The Last Time I Saw Paris
The Last Time I Saw Paris
Elliot Paul, an American journalist, first walked into rue de la Huchette in the summer of 1923. ‘There,’ he wrote, ‘I found Paris.’
His biography of the street brings to life a cast of characters, from the stately M. de Malancourt to l’Hibou the tramp; from the culturally precocious Hyacinthe to a flock of prostitutes.
Their friendships and enmities, culture and way of life are woven into a tapestry as compelling as a novel. And as the threat of the Second World War grows, it endows their quiet, heroic lives with tragic poignancy.
The Last Time I Saw Paris is one of the great portraits of an unforgettable city.
‘... a small classic in the literature of Paris.’ - Sebastian Faulks
‘A strongly written and compelling corrective to the city of Hemingway.’ - Daily Telegraph
The Last Time I Saw Paris
Format: 336pp demi pb
Place: France, the Paris of 20s and 30s
Elliot Paul was born in Linden, Massachusetts in 1891. His father suffered from mental problems and died in 1895. In 1907, Paul went to Montana where his brother had settled, and took what jobs he could get in construction camps. He returned home in 1908 and enrolled at the University of Maine to study engineering, but dropped out after just a year. After working again in construction camps in the North-West of America, he returned to New England and worked on a Boston newspaper.
During World War I Paul served in the Signal Corps of the American Expeditionary Force, becoming a sergeant. After the war he went back to America, married for the first time (by his death he had had five wives) and started what was to be a prolific career as a novelist. In 1925 he moved to Paris and worked on the Paris editions of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Herald. While living on the rue de la Huchette, in 1927, he co-founded an experimental modernist revue,transition, with Eugene Jolas. It gave space to many struggling artists who were later to become famous. Work by Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Dylan Thomas and James Joyce sat between covers by Miro, Picasso, Kandinsky and Man Ray.
After suffering from a nervous breakdown, Paul moved to Ibiza in 1931, where he lived until 1936. At the height of the Spanish Civil War he was eventually rescued by a man-o-war. He documented his experiences of Spain in several of his books.
At the outbreak of the Second World War he returned to America and began a series of detective novels set in Paris with a character named Homer Evans. The success of The Last Time I Saw Paris (1942) brought him to the attention of Hollywood, and he began a side career as a screenwriter. His fourth marriage at this time issued in his only child, a son, Leslie.
During the late 1940s and 50s Elliot Paul concentrated on a series of memoirs. He lived in Rhode Island and wrote for local papers, displaying a liberalism which was rare in the era of Joe McCarthy and the Korean War. His last book That Crazy American Music (1957) was about jazz.
He died in a veterans’ Hospital in 1958, having suffered from several heart attacks in his final years.
Extract from Chapter One
Dawn, the sun rising behind the cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, sent its first feeble rays directly down the rue de la Huchette to be reflected from the windows of the place St. Michel. A few yards
away, running almost parallel to the little street, the south branch of the Seine skirted the Ile de la Cité, and on its yellow-brown waters, in which clouds were mirrored upside down, laden barges drifted, from the north of France or Belgium, bound for Rouen and Le Havre. The Latin quarter and the Cluny lay eastward; across the river stood the grim Conciergerie, the bleak and vast Hôtel Dieu, or hospital, and the Palais de Justice.
In the place St. Michel, with its dripping fountain and stone dolphins, the Café de la Gare was the first to open, to take care of early customers who arrived by underground railway from Versailles and the workers of the neighbourhood who snatched their coffee and crois- sants at the counter before descending into the Métro, near the entrance of which stood a dingy international news stand, with a profusion of provincial and local French papers on sale, as well as the Paris journals. The first comers seldom bought newspapers; they couldn’t afford to spend four sous. Across from the Café de la Gare on the corner nearest the book and music stalls that lined the quai, stood the famous restaurant Rouzier, the corrugated shutters of which were not raised until later in the day.
Midway down the rue de la Huchette, which was about three hundred yards long, the Bureau de Police was always open but never active. All night a sickly blue gas lamp marked its location; by day a cinder-stained tricolour flag drooped from its mast. The Café St.
Michel, next door to the Café de la Gare, opened about five a.m. The proprietor had the tobacco concession for the neighbourhood, which brought in many customers and gave the place an air of prosperity. The odour of what the Third Republic called tobacco was purified, somewhat, by the slops and disinfectant used for cleaning the café.
While some of the early risers huddled around the counter to swallow their coffee, often spiked with cheap, watered rum or cognac, and to munch fresh crisp rolls, Eugénie, a pale, brown-eyed scrub- woman not yet forty, was on her knees beside her ill-smelling pail, faithfully scrubbing the back room floor in dimness. She wore drab grey, formless clothes which reeked of Eau de Javel; her breasts sagged; her hands and wrists were raw and red from the caustic; her feet were clad in worn felt slippers. When she was facing away from the crowd, and a little of her white leg showed, some gruff-voiced teamster or bargeman would joke about her derrière. One could not quite over- look it. Eugénie would turn her head and fling over her shoulder a gem of reproachful repartee. She slept in a sort of mop closet in the rear of the establishment, with the door bolted tightly, and while it was still dark she slunk over to the church of St. Séverin for an early morning prayer. After meal-times she ate of the leavings in the kitchen, when the cook and waiters had been fed. She had not had a day off in thirteen years, not since her mother had died of bronchitis and Eugénie had timorously left a more arduous job to take her deceased parent’s place at the Café St. Michel.
Eugénie’s chastity, her virginity in fact, was one of the matutinal subjects of conversation, a sort of perpetual challenge to the five- o’clock customers (male). It also served as a sort of springboard from which sly propositions could be launched towards the less virtuous customers (female). But the sharp-eyed Madame Trévise, the propri- etress, who was every inch what the French called a commerçante, or business woman, kept this daily ritual within bounds. There was prac- tically nothing the men could or did not say to Eugénie, but none of them was ever permitted by Madame to lay his hand on her. The proprietress was not moved by moral considerations; she merely wanted to avoid the inconvenience of having a drudge who periodi- cally became pregnant and had to be fired. So Madame Trévise added to Eugénie’s native armour of fear and piety her matronly authority. Once a bashful country boy, much younger than Eugénie, tried to approach her and even went so far as to lie in wait for her in the church at dawn in order to escape the merciless tongues of the café customers. Eugénie ran a high fever and for the only time in her life had to spend two days in bed, so startled was she by the stammered proposition.
I first wandered into the rue de la Huchette in 1923, on a soft summer evening, and entirely by chance. It was possible then to do things without premeditation. An evening lay before me, so I merely dined and strolled. Granite lions and an empty fountain dozed by the ill-matched towers of St. Sulpice; men, women and children sat on kerbs and doorsteps of the rue des Ciseaux and grumbled as a stray taxi inconvenienced them. The broad leaves of the plane trees along the boulevard St. Germain were still, almost drooping. Activity seemed to have been gently suspended.
Avoiding the Deux Magots, I skirted along the old abbey of St. Germain and in the secluded place Furstemburg, then the hideout of the budding group of Communists to whom no one – least of all, Moscow – paid the slightest attention, I paused in front of the old studio of Delacroix where a street lamp revealed a pencil drawing of a panther in the window.
In the place St. André des Arts I found myself staring with awe into a taxidermist’s window. Like all the other citizens of France, the taxidermists of France were individualists. Even French mothballs seemed to have slight differences, one from the other. The taxidermist in the place St. André des Arts made a speciality of stuffing pet dogs and cats with which their owners could not bear to part. Monsieur Noël, the tall stuffer of birds and animals, whom I learned to know very well in later days, made them look, if not lifelike, decidedly unique. The bourgeois French called parrots ‘Coco’, cats ‘Minou’, small dogs ‘Frou-frou’ and police dogs ‘Hanibal’, or something corre- sponding. Monsieur Noël, before undertaking to skin the beasts, would try to divine their character. Since he had a mild class consciousness, the expressions on the faces of his masterpieces reflected something of M. Noël’s sardonic philosophy. Noël pointed out to me once, over a bottle of Pouilly, that men and women, like gods, choose pets in their own image. My friend took sly delight in accentuating these resemblances.
On the corner, facing the boulevard St. Michel, was a pharmacy of the second class. That, as pharmacies went in France, was fairly high. A first-class pharmacy was an analytical and quantitative chemist’s laboratory plus emergency clinic and dispensary of serums, prophy- lactics and specifics. The pharmacy in question was closed that evening, but on the front door was a placard explaining that another pharmacy, a couple of blocks distant, was open.
According to the law of February 4, 1896 – probably because on February 3rd of that same year some senator’s wife had kept him awake with a toothache – pharmacists were obliged to take turns in handling night and holiday trade.
Among some very modern white enamel and red rubber acces- sories on display in the window in front of me, what caught my eye was a pair of crude mittens made of yellow cat’s fur, with the fur side outside. Afterwards, when I got to know M. Noël well enough, I asked him about those incongruous articles.
‘They are in no way exotic,’ he said.
The very poor in Paris, naturally, do not keep cats. On the contrary, they frequently stalk them, feed them up in seclusion and eat them. The moderately poor (say, in the $250 to $300 a year bracket), if they have no children, sometimes permit themselves the extravagance of a pet; but when Minou dies, they do not have her stuffed. Instead, they skin her with a kitchen knife, salt down her hide and sell it for a small sum to a dealer in mittens. He, in turn, sells the finished product to drug stores. In winter those Parisians whose houses or rooms have no heating manage to keep warm by rubbing themselves with cat’s fur.
Before the days of Police Commissioner Chiappe, there were no lanes studded with brass discs across the boulevards. Pedestrians simply ventured out and crossed in traffic as best they could. Experi- enced Parisians usually exercised a modicum of caution, but the provincial French had no background that equipped them to deal with the physics of scurrying taxis, lumbering buses and iconoclastic private cars, interspersed with market wagons drawn by stallions, old- fashioned fiacres, rubber-tyred bicycles and improvised delivery carts with three or more wheels.
In 1923 there were thousands of taxis, many of them driven by former cabmen who resented motors and used them with a minimum of mechanical consideration. Between the general public and the taxi- men a continual feud was carried on, with vehemence and sharp eloquence on both sides.
That first evening I was preceded into the traffic of the boul’ Mich’ by a dignified Frenchman from Mayenne, who wore an old-fashioned black felt hat and a string tie. A chauffeur jammed on his faulty brakes to avoid hitting the man, and the running board of the taxi barked his shins. Taxi No. 1 was promptly telescoped by another, which in turn was narrowly missed by a bus. If I quote him correctly, the taxi-driver called the incautious pedestrian a ‘kind of harlot’. The Frenchman dispassionately reminded the chauffeur that the streets had belonged to the people since the fall of the Bastille. When a cop stepped reluc- tantly into the picture, glancing disgustedly at the traffic jam, the pedestrian calmly handed him his card. The agent read it non- committally and tucked it into his pocket.
‘Alors, toi!’ (‘Well! You!’) the agent said to the chauffeur.
The latter retorted at the top of his voice. It was thanks to his presence of mind, he said, that the ‘type’ with the string tie and card had not been annihilated and his family left disconsolate.
‘Since the days of the Bastille ...’ began the party of the second part.
‘That’s a long time ago, Monsieur,’ cackled a drunken old woman from the pavement.
It all ended with the agent’s escorting me and the professor from Mayenne to the opposite curb, in front of a reeking public pissoir. Then he waved majestically for traffic to proceed. As the taxi sped away, the agent noticed that it had no tail-light. He blew his whistle furiously, to which the retreating chauffeur paid no attention. Unfor- tunately, several other drivers thought the whistle might be meant for them. They looked back, swerved, and one of them clipped the heavy market wagon, so that over the ensuing hubbub, the peasant on the wagon seat bellowed that his assailant was a cochon and voyou, or a ‘pig’ and a ‘thug’.
I bowed to the professor from Mayenne, who lifted his hat in acknowledgment and then turned towards the pissoir, unbuttoning his fly en route. In order to do this the Frenchman had to start about midway between his waist and his chin. In a land of passionate econ- omy, the high trouser top was a baffling extravagance.
My meditations on style were cut short when, after proceeding along a narrow pavement, I heard and saw, respectively, the sharp, merry sound of an accordion and the dim silhouette of the most perfect small Gothic church in France, St. Séverin. All I can say is that as I stood there, seeing it outlined against the taller buildings of the street beyond, I breathed more freely.
No ambitious ornament intrudes as one stands before St. Séverin. The carvings of the arch at the entrance are integral parts of the whole; the gargoyles have less literary taint than those of Notre Dame. The little church does not dominate the scene but rests among secular buildings with modesty and restraint. I was to learn that, while in other localities the Church of Christ had wandered far afield, St. Séverin had remained truly the refuge and consolation of the poor. Its congrega- tion consisted of workmen and their families, and its priests had no bank accounts, were never known to publish books, or to mix in poli- tics. Three of them, I was to learn, played the neatest game of bridge I have yet encountered. At the end of each session they dropped my money into the poor box.
When I emerged from St. Séverin’s candlelight and incense, having listened to Father Panarioux play the Bach B-minor fugue on the adequate little organ, I let myself be drawn across the street by the accordion band and into the Bal St. Séverin.
The waiter was at the bar, receiving from the proprietor a few drinks in glasses the size of thimbles. These he put on his tray and glanced towards me in response to a whispered admonition from his boss. Tray in hand, he guided me a distance of fifteen feet to a bench and table at the far corner of the crowded room, skirting the dancers, each couple of whom seemed to have achieved a sort of plastic unity. Someone had been occupying the table destined for me, as was evidenced by a handbag and an ashtray on the rim of which rested a cigarette butt that had been prudently extinguished with reference to the future. The waiter, still balancing his tray on which the tiny glasses were overflowing in an oily way, picked up the handbag with one hand and tossed it on the bench near another table. Then he said to me ‘Voilà, monsieur’ and with unbelievable daintiness lifted the half- cigarette between thumb and forefinger and deposited it on the empty ashtray nearest the transferred handbag.
The only other occupant of the room who was not dancing, not counting the proprietor and waiter, was a young girl in a flame- coloured dress and nothing whatever underneath. She had large brown eyes with long curved lashes, a rosebud mouth with petulant corners, and bare legs, very shapely, the pallor of which was accentuated by black high-heeled shoes, size three and wide. As our glances crossed, she tilted her gaze towards the low mezzanine balcony where the three- piece orchestra played. The drummer nodded curtly.
When the orchestra struck up another tune the male customers rose indolently, blew cigarette smoke from the corners of their mouths, and let it be known with a minimum of ceremony that they chose to dance and with whom. The flame-coloured dress was left partnerless once more; so I stood up, glanced up at the drummer, and made my way to her corner.
‘Would you care to dance?’ I asked in American French. ‘If monsieur wishes,’ she replied, doubtfully. I tried holding her circumspectly, but she did not seem at ease that
way, and had difficulty in following. So I fitted our bodies together in the prevailing style, as best I could.
‘What is your name?’ I asked. Up came her long curved eye- lashes, and she stared at me in surprise. It was not usual to talk while dancing.
‘Suzanne,’ she said, and that was the extent of the conversation. She was young, about seventeen I thought, and not muscular like a chambermaid or servant girl. Her high forehead and reddish-brown hair suggested Normandy. As we danced I learned that she used unscented Castile soap, that her hands and arms were cool while her torso was supple and warm.
‘Anglais, vous?’ she asked, as if she were speaking to a child, when we were seated again. Marcel, the garçon, without prompting, brought my unfinished dégustation and placed it in front of me, resting on its saucer marked 2 fr. It was the 2 fr. label that got the first reaction from Suzanne. She raised her eyebrows and looked at my tie.
‘Anglais, ça?’ she asked. ‘What will you have?’ I asked. She ordered a cherry, which baffled me until Marcel brought her a
neat brown one pickled in brandy. Then I tried to explain that I was not English but American. The task I had undertaken was not so easy as I had thought it would be. Suzanne had seen the sea once and had mistaken it for a continuation of the sky. That America was across the ocean meant nothing to her because she understood but dimly what an ocean was. Americans and Englishmen both spoke English. That was enough for her.
Having started dancing with Suzanne and buying her brandied cherries, it was pleasant to continue. The arrangement seemed to please the drummer and the proprietor, and had the sanction also of Marcel, the garçon, who was the real director of the establishment. The Bal St. Séverin was orderly in the extreme. There was no drunk- enness, no open quarrels, and if the talk was loud between dances, it was uniformly so. The liquor wasn’t bad. Although diluted, it was stimulating. I drank four or five fines, and each time Marcel laid another 2 fr. saucer on top of my modest stack, Suzanne began to show respect, if not alarm. Suspecting that she might be hungry, I suggested a sandwich. With a quick warning pressure of her cool little hand, which absentmindedly I seemed to be holding beneath the table, and a fearful glance towards the drummer, she whispered swiftly: ‘Not here, Monsieur.’
I paid the bill, gave Marcel a generous tip and left the Bal St. Séverin. Once out on the pavement, Suzanne walked fearfully just ahead of me. There was not room for us to move abreast. To our right was St. Séverin. We saw the huge bulk of Notre Dame across the misty river. In the middle ground was the walled churchyard of St. Julien le Pauvre. Moorish music sounded faintly from the Hotel Rossignol – or Nightingale Hotel – which faced the exit from our street. Algerian and Moroccan rug peddlers convened there, and sometimes smuggled in a nautch dancer who performed by the hour.
‘Les Sidis!’ Suzanne whispered, contemptuously. ‘I should not like to sleep with them, as Renée does. Robert hasn’t made me yet.’
Suzanne told me, later: ‘Germaine is a droll one. She likes to have Robert try to break her arm – Not I. I don’t like to be hurt.’
Suzanne was steering me at that moment into the rue de la Huchette. I don’t know where she is today. It is difficult for me to think of her as thirty-five years old, and torn with suffering. I can only hope she has enough to eat and doesn’t understand too much about current events. She led me to the Hôtel du Caveau, and for that I shall eternally thank her.