The Great Boom of Saint-Germain-des-Prés

The bars, bistros and cafés of Paris had long acted as intellectual incubators, but never so much as in Saint-Germain after the war. An extraordinary array of talent had come together in two square kilometres of Paris at a time when the cross-fertilization of ideas had never seemed more exciting and important, when every art appeared on the point of a new departure. This could not have happened without places in which people could meet, talk, argue and write, from morning until late at night.

The ideas were new, but the café setting was reassuringly familiar. Whether the floor was of wood or tiled, whether the triangular ashtrays on the little tables advertised Byrrh or Dubonnet, whether the posters for the latest plays and exhibitions were tacked to the door or pegged to the yellowing net curtains, the smell was always the same. It was warm and sociable, established over the years from imperfectly washed bodies, Caporal tobacco smoke and cheap wine. Entering a familiar café was like a homecoming.

Café life in Saint-Germain observed certain conventions. Sartre noted that ‘people would come in and find they knew everybody; each person knew the smallest details about the private life of their neighbour; but one did not bother to say bonjour, although one would immediately if one met any of them elsewhere’.

Before 1944, when the effects of his fame became too distracting, Sartre used to work at the Café Flore for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. The morning session began with him bustling through the door, his pockets stuffed with books and papers. He threaded his way through to his favourite corner table, settled down, lit his pipe, downed a couple of Cognacs while spreading out his papers and started to write.

The proprietor of the Flore, Paul Boubal, at first had no idea of his customer’s identity. He often came with a dark-haired woman, who also wrote – in the same corner of the café, but at a different table. They left at twelve, but came back after lunch and worked in the room on the first floor till closing time.

One day there was a telephone call for a Monsieur Sartre. Boubal had a personal friend called Sartre and told the caller he was not in the café. The caller insisted that he must be, so Boubal called out the name – and up stood the little man with the pipe and pebble glasses. ‘From that moment he became my friend, and we often had a chat in the morning; later, the telephone calls increased to such an extent that I decided it was necessary to put in another line specially for him.’

The famille Sartre and the bande Prévert used to patronize both the Flore and the Deux Magots. The great period of the Deux Magots had been between the wars, when – according to Vercors – the café was so filled with celebrated artists, politicians and men of letters that it was almost impossible to find a place; particularly since young disciples would bring up chairs and sit two or three deep round the tiny tables, listening attentively to the conversation of the great figures. Yet by the late 1930s the Flore had also gathered an impressive group of regulars which included not only the bande Prévert, but also André Breton, Picasso and Giacometti. Towards the end of the afternoon, people often drifted to the Deux Magots, where they could enjoy the last of the sunlight.

Communists, if they were not in Marguerite Duras’s apartment in the rue Saint-Benoît, favoured the Bonaparte, on the north side of the Place Saint-Germain, while musicians tended to gravitate towards the Royal Saint-Germain, opposite the Deux Magots on the south side of the Boulevard. In the evening other places came into their own: the Rhumerie Martiniquaise, the Bar Vert and the bar of the Hotel Montana.

The central point of this café life was the square between the Deux Magots and the ancient, much rebuilt abbey of Saint Germain-des-Prés. The frontiers of the quartier were clearly defined: on the east, the Boulevard Saint-Michel; on the west, the rue des Saints-Pères; on the north, the quais along the Seine; on the south, the rue de Vaugirard. The narrow streets were still cobbled then, gently dipping between tall houses that leaned this way and that. Roofs, stucco, bricks, cobbles, shutters and paintwork provided every shade of grey fromzinc to soot. Occasionally, when the large door of a porte-cochère was open, one might catch sight of a courtyard with a few shrubs and potted geraniums; otherwise the only green was that of the leaves of the plane trees on the broad boulevards.

As it was considered bourgeois to have an apartment, young intellectuals lived in dilapidated hotels, which came to symbolize the rootless and unmaterialistic life of an existentialist. The Louisiane in the rue de Seine, the Montana and the Crystal in the rue Saint-Benoît, the Pont-Royal in the rue Montalambert, the Madison in the Place Jacques Copeau: all were cheap, offering little more than a bed and basin. The concierge – usually the proprietress – who sat glowering behind the desk was a figure to be feared and placated, especially when one was behind with the rent. Juliette Gréco was so terrified of the landlady of the Louisiane that she scarcely dared ask for her key or her mail. Yet these little hotels had the atmosphere of a university hall of residence, happy and familial.

Since cooking in the rooms was strictly forbidden in most establishments, the bistros were important in the life of Saint-Germain: the Cheramy, the Catalan, the Petit Saint-Benoît, Les Assassins, L’Esculape. Everyone knew everyone – if not well, then enough to exchange a ‘Bonjour, ça va?’ in the street, or swap quotations from Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style. This little masterpiece was both a brilliant demonstration of the versatility of language and one of his funniest and most accessible works.

Despite the cold and lack of money, the tiny theatres of Saint-Germain, like the Théâtre de la Poche, the Vieux-Colombier, the Huchette and the Noctambules, all flourished. This was the anti-théâtre, le théâtre de l’absurde, le théâtre révolutionnaire, le théâtre des idées – ‘more ideas than theatre,’ grumbled the critic Jean-Jacques Gautier. One of the most original and inventive playwrights of the post-war theatre was Jacques Audiberti. His plays were noted for the fertility of his language, which managed to be both musical and rooted in the everyday.

These little productions worked as cooperatives: the actors were also scene-shifters and costume-makers, they swept out the theatre and painted the scenery. The odd-job man round the corner could sometimes be persuaded to knock up a flimsy set or rig up another spotlight. As for the audience, they were people who lived the same bohemian lives as the actors. They somehow found a few francs to applaud a friend, or see the latest production that everyone was talking about.

The youth of Saint-Germain lived off coffee, sandwiches, cigarettes, cheap wine and small loans from friends. The men were recognizable by their American-style plaid shirts, crew-cuts and gymshoes. Tartan featured prominently in the mid-1940 s; and in the cold winters that followed the Liberation, the canadienne – a felt jacket designed for lumberjacks – had the dual advantage of being warm and looking proletarian. Girls no longer had their hair built up above the forehead; fringes were in fashion, and the rest was left long and droopy. High-necked, tight-fitting tops and sweaters, short black skirts and ballet shoes completed the costume. After 1946, black became increasingly fashionable for both sexes.

The face and voice which came to epitomize the youth of the late 1940 s were those of an inexperienced actress called Juliette Gréco. Her father was a commissaire de police from Montpellier and her mother had almost lost her life in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Juliette had come to Saint-Germain in 1943. For a time she was a member of the Communist youth organization and sold its newspaper, but then she became sickened by it. In four years her acting career had not advanced, and later she was to become notorious as the figurehead of corrupt Parisian youth; yet she always retained an innocent, unworldly quality which was part of her appeal. Christian Bérard designed for her a pair of tartan slacks, trimmed with mink around the ankles. Gréco asked what mink was.

Her introduction to the famille Sartre came through Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a quiet man of great charm whom Boris Vian described as ‘the only one of the philosophers who asked women to dance’. Gréco was amused by the way the waiters in his favourite haunt were used to receiving his silver cigarette lighter until he could pay the bill. One night, at the Bal Nègre in the rue Blomet, he introduced her to Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre she found very accessible. ‘He was a great one for jokes and talked easily to the young’, and answered any question you put to him. Simone de Beauvoir, on the other hand, had ‘un aspect plus difficile’. Also sitting at Sartre and Beauvoir’s table was a red-haired girl in black velvet called Anne-Marie Cazalis.

Cazalis was a poet. She was also tough and ambitious, and reminded Boris Vian of a goat ‘in her laugh, her malicious expression, a little obstinate but always diabolic’. Simone de Beauvoir distrusted her deeply and said that ‘she pushed gossip to indecent extremes’. Gréco, whom Cazalis took under her wing, described her as ‘full of inventive ideas, full of fantastic imagination, but machiavellian’. Soon the two young women were sharing a room in the Hotel Louisiane, and they became known as ‘the muses of Saint-Germain-des-Prés’. Gréco said of their life in those days, ‘C’était une période nocturne mais lumineuse.’

The best live jazz in Paris was played by Claude Luter’s band, known as Les Lorientais, at a club of the same name in the cellar of the Hotel des Carmes. They had begun by playing at illicit ‘surprise-parties’ during the Occupation, and moved to the Hotel des Carmes in June 1946 as little more than amateur enthusiasts, playing only between five and seven in the evening.

Even after they became famous, Luter and his band still played for parties given by friends, such as the one to celebrate Simone de Beauvoir’s return from America in February 1947. This was what Michel Leiris and Sartre liked to call a ‘fiesta’. Boris Vian organized the bar, which served infernal alcoholic mixtures. Giacometti fell asleep, perhaps as a result, and when the organizers cleared up afterwards somebody found a glass eye in the piano.

Vian was perhaps the most talented of the young Germano-pratins. Trained as an engineer, he was also a writer, novelist, poet, car enthusiast and jazz trumpeter, whose work – both musical and literary – was admired by Sartre, Prévert and Queneau. The years 1946 and 1947 were ones of tremendous activity for him. As well as playing the trumpet in Claude Abadie’s jazz band, he had a regular column in Jazz Hot, where he wrote not only about music but about ignorance, injustice, racism and the horror of war. Vian was not an intellectual (he pretended that Heidegger was a new brand of Austrian tractor), but Sartre immediately recognized him as an ‘écrivain engagé’ and for a brief time he also wrote a column for Les Temps modernes called ‘Chronique du Menteur’. Theirfriendship soured when Sartre began what was to be a long affair with Vian’s wife, Michelle – although by then the Vian marriage was almost over.

J’irai cracher sur vos tombes, Vian’s third and most scandalous novel, was published in November 1946. It appeared under the pseudonymof Vernon Sullivan, supposedly a young American writer whose book Vian had merely translated. Written in fifteen days, it is a hard, angry, iconoclastic book about a black man’s erotic revenge on the white race – complete with murder and explicit sex scenes. The press was outraged, the book became a bestseller and Vian kept his anonymity for as long as he could; but in April 1947, the campaign against the book became serious. A man murdered his mistress in a scene copied from J’irai cracher sur vos tombes; not only that, but he left the book open at the relevant page, with the murder scene underlined, before turning the gun on himself. Vian was eventually forced to admit authorship. He was fined 100,000 francs and the book was banned.

Late at night in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, there was nowhere to go but the cafés. Gréco and Cazalis would hang out with their friends in the Bar Vert in the rue Jacob until about one in the morning, when it closed. Then little groups would huddle outside, stamping their feet and having one last cigarette before they walked away.

There was only one place which stayed open later than the Bar Vert: a little café in the rue Dauphine called the Tabou. The Tabou served coffee and croissants well into the small hours and in 1946 gradually became a haven for insomniacs and noctambules, including Cazalis, Sartre, Camus, Merleau-Ponty and the film-maker Alexandre Astruc.

Bernard Lucas of the Bar Vert persuaded the owners of the Tabou to lease him their cellar. It was a tunnel of a room, some fifteen metres by eight, with bare brick walls curving into a low vaulted ceiling. Lucas installed a bar, an ill-tuned piano, a gramophone and a few tables and chairs. The cellar was named Le Tabou, like the café above; and the work of making it popular and minding the bar was given to Gréco, Cazalis and Marc Doelnitz, a restless, red-haired young actor and insatiable party-goer, whose well-connected family enabled him to be equally at home on the right bank of the Seine as on the left.

Lucas had chosen well: within every group of people there is always a small nucleus of members who somehow embody its spirit. Doelnitz, Gréco and Cazalis were at the centre of Saint-Germain life, and they knew it. The Tabou opened on 17 April 1947. Within a few nights it was generating tremendous excitement, with spontaneous jam sessions and wild dancing. Boris Vian sometimes played the trumpet. By now people knew that he was the author of J’irai cracher sur vos tombes, which gave the Tabou an even more subversive cachet. Filled with sweaty, exhilarated couples and thick with smoke, the Tabou was soon the only place to be after midnight in Saint-Germain. ‘To be part of the very fabric of Germano-pratin life gave one a very satisfying sense of superiority,’ wrote Doelnitz.

Barely a month after its opening, an article appeared, instigated by Cazalis, which brought the Tabou and its habitués to the shocked attention of the whole of Paris. This illustrated feature appeared on 3 May 1947 in Samedi-Soir, with the headline: ‘THIS IS HOW THE TROGLODYTES OF SAINT-GERMAIN LIVE’. The main photograph showed a tousled young man (Roger Vadim) holding a lighted candle and a young woman in trousers whose dark hair was full of cobwebs (Juliette Gréco). They were described as ‘two poor existentialists’. These young ‘existentialists’, wrote the journalist Robert Jacques, live in cellars by night and cheat their landladies by day: ‘They are drinking, dancing and loving their lives away in cellars until the atom bomb – which they all perversely long for – drops on Paris.’

Without actually saying so, Samedi-Soir had no difficulty in implying that, along with their energetic dancing, black clothes and indigent lifestyle, the existentialists were indulging in unbridled sex. Yet the life of most young Germano-pratins was surprisingly chaste. An incorrigible womanizer like Sartre certainly seemed to think so. He described jitterbugging as ‘a violent form of exercise, both light-hearted and healthy, which does themthe greatest physical good and leaves themfar too tired for lascivious thoughts’. Yet perhaps Sartre was trying to play down the whole Saint-Germain phenomenon, for which the press seemed to hold him responsible. He was blamed for contributing to juvenile crime and encouraging suicides. Attacks on Sartre became so vitriolic thatCombat ran an article with the ironic headline: ‘Should Sartre be burned at the stake?’

What Sartre and his circle did object to was the article’s use of the word ‘existentialist’. From having represented a body of philosophical ideas, the term‘existentialist’ suddenly became a generic for jazz-soaked beboppers. This was partly due to Sartre’s young friends, who, when asked to describe themselves by Samedi-Soir, replied that they were ‘existentialist’.

The immediate effect of the article in Samedi-Soir was to turn the Tabou and its exotic denizens into a tourist attraction. The Tabou became even more frenetic, the gramophone was replaced by a band, and the curious and the fashionable squeezed down the narrow stairs to see the ‘existentialists’. The tourists went home deliciously shocked after one particular evening when girls in bikinis competed for the title of ‘Miss Tabou’.

The French Communist Party saw the effect of existentialismas the greatest threat to its own influence on the youth of France. Maurice Thorez had denounced existentialist writing as ‘the expression of a rotting bourgeoisie’, and any outsider who thought that the young pseudo-existentialist rebels of Saint-Germain-des-Prés were Communist would have made a true Stalinist laugh bitterly. The rigidly puritan Communists felt that young people should be watching Battleship Potemkin, not enjoying corrupt American imports. Reports in Moscow reveal genuine dismay and anger that Parisian youth should be enthralled by so many aspects of American life. Two Soviet journalists who claimed to have visited the Tabou wrote afterwards in the Literary Gazette: ‘These poverty-stricken young people live in squalor and ask you to pay for their drinks. It is a youth revelling in the most vulgar sexuality.’

The Tabou’s meteoric rise was matched by the speed of its fall. Complaints to the authorities about the noise and disturbance grew. The club was obliged to close at midnight and soon it was attracting more tourists than Germano-pratins. The great period of the Tabou had lasted less than a year, but its effect spread. Imitation Tabou clubs sprang up in different parts of France, from Toulouse in the south-west to Charleville in the Ardennes.

Other clubs soon appeared in Paris to take the Tabou’s place. Marc Doelnitz was commissioned to decorate and launch the Vieux-Colombier in the cellar of the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. And in June 1948, the Club Saint-Germain opened. Boris Vian joined Marc Doelnitz in making the Club Saint-Germain the newest attraction. All the great jazzmen passing through Paris – including Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis – came as Vian’s guests.

By the summer of 1948, the tourist invasion of Saint-Germain was well and truly under way. The curious came to the Café Flore and asked to see the table of Monsieur Sartre (who had long since fled to the bar of the Pont-Royal). Janet Flanner described the place as ‘a drugstore for pretty up-state girls in unbecoming blue denim pants and their Middle Western dates, most of whom are growing hasty Beaux-Arts beards’.

That autumn, left bank and right bank met in a new venture, the ballet La Rencontre, which began playing to packed houses at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. This told the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx: choreography by Lichine, music by Henri Sauguet and programme notes by Sartre. The ballet was set in a huge shadowy circus, and had one of the last sets completed by Bérard before his death early the next year. The Sphinx, on a high platform under a trapeze, was played by the seventeen-year-old Leslie Caron, wearing a black body-stocking; the performance launched her career.

Another modern adaptation of Greek tragedy was attempted in a film by Alexandre Astruc, called Ulysse, ou les mauvaises rencontres. It was filmed in the Vieux-Colombier theatre, in the cold, foggy months of 1948, and the list of participants is a tribute to a time when successful people were prepared to take part in an adventure simply because it appealed to them as curious or amusing. Jean Cocteau played Homer, Simone Signoret was Penelope to Marc Doelnitz’s Ulysses, and Juliette Gréco was Circe. Jean Genet was to have been the Cyclops, but he pulled out and Astruc was obliged to take the role himself. There were no rehearsals and ‘Astruc was the only one who understood what was going on’.

Gréco had not yet sung professionally and still thought of herself as an actress. Yet Anne-Marie Cazalis was convinced that she should sing and said so to Sartre as they were walking back after dinner one night. Sartre laughed and said: ‘If she wants to sing, then she should sing.’

Gréco was walking in front of them. Irritated by this exchange, she said over her shoulder that she had no intention of becoming a singer. Sartre asked why not, to which Gréco replied: ‘I don’t know how to sing, and also I don’t like the songs that one hears on the radio.’

‘Well, if you don’t like them, what sort do you like?’

She mentioned the names of Agnès Capri and Yves Montand. Sartre had the last word. ‘Come round to me at nine tomorrow morning.’

The next morning when Gréco arrived at the rue Bonaparte, Sartre had looked out a pile of poetry books for her. Among the poems she chose were ‘C’est bien connu’ by Queneau and ‘L’éternel féminin’ by Jules Laforgue. Sartre also gave her a song he had written for Huis clos. He told her to visit the composer Joseph Kosma, who lived in the rue de l’Université. Kosma wrote the music for the Queneau poem (renamed ‘Si tu t’imagines’), for ‘L’éternel féminin’ and for Sartre’s poem ‘La rue des blancs manteaux’. These were to be among the songs for which Juliette Gréco is still remembered – along with her rendering of Prévert’s ‘Les Feuilles mortes’, also set to music by Kosma.

At about the same time, Marc Doelnitz had been asked to resuscitate the most famous Parisian cabaret from between the wars, Le Boeuf sur le Toit. The Occupation, the rise of Saint-Germain and the death of its creator, Louis Moyses, had left it almost defunct.

Doelnitz hired a dancer, a singer and a trombone player, but what he needed was a star. There were no funds to hire Edith Piaf, Yves Montand or Charles Trenet, so he decided to risk all on creating one: Juliette Gréco. Gréco had many recommendations apart from a good voice. She had so often featured in the popular press that people stopped her in the street and asked for her autograph, and – perhaps what Doelnitz relied on most – she had an unconscious magnetism.

The irony is that when Gréco found success as a singer, it was not in Saint-Germain-des-Prés but on the right bank in the rue du Colisée, off the Champs-Élysées. She had only a few days’ rehearsal and her first-night nerves were immeasurably intensified by the fact that le tout Saint-Germain had crossed the river to applaud her début. The next night was the real test, because the audience was exclusively rive droite. Juliette Gréco had made no concessions to the conventional idea of how a female entertainer should dress: she wore black trousers, her bare feet slipped into golden sandals. The ladies of the audience in their little feathered hats were affronted: ‘Is it done to show oneself in public dressed like that?’ Yet even they were seduced and walked out into the night humming ‘Si tu t’imagines’.

To some, Gréco’s move to the right bank seemed like a defection. She did not in fact stay there long. Within a few weeks she was in the South of France with Claude Luter’s band. By the end of 1949 the great days of Saint-Germain-des-Prés were over; nevertheless, the party had been memorable. ‘In Paris, perhaps one needs a war to launch a quartier,’ remarked Jacques Prévert.

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