Thursday, January 27, 2011

Permanent Parisians: Montmartre Cemetery

The Cimetière de Montmartre (formerly called Cimetière du Nord) was a favorite of composer Hector Berlioz, who remarked, “My favorite walk, especially when it is raining, when it is pouring rain, is through Montmartre cemetery, which is near where I live. I often go there, and I have many friends there.”

Well, he never left the neighborhood, because he is buried beneath an elegant black granite tombstone in section 20 of this remarkable cemetery. In the late 1820s Berlioz became obsessed with an English actress who performed at the Odéon Theatre. Although they had never met, Berlioz stalked her, sent dozens of passionate love letters and attended performance after performance in which she starred. This actress, Harriet Smithson, was the inspiration for Symphonie Fantastique, perhaps his best known composition. They eventually married, but just six years later Berlioz took up with Marie Recio, who became his long-time mistress. Today’s visitors who come to pay homage to Berlioz might be astonished to find that things are rather cozy in the Berlioz grave, which contains the bodies of Hector, Harriet and Marie. The names of both women are literally etched in stone, side-by-side on the right vertical surface of the tombstone. Trust me on this.
There are graves of other musicians of note: Jacques Offenbach (born Jakob, a Jewish German cellist who changed his name to Jacques when he moved to Paris to delight the city with his can-can music, still performed nightly at the Moulin Rouge just down the street), Léo Delibes (composer of operas and ballet music), Charles-Valentin Alkan (composer tragically killed when a bookcase fell on him), Adolphe Adam (composer of “O Holy Night”), Nadia Boulanger (influential music teacher of scores of American composers - and her sister Lili, as well). Not to mention Adolphe Sax (Belgian by birth), who invented the saxophone.

Bust of Offenbach

But wait, there’s more!
Stuffed into these crowded 28 acres are painters Edgar Degas, Fragonard, Greuze and Delaroche; writers Émile Zola (who was later moved to the Panthéon, but his family grave and original resting place remains here), Henri Murger (see separate post: La Bohème), Alexandre Dumas, fils (see separate post), Heinrich Heine, Stendhal (The Red and the Black) and Gautier; celebrated courtesan Marie Duplessis (née Alphonsine Plessis, mistress of Alexandre Dumas, fils, and the inspiration for La Traviata – see separate post); Juliette Récamier (who gave her name to the récamier sofa of which she was fond); Foucault (demonstrator of the earth’s rotation with his pendulum) and physicist Ampère, after whom the amp (unit of electrical current) is named; Russian dancer Nijinsky; Poulbot (caricaturist and illustrator); and film maker François Truffaut (Jules and Jim).
Not to overlook Dalida, Miss Egypt 1954, who went on to become sort of a Parisian Cher. She became an actress and singer with an almost mythical cult following, especially among gay men during her later disco period; they adorn her grave with flowers to this day. She committed suicide in 1987, as did her first husband and two of her lovers.

So there you have it, all crammed into the melting pot that is Montmartre Cemetery.
Métro: Blanche (entry at Rue Rachel, just beyond the Moulin Rouge nightclub)