Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Memories of Paris.
In 1958 I found that my grandfather had left in his will money for my higher education at a European University. At the time, I was living in Athens, Greece with my family, finishing high school and preparing for a future life of adventure.
My father insisted that I should be attending law school or medical school in either a French or British university. At the time, I was fully tri-lingual (Greek-French-English) and university studies in those languages did not faze me. But the problem was… I did not wish to be either a doctor or a lawyer.
What I really wanted to do was to be an artist, a painter, and Paris was my target.
So… I agreed that France would be where I would go for higher studies and, since one of my father’s younger brothers had graduated from Grenoble University as a tropical diseases epidemiologist, I too would go to Grenoble.
I spent almost three months in Grenoble.
At the time, after the first couple months of theoretical studies, a dissection with a full corpse was scheduled at the main auditorium. We were cautioned that if any of the students passed out, they would be advised that medicine was not a field to pursue. I passed out!
So, I was refunded the balance of my tuition – to attend the university a full year’s tuition had to be prepaid – and, money in hand, I headed for Paris.
I enrolled at the École des Arts Décoratifs as a full time art student to study composition and painting.
Paris might be called “The City of Lights” but to me, Paris was “The City of Hope and Great Expectations.” When I was younger Paris was a dream for such a long time that when I’m finally living there, it did not feel real.
For a couple of months I had been staying at the Hôtel America, on Rue Geoffroy Marie, the street that leads to the entrance of the Folies Bergère. It was a cheap 2-star hotel and the room next to mine on the fourth floor was occupied by the “hooker on duty” which led to many sleepless nights as the iron bed’s headboard in her room kept banging on the wall that separated her room from mine; and she was a very active prostitute with many customers.
I would get up early in the morning, have a chocolate croissant and café au lait for breakfast in a little coffee shop around the corner and then take the metro to the school.
After lunch at a nearby Rive Gauche bistro, I would return to the last class and then scoot to Le Mistral bookstore on the Left Bank, across from the Notre Dame Cathedral. It was a famous and favorite meeting place for American and British writers, poets, agents, publishers, journalists and everyone who was anyone in the English-speaking literary community. It had the largest English-language collection of titles than any other Parisian bookstore.
One could spend unrestricted time among the bookshelves reading books without having to buy them. There were also couches and deep armchairs where one could sit and read or take a snooze if one needed it. I was hoping to meet there Henry Miller whose Tropic of Cancer had greatly influenced me or Anaïs Nin, whose work I also enjoyed.
I met neither but, as luck would have it I met Maurice Girodias publisher and grand guru of Olympia Press; a curious blend of ultra-sophisticated avant-garde literary entrepreneur and pornographer and alleged skinflint. Through him I was introduced to such American luminaries as Greg Corso, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg – whom I disliked from the first moment I met. But Greg was closer to my age than the others, was kind, and was instrumental in me getting an even less expensive room at the run-down rooming house of Mme. Rachou where they all lived. Hot water was available Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The hotel had a single bathtub on the ground floor used by every resident, providing we reserved the time beforehand and paid the surcharge for hot water. There were communal toilets at the end of each corridor. There were sinks in every room. The linen was supposedly changed every month.
Most of the denizens of “The Beat Hotel,” as the Parisian home of the Beatnik writers and poets was christened, were an extremely interesting group that eventually became icons of American literature; but no one believed it could possibly happen at the time except for themselves. Most of the “hotel” residents were American expats fleeing the conformity and censorship of America but there were also a few Brits, two or three of Russian descent, an Italian composer and a variety of friends, lovers and hangers-on living in exquisite squalor; yet they were producing literary and artistic masterpieces fueled by sex, Pastis, cheap Beaujolais, Benzedrine and other legal and illegal stimulants and narcotics. Ginsberg's "Kaddish" and "To Aunt Rose;" Greg's “The Happy Birthday of Death” and Burroughs's “Naked Lunch” later fleshed in Tangier, were all birthed at Chez Rachou’s.
There was a bistro on the ground floor and, when we were flush, we would sit and swap tales at the bar sipping the least expensive Cognac or Pastis. If someone got an advance for a book or a payment for newspaper or magazine articles in London or the States, we all celebrated by ordering salty peanuts or almonds with our drinks that the lucky recipient paid for.
Some had smuggled hot plates to their rooms. Mme Rachou frowned on such devises using “her” electricity that she had to pay for. But she was a very kind, motherly woman with blue hair that believed her residents were all undiscovered literary or art giants and she was sure all of us would eventually be known as the artistic geniuses she knew we were.
I was the youngest resident and still going to art school.
While almost everyone else slept until later in the morning, I had to get up and prepare for my daily routine. Art history, sketching class, live-model painting, visit to the Louvre or another art museum or well established painter’s studio, more sketching, more live-model painting or perhaps a visit to the Bois de Boulogne for landscape painting.
Later in the afternoon - after the end of classes - back to Le Mistral or Chez Popov at Rue de la Huchette. Chez Popov was a notorious café that was a hangout for artistic types and sold a slightly better Beaujolais than many other Left Bank joints. The café generally closed its doors at about seven p.m. However, if you were friendly with le patron and his wife, who was in charge of the kitchen, you would be allowed to stay until much later in the back room that during the day was used to serve food to the café’s patrons and in the evening, after closing, became the Popov’s living room. I frequented that place because a couple of Russian women writers hang out there drinking Pastis or Vodka. I was after the youngest of them in the hope she would give me a tumble, since they were well known for one-night-stands.
I’m prowling around Paris. I aimlessly wander about, arrondissement after arrondissement exploring the city. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. Perhaps I’m hoping that the gargoyles of Notre Dame will actually come to life and devour the imbeciles that dominate this town. I love Paris and I hate it all at the same time... but I mostly love it.
When my funds got low, one of the other residents introduced me to night work at Les Halles, the Parisian Central Food Market unloading frozen lamb and beef carcasses between midnight and three in the morning. I then sometimes ate at Chez la Vieille, a bistro nearby where locals ate from l'ardoise, i.e. the blackboard menu that showed all the dishes cooked for the day. That’s where I became addicted to cuisine bourgeois. Since then, I’ve loved the Parisian bistro classics.
But it was also at that time that I decided to try my hand at my own cooking. Tati (Tatiana) one of the Russian girls that lived in the “hotel” gave me her hot plate, a saucepan and a tea kettle as she was moving-in with her latest lover and would not need them; and there it was where I made for the first time my infamous Frankfurter Soup. It included sautéed garlic and onion slices, chopped celery, cubed tomato and cilantro and wieners cut-up in 2 inch lengths. After these ingredients were starting to brown, elbow macaroni and water were added plus salt, pepper and sweet paprika and the “soup” would boil for 12 to 15 minutes, until the pasta was cooked. It was served in inexpensive but very decorative Chinese bowls sporting a blue dragon.
In Paris, every meal seems to start with a soup. It might be onion soup, tomato soup, asparagus soup, vichyssoise… it doesn’t matter. One thing I miss is the charcoal grilled lamb chops I grew up eating in Athens. Somehow French lamb chops don’t taste the same as Greek chops; is there more lamb fat on them or less? Perhaps the French cooks don’t use the same wood or charcoal to grill the chops. Perhaps it’s the salt... or the pepper. I’ve always used black Malabar pepper on my chops; here the pepper tastes more like sawdust than anything I like.
Tati, was a young aspiring actress “temporarily” living in the rooming house waiting for the break that would propel her to the next level, from walk-through roles to ingénue.
She’s tall, athletic, with small breasts, exquisite long legs and a long blond braid. She speaks fluent French, Russian and English and can recite Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy by heart. She has lovers that keep her occupied in the evenings, while in the mornings she makes the rounds of casting agencies and event producers that hire runway models. She’s beautiful enough to be a successful runway model but lacks the drive. For her, modeling is just a side line that pays for her room and some cosmetics.
Life at Mme Rachou’s is sometimes a bowl of cherries and other times full of broken illusions. But I’m learning. I guess at that time… in that place… I’m growing up learning to handle both elation and heartache in this crucible of a city where saints and sinners live cheek-to-jowl and life might be trying, but is never boring.
While I was still living on Rue Geoffroy Marie, one morning while having my café au lait, a lovely statuesque brunette walked in the café and since my table was the only one with an extra empty seat she asked if she could sit there to have her coffee.
We just sit there, sipping coffee, and I chat her up.
Turned out she was a topless dancer at the Folies. Her name was Maxine, but everyone called her Max. I told her I was an art student, studying painting and hoping to become another Gauguin or a Toulouse Lautrec… she smiled and commented that I was not short enough to be Lautrec. We agreed to meet again the following week.
For a short time it became a kind of friendship where we would meet at the café once or twice a week for a cup of coffee. Then, one morning, almost a couple months after I had moved to the Beat Hotel, she asks me if I would like to come the next evening to a party at her garret on Rue Blanche. She said there would be many people from the club and she thought a “budding painter” would be of interest, as this was Paris after all.
When I arrived the garret was already full of people including many beautiful women. A record player had 45s stacked with mostly American and British hits plus a few Aznavour and Edith Piaf songs and some exceptional red wine bottles were being passed around. It is the first time that I had tasted a La Tâche and, frankly, I was instantly hooked. I then saw a bottle of Château Margaux nearby… I refilled my glass many times. It was in Paris where I learned to appreciate great wines.
Max came over and said there was a fellow Greek she would like me to meet. I was introduced to Mikis Theodorakis, a songwriter of note, that had already started an illustrious composing, songwriting and counterculture career. We started a conversation that turned into a harangue from Mikis about Greek politics and politicians. The Marxist firebrand did not mince words about his feelings regarding the state of Greek politics. I did not mind… I always considered the majority of politicos corrupt and self serving, whether Greek, American, French or other. That conversation became the beginning of a friendship.
By three in the morning the other guests had departed and I offered to help Max clean up and straighten the place.
By that time I had realized that I would not become a great painter. I had a good design sense, as one of my instructors asserted but my colors were too garish, he said. So, instead of becoming a painter, he thought I could be a very good professional photographer since most photography at the time was in black and white. He suggested I should start working as a studio assistant to learn the technical and compositional secrets of photography as well as looking at photography books to see how well-known photographers such as Cartier Bresson, Marc Riboud or Guy Bourdin handled a scene. It was a vocation I had never envisioned.
But, Mme Claude Lalanne, another of my art instructors, offered to introduce me to one of the best-known British advertising photographers of the period, David Bailey.
I was having too much fun in the Left Bank’s mercurial art scene living among the Rachou residents, rubbing elbows with other artists, meeting Max for dinner and passionately pursuing the female writer I had met at Chez Popov. So, I declined her offer as it would have meant moving to London, where I knew no one.
Eventually, I moved out of Chez Rachou’s and into Max’s garret to be with Max. Those were weekends of excessive drinking and partying until the sun shone over the Parisian rooftops. I also stopped attending art school; an intense and continuous hangover being counterproductive to a successful artistic career. I continued working at Les Halles, a night or two a week for pocket money.
I moved to New York City in 1967 to work first as an assistant and learn the craft from a number of top NYC advertising and fashion photographers before opening my own studio. I did not travel much till I was established as a travel photographer in the early ’80s.
By the time I returned to Paris, Le Mistral was still an English language bookstore but renamed “Shakespeare and Company”; Chez Popov’s had become a Greek souvlaki and gyro joint called “Les Argonauts”; Madame Rachou had retired and her fleabag rooming house was sold, renovated and turned into a 4-star hotel called “Le Relais Hotel du Vieux Paris” and a plaque commemorating the famous American residents was affixed at the front of the hotel. The Beat Poets had all returned to the US, most in the mid-‘60s, and Max’s garret was now occupied by a dour faced Frenchman who claimed to be a minister of a very obscure Christian sect.
As they say in Paris… C'est la vie!
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