September 02, 2023

Paris, France

Paris, France

Source: Bigstock

GSTAAD—A reader’s inquiry as to why I think Paris was yesterday has me remembering times past. When did the party end? According to the point of view of many night owls, the party ended when the Queen of the Night, Regine, shut down “New Jimmy’s” and moved to London, where she flopped. Boring accountant types believe it was “les événements de soixante-huit,” the student-worker revolt against de Gaulle, that did Paris in. Anyway one looks at it, the events of 1968 signaled the party’s over, and it has stayed over ever since.

Mind you, the high jinks had been waning for some time. I had first arrived in Paris as a tennis player in 1957 but moved permanently to the City of Light on Nov. 11, 1958, Poppy Day. The place was jumping. It was rich and brightly lit, and the people were prosperous. Sure, the frogs were frogs—xenophobic, ungenerous, suspicious, and intellectually superior—but the city was full of foreigners, rich foreigners out to enjoy themselves. Everyone gravitated to Montparnasse, where Le Dome, La Rotondem, and the Select were open all night, their large ceiling-to-floor mirrors and bordello-red interiors a welcome sight after boozing all night at very dark New Jimmy’s a block down the street.

“The unreliability of memory screens out the boring and pedestrian, and only the jollity and delight remain.”

The unreliability of memory screens out the boring and pedestrian, and only the jollity and delight remain. But Paris back then really suited; its sensual atmosphere was perfection, the Parisian women’s sexuality even more so. And here’s another thing: When one’s young, the ordinariness of people one encounters does not register as it does later on. What youth rates as exceptional, maturity denigrates to mediocre.

Back then, the rowdy orgy of late capitalism didn’t exist. Nor did the hostility one feels in today’s nightclubs, mainly in the Bagel. Paris sizzled immediately after the First World War because the cities were not destroyed. Thousands of Americans arrived in order to have a good time for very little money, including Papa Hemingway, the Murphys, the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and so on. After World War II, although the city was not blown up thanks to General von Choltitz ignoring the Führer’s orders, there was no food or heat in the city until the early ’50s. Real high life began in the mid-’50s and went on until 1968.

The cultural cocktail that worked its Parisian magic included American expatriates like authors James (From Here to Eternity) Jones and Irwin (The Young Lions) Shaw, tennis great Budge Patty, aesthete Jimmy Douglas, Dominican playboy and diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa, Greek shipowners Stavros Niarchos and Ari Onassis, South American tycoons and art patrons Arturo Lopez and Antenor Patino, and Jimmy Goldsmith, along with a myriad of Chilean and Argentine polo players. I was lucky to be almost instantly befriended by Rubirosa, known at the time as the greatest playboy of all time. His house, just west of St. Cloud, was a marvel of luxury and good taste—and a 10-minute ride to the polo club of Bagatelle. Rubi, as everyone called him, had such a compelling personality, half the polo players and playboys in Paris spoke and acted like him. In the spring of 1959 he asked me to move to his and his fifth wife Odile’s house. The reason was sport and fun. We’d box in the ring he had upstairs before breakfast—Rubi decreed no hitting him in the nose or mouth—then have breakfast on the side of the vast lawn, followed by a drive to Bagatelle, where we’d work the ponies and stick and ball. He was a five handicap, I never made it past two. Then we’d lunch at Le Relais, on Avenue Montaigne, and I’d go to the Racing Club in the Bois and play tennis with various French Davis Cuppers. Rubi would either visit Madame Claude on Rue Marignan or hit a flick on the Champs-Elysée. He’d pick me up from the tennis and after a good dinner at home with his many guests, we’d hit New Jimmy’s.

French society back then had opened up; everyone knew each other and anyone with good manners and better looks was welcome. Andre Dubonnet, of that Dubonnet, once told me that to beguile and to be mischievous was more important than one’s ancestry. I was 22 years old and took it all in. The nightly visits to New Jimmy’s were the highlights. Behind a shiny black door on Avenue Montparnasse, Regine’s sister would look through a spy hole and click you in. One would pass a second inspection from the left, where Françoise Sagan, author of the bestseller Bonjour Tristesse at 18 years of age, would sit surrounded by gay American men and young French lesbians. The rest was straight out of a 1930s German film: dark, shadowy, and smoky, the only missing link being an absent Peter Lorre.

Young French aristocrats like the Montesquieu sisters, the Ganay boys, the Francombe girls, and Christina and Francois de Caraman were regulars. And then there were the balls, great affairs where only la crème de la crème were invited, the Rochambeau ball at their château, the Agnelli one at the Bois de Boulogne, the Rothschild one at Ferrières, and the Rede blast on the Îsle Saint-Louis.

Then came 1968. The streets turned into battlegrounds, and Irwin Shaw told me if I wished to write to head for Vietnam or the Middle East. I followed his advice. I’ve been back to Paris many times, but Paris REALLY was yesterday.


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