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Posts Tagged ‘Bohemian Paris of Today’

Montparnasse: Petit Napolitain, Café du Parnasse, Lavenue, Café du Dome, Jockey Club and Café de la Rotonde.

Saturday 30th June

As a little interlude to our Bois extravaganza, Cecile has insisted on staying in Paris tonight but tells me we will go south and visit the Latin Quarter of Montparnasse.

“Do remember Fynes” she says beforehand “the cafes and restaurants there are mostly of the cheaper and more modest kind… so do not put on airs and graces.”

“Of course not my dear. What on earth do I wear?”

She bashes me with a newspaper
“Don’t be silly” she snaps.

I actually know that Montparnasse is quiet different and that since the turn of the century many artists relocated there from Montmartre which they felt had been overrun with bars, nightclubs and cabarets becoming overpriced and far too commercial. They were attracted to the peace, tranquillity and cheapness of Montparnasse. Of course, its popularity will mean that it may become more like Montmartre in due course.

I meet a group of Cecile’s friends who live in the district at a little cafe: two women called Nina and Regine and two men called Sasha and Raphael. All are either artists or writers or both. I am not sure who is with whom and I feel uncomfortable to ask. However, we have a wonderful conversation talking about Montparnasse, in French of course.

Raphael says “probably no people in Paris have had so much romance spun around them as us bohemians who live here. Take a look at all the literature from Henri Murger’s La Vie Boheme, to George du Maurier’s Trilby and W.C. Morrow’s Bohemian Paris of Today.”

“Well to be honest Raphael”
says Regine “equally annoying are the dozens of American and English journalists who come here for a vacation and sit at our cafes and then spin a thousand words of gushing, puffing romanticism.”

“Actually, the only well-balanced account of the district can be found in W.R. Titterton’s Me as a Model or the wonderful clips by Arthur Moss, the Latin Quarter’s correspondent for the Paris Herald” volunteers Sasha.

“If you ask me” says Cecile “the Latin Quarter is a state of mind rather than an area.”

“Hmm very profound” I add, “my observation is that it is about freedom. Here you can dress as you please, think as you please and do as you please.”

“Bravo” says Raphael.
“Exactly” says Sasha.

It looks I have said the right thing and Cecile smiles at me approvingly.

Then I add “Of course I sometimes think that the Latin Quarter is co called because of a noteworthy scarcity of Latins.” Thankfully everyone laughs.

We visit the Petit Napolitain and then the Café du Parnasse, both on the Boulevard for aperitifs and to look at the vast array of works of art on the walls. Here there is every possible style – Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism and every other kind of ism, besides some interesting Byzantine-like paintings in gold and black created by Russians influenced by their village church icons. It is breathtaking and I decide that I will come back another day and buy several that rather appealed. I certainly do not want to appear to be too affluent with my new friends.

Cecile takes us all to Lavenue restaurant on the corner of Boulevard Montparnasse and Rue du Depart, opposite the Gare Montparnasse. A famous old café – restaurant, it skirts the fringe of bohemia and is accordingly a haunt of mixed company with a clientele of many Americans and well-known artists. The café part is modern and noisy with a band but there is a restaurant at the back comprising three rooms and we eat on a covered porch beside a courtyard garden. She pays the bill despite my protests.

We move to Le Dôme Café (or Café du Dôme) that stands as a sentinel to Bohemia on the corner of Boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail. Founded in 1898, it became renowned as an intellectual gathering place and focal point for artists and is widely known as the “the Anglo-American café.”

Le Dome, Montparnasse, Paris

Le Dome, Montparnasse, Paris

As we take a seat outside which is already almost full, Nina says “Everybody in the artistic and literary circles of the world who visit Paris comes here at some point between six in the evening and two in the morning.”

She tells me all about Cesar the oldest waiter who terrorises the nearly dozen house cats by spraying them with a soda syphon and equally how he terrorises the customers with his cheery rudeness. Nevertheless, he is an institution not to be missed but because Nina is extremely attractive tonight he is rather courteous to us. But, you must not stare or ask about his wife since she ran off with the family fortune and another waiter.

The place is packed with cosmopolitan people of note and character and, like the district generally, is full of ladies with short hair and men with long hair, in fact just like my new friends. I am discreetly made aware of Nina Hamnet, the English woman painter, who draws some of the antics and characters of the Dome and elsewhere for the Paris Herald; Ezra Pound, the esoteric poet who pours his vitriolic wrath on the heads of anti-moderns and a Turkish gentleman called Bluebird, who allegedly has had more mistresses than anyone in the café.

After a rather jolly hour or so we are off to the newest cabaret at the Jockey Club situated at 146 Boulevard Montparnasse on the corner of the Rue Campeigne Premier, that opened a few weeks ago on the site of an old wine store. It is a weird little place that was founded by the American artist Hiler Harzberg (Hiliare Hiler) and a jockey called Miller hence the name.

From the outside it looks like a dilapidated shack with quaint, attenuated cowboys painted on the peeling shutters. Regine says one must never arrive before 11pm “but certainly no later as you will hardly be able to squeeze in.”

It is meant to hold a mere 50 people but on a normal evening over 200 are crammed in like sardines. Luckily, we get a table just in time but it is tight fit. The small room is covered from to floor ceiling with the weirdest posters and inscriptions of every kind and I am told Hiler Harzberg himself has created much of the décor. There is a miniscule dance floor in the centre of the room that must be about 3 ft by 6 ft that is covered in cracking linoleum and dancing there requires real skill. The ‘orchestra’ if you can call it that, consists of a broken down piano with a Russian pianist and two cross-eyed banjoists.

All sorts of peculiar people gather here including some rather bizarre ladies such as a woman in complete male dress who smokes cheroots through a long holder and another who wears a coat that resembles a Persian carpet and dances as if in a trance. However, the Queen of the Jockey Club is the immortal Kiki. Artists love to paint her because she has a fascinating catlike face and a voluptuous body. Recently she has been a model for Man Ray who has been producing the most amazing photographs of her. Tonight her black hair is straight and greased flat and I am told that she changes the colour of her eye shadow to match her dress and changes the contour of her pencilled eyebrows to match her mood. As ornaments she wears a couple of gilt curtain rings in her ears and can usually be found by the bar smoking and sipping an exotic looking drink through two straws. However, on the spur of the moment she would show her breasts or lift her skirt up telling delighted patrons ‘that will cost you a franc or two’ and turn the money over to a needy friend. She is the embodiment of outspokenness, audacity and creativity.

Kiki of Montparnasse

The cabaret is far from conventional and starts with that wonderful American singer Les Copeland, who if you remember we have seen and heard before. This is complimented by Hiler Harzberg himself playing piano and the pretty Floriane, who does this naughty-naughty dance. Finally, Kiki takes the floor wearing a shawl, which slid over her shoulders and sings with a voice that grates and jars, moving from side to side with economical and rounded movements. She sings rather outrageously dirty songs which strangely did not offend but cause enormous merriment and jollity.

For further excitement we visit the Café de la Rotonde, opposite the Dome on the Carrefour Vavin, at the corner of Boulevard Montparnasse and Raspail, it was founded by Victor Libion in 1910. We loiter outside and snatch a table and take some beers. It is seemingly more animated and amusing that the Dome. There is also an even quainter collection of peculiar looking people comprising a more cosmopolitan and motley assembly of students, poets and artists, Bolsheviks and anarchists. Everybody seems livelier probably because the topics of conversation are not so serious.

La Rotunde, Montparnasse, Paris

After a while we decide to move inside. Throughout, the walls of the café are covered in modern art serving as an admirable background for the modern crowd. Raphael tells me “If an impoverished painter couldn’t pay their bill, the proprietor Libion would often accept a drawing, holding it until the artist could pay, which often did not happen. That is why the walls are littered with a collection of artworks, that would make many drool with envy.”

We moved upstairs to a large room, which until 9pm is a modest restaurant, but is now a dance hall with a jazz band. The atmosphere is electric and I am in my element dancing with Cecile, Nina and Regine.

I tell Raphael “this is swell here.”

Raphael offers this observation “on the surface it certainly looks attractive but to us regular habitués of the quarter there is an air of artificiality here which sometimes makes things a little too obvious for our taste!”

As I take Cecile home in a cab she asks “did you enjoy your outing?”

“Oh yes very much” I reply and then add with a smile “but I have to confess it is far too bohemian for me.”

“I think not she replies” with a glint in her eye.

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