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Paris, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

“Around Montparnasse” a journey into the depths of Paris, an invitation to scratch beneath its surface of dazzling vistas and imposing monuments and to probe into the souls and lives of the restless people who throughout the ages have never ceased to shape it and reshape it, from the book Around and About Paris, volume one, by Thirza Vallois (used by permission).

For Paris is a city of perpetual change, a hectic building site of destruction and reconstruction, of restoration and renovation, a city in perpetual motion whose rounds of pleasure are periodically broken by maelstroms of social fury and whose throbbing pulse has always exerted a magnetic power on creative minds from far and wide who have bequeathed to the world great schools of art and thought.

‘Qui regarde au fond de Paris a le vertige’ (He who looks into the depths of Paris grows giddy.) – Victor Hugo

Around Montparnasse

Start out from the AVENUE DE L’OBSERVATOIRE and the corner of BOULEVARD DU MONTPARNASSE. On your left, drowning in greenery, is La Closerie des Lilas, the famous brasserie, restaurant and bar come together. Despite its name, La Closerie never had any lilacs, not even when it was a stopping-place for the stagecoaches on their way to Fontainebleau. Instead, it had plane trees when it opened in 1853, providing shade to the customers of what was then an outdoor guinguette (tavern).

In 1905 La Closerie des Lilas was put on the map, when Montparnasse was launched from here as the centre of gravity of the world of art. The idea was the brainchild of two men, André Salmon and Paul Fort, who launched a new magazine called Vers et Prose, and at the same time sent out invitations to artists, summoning them to come over to La Closerie and help promote their project. Endowed with overflowing imagination, André Salmon claimed to have sent out 23,000 letters; more modestly Paul Fort claimed to have sent out 10,000. The numbers were probably in the hundreds, but it is of no consequence, for the goal was achieved: whether through their initiative or not, Montparnasse did become the world’s centre of art with La Closerie as its centre of gravity—not that it had been overlooked in the 19th century, when Baudelaire, Verlaine, Strindberg and many others frequented the original guinguette, conveniently situated on the edge of the Latin Quarter. It was on the occasion of the 1900 Universal Exposition that it was refurbished and took on its present aspect, but the main café terrace then faced the avenue de l’Observatoire. This was the year when Oscar Wilde came here.

In 1912 Paul Fort was elected ‘Prince des Poètes’. Thereafter every Tuesday night he presided over an assembly of up to 200 writers, painters, musicians, critics and journalists, who converged on the place from all over, even from Montmartre. Francis Carco, Roland Dorgelès, Léon-Paul Fargue, Paul Claudel, Picasso, Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, all engaged here in passionate discussions into the early hours of the morning, amidst a jovial hubbub washed down with green absinth.

Paul Fort, all in black, contrasted with the rainbow-coloured Delaunays. Alfred Jarry would turn up with a pistol. On one occasion he drew it, pointed it at the mirror and pressed… Turning to a horrified young woman he said, ‘Now that the mirror (a pun on ‘glace’ meaning both ‘mirror’ and ‘ice’) is broken, let us talk!’ When the last customers were pushed out at 2am, they would head for the Boul’Mich’ (Boulevard Saint-Michel), to pursue their heated discussions. By 1912 the entire colony of painters had also invaded the place, including Bonnard, Vlaminck, Derain, Fernand Léger and Modigliani. The latter was engaged in a fiery but short-lived relationship with the English poetess Beatrice Hastings who arrived here dressed up as a Louis XV ‘shepherdess’. But these were the last hours of glory of La Closerie des Lilas: within a year the colony had migrated to a new centre of gravity at the newly-opened Carrefour Vavin, one block further west.

When Hemingway, back from Canada with the newborn Bumby, discovered La Closerie, in 1924, he found it quiet and melancholy, as depicted by Paul Fort in Café des ombres; but this suited Hemingway perfectly: he lived a few houses down, at no. 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, over a sawmill, and came here to escape the noise and concentrate on his novel The Sun Also Rises. He did, however, socialize with friends, F. Scott Fitzgerald notably, who asked him to read his manuscript of The Great Gatsby, and John Dos Passos to whom he read parts of his own manuscript of The Torrents of Spring.

Outside the avenue de l’Observatoire side of La Closerie stands the statue of the Maréchal Ney, Prince of the Moskova, one of France’s greatest heroes during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, ‘le Brave des braves’ as he was affectionately nicknamed.

During the Restoration, however, the authorities never forgave him for having joined forces with Napoleon during this Hundred Day return. The Tribunal of Peers, assembled at the Luxembourg Palace, accused him of high treason and sentenced him to death, despite a brilliant defense by the renowned lawyers, Dupin and Berryer. On 7 December 1815, Ney was led across the avenue to the present corner of 43 avenue de l’Observatoire and boulevard de Port-Royal and shot by a firing squad to the horror of many. His statue by François Rude was inaugurated under a different regime, on 7 December 1853. It was erected on the site of his execution, but with the opening of the railway station of Port-Royal, it was moved to its present location, where Hemingway liked to contemplate it on his way to La Closerie: ‘My old friend, the statue of Marshal Ney with his sword out.’

Walk north along the avenue de l’Observatoire for a glimpse at one of the city’s loveliest fountains—la fontaine des quatre parties du monde, in the centre of the Marco Polo Garden. Often referred to as Carpeaux Fountain, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux did indeed contribute the four nudes supporting the globe, but the fountain was created by four different sculptors: the eight horses, marine turtles and spouting fish by Emmanuel Fremiet, the armillary and globe by Pierre Legrain, the festoons around the pedestal by Louis Vuillemot.

Retrace your steps and turn right into RUE NOTRE-DAME-DES-CHAMPS. No.113, where Hemingway lived, is gone, together with the sawmill and, by some ironical twist, together with the street number. When Hemingway found the flat he announced the news to Ezra Pound in a letter dated 10 February 1924: ‘We have trouved (found) an appt at 113 Notre Dame des Champs…’ Early on this was a country lane leading to a chapel by the same name. At the time of Catherine de Medici it was used for the transport of stones from the quarries south of Paris to the building site of the Tuileries, her new palace under construction.

In the second half of the 19th century, when artists, writers and professors began to move to these countrified parts on the edge of he Latin Quarter, rue Notre-Dames-des-Champs, lying in an area dotted with convents, assured them respectability. And yet, not much earlier Balzac had reported the ‘robbery was the least of dangers one encountered there.’ To the Right Bank bourgeois the entire area that lay across the river was a den of vice, and even as late as the early 20th century, Madeleine Renaud’s mother was horrified when her daughter crossed the Seine to join the troupe at the Odéon Theatre. As a matter of fact, the street was full of honest people living ‘bourgeoisement’, side by side with nuns and school children.

At no. 109 is the École Alsacienne, a protestant school which was founded originally in Strasbourg in 1874 partly to resist Catholic hegemony. With its emphasis on the humanities, openness and tolerance, it was right from the start a sought-after establishment among liberal circles, attended early on by André Gide.

Today it still attracts members of the intelligentsia and of the arts. At the other end of the street, at no. 22, the traditional Catholic Collège Stanislas is more in keeping with the values and aspirations of the average French middle classes, although these are changing fast. A well-known guidebook to the 6th arrondissement, published in 1986, devotes one line to the École Alsacienne, but is effusive in its praise for the Collège Stanislas, concluding with a flourish: ‘How many of its pupils have suffered its harsh discipline which shapes the best minds!’ Among them was the artist Roger Wild, who remembered having served at mass one day with a 14-year-old boy named Charles de Gaulle. This was back in 1904, the year de Gaulle passed his baccalauréat.

Walk into RUE LE VERRIER on your right, for the sheer pleasure of viewing some attractive houses where fashionable artists lived at the end of the 19th century. Back on rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, no. 86 was the last Parisian home of the American painter Whistler who lived here from 1892 until his return to America ten years later. His studio on the top floor offered a magnificent view of the Luxembourg Gardens, which largely compensated for the seven-floor climb up the narrow, twisting staircase.

Turn right into RUE JOSEPH-BARA, one of the meccas of Montparnasse in the 1920s, notably at no. 3 on your right. Notice the profusion of artists’ studios that climb up erratically from street level to the roof. The ones at the top benefit from sunny terraces overlooking an enchanting courtyard at the back, alas barred to outsiders. The pitched roof and attic, the crooked gutter, all add to the quaint charm.

Author’s notes:

All the maps in the three-volume series of books Around and About Paris are available as PDFs on the author’s website and many can be downloaded for free. Visit: aroundandaboutparis.com / thirzavallois.com

Alternatively they can be downloaded on the following link: cyrilhude.fr/around-paris/cartes-vol1.zip

Because Paris is a city of change, some of the places mentioned in the book, Around and About Paris, Volume One, may have since disappeared or been transformed. If this is the case, please bear with the author.

Thirza Vallois, author and Sorbonne post-graduate, holds the Agrégation degree (a doctoral-level title) from the University of Paris. After starting her professional life in Paris as a teacher, she was “grabbed” by the city and set out to write about it. This led to a full-time commitment and to a 3-volume series of books Around and About Paris, walking guides for the very savvy which double as in-depth cultural companions to the city.

Around and About Paris, by Thirza Vallois

Around and About Paris, Volume One, by Thirza Vallois

Two other books followed: Romantic Paris and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia, a journey to the last corner of hidden, rural, France. Thirza is also the author of the Paris entry of the Encarta Encyclopaedia and writes regularly for the international press. She is a contributor to television and radio both in the US and the UK and has appeared on PBS, the BBC, CNN, the Travel Channel and others.

Thirza Vallois is the author of the book series, Around and About Paris, Volumes One, Two, and Three; and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Acadia. All books are available on Amazon.com in hard copy and Kindle versions.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French Impressions: Thirza Vallois on the creative inspiration of cinema, literature, music and art. Thirza Vallois, author and Sorbonne post-graduate, started her professional life in Paris as a teacher. She shares the literature, music, and artists who have inspired her.

French Impressions: Cara Black’s “Murder Below Montparnasse” and her adventures through the history and mystery of Paris’ quartiers. Seductively and irresistibly French, The Aimée Léduc Series is one of the best heroines in crime fiction today. Cara Black is the national best selling author of Murder in the Marais, and shares a behind-the-scenes look at mystery writing and Paris. (French)

McLain’s “Paris Wife” will have you head over heels for the Hemingways. Bethany Olson was drawn to McLain’s writing, detailed and thoughtful, that artfully captures Hadley’s voice and Ernest’s character in McLain’s fictionalized rendering of Hadley and Ernest’s relationship and their life in Paris. As did Hadley, Bethany found herself falling for for Ernest Hemingway, drawn to his exuberance, quick wit, and verve for life. Included are vimeos featuring interviews with Paula McLain by WHSmithDirect and BookLounge.

Stars, Stripes and Seine: Americans in occupied Paris 1940-1944, by Alan Davidge. 5,000 Americans refused to leave Paris after war broke out in September 1939. Who were they? Read the stories of how Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach, Arthur Briggs, Drue Leyton, and others lived and breathed Paris during the war.

French Lessons: African-American Expatriates in Paris, by writer Kristin Wood who shares a few of our favorite books written by and/or about African-Americans in Paris and France. Some are novels; some are histories; all are fantastic reads.


Text copyright ©2013 Thirza Vallois. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.