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 name – Francis de Tournon (1489-1562) was an abbot of Saint-Germain des Prés, as well as a Cardinal and noted statesman.