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Tour the Paris haunts of intellectual giants

The complex lives – and loves – of the extraordinary group of intellectuals who lived in Paris between 1940 and 1950 have been revealed in a new book. Its author Agnès Poirier gives Sally Ann Voak a guided tour of their favourite haunts...

27 August 2018
Agnès Poirier takes a look at her book while taking Sally Ann Voak on a tour of the intellectual hotspots of Paris
By SallyAnn Voak

Dozens of articles and biographies have been published about literary, art and music icons Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Pablo Picasso, Juliette Gréco and Miles Davis.

Until now, little has been revealed about how their lives, and those of other creative people who lived on the Paris Left Bank during and after the Second World War, became intertwined.

They formed liaisons, had affairs, drank and partied, yet produced brilliant books, plays, music and art.

How did they manage it?

A new book provides some of the answers and a wealth of fascinating detail about that period. Written, in English, by French journalist and author Agnes Poirier, the 350-page book pulls no punches and reads like a racy novel – with intimate details about their sex lives, intrigues, feuds and friendships.

Ms Poirier also explores the dangers these legendary figures faced during the Occupation, often together, and how their politics were shaped.

“I knew that these people were all in Paris at about the same time and must have been in contact,” she said.

“I was intrigued. The danger, the sex, the drugs, the drinking – how on earth could they live like that and produce such amazing books, paintings, plays, and music? I wanted to join the dots!”

Ms Poirier worked on the book for three years.

The result is a wholly satisfying read: densely-packed with anecdotes, dates, facts and intimate stories. Every detail had to be meticulously researched and those dots joined up very carefully.

“It was an ordeal,” she confessed. “I spent a year on research, another to sort it all out then get the first draft down on paper, the third to cut and rewrite. It nearly killed me!”

She was well-equipped to take on the task. Born in Paris, she studied history at the Sorbonne, political sciences and Russian at Sciences Po in Paris. Aged 22, she gained a place at the London School of Economics. “I completed two thirds of my PhD and decided I didn’t want to teach,” she said.

“I started writing and broadcasting about our two cultures and was successful, so continued in journalism.

“Perhaps I will complete my PhD some day!”

Now 45, Ms Poirier divides her time between homes in Paris and North London with her family.

“When I began my research, I thought I ought to talk to relatives or friends of my subjects.

“Often my hoped-for interviewee would cancel or call to say they were too busy to see me. Sometimes, I would even find their picture in the obituary columns the next day!

“Biographies and diaries produced after the war were also unreliable because they were usually re-edited.

“I knew I had to go deeper, so I went back to the 1890s to research the backgrounds of some of my subjects then pored over contemporary press cuttings to compare dates of events such as plays and exhibitions and check what was going on politically.

“I searched for original diaries and hunted in university archives and book shops for contemporary accounts – in fact, any leads I could find.”

She struck gold with one interviewee: the 91-year-old chanteuse and actress, Juliette Gréco : “Her assistant said that Juliette was too busy to see me as she was recording a new album and off on a tour!

“I said I would like to talk about her music, took a train to St Tropez and met her.

“She looked amazing and could remember things about that time that I didn’t know.

“At the end of the interview I told her I was doing the book and she was fine about it. What a woman.”

She added that Writing Left Bank had been an inspiring experience:

“I am in awe. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre would work until 9pm, go out, eat, drink, party, come back to their hotel and have an early start. Simone was extremely diligent with her writing, but had lovers of both sexes, went on lecture tours, drank, encouraged other writers and artists, took holidays, and, to her, walking 20km was nothing.”

She concludes: “These artistic giants who turned war-torn, grief-stricken Paris into the capital of brave new thought, weren’t just extraordinary, they were superhuman”.

Left Bank: Art, Passion and the rebirth of Paris, 1940-1960 by Agnes Poirier is available from Amazon.fr (€19, hardback), Amazon.co.uk (£17), Kindle,( £15). Or, from English and American bookshops throughout France including, in Paris, WH Smith, Galignani, and Shakespeare and Company.

Paris, centre of all that was new and brave, inspired them

Paris Map The Left Bank
Follow the yellow-pinned route once trod by Paris’s 20th-century intellectuals

Take a stroll through the Paris Latin Quarter with Agnes Poirier, who plotted a walk for readers via hotels, houses, cafes and galleries frequented by Left Bank writers and artists more than 65 years ago.

She said: “The area is compact and people could socialise at the bars, restaurants and clubs, and, if necessary, find cheap lodgings. Everyone walked a lot; it was the only way to get around.”

First, find a good map of the Quartier Latin or a smartphone app. Start at Odéon Métro, walk to Rue de Seine... then follow the map!

(1) 60 Rue de Seine

Hotel Louisiane where de Beauvoir (below), Sartre, Gréco and many others lived for years during and after the Second World War.

It is still standing and is still a hotel.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Simone de Beauvoir
(1) Simone de Beauvoir

                                                                                                                                                                                        

                                                                        

(2) 172 Boulevard St Germain

Picasso (photo) ate supper in the Café de Flore after a day’s work then walked the almost 4km back across the river to home at 23 rue de la Boétie.

Other Left Bank intellectual regulars included de Beauvoir and Sartre, Simone Signoret, Albert Camus, Saul Bellow and James Baldwin.                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

(2) Pablo Picasso

(3) 14 Rue du Dragon

Pop into the brilliant Cahier d’Art library and gallery.

The publishing house was founded by art critic and collector Christian Zervos, a friend of Picasso. He produced the definitive catalogue of the artist’s work, which takes in some 33 volumes! 

(4) 188 Boulevard St Germain

A few minutes’ gentle walk brings you to the doors of Le Rouquet, the café where Simone de Beauvoir would work when she had grown tired of the crowd at the Flore.

It is now a bustling bistro, with a young clientele.

Its 1950s décor remains intact.

(5) 8 Rue de Verneuil

James Baldwin (pictured below) checked in to the little Hotel Verneuil when he arrived in Paris, penniless, aged 24.

Manager, Mme Dumont, allowed her young tenants to be late with their rent and play jazz all night –  when she wanted to sleep, she simply turned off the electricity!                                                                                              

James Baldwin
(5) James Baldwin

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

(6&7) 4 and 5 Rue St Benoît

Le Petit Benoît, the restaurant at No4, was founded in 1901 and is still open for lunch and dinner.

It was frequented by many artists and writers including novelist, writer and film-maker Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima, Mon Amour).

Until her death in 1996, she lived opposite, on the third floor of No5.

(8) 7 Rue des Grands Augustins

Picasso’s huge wartime studio was in this 17th century Hôtel de Savoie, one of the many hôtel particuliers (private mansions) of Paris. In the mornings, he would hold ‘open house’ for other artists and writers.

(9) 6 Rue de Savoie

Just round the corner from his studio, was the home of photographer Dora Maar, Picasso’s mistress.

She was replaced by Françoise Gilot but the ex-lovers continued to meet for lunch.

(10) 14 Rue Monsieur le Prince

Richard Wright lived here with his wife Ellen and daughter Julia.

After leaving New York and its colour prejudice behind, he found Paris disappointing at first (the French looked poor, thin and hungry!) but he went on to produce some of his finest work here.                                                                                                 

Richard Wright
(10) Richard Wright

                        

(11) 18 Rue de Tournon

The Café Le Tournon was popular with American writers Richard Wright (Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son) and James Baldwin (Go Tell it on the Mountain, Another Country).

It is a charming bistrot/brasserie, so you can stop for a refreshment, or wait until the final visit...

(12) 11 Rue Bréa

Author Norman Mailer (below) lived here while completing courses in French language and culture, and writing.

His best-selling novel, The Naked and the Dead was published in 1948, shortly after he returned to the US.

He walked from here across the gardens on his way to the university.   

                 

Norman Mailer in 1948
(12) Norman Mailer

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

LOTS OF VARIATIONS...

There are lots of ways to vary the tour dependent on the time you have, your appetite for walking and the number of eating and drinking detours you make...

One option recommended by Agnes is to start with 1, Rue de Seine, then move to 3, 9, 10, 11 and then to 7 and 8 at rue St Benoît before walking round to 2 and 4 and down to the Jardins with 6.

Final leg would be to 5 for a sly tipple at Café Le Tournon or, for those fancying a picnic, head down to 12 and rue Bréa.

How Left Bank became the home of generations of free-thinkers

On the vibrant Left Bank of Paris intellectuals found room to breathe, to live the life they chose and indulge their sexuality

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre rejected the traditional concept of marriage, family and fidelity. They had developed a new “philosophy of experience”, which quickly became known as ‘existentialism’, and which placed men and women in charge of their lives, including their relationships.

It proved a popular idea, not just in France, but in the rest of Europe and the US.

De Beauvoir had affairs with men and women.

Her great love, second only to Sartre himself, was Nelson Algren, the American author (The Man with the Golden Arm, later made into a successful film). Algren featured in Simone’s novel The Mandarins.

After a blissful four-month idyll in Paris, the couple broke up.

With her second volume of Le Deuxième Sexe just released, she felt energised by the affair – which was just as well, as she received a barrage of criticism about her work’s descriptions of the sex act, and her scholarly analysis of women’s conditioning to take the ‘inferior’ role.

Meanwhile, Sartre was writing brilliant novels and plays, working on the couple’s magazine Les Temps Modernes, and spreading his ideas with gruelling lecture tours including a sell-out tour of the US.

In 1948, he founded a political party, the Democratic and Revolutionary Alliance; 1,000 people turned up to the launch press conference! 

Yet, he found time for passionate flings with many women. The most exotic was the beautiful Italian-African artists’ muse Dolores Vanetti, who he met in New York.

When they finally broke up, Dolores went back to her doctor husband and her flat full of priceless art and would never talk about Sartre again.

Singer Juliette Greco

Miles Davis arrived in Paris at the age of 22 to take part in a jazz festival and promptly fell in love with the mesmerising Juliette Gréco (right), almost forgetting about his sweetheart back in New York, and their two children.

Racial prejudice was rare in Paris, so when her black lover refused to take her back to New York, Juliette was devastated. Years later, on a trip to New York, she met up with him again. She told Agnes Poirier: “I invited Miles to dinner at the Waldorf, and the maitre d’hotel’s face was indescribable. Our food was practically thrown at us.

“In America, his colour was made blatantly obvious, in Paris I had never noticed it. “ 

Saul Bellow had a love-hate relationship with Paris and often mocked the Left Bank crowd, preferring to socialise with rich Americans.

However, he shared a beautiful young mistress with his friend Harold Kaplan, never mentioning his wife and son living with him in Paris. She later married a 23-year-old novelist.

Pablo Picasso, whose studio became a “salon” in the mornings with artists and writers dropping in, had set up his mistress, photographer Dora Maar, just around the corner, but, in the freezing winter of 1943, he became entranced by a slim, young woman with green eyes, a tiny waist and a mole on her nose. The woman, Françoise Gilot, became his love, and a huge influence on his art.

After 1950, life and the Left Bank, changed. Americans went back home, intellectuals regrouped and some moved out of Paris.

Simone even left her beloved hotel and rented a flat! “The 50s were years of experimentation in art, writing and fashion and also years of rebellion – sex was part of that,” says Ms Poirier. “The existentialist movement was almost inbred in younger Parisians.”

Fed by magazines and cinema clubs a, glamorous group took centre stage. Fresh, independent actress Brigitte Bardot, outspoken young writer Françoise Sagan, and filmmaker François Truffaut became the new superstars.

Freedom, hedonism, and fast cars were top of the new list of pleasures – in art, books, cinema and real life. 

As they became successful, the younger generation favoured homes on the affluent Right Bank but the ambition and talent of the brilliant Left Bank intellectuals was almost in their DNA…

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