No other part of Paris is richer in legends and anecdotes than the area around the Luxembourg Gardens and Boulevard Montparnasse. This may come as a surprise to some, but the 5th arrondissement is one of the most vibrant districts of the French capital. It was the epicentre of life for world-famous writers, painters, poets, and musicians, who would eventually define the 20th century.
Paris was the 20th century. It was a place to be.
– Gertrude Stein.
Paris of the 1920’s was marked by the arrival of many promising young Americans, who crossed the Atlantic to settle in the French capital. The likes of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and many others, were attracted by the favourable exchange rate on the strong US dollar and the cultural richness of the City of Lights.
Our protagonist is Hemingway, whose Parisian years were almost a coming of age story. He evolved from being an unknown journalist of the Toronto Star newspaper to a celebrated novelist, publishing his first collections of short stories in Paris. A Moveable Feast, one of his greatest books published 40 years after his Parisian stint, is a love confession to this city.
Follow our steps to see Paris reveal itself from a different angle, a time-machine to the 1920’s, which inspired Hemingway’s early writing and Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue du Cardinal Lemoine
Start at Rue Mouffetard in the 5th district, “a wonderful narrow crowded market street which led into the Place Contrescarpe”. Two steps away is house 74, Rue Lemoine, where Hemingway and his first wife Hadley settle in January 1922. The apartment is tiny, the squat toilet is outside, and there is no running water. To write, Hemingway rents a studio around the corner, on the top floor of house 39, Rue Descartes. Far from being luxurious, the studio smells of mould and Hemingway scatters orange peels to mask the unpleasant odour.
His working days are marked by the beautiful view on the Parisian rooftops and the grandiose dome of the Pantheon. His evening promenade takes him past Lycée Henri IV, the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, and the Place du Pantheon. He takes his evening coffee on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, where he found a “good café on Place Saint-Michel”.
But this this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.
Rue Notre-Dame des Champs and Closerie des Lilas
In early 1924, the couple and their baby son move to 113, Rue Notre-Dame des Champs, to a top-floor apartment next to a sawmill. Hemingway chooses to follow the advice of his celebrated friend Gertrude Stein, drops journalism for the sake of literature, and starts to work on a novel.
The new apartment was once again too small to write and Hemingway often sits at a table at the Closerie des Lilas, where he works on his novel The Sun Also Rises. The café is still there today, a short walk from the Luxembourg Gardens.
The Closerie des Lilas was the nearest good café…It was warm inside in the winter and in the spring and fall it was very fine outside with the tables under the shade of the trees on the side where the statue of Marshal Ney was, and the square, regular tables under the big awnings along the boulevard.
For Hemingway, giving up his journalism career meant losing the only source of stable income the family had. During these hard times, the writer often strolls the Luxembourg Gardens. He would sometimes stop at the garden’s museum, which used to house the impressionists before they moved to the Musée d’Orsay. Hemingway often went hungry these days, skipping on meals to save the last cents he had.
…the Luxembourg Gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l’Observatoire to the Rue de Vaugirard.
27, Rue de Fleurus
Hemingway spent a lot of time at Stein’s apartment on 27, Rue de Fleurus – one of the most brilliant Parisian salons, famous for its Saturday gatherings with the likes of Picasso, the Fitzgeralds, Matisse, and others. At the time, a friendship with Stein was key to thriving in the Parisian intellectuals’ circle, but that was not the only reason for the salon’s popularity. Alice B.Toklas, Stein’s partner, was an excellent host, who paid great attention to the comfort of her guests.
Stein gifted Hemingway with a lot of guidance at the early stages of his writing and it was her imprudent phrase – “You are all a lost generation,” – that served as an epigraph for The Sun Also Rises. Years later, this group of incredibly talented creatives, many with a tragic life’s end, would become collectively known as the lost generation.
…we had loved this big studio with the great paintings. It was like one of the best rooms in the finest museums except there was a big fireplace and it was warm and comfortable…
Shakespeare and Company
First opened in 1918, this bookstore became a cross-road for the English-speaking community. Its address was shared with all those in the know, who were leaving America to settle in Paris. The owner, Sylvia Beach, was a life-jacket for those young writers without a permanent residence. She even added postal and banking services to her shop.
It was at Shakespeare and Company where Ernest Hemingway spent many cold afternoons. He discovered Russian classics and also met James Joyce, with whom they formed a strong friendship. The shop closed in 1941 as the German occupation engulfed the city. The store reopened only ten years later, when Sylvia Beach allowed the name Shakespeare and Company to be used by another American bookseller – George Whiteman – who is the founder of the shop’s current address on 37, Rue de la Boucherie.
In those days there was no money to buy books. Books you borrowed from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company, which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 Rue de l’Odéon.
Hemingway would go on to become an acclaimed writer, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. Here is a selection of his works:
- The Sun Also Rises, 1926
- The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 1936
- For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940
- A Moveable Feast, 1964