Oh, to be young and in Paris in the 1920s, creating myths, telling lies, rubbing shoulders with genius. Spending cheap francs on comfortable lodging, ample drink, and long dinners.
British and American expatriates flocked here to learn, create, and soak up the culture. They created their private clubs in public on the cafe terraces of Montparnasse. Sometimes they read their manuscripts out loud to one another. A few of them, like Robert McAlmon established small presses to publish the works of friends they admired. Following Gertrude Stein’s example, they bought wonderful new works of art to display on the walls of their salons. For those who opted to stay in Paris, these were happy, productive years.
Ernest Hemingway was the best known of the expatriots and left the biggest footprint. He was vibrant and active and bursting with youthful enterprise and so he covered a lot of territory. It was December 1921 when he arrived in Paris as a little-known reporter for the Toronto Star. His first wife, Hadley, was with him. Friendly, athletic, and handsome, Hemingway cut a wide swath in the artistic community. Among his friends, he counted F. Scott Fitzgerald who was in Paris celebrating his new-found literary success; and Stein, the dean of expatriot writers, who served as teacher and mentor.
In Paris, Hemingway found a city full of quiet and beautiful places, perfect for clear thinking and serious reflection. He frequented the quais along the Seine, the Luxembourg gardens, the cafés of Montparnasse. There were other places, too: racetracks, velodromes, and boxing gyms. The cafés, of course, were refuge, office and social club.
With few exceptions, the expatriate writers and artists were peripatetic, migrating from apartment to apartment, hopping back and forth from Right Bank to Left Bank. Hemingway had eleven different addresses in Paris, Man Ray nine; e.e. cummings, Alexander Calder, and Henry Miller, six, and Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald, four apiece. Each of them had a favorite district or quarter.
For Hemingway, it was the Place de la Contrescarpe in the 5ème arrondissement with its narrow streets and open markets. Naturally James Joyce preferred the quiet of the Eiffel Tower district with its expensive restaurants. Natalie Barney, who ran the most famous American literary salon, presided over Saint Germain des Près, while Ford Madox Ford preferred the area around rue Notre Dame des Champs.
To know Hemingway, you have to read him carefully. To understand Hemingway in Paris, you have to read A Moveable Feast. (What he writes about food and culture, you can rely on; the rest take with a grain of salt.) You’ll begin to appreciate the appeal of potatoes doused in olive oil and know why it’s important to drink a draft slowly at the Brasserie Lipp. You’ll see the Luxembourg Gardens in all of their glory. You’ll understand that there is a different Paris for every person who experiences it.
How is it that Paris still has the capacity to make us see the smallest details with such joy and reverence?