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Edited by Jennifer Lee
267 pages. Vintage Books. $13.
August 16, 2003
(pages A15, A20)

With Writers to Thank, We'll Always Have Paris


L ooking for an apartment in Paris 20 years ago, I trudged through the Marais and the Latin Quarter with a real estate agent who insisted she would quickly find just the place for me. She didn't — everything was wildly expensive and pitifully small — until it dawned on me: she thought this was where Americans wanted to be.

"I don't have to live near Americans," I told her. She looked skeptical but, next morning, she showed me three delightful places in much less trendy neighborhoods. By aperitif time we'd settled on one. I am still there.

Parisians have a certain idea about Americans. It's not hard to understand why. We have a certain idea about Paris. We flock to the same hotels, push into the same restaurants, shop in the same stores and boutiques. We buy the same trinkets, trot en masse through the Louvre, call the waiter "garçon" and come away convinced we know Paris. "There is only one Paris," we say thereafter.

In fact there are two. Tourist Paris is real enough, but the other Paris is important, too: the Paris of the imagination, the Paris of the heart. You can't get to that Paris on the Métro; you must find it in books. Providentially, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of books about Paris in print, an astonishing number of them by, about and essentially for Americans. Anyone can stroll the rue de Varenne, but through a book one can be there in November 1919 when Edith Wharton, who lived there, was summoned to her balcony by the bells of Ste.-Clotilde, a nearby church.

"Through the deep expectant hush," she wrote, "we heard, one after another, the bells of Paris calling to each other."

And then: "At first, as it seemed, softly, questioningly, almost incredulously; then with a gathering rush of sound and speed, precipitately, exultantly, till all their voices met and mingled in a crash of triumph. We had fared so long on the thin diet of hope deferred that for a moment or two our hearts wavered and doubted. Then, like the bells, they swelled to bursting, and we knew the war was over." Only in a book can we spend a moment in the Latin Quarter in the 1930's with A. J. Liebling, one of the finest chroniclers of the American experience in Paris. "From my first appearance in the quarter," he wrote, "my French was no worse than that of a White Russian or a Czech, and I rose rapidly and successively through the grades of being mistaken for a Hungarian, German Swiss, Alsatian and Belgian from the Flemish-speaking provinces."

These two excerpts are from longer ones — almost 30 of them — plucked from novels, memoirs, letters and columns, and newly collected in a modest volume called "Paris in Mind." Among the contributors: old standards like Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway and Langston Hughes; old, old standards like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and talented younger people like Patric Kuh and David Sedaris.

The American experience in Paris is well-trodden territory and the editor, Jennifer Lee, had her work cut out for her looking for fresh and vibrant, if not quite new, material. Some selections don't work. A single paragraph from E. B. White is ungenerous; Art Buchwald's interview with Vernon Duke about his song "April in Paris" is inane, and M. F. K. Fisher's observation that "Paris was too full of people we knew" isn't much better.

Dave Barry is, well, Dave Barry. When a waiter calls him Mr. Smarty Pants in French, he thoughtfully gives us the original: "M. Pantalons Intelligents." David Sedaris is wildly happy to discover that Paris may be the best place in the world to see reruns of old American films. He watches six a week. "I think of the great city teeming on the other side of that curtain," he writes, "and then the lights go down and I love Paris."

Patric Kuh, chef and writer, recalls the tense, brutal atmosphere of a brasserie kitchen. Janet Flanner recounts the oddly compelling story of a Parisian serial killer.

Not everyone is happy in "Paris in Mind." Anaïs Nin is crushed under the weight of the literary establishment. To Irwin Shaw, Paris in winter is "for those who are unhappy and are looking for a city to be unhappy in." John Adams is disgusted by Benjamin Franklin's easy ways with Parisian women, Mark Twain gets conned by a tour guide, and Langston Hughes arrives in town broke. "I had no idea where I would sleep that night, or where to go about finding a cheap hotel," he writes. "So I began to look around for someone I could talk to. To tell the truth, I began to look for a colored person on the streets of Paris."

James Baldwin, bitter about the United States, is quickly disillusioned by Paris and the arrogance of the French. On some level, they must have appreciated his critique — they made him a Commander of the Legion of Honor. Ada Smith, the nightclub owner known as Bricktop, recalls Paris night life in the 1920's when she sang at a club called le Grand Duc (where the 24-year-old Langston Hughes was working in the kitchen). Bricktop befriended an American teenager named Josephine Baker who became the toast of Paris, often singing a song that could be a musical theme for this attractive book:

J'ai deux amours,
Mon pays et Paris.
I have two loves,
My own country and Paris.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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©2003 Jennifer Lee