Saint Germain des Prés II

Bonjour !

This month, let’s continue our discovery of St-Germain-des-Prés. Altough there are plenty of splendid monuments that contribute a great deal to the beauty and elegance of this very chic Parisian neighborhood, we will not be talking about the history and architecture of those buildings this time. Instead, we have chosen to discuss the people who made St-Germain a charming area with a very special ambiance. Let’s follow the artists, writers, poets and musicians who all lived there and loved it. Let’s get to know the places where they found refuge and the many eclectic artistic or intellectual movements that resulted from meetings where ideas flowed in more or less lively exchanges, depending on their specific time in history.

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Le Procope

The St-Germain Fair

In 1482, Louis XI allowed the creation of the St-Germain fair. As soon as it opened, the local residents flocked there to discover all the products and novelties offered at the merchants’ stalls. But they also came to the fair to see the street acrobats, bear tamers, and various magicians and peddlers. They attended a selection of open-air shows performed by actors of varying talent, in a district that had already manifested a certain artistic and literary streak in past centuries. The success of the St-Germain fair persisted over the years. In the middle of the 17th century, one of the merchants offered his regular customers, for a few cents, a brand new beverage that came from the East: a cup of coffee. This Armenian owner hired Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a young 22-yr-old man from Palermo, to help him with his business, as the smoking and invigorating black brew was an immediate sensation that had customers lining up. But the young Francesco was ambitious. He had in mind a different goal from serving this suddenly popular beverage in the uncomfortable setting of a fair stall fully exposed to the wind.

The First “Coffee House”

In 1686, Francesco Procopio opened his own coffee house. He paid special attention to its interior design. Tapestries and mirrors lined the walls, while crystal chandeliers lit up marble tables and armchairs where customers could sit comfortably and enjoy the delicious beverage that he served, along with Italian specialties and sweets. He also had the very innovative idea of providing his customers with the daily papers arranged around the stove. Word of the opening of a quiet and refined establishment quickly spread across Paris, and its success was instant. The number of his customers increased tenfold when, in 1689, the “Comédie Française” (a state theater with its own troupe of actors) settled nearby, making the Procope the favorite meeting place of artists and their admirers. There, theater critics ran into each other and compared their impressions right after the shows. There were heated discussions and news exchanges. Reputations were gained or lost. The Procope was always full and became a real center for sharing ideas, whether those of the Age of Enlightenment philosophers or those of the revolutionaries as early as 1789. Later, and probably in a much calmer manner, the poets of the Romantic era would come there to trade their melancholy feelings.

Le Café de Flore

“Le Procope”, at the Crossroad of Ideas

It was at the Procope in 1751 that, following a conversation, Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert decided to create an Encyclopedia that would collect “all the knowledge on the surface of the earth”, so that man could become “more virtuous and happier” thanks to its teachings. They met with Voltaire and other philosophers, and it is quite easy to imagine the passionate nature of the discussions involved to complete a document comprised of 17 volumes of text with 20.8 million words. These men had the modest ambition to enlighten the world, but also to affirm the triumph of learning acquired through knowledge in view of religious obscurantism that aimed to restrict it. And then came the lively conversations between famous revolutionaries Danton, Marat and Camille Desmoulins who also met at the Procope to discuss their desire to change France. It is said that one morning in 1792, as Danton was playing cards, three young revolutionaries entered the café wearing red caps and asked him: “What do you think, Citizen Danton, of this Phrygian cap that Paris (the Trojan) used to wear?” Skeptic and more interested in his game than their ridiculous headgear, Danton answered, “If that hat didn’t fit the shepherd Paris any better than it does you, I doubt that Beautiful Helen would have wanted to follow him to Troy”. He made a misjudgment since the Phrygian cap would become a few days later the symbol of a newly Republican France.

Brasserie Lipp

The Friend of the People and the “Louison”

Located a few steps away from the Procope, the “Cour du Commerce et des Arts” was a very lively place around 1789. At no. 8 was the printing shop where Marat published his paper, “L’Ami du peuple” (“The Friend of the People”). At no. 9 was the workshop of a German carpenter named Schmidt, commissioned to create a machine invented by Doctor Guillotin. Up until then, convicts were sentenced to the gallows, the stake, the wheel, or quartering, depending on their specific crime and above all, their social standing. Indeed, only the convicted prisoners who came from nobility were accorded the privilege of having their head chopped off with an ax. Dr Guillotin came up with a machine that, according to his own explication, had the quality of “making your heads pop off in the blink of an eye” and therefore allowed the person to only feel “a slight coolness on the neck”. The very first tests were conducted on sheep, in the Cour du Commerce. Subsequent tests done on cadavers proved successful and the first real execution using the “Louison” (later called the “Guillotine”) took place on April 25, 1792. The condemned man, accused of theft and late-night assault, was granted the immense privilege of officially christening the device, to the great displeasure of Parisian onlookers who found the execution much too swift and not in the least bit spectacular.

Les Deux Magots

St-Germain’s Three Symbolic Cafés

Another time, another era… by the end of the 19th century, “Le Procope” had once again become a quieter place where Romantic poets and writers mingled. At that time, cafés were fashionable; they were places of exchanges, discussions and meetings. In 1873, another one called “Aux Deux Magots” opened its doors near the St-Germain church. Its name came from the two Chinese statues that had once decorated the old novelty and silk linens shop, as a reference to the country of origin of the fabrics. But “Aux Deux Magots” had to face a competitor established a few years prior, the “Café de Flore”. And at the end of 1880, right across the street, Leonard Lipp, an Alsatian who had refused to become German after the defeat at Sedan and had moved to Paris, got a commercial lease to run a brasserie. His very first customers were students from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, poets and other bohemians. Little by little, the place became (as it still is today) mainly frequented by writers and political figures. At the Brasserie Lipp, it was customary to seat the privileged customers on the ground floor of the restaurant, where mirrors were tilted so that anyone occupying a table could be seen, but mainly so that anyone could see any new arrivals and in particular whether they were political partners or opponents.

Intellectuals in St-Germain

At the beginning of the 20th century, artists settled in Montmartre and while painters remained there, intellectuals migrated to Montparnasse, and then to St-Germain. Any and all intellectual movements mixed in the cafés while the neighborhood experienced a rich literary and artistic life. After WWI, it was good to be alive, and to want to live without constraints. Paris was attractive because it was daring and welcomed all art forms: Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and even that surrealist trend founded by the poet Tristan Tzara, Dadaism. In St-Germain, the “zazous” (young jazz lovers) were quick to shake up the established order and push back the limits of “political correctness”. A wind of freedom was blowing which drew a wave of artists and writers from foreign countries. Jews were fleeing ghettos, Russians were fleeing the revolution, and Americans were fleeing the Prohibition. St-Germain lived to the rhythm of three cafés: Aux Deux Magots, Café de Flore, and Brasserie Lipp. The greatest French philosophers and poets gathered there: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Prévert and Boris Vian (“I shall spit on your graves”, 1946). Then WWII broke out, and 1942 was a difficult year. The cold, along with a lack of coal and electricity, caused people to congregate in cafés. Simone de Beauvoir always arrived first to get the best seat, next to the stove. Sartre chose the Café de Flore because he claimed to enjoy the stove, the subway close by, and also the absence of Germans.

Swinging at Saint-Germain

St-Germain is swinging!

Before the war, the young French discovered jazz on the radio with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. This music borrowed from African Americans was a symbol of freedom for the French youth, and this feeling was so intense in their minds that the Germans censored jazz during the Occupation. The young Boris Vian, exempt from serving in the army due to a heart condition, fooled his enemy by playing trumpet and organizing parties with his two brothers, also musicians, while waiting for better days. And when these better days finally arrived, the liberated youth had but one urge, that to make life an endless celebration. Jazz was there to accompany this desire for frivolity and looseness after years of turmoil. Boris Vian and his friends would meet in the cellar of a bar in St-Germain, “Le Tabou” (The Taboo). Similar cellars where the youth piled in to play jazz, or dance to bebop, grew in numbers and remained jam-packed. The St-Germain-des-Prés young ones resisted through music the moralistic rigidity of the 1950s, while Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir introduced jazz and the wind of freedom it evoked to the literary circles.

An Invitation to Travel…

To visit the St-Germain-des-Prés area and recognize these mythical places that bore witness to some of the greatest chapters in the history of France and of our civilization provides intense feelings of happiness. When you next find yourself in Paris, don’t forget to have lunch at the “Procope”, to have a drink at “Aux Deux Magots”, at the “Café de Flore”, and at the “Brasserie Lipp”. Imagine yourself in the place of Diderot, the creator of the Encyclopedia, the philosopher Voltaire or the revolutionary Danton. St-Germain is probably the Parisian neighborhood that can claim the richest past, one where history and creativity have been intertwining for centuries.