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I view life as a fortuitous collaboration ascribable to the fact that one finds oneself in the right place at the right time. For us, the "right place" was the famous "Beat Hotel" in Paris, roughly from 1958 to 1963. Brion Gysin, The Third Mind
In the 1950s the Left Bank, or Latin Quarter, was to Paris what Soho was to London, Greenwich Village was to New York, and North Beach was to San Francisco: an inexpensive central neighborhood where writers and artists could meet and spend their nights talking or drinking, where basic accommodation was cheap and the local people were tolerant of the antics of youth. The maze of small streets between the Blvd St. Germain and the river Seine housed dozens of small, low-priced residential hotels, home to many of the students from the nearby Sorbonne. The University of Paris was seven hundred years old and it was a long-established tradition for students to live in small hotels in the surrounding streets. There were also art students and models from the Ecole des Beaux Arts on the quai Augustins as well as many established artists whose ateliers were tucked away in small courtyards and side streets, recognizable bytheir north-facing skylights. Bohemians and students lived side by side with a large working-class population of old-time city dwellers, the true Parisians who filled the food markets on the rue de Buci or the covered market at Mabillon each morning and returned home with their produce long before the young bohemians had even sipped the first coffee of the day.
Inexpensive and run-down, the area around the rue Saint Severin was a traditional center for clochards-tramps, bums-who once had a street of their own, the rue de Brevre, in the days when the area near Place Maubert was frequented by boatmen and tawsers. In the '50s there were an estimated 10,000 such folk in Paris, both men and women, sleeping under bridges, on manhole covers in the public squares, wrapped in rags, warmed by the sewer heal, lying huddled against the exhaust vents of the Metro where the stale warm air was expelled.
The Latin Quarter was an area of dusty used bookshops, avant-garde art galleries, antiques shops, dealers in ethnological artifacts, and the tiny cramped offices of radical publishing houses and small presses specializing in experimental literature and the arts. Along the Seine the booksellers displayed tattered prints and well-thumbed books in boxes clamped to the river wall, which could be locked shut at night. All around the rue de Seine and Place St. Michel there were bookshops that featured titles in Surrealism, 'Pataphysics, medicine, the occult, alchemy, and Asian mysticism. These were sometimes hidden in courtyards or on the higher floors of buildings, known only to aficionados.
There were artists' cafes, like the Palette, where one could meet a gallery owner to plan a show, hire a model, or buy drugs. There were dozens of inexpensive restaurants such as the Cafe des Arts on the rue de Seine where art students sat in rows on benches; there was just one fixed-price three-course menu, and all the red wine you could drink stood in liter flagons on the bare wooden refectory tables. One cafe, Chez Raton, was so small that the bread was kept in baskets hanging from ropes above the tables and you had to wind them down to get some. Chez Jean, in a passageway off Blvd St. Germain, was one of the few restaurants in Paris to still have sawdust on the floor. Sometimes a cellist or guitarist played there. It was full of tough characters but the bohemian crowd liked to gather there too, and an uneasy truce was maintained. There were many cheap Chinese, Vietnamese, and North African restaurants in the neighborhood, particularly around Place Maubert and the rue de la Huchette. Each night Blvd St. Germain was the scene of the greatest promenade in Paris as people made their way from Place Maubert to Place St. Germain des Pres and back again, past the grand cafes: the Brasserie Lipp, the Cafe aux Deux Magots, the Cafe de Flore, filled with existentialists and wealthy tourists watching and being watched. Some promenaders would stop off at the Pergola just behind the Mabillon Metro station, which had a 500 fr menu and was open all night. It was the principal gathering place for male and female homosexuals. Some of the young men wore lipstick and powder, and some of the more masculine women dressed as men. The Pergola also attracted the late-night student crowd, including many residents from the Beat Hotel, two streets away.
The Beat Hotel was located at 9, rue Git-le-Coeur, a narrow medieval lane running down to the Seine from the rue St. Andre des Arts to the quai Augustins in the oldest part of the Latin Quarter. In the thirteenth century the street was called rue de Gilles-le-Queux or Guy-le-Queux (Guy the cuisinier, or cook). It was known also as rue Guy-le-Preux. Over the centuries this transformed into Git-le-Coeur, which Brion Gysin claimed was a pun on the street name made in the early seventeenth century by Henri IV, the first Bourbon King of France, whose mistress lived on the street. The King passed by one day and remarked "Ici git mon coeur" ("Here lies my heart"). Like many of Gysin's stories, it is probably untrue, but it sounds just fine.
An alternate story, found in Nichol's Guide to Paris, claims that the street name commemorates the murder of Etienne Marcel, Provost of the Merchants and one of the fathers of Paris. On the night of July 31, 1358, he was assassinated in this street by Jean Maillart, a mercenary in the pay of the Dauphin Charles; the word git means "lies," as on a tombstone inscription: "ci-git," or "there lies."
As in many of the old lanes in this quarter, the buildings are four stories high, usually leaning out over the street on the ground floor, then sloping quite steeply back away from the street on the three higher floors. Numbers 5, 7, and 9 were built in the late sixteenth century, originally encompassing the mansion of Pierre Seguier, marquis d'O, which later belonged to the Duc de Luynes, the uncle of Racine. In 1933 Monsieur and Madame M. L. Rachou, a provincial couple from Giverny, near Rouen, northwest of Paris, bought number 9 to run as a hotel. Brion Gysin, who became very friendly with Madame Rachou during the years he lived at the hotel, said that they had only the gerance, or management, of the hotel and did not own it, which is very probable as it is hard to imagine how the couple could have found the money to buy such a large building. Monsieur Rachou, acting as janitor and bellhop, was a huge, silent man, slow and patient with his guests. Madame was tiny and energetic, her short arms habitually folded over her pale blue housecoat with its round smocked collar-the sort that workingwomen wore throughout the nineteenth century, except on Sundays. She ran the small bistro on the ground floor and registered the guests.
The Rachous enjoyed the company of artists and writers and encouraged them to stay at the hotel. Madame Rachou would sometimes allow artists to pay with paintings, none of which she kept, not thinking for one moment that they would ever be valuable. Her affection for artists stemmed from her youth, when, at the age of twelve, she began working in a country inn at Giverny only a short walk from Monet's studio. After a morning's work on a series of paintings of grain sacks or haystacks, Monet would stroll down to the inn to have lunch with his old friend Camille Pissarro. Madame Rachou once asked Brion Gysin, "And what became of his son, the young M'sieu Pissarro?" Brion did not know but told her that there was a big retrospective of Pissarro's paintings on at that very moment in Paris and offered to take her, but she was too busy with the hotel for such distractions.
Madame tended the bar and her name, J. B. Rachou, was painted on its glass door in the slanting calligraphic hand of an old-fashioned master sign painter. The Rachous never gave the hotel a name, preferring instead simply to label the entrances: above the left-hand door was a sign HOTEL and above the glass door and front of the cafe: CAFE VINS LIQUEURS, which was enough. For twenty-four years, through the Occupation and the hard months after Liberation, when food and fuel were even more scarce than they were under the Germans, they kept the hotel open, although the couple was barely able to make a living.
Then in September 1957, Monsieur Rachou was killed in an automobile accident in the town of St. Germain, just outside Paris. The Rachous had recently bought a secondhand Citroen DS, and Monsieur Rachou had driven out to the country to collect some friends and drive them back to the hotel for a Sunday lunch. In St. Germain a car had run into him at a crossing, killing him and seriously injuring his four friends. Madame Rachou was devastated but she had little choice but to carry on. A hotel, of course, cannot be neglected for more than a few days.
Because she was so small, Madame had to stand upon an upturned wine case behind the traditional zinc-topped bar in the bistro in order to serve. There were lace curtains at the wide glass window and several spindly aspidistra plants, their bladelike leaves always brown at the ends. The bistro had a cracked tiled floor with three marble-topped tables on slender cast-iron legs where she served breakfast of coffee and croissants. This was not included in the rent, it was not that sort of hotel; the 40 centimes for a coffee had to be paid on the spot.
She served large, inexpensive lunches of cassoulet or rabbit stew but after the death of her husband she no longer opened the dining room in the back except for occasional private parties for police lieutenants and other fonctionnaires. This was a class 13 hotel, the lowest on the scale, which meant it had to meet the minimum legal health and safety requirements and that was all. After the war, as part of the same clean-up of Paris that had closed the brothels, many of the small class 13 hotels in the neighborhood had been hoarded up by the police for contravening long-ignored regulations. This was one of the reasons there were so many clochards on the streets. Madame Rachou, however, had been on good terms with the police since before the Occupation and intended to keep it that way.
She was a classic concierge. From her perch on the oversize wine box she could monitor her domain: the narrow hotel hallway to her right was visible through a paneled glass door and her back dining room, separated from the bar by a curtain, had a window facing the stairs that showed the legs of anyone coming in or out-ideal for grabbing the ankle of a welching lodger attempting to sneak out. Next to the hall doorway, facing the bar, was Madame's control panel of electrical switches; the number of the corresponding room was identified by a small enamel plaque. Above each was a small flashlight bulb that glowed when the light in that room was turned on. Each room was supplied with 40 watts, just enough for a dim 25-watt lightbulb and a radio or record player. The electrical system was archaic: it was extremely sensitive and periodically plunged everyone into darkness if someone overloaded the circuit. When a bulb flared on her control panel Madame knew that someone was using an illicit hot plate and would rush upstairs to confront the offender. The power could be increased to 60 watts but naturally there was a small surcharge for this service. Rather than pay the extra, most residents cooked on small two-burner gas or oil stoves, which they'd bought themselves. The gas stoves ran on individual meters and Madame always seemed to choose the most inconvenient time to arrive in the company of the meter reader.
The forty-two rooms had no carpets or telephones. Some were very dark, as their windows looked out onto the stairwell inside the building and so received only indirect lighting from the grimy landing windows. The corridors sloped at strange angles and the floors creaked and groaned. The ancient wooden doors had a handle in the middle instead of the side. Each landing had a Turkish chiotte: a traditional hole-in-the-floor toilet with a raised footprint-shaped platform on either side upon which to position your feet while you squatted. Torn sheets of newspaper hung on a nail in lieu of toilet tissue, though many residents bought their own and carried it with them. There was a bath on the ground floor but advance notice had to be given so that the water for it could be heated. Naturally there was a small surcharge for this service. Brion Gysin maintained that if you put your head under the water in the bath, you could hear the gurgling of the Bievre, the underground river that enters the Seine a few blocks east of the rue Git-le-Coeur, across from Notre Dame-a claim he enlarged upon in his novel The Last Museum. Like everything else in the building, the plumbing was ancient, and it was consequently subject to backups, clankings, fiercely loud vibrations, and leaks. There was radiator heat all week and hot water only on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
The curtains and bedspreads were washed and changed each spring, and the bed linen a little more frequently-in theory, at the beginning of each month. After the death of Monsieur Rachou, Madame employed a janitor, Monsieur Dupres, who occasionally wandered through the hotel with the apparent intention of cleaning the rooms and making the beds. He was often accompanied by a collection of small children and, like Madame, inevitably chose just the wrong moment to walk into a room. Some of the walls were very thin, little more than hardboard partitions, and sound traveled in mysterious ways, sometimes blaring from the waste pipe in the sink.
The front door was never locked or controlled, but Madame Rachou had an uncanny, almost clairvoyant knowledge of everything that went on both in the hotel and in the street outside. She could "hear" trouble-a strange footstep, an unusual creak-and was able to materialize at the door to protect her residents from creditors, con men, or occasional visits from the police. No matter what time of night, she would appear stone-faced in her white nightgown: "Monsieur? Que voulez-vous?" Not even the police were a match for Madame. In 1962, during the Algerian crisis, a spotty-faced young flic (cop) was on duty across the street, guarding the house of an ex-police chief on the OAS (Organisation Armee Secrete) death list who was expecting a bomb or assassin's knife at any moment.
Excerpted from The Beat Hotel by Barry Miles Copyright © 2000 by Barry Miles. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||9, rue Git-le-Coeur||8|
|6||Ports of Entry||142|
|7||Through the Magic Mirror||160|
|10||Fade Out in Gray Room||259|
Posted July 10, 2009
A piece I wrote about Jack Kerouac was recently published in Blue Moon Literary & Art Review, an up and coming Davis, California journal. After a reading event, a Kerouac fan gave me a copy of THE BEAT HOTEL by Barry Miles. Read this book if you have interest in the Beats, especially their intense relationships with their contemporaries. Some of the material is a retelling of accounts, much will add to your knowledge about these multifaceted writers. Barry Miles has studied the Beat generation for 30+ years. This is not his first book about them. I hope that it won't be his last.
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