The Literary Woman of Montparnasse

Mention the literary cafés of Paris and people often think of Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore, located in the Saint Germain district of the Left Bank. Less well known, however, are the literary cafés of Montparnasse. From 1900 to 1939, this neighborhood teemed with writers and artists from all over the world; their ideas were to profoundly influence artistic and literary expression during the 20th century.

The Carrefour Vavin, the crossroads of the boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail, has been the hub of café life in the neighborhood since Le Dôme opened its doors in 1898. Subsequently, three neighboring cafés – La Rotonde (1911), Le Select (1925) and La Coupole (1927) opened to compete with the Dôme. Several smaller cafés and bars also opened on side streets to provide additional settings for drinking and socializing.

Artists dominated Montparnasse, but writers and publishers abounded as well – Hemingway, Lewis, Miller and many others haunted the terraces of the Carrefour Vavin cafés. Women writers were also a vibrant component of this café society, but many of them remain less well known. Some of their stories, as well as those of the cafés that they frequented, are recounted below.

A few yards up rue Delambre, a small street that leads south from the Carrefour Vavin, lies the restaurant Auberge de Venise at number 10. This was formerly the Dingo Bar, an establishment founded in 1923. The Dingo attracted a wealthy Anglo-American clientele; Hemingway and Fitzgerald met for the first time there.

American writer Djuna Barnes went there often, as she was a great friend of the Dingo’s barman, the legendary Jimmie Charters. She moved to Paris from Greenwich Village, where she had begun a career as a journalist. She eventually produced works in all literary genres, including plays. Barnes became part of the literary crowd that frequented Natalie Barney’s literary salon in Saint Germain des Prés, and was honored by Barney’s Académie des Femmes (conceived to be the counterpart of France’s all-male Académie Française). She based one of the characters in her novel Nightwood on a garrulous American physician whom she met at the Dingo.

Nancy Cunard, a wealthy British socialite and an ardent supporter of surrealism, was also a frequent customer at the Dingo. Cunard owned the Hours Press, one of the small publishing houses that punctuated the Anglophone literary terrain of pre-World War II Paris.

Number 4, rue Delambre was once the address of Black Manikin Press, run by Edward W. Titus. This was another of the small English-language presses in operation in Paris during the early 20th century. Titus published Ladies Almanack (1926) by Djuna Barnes and D.H. Lawrence, An Unprofessional Study (1932) by Anaïs Nin, the infamous lover and champion of Henry Miller.

Le Dôme, the oldest of the Carrefour Vavin cafés, is located on the corner of boulevard du Montparnasse and rue Delambre. Once a shabby little place, the café was completely renovated and the terrace added on the boulevard in 1923. In 1928, the owner added an “American Bar” – an attractive feature for American tourists subjected to Prohibition at home. Le Dôme attracted a wealthy American and German crowd, while Eastern Europeans (many of whom were Jewish), South Americans, Russians, Scandinavians and other foreigners preferred the café directly across the boulevard, La Rotonde.

Gertrude Stein frequented the Dôme in the early 1900s. It was here that, in 1907, she reportedly convinced Henri Matisse to open an academy for artists. Matisse would later contribute to the “Testimony against Gertrude Stein” (1935), a document protesting the content of Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

The Dôme has now gone upscale. The restaurant is renowned for its seafood, as oysters and other fresh fish arrive daily from the Brittany coast. Its walls are covered with photographs of its more famous patrons, including those of the Lost Generation of the 1920s.

Montparnasse attracted so many foreigners during the early 20th century that it is easy to forget that the French also significantly contributed to the fervor of the era. In particular, two French women figured prominently in the quarter’s café history. One was Kiki, an uneducated woman of modest means who became known as the queen of Montparnasse. The other was Simone de Beauvoir, existentialist writer and feminist.

A native of the Bourgogne region of France, Kiki (given name – Alice Prin) moved to Paris in 1913. She modeled nude for many of the painters of the Ecole de Paris, and was the lover of many of them as well. As La Rotonde was the café favored by neighborhood artists, Kiki became a frequent patron of the establishment. She was even allowed to wash there during her early, poverty stricken years in Montparnasse.

Kiki is best known as the female companion and muse of the photographer Man Ray, who would immortalize her in photos such as “Le Violon d’Ingres” and in the film L’Etoile de Mer (Star of the Sea). She met Man Ray at La Rotonde in 1921, and their passionate affair began almost immediately after their first encounter.

Kiki was a singer, painter and actress as well as a model. She published her memoirs – Souvenirs: Kiki (Henri Broca, 1929) – at the age of 28. They are significant because they represent one of the earliest chronicles about Paris to be written during the time that the events described actually occurred. Her book was published in English by Titus’ Black Manikin Press (Kiki’s Memoirs, 1930), but it was banned by the United States government until the 1970s.

Simone de Beauvoir was born to a bourgeois family in the apartment building above La Rotonde, and lived there until the age of 11. She and her sister were regular patrons there as teenagers. A prolific author, playwright and intellectual, and winner of the Prix Goncourt (a coveted French literary honor) in 1954, her most important sociological work was the 1949 essay entitled “La Deuxième Sexe” (“The Second Sex”). De Beauvoir spent the last several years of her life as a champion of women’s rights, particularly those of abortion and contraception.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay visited Paris many times during the 1920s. Like Djuna Barnes, she was part of Natalie Barney’s literary circle and was honored by Barney’s Académie de Femmes. Millay patronized La Rotonde even though Americans generally shunned it; she dined there often during the year 1922. She reportedly even used it as a return mailing address for herself on occasion.

On the same side of the street as La Rotonde and one block away lies Le Select. This café quickly became a favorite of the Lost Generation during the 1920s, though the owners, Monsieur and Madame Jalbert, were not particularly fond of them. The café was also favored by a lesbian crowd. Djuna Barnes and her lover Thelma Wood frequented the Select during the ’20s. In 1936, Simone de Beauvoir noted that she and (Jean-Paul) Sartre would go there and “sit among the crop-haired lesbians, who wore ties and even monocles on occasion…”

Le Select was the first café on the boulevard to remain open all night. Americans reportedly appreciated the menu selection, which included Welsh Rarebit. It is the least written about among the four cafés on boulevard du Montparnasse.

Directly across the boulevard from Le Select lies La Coupole, perhaps the most famous of the Montparnasse cafés. Two former employees of the Dôme built it with the intent to create a magnificent café that would outshine the Dôme. When completed, it was huge, employing as many as 450 people and seating 600. The interior was decorated with paintings by neighborhood artists (many of whom were students of Léger and Matisse), and crowned with an art deco cupola. Because of its history and its décor, it has been classified as an historic monument.

La Coupole became a favorite place for de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. When de Beauvoir suffered a serious illness in 1937 and convalesced in a nearby hotel, Sartre would bring her a meal from the Coupole each day. De Beauvoir worked on her novel L’Invitée (The Guest) there in 1940.

Montparnasse’s literary heyday began to decline during the mid 1920s, and collapsed with the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Though most of the male figures of the era left France at that time, many of the American and British female literary crowd remained in Paris. Some even braved the Nazi Occupation during World War II. But little is written about their patronage of Montparnasse’s cafés and bars during this time.

As for France’s literary women, Simone de Beauvoir remained faithful to the cafés of Montparnasse until World War II. With the arrival of the Germans (who were particularly fond of Le Dôme), she began frequenting the cafés of Saint Germain des Prés. She returned to Montparnasse during the 1970s however, establishing a standing weekly luncheon date with Sartre at La Coupole on Sundays at 2 p.m.

In contrast, Kiki never abandoned the quarter. She remained a Montparnassienne until her death in 1952.