple headstone of American granite with her sister Laura, doyenne of the World Bah’ai religion.
Miss Barney’s grave is a three minute saunter from the fairy-tale-like tomb –- actually, a tiny neo-Gothic chapel — of her early lover, Renée Vivien: the half-American, self-consciously decadent Symboliste poet, dead at 31 in 1909. Vivien’s friend and neighbor
Colette, nothing if not practical, made ruthless use of her life in The Pure and The Impure, and wrote elsewhere that her apartment smelled like “a rich man’s funeral,” that her decadence was that of a corrupted child, and that she rinsed her mouth with eau de toilette to conceal her drinking.
Vivien’s tomb, built for her by the Rothschild duchesse who was her next-to-last lover, has pride of place at the top of a small staircase just inside Passy’s entrance gate. The self-composed epitaph inscribed on its side exhibits the style of which Renée Vivien was perhaps the last, great practitioner: no one who writes poetry well has written in this way for a hundred years.
Voici la porte d’où je sors…
O mes roses et mes épines!
Qu’importe l’autrefois? Je dors
En songeant aux choses divines…
Voici donc mon âme ravie,
Car elle s’apaise et s’endort
Ayant, pour l’amour de la Mort,
Pardonné ce crime: la Vie
A trio of painting Manets is also here: the radical réaliste Édouard, his brother Eugène, and the “virtuoso colorist” Berthe Morisot, who married Eugène (by most accounts, her second choice of Manet and a failure as an artist). They are bunched up together in a single grave; their Afterlife a continuation of their earthly life’s complex relations. A modest stele rises above them, crowned by Édouard Manet’s even more modest bust.
Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, the renowned furniture and interior designer, is here, too. As the greatest interpreter of the Art Deco style of the 1920s, he has a suitably stylish Art Deco tomb — and died a suitable death in 1933, when the vernacular he mastered still ruled the world of design.
But the most flamboyant of the artist’s sepulchres in Passy belongs to the Ukrainian painter, sculptor, and diarist Marie Bashkirtseff, who died at 25 in 1884 of tuberculosis (the curse of the owning as well as the working classes). Her journal, restored from her noble family’s ignoble attempts to censor it, is still in print. Its title displays her unflappable self-confidence — I Am the Most Interesting Book of All –- and the work is all the more impressive for having been written when her alma mater, the Académie Julien in Paris, was one of the few art schools in the world which accepted female students.
Bashkirtseff’s onion-domed, fantasy-mausoleum –- it is Moscow on the Seine if it’s anything at all — reproduces her studio as well as her paintings and furniture. It’s a place of pilgrimage, a French National Monument, and a rare representation of a woman artist’s highest ambitions. But that representation came post facto and post mortem — and the Nazis destroyed many of Bashkirtseff’s paintings.
Passy has its fair share of show business figures, too: the boulevard playwright Henry Bernstein; the dramatist and novelist Jean Giradoux (author of that theatre department staple, The Madwoman of Chaillot); the comedic actor Fernandel (a great star of the French cinema); Bérénice Bretty, the Comédie-Française actress and companion-in-exile of the Free French leader Georges Mandel (executed by the Vichy government in 1944, Mandel is also buried in Passy — but not with Mlle Bretty); and Gabrielle Réjane, a contemporary and occasional rival of Sarah Bernhardt. Réjane was famous even in New York for her starring performance in Sardou’s Mademoiselle Sans Gêne.
And –- Passy is full of surprises — Pearl White, the American star of stage and of the foundational silent movie serial, The Perils of Pauline, is buried here.
Miss White did her own stunt work (she flew the planes), was clever with her investments, and died a rich woman in Paris in 1938. Her austere, black marble tomb displays her name and nothing else. An actress to the end, she planned her own funeral and kept her birthdate off her gravestone.
Here, too, is the legendary French actor and director, Jean-Louis Barrault. Forty years after his unearthly presence first lit up the screen in Marcel Carné’s masterpiece, Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), I met him in Paris, still altering the atmosphere of every room he entered simply by walking in to it. His name is joined with that of his wife, the great theatre actress Madeleine Renaud, in an eponymous place in the 15ème arrondissement. But in Passy, they are hidden away in the same obscure grave: the battered tomb of the 19th Century architect, Louis L’Heureux.
Two of France’s greatest composers are also here: Claude Débussy and Gabriel Fauré. And two generations of brilliant 19th century French medical men: the doctors Esprit Blanche and his son Émile-Antoine Blanche. They share their solid, bourgeouis mausoleum, marked only with the name of the family founder, with their celebrated son and grandson, the portrait artist Jacques-Émile Blanche — who painted most of the Belle Époque personalities we read and read about. (Including, in the 1880s, the famous portrait of Marcel Proust at 21.)
Esprit Blanche and his son continued to advance the practice of compassionate psychiatry in the father’s Montmartre sanitarium — a large white house called La Folie Sandrin, at 22 rue Norvins — and then in Passy, on the property of the unfortunate Princesse de Lamballe. The number of famous makers of art on their patient roster is a revelation: Alfred de Vigny, Hector Berlioz, Eugène Delacroix, Alexandre Dumas, Théophile Gautier, Édouard Manet, Guy de Maupassant, Gérard de Nerval, Auguste Renoir, Edgard Dégas, Marie D’Algoult, La comtesse de Castiglione, Jules Verne, et al.
Inevitably, Dr. Blanche’s Folie Sandrin was divided up into apartments and put on the market. A rare à vendre sign for one of the flats caught my eye and corralled my imagination. An ancient sanitarium at the top of Montmartre? Layered with lavish deposits of 19th century unhappiness left behind by all those artists unbalanced enough to require confined care? What could be more interesting?
Hypnotized by the history ( a fête champêtre for an American raised on midcentury modern), I dialed the property agent.
But –- who can explain these things? –- my real estate fever cooled quickly under the presentiment that rooms at La Folie Sandrin (and my rooms only) would be haunted by the ghost of Dr. Blanche’s most notorious patient: the hallucinatorily Romantic writer Gérard de Nerval (safely in Père-Lachaise since 1855).
Nerval, a sublime talent propelled by an epically unstable temperament, had interrupted his last sojourn at La Folie Sandrin to slope down the hill and hang himself at the end of the rue de la Vielle-Lanterne.
But if you’ve read Gérard de Nerval’s short poem “El Desdichado” (listen to it here, recited by the great Jean Vilar: Jean Vilar – El Desdichado (Gérard de Nerval) – YouTube) you already understand why avoiding a residential haunting by Nerval’s ghost — not to mention the ghost of his ghost’s companion-animal (in life, Nerval is said to have enjoyed walking his lobster Thibault on a lavender ribbon) — was very much the right thing to do.
As for the royals, the politicians, and the industrialists buried in Passy, democracy is at work on them, but not in any demotic way. Distributed throughout the cemetery’s divisions, they are haloed by the half-life of their celebrity: Princess Brassova (sister-in-law of Czar Nicholas II), Bao Dai, the last Emperor of Vietnam, Ghislaine de Monaco, dowager Princess of Monaco, the past presidents of Haiti and Venezuela, the famille Renault (cars), the Bouygues (building works and film production), etc etc.
Still, one of the most visited of the royal gravesites belongs to a woman who lived out of the light: the tragic, exiled, Pahlavi princess Leila, daughter of the last Shah of Iran. A magnet for cemetery tourists who share Edgar Allan Poe’s attraction to dead young beauties (“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”),
she is known mostly for her sad, turbulent upbringing and her bad, drug-related death. She expired alone in her London hotel room, in 2001; she was 31 years old.
Her slab of polished grey marble is framed by a cordon of perfectly-tended white orchids. From its center, her lovely, smiling photograph stares out into the future she should have had.
And then –- from another world entirely –- there is the mausoleum of the Cognacq-Jays: the married, aspirational, entrepreneurs Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jay, whose historic store, La Samaritaine, enriched the experience of shopping in Paris for more than a century.
The magnificent Paris department store that was La Samaritaine — a towering Art Nouveau/ Art Deco temple of commerce dominating the Pont Neuf in the 1ère arrondissement –- was sold in 2001 (over the howls of many Parisians) to Bernard Arnault, president of LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate. M. Arnault is France’s richest man, known familiarly to the press as “le loup en cashmere” (“the wolf in cashmere”) for his asset-stripping proclivities and good dress coats.
On the store’s last day (15 June, 2005, when LVMH was still repeating the canard that La Samaritaine was only closing “temporarily” for months of “remedial work”), I walked into the posthumous history of the Cognacq–Jays to join the claque of hundreds of store workers and loyal customers assembled on La Samaritaine’s ground floor. Like them, I was looking for trouble: something on the order of the classic, Racinian denunciation of management for which French labor unions are so famous.
But it is not only labor unions that speak truth to power in France. Waiting in a queue for an awards ceremony hosted by the Mayor of Paris one evening, I marvelled as a bevy of French bourgeois in full dress attire tried to overturn the identification barrier blocking our entrance to the theatre — and then kettled the unlucky aide behind it. We, the invited audience, had already been asked to show our official invitations, and the good French citizens ahead of me, insulted by the illogic of having to identify themselves for a second time, were registering their objections in the classic French manner.
The barrier was quickly removed, the audience admitted without further frisking, and I went home with a very good idea of how the French Revolution got its start.
As for the denunciation I’d come to the department store to hear – well, I wasn’t disappointed.
La Samaritaine’s union representative, a middle-aged, working class woman from the provinces, proved to be an inspired orator. She stood at the very top of the store’s many-stories-high Art Deco staircase, under its roof of gleaming glass, and her voice — radiant with scorn — rolled down the stairs to the rez-de-chausée and enveloped us. The subject of her invocation, Bernard Arnault, was also her target. Her aim was excellent:
“Ce monsieur qui a acheté notre magasin…..”
Any valedictory speech which begins by turning its subject into an epithet –- as in, “This gentleman” — and then goes on to slap a moral lien on the gentleman’s property — as in, “This gentleman who has bought our store…” — is never going to end well for the gentleman in question.
But eight years on, M. Arnault has, quite literally, gone ahead with his plan to strip the asset that was La Samaritaine. The department store’s historic facades are being torn down and replaced with the ice-white, accordian-pleated walls of a Japanese-designed deluxe hotel — the real reason his company bought La Samaritaine in the first place.
With their usual archery, The French are describing the result as “a Giant Shower Curtain.” They are not wrong.
And I feel sure that The Cognacq-Jays, who nurtured La Samaritaine like a new-born child (Janet Flanner said that Ernest Cognacq-Jay slept in the store every night in its early days), and had the good taste to endow an entire museum with their collection of paintings and furniture, are sending waveforms of disapproval all the way from their tomb in the Cimetière de Passy.
Even in death, the very rich are different from you and me. The elaborate mausoleum of the famille Talleyrand-Périgord in Passy remains unmarked -– and not for any reasons of low self-esteem. Like the Rothschilds in Père-LaChaise, the Talleyrand-Périgords had no need to mark their family tomb. It was enough that they knew who they were.
The Talleyrand-Périgord line is extinct now; it ended with Violette Talleyrand-Périgord’s death in 2003. But golden chains of consequence connect the residents of Passy with a world-wide web of social and historical significance. And so, Violette, Duchesse de Sagan and the last of the Talleyrand-Périgords, was also the granddaughter of America’s Jay Gould, the Gilded Age’s most unscrupulous Robber Baron. And Violette’s mother, the “dollar princess” Anna Gould, buried with Violette in this mausoleum, was Jay Gould’s second daughter and the first wife of Europe’s most stylish fortune hunter, Comte Boni de Castellane.
(If ever a genre of perfect summary sentences is officially identified, Boni de Castellane’s description of his courtship of Anna Gould will surely be its avatar: “Our eyes met, our hands met, our lips met and then our lawyers met.”)
Violette’s own late-life marriage to the baptized Polish-Jewish/French politician, Gaston Palewski, ensured his interment in the Talleyrand-Périgord mausoleum and, not incidentally, broke the writer Nancy Mitford’s heart. Palewski, Charles de Gaulle’s bras droit during the Second World War, was the inspiration for two of Mitford’s best novels, as well as the love of her life.
As always, much more than bodies have been buried in the Cimetière de Passy:
There is a plaque on an otherwise unidentifed grave that reads: “To my godmother, the Good Fairy of my childhood.” A galaxy of gratitude is in that anonymous dèdicace.
And there is Manfred Schapiro, whose tombstone says he was a member of de Gaulle’s Free French Army and a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. He chose to mark his grave with the names of three members of his family who “disappeared” in 1944. The inscription on his stone leaves no doubt as to how they vanished: in smoke, up the chimneys of the Third Reich.
Remember me, the dead here chant in chorus –- and you do, you do. The bare facts of their lives — incised in stone, embossed in metal, reworked in marble –- are on every surface you see; while all that remains of their physical presence on earth lies at your feet. It is an intolerable intimacy.
But if ever there was an opportunity for remembrance and reflection, it is in the anthologies of long-gone manners and morals, dreams and desires hidden in the well-preserved plots of this little jewel of a cemetery. So many intricate emotional, spiritual, and historical educations await you here,
in the shadow of the Tour Eiffel and the Palais du Chaillot.
And now you know where to find them.
A POSTSCRIPT: This month’s Letter From Paris is dedicated to the ten brave journalists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris — and to the two police officers who came to their aid — barbarically assassinated on 7 January 2015 by Islamist terrorists.
The attack was on us all.
Vive Charlie Hebdo!
(To be continued… )
© 2015 Joan Schenkar