Friday, September 2, 2016

Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in Montparnasse: A Walk

This season I will be introducing an entirely new walk that explores the intellectual and sensual connection between two writers in Paris through the places in Montparnasse where their relationship and writings blossomed. To tantalize your interest I am sharing two places and stories from this walk that illuminate facets of these authors’ lives in Paris.

To take this walk and learn the whole story, or explore other tours, please view my schedules page.

Nin on the Rue Schoelcher
From 1925 to 1928, Anaïs Nin lived in the complex of artists’ studios at No. 11 bis,rue Schoelcher along the eastern wall of the Montparnasse Cemetery, a studio complex where Simone de Beauvoir later lived.  Then in her mid-twenties, Nin had come from New York to Paris because her American husband Hugh had been posted to France by his New York bank.  The young couple occupied one studio, her Danish mother another. Nin was born in Neuilly, but her mother took her to New York at eleven and raised her there after her father, the Cuban-born musician Joachim Nin, abandoned the family. The sensuality of Paris repelled Nin at first, but in December 1926, she wrote in her diary, “I shall try to turn my hate of Paris into writing and make it harmless.” She started with close observation of the Lost Generation crowd at the Café Dôme. One year later she was able to write, “I faced and accepted Paris as a test of my courage.”

Miller and Nin at the Hôtel Central
Thanks to freelance work as a copy editor at the Chicago Tribune, lined up by his friend Alfred Perlès (Carl in Tropic of Cancer), Miller was able to stay at the Hôtel Central at No. 1 bis rue du Maine, just off from the saucy rue de la Gaité, several times during his crucial year of 1931–1932.  He began writing Tropic of Cancer in August 1931.  That fall his friend Richard Osborn (Fillmore in the book) introduced him to Anaïs Nin and her husband Hugh at their home in Louveciennes outside of Paris.  Miller’s intellectual exuberance electrified her, and a passionate literary friendship began, with both of them channeling their erotic attraction into delight in each other’s ideas and work.  For five months they avoided any mention of sex, afraid it could undermine their connection. To complicate matters further, Nin was attracted to Miller’s bisexual wife, June, who made a brief appearance in Paris that winter. But desire eventually got the better of them. On March 6, 1932, Nin joined Miller in Room 401. She did not regret having her “tight secrecy . . . broken for a moment by a man who calls himself ‘the last man on earth.’”

In The Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1931–1934, she wrote:
After our first encounter I breathed some notes, accents of recognition, human admissions. Henry was stunned, and I was breathing off the unbearable, willing joy. But the second time, there were no words. My joy was impalpable and terrifying. It swelled within me as I walked the streets.
The sexual excitement brought into her life by Henry and June engendered a new fire in the writing of her diary.  For Miller, who wanted to marry her, she was the only woman he ever loved completely.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Exploring the France that Josephine Baker Loved

Below is a riveting article on Josephine Baker by Sloane Crosley of the New York Times, which I was lucky enough to contribute to by sharing some of the stories I have gathered for my own Josephine Baker documentary. 

The original online article can be found here.

The American entertainer had a rich relationship with her adopted country — and it with her.

The first time I saw Josephine Baker up close I was in London. I went to the Alexander Calder exhibition at the Tate Modern and there, at the entrance to the exhibition, was a wire sculpture of Baker.

You can see why it was one of the very first wire sculptures that Calder made — the subject demanded a new medium. With all due respect to Beyoncé, Josephine Baker has the most famous physique in showbiz history — a body so often compared to a spring, it’s only natural that an artist would try to capture her in that form, complete with spiraling breasts.

The town of Sarlat-la-Canéda.
Four months later, I left for a writer’s retreat in the Périgord region of France, no longer thinking about Josephine Baker. This is an area comparatively light on American tourists. It’s not that it’s lacking in visual splendor — the Dordogne River, Marqueyssac gardens, the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda and Castelnaud Valley, fittingly named considering its collection of castles perched on cliffs — but no beaches were stormed, no patron saints burned, no water lilies painted. The region’s primary claim to fame is the prehistoric caves of Font de Gaume, Grotte de Rouffignac and Lascaux (Lascaux 4, the latest reproduction of the original, opens in December).

The area’s other extremely popular attraction happens to be the Château des Milandes, a breathtaking Renaissance castle overlooking the Dordogne. This, it turns out, is where Josephine Baker, who was born in St. Louis in 1906, lived during the second half of her life. She married and raised her children here. “I have two loves,” sang the queen of the Jazz Age in “J’ai Deux Amours,” her most enduring tune, “my country and Paris.” If she had recorded a late-in-life remake, she might have added a third love to the list: Milandes. And seeing as how I was staying a mere 15 minutes away, in the one-roundabout town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, I decided to pay it a visit. I thought perhaps I could learn more about Baker’s passionate relationship with France — and its mutual fascination with her.

Baker's Renaissance Castle in the Périgord region of France.

The chateau is up a twisting, idyllic road bordered by ivy-covered trees and stone walls. When you walk in the front door, you are greeted by the sound of radio interviews with Baker and an exhibition of her stage costumes. There are over a dozen gowns, bustiers and jumpsuits, most involving crystals, all in size remove-a-rib. I was not prepared for such a display.

Because most French chateaus are privately owned (including this one, currently inhabited by the Sarlat native Angélique de Saint-Exupéry, whose husband is a relative of “The Little Prince” author), most are limited in access. But here visitors may wander through a labyrinth of children’s bedrooms furnished with gramophones and trunks, Art Deco bathrooms, a huge kitchen and a vaulted gun room (not the official name of the room, but there’s a rifle on a tripod pointed at your head as you enter). There are also cases of military medals and a commendation letter from Charles de Gaulle for Baker’s efforts during World War II.

Baker was a spy for her adopted country. She hid weapons for the French Resistance and smuggled documents across the border, tucking them beneath gowns like the ones on the first floor.

The crown jewel of the tour is Baker’s famous banana belt, which she wore — along with nothing else — in the Danse Sauvage at the Folies-Bergère in 1926. Baker did more for the sexualization of bananas than the collective sex-ed class demonstrations of the last century. The bananas are gold, not yellow — something impossible to tell in the black and white footage. As I admired the belt, a British tourist next to me turned to her husband and said: “She wasn’t actually naked all that much, it’s just what everybody chooses to remember.”

A portrait of Josephine Baker ca. 1930
“Everybody” included me. It’s exactly what I saw when I looked at the Calder piece and it’s probably what Calder saw when he looked at Josephine Baker: an outline. But on the 110th anniversary of her birth, it’s worth noting that there is so much more to Baker — and to Baker’s France — than meets the eye. In addition to being a performer and a spy, she was the last speaker before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 march on Washington.

Slightly less celebrated is the fact that, in her 40s, she began adopting children from different countries. There were 12 in all and they would come to be known as the Rainbow Tribe. For Baker, they were the living embodiment of a Utopian racial ideal. The easy contemporary parallel would be Angelina Jolie — except that when Baker’s children became an attraction for tourists, she fully embraced the gawking. Then, after World War II, Baker firmly settled at Milandes. She employed half the town. Her brother married the postwoman. Unlike her hectic nights of performing, her days in the Périgord were peaceful. Or as peaceful as anyone’s days can be with 12 small children, multiple monkeys and a pet cheetah.

Once I started listening for Josephine Baker, I heard her everywhere. Back in Les Eyzies, I ran into Josette Garrigue, the 69-year-old woman who owns the farm down the road. I told her where I had been and she nodded and smiled.

“I remember her well,” she said, “Back then, this place was only little roads, just a romantic spot where she could drive around in her old cars. It’s tragic what happened to her.”

What happened was bankruptcy. Baker, who once claimed to be the richest woman in the world, fell into insurmountable debt, despite the help of high-profile friends like Grace Kelly and Brigitte Bardot. In 1968, she was forced to give the chateau over to creditors. After the bananas, the second most famous image of Baker is of her sitting in the rain, locked out of her home by the new owner. The local loyalty to her is unwavering to this day; Ms. de Saint-Exupéry referred to the new owner in an email as “a bad guy.”

“I don’t want to speak about him!” she responded quickly. “Josephine sold because she was without money, and a lot of people exploited the situation.”

That evening, I sat at my neighbor’s kitchen table with her friend, Michel Salon, a retired career waiter who has served everyone from Serge Gainsbourg to the king of Belgium.

“The first time I saw her was a Sunday,” Mr. Salon, 70, recalled. “She was cleaning dishes in the castle cafe. A little girl was watching her and Josephine called to her, picked her up and hugged her. She loved children but couldn’t have any of her own. The girl’s mother yelled at her husband for not bringing a camera.

“Oh, she was so famous. But she was an artist and she didn’t know how to manage money. She employed people who billed her for projects she didn’t order. I know one waiter who would steal money from the cafe while Josephine was in Paris. Can you imagine someone doing something like that to her in Paris?”

I could not. Then again, I imagined Baker’s life as a young woman in Paris was light on the dishwashing in general — but who knew? So after seeing where she spent the latter half of her life, I decided to head back to the beginning.

I contacted Julia Browne, who runs Walk the Spirit Tours: Black Paris and Beyond, which offers specialized tours with themes like “Pioneers of the Left Bank,” “Great Black Music Walk” and, of course, “Josephine Baker.” Ms. Browne paired me with David Burke, 79, an American author and film producer who is working on a documentary about Baker. Thirty years ago, he and his wife decided to live in Paris for a year — and they never left. We met outside the boutique Hotel Joséphine, right at the Baker epicenter of Montmartre and Pigalle.

“It’s funny,” Mr. Burke said, “Josephine wasn’t really a jazz person and she was a dreadful singer at first, but she was involved with the whole Jazz Age community. She’s the most famous person in the whole group, the most famous of any American to ever live in France.”

I raise my eyebrows. Really? Mr. Burke mostly gives Lost Generation tours: Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald.

We begin our walk on the Rue Fontaine, which leads to the Moulin Rouge. Mr. Burke described the area in its heyday as being “like 52nd Street back in the bebop days.” The street used to be dotted with jazz clubs, none of which still exist. It took a bit of an imaginative leap to picture the scene; our conversation took place between a nail salon and a pizzeria. The one structure still standing is the former Le Grand Duc, where Langston Hughes was employed as a busboy and where Ada Smith, a.k.a. Bricktop, who later took Baker under her wing, first performed.
Six Degrees of Josephine Baker would be too easy a game to play in France. Or in America, for that matter. Baker was a star even before she arrived in Paris (starring in “Shuffle Along,” one of the first all-black musicals, a revival of which opened on Broadway in April). But Paris made her a megastar.
“People just went wild for her,” Mr. Burke said. “There was a need for something fresh and Josephine brought this combination of Africa, jazz, humor and America in her presentation. And she was personable. Everyone loved her.”

Well, not everyone. I broach the subject of “The Hungry Heart,” a scathing portrait of Baker I read on the train up to Paris. It’s written (with a co-writer) by Jean-Claude Baker, her unofficial 13th son, who met Josephine when he was already a young man. Mr. Burke said he finds the book “unreliable and worrisome.” I can see why. In it, Baker is an oversexed fabulist who, “like a black Chaplin,” stepped on anyone “to get where she wanted to get.” She answers the door naked for Balanchine and repeatedly refers to Marlene Dietrich as “that German cow.” He recommended I read “Josephine Baker in Art and Life” by Bennetta Jules-Rosette instead. I eventually did, and it was twice as sophisticated and half as fun.

We turned onto the Rue de Clichy. The stained-glass arch of the Casino de Paris — Baker’s third musical hall home, where she performed with feathered wings — rose up in the distance.

“Josephine almost never played an American,” Mr. Burke said. “She was always playing a woman of color from somewhere else. So she would play a Vietnamese girl who was in love with a French planter in occupied Vietnam.”

“That’s quite the colonial fantasy,” I said. “ ‘Thank you for occupying us, how can we serve you?’”

The Moulin Rouge, on Boulevard de Clichy in Paris.
“And it was Josephine,” Mr. Burke said, “so it’s everyone’s fantasies at once.”

Next, we make our way over to the Avenue Montaigne off the Champs-Élysées, a Céline- and Fendi-flanked stretch that was familiar to Baker. One side effect of immense fame is a fluency in fashion: Josephine was beloved by designers like Balmain and Dior. Were she alive now, she surely would have had her own line of perfume. Instead, she had the lucrative Baker Fix, a hair pomade inspired by her own shellacked curls.

But the area also symbolizes the end and the beginning of Baker’s Parisian life. At one end of the street is the lovely Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It was here, in October 1925, that Baker performed in La Revue Nègre, her first performance in Paris. And a short walk away is L’Église de la Madeleine, the site of her funeral procession in April 1975; she was given full French military honors and drew over 20,000 mourners.

Mr. Burke and I attempted entry, but it was the middle of the afternoon and all efforts to talk an usher into opening the doors were thwarted. We were left on the outside, looking in — a bit like I felt at the end of the tour. As informative as it was, it was more walk and less spirit. I finished with a greater sense of where Baker led her life, but why she could be considered the most famous American expat remained a mystery. So I did what anyone would do: I contacted a man who has devoted the majority of his professional life to paying homage to Josephine Baker on stage.

The cabaret singer and choreographer Brian Scott Bagley, 37, hails from Baltimore; like Mr. Burke, he came to Paris temporarily — in 2006 — and simply never left. I met him on the bustling Boulevard Beaumarchais in the Marais and we took a stroll through the neighborhood, Mr. Bagley’s black-and-white patent leather shoes clicking along. The Marais is not Josephine Baker’s Paris, but it is, objectively, a good place to get lunch.

From the exterior of the Folies-Bergère theater in Paris, where Josephine Baker entertained.
 “Honey boo,” Mr. Bagley said, taking my arm. “I dream in French now. I have different accents for American people and for French people. I’m kind of like a spy in that way, like our girl.”
Mr. Bagley believes that Baker’s charisma was so stupendous, it still “latches on” to performers like him (“I am the love child of Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli adopted by Josephine Baker”). She brings people together from the great beyond. I expressed a healthy degree of skepticism about this — right before “J’ai Deux Amours” came dripping out of some cafe speakers and Mr. Bagley and I discovered that we were born the same day of the same year. O.K., maybe.

Once seated, we flipped through his collection of vintage Paris Matches with Baker on the cover and he elaborated on what makes her so important.

“Everybody imagines something different when they come to Paris, but it’s the Harlem of Paris that not everyone knows about but should, because that’s where the energy is still so potent. Josephine was the center of it,” he said. “She came here and — boom — she could live in a world without segregation. Boom, she was a major star. She lived that European dream we all want, of liberation and sexual freedom. We all want to come here and meet some amazing French guy, make love in some chambre de bonne and then fall in love with some European aristocrat.”

Paris had long been “the Bermuda triangle of the muses,” as Mr. Bagley put it, one of the world’s great magnets for writers, painters and musicians. But like Mr. Burke, he thinks that Baker was much more than an artist. She was a lifestyle. She was “the ultimate connector,” inspiring fellow performers, sitting with audience members and chatting long after the curtain closed. And, she “did everything.”
He, too, has his preferred Baker narratives (he’s partial to “Remembering Josephine Baker” by Stephen Papich). “But it doesn’t matter what you read,” he said. “What matters is embracing Paris the way she embraced it.” (Mr. Bagley was recently named assistant artistic director of le Parc de Josephine Baker, an events space and resort, complete with J-shaped pool, just down the road from the Château des Milandes.)

Baker’s last show was self-titled. She was 69, and she died in her sleep a few days later. But Mr. Bagley is right — she’s not gone. Not just in the sense that she is remembered or in the sense that there is a square named after her in Montparnasse, but in the sense that she is present. There are still many walls up for black performers around the globe but, as Mr. Bagley noted, “Josephine broke down a ton of them.”

Like Paris itself, Baker is at once idolized and familiar — once you fall in love with her, you both want to share that love and keep it for yourself. This is evidenced by the fact that not a single person with whom I spoke referred to her by her last name, as they did with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and Porter. Everyone feels as if Josephine was theirs.

Correction: July 24, 2016
An article last Sunday about exploring Josephine Baker’s relationship with France misstated the name of a street in Paris. It is Avenue Montaigne, not Rue de Montagne. The article also misstated the location of L’Église de la Madeleine, the church where Baker was given a funeral procession. It is at the Place de la Madeleine, not at the end of Avenue Montaigne.

All content and photographs are the property of The New York Times 
Photographs (unless otherwise noted) by Andy Haslam for The New York Times

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Tale of Two Books: Mary's & Mine

One day in the fall of 2015 I received a message from Shakespeare and Company saying that they wanted to get more copies of my book Writers in Paris, Literary Lives in the City of Light, but they were unable to come up with any. So I emailed the head of my publisher in Berkeley to find out what’s what.  Bad news. They love the book, but sales have slipped, and the company has decided not print any more. However, they offered to release the book freely to me as the copyright owner if I found a solid publisher with a contract.   

By a remarkable bit of luck, only two days earlier, I had been the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Paris Writers Group.  Its chief is the delightful and knowledgeable Mary Duncan, a writer and the publisher of the Paris Writers Press.  She liked my Writers in Paris!  So I called her and she said come on over.  Mary led me to her computer and showed all the steps of her favorite publishing app works. I’ve written books, but have no experience in publishing.  We could both see that I was not up to it.  So Mary said that, if I like, she could be my new publisher. Wow, what luck!

A few days later we met at the new Shakespeare and Company Café and discussed our contract. The paperwork was in order, but at this time of the year (Dec.) both Mary and I were leaving Paris for three-month jaunts. She was off to California to be with her family and to work on her project of translating to English the autobiography by Lynn Jeffress of the fearless publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert , who savaged censor laws in the France of the 1950s and ‘60s, and is best known for the Marquis de Sade. Meanwhile my wife Joanne and I went off to China. But before leaving Paris I let my Berkeley publisher know that Mary and I had an agreement for Writers in Paris, but would not be taking it over until we were back to Paris in spring.  They were perfectly at ease with that.

Mary got back to Paris in late March, wrapping up her Jean-Jacques Pauvert book, which now had a title, Sade’s Publisher, A Memoir,  and in early April the transferring of Writers in Paris from Berkeley to Paris began. Mary did it all by herself. There were a few glitches along the way, but it was remarkably smooth overall.   

Mary Duncan, Me, & Sylvia Whitman
On April 22, 2016, Mary and I signed our contract in the Shakespeare and Company Café, with owner Sylvia Whitman our witness.  

While Mary was on business in New York in early May, UPS dropped a box from her printing press.  It was early proofs for both books, Sade’s Publisher and Writers in Paris, Second Edition in it. They were almost spotless, Mary told me on email.  Just a few little things to be altered.  And when she handed it to me in Paris, I found it at least as attractive as was the original version– which is saying plenty, because Counterpoint in Berkeley had done a beautiful job.  Mary was very pleased too with her brand new Sade’s Publisher.  And seeing the two books together was a treat.    

My first batch of Writers in Paris arrived in Paris on May 25th. Ten copies went to the shelves of Shakespeare and Company.  And from the photos sent to me from the D. G. Wills bookshop in La Jolla, California, the two books have stayed together come the long way from la Belle France.  

I thank for Mary for everything.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Happy Birthday Balzac

I most recently wrote about an interesting sculpture of Honoré de Balzac that stands on the boulevard du Montparnasse (read below). Two hundred and seventeen years ago on this day the very man was born in Tours, Indre-et-Loire, France.

Balzac is known for his plays and short novels, many of which take place here in Paris. His works were written with such keen observation of human nature that he is attributed as a founder of realism in European literature. Much like today’s “fail fast” mentality, Balzac transitioned through a multitude of attempted professions before finding his calling in writing. After failing through school, he continued on to fail in his attempts to be a lawyer, publisher, printer, businessman, critic, and politician. Balzac even failed to complete his first three novels, only to be followed by great success in his later works and eventually his own statue.

The author’s life serves as inspiration for all those struggling in their pursuits. Sometimes the shoe doesn’t fit, and other times you just have to work a little harder to get it on. As Balzac himself said, “There is no such thing as a great talent without great will power.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Balzac in a Bag

The spot where I meet my groups for the start of my “Lost Generation” Montparnasse walking tour is at the foot of Auguste Rodin’s mighty, larger-than-life bronze statue of Honoré de Balzac. This walk is about the expatriate writers in this part of Paris of the 1920s, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and others. That’s what my walkers are here for.  But before we move off on the walk itself, everyone wants to know about this statue -- and rightly so.  It is a very strange sculpture with a very strange history to match.                                 

In 1891, Emile Zola talked the Société des Gens de Lettres, of which he was the president, into commissioning a statue honoring the founder of their literary society, Balzac, who had died forty years earlier. Rodin, a great fan of Balzac’s writing, was awarded the commission.  He promised to deliver it in eighteen months. After missing several deadlines he finally came up with a model that pleased him: a squat barrel of a Balzac exploding with raw vigor and, other than a band of cloth covering the massive bulge in his crotch, utterly naked.  “Indécent et hideux” was the judgment of the literary society.   

So Rodin went back to his studio and eventually created the final version: the giant Balzac we see today with the  famous monk’s cowl he wore when he was writing cloaking his body from shoulder to foot, a blur of a face, and deep, dark pits for his visionary eyes.  Rodin exhibited the work in a full-sized plaster model at the Salon of 1898.  The critics threw up their hands. They called it “a colossal fetus,” “Balzac in a bag,” “an obese monstrosity,” “a snowman” … Zola liked it, but he was no longer president of the society, and his role in the Dreyfus Case (1898 being the year of “J’accuse”) made him too controversial to be any help to Rodin. The Société des Gens de Lettres rejected the statue.

Four decades later, on July 2, 1939, the statue, now cast in bronze, was installed here on the leafy traffic island at the central crossroads of Montparnasse, the Carrefour Vavin, where the Boulevards du Montparnasse and Raspail intersect, facing the Café Rotonde and Le Dôme.  Another bronze casting of this Balzac statue stands in the garden of the Rodin Museum on the Rue de Varenne in Paris, and inside the museum is the “indécent et hideux” version which was so shocking to the literary society.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Samuel Beckett - Résistant

In a corner of Paris not known at all for its literary figures, a plaque here commemorates one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  “Irish Writer, Nobel Laureate for Literature, Samuel Beckett,” it reads.  The plaque stands in the Allée Samuel Beckett, a block-long stretch of the leafy esplanade of the Avenue René Coty, in the 14th Arrondissement, just down from the Place Denfert-Rochereau. Unimposing though this area may look, it was a key place for Beckett when he was part of the Gloria SMH Résistance network during the Nazi Occupation.  Gloria SMH conducted widespread espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance activities in Paris and Northern France for the British Special Operations Executive, the SOE, in London.  It was life-risking business.  More than 50 members of Gloria SMH would be captured by the Gestapo and sent to German concentration camps.  Many died there, including Beckett’s closest French friend and literary associate Alfred Péron. (Péron is seen in the snapshot, below, in his French Army uniform - taken just before the German invasion in 1940, his wife Mania at his side). 
Beckett needed no coaxing when Péron recruited him for the network on September 1, 1941.  He despised Hitler, Nazism, and racial hatred and was incensed by the forced wearing of the yellow Star of David by Jews.  Thirty-five at the time, Beckett had been living full-time in Paris since 1937, and with Suzanne Deschevaux-Daumesnil, his future wife, since the following year.  She fully supported what he was doing, despite the risks.

Beckett’s work involved translating French documents provided to him by Gloria SMH spies into English and delivering them to a photographer, code name “Jimmy the Greek” or “Tante Léo,” in the vicinity of today’s Allée Samuel Beckett.  The documents would be microfilmed, then smuggled by courier into Vichy France and on to the SOE headquarters in London. The risks for Beckett were many:   He could be arrested by Gestapo agents when documents were delivered to him, documents could be found in searches of his apartment, he could be stopped while crossing the city with the translations, caught as he delivered the documents to the photographer, or -- always a threat -- a member of the network could name names during torture by the Gestapo, or pro-Nazi spies could infiltrate the network.  In the end, a pro-Nazi Catholic priest was the one.  The network was broken.

Allée Samuel Beckett
On August 16, 1942, the Gestapo arrested Alfred Péron.  Fortunately, his wife Mania was able to telegram Beckett and Suzanne and warn them to leave their apartment immediately.  They did as she said, and just in time.  Gestapo agents came to their 15th Arrondissement apartment, ransacked the premises, and stationed guards to wait for them to return. They holed up for a few nights at their friend Mary Reynolds’s apartment at No. 24 rue Hallé, only steps from today’s Allée Samuel Beckett, then moved from hideaway to hideaway in Paris for a month before escaping to the South. They lived clandestinely in the Lubéron for the rest of the war.

As for Beckett’s friend Alfred Péron, he was incarcerated in three prisons in France before being deported to the huge Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where brutal treatment and malnourishment destroyed his health.  The Swiss Red Cross freed him when the camp was finally liberated, but too late.  He died on May 1, 1945. 

Samuel Beckett

Reference:  Damned to Fame, The Life of Samuel Beckett, by James Knowlson, Bloomsbury, London, 1996.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Rilke and Rodin: How the Musée Rodin Came into Being

On August 31, 1908, the greatest German poet of his time, Rainer-Maria Rilke, moved into a studio in an 18th century mansion in the Faubourg Saint-Germain.  He was immediately inspired to write this note:

“Dear Great Friend,
You must see this beautiful building and the room I have been living in since this morning.  Three bay windows open prodigiously on an abandoned garden where from time to time we see naïve rabbits leap over the trellises as in an ancient tapestry.   If you are in town one of these days it would be my greatest joy if we might lunch together…”

The “dear great friend” was none other than Auguste Rodin. This note marked the first time Rilke had communicated with Rodin in two years, since the great sculptor had abruptly fired him from his job as his secretary.

This is the story of the on-again/off-again relationship of these two geniuses and how it ultimately led to the existence of the Musée Rodin. This magnificent property includes not only the handsome 1730 mansion the Hôtel Biron, but also the third-largest garden of any house in Paris (after the Elysées Palace and the Hôtel Matignon), dotted with one Rodin masterpiece after another –  The Thinker, The Burghers of Calais, The Gates of Hell, and dozens of others.  But at the time Rilke wrote to Rodin it looked nothing like today.  It was an elegant dump, abandoned four years earlier when the convent school occupying it lost its government subsidy. Writers and artists began to move in. 

The Thinker
Auguste Rodin was Rilke’s artistic idol. The Prague-born poet first came to Paris in 1902 to write an essay about him. A generation older, Rodin took a liking to the gifted but emotionally and artistically immature poet, then twenty-six, and he loved what Rilke wrote about his work. So in 1905 he hired the young man as his secretary and brought him to live with his family at his home in Meudon, outside Paris, where his vast sculpture atelier was located. Rilke reveled in his chance to see Rodin at work every day, to feel the intensity of his work ethic, and observe his ability to make, as if by magic, solid material come to life.  At night Rilke would enter a room, lamp in hand, to look at the small sculptures: “As they wake up, one by one, like animals, life comes back into them, hesitantly, still heavy with dream.”  He was in heaven. But six months into the job, Rodin suddenly dismissed him without explanation. Devastating though the shock of being fired was, it set off a poetic explosion.  

In July 1907, Rilke wrote to his wife Clara that he had spent a whole morning watching three gazelles in the zoo of Paris’s Jardin des Plantes:  “As women gaze out at you from pictures, so they gaze out with something, with a soundless final turn.”  This became the inspiration for his poem “The Gazelle,” one of his so-called “thing poems,” heavily influenced by Rodin – but going the opposite way. Whereas Rodin made inanimate objects come to life, Rilke turned animate objects into things, sculpted by the words of his poems. Thanks to such poems as “The Gazelle” and “The Panther,” also based on his visits to the Jardin des Plantes, his two volumes of New Poems in 1907 in 1908 were tremendous hits. And they gave him the confidence to invite Rodin to lunch.  

Rodin accepted. He loved the place. He signed a lease for the ground floor right away and moved in a month later. Now on a relatively equal artistic basis, their previous woes forgotten, Rodin and Rilke were able to converse freely.  Their only disagreement was about women.  Rodin could not separate them from their sexuality (his “French temperament", as Rilke saw it), whereas Rilke defended the model of Nordic women, whose purity did not make them obstacles to art. 

In 1912 the government decided to demolish the Hôtel Biron. To prevent that from happening, Rodin offered to will a large body of his works to the French government if it would preserve it as a museum after his death. Thanks to a massive outpouring of support, the government agreed. And when he died five years later the Hôtel Biron and its grounds became the Musée Rodin.
But what about Rilke?  Does he get any credit? Take a look at the wall to the left of the massive wooden carriage doors at the entrance to the compound, and you will see a little plaque. It says:
In this mansion, to which he introduced Auguste Rodin, Rainer-Maria Rilke lived from 1908 to 1911.