“So this is Paris,” Josephine Baker said when she first arrived in the French capital in 1925. The American entertainer was 19. The Paris that lay before her was a world where a poor black girl could arrive at the Gare Saint Lazare and a year later have her own show at the Folies Bergere.
It’s the Paris of Gil Pender, the winsome lead character in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” who is magically transported via a 1920s Peugeot back to a time when Gertrude Stein was serving up advice and aperitifs, Salvador Dali was obsessing about romance and rhinoceroses, and Cole Porter was singing about falling in love.
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.
Another writers’ hangout in “Midnight in Paris” is the bistro Polidor. In the film, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald take Gil there to meet Hemingway; it turns into a laundromat when he’s yanked back into the 21st century. But the cremerie-restaurant at 41 rue Monsieur le Prince is still operating, its interior pretty much unchanged for the past 100 years. Patrons, seated together at wooden tables topped with red-and-white-checked paper covers, still eat steak tartare (once called steak a l’Americaine), first served in French restaurants at the beginning of the 20th century. Polidor was a favorite of James Joyce’s. Hemingway also ate there, but surely not in the ’20s. A struggling writer then, he couldn’t afford to eat out anywhere.
“You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food,” he writes in “A Moveable Feast,” his memoir of Paris in the ’20s, published posthumously in the ’60s. “The best place to go was the Luxembourg Gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the place de l’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg Museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry.”
The Musee du Luxembourg was initially housed in the lavish palace built by Marie de Medici that still dominates the gardens, but by the ’20s it had been given its own home right next door. That’s where Hemingway would have gone to see the Monets, Manets and particularly the Cezannes. By the ’40s, the museum had no permanent collection and offered only special exhibits. The Cezannes and other paintings that Hemingway devoured so hungrily are now housed at the Musee d’Orsay.
But this fall the author’s beloved Cezannes are returning to the Jardin du Luxembourg. A special exhibition, from Oct. 12 to Feb. 26, will feature 80 major works by Cezanne, the painter who Hemingway said taught him to write plainly.
The Luxembourg Gardens, with its gravel pathways, flowering parterres laid out with geometric precision and statuary tributes to writers and artists, is one of the best ways to experience Paris as it would have looked to the writers of the ’20s — if you block out the Tour Montparnasse, the hideous skyscraper built between 1969 and 1972 that spoils the view.
As I walked across the garden, past men playing boules, au pairs pushing baby carriages and entwined lovers oblivious to the Eiffel Tower visible in the distance, it wasn’t hard to imagine Hemingway, after a morning of crafting simple sentences, reveling in these scenes of Parisian life. Ever since his arrival in Paris in 1918 at the age of 19, he’d always stayed in apartments nearby. When he first met Gertrude Stein, he was living with his first wife, Hadley, at 73 rue du Cardinal Lemoine near the Pantheon and later in a third-floor walk-up at 113 Notre-Dames des Champs (now No. 115) in the pricey Montparnasse district.
From the garden, Hemingway could easily go to see Stein at 27 rue de Fleurus, exiting west at the Porte Fleurus, passing, appropriately enough, two old bookstores facing each other at the head of the street. Only a plaque remains to mark the spot where Stein, “built like a peasant woman,” and “the friend who lived with her,” as Hemingway described Alice B. Toklas, offered him distilled liqueur aperitifs made of plums and wild raspberries as he sat discussing his work before a roaring fireplace in their painting-lined apartment.
Expats still gather on the rue de Fleurus, but now across the street, at No. 34, an annex of the Alliance Francaise called the Hall Fleurus. Instead of aperitifs, there are vending machines dispensing espressos and tables where students can sit and practice their French on one another. (The French program of Virginia’s Sweet Briar College is headquartered here). The place offers free movies and free walking tours of the city: On July 27, it’s the “Paris of Amelie Poulain,” the saucy film character portrayed by Audrey Tautou. Could a “Midnight in Paris” tour be far behind?
Hemingway didn’t have the luxury of such organized activities, but he did have Sylvia Beach’s English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, at 12 rue de l’Odeon. He often went there for the chicken dinners that Beach served in her sixth-floor apartment above the shop. Fitzgerald and Joyce met there in 1928. Again, only a plaque is left to mark this spot where “Ulysses” was first published, but next door there is — what else? — a French bookstore, the Librairie Guenegaud, housed in a building where Thomas Paine once lived.
The spirit of Sylvia Beach’s enterprise lives on, though, at the new Shakespeare & Company at 37 rue de la Bucherie, opened by George Whitman in 1951 and now run by his daughter, whom he named Sylvia in honor of Beach. In his film, Allen includes a shot of the bookstore, where the 97-year-old Whitman still comforts struggling writers, much as Stein did. The warren of rooms packed with used and new books even includes a place for down-and-out writers to crash. When I stopped by, someone was giving an impromptu concert on the upstairs piano.
No, it still wasn’t Cole Porter, but by this time I was realizing, as Gil Pender finally does in “Midnight in Paris,” that seeking out Paris in the ’20s is a futile quest. There is no “perfect” era in which to experience Paris. Like the mille-feuilles that taunt you in every pastry shop, the city is composed of a thousand leaves of time overlapping one another at every turn. Everyone has to create his own Paris.
Like Baker and Hemingway, I first came to Paris at 19. (What is it about Paris and being 19?) It was the ’60s, not the ’20s. I didn’t dance at the Folies Bergere. I didn’t write novels. I didn’t even write poetry. Fashioning my own junior year abroad (my university, Marquette, didn’t have a program), I studied at L’Institut Catholique on the rue d’Assas, just off the Luxembourg Gardens. I paid my way by working as an au pair on the rue Madame, charged with three French kids whom I would take to the gardens to launch boats in the large basin or watch marionette shows. I didn’t know back then that I was crossing paths with the Paris of Hemingway and Stein, and I didn’t care. I had my own Paris. As Hemingway put it, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Leaving Shakespeare & Company, right across the Seine from Notre Dame, I ended my time-traveling at the Place Jean XXIII, the tiny park behind the cathedral with its superb view of the flying buttresses. It’s where Gil sits on a park bench with the tour guide from the Rodin Museum, played by French first lady Carla Bruni, who is translating a book he bought from a bouquiniste along the Seine. The park is a free WiFi hot spot, one of dozens offered throughout Paris, making them almost as ubiquitous here as bookstores.
There I reentered the 21st century, Skyping my husband in Florida to tell him all about my time in Paris — circa 2011.
Hammond, co-author of “Between the Covers: The Book Babes’ Guide to a Woman’s Reading Pleasures” (DaCapo Press), teaches memoir-writing workshops and blogs at creativelatebloomers.blogspot.com.