“Oh, Who Owns Paree?”
A Columbia College Tour of the City of Light
By Dan Carlinsky ’65
PHOTOS: NANCY CARLINSKY
Ms. Alma Mater
Low Plaza, Columbia University
New York, NY 10027
I know, I know, it’s been an age. I’m really sorry — I should’ve written. You still don’t do e-mail, do you? And you don’t have a cell phone either, right? I guess that’s why I haven’t been in touch.
Anyway, I just had to write to you now — I’m visiting Paris! I know you preside over Columbia University in the City of New York, but there are so many reminders of Columbia here that I think you could almost say Paris is Columbia’s second city. The only foreign city that sees more of us is London, but people there talk sort of like us, so it doesn’t really seem all that foreign.
For decades, a summer visit to Paris has been nearly a rite of passage for College students. All the way back to the King’s College days, a lot of us have studied or worked here for a while after graduation. Right now, about 100 College alumni live in France, two-thirds of them in the capital. The numbers for the whole University are more than 10 times that; the Columbia University Alumni Club of France is only five years old, but it has almost 500 members.
I’ve been walking everywhere, and I keep seeing places with a link to Columbia College. As I’m sure you know, this city is divided into 20 arrondissements, and I think almost every one of them has some connection with the College.
Oh, I wish you could see Paris, Alma! You’d love it. You’d walk and walk and walk, and even with all the pastry you’d eat, I just know you’d lose some of those four tons. But let me describe a Columbian’s tour of Paris, specially for you. The route roughly follows the city’s spiraling arrondissements by number. I think you’ll be pleased, and surprised, at what I’ve found. Maybe you’ll even decide to come see for yourself.
Every College alum who visits Paris has to go right to the center of the city, to the Musée du Louvre, which is Art Hum come to life. In 1854, even before there was such a thing as Art Hum, architect James Renwick Jr. (Class of 1836) came to stand here and study the new additions to the Louvre for inspiration, because he was designing the first art museum in Washington, D.C., now the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. The buildings do have a family resemblance.
At the other end of the Jardin des Tuileries, the Louvre’s back yard, is the Musée de l’Orangerie, which reopened last year after six years of renovations. Visitors queue there to see Monet’s “Water Lilies” series and other Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. Below the museum, on the garden side, is a bronze: “Reclining Nude” by Henry Moore, the British sculptor. The lines of the piece might seem familiar to Columbians because another of his works, “Three-Way Piece: Points,” stands on Revson Plaza, the bridge over Amsterdam Avenue.
A few blocks up from l’Orangerie, on the Place Vendôme, is the fabulous Hôtel Ritz, which is where the word “ritzy” comes from and which some folks think is the world’s finest place for a sleepover. The hotel scenes in Love in the Afternoon, the 1957 romantic comedy written by I.A.L. Diamond ’41 with director Billy Wilder, took place at the Ritz. Gary Cooper was the millionaire playboy (where but the Ritz would a millionaire playboy stay?), Maurice Chevalier the detective (his specialty: adultery cases) and Audrey Hepburn the detective’s naïve daughter (she fell for Cooper, big time). The picture gave new life to the old song “Fascination.” Somehow I doubt that you’ve attended a wedding in the past half-century, but if you had, you’d’ve heard it.
Just up the Rue de la Paix and around the corner at 5 Rue Daunou is Harry’s New York Bar, opened in 1911, where the Bloody Mary is supposed to have been devised. It’s a blatant tourist spot with a strongly Yankee theme: hot dogs on the menu, a 1930s-style piano lounge downstairs and a straw poll for American president every four years (you have to flash a U.S. passport to cast your vote). Harry’s walls are covered with flags and banners from colleges in the States and, yes, a faded baby blue Columbia pennant hangs right up front, by the bar.
From your perch, Alma, you’re used to gazing at Butler Library, so you’d probably want to see the sturdy old Bibliothèque Nationale building, on the Rue de Richelieu. Jack Kerouac ’44 spent time here researching his family history and wrote about the experience in Satori in Paris (although in truth, he wrote more about hanging out and drinking than about digging in the bibliothèque stacks).
Close by are two houses once lived in by Gouverneur Morris (Class of 1768). (Remember him? He penned much of our Constitution and did the final edit, including the “We the people … ” part.) In 1789, he sailed to France to replace Thomas Jefferson as minister to France and arrived just in time for the French Revolution. He moved into the house at 63 Rue de Richelieu, now a chain hotel called the Malte. Later, he lived down the street at 95 Rue de Richelieu, lately rebuilt into another chain hotel, the Cusset. Morris was the only diplomat to stay in town through the Reign of Terror, and he used his immunity to shelter several refugees in his rooms at No. 95.
In the area around the Enfants Rouges market, in the third arrondissement, the attractive corner bar called Café Le Progrès (1 Rue de Bretagne) should look familiar to any Francophile film buff who has devoured Paris, je t’aime, a recent collection of vignettes filmed all over the city: During the segment that features Maggie Gyllenhaal ’99, her character buys a beer here.
If you do get to Paris, Alma, you’ll probably want to visit the modern art collection at the Centre Pompidou to check out what’s happened in the art world in the 100 years that you’ve been sitting above 116th Street. The museum rotates what’s on display, but you could get to see a landscape by Thomas Gilbert White (Class of 1900), some monochromatic paintings by Ad Reinhardt ’35 and, from the design collection, lamps and a coffee table by Isamu Noguchi ’26.
The Left Bank! The Latin Quarter! Of course you’d go there. At 269 Rue St. Jacques, not far from the Sorbonne, you should take a peek inside La Schola Cantorum, an English Benedictine abbey in the 17th century and now a music and ballet academy. Professor Douglas Moore, a Pulitzer-winning composer who taught in Columbia’s music department from 1926–62, studied composition and organ here. In the peaceful courtyard garden are three arts-themed bronze sculptures by Greg Wyatt ’71, including one of a soaring Baryshnikov. (To gain entry, phone the school office at 01.43.54.15.39.)
This quarter holds some Columbia literary history, too. At 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, right across the water from Notre Dame Cathedral, is Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookstore. This isn’t the original Shakespeare shop of the 1920s, now gone. That one, several blocks away, was where Professor William York Tindall ’25 bought a copy of Ulysses, which had been banned at home, launching his lifetime career in Joyce study. But at this Shakespeare, for decades now, every young, would-be writer and poet from Columbia has stopped by. Some have impressed the owner with their seriousness about literature, thus qualifying to spend the night on one of the cots in the scruffy, book-stuffed upper floor. There’s a City Lights poster of Kerouac up there, presumably for encouragement.
You’d get a kick out of what’s become of 9 Rue Gît le Coeur, site of the flophouse where Allen Ginsberg ’48 lived in the late ’50s. (He worked on “Kaddish” there.) It’s been redone into a nice boutique hotel, the Vieux Paris, but the memory of the “Beat Hotel” days lives in vintage photos of Ginsberg and his writer pals on the reception area wall. At the corner, at 28 Rue St. André des Arts, is the former site of La Gentilhommière, which Kerouac called “the perfect bar.” Like his College hangout, The West End, the Paris bar of his day is gone; in its place is an Irish pub. Close enough.
Down at 117 Boulevard St. Germain is the building housing the Centre Américain of Sciences Po, France’s elite school of political studies. Sciences Po has close ties with Columbia, including dual master’s degree programs with SIPA. Through the years, many College junior-year-abroad students, recent graduates and faculty have been to the fourth floor of this building and to the rest of the school’s facilities, which are spread through the area.
Not far away, just off the river, is another influential Paris school, the École des Beaux Arts. Starting in the 19th century, anybody who wanted to be somebody in art or architecture did time here. That includes architect Edward Pearce Casey (Class of 1886); architect and muralist James Monroe Hewlett (Class of 1890); Charles Follen McKim, who, with William Mead and Stanford White, planned the Morningside campus; taxidermist-turned-sculptor George Grey Barnard, who did the sketches here for “The Great God Pan,” first stationed where Mudd now stands, then between Avery and Fayerweather, now in front of Lewisohn; Isaac Newton Phelps Dodge, who designed St. Paul’s Chapel; and Jacques Lipchitz, whose “Bellerophon Taming Pegasus,” his last and largest piece, is mounted over the plaza-level entrance to the Law School’s Greene Hall.
Across the street from the École, 17 Rue Bonaparte is where John Jay (Class of 1764) lived while he, John Adams and Ben Franklin negotiated peace with England after the revolution. Sometimes they and the Brits met up the street at No. 38, where they signed a preliminary agreement. The final peace treaty was concluded at 9 a.m. on September 3, 1783, in the chief British negotiator’s quarters around the corner at 56 Rue Jacob. If you remember your French, Alma, you could translate the plaque out front, which memorializes the event.
To the west, some decades ago, 29 Rue de Verneuil was the Hôtel de Verneuil, a bare-bones residence for expat poets, writers and students from many countries. The address, much renovated, is residential now, but novelist Herbert Gold ’46 remembers living there in the late ’40s with James Baldwin and others. “I paid the equivalent of something like 50 cents a day,” Gold says. “There were no showers in the hotel — you had to go to the public bath — and just one Turkish toilet for the whole place.” Down the block today, there’s a much nicer Hôtel Verneuil, which some Baldwin fans (and some journalists) mistakenly take for the old place.
On the quai just beyond the Musée d’Orsay is France’s Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, the foreign affairs ministry. Former University President Nicholas Murray Butler (Class of 1882) shared a Nobel Prize for his antiwar efforts culminating in the 1928 Pact of Paris (the Kellogg-Briand Pact), which was signed here.
A plaque outside 31 Avenue Bosquet reads “AUP” — that’s the main building of the American University of Paris. (The sign doesn’t mention the United States: 21st-century security.) The small U.S.-style institution was founded by Lloyd DeLamater ’48, and these days counts among its faculty Jerome Charyn ’59 in film and Roy Rosenstein ’71 in English.
Deeper into the seventh arrondissement is UNESCO headquarters, at Place de Fontenoy. The Columbia connection here is inside: Noguchi’s version of a Japanese garden, with a stream, a bridge, a pond, a “Peace Fountain,” flowering cherry and plum trees, magnolias, bamboo and 80 tons of rocks imported from Japan. Anyone who can’t arrange a visit in advance has to make do by walking around to the Avenue Ségur side and peering over the stone wall to get a glimpse of the area.
More art: Everyone at Columbia knows the full-size bronze cast of Rodin’s The Thinker, who sits with his back to Philosophy Hall. I’m sure you remember when it came to campus, in 1930. Well, if you were in Paris with me, Alma, you could see the original at the Musée Rodin, 79 Rue de Varenne. It’s the centerpiece of the garden space right inside the entry, surrounded by manicured greenery and sitting on a much higher pedestal than the campus version.
Back on the Right Bank, 133 Avenue des Champs Élysées is where Dwight D. Eisenhower had his top-floor office as Supreme Commander of NATO forces, a position he held while he was still Columbia’s president. During 1951 and 1952, I think he spent more time in Paris than on campus; he traded a view of your backside, Alma, for a view of the Arc de Triomphe. In the lobby, a marble plaque identifies Ike as Supreme Commander of Expeditionary Forces during World War II and later as President of the USA — the academic job he held in between is conspicuously missing. This building is a replacement; the old one was destroyed in a spectacular fire. Its ground floor houses the new version of the ’60s icon Le Drugstore, a glitzy, ultra-today purveyor of everything. I suspect Ike might have taken one look and asked, “For this I saved France?”
At the other end of the Champs is Avenue du Général Eisenhower, a short street alongside the Grand Palais. It’s a nice honor, although nearby, Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Law School dropout) has a bigger avenue and his own Métro stop.
I know how much you appreciate high decoration, Alma (after all, you were once gilded), so you’d love the Opéra Garnier, at the Place de l’Opéra. The opulent Opéra was the model for the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. When the original LOC architects were fired part-way through the job, in 1892, Edward Pearce Casey (Class of 1886), only six years out of the College but having done graduate study in architecture at Columbia and the École des Beaux Arts, came in and finished up, so he gets a lot of the credit.
Directly across the way, at 2 Rue Scribe, is the luxe Le Grand Hôtel, with a gracious entry area that’s best described as, well, grand. As a child, Oscar Hammerstein ’16 once stayed here with his theater-manager father. That was the first time he saw Paris. Later, after the Nazis occupied the city, he wrote:
The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay,
I heard the laughter of her heart in every street café.
Today, the cheapest double at the Grand goes for about $900 a night, which is nothing to laugh about.
If you stroll just above the Grand and the Opéra to the streets around the church of Notre Dame de Lorette, the general look of 21 Rue Laffitte, a huge stone-and-glass block with terraces below, might ring a bell. Originally sheltering the Paris offices of the House of Rothschild, now the home of a big pension and insurance company, the building was co-designed by Max Abramovitz, whose résumé includes the United Nations complex, Central Intelligence Agency headquarters and, on the Columbia campus, Greene Hall.
In a surprisingly quiet area just below the always-bustling Place de Clichy is 36 Rue Ballu, a corner building once home to Nadia Boulanger, the legendary music teacher. The small square in front of the building is named for Nadia’s younger sister, Lili, a composer prodigy who died at 24. A notice on the building front commemorates the “deux grandes musiciennes.” For decades, in a fourth-floor apartment (fifth floor, to Americans), Nadia saw a parade of composition students, many of whom composed their way into the top ranks. Among them are some Columbia names you might remember, including Elie Siegmeister ’27, Richard Franko Goldman ’30 and Professor Moore.
In the 1920s, below Pigalle, the “adult entertainment” district, there was a famous jazz club at 52 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. That was Le Grand Duc, where Langston Hughes ’25 did kitchen work and bused tables while he was turning himself into a poet. He was paid 15 francs a night plus breakfast. Today, the club is gone in favor of a place that advertises Chinese teas and multicultural artistic gatherings. Lettering on the side of the building announces, in English: “HOT SEXY ARTISTS / ART ART ART / INSIDE VIDEO.” Alma, I’m not sure this is a place for you.
Here’s another Columbia-connected area of the Left Bank you should visit, Alma: Montparnasse. You could start at the final resting place of many renowned writers and artists, Cimetière Montparnasse. Enter the cemetery through the main entrance on Boulevard Edgar Quinet, walk straight past Sartre and de Beauvoir, take a left at Ionesco and then the first right to the small subsection of section two, where you’ll find a plain, dark, polished stone marking the grave of Susan Sontag, who taught at the College in the ’60s. She was crazy about Paris, which she once called “the alternative capital of my imagination.”
Just north of the cemetery, at 29 Rue Delambre, is Smoke, a popular jazz-and-blues-themed neighborhood bar-restaurant named for the 1995 film written by Paul Auster ’69 and starring Harvey Keitel and William Hurt. The place is papered with black-and-white photos of jazz musicians — Bird, Miles, Sonny, Trane — and plenty of atmosphere. (Although with France’s new anti-smoking drive, pretty soon the bar’s air may no longer match its name.) Auster, by the way, is huge in Paris, where he once lived for a few years. On my way down to Montparnasse, I saw his face in several Métro stations, on big posters advertising his latest French best-seller.
Please, Alma, if you do get to Paris, make the effort to find Rue de Chevreuse, a short side street off the Boulevard de Montparnasse. At No. 4 is Reid Hall, Columbia’s academic home in Paris since 1964. Behind an unrevealing street door (you have to go inside to see a sign with the Columbia name) is a lovely, early-18th-century compound: a cobblestoned courtyard and garden surrounded by ghost-white buildings with offices, classrooms, lounges and other facilities for academic programs now extended to many other American colleges and universities — a real mini-campus and cultural exchange center. The College French department advises French majors and concentrators to spend a semester or two at Reid; how could anyone say non?
Between the cemetery and the Gare Montparnasse, at 25 Rue du Commandant Mouchotte, is AMF Bowling Montparnasse, site of the annual Columbia-Harvard Bowling Challenge, a rivalry between the Columbia University Alumni Club of France and its crimson counterpart from Cambridge. After five years of battle in the lanes, you’ll be proud to know, the Lions lead in the series, 3–2.
If you look skyward from anywhere in the neighborhood — or, for that matter, from many other parts of the city — you see the dark, 59-story Tour Montparnasse, which was, when finished in 1972, the tallest skyscraper in Europe and the largest shock to the Parisian eye since the building of the Eiffel Tower; a lot of locals still aren’t over it. A key player in arranging the financing and finding buyers for office space in the tower was real estate man Wylie Tuttle ’44.
Back to the Right Bank again, for a look at Columbia connections in the western part of town. A good place to start is the Passerelle Debilly, the footbridge over the Seine that director Brian DePalma ’62 used as a key location in Femme Fatale, starring Antonio Banderas and Rebecca Romijn. Just east of the footbridge, a couple of centuries ago, an early alum entered transportation history. During the Jefferson administration, Robert Livingston (Class of 1764) came to the French capital, the second King’s College man to serve as minister to France. While he was negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, he got together with another Yank living in Paris, Robert Fulton, and the two hatched a plan to develop a steamship. Fulton was the tech guy, Livingston the venture capitalist and the insider who arranged for exclusivity in New York State waterways. They built one model that sank, but in 1803 tested a stronger version in the Seine, along Avenue de New York. That one, a paddle wheeler that puffed along at three miles an hour as a crowd watched, was a winner.
Oh, Alma, I found a cousin of yours in Paris! He’s right in the middle of the roomy Place d’Iéna, in front of the Musée Guimet, and his name is George Washington. He’s big and bronze and he was made by the sculptor Daniel Chester French, just like you and Abe Lincoln, in Washington, D.C. He’s in uniform, with his sword raised to the sky and on horseback — but French didn’t make the horse, just the general. And guess who designed his pedestal? The same group that made yours: McKim, Mead & White, the campus designers. Washington is identified just by last name, which I thought was kind of odd — as though your pedestal said just “Mater.” Anyway, I looked to see if French hid an owl or something in Washington’s uniform, the way he did in your robe, but if he did I couldn’t find it.
Way out in the 16th arrondissement, at 106 Rue de la Pompe, is the sprawling Lycée Janson de Sailly, the biggest lycée in France, which University Professor Emeritus Jacques Barzun ’27 attended before his family moved to America. I love the story about the school’s founding. It seems M. Janson de Sailly, a 19th-century lawyer, caught his wife having an affair, wrote her out of his will and left his fortune to the state for the establishment of a school to which no girls could be admitted. By the time Barzun was a jansonien, though, the school had gone coed.
If you’re a fan of Phantom of the Paradise, the 1974 cult movie favorite and probably the most Columbia-studded feature film ever made (Brian De Palma ’62 wrote and directed, William Finley ’63 starred as the Phantom, Gerrit Graham ’70 played faux glam rock star Beef and Paul Hirsch ’66 edited), you’d want to walk by 42 Avenue de la Grande Armée. It’s a computer store and showroom now, but a generation ago it was a small, pre-multiplex cinema called La Boîte à Films, or Studio Obligado, and it ran Phantom, which a lot of French consider an original kitsch masterpiece, for 10 years or more. Although the theater has been gone since 1987, many Parisians of a certain age remember the place and the picture well.
Another of the College’s moviemakers spent some shooting time out in the 19th arrondissement, in the far northeast corner of the city. Night on Earth (1991), written and directed by Jim Jarmusch ’75, tells of simultaneous nighttime cab rides in five cities around the world. (“Five Taxis, Five Cities, One Night,” the poster said.) The Paris ride ends, after much talk about life, as the driver discharges a blind passenger by the Canal de l’Ourcq.
Close by the canal is a great place to explore: the Parc de la Villette, the largest park in Paris. It has a science and technology museum, a big music center, and sport and recreation areas. In the 1980s, it was created from a district of slaughterhouses by Bernard Tschumi, who later became Columbia’s architecture dean and designed Lerner Hall. His job in Paris was to make a new play space for Parisians. On the campus, it was to make a new student center for Columbians. Were the assignments all that different?
And if you had time to go out of town, Alma, you could travel to Marne-la-Vallée and visit Disneyland Resort Paris to see the two giant hotels designed by Robert A.M. Stern ’60, the architect who designed the Broadway residence hall at 113th Street. For Disney, he came up with the Newport Bay Club, a smashing version of the grand 19th-century New England resorts, and the Hotel Cheyenne, an entire Hollywood-style Western town. Can you imagine if Disney did Morningside?
Well, what about it, Alma? Have I convinced you to get up off your chair and go to Paris? I think I’m going to go get one of those pastries myself. I’ll write again soon. Promise.
In lumine tuo from the City of Light. And à bientôt!
Dan Carlinsky ’65, a magazine journalist, author and literary agent, visits France as often as he can.