What do the Paris and New York City cafés that served as historical backdrops for some of the world’s most brilliant creatives say about the differences in France and America? Quite a lot, actually. Since the fabric of New York is woven by revolving real estate, citizens of Gotham learn not to get too attached to a restaurant or a local coffee shop because that’s the moment it will morph into another bank or a Starbucks. Though change happens in Paris, it is a mellower affair. Take the “boutiquification of St-Germain-des-Prés,” which Edmund White laments in his book The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris. He points out that Le Divan bookstore has been replaced by Dior, a popular record store is now Cartier and Armani supplanted Le Drugstore.
Adding that Louis Vuitton has moved in as well, these luxury brands represent a significant amount of development within a few blocks at the hem of the Boulevard Saint-Germain des Prés; but the section of the Left Bank where it is taking place also holds three of Paris’ most famous cafés—Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore and Brasserie Lipp. Along with La Closerie des Lilas, Le Dôme Café, Le Select and Café de la Rotonde, they still open their doors daily. In thinking about these Parisian stalwarts and the less than a handful of holdouts in NYC, I realized they are representations of why the French are seen as posh and Americans are viewed as scrappy. While Paris’ cafés, for the most part, are light-filled and well maintained, the survivors in New York are dim and, in many cases, on the dingy side.
The Literary Pulse of the Cafés in Paris
Let’s begin this trek through history in Paris where the Flore has been enjoying the top spot in popularity among Parisians for some time, a fact that American writer Adam Gopnik broods over in his book Paris to the Moon. In the chapter “A Tale of Two Cafés,” he’s meeting a fashionable friend at the Flore on a Saturday and the wait for a table is extreme. When he suggests they walk across the narrow rue Saint-Benoît to Les Deux Magots, she makes it clear that won’t do. Gopnik’s chapter title is so spot-on because these two cafés have ebbed and flowed as the most popular with the literary set and political provocateurs for nearly a century and a half.
Not having to bow to fashion as a visitor, I prefer Les Deux Magots for its tall ceilings and layers of pale paneling that rise toward a tray ceiling ringed in illumination. The backdrop feels welcoming whether the wood tables are bare during the daytime or covered in crisp white tablecloths at night. This café, which has been at its current location since 1873, has seen quite a list of notables sitting around its tables—from Verlaine, Rimbaud and Malarméduring their heyday to Oscar Wilde and James Joyce decades later. It was Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus who frequented this café during one of the city’s most explosive political times.
The span of time represented by this list of writers moves from the late 1800s when the café would have been new to the 1940s when the terrace of the Deux Magots was the scene of an unusual contest between two surrealists. On a sultry evening in June 1946, “AndréBreton, former surrealist and arch-Communist, was surround by his old disciples when Antonin Artaud, who had been thrown out of the Party, walked by,” writes Gregor Dallas in his book Metrostop Paris. Artaud affected a deep bow, which inspired Breton to bow even lower; before they were finished, their conversation was taking place below the tabletops. Dallas says in spite of this awkwardness, it was “a most amiable chat.”
Marguerite Duras, who was as outspoken in her politics as these two were, frequented both the Flore and the Deux Magots. Laure Adler, Duras’ biographer, notes how novelist Jacques Audiberti would tease the playwright about her communist leanings when he bumped into her at one of the restaurants by asking, “And how’s my darling little Checkist?” De Beauvoir credits Paul Nizan for luring her and Sartre away from the Deux Magots to one of the rival cafés across the petite street. She writes in her memoir, “He took us to the dreary Café de Flore ‘to do the old Deux Magots in the eye,’ he said, gnawing at his fingernails like a mischievous rat.” So much of their time was spent there, Sartre wrote the entire first draft of Being and Nothingness in a window seat at the café.
On June 11, 1940, just three days before the Germans marched on Paris, Breton was sitting on the terrace of the Flore with Peggy Guggenheim and Nellie von Doesburg as they were “plotting their route to Megève where Peggy could be reunited with her children.” According to Mary Dearborn, who wrote a biography on Guggenheim, they hit the road the next day in order to outpace Hitler’s army. Thirty-one years and change later, Jim Morrison chose the Flore as his haunt during the four months he lived in Paris in 1971. “Afternoons, seated at a table at Café de Flore, he drank beer alone,” writes Wallace Fowlie in Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet. Given he had gained a considerable amount of weight since he’d been performing and his face was covered in a heavy beard, “Almost no one approached him.”
It was La Closerie des Lilas that Ernest Hemingway preferred, describing it as the nearest good café to home in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his time in Paris between 1921 and 1926.He’s writing about his struggle to actualize a novel, retracing his route from his studio to the Lilas and remembering his success in constructing several scenes for the book at one of the café tables: “I sat in a corner with the afternoon light coming in over my shoulder and wrote in the notebook. The waiter brought me a café crème and I drank half of it when it cooled and left it on the table while I wrote. When I stopped writing I did not want to leave the river where I could see the trout in the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it.”
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tells how he first met Ford Madox Ford at the Lilas, his characterization not a flattering one. He was much more positive in describing the normal contents of the table and the atmosphere that swirled around him most mornings as he wrote. Remembering the building blocks to his successful sessions of writing fiction, he said, “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil-sharpener (a pocket-knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed.” Hemingway maintained that people from the Dôme and the Rotonde never came to the Lilas: “There was no one there they knew, and no one would have stared at them if they came. In those days many people went to the cafes at the corner of the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail to be seen publicly…”
Among the frequenters of the Dôme and the Rotonde cafés was Edna St. Vincent Millay. In the spring and summer of 1920, Nancy Milford, the poet’s biographer, writes that Millay is moving through Paris’ café society with George Slocombe, a political reporter for The Daily Herald with whom she’s having an affair. She quotes Slocombe as saying the Dôme was not yet internationally celebrated; that it was a small, dark and modest establishment filled with foreigners who played chess and a small group of American writers and artists who played poker. On April 25, 1922, Millay’s mother writes a letter to her other children from the Rotonde. She opens it, “Dearest Kids.—“Here are your mother and sister sitting with Margot Schuyler at the famous sink of corruption (see above) of the Latin Quarter.” She’s referring to the address line that lists the café.
Henry Miller also frequented the Dôme and the Rotonde cafés. In his biography of the novelist, Miller’s friend Brassaï paints a portrait of their challenged existence during their early days in Paris: “Broke and weary, we would often sit at the Dôme or the Rotonde, order a café crème and a sandwich, then wait for deliverance: that friend who would happen by and cover the tab for you.” What’s remarkable about each of these cafés is that they are still open. Whether you feel the often-overpriced food sold in some of them is worth the visit or not, I would say to be able to sit at a table where creative history unfolded is at the very least worthy of the expense of a café crème or, at the very most, a glass of French wine.
The New York Minute
It’s time to prepare ourselves for a bit of culture shock as we move to the very few venues in New York City where it is still possible to pay homage to art and literature. Gone are so many of the hangouts of the Beats, the New York School and all the bad-boys (and girls) that made the bars and cafés infamous. By the time I’d arrived in NYC in the mid-1990s, the smoke-filled Cedar Tavern where Pollack and Kerouac had pissed in ashtrays had been replaced by a stand-in on Broadway, a locale lacking the unconventional charm the original location had.
“In the floating bohemia of Manhattan, where life sometimes seemed like a party and art an aphrodisiac, the young poets began their evenings at the Cedar Tavern or a few blocks away at the San Remo bar, where they would pull out their latest poems from their coat pockets and show them to each other,” wrote David Lehman in The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets.“It was in this dark, smoky bar where Jackson Pollock regularly picked fights and sometimes smashed glass and china, then played with the fragments, making designs with his blood on the tabletop.”
Lehman quotes the art critic Clement Greenberg as saying Pollack was the most radical alcoholic to frequent the Cedar. As an example, he describes the night the artist ripped the men’s room door off its hinges, a feat Frank O’Hara called interesting, which proves how normal such behavior seemed to these provocateurs. The San Remo Café no longer exists either. “If the Cedar Tavern was, in Larry River’s words, ‘the G-spot of the whole art scene,’ the San Remo, on the northwest corner of Bleecker and MacDougal streets, was the Xanadu of the young writers,” Lehman wrote. “‘I used to go there every night, as did most of my friends,’ John Ashbery recalled. It was, he added, a little ‘like a Paris café.’”
Calling it a shrine of the Beat movement, Lehman notes how the café lives on in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans in which “the San Remo is transported to San Francisco and rechristened the Black Mask.” He adds that the popularity of the spot exploded once word got out that it was the preferred haunt of the Beat movement’s giants, cleverly dubbing the devotees who flocked there “wannabeats.” Though Dylan Thomas’ name will forever be linked to the White Horse Tavern, he hadn’t found this watering hole during his first few times in America. On his initial trip, John Malcolm Brinnin, who arranged the poet’s reading tours that paid for him to come, took him to the San Remo.
In his account of this trip and several more to follow in his book Dylan Thomas in America, Brinnin described the San Remo as a “restlessly crowded hangout of the intellectual hipster, and catch-all for whatever survived of dedicated Bohemianism in Greenwich Village.” It’s 1950 and Brinnin says Thomas was ogled, intruded upon and recognized with surliness or awe but the poet was “unruffled by the many attentions directed toward him” distracted as he was by his drink.
Thomas credits several English friends for introducing him to what would become his favorite pub, “the Horse” as he called it. The White Horse is one of the few bars that still exists. During the poet’s third trip to America, just after Brinnin had retrieved the author from the pier where the SS United States had docked on April 21, 1953, they dropped his bags at the Chelsea Hotel and began a spate of bar-hopping that found them at the Horse by late afternoon. When they walked in, everyone along the bar turned to greet him. Once the two were seated, the rotund owner Ernie Wohlleben sent Scotch to the table and sat down with Thomas and Brinnin to reminisce about memorable evenings from the year before. “Dylan seemed happy, more than a little excited and, most of all, at home,” Brinnin wrote. Seven months later, he’d die at St. Vincent’s just five blocks away on West 11thStreet.
A year after the poet’s demise, Norman Mailer and his friends would establish a salon of sorts at the White Horse where they would meet on Sunday afternoons for drinks, discussions, and literary gossip. According to William Styron’s biographer, James L. W. West III, he stopped in a few times but wasn’t keen on the crowds. Tom Wolfe chronicled these gatherings in an article for New York Magazine titled “The Birth of ‘The New Journalism’” published in 1972: “There was a kind of Olympian club where the new golden boys met face-to-face every Sunday afternoon in New York, namely, the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street. There’s Jones! There’s Mailer! There’s Styron! There’s Baldwin! There’s Willingham! In the flesh—right here in this room.”
The scene, Wolfe said, was strictly for novelists, people who were writing novels, or people who were paying court to The Novel: “There was no room for a journalist unless he was there in the role of would-be novelist or simple courtier of the great.” The atmosphere at the Horse is quite different today, most notably because the dim interiors clad in dark wood are devoid of the panoply of literary deities that once brought the crowds in. Homage is still paid to the troubled Welshman whose intense stare penetrates the room from a painting on the wall above a radiator. While the White Horse is about as far west as you can go on the island of Manhattan, McSorley’s Old Ale House hugs the east side of the city. This is the most downhome bar in NYC and the oldest continually operating bar in America.
There has been sawdust swirling on the floor since 1854, which makes the place an odd choice for the Y-3 wearing tourists today. They mix with the work-boot-clad locals who whisk through them like they’re crepe paper to belly up to the bar where presidents once guzzled light or dark ale, and some of New York’s most avant-garde creative types squeezed into a sliver of standing room at the bar. Poet ee cummings preferred to sit at one of the rough-hewn tabletops in the rickety wooden chairs pulled up to it. He birthed a few of his lower-case poems as he looked out onto 7thStreet, one of which calls the bar by name: “i was in mcsorley’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing. / inside snug and evil.”
Back across town, the Cornelia Street Café is known more for its open-mic music performances that launched the careers of a number of now-famous musicians including Suzanne Vega. The long, dark room in the basement where these performances take place is also a venue for poetry readings, which makes this one of the few places in NYC where next century’s published poets may be cutting their teeth at the mic. I will never forget the first and only time I read there because the guy who went before me unleashed an abusive rant that shocked the entire room into a deep silence. He wore a baggy sweat suit with pants that billowed as he recited a poem about his father, a firefighter, with whom he was harboring a mountain-sized beef.
As he shouted through the strongest language—enjoying himself immensely each time he yelled a profanity—he’d grab his crotch and thrust his pelvis forward for emphasis, the spittle from his ranting mouth sparking in the lights trained toward him on the platform. He was so bizarre, the people in the audience were still trying to digest what they had seen and heard when I approached the platform, stepping up to the microphone with caution for fear of germs and electrocution. I believe this anecdote proves my point better than any other as to why the French are seen as posh and we Americans are viewed as rowdy.
The 21 Club and the Algonquin are worth mentioning as dressier establishments that served as the backdrop for Dorothy Parker and her roundtable pals but the vibrancy has gone out of them and they are now pricy establishments that don’t live up to the cost of the experience. Two of my favorite restaurants that brought the feel of Parisian café society to New York are gone—The Paris Commune in the West Village and Le Philosophe in Soho. The latter paid homage to de Beauvoir and Sartre, the shot of their menu below saying it all. I recommend all of the books mentioned or linked to in this piece for your summer reading list. They create a rich tableau of the literary and painterly sets of the past. I’ve put links to Amazon for most of them below.
The Modern Salonnière and Café Society as Cultural Interpreter © 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. She is also a top writer in several categories on Medium.