A new book follows Pablo Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Miles Davis, and others through the city’s famed Left Bank in the years after World War II.
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Published August 22, 2018
Published a month ago
The Nazi occupation of Paris lasted four years, two months, and three days. For the Parisians who endured it, the occupation meant military curfews, severe rationing of food and fuel, censorship of the press, and the ever-present threats of imprisonment, deportation, or worse. When Allied and Resistance forces finally expelled the Nazis in August 1944, the city’s rejoicing could scarcely be contained. “I have seen the faces of young people in love and old people at peace with their God,” Time magazine’s war correspondent wrote. “I have never seen in any face such joy as radiated from the faces of the people of Paris this morning.”
Wine would remain scarce for some time, but liberation was intoxicating enough for Parisians old and new. Exiles who had fled the advance of Hitler’s army in 1940 returned to the city, and victorious allies came to see what had been saved. Artists, intellectuals, and hangers-on flocked to the Left Bank: They spent their days in cafes discussing existentialist philosophy (or gawking at existentialist philosophers); they spent their nights in jazz clubs and shabby hotels; they wrote, painted, sang, danced, quarreled, and loved.
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In her lively new book, “Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950,” the writer Agnès Poirier recreates these classic postwar scenes. French philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul-Sartre, American writers like Richard Wright and Norman Mailer, artists like Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder, and musicians like Miles Davis and Juliette Greco all cross paths in Poirier’s map of the city. “I wanted to join the dots because I found out it hadn’t been done,” she told FOTO. “You’ve got a lot of books on all these fantastic people, but there’s no book actually tracing their exchanges, their friendships, their falling in love and falling out of love, even their sexual encounters.”
Below, Poirier guides us through the Left Bank and shares stories about some of the people who kept its spirit alive during and after the war.
Albin Guillot/Roger Viollet/Getty ImagesTHE SAVIOR OF THE LOUVREPoirier set out to write a book about postwar Paris but soon discovered that telling the whole story meant starting with the war years. One “extraordinary character” from that time — almost “completely forgotten” today — was Jacques Jaujard (pictured, circa 1946). Jaujard was the director of the French National Museums during WWII, and he rescued the art of the Louvre from Nazi plunder by rushing to box it up and transport it to safety before the German invasion. “For three days and nights,” Poirier explains, “he doesn’t tell anyone, but he asks all the students of the Louvre to lend a hand.” He loaded the collections into “ambulances, taxis, everything he could put his hands on — and off they went to different castles,” where they remained for the duration of the war.Archivio Cameraphoto EpocheA TALE OF TWO ARTISTSPablo Picasso (pictured above, circa 1948) and the writer Jean Cocteau (below, 1947) were longtime friends who had very different experiences of the occupation. “[Picasso] didn’t mingle at all with the Nazi occupants, but Cocteau did,” Poirier says.Pierre Jahan/Roger Viollet/Getty Images“[Cocteau] was a poet,” says Poirier, “and he refused to take the war seriously.” His refusal may appear foolish or callous in retrospect, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for cowardice: Living as an openly gay man under the occupation, “he took risks.”Walter Carone/Paris Match via Getty ImagesLA BELLE ET LA BÊTEThe actor Jean Marais (pictured, 1949) was Cocteau’s longtime romantic partner. “He was a huge star in France, and he was always playing this very dashing and very physical [figure].” His courage wasn’t just for show. “As soon as Paris was liberated,” Poirier explains, “he went with the Allies and the reconstituted French army under General de Gaulle ... to finish the war in Europe.” After the war, he returned to Paris and continued to act — famously in Cocteau’s “La Belle et La Bête” (1946). He was “a little like Gene Kelly, always on his feet ... except he was not a very good actor. Somehow we didn’t mind.”David E. Scherman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesFOREIGN CORRESPONDENTSThe liberation of Paris found two American writers — the New Yorker magazine’s once-and-future Paris correspondent Janet Flanner (L) and the novelist Ernest Hemingway (R) — sharing drinks in the city they loved.
Hemingway was covering the momentous occasion for Collier’s magazine: “He took his own band of brothers in a Jeep,” Poirier notes, and visited Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, before heading to Picasso’s studio. Picasso was out when Hemingway arrived, and the concierge asked the writer if he wanted to leave a message; Hemingway left a box of hand grenades and proceeded to the Ritz, where, the story goes, he personally liberated the hotel bar.
Flanner had left Paris shortly before the Germans took the city in 1940. “She always regretted it,” Poirier says, “and she came back as soon as she could,” resuming her post for the New Yorker. “When you read her stuff, it’s beautiful. ... She’s so funny and such an acute observer. ... She doesn't shy away from being critical [of the French], but she does it with an affection. I think that's what a great correspondent is.” In 1947, the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor.ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty ImagesTHE PHILOSOPHERS AND THE SCULPTORDue partly to his writing and partly to his unconventional romantic relationships with the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and others, Jean-Paul Sartre (pictured, circa 1950) achieved international celebrity in the 1940s. When he gave his lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism” at Club Maintenant in October 1945, women fainted. (True, the room was very hot and very crowded, but Sartre had drawn the crowd.) Shortly thereafter, when he toured the U.S., Time magazine hailed him as “France’s most discussed writer.”Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty ImagesDuring that tour, Poirier explains, Sartre visited the studio of the American sculptor Alexander Calder and “absolutely love[d] the mobiles.” With help from Sartre — and from exiled French artist Marcel Duchamp and Parisian gallerist Louis Carré — Calder arranged to exhibit his mobiles in Paris. Sartre, who “completely captured and understood what Calder's art was about, much better than any other art historians or art critics,” wrote the catalog for the show, where “Europeans rediscovered the greatest American sculptor of the time.” (Pictured: Calder and one of his mobiles at the Carré gallery in Paris, November 1946)Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesCalder is still best-known for his mobiles, but he also loved to make jewelry, and he made a spiral brooch for Simone de Beauvoir that she wore “for decades after,” Poirier says. De Beauvoir can be seen wearing it here, in 1955, two years after her 1949 book “The Second Sex,” a landmark in the history of feminism, was translated into English.Robert DOISNEAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesVIVE LA LOUISIANEHotels provided a habitat for many of the Left Bank’s artists and intellectuals, not just the ones who were passing through. “It was normal for a lot of young people who didn't want to live with their parents or with relatives ... to live in hotels,” Poirier explains. “And the hotels of the time were not boutique hotels. They were decrepit old hotels” like La Louisiane (pictured, circa 1947), where Sartre, Beauvoir, and the singer Juliette Greco all lived at one time or another. Though most of these old haunts have moved upmarket since the 1940s, La Louisiane remains “affordable,” and, Poirier says, “the feeling hasn’t changed.”Robert DOISNEAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesSCENE FROM A CAFECafes were the social hubs of the Left Bank: They were places for coffee and cigarettes, talking and writing, seeing and being seen. But they were also places to keep warm. Fuel shortages were common, and crowded cafes were cozier than drafty hotel rooms. Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots were both popular, but during the war years, Poirier says, “de Flore was slightly more popular ... because [it] had a stove, a big stove right in the middle of the room, and it made it the warmer of the two cafes.” (Pictured: Simone de Beauvoir at Deux Magots, circa 1944.)Robert DOISNEAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesNIGHTLIFEWhen the cafes closed for the night, the younger clientele packed into underground jazz clubs like Le Tabou (pictured, circa 1947). Le Tabou opened in 1947, after the aspiring actress and soon-to-be singer Juliette Greco, the poet Anne-Marie Cazalis, and some of their friends convinced the owners of one of their favorite cafes to let them run a “rehearsal room” in the cafe’s cavernous cellar. Jazz musicians like Boris Vian and Claude Luter kept patrons dancing all night, and the bathrooms, Poirier writes, “were covered in graffitied slogans like ‘Go to the bar and ask for an arsenic with mint to quench your thirst for eternity,’ or ‘I would like to die and be reborn as a train crash.’”Jean-Phillipe CHARBONNIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesDUETIn the spring of 1949, when he was 22 years old, Miles Davis came to Paris to play at the first International Jazz Festival. (Jazz greats Sidney Bechet and Charlie Parker headlined.) Davis was impressed by how little Parisians seemed to care about the color of his skin. Poirier quotes him in her book: “I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some were not prejudiced.”
Through the French trumpet player Boris Vian, a regular performer at Le Tabou, Davis met Juliette Greco. Despite the language barrier — Davis spoke no French, Greco no English — they fell in love. Their affair was brief, but when Greco traveled to New York in the 1950s, she and Davis had dinner at the Waldorf. Greco later recalled that, because they were a mixed-race couple, “the food was more or less thrown in [their] faces.” Early the next morning, Davis called her in tears, saying, “I don't ever want to see you again here, in a country where this kind of relationship is impossible.” (Pictured: Greco and Davis at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, 1949)Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty ImagesAN AMERICAN IN PARISBy the mid-1940s, having published “Uncle Tom’s Children,” “Native Son,” and “Black Boy,” Richard Wright was one of the most celebrated young writers in the United States, and French publishers were arranging translations of his work. In the spring of 1946, fed up with race relations in the U.S., Wright traveled to Paris, where he was welcomed with open arms. “He loved Paris,” Poirier says, “because to the French he was just an American writer.” Wright soon “became a public intellectual in the French way,” fostering a community of African-American expatriate writers that included James Baldwin and Chester Himes, and he lived in Paris until his death in 1960, at the age of 52. (Pictured: Wright with Juliette Greco, Anne-Marie Cazalis, and Janet Flanner at a gala for Duke Ellington in Paris, 1948.)