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Posts Tagged ‘Montmartre’

Paris from Camus’s Notebooks

September 19, 2016 | by

Albert Camus.

Albert Camus.

The myth is tenacious: an unknown writer on the verge of international fame, not suspecting that the scattered pages on his or her desk will become that miracle, a first published novel and a passport to glory. From March to May 1940, Albert Camus was that man, finishing a draft of the book he was calling The Stranger. The city, eerily calm, overtaken with a sense of dread, was weeks from the German invasion. Paris has changed enormously since 1940, but you can still walk in Camus’s footsteps through places that a few literary specialists have put on the map and come close to a moment of artistic creation.

Camus finished a first draft of his novel alone in a hotel room in Montmartre. The former Hôtel du Poirier on the rue Ravignan sits atop one of Paris’s “buttes” or hills, whose cleaner air might have benefitted the young writer, who struggled with chronic tuberculosis. The site is still about as picturesque a place as Paris has to offer: up a terraced set of steps, on one side of a cobblestone square with its own fountain, the little hotel stood directly across from the Bateau-Lavoir, a beehive of artist studios, spread out like a ship. On this vessel of high modernism, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. The glory days of the Bateau-Lavoir ended after World War I, but in March 1940, when Camus lived in its shadow, the place still exuded its bohemian aura. Crowned by the mammoth Sacré-Cœur cathedral, Montmartre was an acquired taste, with its own diehard citizens—pimps and scoundrels, anarchists and poets. Far from the business districts, Montmartre was still, in 1940, practically a separate village, a neighborhood where an artist or writer could get by on almost nothing. Read More »

A Narrow Street at Dawn

November 16, 2015 | by

From a Bantam paperback edition of The Last Time I Saw Paris.

Over the weekend, I found myself picking up Elliot Paul’s 1942 memoir of prewar Montmartre, The Last Time I Saw Paris. (It must have been a gift from my grandfather; at any rate, it’s a discard from the Salinas Public Library.) A novelist, journalist, and, later, screenwriter, Paul was in the thick of Lost Generation artistic circles. He was friends with Gertrude Stein, a coeditor of Transition, an intimate of James Joyce. The book is unquestionably a “portrait” of that time, and an elegiac one: cafés, cheap rents, local characters, and literary cameos all abound. And yet it’s not wholly steeped in nostalgia; by its end, the series of vignettes has begun to illuminate the more sinister tendencies of some of his neighbors, and forecast an end to an era that was already rosy with setting-sun glory. Which makes it so strange that the cover—striped in the bleu, blanc, rouge, bearing a Montmartre street sketch—should be emblazoned with the following words: “A book about the France the whole world prefers to remember.”

This passage is from the chapter “A Narrow Street at Dawn”: Read More »

Alberta Sings the Blues

March 1, 2012 | by

I never really got the Blues, though I have certainly gotten the blues. Maybe that’s why, until recently, I had never heard of Alberta Hunter and why her recordings and I are now inseparable. If Bessie Smith’s blues are a wail to the world, Alberta’s are a conversational tête à tête. She wrote and sang throughout her life but refused to be classified as a singer of any particular genre. “Just call me a singer of songs,” she insisted.

Last summer, a pianist friend handed me Amtrak Blues, an album Alberta recorded in 1978, at age eight-three. “You’ll get this,” he assured me. When I put it on, a frank, earthy voice radiated from the stereo speakers, and I started wondering who this lady could be. I found photos of a moon-eyed Chicago saloon singer with gold hoop earrings, a Parisian flapper in a filmy evening dress, a nurse in whites, a USO entertainer in khakis, and a sibylline old lady.

There was, as it turned out, a variegated life behind such variety. “I’ve been more places by accident than most people have been on purpose,” Alberta once quipped. A singer, actress, composer, and journalist, she was a kind of musical Marco Polo whose talents were as diverse as the many places her career carried her. Read More »


To Bricktop, on Her Belated Birthday

August 15, 2011 | by

Photograph by Jack Robinson. Courtesy The Jack Robinson Archive.

Whenever she was asked about her start in the world, the legendary saloonkeeper Bricktop—born Ada Smith—replied:

On the fourteenth day of August 1894, in the little town of Alderson, West-by-God-Virginia, the doctor said, “Another little split-tail,” and on that day Bricktop was born.

T. S. Eliot later added, “…and on that day Bricktop was born. And to her thorn, she gave a rose.”

Bricktop is a not a familiar name to most people today, though the crumbs of her extraordinary life are indispensable to the telling of a certain moment in the history of Americans in Paris and café society everywhere. Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, could hardly recall the days of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, or the Fitzgeralds without Zelda crying, “Let’s go to Bricktop’s!”

Ada Smith, like many African Americans of her day, was born poor. Her mother, who ran a boarding house, had a passion for cleanliness and a self-confessed trigger-fast Irish temper. Around 1900, the family moved from Virginia to the South Side of Chicago, where Ada got her first taste of the theater. She hung around the stage doors of Chicago’s great vaudeville houses, waiting for the likes of Sophie Tucker, a belting singer known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” to emerge. But it was the back rooms of saloons, with their sawdust-covered floors, that captured her imagination. Read More »