Salons & Creativity
Ernest Hemingway, a great admirer of Winesburg, Ohio, the masterful collection of interconnected short stories by Sherwood Anderson, managed to meet the prominent writer when they were both in Chicago in 1921. Anderson took Hemingway under his wing and encouraged him to go to Paris. He provided advice; attended Hemingway’s wedding to Hadley in September; and wrote letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Beach. By December Ernest and Hadley were in Paris.
Anderson chose the city and people for Hemingway well. A large scene of American expat writers and painters had established itself in Paris. Gertrude Stein regularly held salons in the apartment she shared with Alice B Toklas at 27 rue de Fleurus. Ezra Pound was already an established writer who also served as a facilitator for young artists. Sylvia Beach published books — she was the first to publish James Joyce’s hulking Ulysses in 1922 before anyone else was sure what to make of it — and she also ran a bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., at 12 rue de l’Odéon in the 6th arrondissement in 1922. The shop lent and sold books and provided a gathering place for Hemingway, Pound, Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Ford Madox Ford, and several others.
(Today there is a Shakespeare & Co at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, in the 5th arrondissement, on the edge of the Left Bank with a clear clear view of Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité. This Shakespeare & Co is faithful to the many generous practices of its namesake established by Sylvia Beach — including lending books and exchanging labor in the bookshop for a place to sleep — but it is otherwise unrelated to Beach’s store, which closed permanently in 1941 when the Germans occupied Paris.)
Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return provides a history of the expats — the group Gertrude Stein would call The Lost Generation — among whom Hemingway now found himself. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harold Stearns, John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, and a whole slew of literary aspirants out of a scene in Greenwich Village all moved to Paris within weeks of each other, but not because it had the reputation as an incubator for young artists — indeed, it was the expats’ exploits that created the American in Paris reputation. News of the expats’ doings grew into a legend that attracted more wannabes, but it seems that by the time one reads about a locus of creativity, the people who made it happen have already come and gone. You can’t go to a place you hear about because it’s likely too late. Instead you have to find a group and go somewhere with them, even if it’s a local apartment; do it on your own; or join an MFA program, which, with varying degrees of success, will recreate the experience.
Henry Miller came to Paris, first on a visit in 1928, then for his transformational experience in 1931, but by then the expats were long gone. Fortunately Miller founds his own group of aspiring writers and learned from them.
The elusiveness of artistic experience doesn’t stop the tourists. The History News Network of the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences at George Washington University reports that, in the wake of the American expats:
The 1920s [in Paris] saw the numbers of American tourists increase from 15,000 to over 400,000 annually and the number of expats living in the city jumped from 8,000 to nearly 23,000 by 1923.
The myth of Paris as the City of Love where artists cut their chops and mated with their muses was born.
In those years after World War I, life in Paris was cheap. Rent was cheap. Wine was cheap. Food was cheap. And if you were flat broke, likely your friend could afford to buy you a sandwich. One could linger, write, and drink wine or coffee at a café table all afternoon without being hastened away (now a brief spell for lunch at a table in La Closerie des Lilas, where Hemingway wrote most of The Sun Also Rises, will run you at least US$100). Despite the post-war recession, Paris had a reputation for art, and since the Armory Show in 1913, there was an awareness among the artistically sensitive that Paris, despite its filth and poverty, was the place to be. For young American artists struggling to gain a foothold in the world, Paris did not look down on their efforts to write, paint, and create, while America perceived their creativity as a bumming about, a loitering in delusion. The US was economically brutal and fascistic in its judgements.
It was with the support of the society into which Sherwood Anderson introduced Ernest Hemingway that he made supportive contact with fellow artists like Pound and Fitzgerald and salon keepers like Stein and Beach. These people informed his transition from newsman to author — an author whose novels would win the Nobel Prize.
Paris’s greatest benefit for aspiring writers was the creative synergy of being in a community of like-minded people. Cowley notes that a disproportionate number of the aspirants succeeded in gaining credible publication, and most returned to the US as doors opened to the lives they wanted to lead back home. Writer Andre Dubus likened the expats in Paris to a prototypical MFA program. The expats arrived like graduate students, immersed themselves in studies that consumed them, and transformed themselves into new people at a new level of being. There is no disputing that something transformative happened for the writers and artists among the expats in Paris.
One phenomenon in the lives of the rich & famous is the party house — a safehouse where they can relax, party, and be among people like themselves as opposed to the starstruck unwashed masses. Yet famous people are, more often than not, creatives in some way. So perhaps you could put party houses and salons on a sliding scale to rate how much of the creative synergy happens there. They are, in a way, insular models of what happened in Paris.
Salons have included those of Gertrude Stein, Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, the Bloomsbury Group in London, the Algonquin Round Table in New York, and, in a sense, all the Left Bank among the American expats. The Dadaists had centers of activity in New York, Zurich, and Paris.
Post-war periods tend to stimulate a backlash to the conformity that stifles a country after a war. The Lost Generation served that purpose after World War I, and the Beats filled those shoes after World War II. Wikipedia says, “The Beat Hotel was a small, run-down hotel of 42 rooms at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Latin Quarter of Paris, notable chiefly as a residence for members of the Beat poetry movement of the mid-20th century,” and in that scuzzy building much of the Beat aesthetic coalesced around Ginsberg, Burroughs, and others.
Andy Warhol’s The Factory in New York held a non-stop party for artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and, occasionally, Salvador Dalí; writers like Truman Capote and Allen Ginsberg; rock stars like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Lou Reed; actors like Liza Minnelli, and speed freaks while, in the background, a ménage gathered by Warhol of porn stars, drag queens, junkies, and musicians produced prints and paintings, starred in Warhol’s films, and contributed to the decadent ambiance of the place.
Dennis Hopper lived with his first wife Brooke Hayward and their kids in Los Angeles at 1712 North Crescent Heights. Hayward and Hopper were avid art collectors, and the house was decked with paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, and Ed Ruscha. Hopper was also an avid photographer, inseparable from his camera. His candid pictures of Warhol, Jane Fonda, The Byrds, Paul Newman, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Brown, Peter Fonda, Ed Ruscha, the Grateful Dead, Michael McClure, and Timothy Leary, among others, were shown in gallery shows and museums and published in several books, including 1712 North Crescent Heights. By all accounts, many celebrated people were passing through the house at all hours of day and night,
For a fleeting week in August 1965 the house at 2850 Benedict Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills hosted a party with far-flung reverberations. Beatle Manager Brian Epstein rented the house for the Beatles’ six-day respite from their US tour. In attendance were actress Eleanor Bron (who had been in the film Help! with them), Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds, and Peter Fonda. Outside the perimeter the estate was besieged by fans.
Peter Fonda approached John Lennon by the swimming pool — both of them were tripping on LSD at the time — and said, “I know what it’s like to be dead.” It’s a strange thing to say to anyone at any time, but it must have been doubly disturbing while high. Lennon wrote “She Said, She Said” about the incident. (When the Beatles wanted to insult someone in a song they did a gender reversal in the lyrics. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi met a similar fate in “Sexy Sadie.”)
The week-long experimentation with LSD transformed the Beatles into a psychedelic band, and they led the trend that all rock bands followed in between 1966 and 1968. The wake of the sudden (arguably pot-driven) musical maturation evident in Rubber Soul (1965) and the psychedelic themes and effects on Revolver (1966) climaxed in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and echoed throughout rock. The Rolling Stones recorded Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967), most of which seems calculated to stimulate hallucinatory effects, and maybe it’s purely a personal reaction, but for me there is also a psychedelic fear associated with LSD almost palpable in the interstices between the songs of this Stones album.
The Who produced Magic Bus (1968), which seems to allude to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ bus, Furthur [sic], which traveled around the US so the group could host “be-in’s” that featured Kool-Aid spiked with LSD. Both Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and Kesey wrote about the adventures of the Pranksters.
The Beach Boys produced a psychedelic album Pet Sounds (1966). Jefferson Airplane emerged from the San Francisco scene with songs like “White Rabbit,” which ends with Grace Slick belting out the punch line of the song, “Feed your head! Feed your head!” Local psychedelic bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and Shiva’s Headband produced strong work that reached beyond Austin city limits to put the city on the musical map for the first time.
Between marriages Dennis Hopper moved to Taos in 1970 to replenish his art collection— Hayward had gotten the lion’s share of their paintings in the divorce settlement — and he bought the Mabel Dodge Luhan house more as a hideout than a party house. He was editing Easy Rider and hiding from co-star Peter Fonda, with whom his relationship had become conflictive. It wasn’t under Hopper’s ownership but under Luhan’s that the house had been a high-energy gathering place for creatives.
Mabel Ganson was born in 1879 of a wealthy family in New York. Her first husband, Karl Evans, was the son of a shipping heir, but he died in a hunting accident. In Paris in 1904 she married Edwin Dodge, an architect, and from 1905 to 1912 they lived in a Medici villa near Florence. She entertained many visitors from Paris including Gertrude Stein, her companion Alice B Toklas, and her brother Leo.
In 1912 Mabel’s marriage with Edwin Dodge was becoming difficult. They returned to America, and she began hosting a weekly salon at her apartment in Greenwich Village attended regularly by Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, pioneering feminist Emma Goldman, painter Charles Demuth, politically oriented journalists Walter Lippmann and John Reed, among many other luminaries. At one meeting of the salon, Anthropologist Raymond Harrington, who specialized in indigenous cultures of the American southwest, shared peyote with the group.
Not surprisingly, given her background in art and her connections to Europe, Mabel was involved in the watershed Armory Show, which, in 1913, introduced modern European art to the US. After the show she traveled in Europe with John Reed, who had written Ten Days that Shook the World about the Russian revolution, which he experienced directly. They hung out in Paris with Stein, Toklas, Picasso, and others at Stein’s salon.
Mabel’s peregrinations landed her at Taos, New Mexico, in 1917, where she founded a new salon. Tony Lujan, whom she’d recently married, built a house for her at 240 Morada Lane in Taos, which became the famous Mabel Dodge Luhan House, which Dennis Hopper later bought. At their salons in the many-bedroomed house they hosted Marsden Hartley, Arnold Ronnebeck, Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una, Florence McClung, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Hunter Austin, Mary Foote, Frank Waters, Jaime de Angulo, Aldous Huxley, Ernie O’Malley and others.
Much creative work is necessarily done in solitude, so for the artist the endless party becomes at times a thing to flee. As James Baldwin’s fame grew, his house filled with permanent guests — friends, idolaters, and opportunists — who made it difficult to get any work done. One day he dismissed his retinue and moved to Europe where he found not only the peace & quiet he needed to work again but also respect because Europe, though far from perfect, was (and still is) much less racist than the United States.
In the years following World War II the Mediterranean shore of northern Africa was the International Zone, a transition area ruled jointly by a British, French, & American committee, which is to say it was scarcely governed at all. In the riotous years of the International Zone, Tangier was an exotic getaway for the rich & famous where anyone with money could have any fantasy fulfilled. William S Burroughs’s semi-science fiction work, Naked Lunch, calls it the InterZone, a place where anything can happen.
Barbara Woolworth Hutton, heir to the Woolworth fortune was famous and perhaps a comic figure in the gossip pages because of her wealth, flashy lifestyle, and a series of rash, short-lived marriages. After her marriage to Cary Grant ended, she moved to Paris, then bought a palace in Tangier, which became a Bacchanalian epicenter for European party-goers — close enough for a short flight, but far enough to be exotic and perverse. By analogy, Tangier was to Europe as Jeffrey Epstein’s Caribbean island was to the US. When Barbara Hutton moved back to Europe to marry Prince Igor Troubetzkoy, the party in Tangier moved to writer Paul Bowles’s house, which he shared with his wife Jane.
Both Paul & Jane were children of the Gatsby-like wealthy society of Long Island. They were close friends and both gay, and in a particularly homophobic time & place, they rescued each other with a marriage of convenience. That was the first step, but that wasn’t enough, so they acquired a taste for extensive traveling and eventually settled in Tangier as a base because it offered an enticing city, proximity to Europe, a vast street pharmacopeia, and the satisfaction of infinite fantasies (more important for Paul than for Jane, who preferred a more limited range of friendships).
There was constant partying at the Bowles house, people coming & going and making much ado, so to write, Paul would travel, usually by train, around Morocco, and that experience informs his novel, The Sheltering Sky (later Bernardo Bertolucci made it into a wonderful movie with John Malkovitch & Debra Winger; Bowles has a cameo). The Sheltering Sky’s leitmotif runs throughout Bowles’s work: rich but naïve Americans abroad — like someone blithely setting out to swim across the ocean as if it were only a ribbon of river — they soon find themselves in depths over their heads. Stranded presumptuous travelers abound in Bowles’s work.
After one excursion around the circumference of Morocco to escape the noise & get some writing done, Paul Bowles returned to his celebrated party home to find five long-haired young men in his living room — three of them passed out, and two pacing the floor.
“Who are these people in our living room, dear,” Paul asked Jane.
“Those are the Rolling Stones.”
Scattered throughout Europe are caves where the walls are painted with handprints and crude outlines of animals — some recognizable, some not.
The cave paintings at Lascaux in southwestern France include nearly 6,000 figures that likely date back to 17,000 BCE. Given the number of paintings, many people painted the works. So, in a way, what we see at Lascaux is not only some of the world’s oldest art, but also evidence of one of the oldest salons. Artistic expression is a fundamental element of human nature, so it’s conceivable that the salon also lies in the human impulse to reach out to others and make art with them.