N a visit to Paris two years ago, I bought a Juliette Greco CD in a secondhand shop on Boulevard San Michel. Now a very old woman (she was born in 1927), she was for me in the 1960s the very epitome of the bohemian lifestyle I associated with post-World War II Paris.
Perhaps this was in part because I was for a time in thrall to the existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex (first published in 1949).
The central emphasis of existentialism was on human freedom, and on the need for the individual to take responsibility for his or her own life. There was no external moral law. Paris seemed to me the city where people were attempting to live this philosophy: that made it an exciting but also a dangerous place.
Ms Greco, who was very beautiful in her youth, and who sang in bars and clubs, became a symbol of the philosophy and the city. Among those she had liaisons with was the great American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who lived in Paris for a period after the war.
Sante says women didn’t become fully accredited members of bohemia until after World War II, and then adds that “the first widely recognised woman bohemian may have been the indestructible Juliette Greco”.
But the Paris he reveals to us — the city of the poor, of outcasts, criminals, prostitutes, eccentrics and the wilfully nonconforming — is teeming with bohemian types. He takes us through the old streets, stained with the blood of the guillotine, through the whorehouses, the dance halls, and the hobo shelters of the old city.
Two words crop up a lot in this fascinating and lavishly illustrated volume — louche (shifty or disreputable) and flâneur (idler or loafer) — and they could well have been minted for the Paris of these pages. But Sante’s flâneur is a very observant one, and as much a participant as a bystander.
He serves as our guide and the author lets us see the city through his eyes.
If Ms Greco has a particular resonance for me, then there were others who were bigger on the international stage, most notably Edith Piaf (1915-1963). And we are all familiar with her first worldwide hit, ‘La vie en rose’ (1947), which is for many immediately evocative of Paris and an era.
The Paris we know today, save for the Eiffel Tower and some other smaller places, is largely the creation of Georges-Eugene Haussmann (1808-1891). He was, the author informs us, awarded “his mandate to remake the city by Napoleon III in 1853, and served in that capacity until the Franco-Prussian War brought an end to the empire in 1870”.
One of the (many) things I didn’t know about Paris is that, while the Bastille was built as a fortress in the 14th century, it was Cardinal Richelieu who had it converted into a prison three centuries later. Among those who spent time in its cells were the Marquis de Sade and Voltaire. It was the storming of the Bastille of course on July 14, 1789, that started the French Revolution, the repercussions of which we are still living with today.
The author makes the interesting observation that “in a sense, the revolution that began in Paris in 1789 never really ended”. He supports this by pointing out that while the uprising of the population against its rulers overthrew feudalism and absolutism, produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man that same year, and then proclaimed a Republic in 1792, it “failed to achieve its stated goal of liberty, fraternity and equality”.
This is why so much of the 19th century in particular “can seem like a continuous blur of riots and skirmishes and full-scale insurrections”. Of these latter, the bloodiest and the one that most reverberates today is the Paris Commune of 1871. It remains engraved in the collective memory of the Left and the French working class.
“The Commune was so rich in ideas,
initiatives, debates, and grand plans that it is easy to forget that it lasted only seventy-two days,” Sante reminds us. On March 26, 1871, the Commune of Paris was proclaimed at the Hôtel de Ville. Its assembly comprised workers, artists, clerks, journalists, accountants, lawyers, teachers and doctors who decreed the separation of Church and State, the secularisation of schools and the creation of workers’ cooperatives. It was brutally suppressed in May, ending in what is known to this day as the “Semaine sanglante” (Bloody Week), in which thousands of Communards were shot down.
“No one knows how many died,” says Sante. I know one friend who, when in Paris, refuses to darken the door of the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur on top of Montmartre because the bodies of executed Communards were dumped into its foundations.
We also learn that the painter Renoir told his son about the Communards: “They were insane but they had that little flame that never goes out.”
The most recent manifestation of that flame were the March-June protests of 1968 in Paris that brought together students, artists, leftists and workers demanding better working conditions, sexual liberation, and social and political reforms.
If Paris has a revolutionary and bloody past it also has another strand of dark history. A shameful example of this was the Dreyfus Affair in 1894.
Virulent anti-Semitism was rife at the time. “The figurehead of race hatred then was Edouard Drumont, editor of the poisonously influential newspaper La Libre Parole (1892-1924; its motto ‘France for the French’).”
This is a reminder that the far-right Front National (NF) today, headed by Marine Le Pen, with its racist, xenophobic, nationalist and Islamophobic agenda, has deep roots in French society.
Sante’s narrative is a multi-stranded one, but I found much in his section on prostitution very revealing. We learn that Le Chabanais, which opened in 1878, “may not have been the first luxury brothel, but it quickly became the most famous... The star boarder was the future Edward VII of Britain, who had a truly remarkable stirrup chair built to his specifications and kept on the premises for erotic configurations that can only be surmised”.
Two brothels on Rue Saint-Sulpice — in an area once known to taxi drivers as “the Vatican” — catered to the ecclesiastical trade. This too is part of the dark underbelly of the city.
The author tells us that it was Adolf Hitler who called Paris “der sogenannte Puff Europas” (the so-called whorehouse of Europe), but he adds that after the Occupation “Hitler himself was allegedly seen at Le Sphinx”, one of the city’s major bordellos.
“When the Germans occupied Paris, the major brothels lost no time in complying with the wishes of the invaders.” The Chez Marguerite on Rue Saint-George was said to be Goering’s favourite.
One of the most notorious areas was Rue Saint-Denis which “remains to this day an unprepossessing, surprisingly narrow thoroughfare,” says Sante, “but it was clearly consecrated to the pageantry of horizontal motion.”
However, as the author stresses, the use of the brothels by the Germans during the Occupation, and the sort of “horizontal collaboration” that this involved, brought savage retribution, and led to a post-war épuration (cleansing) that resulted in 1946 to the wholesale shutting of brothels — 1,400 of them including 180 in Paris.
After reading this book, the City of Light will never seem quite the same to you again.