The Palais-Royal


In the 1780s Louis-Philippe duc d'Orléans (nicknamed "Philippe Egalité" for his egalitarian political views, but a big spender deeply in debt) turned real estate developer, hiring Victor Louis to build three large apartment buildings and arcades lined with boutiques, restaurants, cafés, and two theaters in the garden so loved by Diderot.
    The two theaters are still in service. The Théâtre du Palais-Royal is of little literary interest, having specialized in light comedies and operettas since it opened in 1785, but the Théâtre-Français is enormously important. Completed in 1790, this gem of a Doric-style theater, all gilt and red velvet, with 892 seats, became the home of the Comédie-Française in 1799, as it remains to this day. Its entrance is at No. 2 rue de Richelieu.
    Molière never played this theater, having died long before it was built, but because the Comédie-Française was an outgrowth of his old troupe and his plays have always been the most frequently performed, it is known as "the House of Molière."
    The armchair in which he was carried home after his fatal attack in 1673 is displayed in a glass case in the upper lobby.


In the early decades of the nineteenth century the Palais-Royal was a mecca for libertine living. Balzac, that insatiable explorer of the "ocean" of Paris, used it often as a setting in the Comédie humaine.     
    In Le Père Goriot, set in 1819, Delphine sends Rastignac into one of the Palais-Royal's gambling dens to bet her last hundred francs to "either lose it all or bring me back six thousand francs." After an old man at the table explains the rules of roulette, Rastignac bets on twenty-one, his age. To everyone's amazement, he wins seven thousand francs on two spins of the wheel.
The Palais-Royal in
the 19th century, the
theater of the Comédie-
Française in foreground
Another Balzacian hero visits a gambling house in La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass's Skin), but the outcome is far different. A brilliant student, now twenty-six, desperately poor with no foreseeable means of achieving his extravagant dreams of wealth and power, Raphaël de Valentin has decided to bet the little money he has left, and if he loses, to commit suicide. Luck is not with him. After losing his last sou, he heads for the Pont-Royal "lost in a daze of meditation similar to that which used to fasten on criminals as the tumbrel conveyed them from the Palais de Justice to the Place de Grève, toward the scaffold reddened with the blood shed there since 1793."
    The Balzac character most closely linked to the Palais-Royal is Lost Illusions's Lucien de Rubempré. Recently arrived from Angoulême in 1821, the "great man in embryo" goes to the Palais-Royal hoping to find a publisher for his collection of delicate poems Les Marguerites. There Lucien's mentor, the venal theater critic Lousteau, introduces him to the book publisher Dauriat, who is also a mogul in the far more lucrative trade of journalism. He grudgingly agrees to read Lucien's poems. That night, on a dare, Lucien knocks off a cleverly flattering review of a play, making his name overnight in that sleazy craft. When he returns to the Palais-Royal a week later, Dauriat tells him that he has rejected Les Marguerites -- for his own good:

    "Yes, Monsieur, you'll get more money from me in the next six months for the articles I shall ask from you than you would from your unsaleable poetry."

    "But what about my reputation as a writer?" cried Lucien.
Dauriat and Lousteau burst out laughing.

    "God save us!" said Lousteau. "The man still has his illusions."


In 1836 Philippe Egalité's son, the "citizen king" Louis-Philippe, ordered the gaming houses closed and the prostitutes expelled. Overnight, the Palais-Royal slipped into the faded gentility that characterizes it to this day. By the late 1860s, the period in which The American is set, it was respectable enough for a Jamesian hero:

    The place was filled with people, the fountains were spouting, a band was playing, clusters of chairs were gathered beneath all the lime trees, and buxom, white-capped nurses, seated along the benches, were offering to their infant charges the amplest facilities for nutrition. There was an easy, homely gaiety to the whole scene, and Christopher Newman felt that it was most characteristically Parisian.

    Over a drink at a café, Newman confides to his old business acquaintance Tom Tristram his reason for abandoning his obsessive money-making pursuits in America: "I have come to see Europe, to get the best out of it I can. I want to see all the great things, and do what the clever people do." That includes, "if the fancy takes me, to marry a wife."
In 1875, James, then thirty-two, moved to Paris, renting an apartment at No. 29 rue Cambon, near Place Vendôme. He supported himself by writing a series of sketches for the New York Tribune -- "Paris through Fresh Eyes," the paper billed them -- while finishing his first novel, Roderick Hudson, and starting The American. The following year he moved to London and finished the novel. 


During the same period, the old comrades Flaubert, Turgenev, and Edmond de Goncourt used to dine regularly at the Grand Véfour, inviting the younger writers Zola and Daudet, then in their thirties, to join them. "Les Dîners des Cinq" was a revival of "Les Dîners Magny," held twice monthly in the 1860s at the Left Bank restaurant of the same name. The first group had been sadly diminished by the deaths of Théophile Gautier, Sainte-Beuve, and Goncourt's younger brother Jules, while George Sand, a sometime participant, had retired to Nohant. The five nicknamed their new get-togethers "le dîner des auteurs sifflés" -- the dinner of authors who have been hissed -- all having written at least one play that died an unquiet death.
    Opened in 1784, the Grand Véfour at No. 17 rue de Beaujolais is one of the most glamorous and highly rated restaurants in Paris, with prices to match. Hugo, Balzac, George Sand, the Palais-Royal neighbors Colette and Jean Cocteau, André Malraux, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were among the countless writers who dined amid its splendid gilt and wood-paneled décor. Drawings by Cocteau decorate the menus, the ashtrays are modeled on George Sand's hands, and brass name plaques of famous diners are fixed to the tables.


Colette lived a few steps from the Grand Véfour building twice, from 1927 to 1930 and from 1938 until her death sixteen years later. Both apartments were at No. 9 rue de Beaujolais, where there is a plaque in her honor.
    The first period began four years after the breakup of her marriage to Henry de Jouvenel, who left her when he found out that Colette had seduced his sixteen-year-old son Bertrand -- she was fifty-four when it started -- an affair that went on for three years. She sublet a friend's entresol studio, the view of the garden blocked by the arcades, expecting to stay only a month, but ending up keeping "the tunnel" for three years. During this period she wrote La Naissance du jour (Break of Day), her reflections on ageing and the renunciation of love, and her classic memoir about her mother, Sido.

    In 1938 Colette leased a spacious apartment upstairs with a superb view of the garden. Now she had "Paris de ma fenêtre." At sixty-five, she was happily married to her devoted third husband, Maurice Goudeket, but the first truly peaceful time in her life quickly turned anxious the next year when France and Germany went to war, and all the more so during the Occupation, when her deepest concern was for Maurice, who was Jewish. He was arrested in December 1941 and interned at Compiègne, but because the German ambassador's wife was a fan of Colette's, she managed to get him released after two months. He lay low in the country until the Liberation.
    Nonetheless, this was a productive period for Colette. Le Pur et l'impur (The Pure and the Impure), her observations and analyses of sexual relationships, particularly between women, came out in 1941. She also wrote her famous story "Gigi" and her chronicles Journal à rebours and Paris de ma fenêtre, which reveal the hardships of daily life during the Occupation.
The war finally over, she was elected to the Académie Goncourt.      
In her final decade, Colette was a fat old lady half crippled by arthritis, but loved by the French people and respected by fellow writers from Gide to Simone de Beauvoir, who called her "a formidable goddess-mother."
    In a 1948 meeting set up by Cocteau, Truman Capote, then twenty-four, went to pay his respects:
She received me in her bedroom. I was astonished. Because she looked precisely as Colette ought to have looked. And that was astonishing indeed. Reddish, frizzy, rather African-looking hair; slanting, alley-cat eyes rimmed with kohl; a finely made face flexible as water . . . rouged cheeks . . . lips thin and tense as wire but painted a really brazen hussy scarlet.      
Colette and her husband
Maurice Goudeket in their
Palais-Royal apartment
Refused a religious funeral by the Church when she died in 1954, she was saved by the French government, which put on a magnificent State service in the Cour d'Honneur of the Palais-Royal. Colette is buried at Père Lachaise cemetery.     

Jean Cocteau in 1941

In 1996, a small square on the Rue Saint-Honoré side of the Comédie-Française was christened Place Colette.


At the end of 1940, six months into the Occupation, Jean Cocteau moved to an entresol flat around the corner from his friend Colette at No. 36 rue de Montpensier, where there is a plaque in his honor. Despite his fame as a relentlessly self-promoting artist, poet, collaborator of Satie, Milhaud, and Stravinsky, playwright of La Voix humaine, La Machine infernale, and Les Parents terribles, novelist of Les Enfants terribles, and avant-garde film maker of Le Sang d'un poète, Cocteau, then fifty, was constantly broke because of his opium addiction. But with the support of Jean Marais, the astonishingly handsome actor half his age who became his lover in 1937, Cocteau was well on his way to kicking his addiction.    
    Cocteau felt a good deal of empathy with the occupiers ("The honor of France may one day lie in the fact that it refused to fight," he wrote in his journal on May 5, 1942), and he had few qualms about cultivating professional contacts among the collaborationists, yet he was not afraid to make waves in support of a friend, as he did for Max Jacob, fighting to get him released from the Nazi detention center at Drancy. He almost succeeded, but sadly, the frail, elderly poet contracted bronchial pneumonia there and died.
    In 1943, Jean Genet brought him the manuscript of his first novel, Notre Dame-des-Fleurs (Our Lady of the Flowers), which so awed Cocteau that he immediately made arrangements to get it published. The following year he saved Genet from life imprisonment as a career criminal after his thirteenth felony conviction. "You don't lock up Rimbaud," he told the court.
    After the war, Cocteau escaped being charged with collaborationist activities because the prosecutors failed to fit his actions into their categories for indictable crimes. 
    In 1946 he launched his triumphant postwar career as a movie director with La Belle et la Bête, a huge hit starring Jean Marais. In the money at last, he bought a country home with Marais the following year in Milly-la-Fôret southwest of Paris, where he spent most of his time from then on. His success in films continued with Les Parents terribles, Orphée, and Le Testament d'Orphée. He was elected to the Académie-Française in 1955 and died eight years later at the age of seventy-four.
    Four years after his death, Cocteau's name was published on a list of Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion, said to be a secret brotherhood founded in Jerusalem in 1099. The Priory of Sion was later revealed to be an elaborate hoax, but Dan Brown spun it with resounding success in The Da Vinci Code, with "Jean XIII Cocteau" mentioned a number of times to lend the far-fetched story a touch of verisimilitude.