I was born one evening in March 1941 on a bench at the Cafè de Flore.Simone Signoret – Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be
Paris is, without a doubt, a city full of history and culture. So much in fact that when you start walking around certain places you will, of necessity, end up travelling back in time. How?
Let me bring you back in 1913, right in the heart of the artists meeting place.
THE BIRTHPLACE OF SURREALISM
Walking around the Saint-Germain-Des-Près neighbourhood Guillaume Apollinaire, a young writer in his 30s, brings himself to the Cafe De Flore. He starts liking the Parisian cafe so much that, with his friend and roommate Andrè Salmon, decides to found the literary magazine Les Soirees de Paris and make the ground floor of the cafe their newsroom and personal office.
He would arrive at the cafe every morning bright and early, take a seat next to the heater and spend the day writing his books, talking to friends and holding meetings.
Not even the war stops him from going to the cafe and one day, in 1917, he introduces André Breton and Philippe Soupault laying the foundation of the Dadaist group.
But Guillaume doesn’t stop there: in the same year, he coins the word “surrealism” and just like that Cafe de Flore finds itself to be the birthplace of the surrealist revolution.
THE ’30s AT CAFE DE FLORE
By 1930s, the Flore is one of the most popular spots among French artists. Funny thing is, writers are going there not necessarily to meet other people and be seen, but to have a place to work in peace rather than their own tiny Parisian apartments.
Writers take over the place and start sitting next to each other, so that even publishers inevitably begin to frequent the cafe.
Next, artists from the Montparnasse scene arrive at the Flore, so that the cafe acquires, among others, new regulars like Pablo Picasso.
JACQUES PRÉVERT AND THE OCTOBER GROUP
The ’30s are without a doubt years filled with all kinds of art in Paris and in particular at Cafe de Flore. Enter the cafe any day of the week and you will find writers on one side, with publishers just next to them, painters on another side and, new to the Flore, a group of filmmakers starts to make its appearance.
Around 1925, years of the Surrealism movement, a young Jaques Prévert arrives at Cafe de Flore and gets introduced to André Breton that, with his friend Apollinaire gone, is now one of the young leaders of the movement. Prévert joins the surrealists and becomes in no time an inspiration to his fellow artists.
By 1928, Jacques Prévert has a fall-out with Breton and stops his alliance with the surrealists. This doesn’t stop him from spending his days at the Flore, where in 1932 he starts bringing his new theatre company the October Group. Thanks to him, actors begin to populate the already famous Cafe de Flore.
THE YEARS OF THE OCCUPATION
It’s 1939, the world is at war and nobody is immune, nobody except the people frequenting the Flore.
Paul Boubal, the cafe’s new owner, has the brilliant idea to install a larger and more powerful heater to make the first floor of Cafe de Flore a warmer and more welcoming space. His plan works, writers start to enjoy their stay even more and decide to spend entire days at the Flore.
The first floor of the cafe is now as busy as the ground floor and writers from the Montparnasse scene, including Simone de Beauvoir, go there to find peace and work all day without having to consume too much. On the plus note, Saint-Germain-Des-Près is still not as famous as other neighbourhoods so that Germans rarely pay a visit to the Flore.
In 1941, Simone’s husband Jean-Paul Sartre arrives at the Flore and with his wife uses the cafe as their office.
We settled down there completely: from nine in the morning until noon, we worked there, we went for lunch and came back at two o’clock and then we talked with friends we made until eight o’clock. After dinner, we met the people we had appointment with. This may sound strange for you, but we were at home in the Flore.Jean-Paul Sartre
At this point, we have the October Group on one side, the Sartre family on the other and even a table reserved to the communist group, while the ground floor remains the headquarters of Breton and his surrealists friends. During the war, at Cafe de Flore you can smell freedom.
PARIS AFTER THE WAR – THE POUILLY CLUB OF FRANCE
By the end of the war, the cafe is transformed into the epicentre of Parisian artistic and intellectual life.
Artists from all over the city are now meeting at the Flore, friendships are being made and new visions and ideas are created at those very tables.
Boubal is loved by all his customers, he spends the day conversing with them from table to table and also arrives to create the PCF (Pouilly Club of France) where Pouilly is the name of the white wine served at the Flore. In the members of this club we can find among others Lawrence Durell, Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway, sitting every day at the table on the right side under the clock.
THE MOVIE AND FASHION SCENE
It’s the ’60s and the Flore is more popular than ever. If in the earlier days writers were spending their time there to work and have a pleasant stay, the notorious cafe is now used by movie actors as a place to see and be seen.
Jane Fonda, Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardo, Roman Polanski and the entire movie scene takes control of the terrace, while on the other side of the place it’s possible to spot fashion icons such as Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.
If you are lucky enough, you can find sitting at a table the composer Léo Ferré with Pepé, his monkey, on his shoulder.
THE ’80s AND THE BIG NAMES AT THE FLORE
If you fast forward a few years and land in the ’80s, entering Cafe de Flore is like entering a hive of artists, intellectuals, writers, actors, designers and reporters.
Gianni Agnelli is organising family dinners at the cafe, Francis Bacon spends entire days sitting on one of the tables, interviews and meetings are held at the place and the waiter could even “fire” you if by mistake you go and sit at a table reserved to one of their regular customers.
If you go there first thing in the morning you will find Jack Nicholson sitting outside and smoking a cigar, while Robert De Niro spends hours observing people passing in the street. During Spring, Isabella Rossellini is sitting at one of those tables, go inside and you’ll find Sharon Stone sipping champagne. Johnny Depp doesn’t really care what time is it or what month of the year, but every time he is in Paris he makes sure to spend some time at Cafe de Flore. And again, Al Pacino, Tim Burton, Gary Oldman and many others often meet at the cafe.
BACK TO OUR DAYS
Many are the big names that still populate the scene at Cafe de Flore, born as a literary café and now among the most popular meeting places for artists of all kinds.
It’s not a secret that the prices of the cafe are definitely on the expensive side. In fact, on my visit I ended up paying €15.00 for a fresh orange juice and a slice of cake, but at the same time I got to sit at one of the tables outside on a sunny day, had a lovely chat with the waiter that told me a bit about the story of this place and for just a second I felt like part of a movie set.
It has been a truly unforgettable moment that everybody should get to experience once in their lifetime. Next time you are in Paris, make sure you take some time out of your busy schedule to sit at the very same tables many artists have sat at before you.