If you could pick one bygone era to travel back in time to witness and participate in, which one would you choose? I was having this conversation with friends recently and the responses were interesting. One friend chose Colonial America; she’s a constitutional lawyer and would love to have witnessed the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the framing of the Constitution. Another friend picked Atlantic City during the Probition Era. She’s a die-hard Jersey girl and a fan of most anything having to do with gin, dancing, and mischief.
I know mine, hands down. Paris during the Jazz Age. I imagine a Paris of bob haircuts, low-waisted gowns, and noisy cars filled with ex-pats on their way to horse races, night clubs and salons. I’d visit Paris in any decade, really. But what I wouldn’t give to hang out in Paris at Les Deux Magots and witness the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald! To see the Sixth Arrondissement – its narrow streets like the Rue Mouffetard – before they were trendy. Back when the Left Bank was the home of aspiring artists because it was the place where rent was affordable.
The public imagination seems to be similarly enthralled with that period lately. My Jazz Age kick was first fueled by reading Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife, which I would highly recommend. What was particularly fun was reading that book in conjunction with A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s own description of those years with his first wife, Hadley, in Paris. His is the original novel upon which McClain based much of her research and writing. I should have read it a while ago, but, better late than never.
The other night, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris came on television and a friend and I watched it for the umpteenth time. One cool life event that has happened since first watching that movie and reading these books is that I’ve had the chance to go back to Paris and visit some of the spots covered in them (thank you, Ernest Hemingway Walking Tour). So, for instance, the stone steps where Owen Wilson sits at midnight, listening to the church bells as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s car rolls up, those are the steps of St. Etienne Church, just across from the Pantheon. And the bistro where Owen Wilson goes to eat with Ernest Hemingway, that is the Polidor, on Rue le Prince.
And thanks to Hemingway’s own mention of many of his favorite haunts and the addresses of his old apartments, you are able to visit the Hemingways’ former neighborhoods and see the same cafes in which Hemingway describes eating oysters and drinking champagne. It’s a neat exercise to walk those steps, knowing the history that took place there before you.