Paris in My Youth
Little changed in Paris between the World Wars: when I first went there sidewalk cafes still adorned the Champs Elysees, as they had when composers Igor Stravinsky and George Gershwin waved from tables to their strolling friends.
The dawn ride through Montmartre’s winding alleys stuffed with early opening bakeries remained from the years that artists Pierre-August Renoir, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso found inspiration. At the top – and the reason for my trip – the Sacred Heart (Sacre Coeur) dominated the mountain’s top. I watched the sun rise up through the darkness; my view was not encumbered by the Nazis’ barbed wire that sought to contain Resistance assaults that never came.
But there was little traffic; wartime rationing of gas remained in effect. The grand boulevards and side alleys were eerily silent compared to Gershwin’s “American in Paris” when a taxi horn’s honk clearly established the city. My hotel was built in time for the famous exposition that unveiled the Eiffel Tower that ever since 1891 has proclaimed the city to the world. The Continental Hotel, where I stopped several times, rose up on one side of the Place de la Concorde, where “Madame la Guillotine” severed several royal heads during the revolution.
In the Paris of my youth, long before the German Mercedes Benz star replaced a sidewalk café in the Champs, history was inescapable. My romantic side caused me to buy tickets for Jean-Louis Barrault’s very Gallic “Hamlet” and the Paris Opera’s “Othello.”I hauled recent Wellesley graduate Suzie Bennett to hear Charles Trenet, who’s recording of “la Mer (Beyond the Sea)” was a great hit on my American Forces Network show.
Woody Allen has captured the mood I found. “Midnight in Paris” is his best film, in my view. Owen Wilson is the antithesis of the cinema auteur’s hero; he’s not neurotic or filled with angst. Rachel McAdams is the sexiest I’ve ever seen. Last caught as Edith Piaf, Marion Cottilard’s bewitching model for the 1920s’ most distinguished artists bewitches actor Wilson’s would-be novelist and nostalgia buff, of course.
The movie’s title comes out of how a mysterious ancient taxi appears at that hour when midnight bells ring. On the first occasion F. Scott Fitzgerald jumps out the door to invite the hero along; wife Zelda’s inside. They’re going to a party where Cole Porter sits at the piano and belts his words to “Let’s Do It.” Ernest Hemingway is a guest who picks him the next midnight to meet Gertrude Stein; Salvador Dali introduces himself, mustache and all.
The scenes are filmed in such a way that Paris is not better, in reality. I enjoyed bathing in the virtual reality; the City of Lights has simply never looked as splendid. As lagniappe, France’s gorgeous First Lady Carla Bruni appears as a guide to the Rodin Museum.
On the other hand, if you don’t at least recognize the names that I grew up respecting, “Midnight in Paris” will probably not work for you.
930WFMD’s Bob Miller and I talk about Paris in my youth on his show this morning. Listen in, sometime shortly after 8:45 A.M.