Writers, Artists Gone : Hemingways of ‘88 Can’t Afford Paris

Times Staff Writer

For more than half a century, the cafes and bars along the Boulevard Montparnasse and its cobblestone side streets were the heart and soul and stomach of the famed Paris literary cafe society.

“Montparnasse,” a reporter for the Paris-based newspaper Le Monde wrote in a recent article bemoaning the general decline of the city’s cafes litteraires , “was the Vatican of the imagination, where the sirens of creativity beckoned.” So did crisp, cold Muscadet wine and the huge Portuguese oysters on the half-shell.

Students of 20th-Century art and literature know the names of the famous cafes--Le Dome, La Coupole, the Closerie des Lilas and Le Select--that still flank the broad boulevard in the squat, sooty Left Bank neighborhood.


Churches of Intellect

These cafes, some of them cavernous halls big enough to seat 600 people, were the gathering places for the lights of literature and art--Pablo Picasso and James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre, Joan Miro and Simone de Beauvoir, to name a few of the hundreds who frequented them. If Montparnasse was the Vatican of the intellect, these were the churches.

Today they cater more to the affluent French middle class that has come to dominate the central districts of the city and to tourists, who go to the Closerie for a rumpsteak au poivre Hemingway or to the Select to nurse a $4 coffee and sit on the terrace. The writers and the artists have been priced out of the market.

“There are women sitting on the terrace of the Select who have tans worth more than I am,” said Jeff Gross, 30, an aspiring writer from Los Angeles who lives in a working-class neighborhood miles from the famous cafes of Montparnasse. Gross has finished the manuscripts for two novels in his four years in Paris but is still seeking a publisher.

Found in Beaubourg

The shrinking number of young foreign artists and writers who brave Paris’ high prices and France’s stringent new immigration laws to make the historic creative pilgrimage to the City of Light are much more likely to be found across the river in the Beaubourg district, where the street actors perform every day in front of the Pompidou Center.

This has caused some Parisians and literary historians to worry that the tradition of the cafes litteraires, where art and literature and philosophy could be celebrated and savored in an ambiance sweetened by good food and drink, may be coming to an end.

“The gathering places for our men and women of letters can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” lamented Le Monde literary specialist Brigitte Ouvry-Vial.

The latest jolt to Parisian literary cafe society came this spring when a chain of slick, upscale brasseries and delicatessens owned by former Maxim’s chef Jean-Paul Bucher bought the venerable La Coupole for $10 million. Built in 1927 while Hemingway was still in Paris, La Coupole was the anchor of Montparnasse cafe society. Sunday lunch there, a regular customer recalled recently, was like High Mass for the Parisian intelligentsia.

Bucher, whose Flo Groupe Corp. now manages the largest restaurant empire in Paris, with franchises in Barcelona, Spain, Tokyo and two other French cities, pledges to continue the tradition of the original after he completes remodeling it this winter. The frescoes that adorned the central pillars of the main dining room, he said, have been placed in bank vaults for safekeeping. The original mosaic floor will be kept.

Restoring La Coupole, said Bucher, “is a work of the heart.”

But historians of the old district, including USC lecturer Noel Riley Fitch, author of the recent book “Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation,” about the city’s expatriate literary traditions, are not convinced that the spirit of La Coupole can be kept alive.

2nd-Story Demolition

Bucher’s plans, they note, include demolition of the second story of the original restaurant, the roof of which was used for boules , a French version of the game of bowls, and the addition of six stories to be leased for office space. Meanwhile, the last tango has been danced in the basement dance hall, a popular place for elderly women residents of the neighborhood to dance with their young escorts to live music from Argentine-style orchestras.

“La Coupole was the least changed of all the literary hangouts,” said Fitch, who was in Paris researching a new book on the literary cafe culture. “It was the last built and the least changed. Its loss will be a terrible shock to the system.”

In fact, the Paris of the 1920s that Hemingway described so lovingly in his book, “A Moveable Feast,” as a paradise for young writers, may no longer exist.

Like ‘a Great Treasure’

In Paris, he wrote, “there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given you.”

Today’s Paris, wrote Ouvry-Vial in Le Monde, “remains a ‘feast’ only in the memory and spirit of foreign writers.”

Odile Hellier is the energetic owner of a small English-language bookstore in St. Germain des Pres who keeps tabs on American writers in the city. In her desk, she keeps a manuscript from Gross in case a potential publisher happens into her store. She is in regular contact with successful American novelists Edmund White (“A Boy’s Own Story,” “The Beautiful Room Is Empty”) and William Wharton (“Birdy”), both of whom live in Paris, Wharton on a barge on the River Seine.

She is not as gloomy as Ouvry-Vial about the Parisian literary scene. Paris is still a grand place for writers to live and work, she said. A writer can spend his day working in his room and then come out at night to a city brimming with stimulating diversion, ranging from jazz performed by expatriate American musicians to mimes and clowns at Beaubourg.

The real problem is that Paris is too expensive, said Hellier.

“Four years ago there was a renaissance of writers in Paris because of the high value of the dollar at the time. There was a wave of young people here living out the myth of Hemingway,” she said. That period also saw a proliferation of English-language literary magazines in the city. Most of them are now defunct, having died off as the value of the dollar fell.

The number of poor young scribes on the make, young pens hoping for a break on the publishing market, also has declined with the dollar. Nearly 11 francs to a dollar four years ago, the rate declined to under five. It has recently risen to six.

Always a Big Factor

In fact, the exchange rate has always been a major factor in the expatriate literary community. During the 1920s, the dollar was at an all-time high compared to the franc. Living in Paris was cheap. In an article for the Toronto Star newspaper, which he served as Paris correspondent, Hemingway claimed that a man could live comfortably in Paris for $1,000 a year.

When the Depression came to America in the 1930s, the dollar dropped in Europe like an anchor. Most of the literary and artistic exiles promptly returned home. Only a few, notably Henry Miller, remained in suddenly expensive Paris, and their work reflected the gloomier conditions.

It is unlikely that even a high dollar could revive the literary cafe society of Montparnasse and its sister neighborhood of St. Germain des Pres, where the Aux Deux Magots and Le Flore cafes were once important stops on the intellectual circuit.

For Americans particularly, it is a special loss.

Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, titans of modern American literature, first met in 1925 at the Dingo Bar, a scruffy joint just a few steps off the Boulevard Montparnasse on the Rue Delambre. Hemingway wrote “The Sun Also Rises” on the outdoor tables of the Closerie des Lilas, a pleasant cafe near the elegant Luxembourg Gardens.

Read Old Testament

American novelist John Dos Passos remembered meeting Hemingway at the Closerie and taking turns with him reading aloud from the Old Testament. Hemingway recounted dining there with James Joyce.

The Americans of those days called themselves “exiles” from the era of Prohibition and intellectual prudishness that abounded in their homeland. Gertrude Stein, whose literary salon was only a few blocks away on the Rue de Fleurus, dubbed them “the Lost Generation.”

The Left Bank neighborhoods of Montparnasse and St. Germain des Pres continued to be an intellectual refuge for several more generations of American writers as well as literary emigrants from countless other countries attracted to the stimulating life and to the feisty band of small publishers located there.

Joyce’s masterwork, “Ulysses,” was published there by Sylvia Beach’s tiny bookstore, Shakespeare & Company. Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” was first published there, too. So was Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” So were several works of Czech writer Milan Kundera, who still lives in the area.

But the Left Bank, like the rest of Paris contained in the 20 central arrondissements laid out by Baron Georges Haussmann in the mid-19th Century, is caught up in a massive renewal or “gentrification.”

No Place to Go

Les Halles and Bastille, which 10 years ago were still tough working-class neighborhoods on the Right Bank that looked like potential places for the intellectual community to relocate, have turned expensive--havens for the French yuppies, known colloquially as les branches , the “plugged in.” Even the notorious Belleville quarter in the distant 20th arrondissement, an immigrant slum thought to be the most dangerous district in Paris, has recently begun attracting middle-class settlers.

The threat to the landmarks of Paris intellectual life has produced a flurry of scholarship. Recent books have been published on the women of the Left Bank who owned bookstores and held court in literary salons like those of Stein, Beach and Nathalie Barney; on the maverick publishing houses that kept the young writers in print, and on the neighborhoods where the artists and writers lived.

The recently released movie, “The Moderns,” with actor Keith Carradine portraying a young American artist, focuses on Paris of the same period and includes portrayals of Hemingway, Stein and other real people of the time. The film, which opens here next month, was shot in Montreal, partly because Paris would have been too expensive and partly because it has been too much modernized to evoke the period, according to Carradine.

Tour Through Memories

Meanwhile, an American from New York, Laurie Lesser-Chamberlain, operates the tiny Bonne Journee travel service from a pretty, chestnut-shaded square in Montmartre, offering a popular special tour entitled “A Moveable Feast” in which guides escort tourists to the former homes and favorite cafes of the famous writers and artists.

The tour includes Stein’s garden and Hemingway’s first apartment on the Place Contrascarpe and includes interviews with his first concierge, who, somewhat typically of concierges all over Paris, likes to talk about the times the great man came home drunk.