Sunday, June 17, 2012

Star-Studded Montmartre

Until the movie Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain (or Amélie, as it was known in English), Montmartre was a mix of blue-collar workers, shopkeepers, artisans and a few of the rest of us. You could easily find a plumber or an electrician, and food stores were way more numerous than clothes shops.
     But Montmartre has always been a neighborhood of choice for artists and those in show business.

Way back in the 17th century, Claude de la Rose was a famous actor in the Comédie Française, the troupe of the great Molière. As a matter of fact, Rosimond - his stage name - took over the troupe when Molière died. In 1680 he bought a country home with a vineyard on the north slope of Montmartre. The vineyard is still there - or more accurately there again - and the house is now the Musée de Montmartre, although connoisseurs still call it Rosimond’s House.
Renoir's house
     Until modern times, the Butte provided artists with cheap digs. In the late 19th century, Jongkind and Pissaro were among the first to move in. During his Montmartre years, Renoir lived in the little house on the corner of my street before moving uphill and upscale, and Monet rented several different places over the years. Van Gogh shared some shabby rooms nearby with his brother Theo for a while. And then there’s the building called the Bateau Lavoir. Its owner turned it into an artist colony where almost every one of the post-Impressionists lived until World War I: Gauguin, Picasso, van Dongen, Juan Gris, Brancusi, Modigliani, Derain and many others.
Utrillo's house
     Maurice Utrillo was born and raised in Montmartre. Among other places, he lived for many years with his mother Suzanne Valadon, ex-model and an artist in her own right, in that pink house near Rosimond’s vineyard. Toulouse-Lautrec moved around the neighborhood many times but always stayed a short distance from his favorite subject: the Moulin Rouge.
     And then there were the artists who followed Lautrec’s lead and specialized in poster design, such as Steinlen - famous for his Chat Noir poster - and Poulbot, with his over-the-top-kitschy but popular orphan drawings.
     There were some writers as well. Poets seem to have a particular affection for the heights of the Butte. African-American poet Langston Hughes managed to eke out an existence for about half a year in Montmartre, although they were indigent times for him. And Max Jacob held up the French side of the poetry scene.
     Even musicians found Montmartre to their liking. Hector Berlioz lived and composed in a house that no longer exists, victim of the urban development of the Butte that continued up until the Great Depression put an end to real estate speculation... thereby saving what little was left to save. Erik Satie lived in the house next to Rosimond’s for eight years, including his six-month fling with Suzanne Valadon. See how neatly it all ties together? Just like in a village... which is exactly what it was then.

But all that was before my time. By 1970, when I moved into the neighborhood, that crowd had been replaced by a new generation of The Famous, and they had already lived here for years. Especially the French street-style singers such as Patachou, Mouloudji and Jean-Roger Caussimon, none of whom are probably known to those of you who haven’t lived in France. Patachou did us all a great favor by buying a building that McDonald’s had set its sights on, snatching it right out from under their corporate nose by outbidding them and sparing us those golden arches as a garish backdrop for all the photos taken daily of the quintessentially-Parisian, artist-and-easel-clogged Place du Tertre. And then there was pop queen Dalida, an Italian born and raised in Egypt until Nasser came to power and frowned on "colonists". She ended up with a stellar career, a huge house at the end of my street and a posthumous statue in bronze.
     Montmartre also had dancers galore - still does, and they rehearse endlessly in big cold rooms with huge north-facing windows on the boulevard that marked the border with Paris until 1870, and still is the boundary of the 18è arrondissement. Among the most famous dancers, were ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina and the multi-talented Jean-Pierre Cassel, discovered by Gene Kelly, and the father of actor Vincent Cassel of Black Swan fame. Both followed upon the heels of the famous Nijinsky, who is buried down the street in the Cimetière de Montmartre.
     Even the circus was represented in Montmartre, with the Cirque Medrano, an octagonal building that Toulouse-Lautrec painted often... and was still standing when I moved here. It was named after the famous clown Girolamo Medrano, who is also buried at the Cimetière de Montmartre.
     As for the stage, Georges Feydeau, the turn-of-the-century playwright of comédie de boulevard farces, is buried there as well. His rival, Georges Courteline, lived in that little quirky house across from me on the rue d’Orchampt - the reason for me finding my hidden atelier-with-garden, but that’s a story for another time. Not far away still lives Gisèle Casadesus of the Comédie Française founded by Molière. Her son Jean-Claude, who is now the conductor of the Orchestre National de Lille, was born and raised there.
     Some actors, like Mme. Casadesus, went back and forth between stage and screen. Sacha Guitry was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and became a sought-after French theater and movie actor famous for his melodious baritone voice and his many wives. There was also Guitry’s eternal rival Louis Jouvet, one of the most famous of all stage and screen actors before and after World War II. But Montmartre’s constellation of movie stars stretched over many different eras. There was Jean Marais of La Belle et La Bête fame, who turned sculptor in his later years and built a statue of "The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls" to further immortalize a character from the pen of Marcel Aymé, another Montmartre resident.
Théâtre de l'Atelier
     Marais was the long-time lover of playwright and director Jean Cocteau, whose plays were staged on Montmartre’s famous Théâtre de l’Atelier. Even more recent resident stars include Jean-Claude Brialy, who always played the handsome young man in movies when I arrived in France. More recent still is the eternally-flummoxed comic actor Pierre Richard, who lived on Avenue Junot. And also Roland Giraud of Trois Hommes et un Couffin, who lived above the pastry shop around the corner, in the same building as the Casadesus family.
     Actors aren’t the only ones from the silver screen who choose Montmartre as their home; there have been film directors living on the Butte as well. Cocteau for a while, and also Henri-Georges Clouzot, the French Hitchcock. Jean Renoir, son of the Impressionist painter and director of such French classics as La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu, was born in a manor house near the top of the Butte called the Château des Brouillards. Some directors are still here, notably Claude Lelouch (remember "A Man and a Woman"?) who bought the Ciné 13, a pocket-sized theater that was once part of the Moulin de la Galette painted by Renoir and so many other Impressionists. Lelouch also paid for the restoration of one of Montmartre’s two remaining windmills, with the proviso that he would be allowed to build an apartment underneath it with a view out over all of Paris... and he did.
     Even when they die, many of the famous artists and entertainers spend eternity in Montmartre. For proof, just take a walk through the Cimetière de Montmartre on the edge of the Butte. One of the most famous French directors of all time is buried there. I won’t tell you which one, but you can guess from this photo which gives a clue from one of his most famous movies, Le Dernier Métro - dozens of métro tickets.

The Man Who Could Walk through Walls

P.S. The opening line of Marcel Aymé’s Le Passe-Muraille is one of my very favorite ever:

"In Montmartre, there lived an excellent man named Dutilleul
who had the singular gift of being able to walk through walls
without being indisposed."


  1. this one's a wow, Sandy, thanks!

  2. What fun to read, Sandy! I'll have to ask Marcel who directed The Last Metro. How embarrassing....
    Your photo show here continues to yield very enthusiastic comments from residents. Looking forward to hosting you for community dinner once more,

  3. Nicely done, again.

    How dreadful for a dancer to be named Ludmilla. I picture Ludmilla as a large,unattractive,awkward,overweight,lead-footed woman in black tights that are, alas, too tight. I'm sure she was nothing like this.

    Much better to be named Nijinsky, when you are a dancer.

  4. Oh, no, Ludmila can't be dowdy; Russians associate the name with the heroine of the love story Ruslan and Ludmila. Check it out.
    Thanks, Sandy, for another wonderful post.