New York City And The French
( Originally Published 1924 )
When one says France one generally means Paris, though to the initiated many the two things are far from synonymous. Paris is as different from the rest of France as if it were not its capital but the capital of some other country; not only because Paris is a cosmopolitan city, not only because it is a city toward which stretch the necks of people from all over the world, but because it represents the spirit of the whole world as much as it does the spirit of France. Paris is Paris. No comparisons are possible. Parisians are Parisians, and neither Frenchmen nor Europeans. Parisians seldom, if ever, travel unless driven by absolute necessity from their city. They are a part so closely bound to the city that they cannot detach themselves from it. They are certain to be disappointed wherever they go, whatever they see.
The dislike of displacement, however, can be held against all Frenchmen. Frenchmen are held back from travel by strong love of traditions and dependence on them. Except the Chinese, no other people is as given to ancestor-worship as the French. They are routiniers. What has been done for centuries is the only right thing to be done. Frenchmen live in houses, not because they are convenient, but because their great-grandfathers lived in them. Long after the soil of a farm has become exhausted the farmers continue to work it in the same old manner as their great-grandfathers, because it has been done so for generations, It is the one characteristic trait of the whole French nation, though in many other things they are so different. The Savoyard, the Basque, the Breton, the Norman, and Toulousian are men of vastly different bloods and races, speaking dialects so different as almost to be different languages—and many of them like the Breton and Provencal are, indeed, different languages—although they are conglomerated under the common name of "Frenchmen."
And so, if you travel from the Spanish district in New York—from Twenty-third Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, where is that beautiful row of columned houses on the north side, rising like great pillars in the mist that settles from the river early in the morning—you will have the sensation of traveling, as you go toward Fortieth Street, through the lower part of France. From Andorra to Montauban and Limoges and Lyons, and then to Paris. For on the way the low houses and the disorder of heights and building-materials, and the names on the signs, with a sprinkling of Greek Macedonians and the beginning of another Italian quarter and a duplication of a Greek quarter elsewhere, right about Thirty-seventh Street, is very much like an imitation of Paris's outlying districts. This is merely a general impression; the French quarters in New York are really the Parisian quarters in New York, although of the forty thousand French inhabitants there are hardly more than five or six thousand Parisians here, but this matters not, for proportionately they are in the same ratio as they are in Paris. And yet they are the dominating element. The Parisian quarters are near our Broadway, our white-light district, which not only outdoes in light and noise the Boulevard des Italiens, but absolutely outdistances in lighting brilliancy and noise of streets anything Paris can ever hope to achieve.
There are many Frenchmen living further south, and those who have been here for a longer period live as far down as the Village. Around Eighth and Ninth Streets there are old French families, and there are many more on Thirteenth Street and Fifteenth Street west of Fifth Avenue. Those are families who have been in this city for over a hundred years, and the houses they live in are the same to which they had originally come and which they to-day own. These houses have a certain French fragrance of style, and with that typical traditionalism of the French they have not heeded the changes about them. The houses are as picturesque as they ever were, with trellised balconies and vines creeping over the long windows and the low doors.
As their center of the old French district, at the Brevoort Hotel, and at the Lafayette Hotel on University Place, the older Frenchmen still gather for their aperitif or mid-afternoon absinthe, even when such things are no longer obtainable. One could easily have forgotten the very existence of New York in either of these cafes before prohibition came, seeing the men and women around the small tables playing their bezigue while sipping the greenish drink from tall glasses and smoking their cigarettes from long cigarette-holders. To this day the Brevoort and the Lafayette are the rendezvous of the older French colonists in this city, although the Village artists and pseudo-artists have also made of them their general rendezvous.
Not long ago in talking with M. Delut, at a dinner in honor of Chaliapin, the great Russian singer, I remarked that he was talking a very fluent English with a very strong French accent. We chanced a little later to talk French together, whereupon I discovered he used a good many Anglicisms in his language, although his accent was purely Parisian.
"You must have lived a long time in this city, M. Delut," I said.
"Indeed," he answered. "Forty-five years."
It did not seem to me that the round-faced, jovial man was much older than that, indeed even that much, and so I said:
"Then you must have come here as a child?"
"No, my father came here as a child," he answered. "I was born in this city."
And it turned out that M. Delut had never been in France. His family had come here during the revolutionary troubles of 1848, as a good many other families did. There are indeed several thousand old French families that came here during that period. Evidences of that can be found in almost any district, as well as in the many French names in the liberal professions. And still most of them cling, even to the third and fourth generation, to French habits and French customs, which have been transmitted from parent to parent.
There are at least a dozen old signs of "Boulangerie Francaise" and "Boucherie Francaise" through the Village, and many more French signs further up town, where the boulangcries and the boucheries are very much like the ones at home. But it is up toward Broadway, between Fortieth and Fiftieth Streets, and along Sixth and Eighth Avenues, that the French quarter, as it was, exists. There are any number of the good old cafes chantants of European origin, where a disease or a chanteuse in abbreviated skirts and old-fashioned dccollete, looking more like a circus-rider than a singer, is holding forth from a small platform at the end of the hall, while the good bourgeois who have come from long distances to their accustomed tables, which they have held at certain days of the week year after year, discuss their family affairs in a French curiously corrupted with the few English words that they know.
There are dozens of pensions de famine with stout and marceled rubicund ladies surveying the work of the quiet-spoken waitresses from Cantal. For Cantal furnished almost all the waiters of France. There one could have his panade or his choux de Bruxelles served in exactly the same manner as it is prepared in the sixty thousand restaurants of Paris. If one should search very well on Forty-fifth Street there is a place where lapin an vin is the great specialty of the house, where the pot, as in Ana-tole France's "Rotisserie," has never been taken off the fire for the last thirty years.
There is not a single branch of industry in this city, especially in those industries where great skill and neatness are demanded, that does not employ one or more French-men. The big bronze foundries, where statues and the like are molded, employ French molders. The art jewelers pride themselves when they have Frenchmen, and if all the modistes and dressmakers announcing themselves with the prefix "Madame" were French, the French population would be six times its size in New York City.
There were several small French theaters in New York City before the war, in feeble competition with the German theater at Irving Place. The German theater was by far the better, having a better repertoire and much better actors than the French theaters of those days. But at the beginning of the war Copeau with his theater Le Vieux Colombier came over here, and they were given the old Garrick Theater by Otto Kahn, which was remodeled to suit them, after the plans and drawings of Jouvet, who was both an excellent actor and an architect. Never before had New York seen such ensemble acting, never before such perfection, such simplicity, or heard such diction. The theatrical world will remember for ever and ever the staging of "The Brothers Karamazov" on that little stage. The stairway that led from the central room to the upper room, where Jon commits suicide, was the most perfect and impressive thing ever seen in any theater. But they were a bit too austere and insisted on playing classics, the Copeau Players. And the French colony here encouraged them only meagerly. After two seasons in the city Copeau and his players returned to their theater in Paris, very much disgusted with the lack of support of the French population here.
How much more can be done in this way was immediately proved by that unique artiste, Yvette Guilbert, the diseuse. Season after season she filled the Maxine Elliott Theater, although she was the only one on the stage from beginning to end, reciting French poetry, mimicking and singing as only she can sing the old French chansons. It is not only the French colony who come, week after week and month after month, but people from all our nationalities. It was, indeed, a great treat for any one interested in the stage and for any one who wanted to learn French.
From time to time a French troupe does come over from Paris to play, but like most other Latin people the French are very bad propagandists, and very seldom has the best come over here, in spite of the occasional and frequent farewell visits of the late Mme. Sarah Bernhardt.
The Parisian district of New York begins at Thirty-ninth Street and Sixth Avenue, right at the Metropolitan Opera-house. In spite of the fact that the Metropolitan is an Italian institution, although it is the national opera-house of the United States, even in the days when German opera was the almost steady fare there, French was the official language of the opera-house. From William J. Guard, the press representative, the politest gentleman in New York (from whose garb one can recognize whether the performance that night is a gala performance or not, for his silk hat and cutaway tell the tale), to the head of the institution, French is the official language. And then, as if Sixth Avenue and Broadway were the Boulevard des Italiens, the streets running westward to the river, up to Fifty-fourth Street, like the faubourg extending westward from the celebrated Parisian boulevard, are Parisian quarters. And like the faubourg those streets change in character with the distance from Broadway. The restaurants and the pensions rarefy themselves toward Eighth Avenue. The prices on the bills of fare go down and downward as you go further west. And suddenly the streets, the hum and the drum of Broadway diminished, begin to be the quiet streets in which the families of Parisians are housed. For except a few families that have been here for generations and that have already been absorbed to a certain extent, most of the Parisian population of the city is a commercial one, and includes, also, a good number of artisans who have come here to better their condition but who are largely a temporary population. The Parisian soon begins to long back for his faubourgs and the little nooks and corners of the Bois de Vincennes.
Parisian youngsters do not mix readily with the youngsters of other nationalities, not because of their superiority complex, but because of great difference in interests. The Parisian young boy is not half as much interested in base-ball, football, and prize-fights as the American boy is or as the son of the new immigrant of any other nationality might become. Not considering our civilization superior to theirs, the Parisians are not eager to imitate our customs or adapt themselves to them. Jazz may have won a hold on the boulevardiers of Paris because of its exotic quality, but it has not taken hold of the simpler folk, who stick to the minuet and the pavane and the polka and the waltz. A visit to any celebration of the youngsters of the Church of St. Vincent de Paul on Twenty-third Street would be enough to convince one of that. The St. Vincent de Paul has a branch of its church called Notre Dame de la Misericorde on Washington Square, where the same thing may be observed at any of their celebrations. Not even proximity to the Village, with its pseudo-Latin-Quarter atmosphere, could accomplish that. And if any one should doubt it he might visit the French Evangelical Church on West Sixteenth Street. A good many of the old residents are members of the congregation; indeed, some of the oldest French settlers here occupy the pews. But they are as French as if they had only come yesterday. The fact is, many of this congregation have never even seen France.
How separated from the rest of the community the Parisians live could also be seen in their daily and weekly papers, the "Courier des Etats-Unis" and the "Gazette Franco-Americaine," or in their magazine "La France," which, though fully intended to create a rapprochement between the two nations, is very far from attempting such a move, even if it were at all necessary. These papers are interested chiefly, like all good Frenchmen, in the things that directly concern them. The Frenchman, the Parisian especially, is notorious for his inability to learn other languages or to concern himself with interests of people other than his own.
The enforcement of prohibition, such as it is, has hit the French population very hard in New York City. I am not speaking of the commercial end of it, though a good many, probably one-quarter, of the commercial houses in this country were importers of wines, liqueurs, and champagnes.
Such houses really had to adjust themselves by making arrangements to import other goods or else be completely wiped out. But I am now speaking of the Frenchmen accustomed to have their wine at the table. To them wine has always been part of their nutrition. The absence of it has hit many of them so hard that they have found it impossible to remain in this country in spite of all their home-brews and substitutes. Accordingly they have returned home. Because of that the old Gallic gaiety and light-heartedness has been abated. One no longer hears, on passing a French street, as much gay and light laughter, as much gay and light song as one used to hear. The many little family cafes to which the working-man used to take his whole family on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday, for lunch or for dinner, to break up the monotony of his wife's housekeeping routine, are no longer. They have been wiped out of existence; where they still exist, the old gaiety is gone. Unable to drink the good wine in perfect openness, between long discourses and story-tellings and politenesses and laughter, the French-man has abandoned his cafes. These places are frequented by such people as drink their wine as if it were medicine, in sudden big gulps and by stealth. Drinking wine to a Frenchman, apart from being a necessity, has also been a sort of ritual. I know of a number of Parisians who have moved out to the country, where they potter away the long evenings of the summer near the vines they have set, and the evenings of the fall watching the little juice they can press out of them. How wine-drinking is with the French-man a social affair can be seen from the number of guests at such out-of-town homes on a Saturday or a Sunday.
The French district in New York has never been in any way a fixed center ; the French have not been numerous enough to form a quarter of their own, and their occupations have been more varied than those of any other of our foreign populations here. The two thousand or more French theatrical people in this city, season after season, live mostly in the hotels in the neighborhood of Broadway.
The commercial element, when not actually housed permanently here, lives further down toward Washington Square, while the working class live here and there and everywhere, getting together only at church affairs, labor meetings, or on such occasions where something specifically French is given. The Metropolitan Opera-house becomes a social center when a French opera is performed. Half of the audience at a performance of "Louise," by Carpentier, is Parisian.
In connection with this opera I remember a very amusing story. I was sitting with William Guard, the press representative, and another friend of mine, in one of the boxes, and watching the performance. In the box next to mine were two ladies, both evidently from the newly rich class. Though they took great pains to handle the lorgnette it was quite evident they had not yet completely mastered the manner of doing it. In the second act of "Louise" is the celebrated dressmaking shop scene. In the dressmaking shop where Louise works, together with twenty other young ladies, the girls sing a good deal while they work, many of them dancing snatches while the street musicians are playing below the windows. There are diversions caused by the apprentice girl, an extremely disturbing gamine, who is intriguing between the girls. The whole scene is one in which a good deal of the spirit of the French midinette, lively and care-free yet sentimental, is displayed.
After the ovation to the singer, at the end of the act, one of the ladies turned around and asked her neighbor, seemingly her guest, what she thought of it. The lady pursed her lips, raised her eyebrows, and with a gesture in which she showed her disapproval of the waste of time and inefficient manner in a French dressmaking shop, she said:
"No wonder French dresses are so expensive."
Speaking about the Metropolitan Opera-house I must tell another amusing story, which will probably show that there are more than two reasons why most people come to the opera. They were playing "L'Amore de Tre Re." In the second act the old man kills the faithless wife of his son. After strangling her he carries her off stage on his shoulder. There were two seats vacant at my right throughout the first act. But at the beginning of the second two ladies speaking German came to occupy them. The music had hardly begun for the second act when the two ladies began to snooze peacefully. They had been asleep for only a moment when one of them woke up and asked the other one : "Hat man ihr schon getotet ? Have they killed her yet?"
The older one opened her eyes, peered at the stage, and said: "Noch nicht. Not yet."
A little later they had both closed their eyes again, only to open them after a moment and ask whether the murder had been committed. As it had not been, and there was still some time until the deed should be done, they again closed their eyes.
I took pity on them a moment before the murder scene was to be enacted, and, tapping my neighbor on the shoulder, I said to her: "Jetzt geht's los. Now it is going to happen." They watched the scene, bending over for-ward as far as possible so that not a single gesture or the slightest movement should escape them. They were so tense that I could not even hear them breathing. When the deed was done they both sighed deeply and reclined on their seats. Then the lady I had tapped on the shoulder turned toward me, and, bowing deeply, she said: "Danke schon. I thank you." They left at the end of the second act.
It is almost a practice with me, whenever I want to meet a French friend I have not seen for a long time, to wait until some specific French affair takes place. I am quite certain to meet whom I desire any time Jacques Thibaud, that most eloquent of all violinists, is playing, especially so when the Chausson "Poeme" is included in the program.
I know whom I will meet when Cortot, the pianist, plays. Indeed, there is tout Paris when Yvette Guilbert is giving one of her performances.
Except for the few homes of Frenchmen in lower New York, there is no architectural distinction of any kind typically French in the French upper New York district. It is not like the other districts, where the inhabitants have created something that resembles as nearly as possible their own habitat. The Parisians came to live in a district which had already imitated their former home as closely as possible. I am speaking of the theatrical district. They have not added anything to it architecturally.
In spite of that, their existence is strongly felt there, not only because of the numerous cafes and restaurants, but because there is something peculiarly theirs floating about them. One could distinguish a Frenchwoman walking up or down the street anywhere on earth, not because of her inimitable grace but because of an inimitable quality which, quite apart from being beautiful or not, is hers. The manner in which a Parisian woman can wear the most common thing, and, by giving it a twist, a turn, creasing it here and there with her finger-nail, make it look like a gown a hundred times more expensive than it really is, is too proverbial to need further discourse. There is a Parisian toss of the head and movement of the hand. And there is the Parisian "Voila" no one can imitate; not even a Frenchman from another part of France. All over the city the influence of the Parisian is strongly felt; and they have taken no pains for it. If it is true that every intelligent man has two countries, his own and France, it is also true that every man has two languages, his own and French. And those Parisians who have come to live here have brought with them that spirit which has forever been admired by the rest of the world.
I remember my friend Barnabatte, who had worked for years as a cook in one of the large French restaurants here. He had saved up a good deal of money, for both he and his wife were working, and they were very thrifty people. I used to meet Barnabatte frequently at the houses of other friends of mine, especially at the homes of Planas and Banville, two French engineers who have greatly contributed to the development of the automobile. Barnabatte was a happy soul, gaily cutting into every conversation with his loud Gascon laughter and his thick Gascon accent. No matter what one said, Barnabatte was against it ; and his wife always seconded him with her eternal, "Mais oui. Mais oui."
We may occasionally have disliked him for his eternal interruptions, but we sorely missed him after he ceased to come to any of these gatherings at the beginning of the war. And there were those who thought that though he was exempt from military service he might have returned and offered to do such service as he was capable of. Having more time than the others, I was delegated to make inquiries. Accordingly, after we had missed him for about eight weeks I went up to his house to see him. I found his wife alone in the living-room.
"Where is Edouard?" I inquired.
She put her finger on her lips to hush my voice.
"Good heavens ! Is he ill?" I inquired. "Where is he? I must see him."
She drew me to the opposite end of the room, and in whispers she told me, "He is in the other room with his teacher."
"He will presently be out," she assured me.
And at that very moment the door from the other room opened and a gray-bearded gentleman in a long Prince Albert coat, which had once been black and was now green, was taking his leave. M. Barnabatte stood at the door.
"Bonjour, monsieur," the gray-bearded gentle-man said.
"Bonjour," Barnabatte answered, in a very unusual tone of voice.
It was not my Barnabatte at all. There would have been a good deal more zeal near the "j" in "bonjour" if he had pronounced it in his own way.
"Bonjour, camarade," he greeted me, with that slight "h" before the "r" which is the privilege of every Parisian.
"What is all that?" I asked Barnabatte, on seeing the disk phonograph on the table with a number of books. "And why have we not seen you?"
"Oh, I have no time," he excused himself. "I am studying to become chef."
"Studying to become chef ?" I questioned.
"Mais oui ! Mais oui !" Barnabatte assured me. "One can never become chef, no matter how good he is at his trade, with a Gascon accent."
He is chef to-day, having worked more than a year to eradicate his southern French accent. But he has also lost his good, thick, pleasant voice, and acquired a falsetto, this being the only means to disguise his origin.
There is a cafe somewhere northwest of Forty-second Street. For some reason or other to a certain group that cafe is known as the River of Doubt.
Its clientele varies with the hour. Up to noon it is the rendezvous of all the Parisians of New York. At the noon-hour it becomes the eat-and-run place of the office-girls in the neighborhood. After two it is the rendezvous of aspiring and superannuated theatrical folk; hopes and dreams meet regrets and old successes.
At four the center-table is occupied by the eminent music critics dropping in from AEolian Hall for a cup of strong black coffee; and Debussy, Strauss, Wagner, and the rest are blown with the smoke from pipes, cigarettes, and thick Havanas. And from then on to an hour after midnight all the Americas, the rest of the world, and all professions from the loftiest to the lowliest pass in review. Plans for plays, symphonic themes, great novels, plots of revolution and murder are hatched under that roof.
Alex and myself were discussing Merejkowski at one of the little brown tables edging the brown wall decorated with leopard-skins when Riviers, the French poet, entered with a very Anglo-Saxon-looking young woman.
"My teacher of English," Riviers introduced her, and the two sat down at the table back of us.
My discussion with Alex came to an end soon. We agreed on almost everything. It is what has always worried me when I am with Alex. I can't find out whether I agree with him, or he with me, or that we both agree.
"You have hands tres, tres, oh, yes, now I find—you have hands very beautiful," I heard Riviers saying to the teacher, and my eye caught the fact that he had taken one of the girl's hands in his.
"No, you should have said, `Your hands are very beautiful," explained the teacher.
"Your hands are very beautiful," repeated the poet; "thanks, thanks !"
"What color are my eyes ?" asked the teacher.
"Your yeux, non—eyes, eyes, are beautiful. Very bleu." "No, no. Your eyes are a beautiful blue."
"Bien, blue, blue, blue!" repeated Riviers, trying to memorize.
"Your beautiful hands very chaud, fire, burn; you know —you know—"
"Ah! You want to say, `Your beautiful warm hands burn like fire.' Say it."
"That 's it, that it, c'est ca," jubileed Riviers, and patted the hand he held in his.
"Your hand is ice-cold," the teacher said. "You understand?"
"Understand, understand—my hand cold because your beautiful hand is very warm."
"Bravo, bravo !" the teacher complimented. "You learn so rapidly."
"You have very extraordinary tete, you know—" "Head, you mean. Yes, but say it so, `You have an extraordinarily beautiful head.' "
"Yes, yes," and the young poet repeated the words of his teacher with great enthusiasm.
"I will write une poeme"
"A poem, a poem," corrected the young lady.
"Yes, I will write a poem to this beautiful head."
"Oh, you learn a new language very rapidly ; you have a gift for languages."
"You very fine. Always must I think of you. In six months, maybe in one year, when I go away, I think of you just the same. And I sonde—you know what you sleep and think—"
"Dream, dream, you mean."
"Yes, thanks ; I dream we are very good friends." "That was too long a sentence for you, Mr. Riviers." "I love your voix, you know, you know—"
"Say, `I love your voice.' "
"I love it; I love your voice," the poet repeated rapturously.
An hour later they were still there. His vocabulary had augmented marvelously. He spoke rapidly, and the lady corrected fugitively, more as a matter of form or habit. It was a torrent of love-words. Her face was as flushed as his, and her blue eyes darkened to violet. People passed by and looked at them as they held hands, their heads almost touching. But they did not see. They were alone amid the hundreds of people. Riviers' cigarette had burned by itself, untouched after the first whiff; the two cups of coffee were cold.
Two hours later they were still there. The young woman was talking to him, and as he did not understand her good English she talked one mixed with French and Italian and Latin and used all available means to make him understand what she wanted.
"You see, you see, you no understand because I no talk the Engleesh well," Riviers complained.
"You do, you do, Riviers. You do, my dear. You talk English wonderfully. I understand everything."
"No, no. You very intelligent and you talk French very well."
"No, I don't."
"Yes, you do. I understand everything."
"Ma fiancee," he introduced her to me several days later.
"Well, well ; now you will learn English rapidly, Riviers," I laughed.
"Mais non, non; she speak the French parf aitement."
"I really don't know more than a few words," protested the English teacher.
"You do ; you do; I know you do."
"You see his English has improved wonderfully in the last few days ; don't you think so?" the girl exclaimed as she bowed herself away to a distant table.