Hemingway in Paris
PARIS — Ernest Hemingway lived in Paris from 1921-28 and moved here before he was a best-selling author. It was here where he penned “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms.” It was here where he became an international literary superstar who remains legendary to this day.
It was here — right here, right where I’m sitting in this tony bar in the bustling Montparnasse section of Paris — where Hemingway did most of his writing. I learned this when I put down my glass of Bourgogne Chardonnay and asked the bartender where Hemingway did most of his writing.
“You’re sitting in it, Ernest,” he said with a laugh.
He pointed in front of me. There on a tiny gold plaque was the name “ERNEST HEMINGWAY.” I was sitting in his favorite barstool. Hemingway isn’t my favorite writer. Pat Conroy and Hunter Thompson battle it out for that honor, depending on my mood and level of alcohol. A lot of Hemingway I didn’t like. I read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” twice and have no idea what he tried to say. I thought “The Green Hills of Africa” was a colossal bore. Hemingway’s writing style was so crisp it cracked: “Rain came down. Rain is cool. Rain is good.” That’s it. However, “The Old Man and the Sea” was fantastic and his feature on Benito Mussolini, based on a rare interview with him, remains one of the best stories I’ve ever read in a newspaper.
He wrote it for The Toronto Star which he worked for as a foreign correspondent when he went to Paris at 22. While he moved overseas at the beginning of his career, I moved at the end of my career. I retired to Rome in January 2014. I wrote a traveling food column for The Denver Post called “A Moveable Feast,” the same title of his book about life in Paris. Our similarities pretty much stop there. His to-do lists had more readers than the one book I wrote.
His move here fascinated me so on a recent visit I retraced his life. The barstool is in Closerie des Lilas, the epicenter of Paris’ literary elite in the 1920s with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Sartre joining Hemingway at the same bar where I sat. I arrived at the Closerie on a postcard-perfect sunny afternoon in Paris. The city is coming out of a long winter and no one wanted to sit inside on a bright sunny day inching toward 20 degrees. Parisians were all outside, wearing sunglasses, picking at nicoise salads and baguette sandwiches and tuna tartare.
Hopefully, his old surroundings would inspire me. He spent most of his Paris life right around my neighborhood in the Latin Quarter. His two apartments are just up Rue Monge from me. The first is on a quiet side street next to the Cafe Bo LeDescantes. A small plaque next to a bright blue door indicates the second-story apartment window where he spent some of his life in 1920-21.
The second apartment is just around the corner on Rue Descartes. He obviously upgraded. Two big, ornately decorated black doors lead into a bright, white apartment building with 19th century guardrail on all the balconies. A romantic cafe, La Maison de Verlaine, is right below it.
Even in his 20s, Hemingway owned Paris. It was a great time to be here. France was coming out of World War I and the French were falling in love again. Artists were worshipped. Every day Hemingway wrote words that would be cherished for eternity and every night he drank and fought and loved.
The Closerie bartender, Damien, couldn’t have been more friendly if he was a paid tour guide. I asked him how much the place had changed since Hemingway was going through women like cocktail straws.
“The bar is the same,” he said before pointing to a partition where diners were separated by big brass rails. “They added the brasserie and the outdoor tables but the bar is exactly the same.”
“So this is where Hemingway drank and fought,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “and fell.”
As the Chardonnay went down, the questions went up. I pulled myself out of 1920s nostalgia to ask him about 21st century Paris. He pinched his lips to his nose, as if he was sipping a rotten Cotes du Rhone.
“It is a mess,” he said. “Violence. Anger. Poverty. Ten years ago everyone was happy. Not anymore.”
Unemployment is up and so is anger. Immigration is being blamed and many are taking it upon themselves to do something about. Vigilante gangs are roaming Paris’ suburbs going after ethnic groups taking jobs. The murders in the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office have Muslims in France, where 6 million of them live, fearing reprisals.
I asked Damien about soccer. He’s not a Paris-St. Germain fan. He loves basketball, particularly the San Antonio Spurs. Tony Parker, the best player France ever produced, is one of its stars.
“Tony Parker is a hero,” Damien said.
“But how could he cheat on Eva Longoria?”
“Ah!” Damien said, raising his hand as in the French “So what?” gesture, “but he is French!”
Afterward, I went to one of Hemingway’s dining haunts, La Rotonde, right down the street on busy Boulevard du Montparnasse. It’s a classic corner Paris restaurant with a couple dozen tables pointed to the busy intersection. Tuxedoed waiters scurried about with big silver trays of food and wine. I ordered Burgundy escargot in garlic sauce and leg of lamb with a nice Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux. I slurped snails, ate lamb and drank wine chilled out of an ice bucket the rest of the afternoon as I watched Paris walk by.
I’m reading this again and it doesn’t look like Hemingway’s barstool rubbed off on my blog. Then again, when you follow in Hemingway’s footsteps, you know you’ll always have a good time.