We were standing by the Seine in the romantic city of Paris, not having much luck finding the impossibly located rue Gite-le-Coeur. Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs stayed here at No. 9, the Beat Hotel, in the late 1950s.
“If those Beats, who were full of drugs, could find this place, why can’t we, who are completely sober?” I muttered. “I can find William Burroughs’ New Orleans house in Algiers a lot easier than I can find this miserable hotel.”
Ever since I researched my book “Where Writers Lived in New Orleans” and poked around looking for their houses, I’ve been interested in finding the places where New Orleans writers lived in other cities.
“Did any famous writers live in this neighborhood?” I asked Anne Legrand, who had very graciously offered us the spare bedroom in her apartment in the Passy neighborhood of the 16eme arrondisement.
“Oh, Balzac lived right down the street,” she replied nonchalantly. “His house is very easy to find.”
Easy for her, of course, since she often passes it on her way to work, but difficult for the novice sleuths that we were.
After following the extensive directions on the maps app, going up and down many hills, taking a couple of wrong turns down twisted streets and feeling our energy flag, we were rewarded when we stumbled on the house at No. 47 rue Raynouard.
Honore de Balzac is credited with revolutionizing French fiction. Starting with “Le Pere Goriot,” he first hinted at homosexuality in literature and introduced the idea that everything revolves around money. He moved into this house in 1840, on the run from his creditors, and there’s even an escape hatch cut into the floor of the parlor so he could elude them by slipping out the basement.
Since the Maison de Balzac is a museum, we were able to look at his faithfully restored study, his coffee pot, his turquoise-studded cane and the superb marble bust of him by David d’Angers.
But Balzac didn’t live in New Orleans.
On their own
I came to Paris equipped with David Burke’s book “Writers in Paris.” David also gives literary tours, and I was eager to take one, but he wasn’t in Paris when we were. So we were on our own.
The next morning, after a breakfast of strong French coffee and the requisite flakey croissants, my husband Russ and I decided to hunt down the residences of F. Scott Fitzerald. Zelda, Scott and Scottie stayed in Paris no less than five times between 1924 and 1931. They also lived on Prytania Street in New Orleans.
We set out to find No. 14 rue de Tilsitt, a furnished apartment the Fitzgeralds moved into in April 1925. The family was returning from the Cote d’Azur — Scott finished “The Great Gatsby” there and Zelda filled her free time by having an affair with a French aviator.
“This street runs right around the Arc de Triomphe at the Place Vendome,” I tell Russ. “If we can’t find the Arc of Triumph in Paris, we should really give up.”
Easier said than done.
There are no less than 13 streets radiating out from the Arc, and rue de Tilsitt crosses only three of them — so we started circling. Ten streets later, we came to Avenue de Hoche.
I snap a photo of the three-story house and imagine Zelda dragging her groceries up all those stairs and how little 4-year-old Scottie must have loved scampering on them.
Puttin’ on the Ritz
The Fitzgeralds loved the high life on the fashionable Right Bank — dinners at the expensive Prunier’s and far too many cocktails at the Ritz.
Scott wrote vividly about such establishments, putting the Ritz to good use in his novel “Tender is the Night” and in his story “Babylon Revisited.” Ernest Hemingway also wrote about the Ritz in his memoir “A Moveable Feast,” trashing his long-dead friend Fitzgerald, who had invited him there when Papa was too poor to afford it himself.
Hemingway was the writer who claimed that the Bloody Mary, using Tabasco sauce to disguise the scent of alcohol, was invented for him around 1920 by bartender Harry MacElhone at Harry’s New York Bar and the Ritz Hotel, at No. 5 rue de Daunau. We decided it was fitting that a couple from Louisiana should settle in, enjoy a few and support our state’s industry.
By the third day of sleuthing, we managed to hit the mother lode.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner all rented houses at the same time during the mid-1920s on rue de Vaugirard, the street encircling the gorgeous Luxembourg Gardens.
By this time, we were old pros at navigating the Paris metro, then matching up the actual address to the street on the map.
Very quickly, we knocked out the addresses along rue de Vaugirard: No. 6 for Ernest Hemingway, now nothing but a single varnished door with peeling paint; No. 42 for William Faulkner, since refurbished into the Hotel Luxembourg Paris, and, for Fitzgerald, No. 58, a massive stone structure with those huge wooden doors found on plenty of Paris apartment buildings.
By the time Hemingway moved to this Paris location, he had divorced his first wife, Hadley, and married Pauline Pfeiffer. He was writing “A Farewell to Arms,” which was published in 1929 to tremendous acclaim, making him America’s most famous young writer. This was his last address in Paris.
When Faulkner lived at his Paris address, he had already published his poetry book “The Marble Faun” and was working on his first novel, “Soldier’s Pay.”
“Fitzgerald was the writer with the most money when they all lived here,” I said to Russ, explaining why his establishment was so much posher than the other two. Even though his drinking was worse than ever, resulting in shouting matches with Zelda, brawls with friends and trips to jail, he continued to work on “Tender is the Night” and still sold his stories for top dollar.
A thirsty business
Russ nodded mutely, by this time more interested in a café with wine than in finding more writers’ homes. But we had one more stop. All three of these writers, plus hundreds more, and U.S. servicemen and many, many expatriates, made their way right around the corner from rue de Vaugirard.
The large apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus, filled with the art of Picasso and Cezanne, was the one-time home of writer Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas.
When Stein and Toklas visited New Orleans, they were entertained at 719 Toulouse St. by The Times-Picayune editor Roark Bradford and his wife, Mary Rose. The couple hosted a literary salon at their home and entertained many local writers as well as visiting ones.
Unlike the other writers’ residences, the Stein structure is an imposing building and boasts a charming courtyard, entered through a massive wrought iron gate. And, unlike the blank facades of the houses of the other three writers, there’s actually a plaque on this building stating that Stein hosted a salon here in the 1920s.
One more stop: The most colorful bookstore in Paris: Shakespeare and Co. at No. 37 rue de la Bucherie, where all these writers — including the Beat writers whose hotel we still can’t locate — stopped in at one time or another.
This was so easy to find, we went there twice: Take the metro to Saint Michel/Notre Dame, walk down Quai Saint-Michel to Rue du Petit Pont, take a right, then take a left onto rue de la Bucherie.
Angela Carll lives in New Orleans.