Writer’s Voice/France magazine
HEM AND DOTTIE IN PARIS
… ‘there they were, all in France, and whenever they were anywhere, there they were.’
Gertrude Stein’s cryptic remark could not have been more apt to describe the writers, journalists, poets and poison-tongued literary wits of the Algonquin group (also called the Vicious Circle) during the fun-filled, flippant New York of the Roaring Twenties.
The group’s focal point was Dorothy Parker whose free and wild mind was compared to a Marx Brothers’ movie. Around her gathered the soon-to-be famous editors and writers of the newly created Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, both trend-setting magazines for decades to come. Behind Dorothy’s unpredictable, razor-sharp wit and much admired capacity to take drink in Prohibition America, lay a fine and serious writer of short stories and poetry. Inevitably, she felt drawn to Paris where young writers like Hemingway were creating what she considered to be the great new works of modern literature. She had discovered his writing in 1924, when her enthused satirist friend Donald Ogden Stewart pleaded with the New York publisher Horace Liveright to sign up Hemingway.
In their writing Hemingway and Dorothy Parker shared a great pessimism about love never having a happy end. Dorothy’s curiosity about Hemingway led her to accept an invitation to travel to France, a stay which was to last for many months. She hoped Paris would give her the space to do some serious writing. In New York all that publishers craved were her short, sharp and often bitter wisecracks of her legendary theatre reviews.
Not surprisingly, when she finally met Hemingway in Paris, their relationship was marked by tension. They were both in their early thirties, but her notoriety outstripped his at the time. She admired him immensely, he poked fun at her when drunk. But he lent her his typewriter which allowed her to write.
In Paris Hemingway counted James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and the painter Picabia among his friends. Dorothy and Hemingway spent time in the company of Scott Fitzgerald and his young and eventually mad wife Zelda, whose jealousy systematically destroyed Scott’s ability to write. Zelda was so set to totally emasculate her husband that Hemingway spirited a despairing Fitzgerald off to the Louvre to look at statues of male nudes to reassure Scott that his private parts were quite normal and probably performing fine.
Paris appealed to both Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. Here no one seemed to think that a writer was not working if he/she was not putting pen to paper, nor that they were unsuccessful if they were not being published or earning money from writing. Hemingway noted that in The Sun Also Rises that at the time it was an important part of the ethics of journalism to pretend not to be working.
Dorothy was not a writer’ to order’. In New York her editor and publisher George Oppenheimer at times forcibly confined her to her room, with the only concession the inevitable bottle of whisky, until she had finished an article.
Both writers were creative artists and needed space to write, but even in the Twenties time and space were a luxury. Their generous friends provided both; neither Hemingway nor Parker were shy about taking up the frequent offers. In Paris they stayed with the wealthy heirs Gerald and Sara Murphy in their resplendent mansion on the Quai des Augustins and travelled to their extravagant villa Amèrica in Cap d’Antibes. With the Murphys, Hemingway once wrote, every day was a fiesta.
Both Hemingway and Dorothy Parker felt suspicious and uneasy in the company of what Hemingway called ‘the rich’, but both accepted their generous invitations to the grandest of houses, hotels, restaurants and parties. Without their wealthy friends neither would have gone travelling across France in such luxurious style.
It was a time when both English and American writers looked to France for creative freedom and respect for their talent. Some, like Picasso, chose to live in abject poverty in a freezing attic in a poor, preferably immoral quartier – wasn’t that what an artist was supposed to do to acquire the necessary credibility? Most of them however had plenty of means and connections to be rescued, should the need arise – and it frequently did.
Around the same period the controversial Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusius, in a state of delusional euphoria, left their respective husbands in England and eloped to France to live and write in lesbian bliss. Threatened with the immediate withdrawal of funds to live in luxury by their respective husbands, they were marched home, meek in the sudden realisation that their dream of sexual and artistic freedom had definitely not included poverty and discomfort of any sort.
Many a budding writer has gone misty-eyed over Hemingway’s Moveable Feast in which he describes his Parisian working life, oscillating between romantic poverty and access to the glamour of the rich and famous. On closer inspection he seemed to live very much among other expats with little real contact with the French and their culture. The latter simply provided an exotic tapestry against which expatriate artists and writers played out their creative genius. Most painters of the time who became world famous came from wealthy families, but Hemingway largely chose to slum it. His Spartan lifestyle was a deliberate way of keeping a distance from the distractions of the high life while he was writing. He lived in frugal style with his wife Hadley, leaving her in an apartment too cold for their baby while he settled down to write in a well-heated café, something Vita Sackville-West neither would not could have done.
In 1926, after a Cherbourg quai-side farewell party for Dorothy and her wealthy friends returning to New York on a luxury liner, Hemingway teased Dorothy and accused her of not returning the typewriter he had lent to her. ‘I’ve nothing to write on,’ he shouted to Dorothy, already embarked and waving goodbye, ‘you’ve ruined my career.’ Leaning over the ship’s railings, Dorothy hurled her newly acquired portable typewriter down at him, narrowly missing here target. ‘Good God,’ she was heard to murmur, ‘I’ve just thrown away my only means of living.’
Throughout the rest of her tumultuous life Dorothy Parker considered Hemingway to be one of the ‘giants’ among writers. In 1967, a week before she died in squalor, still doubting his respect and affection, she asked her closest friend, ‘Tell me the truth, did Ernest really like me?’
THE FRENCH AND THE LOVE OF THEIR OLD STARS
We are sentimental about those who die young – Marilyn, Jimmy Hendricks, & especially Ayrton Senna, so why laugh about the French and their love for old stars?
What is it about the French and their old stars? Johnny Halliday’s funeral last week was nothing short of presidential. When a singer/rock star in the UK is ‘over the hill’ they are farmed out or hope to have a sunset career in Australia or Japan – or Germany, a country littered with ageing pop stars rejected because of the obsession with youth in the UK.
Some think the French reverence for their ageing stars is simply sentimental. But it is more than that. They feel an emotional gratitude to the singers, actors and musicians who have created their life’s memories, and memories should not be discarded like yesterday’s newspaper.
I grew up with the role models of Juliette Greco and Jeanne Moreau. Later, as film translator for the National Film Theatre in London, I translated a 1948 Rive Gauche documentary, Greco’s first film appearance, still with her original nose. At that time she had not much more than a pair of cast-off men’s trousers in which to haunt the Jazz clubs of Paris.
When in Paris Miles Davis and Juliette became lovers. Davis was adored by the set of the Left Bank who had no problem with black musicians at a time when in the USA even Ella Fitzgerald, when appearing in hotels, was made to enter by the service door. The French public fell in love with the Davis/Greco affair. And when they had to part because, in the USA, Miles Davis could not walk with a white woman on his arm, let alone marry her, their broken hearts became part of Greco’s legend. Seven noses later, in her last concert in 2015, she looked a little more like Michael Jackson after his face remodelling, no gloves to hide her liver spots, but the public loved her just as much if not even more.
Jeanne Moreau, spirited to the last, was also part of the Left Bank set of singers, actors and musicians. Again later, in London, I translated the first feature film she wrote and directed. When I met her she was fifty five but had lost none of her appeal. Since, there have been icons such as Kate Bush and Audrey Hepburn, but compared to Moreau and Greco these were simply cute. Jane Birkin has become loved by the French by association with Serge Gainsbourgh, but she could never exude what Moreau and Greco had in spades – the growling, prowling, visceral sex appeal that reached both men and women.
I was never a great fan of ‘notre Johnny’. Contrary to my French classmates who could not contemplate listening to songs if they could not understand each and every word, I was into the real thing, American Blues, Jazz and Rock very early in my teenage years. And however rocky and gyrating Johnny got, with him, as with all French language singers, it was all about the words, not the music. It is one of the reasons a lot of French pop songs just drone on, like a long, never-ending poem (apart from Aznavour and Piaf, I’m not quite sure how long it took the average French song writer to discover the magic middle eight).
I, along with the rest of French people of my generation, am grateful for the memories those stars gave me. I had no problem with watching Vanessa Paradis duetting with the somewhat crumbling Jeanne Moreau and her smoke-filled voice a few years ago. But I do get the creeps when I see Cliff Richard on TV, leaping onto the stage like a demented teen – (because of course in the UK culture you have to look young at all costs) – and not being able to sing any longer. I makes me want to scream ‘shut up and get off the stage’. When it comes to singing I now feel the same about McCartney and Elton whose voice seems to have become buried in his embonpoint, as we say. Greco, like many old French singers don’t have that problem. They were never belters, singing from the gut. No one expects them to reproduce the power of their young years. Greco’s craft is that of a diseuse, words, a story sung, ever so slightly – I doesn’t matter how old and wrinkled the singer is. Some of Greco’s early songs completely changed meaning when she sang them as an old woman. They became philosophical, illustrating that everyone will be old, sooner than they think – no amount of hair dye or Botox will save them. For the French age is no reason to push old stars down the garbage chute. Instead they celebrate longevity.
Moreau died recently, Greco is still there. I wonder who will get the next ‘state funeral’.
A.Burchardt 13 December 2017
An interview with Beatrice von Tresckow, fashion designer with an extraordinary past. Click here to read the interview
The story of Baron de Ferrières, a French nobleman who became Mayor and MP for Cheltenham Spa from 1880 to 1885. On his death he bequeathed an astonishing and valuable collection of Dutch paintings to the town, including a Rembrandt.
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Hidden between two busy shopping streets in Cheltenham stands St. Mary’s church which dates from the 9th century. Few people visit this architectural gem. Only a few years ago the church was threatened with closure which would have resulted in its certain descent into disrepair and eventually ruin. The stained-glass windows are its outstanding features as well as the original stone tracery of the rose.
Photos © A. Burchardt
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