Day two of my Parisian literary adventure follows a foray I wrote about last week. It turned out to be a long wanderjahr because I decided to walk all the way from my hotel, Le Meridien Etoile in the 17th arrondissement near the Périphérique, along the spine of Avenue de la Grande Armée, past the Arc de Triomphe, onto the Avenue des Champs-Elysées toward the Place de la Concorde.
Seeing with New Eyes
As I made my way down the wide boulevard under the famous arch, I imagined myself striding along with Morton Fullerton, who carries the distinction of having had an intense love affair with Edith Wharton during her years in Paris. My ruse was made possible by Marion Mainwaring, who set the scene in her book Mysteries of Paris: The Quest for Morton Fullerton. She quotes Eric Hawkins, the retired managing editor of the International Herald-Tribune, who knew Fullerton when he was a Paris-based newspaper reporter for the London Times: “He was rather short, extremely reserved and reticent. You would see him—I can see him now—in a long overcoat, walking along the Champs-Elysées.”
Mainwaring’s was one of the books I had packed for my trip and it was organically influencing my literary adventuring. She had handed me a true gem during my morning read by way of an anecdote involving Fullerton and Oscar Wilde, of all people! “When Wilde was released from Reading Gaol, he went to France as ‘Sebastian Melmoth,’” she wrote. “His Paris base was the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard des Capucines. The Times was at number 35. He had his publishers send Fullerton a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest, then wrote asking his dear Fullerton to lend him a hundred francs…”
I decided a short detour to see if I could find the restaurant was a sensible one because I needed a respite after being on my feet for three and a half hours. As is far too often the case in major cities, the ubran-scape is continually in flux and I arrived to find no café at #14. Disappointed but in desperate need of food, I entered Le Grand Café Capucines ten doors down at #4. Once I was seated, I had to admit the “grandness” of the interiors, designed by Jacques Garcia, made it the perfect stand-in for channeling a dandy of Wilde’s notoriety!
After the Wilde detour, I continued on the Fullerton trail, the handful of blocks to the rue Vignon where he had lived a short hop. The street was not remarkable save it is Parisian, a fact that made it far more graceful than avenues anywhere else in the world in my eyes. After photographing the locale, I made my way to 29 rue Cambon, Henry James’ address when he lived in Paris for a year. Next on my list was the lovely Place Vendome where Peggy Guggenheim, who was known for choosing graceful places to live, settled for a while.
By the time I made my way into the cobblestoned square, the light was beginning to wane so I knew I had to hurry if I was going to make it to the Marly sculpture court at the Louvre, my next stop because this is where Wharton and Fullerton climbed the stairs to access a small room that served as a private spot for at least one rendezvous—“in the shadow of Diana,” as she put it. How fitting that she was referring to a marble sculpture of the goddess of the hunt, as Wharton had broken the restrictive chains of New York society and managed to reinvent herself as a huntress on the prowl in Paris!
Though this was the last stop on my literary adventure that day, I wasn’t ready to let go of the magic I was experiencing so I decided to backtrack a few blocks to the Palais Royal. The arcade takes on such an ethereal feel when the lights are illuminated and a tiny café tucked along its edge was the perfect spot to let my feet recover a bit from the six-and-a-half-hour odyssey I had been on. As I recorded my experiences in my writer’s notebook, I realized I simply wasn’t ready to let go of the day for the spate of packing that awaited in my Porte Maillot room. I was also stalling because I wasn’t looking forward to returning to the 17th arrondissement in which intense cabby strikes were still playing out in the parking lot next to my hotel. The chaos was making me quite skittish.
Avoiding Strum und Drang in Paris
I decided to exit the Metro at the Champs-Elysées – Clemenceau station to avoid the disturbances that had been ramping up around the Porte Maillot stop—the one closest to my hotel—for two days. As I made my way down the boulevard where my adventure had begun that morning, I realized the brouhaha had spread southeastward toward the Arc de Triomphe, and the plastic-sheathed sidewalk seating areas of café after café were filled with taxi drivers smoking and drinking espresso. All I could think was, “Please don’t give them any more caffeine or nicotine given the tires burning and the police in riot gear across from Le Meridien Etoile!”
The sequestered men, who were angrily protesting Uber, were growing more boisterous with each café I passed so I knew I had to choose one sooner rather than later. I held my breath and made haste through the smoky chaos of the plastic-encased ante-chamber of one small restaurant, asking the hostess for a quiet spot away from the sturm und drang. I pulled Gloria Erlich’s The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton from my bag, opening it to the chapter I’d been eager to read since finishing the Fullerton book that morning.
Titled “The Composite Husband,” the chapter was Erlich’s take on Wharton’s relationships with the men in her life. The author echoed my sentiment about the letters written by one of the key relationships in this composite, Walter Berry, who was one of Wharton’s favorite male companions: “The primacy of this relationship is as puzzling in its way as that with Morton Fullerton. When read today by an outsider, Berry’s letters to Wharton seem breezy and trivial.”
In combing through Wharton’s papers at the Beinecke Library, I came away with the same feeling, and I would go so far as to say his letters were quintessentially juvenile. But she adored the man, writing that he was the love of her life—her grief when he died an intense though brief outcry on the page as she wrote about his passing (above).
The most puzzling fact to me is that Berry managed to inspire both Wharton and Marcel Proust, who declared his friendship was one of the most rewarding of his final years. There had to be depth within him, I thought, for these two intelligent beings to have felt so strongly about the man, but it certainly didn’t come through in the jocular personality expressed in his correspondence to her.
Erlich identifies Henry James as one of the major components of Wharton’s composite husband. His letters, which were much more serious, are fascinating to me because the details included in them provide hints about Wharton’s life that she was reticent to expose. The letters above and below, which I photographed at the Beinecke, are examples, as they mention Fullerton’s comings and goings from Paris during their affair, a secret she kept from nearly everyone in her life but James.
I’ve always envied the relationship these two authors had forged, and as I closed the book, I wondered how it would have felt to be able to achieve what they accomplished. It isn’t their fiction I covet since I am not a novelist; it is the nonfiction they wrote that I’d give anything to achieve.
How Americans See Paris
Wharton’s travel writing and her famous design book—The Decoration of Houses with Ogden Codman, Jr.—set the bar high, providing me with a marker for what I hope to accomplish in my writing when all is said and done. And how I’d love to land an assignment like James’ Parisian Sketches: Letters to The New York Tribune 1875-1876, which he wrote in his apartment at 29 rue du Luxembourg—now renamed rue Cambon! Other notable writers lived on this street, which now houses the studio where Karl Lagerfeld conceives the couture introduced by the House of Chanel above the boutique that stretches from numbers 23 to 31. How would it have felt to bump into the lauded Mr. James during his stint on the street? I wondered, trying to picture him with his buttoned-up demeanor making his way along the sidewalk.
His first sketch dated November 22, 1875, which was written in that apartment, resonates powerfully for me: “The American who comes to Paris for the first time receives, of course, a multitude of agreeable impressions; he takes to the French capital, generally speaking, as a duck to water, and he is not slow in maturing his opportunities for diversion. But […] it is when he returns, hungrily, inevitably, fatally, that his sense of Parisian things becomes supremely acute. In the interval it may have faded and faltered, and tempted him to fancy that distance was lending enchantment and memory playing him a trick. Was it really so very good as all that?”
Feeling mellow after a day filled with such powerful channelings of creative talent, I exited the little café to hear explosions erupting. My overactive writer’s imagination roared forth and I scurried in the direction of the hotel like a frightened rat thinking the cabbies had now resorted to bombs! I was relieved when I rounded a corner to find the riled mob was shooting off fireworks instead—the smoke combined with the acrid odor of the burning tires making the air eerily apocalyptic each time a green or pink blast of light exploded. But not even their unruly behavior could spoil the good mood I was in, and the next morning the normal bitter-sweetness I always feel upon leaving Paris was front and center as I checked out of the hotel.
Just before I was led through the corridor to the kitchen of the property to get into the private car I had had to hire to make my way to the airport (the cab drivers were unrelenting and I had a plane to catch), I noticed a quote by Proust emblazoned on the wall behind the reservation counter: “Discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” Touché, I thought as I prepared to leave the city that always inspires me with its history and the perfection it hands me where literary adventuring is concerned. The fact that I was experiencing the added thrill of feeling like a character in a James Bond film as I ducked into the Mercedes Benz before being whisked away toward Charles de Gaulle was simply a bonus. Yes, Mr. James, it was (and is) as very good as all that!
As soon as I find the time to write about this year’s literary adventures, I will be delving into the relationship between Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, as I visited the museum dedicated to the brilliant sculptor, a former hotel where Rilke stayed during his early days in Paris. He introduced Rodin to the venue that would become his studio. Seeing the maestro’s art within that setting was truly like seeing with new eyes.
The Diary of an Improvateur and Seeing with New Eyes © 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