Friday, August 1, 2008

Café Le Tournon

During the 1950s this was the gathering spot of ex-pat African-American writers and artists, such as James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Richard Wright (who gave the pinball machine a steady workout), William Gardner Smith, painter Beauford Delaney and scuptor Howard Cousins. However, it was political cartoonist Oliver Harrington who was the main draw. A brilliant raconteur, he kept large audiences entertained and drew enthusiastic, entranced crowds. He subsequently made Le Tournon famous throughout the world. Life magazine published a feature article about African-American ex-pats at Le Tournon in the mid-1950s, greatly expanding its fame.

Paris was quite inexpensive after WWII. Americans found that they could live on twenty dollars a week. As a result, the city was crowded with ex-pat artists, poets and writers, ex-Army veterans using the GI Bill of Rights to study at the Sorbonne - and there was none of the racial prejudice that smoldered on the other side of the Atlantic.

Paris was in the midst of its long-running love affair with African-American culture, jazz in particular. Duke Ellington’s band made its Parisian debut at Le Tournon, initiating the mania for jazz that eventually took over the St-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood.

A little later George Plimpton also settled in at Le Tournon, along with others associated with the newly-formed Paris Review; Plimpton was a founding editor and continued to contribute until his death in 2003. So popular was Le Tournon with Americans that the predominant language heard throughout the café was English.

1954 Paris Review staff photo: George Plimpton (back row in hat), and author William Gardner Smith (back row, second from right).

Author Theodora Keogh, granddaughter of president Theodore Roosevelt, took up with the Paris Review literary set at the Café Le Tournon. She died earlier this year, at the age of 88.

There were notable residents in apartments upstairs in the same building. Austrian writer Joseph Roth lived above the café from 1937-1939, and there is a plaque on the building noting it. A memorable quote from Herr Roth: If you haven't been to Paris, then you're only half a person.
While they were students at the Sorbonne, sisters Elisabeth Gille and Denise Epstein were residents above Le Tournon, as well. Denise Epstein recently published long-withheld writings by her mother, Irène Némirovsky, as the award-winning novel, Suite Française (2004).

Café Le Tournon still perks along today as a wine bar and eatery with a fresh market menu, while continuing its tradition of presenting occasional live jazz concerts. The decor features murals depicting scenes of the Luxembourg Gardens, located in the back yard of the French Senate, just across the street. In good weather there is a single row of tables out front on the sidewalk terrace.

Café Le Tournon
18, rue de Tournon (6th) near the corner of rue de Vaugirard
Opens at noon.
Telephone: 01 43 26 16 16
Métro: Luxembourg or Odéon

Note: Origin of street nameFrancis de Tournon (1489-1562) was an abbot of Saint-Germain des Prés, as well as a Cardinal and noted statesman.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recently read your post about Irène Némirovsky and wanted to let you know about an exciting new exhibition about her life, work, and legacy that will open on September 24, 2008 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage —A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, which will run through the middle of March, will include powerful rare artifacts — the actual handwritten manuscript for Suite Française, the valise in which it was found, and many personal papers and family photos. The majority of these documents and artifacts have never been outside of France. For fans of her work, this exhibition is an opportunity to really “get to know” Irene. And for those who can’t visit, there will be a special website that will live on the Museum’s site
The Museum will host several public programs over the course of the exhibition’s run that will put Némirovsky’s work and life into historical and literary context. Book clubs and groups are invited to the Museum for tours and discussions in the exhibition’s adjacent Salon (by appointment). It is the Museum’s hope that the exhibit will engage visitors and promote dialogue about this extraordinary writer and the complex time in which she lived and died. To book a group tour, please contact Tracy Bradshaw at 646.437.4304 or Please visit our website at for up-to-date information about upcoming public programs or to join our e-bulletin list.
Thanks for sharing this info with your readers. Let me know if you need any more.
-Elizabeth Sinnreich (