Does any of that Paris still exist outside the imaginations of writers, artists and nostalgic filmmakers? If I went to those characters’ haunts, could I too experience the Paris of the ’20s?
Using Allen’s movie as a loose guide, I set out to find out, beginning at the exact spot where Gil picked up his ride into the past, one of six film locations mapped out on the Paris City Hall Web site. In the city’s student quarter, I stood on the north steps of the Eglise Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, a 17th-century church near the Pantheon. (In the film, this massive domed monument, the burial place of Voltaire and Victor Hugo, was kept out of camera range.) Looking down the rue de la Montagne Ste. Genevieve, I half expected to see an antique car coming up the cobblestones. Instead, I heard the unmistakable sound of jazz.
Was I hallucinating?
I walked toward the sound — past the Bombardier, a bar boasting “real English ales,” and past La Capannina, a restaurant serving up 18-euro pasta (according to the menu posted out front) until I reached No. 64, a shop with a blue facade and the word “Crocojazz” emblazoned in yellow above the door. The shop, selling used jazz and blues vinyl records, was playing Kenny Dorham’s “Hot Stuff From Brazil,” an album cut in Rio more than 40 years after Cole Porter sang about bees doing it. Across the way at No. 47, another record store was also playing music from the past — several centuries past: La Dame Blanche specializes in classical music. To its left was Cafe Gaudeamus, a typical French bistro; to its right, a Japanese restaurant, Asia-Tee, featuring sushi. No Cole Porter, but the multi-culti melange of the Jazz Age was obviously alive and well and living in the Latin Quarter.
In the ’20s, Paris was jampacked with foreigners, particularly Americans — about 40,000 of them, both black and white — lured by the city’s promise of sexual freedom, its mania for everything exotic and its ridiculously favorable exchange rate. Some, including Baker, Stein and photographer Man Ray, ended up making Paris their home. Others, such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes and T.S. Eliot, who all have cameos in Allen’s cinematic love letter to the City of Light, drifted in and out throughout the decade. Just as in Allen’s film, they partied with other foreigners, including the Spaniards Dali, Picasso and filmmaker Luis Bunuel.
In the film, one of those fetes, a wedding, takes place at Deyrolle, a “cabinet of curiosities” that has been at 46 rue du Bac since 1831, even surviving a devastating fire in 2008. Wandering through its display of stuffed lions, tigers and tarantulas (alas, no rhinoceroses), you can see why the Surrealists loved this place. The shop sells everything from snake skeletons to ostrich eggs. Dali, who has his own museum, Espace Dali at 11 rue Poulbot in Montmartre, was a frequent customer: A stuffed polar bear still greets visitors at the entrance to his house in Spain.