Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Paris Portraits

I’ve never actually dipped a madeleine in my tea – primarily because I don’t have any madeleines (and not much tea) – but I had a distinctly Proustian reaction to the “Paris Portraits” exhibition that ran at a local museum some months ago. It took me back to memories of an earlier time as I walked among the pictures of famous Parisians of the past.

Flash back a number of years. An eager young writer-producer, bright-tailed and bushy-eyed, was on a first assignment for a major production company: I was to write and produce a film on Paris, which would have a sequence devoted to the American expatriates of the 1920s. It was for Universal-International and was to be titled “One Man’s Paris.”

Doing my research on the scene, I was pleased to learn that Sylvia Beach, another famous name from those Parisian roaring twenties, was still around. I phoned her and asked if we could get together. She suggested meeting at the cafe named Le Select. The Select! That rang a bell. There couldn’t have been a better place for such a meeting.

“’Café Select,’ he told the driver, ‘Boulevard Montparnasse.’” (Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”)

Cafes then were, and to a degree still are, central to Paris life – writers wrote in them, painters painted them – and the Select (which has only been around for eighty years or so) represented the best traditions of the Parisian café. Sylvia Beach arrived and we had a wonderful conversation. She was then an elderly lady, but was full of youthful energy and vitality and she became very interested in the documentary I was there to make. She knew everything about the era in question, about all those earlier expatriate Americans, where they used to live and the cafes where they used to hang out.

La Coupole was just across the street, and that was just steps away from La Rotonde and Le Dome at the next corner, but Le Select was the jewel of the crown – not just for the Americans but for people who came from all over the world. It was indeed a pleasure, sitting in that famous café, to have pointed out to me just where in the place Henry Miller used to meet Anais Nin for afternoon drinks, where Luis Bunuel sat, and which was young Pablo Picasso’s favorite spot. In our 21st century groups of Japanese tourists continue to show up, asking to see Hemingway’s table.

No question, the Select had its attractions, but it was no more interesting than the lady I was talking with. Living in Paris at the end of World War I, a New Jersey girl named Sylvia Beach had opened an English language bookstore and lending library that thousands came to know as Shakespeare and Company. She started her store just as the franc dropped in value and the exchange rate became very favorable so the shop flourished. It became a hangout for Americans.

As I spoke with her, I remembered that Shakespeare and Company had gained considerable fame after she more or less single-handedly published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922, as a result of Joyce's inability to get an edition out in English-speaking countries. She had gone into debt to bankroll the publication. Joyce would later show his gratitude by financially stranding her when he signed with another publisher, leaving Sylvia Beach in debt and suffering severe losses from the publication of that book.

Things went from bad to worse for her because of the depression of the thirties. She managed to stay open because André Gide organized a group of writers into a club called Friends of Shakespeare and Company, which got a lot of publicity and helped the business to improve.

Then came World War II. The shop tried to remain open after the fall of Paris, but by the end of 1941 Sylvia Beach was forced to close. She kept her books hidden in a vacant apartment. It’s now a fable of our time that, as Paris was being liberated, Ernest Hemingway – reckless, flamboyant, heroic – drove up in a jeep to liberate Sylvia and her bookstore.

26 comments:

The Peach Tart said...

Great story. I love Paris and that whole era there.

willow said...

I've along had the delicious image of myself, contentedly browsing the shelves at Shakespeare and Company. Delightful post.

Berowne said...

>> Teach Part: "Great story. I love Paris and that whole era there." <<

Many thanks for the kind words.

Berowne said...

>> Willow: "Delightful post." <<

You've encouraged me to post my Gertrude Stein story too. Stay tuned...

Dedene said...

I can't believe you met Sylvia! How many times have I wandered around that crowded little shop wandering what life was like back in the 20s and 30s. You've captured the essence and fascination of Paris.

Berowne said...

>> Dedene: "I can't believe you met Sylvia!" <<

The sad part was that she died two months after our meeting. She was, of course, a very old lady, but she had shown so much vim and vitality that it came as a shock when I read of her death in the paper.

French Fancy said...

I never realised it ws Sylvia that started the book shop which, of course, is very famous and not just with Americans.

By the way I have a feeling you might like this blog as well. I've linked to an old post of hers because of the subject:

http://parisbreakfasts.blogspot.com/2008/04/paris-cafe.html

Berowne said...

Glad you mentioned parisbreakfasts. I know that book, "Paris Cafe: the Select Crowd," and it's appropritate that I give it credit because I quoted from it in my blog.

Oh My Goddess said...

How thrilling it would have been, to meet her. And the way you describe the swirl around her is fascinating.

Berowne said...

>> OMG: "And the way you describe the swirl around her is fascinating." <<

That whole time of production in Paris was indeed fascinating; I would like to tell more about it in another post. Thanks so much for your commment.

lakeviewer said...

Do tell! You wet my appetite for more cafe avec artistes.

Berowne said...

I'm putting together my Gertrude Stein notes and I hope to make that post in a couple of days. Good to know there's some interest - thanks.

Oh My Goddess said...

I have something for you over on my blog.
Enjoy!

Berowne said...

What Goddess was referring to is an award. I am quite new to this whole blogging thing and it's kind of amazing that my blog should have won an award -- especially the prestigious "Sidebar Friendly Goddess Award."

By thr way, Goddess, if there is a cash portion of the award -- I heard a rumor that each winner was to receive fifty thousand dollars -- please mail it directly to my home by regular mail.

In the meantime, thanks so much for your interest and support.

Derrick said...

Well done on your OMG award. I enjoyed this dip into Paris literary life.

Berowne said...

Good to hear from you again, Derrick. Thanks for visiting my blog.

mo.stoneskin said...

Now I want to go to a cafe, drink coffee and devour a crepe, flick through a paper without really reading it and, of course, watch people and write.

Berowne said...

Try the croque-monsieur while you're there -- it's fantastic.

Janie at Sounding Forth said...

Awesome story. I've always wanted to go to France. Came by via the Goddess...

Berowne said...

>> "Came by via the Goddess..." <<

I have the Goddess to thank for a lot.

Glad you dropped by, Janie at Sounding Forth. I enjoyed your blog. (I remember when it was Sounding Third.)

Stacie said...

I did not know that about James Joyce! And who better to save you than Hemingway in a Jeep!

Stacie said...

P.S. I miss Paris.

Berowne said...

>>And who better to save you than Hemingway in a Jeep!<<

Yes, it was like a dramatic ending to a well-produced B movie. :-)

Berowne said...

>>P.S. I miss Paris.<<

Yes. Where can you get a decent bouillabaisse around here? :-)

Blog Princess G said...

What a delightful post... all those links. Here's my take on madeleines, which - once I'd learned how quickly they can over-bake - became a favourite around here.

http://blogprincessg.blogspot.com/2008/04/la-recherche-du-temps-de-lire-la.html

Berowne said...

Welcome, Blog Princess G. I now have a Princess and a Goddess visiting my blog. Look out for that cup -- it is runnething over!

 
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