I am happy to have John Baxter as my Parisian of the Month.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Sydney, Australia, but mostly grew up in a country town called Junee. Think Modesto, California, and you'll have some idea. When George Lucas, who was born in Modesto, had his STAR WARS hero Luke Skywalker say of his home planet "If there is a bright center to the universe, this is the place furthest from it," he caught both places exactly.
When and why did you move to Paris?
I moved here in 1989. The "why" is simple. In Los Angeles, I met a French lady and felt compelled to follow her back to Paris. We married shortly after and have been together ever since.
You were a film buff at an early age. What films and movie scenes made the strongest impression on you?
As a creature of Hollywood's golden age, cinema, for me, begins around 1928 with the coming of sound and expires in or about 1955 with the introduction of wide screen.
It's not to say that a western like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, a Sci-fi fable like BLADE RUNNER or the melodramas of Douglas Sirk such as WRITTEN ON THE WIND don't induce a frisson, but in me, it never goes deep.
By contrast, the almost square proportions of the Academy Frame and the burnished tones of nitrate stock constitute, I believe, a paradigm that has never been equaled Films made within those restrictions can be emotionally moving out of all proportion to their content. They are cinema's sonatas and string quartets. SHANGHAI EXPRESS, NOW VOYAGER, CASABLANCA and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL touch me profoundly. As Noel Coward remarks, "Strange how potent cheap music is."
You’ve written film biographies of Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas and Robert De Niro. Was there a favorite out of these? What were some of the most surprising things you found out about them you didn’t know before?
It hard to top the experience of hanging out in Rome and being lied to by Federico Fellini but I got most fun out of unpicking the secretive life of Stanley Kubrick. Among the greatest surprises of my other film books was discovering that Robert De Niro's father, the painter Robert De Niro Sr., was gay, a fact the actor kept secret but which informs many of his best roles, not to mention his private life.
You live on a rather historic street. Please tell us some interesting facts about your street.
Because it runs between St Germain and Montparnasse, rue de l'Odéon has gathered literary associations as burrs stick to a rug. At No. 18 - our building - Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier shared an apartment from 1922 to 1936. They were visited there by every major figure of Paris's literary society, both French and expatriate, including Joyce, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, and of course Ernest Hemingway, who famously "liberated" the building in 1944.
At No. 12, Sylvia Beach managed the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop and published Joyce's ULYSSES. Adrienne Monnier's Maison des Amis des Livres was just opposite at No. 7. Thomas Paine wrote THE RIGHTS OF MAN at No. 10 and at No. 8 Robert McAlmon's Contact Editions published Hemingway's first book, THREE STORIES AND TEN POEMS. At the top of the street, on Place de l'Odéon, the Theatre de l'Odéon, under protest by its then director, Jean-Louis Barrault, housed some of the most riotous of les evenements de '68.
You are an avid book collector. What are some of your rarest and most special books?
From two garages packed floor to ceiling, it's hard to choose favorites. One of the rarest is a first edition of THE GREAT GATSBY. I also have firsts of TENDER IS THE NIGHT and other Fitzgerald titles, as well as Hemingway's A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THE SUN ALSO RISES etc. Among modern novels there's Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, Faulkner's PYLON, Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, my favorite John Updike, his short story collection PIGEON FEATHERS.... In French, Cocteau's LA BELLE ET LA BETE, inscribed by both he and his star Jean Marais, some books from Sylvia Beach's lending library inscribed by Adrienne Monnier; much science fiction and fantasy, most of it signed by Ray Bradbury and others. Manuscripts, photographs, letters, posters... bibliophily is less a hobby than an illness, and I'm a terminal case.
What books are currently on your night table?
Marcel Pagnol's LA GLOIRE DE MON PERE and the memoirs of book dealer and collector David Low, ...with all faults, published in Tehran (!) with a foreword by fellow bibliophile Graham Greene (both of these in connection with writing projects.) For pleasure, THE BOOK OF FUB, a collection of comic pieces by the British novelist Michael Frayn, and HAUNTS OF THE BLACK MASSEUR: THE SWIMMER AS HERO, Charles Sprawson's quirky memoir of aquatic feats performed around the world
Science fiction is another passion of yours. Who are your sci-fi heroes and villains and what do you consider the best sci-fi?
My first published writing appeared in science fiction magazines, often in the same issues as another neophyte, the substantially more gifted J.G. Ballard, whose dystrophic novel THE DROWNED WORLD I've re-read countless times. Of the same vintage, Alfred Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION recycled THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO in a swashbuckling style that engendered the baroque futurism known as Steampunk, a leading exponent of which, William Gibson, is among my preferred writers, in particular his deconstruction of modern media, fashion and cinema, PATTERN RECOGNITION.
If you could invite one literary character to dinner, who would it be and where would you take them?
As a lapsed Catholic, I would enjoy debating dogma with one of Graham Greene's tortured apostates, probably Scobie, the spy exiled to Africa in THE HEART OF THE MATTER. And one wonders what became of the boys from LORD OF THE FLIES when they returned to civilization. Their reminiscences would make absorbing after-dinner conversation.
You started series of books in the last few years concentrating on specific neighborhoods of Paris including St. Germain des Pres and Montmartre. Your latest book is about Montparnasse. Please tell us some of the highlights and what attractions in Montparnasse we must visit.
I like a good anecdote, but the Paris histories of Hemingway, Kiki and Man Ray at the Cafe du Dôme and the Closerie des Lilas and the Jockey are as frayed as the cuffs of shirts too often in the wash. I hope that readers of MONTPARNASSE: PARIS'S DISTRICT OF MEMORY AND DESIRE will be encouraged by its slightly unconventional approach to visit or re-visit the traditional sites but see them with new eyes.
For this book, I looked elsewhere for stories; among the artists of rue de la Grande Chaumière,for example, whose stays in Paris are barely documented - painters don't write memoirs - or the models and menials who blush unseen in the lives of the great. Who knew that Ernest and Hadley Hemingway had a servant, or that Ernest slept with his concierge?
Everyone writes about La Coupole, but seldom mentions its basement dance hall or the craze incubated there for a French version of the Argentinian tango, a dance one writer characterized as "a black and juicy Havana metamorphosed into a slim golden cigarette."
Hemingway has left us his take on his first meeting with Scott Fitzgerald but I had the advantage of knowing Donald Ogden Stewart, the man who introduced them. This book was my first chance to publish his account of that historic event.
What writing this book taught me that, once you clear away the false tinsel that envelops Montparnasse, the real tinsel underneath is even more exciting.
What do you prefer about Paris?
In nine books, I've tried repeatedly to answer this question, and always, partly at least, failed. The societies in which I lived before coming here were committed to the vision of a perfectible future achievable by hard work, enterprise and luck. None satisfied me. I felt like Jay Gatsby, reaching out for the light across the water that receded the closer he approached.
Paris forced me to abandon these ideals, to become instead the classic "stranger in a strange land." France's tradition of scholarship encouraged me to embark on a series of biographies, a form in which I'd never worked, and then to attempt the equally forbidding memoir form. The results more than justified the effort.
I prefer Paris because it encourages visitors to see the world with new eyes. Uniquely in my experience, the French look on their heritage of paintings and works of literature not as collectibles but as windows or lenses through which the world can be made sharper, more explicable. I write about it in the same spirit.
Taking visitors on walking tours introduced me to Paris all over again. There's no better way to learn of something than to explain it to others. Each walk is a new voyage of discovery. I hope to continue leading them as long as my feet and the stories hold out.
John has been generous enough to give away a copy of his book MONTPARNASSE: PARIS'S DISTRICT OF MEMORY AND DESIRE.
The first person to write a comment in the “COMMENTS” section at this link will win a copy.
Click here to purchase MONTPARNASSE: PARIS'S DISTRICT OF MEMORY AND DESIRE on Amazon.
My Apartment for Rent March 24 to April 2
I am renting my apartment out from March 24 to April 2, with a minimum of 7 nights. Price $190 per night,10% if you rent it more than 7 nights.
Centrally located in the heart of the Marais near the St. Paul metro station, it's a spacious one-bedroom 750 sq. ft. loft style apartment with 12 ft. ceilings, decorated in chic Mid-Century Modern furniture and sleeps one or two people in a Queen size bed. Amenities include A/C, washer/dryer, 16" flat screen TV, dishwasher, internet connection/Wifi and free long distance calls to the U.S. The apartment is located on the second floor with an elevator.
Photos upon request. Please email me at [email protected] if you are interested.
Come experience Eye Prefer Paris live with Eye Prefer Paris Tours, which are 3-hour walking tours I personally lead. Eye Prefer Paris Tours include many of the places I have written about such as small museums & galleries, restaurants, cafes, food markets, secret addresses, fashion & home boutiques, parks and gardens and much more. In addition to my specialty Marais Tour, I also lead tours of Montmartre, St. Germain, Latin Quarter, in addition to Shopping Tours, Gay Tours, Girlfriend Tours, Food Tours, Flea Market Tours, Paris Highlights Tours, and Chocolate & Pastry tours.
Tours start at 225 euros for up to 3 people, and 75 euros for each additional person. I look forward to meeting you on my tours and it will be my pleasure and delight to show you my insiders Paris.
Check it out at www.eyepreferparistours.com
Click here to watch a video of our famous Marais tour
New! Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes
I am happy to announce the launch of Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes. Come take an ethnic culinary journey with me and chef and caterer Charlotte Puckette, co-author of the bestseller The Ethnic Paris Cookbook (with Olivia Kiang-Snaije). First we will shop at a Paris green-market for the freshest ingredients and then return to Charlotte's professional kitchen near the Eiffel Tower to cook a three-course lunch. After, we will indulge in the delicious feast we prepared along with hand-selected wines.
Cost: 195 euros per person (about $210)