Why Paris is forgetting Ernest Hemingway
- 2 September 2014
- From the section Magazine
American writer Ernest Hemingway had close links with Paris. He first lived there in 1920 and played a marginal, much-mythologised, role in the 1944 liberation of the city. But now, 70 years on, memories of the author are starting to fade.
Twenty years ago when I first started reporting from Paris, a story on Hemingway would have been so corny that you would have got short shrift from any editor had you ever had the gall to suggest it.
Paris was full of Hemingway wannabes - young people just out of university sitting dreamily in cafes and struggling to get their prose more muscular.
There were guided tours round the sites - his homes on the Left Bank and the Shakespeare and Company bookshop.
No self-respecting acolyte would be seen on the street without a copy of Hemingway's magisterial memoir of Paris in the 1920s, published posthumously under the title A Moveable Feast.
The commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris from the Germans brought it all back, because August 1944 was in fact one of the most celebrated episodes in the Hemingway legend.
Already famous for his books, he was working as a correspondent attached to the American 5th Infantry Division, which was south-west of Paris in the town of Rambouillet.
Here, in flagrant breach of the Geneva Conventions governing war reporting, Hemingway set up as a kind of mini warlord. His hotel room was full of grenades and uniforms, and he had command of a band of Free French fighters who reconnoitred the approach to Paris and provided information to the Allied armies.
On 25 August 1944, the day of the German surrender, he entered Paris with the Americans from the west. With battle smoke marking the skyline, he careered down the Champs-Elysees to the Travellers Club - still there today, next to Abercrombie and Fitch - and ordered a bottle of champagne.
He and his band of brothers then drove through celebrating crowds to the Ritz hotel - also still there - where Princess Diana spent her last hours. The hotel was empty apart from the manager, a man called Ausiello, who politely acceded to their request for 50 martini cocktails.
The Ritz plays a big part in the Hemingway story, because in the mid-1950s when he was staying there on another visit, staff remembered that there were two mouldering trunks in the basement which he had left for safekeeping back in 1928.
Inside were manuscripts and mementoes from his first years in Paris, when after his brief and heroic stint as an ambulance driver on the Italian Front in World War One, he had come back to Europe in search of literary adventure.
This is the period that came to epitomise the romantic ideal of the young writer, basking in the freedom of his youth, his hopes and the newness of his surroundings.
With a stout pair of legs you can seek out the Hemingway hang-outs. Probably the most evocative is the third floor flat at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, just behind the Pantheon, which is where he first lived with his young wife Hadley.
In his memoir, he remembers the hole-in-the-floor toilets on each landing, with concrete footmarks to prevent you from slipping. Then there was the goat-herder who came by with his flock selling milk, and the noise from the dancing in the cafes below. Today it is still a noisy, boozy quarter.
From here you can follow the path he takes in one of his chapters, down past the Pantheon to Boulevard Saint-Michel, and then to the cafe at the Place Saint-Michel - which is the place he came to write when it was cold.
"I was writing about up in Michigan," he says, "and since it was a wild, cold, blowing sort of day, it was that sort of day in the story."
He sees a pretty girl, and he wishes he could put her in his story. "I've seen you beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for… you belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil."
This is the kind of stuff that used to set young writerly hearts racing. I guess - I hope - it still does. Though I do have the distinct feeling that, as with everything in this life, Hemingway-mania is now beginning to slip into the past.
The walking tours don't draw the crowds. Visiting students have younger heroes now.
Something, though, from that period - Paris in the 1920s - won't ever go away. It was a "moveable feast", a glorious time that afterwards stayed with Hemingway wherever he went.
Even today, when you see - as you sometimes do - a young solitary dreamer staring through a rain-streaked Paris cafe window, pencil in mouth, you're catching a distant echo from that once-lived heaven.
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