The narrow sidewalks push their black iron batons up out of the ground to protect the buildings hemming them; the rain turns the cobblestones to muted mirrors of damp light—I’m visiting her again on the anniversary of her 155th birthday, and it dawns on me that I’ve never seen the statuesque green door with its tall transom when the sun is shining brightly. It’s January in Paris, a gloomy month during which I seem destined to return, to make a pilgrimage along rue de Varenne where Edith Wharton spent most of her Paris years as an expat—the backward glance my way of keeping her legacy alive in me.
She described Paris as being in her blood and I understand the sentiment on a cellular level. Wandering the city’s streets is quite different than scurrying around New York City. This has to do with the scale of the building, the gracefulness of the neoclassical architecture, the warmth of the stone, the slenderness of the streets that pour into boulevards not so grand as to be intimidating to the human form.
Paris Gets In the Blood
Paris is built for wandering, the people moving along her sidewalks forgiving if an ornate façade begs for a photograph. New Yorkers are not so tolerant so life presses on at a harried pace. My heart beats a bit slower as I traverse the arrondissements sliced by the Seine—Right Bank, Pont Royal, Quai Voltaire, Left Bank. The French philosopher whose lichen-smeared face I study at the end of the Quai that bears his name has set the tone remarkably well: “I don’t know where I am going but I am on my way.”
Layers peel away to reveal literary history. They become whorls circling back in time through every era—men and women of letters ascending in their times as resolutely as the mansard roofs that loom above the Quai des Tuileries across the river. I come to this stint of literary adventuring grateful for my career as a design writer, which allows me to travel to the places I wish to explore, my coverage of events such as Heimtextil in Frankfurt, and Maison & Objet and Deco Off in Paris, giving me the opportunity to visit Europe’s notable cities.
During this past trip, my vagabondage (beyond Mrs. Wharton) included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Frankfurt; Rainer Maria Rilke on the train from Frankfurt to Paris (a fair amount of his writing was accomplished on trains as he zipped past the invisible borders between countries). It was also Rilke, Wharton and Ernest Hemingway (among others) that I shadowed while in Paris.
A Backward Glance
My musings take time to percolate so I will share with you what understandings I came to during this trip a bit later. Today, I’m highlighting observations from two long days of exploring the neighborhoods where a handful of historical figures lived during my time in Paris last year. I began my odyssey at the Musée National du Moyen Age, also known as the Musée de Cluny, to kick-start my adventuring with the intellectual I’ve identified who lived the farthest back in time.
The Cluny’s collection includes two blocks of granite which had been foundation-stones culled from the exterior of the Hôtel Rambouillet, the only pieces left of the building where the famous salonière Catherine de Vivonne, the marquise de Rambouillet, had held her salon. It was Leon Henry Vincent, in his small but entertaining book Hôtel de Rambouillet and the Précieuses, who sent me on this quest.
It was an awe-inspiring moment because not only had a writer handed me the information as to where I could find these stones inscribed with the date June 26,1618, I was able to experience such an important facet of literary history that took place so long ago because a curator had realized the importance of saving these artifacts and putting them on view.
I allowed myself a momentary fantasy during which I imagined the marquise wafting across the polished floor fortified by these stones, greeting her salonières as they gathered for a round of musing, her heeled slippers clicking along the corridor to Chambre Bleu. I stood very still thinking I might hear the ruched fabric of her gown swishing behind her but her movements were quieted centuries ago and my musing had been enough.
Rue de Varenne
It was a thirty-minute walk from the museum to Wharton’s addresses on the Rue de Varenne. As avenues go, I was particularly excited to experience Varenne for the first time because the street is chock full of eminence—from the Prime Minister’s residence, formerly the Hôtel Matignon, and the Musée Rodin, which was called the Hôtel Biron when Rilke introduced Rodin to the place he would choose to relocated his studio. Then there are two Wharton addresses along the narrow street—her apartment at 53 and the flat she and Teddy sublet from George Vanderbilt that is now an annex to the Prime Minister’s office across the street at number 58.
Rue de Varenne also holds the former chateau of Marguerite de Valois, which now houses the Italian Embassy. Though centuries apart in the eras they inhabited, the addresses these two powerful women called home are across the street from each other. Each had equally doomed stories where love was concerned, though Margot Valois’s was much more tempestuous than Wharton’s. As I stood on the sidewalk pivoting from one to the other, I wondered if Wharton was ever inspired to delve into the story of Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter given she would have passed by the monarch’s compound untold number of times.
Given Wharton’s desire to escape the society she was born into was so strong she would disperse with her life in America for good, I imagine she would have felt an echo in the point Nancy Goldstone makes in her book The Rival Queens about Margot and her powerful mother: “No semblance of independence at Catherine’s court came without a price tag.” Both women knew the price fortune exacted, this wedding scene from La Reine Margot in which Marguerite is marrying Henri de Bourbon illustrating it so powerfully.
The weather was damp and a shiver prompted me to make a beeline for Le Pain Quotidien down the street from these historically significant women’s homes. I had reading to do so I ordered lunch and rifled A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton’s autobiography, from my bag.
My Life in Paris
In the memoir, she wrote, “My thirteen years of Paris life were spent entirely in the rue de Varenne; and all those years rise up to meet me whenever I turn the corner of the street. Rich years, crowded and happy years; for though I should have preferred London, I should have been hard to please had I not discovered many compensations in my life in Paris.” Had my desire to make this city my home, at least for a while, not been simmering before, this statement would certainly have lit the flame!
I was close enough to the rue Cassette, where Rilke had lived, and to 27 rue de Fleurs, where Gertrude Stein had held her infamous salon, to pass by both addresses before making my way to the Maison & Objet international press cocktail party and dinner at L’Alcazar so I set out on foot again—warmed by my time indoors and extremely happy to be on the hunt again! It was growing quite late by the time I had accomplished these undertakings, which I see now as a gift because there was something magical about moving along the rim of the Luxembourg Gardens enveloped in silky darkness.
Wharton and her lover Morton Fullerton had visited the Gardens when they were lovers, their trysts playing out during the daylight hours when they pretended to be American tourists. I thought about the number of literary figures were connected by this lush enclave surrounded by a sea of buildings—I see the property mentioned time and again when reading about the Lost Generation writers when they lived in Paris. Hemingway wrote about how he enjoyed strolling through the grounds in A Moveable Feast.
“I went for a walk down through the dim Luxembourg Gardens of the end of January,” he wrote. “I continued down the rue Férou which, it is said, Dante used to descend on his way from the Montagne Ste. Geneviève to the Sorbonne—and in which Aramis lived on the ground, and Ernest Hemingway on the top, floors. And how many between the musketeer and the toreador!”
I entered the restaurant where the press event was taking place with literary history humming in my head, my plans for day two of my explorations already taking shape as I took a crisp glass of white wine from the waiter. I’ll share my second day of literary adventuring here on The Diary of an Improvateur next week. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read about my passionate wanderings. I sure hope there’s something of value in them for the time you so generously give me!
The Diary of an Improvateur and A Backward Glance © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by