Seeing the Paris of James Baldwin
Following in the footsteps of the American expatriate writer through the Parisian streets and cafes.
The New York Times
Retracing the steps of American expatriate writer James Baldwin through the streets and cafes of Paris recently, I wondered where Baldwin might be living if he were in the city now. So many of Baldwin’s books were written in, completed in or deeply influenced by his years in Paris, it is nearly impossible to separate his literary legacy from the city, itself.
On the terrace of the cafe Deux Magots, in St.-Germain-des-Prés, I found myself engaged in a conversation about the feud between the young Baldwin and his fellow, African-American expatriate writer Richard Wright.
Jake Lamar — also an expatriate, African-American novelist and a Baldwin enthusiast — said, “It started right here,” in the Deux Magots, upstairs from where we sat that afternoon, facing the cobblestone Place de St.-Germain-des-Prés and l’Église St.-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris.
In the winter of 1948, a young Baldwin had arrived in Paris from New York and climbed the narrow steps up to the cafe’s second floor, where he was greeted by Wright and the editors of Zero magazine, a small, but important literary journal that would shortly publish Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Baldwin was 24 at the time. He had just $40 in his pocket. Virtually unpublished, he had left New York to escape American racism — an escape that he believed literally saved his life and made it possible for him to write.
Baldwin’s first essay in Zero argued against the idea of the protest novel, claiming, among other things, that it was inherently sentimental and, therefore, dishonest. Wright, who had already established himself as an international literary force, based on the critical success of several novels, took offense at Baldwin’s essay, reading it as a direct attack on the validity of Wright’s work. Shortly after Baldwin’s essay was published, the two men ran into each other at Brasserie Lipp, less than a block from Les Deux Magots, and Wright immediately lit into Baldwin, who, by all accounts, held his own.
Because Baldwin had found a way to live and write freely in Paris, I was seduced by the idea of chasing his literary coattails there, which meant returning to the Left Bank. I caught the Métro from my apartment in Batignolles — a recently trendy neighborhood in the once-working-class, northeast corner of the 17th Arrondissement — south, across the Seine, to the Sixth Arrondissement and St.-Germain-des-Prés. I was headed to Café de Flore, the place where Baldwin had spent endless hours working on his first novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
Exiting the Métro station, I arrived in the St.-Germain district. For Americans, this district’s fabled, expatriate history begins with Thomas Jefferson’s stay more than two centuries ago on what is now the Rue Bonaparte. During the late 1940s and early ’50s, St.-Germain-des-Prés was also the center of a thriving artistic and literary community and a place where nightclubs and bars of varying reputations flourished, allowing Baldwin to openly explore both his literary craft and his sexuality.
Café de Flore is located on the corner of the Boulevard St.-Germain and the Rue St.-Benoît and directly across St.-Benoît from the cafe’s chief rival, Les Deux Magots. Founded in the late 1890s, both cafes have rich, intellectual and literary histories, boasting a list of luminaries — writers, artists, actors and philosophers — that include Ernest Hemingway, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Pablo Picasso and Albert Camus. Both cafes have similar menus and prices. I wondered how a starving, young writer — as Baldwin had been when he first visited the Flore — might afford to eat in this somewhat pricey cafe today.
The Rue de Verneuil — a short, rather tight street of low, 17th-century facades — is where Baldwin had lived, in various third-rate hotels during his early years in Paris. He was also known to visit the Café Tournon and the Brasserie Lipp. Both restaurants, their Art Deco mosaics still brilliantly maintained, were hot intellectual and creative night spots during the 1950s and ’60s. The Tournon is largely considered the place where the St.-Germain neighborhood jazz scene got its start, providing the stage where Duke Ellington made his Parisian debut. The Lipp had a perpetual waiting list of A-list celebrities and politicians jockeying for a corner table.
Baldwin’s favorite spots were Le Montana on the Rue St.-Benoît, Gordon Heath’s L’Abbaye on Rue Jacob and Inez Cavanaugh’s Chez Inez, a soul-food restaurant on Rue Champollion. More recently, however, the rambunctious, often-decadent spirit that inhabited these places during Baldwin’s time in Paris has been replaced by a somewhat staid, upper-middle-class mood of luxury and tourism. This tenor seems to radiate out from Le Bon Marché, the oldest and most palatial department store in Paris.
Of Baldwin’s main hangouts, the Montana is one of the few that still exist, and it is currently one of the most exclusive clubs in Paris. I didn’t even attempt to get in.
Lost and found in Paris
In a May 1961 article in Esquire magazine, “New Lost Generation,” Baldwin had attested to the joy he felt discovering Paris. “The days when we walked through Les Halles singing, loving every inch of France and loving each other ... the jam sessions in Pigalle, and our stories about the whores there ... the nights spent smoking hashish in the Arab cafes ... the morning which found us telling dirty stories, true stories, sad and earnest stories, in gray workingmen’s cafes.”
Pigalle is the largest red-light district in Paris. Its Boulevard de Clichy is the location of the Moulin Rouge, as well as a vivid array of sex shops, strip clubs, adult movie theaters and hotels for prostitution (still legal in Paris). The spectacle of Pigalle makes it easy to imagine the scenes of decadence and freedom Baldwin described when reminiscing about his trips to the area.
Unfortunately, things have changed in Les Halles. In “Giovanni’s Room,” Baldwin describes Les Halles as a place with “choked boulevards and impassible streets, a place where leeks, cabbages, oranges, apples, potatoes, cauliflowers stood gleaming in mounds all over, in the sidewalks and streets in front of metal sheds.“ However, the restaurants, bars and cheap, workmen’s cafes that Baldwin wrote of were demolished and replaced in 1977 by an underground transportation hub and shopping district, and the cost of living now limits the neighborhood’s diversity.
Contemplating the possible whereabouts of a young Baldwin in contemporary Paris, I considered the Marais, given Baldwin’s night life and homosexuality. I thought of the Ménilmontant or Place des Fêtes, in response to a notion of creative affinity, or Belleville or Château Rouge for ethnic diversity. I considered the suburbs of Paris — Montreuil, St.-Ouen, Aubervilliers and St.-Denis — as places where artists and writers were currently moving.
In the spring of 1984, during an interview for The Paris Review, a nearly 60-year-old Baldwin was asked why he had chosen to live in France, to which he replied: “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France — it was a matter of getting out of America.”
During those early years, Baldwin stayed in France because, as a black man, he perceived that the ruling-class whites there simply left him alone, unlike those in America, and that’s what allowed him to develop as a writer.
I, however, arrived in Paris generations after the time when the French were inclined to leave people of color alone. Baldwin, himself, had pointed out the change in French feeling toward all minorities after the furious battle of Dien Bien Phu, signaling the loss of colonial Vietnam, and the brutal Algerian war. Over the years, this change, which Baldwin had noted, has grown in step with the influx of blacks and North Africans from France’s former colonies and outer departments, including Guadeloupe and Martinique.
Even if France is no longer a haven for people of color, Paris remains, nonetheless, a vital connection to a time when — for many artists, writers and political thinkers — a much-needed shelter was sought and found.