PARIS -- Paris' social season begins for some with September fashion rounds. Others wait for October's first promenade down Garnier's Grand Opera House stairwells. But for many, the season starts when dancing, after a summer's absence, returns to La Coupole.
Nestled amid the hard edges of a more modern Paris, the city's most famous cafe' wears the aged glow of a pressed Valentine. Its wide red awning and white-frost neon sign are deceptive, almost innocently simple.
Atop the marquee, positioned to attract the strolling pedestrians of another era, a smaller pink neon sign flashes: "DANCING"
"The whole world," a customer says, sweeping past, "dances at Coupole."
Sixty years ago, the Jazz Age tangoed in Paris at Coupole. F. Scott Fitzgerald saved Zelda the waltzes.
On the days he prowls the Montparnasse cafe''s terrace, greeting friends and returning customers, "Monsieur Rene'" Lafon, 89, owner-founder of the celebrated restaurant/dance hall/cafe', will point out Fitzgerald's corner. Sartre's wicker chair. Or the table Ionesco prefers.
Inside, beneath the restaurant's high dome, the crushed red velvet seats have accomodated appropriate presidents and actors, the Rolling Stones, the Onassises and Mondales of the world. And three Hemingway generations (after liberating the Ritz Bar in '44, Lafon says, Ernest raced next to La Coupole and swept Lafon into a bear-hug, declaring "I'm back!").
La Coupole stories are legend -- legends come easily when only Fouquet's, Maxim's or Lipp's are true rivals and your clientele includes such single name passwords as Dali, Colette, Papillon and Picasso.
To see and be seen is a Parisian obsession and no more so than here. La Coupole, employees say, is "not unique, but special."
"It's difficult to recall celebrities," Rene''s son and partner, Jean Lafon, 59, smiles, "because we see so many. Coupole's known world over." He quick-lists a roster of ghost writers, actors and the "famous for being famous": Simone du Beauvoir, Chagall, Burt Lancaster, Dos Passos, Linda Evans, Samuel Beckett, Louis Aragon, Franc oise Sagan, Giacometti, Tony Curtis, Bunuel, Saint-Exupery. Adding a princess, two duchesses and a few Rothschilds, he smiles, "It's a multitude."
To commemorate La Coupole's diamond anniversary this year, the French house Denoel published Franc oise Plagniol's coffeetable book which attempts to assess La Coupole's contribution to cafe' society, literature and the arts. No specific celebration is planned for the cafe''s birthday Dec. 20. Lafon says 50th anniversary festivities 10 years ago uncovered "tens of thousands of friends we'd need to invite."
Yet, for all the street-level passing of kings and comedians, it's what Jean calls "the very anonymous dancing" that presses La Coupole to the French heart. His father, he admits, "still likes to go downstairs to see if there's a lot of people."
A French writer suggests attending Coupole's afternoon "tea" dances "with a friend of your mother."
At 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, beside a red-lettered terrace doorway marked Entre'e du Dancing, "Ginger" waits alone. She appears frozen chronologically in her late sixties, and wears a dark 1940s dress, with a large polka-dotted ribbon at the throat, spiked heels and long dangle earrings. Her makeup is heavy and highlighted by a thick red slash of lipstick.
Nearby, in a quiet terrace corner, a dozen aged Astaires wait patiently. One, his arm crooked over the back of a cafe' chair, wears yesteryear's suit, too tight across his stomach, and a gray smile. If not actually 70, he's well past the speed limit, but he stares at her nonetheless with heavy-lidded Valentino longing. She returns his glance with cornered eyes, darting to look at her watch when discovered. It's an age-old cat-and-mouse game they play -- a slow invitation to the dance. Undisturbed by the Madonna want-to-be's hurrying by on the street and the roller-skating painter, canvases under each arm, zipping past, they continue their game until 4 p.m., when doors to the dance hall open and they join more than 300 tea dance habitue's waiting to file downstairs.
As they have for 60 years, hundreds of people each afternoon and evening pay 45 to 70 francs for admission ($7.50 to $12) into the windowless ballroom below the restaurant. Traditionally, Sunday afternoon crowds are the week's largest, numbering many more than 500 regulars. Nearly all are older than 40 and many near twice that age.
While a live orchestra alternates with records in a seductively perfumed atmosphere, they relive a past that has never really faded and has changed only at the edges. Romantically dancing in the dark for a few anonymous hours, all the women are beautiful, all men handsome strangers.
But no photos, please.
What the French call a "mackerel" swims beside a twentyish blond American at the bar. "You know Coupole is very famous," his line opens. "Many famous American writers came here. 'emingway and 'enry Miller."
"Oh really? What'd he write?"
Long pause. "I don't know."
"Tropic of Cancer." She moves her stool away.
Couples glide in slow step along aisles between cloth-covered tables as the six-gaucho orchestra begins sultry piano tangos. The small, crowded ballroom actually looks the way nightclubs do in movies but never seem to in real life.
An ageless silver-haired couple embrace in a corner of the crowd. As each song ends, he pats her derriere fondly.
They kiss and begin another slow circling turn, like music-box figures winding down. Mirrored balls toss and scatter the pale light around them. From tiered tables other faces smile beneath four Artist and Model Ball scenes. "Monsieur Rene'" had artist customers in the '30s paint these murals, as well as the 24 columns upstairs, in exchange for food. Many of the painters became famous, like Le'ger, Carzou and Cesar. Picasso, however, refused.
"I used to work upstairs," Renato Mettozzi, Coupole's bartender, says as the orchestra wails "But Not for Me." "Up there I'd wait on Picasso. On Jean-Paul Sartre. Me!" Sartre, he says, drank whiskey and water. Picasso, like his artwork, went through different periods, drinking different things.
"I'm paid," a musician says, "to console beautiful women."
Roberto Cadarella's tango orchestra, in lime satin blouses, alternates cabaret numbers with six mambo/samba/salsa/cha-cha/conga/disco discs. Argentine and Jamaican rhythms mix with "French slow" -- Piaf, Charles Trenet and other songsters of la vie en rose. Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Cole Porter. Night and day, employes say, women always outnumber (and outrumba) the men. Many come here on their own and dance alone. Others listen and reflect. Still others "come to get attentions or coquette" into their seventies.
The two Genevieves, both in their midforties, sit in a booth sipping the current mode -- neon blue-and-green drinks. They issue a universal complaint. "Not enough men here," one says. "Many that are, are drageurs, pretending not to be married."
As one such Don Juan adjusts his draped suit before a mirror, Robert, 50, a 35-year regular, orders drinks. Tough-guy handsome with a clipped mustache, he comes every day when possible, he says, drawn by the "tango ... and sex." Like many others here, he says, he's married to someone who doesn't dance. "At Coupole women chase men. Men chase women," he laughs. "Everyone from 25 to 80 years old chases. That's part of the dance."
"Soiree" dance sets each evening begin at 9:30 with younger crowds and the same musical formula. Friday and Saturday, in deference to the times, it's disc-only for a decidedly post-Beatles crowd.
From his glass deejay booth, Philippe LeClercq, 24, observes the first large Sunday matinee crowd of the season. "Don Juan" rechecks the mirror, then presses his hair down. The two Genevieves dance together, laughing. "Ginger" sails by in "Fred's" arms. "To dance," LeClercq smiles, "is like to make love ... a little communication, a little flirting, a little caress ..."
"That we still have this kind of place in Paris surprises people," club Manager Pierre Bournaus explains. "After the war, there were maybe 120 places for dancing. In all the districts. The only entertainment then was dancing. Now, they've all disappeared except Coupole. This is the last bastion."
There are currently four Paris "retro" clubs featuring live orchestra dancing, and one musette remains near Bastille. Traditional in every quarter were working-class dance halls where taxi dancers and gigolos waited while apache dancers fought to accordion airs.
"Coupole's an original," Bournaus says. "An open window to life before the war, the way dancing was 30 or 50 years ago."
"People change," Lafon says, "more than the Coupole."
On his first visit, Hugues Du Fayet de la Tour seems disoriented, pausing as hot disco segues into an orchestra version of "Lili Marlene." Couples thread onto the floor. Lights dim and the cha-cha bright world fades to a soft, powdered rose. "It's just the same I think," the mid-thirties insurance agent says, "as when my parents and grandparents came. That's not bad, is it?