Dreaming in Montparnasse

On the Boulevard of Sunlit Winter Terraces

Traffic is light on the boulevard,
so the taxi runs into the scooter,
or the other way around, in front of La Coupole.
Paris, Wednesday, 24. January 1996:- Since they added a couple of floors above La Coupole across the boulevard, the winter sun doesn't blast into Le Select like it used to. Standing at the bar, the enclosed terrace is still bright and warmly lit and the roof of the terrace is low enough so that La Coupole looks pretty much like it used to.

During a pause in the traffic on the boulevard, there are no cars or buses - then you can think it is 1926 and if that is what it is, who might walk in the door?

During the summer season that year, 900 ocean liners left New York for Cherbourg. A good number of the passengers who got off the boat train at the Gare St Lazare, took taxis straight to Montparnasse. I doubt whether many of those visitors remain; just as many of the bars and cafes where they whiled away that summer have long since disappeared - Le Jockey, La Cigogne with its 'attractions' and dancing, Le Strix, Le Jungle with its 'blues', Le Vikings, Le College Inn, Le Parnasse Bar, Le Kosmos... And, Dingo at10, rue Delambre - "This must be the place!"

For dreaming, one bar is as good as another, but Le Select's is more inspiring than most.
I am standing at the bar in Le Select. When it opened in 1925, it was the first bar in Montparnasse to be open all night, and it had Welsh 'Rarebit' on the menu, a sort of 'Big Mac' of the 20's. When I first walked in through the door of the terrace in 1976, it looked like it still does today, so I will assume Welsh 'Rarebit' is still on the menu. If so, it will be neither Welsh nor rabbit.

La Coupole, which opened its doors 20 December 1927, and ran out of champagne after 1200 bottles had been consumed; stayed open while the modern new building was built around and on top it a few years ago. The 'American Bar' that used to be on the left, separated by a flimsy wall from the dining room with the five metre-high ceiling, has lost its separation and intimacy; now being a vulgar view-point for diners waiting for tables. In the '20's, using first names was common in Montparnasse, and so was sitting down at any empty place.

Whole tables available on the terrace of Le Dôme, not like 70 years ago.

A few meters away, at the Vavin intersection, where the boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail cross, Le Dôme and La Rotonde are still standing. I wonder what the view of Le Dôme is like from inside La Rotonde, because it is one I haven't been in - but Le Dôme is on the south, shadow side - and I think its glory is up close. Given a choice, I'd rather look at the Dôme, so I must try La Rotonde someday. A few blocks further east, La Closerie des Lilas, slumbers on after its heyday as an artist's and writer's bar in the early years of the century.

If you come to any of the places that are left from that time, you are going to have to bring your imagination with you - as I do. Montparnasse, once, "This must be the place!" - is not. The ocean liners that plied the Atlantic in each others' wakes are gone. The Crash of '29 emptied the terraces seemingly forever.

On the rue Delambre side of Le Dôme, advertisments for the fish inside.

A good deal of what is left from that time fills museums and galleries around the world as well as those in Paris - but these artifacts are probably but pale and watery souvenirs, of one of the greatest and longest 'street' parties of any time, anywhere; the party that was Montparnasse from 1890 to 1930.

Sure it was a long time ago, but on a winter afternoon with the sun hitting the terrace of Le Select, my mind slides back... 70 years. Who might come in the door?

I can imagine Flossie Martin, Jimmy Charters - barman at the Dingo, Per Krohg, May Ray, Pascin, Thora Dardel, Berthe Weill, Foujita and Youki, Joan Miró, Robert Desnos, Ernest Hemingway, Moïse and Renée Kisling, Irene Zurkinden, Robert McAlmon, Alexander Calder, Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, Max Ernst, Serge Diaghilev, Sylvia Beach, Jean Cocteau, Amedeo Modigliani, Paulette Jourdain, Gaby Depeyre... And Pablo Picasso, among a very few.

Painters, poets, artists, models, dealers, journalists, writers, photographers, girlfriends, sculptors, dancers, tourists, gallery owners, odd characters, wives, and waiters.

My elbow may be resting on the same bar as they leaned on; squinting at the same winter sun on the same terrace, in Montparnasse. All yours too, for the price of a café and a bit of imagination.

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