The Beat Hotel
Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1958-1963by Barry Miles
“An entertaining narrative about important writers now considered American literary heroes.” –Publishers Weekly
The Beat Hotel has been closed for nearly forty years. But for a brief period–from just after the publication of Howl in 1957 until the building was sold in 1963–it was home to Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Brion Gysin, Peter Orlovsky, Harold Norse, and a host of other luminaries of the Beat Generation. Now, Barry Miles–acclaimed author of many books on the Beats and a personal acquaintance of many of them–vividly excavates this remarkable period and restores it to a historical picture that has, until now, been skewed in favor of the two coasts of America.
A cheap rooming house on the bohemian Left Bank, the hotel was inhabited mostly by writers and artists, and its communal atmosphere spurred the Beats to incredible heights of creativity. Its inhabitants followed the Howl obscenity trial, and they corresponded with Jack Kerouac as On the Road was taking off. There Ginsberg wrote “Kaddish,” “To Aunt Rose,” “At Apollinaire’s Grave,” and “The Lion for Real,” and Corso developed the mature voice of The Happy Birthday of Death. The Beat Hotel is where the Cut-up method was invented, and where Burroughs finished and published Naked Lunch and the Cut-up novels. From a party where Ginsberg and Corso drunkenly accosted Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, to an awestruck audience with Louis-Ferdinand C”line a year before he died; from a drug-addled party on a houseboat on the Seine with Errol Flynn and John Huston, to Burroughs’s near arrest as a heroin dealer: mischief, inspiration, and madness followed the Beats wherever they went. Based on firsthand accounts from diaries, letters, and many original interviews, The Beat Hotel is an intimate look at a crucial period for some of the twentieth century’s most enduring and daring writers.
“This book goes a long way toward expanding our understanding of what the Old World avant-garde tradition offered to Ginsberg and company during their self-imposed exile from America.” –San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“An entertaining narrative about important writers now considered American literary heroes.” –Publishers Weekly
“In many ways Miles’s book is a tribute to friendship. He demonstrates continually that what made the Beat Hotel so special was not just its residents, but the community among those residents.” –The Boston Book Review
“[T]his interesting blend of sexual gossip and literary scholarship . . . is fun reading, especially for those steeped in the Beats.” –Library Journal
9, rue Git-le-Coeur
I view life as a fortuitous collaboration ascribable to the fact that one finds oneself in the right place at the right time. For us, the “right place” was the famous “Beat Hotel” in Paris, roughly from 1958 to 1963. Brion Gysin, The Third Mind
In the 1950s the Left Bank, or Latin Quarter, was to Paris what Soho was to London, Greenwich Village was to New York, and North Beach was to San Francisco: an inexpensive central neighborhood where writers and artists could meet and spend their nights talking or drinking, where basic accommodation was cheap and the local people were tolerant of the antics of youth. The maze of small streets between the Blvd St. Germain and the river Seine housed dozens of small, low-priced residential hotels, home to many of the students from the nearby Sorbonne. The University of Paris was seven hundred years old and it was a long-established tradition for students to live in small hotels in the surrounding streets.
There were also art students and models from the “cole des Beaux Arts on the quai Augustins as well as many established artists whose ateliers were tucked away in small courtyards and side streets, recognizable by their north-facing skylights. Bohemians and students lived side by side with a large working-class population of old-time city dwellers, the true Parisians who filled the food markets on the rue de Buci or the covered market at Mabillon each morning and returned home with their produce long before the young bohemians had even sipped the first coffee of the day.
Inexpensive and run-down, the area around the rue Saint S’verin was a traditional center for clochards–tramps, bums–who once had a street of their own, the rue de Brévre, in the days when the area near Place Maubert was frequented by boatmen and tawsers. In the ’50s there were an estimated 10,000 such folk in Paris, both men and women, sleeping under bridges, on manhole covers in the public squares, wrapped in rags, warmed by the sewer heal, lying huddled against the exhaust vents of the Metro where the stale warm air was expelled.
The Latin Quarter was an area of dusty used bookshops, avant-garde art galleries, antiques shops, dealers in ethnological artifacts, and the tiny cramped offices of radical publishing houses and small presses specializing in experimental literature and the arts. Along the Seine the booksellers displayed tattered prints and well-thumbed books in boxes clamped to the river wall, which could be locked shut at night. All around the rue de Seine and Place St. Michel there were bookshops that featured titles in Surrealism, ‘Pataphysics, medicine, the occult, alchemy, and Asian mysticism. These were sometimes hidden in courtyards or on the higher floors of buildings, known only to aficionados.
There were artists’ cafés, like the Palette, where one could meet a gallery owner to plan a show, hire a model, or buy drugs. There were dozens of inexpensive restaurants such as the Café des Arts on the rue de Seine where art students sat in rows on benches; there was just one fixed-price three-course menu, and all the red wine you could drink stood in liter flagons on the bare wooden refectory tables. One café, Chez Raton, was so small that the bread was kept in baskets hanging from ropes above the tables and you had to wind them down to get some. Chez Jean, in a passageway off Blvd St. Germain, was one of the few restaurants in Paris to still have sawdust on the floor. Sometimes a cellist or guitarist played there. It was full of tough characters but the bohemian crowd liked to gather there too, and an uneasy truce was maintained. There were many cheap Chinese, Vietnamese, and North African restaurants in the neighborhood, particularly around Place Maubert and the rue de la Huchette.
Each night Blvd St. Germain was the scene of the greatest promenade in Paris as people made their way from Place Maubert to Place St. Germain des Pres and back again, past the grand cafés: the Brasserie Lipp, the Café aux Deux Magots, the Café de Flore, filled with existentialists and wealthy tourists watching and being watched. Some promenaders would stop off at the Pergola just behind the Mabillon Metro station, which had a 500 fr menu and was open all night. It was the principal gathering place for male and female homosexuals. Some of the young men wore lipstick and powder, and some of the more masculine women dressed as men. The Pergola also attracted the late-night student crowd, including many residents from the Beat Hotel, two streets away.
The Beat Hotel was located at 9, rue Git-le-Coeur, a narrow medieval lane running down to the Seine from the rue St. Andre des Arts to the quai Augustins in the oldest part of the Latin Quarter. In the thirteenth century the street was called rue de Gilles-le-Queux or Guy-le-Queux (Guy the cuisinier, or cook). It was known also as rue Guy-le-Preux. Over the centuries this transformed into Git-le-Coeur, which Brion Gysin claimed was a pun on the street name made in the early seventeenth century by Henri IV, the first Bourbon King of France, whose mistress lived on the street. The King passed by one day and remarked “Ici git mon coeur” (“Here lies my heart”). Like many of Gysin’s stories, it is probably untrue, but it sounds just fine.
An alternate story, found in Nichol’s Guide to Paris, claims that the street name commemorates the murder of Etienne Marcel, Provost of the Merchants and one of the fathers of Paris. On the night of July 31, 1358, he was assassinated in this street by Jean Maillart, a mercenary in the pay of the Dauphin Charles; the word git means “lies,” as on a tombstone inscription: “ci-git,” or “there lies.”
As in many of the old lanes in this quarter, the buildings are four stories high, usually leaning out over the street on the ground floor, then sloping quite steeply back away from the street on the three higher floors. Numbers 5, 7, and 9 were built in the late sixteenth century, originally encompassing the mansion of Pierre séguier, marquis d’O, which later belonged to the Duc de Luynes, the uncle of Racine. In 1933 Monsieur and Madame M. L. Rachou, a provincial couple from Giverny, near Rouen, northwest of Paris, bought number 9 to run as a hotel. Brion Gysin, who became very friendly with Madame Rachou during the years he lived at the hotel, said that they had only the g”rance, or management, of the hotel and did not own it, which is very probable as it is hard to imagine how the couple could have found the money to buy such a large building. Monsieur Rachou, acting as janitor and bellhop, was a huge, silent man, slow and patient with his guests. Madame was tiny and energetic, her short arms habitually folded over her pale blue housecoat with its round smocked collar–the sort that workingwomen wore throughout the nineteenth century, except on Sundays. She ran the small bistro on the ground floor and registered the guests.
The Rachous enjoyed the company of artists and writers and encouraged them to stay at the hotel. Madame Rachou would sometimes allow artists to pay with paintings, none of which she kept, not thinking for one moment that they would ever be valuable. Her affection for artists stemmed from her youth, when, at the age of twelve, she began working in a country inn at Giverny only a short walk from Monet’s studio. After a morning’s work on a series of paintings of grain sacks or haystacks, Monet would stroll down to the inn to have lunch with his old friend Camille Pissarro. Madame Rachou once asked Brion Gysin, “And what became of his son, the young M’sieu Pissarro?” Brion did not know but told her that there was a big retrospective of Pissarro’s paintings on at that very moment in Paris and offered to take her, but she was too busy with the hotel for such distractions.
Madame tended the bar and her name, J. B. Rachou, was painted on its glass door in the slanting calligraphic hand of an old-fashioned master sign painter. The Rachous never gave the hotel a name, preferring instead simply to label the entrances: above the left-hand door was a sign HOTEL and above the glass door and front of the café: CAFE VINS LIQUEURS, which was enough. For twenty-four years, through the Occupation and the hard months after Liberation, when food and fuel were even more scarce than they were under the Germans, they kept the hotel open, although the couple was barely able to make a living.
Then in September 1957, Monsieur Rachou was killed in an automobile accident in the town of St. Germain, just outside Paris. The Rachous had recently bought a secondhand Citr”en DS, and Monsieur Rachou had driven out to the country to collect some friends and drive them back to the hotel for a Sunday lunch. In St. Germain a car had run into him at a crossing, killing him and seriously injuring his four friends. Madame Rachou was devastated but she had little choice but to carry on. A hotel, of course, cannot be neglected for more than a few days.
Because she was so small, Madame had to stand upon an upturned wine case behind the traditional zinc-topped bar in the bistro in order to serve. There were lace curtains at the wide glass window and several spindly aspidistra plants, their bladelike leaves always brown at the ends. The bistro had a cracked tiled floor with three marble-topped tables on slender cast-iron legs where she served breakfast of coffee and croissants. This was not included in the rent, it was not that sort of hotel; the 40 centimes for a coffee had to be paid on the spot.
She served large, inexpensive lunches of cassoulet or rabbit stew but after the death of her husband she no longer opened the dining room in the back except for occasional private parties for police lieutenants and other fonctionnaires. This was a class 13 hotel, the lowest on the scale, which meant it had to meet the minimum legal health and safety requirements and that was all. After the war, as part of the same clean-up of Paris that had closed the brothels, many of the small class 13 hotels in the neighborhood had been hoarded up by the police for contravening long-ignored regulations. This was one of the reasons there were so many clochards on the streets. Madame Rachou, however, had been on good terms with the police since before the Occupation and intended to keep it that way.
She was a classic concierge. From her perch on the oversize wine box she could monitor her domain: the narrow hotel hallway to her right was visible through a paneled glass door and her back dining room, separated from the bar by a curtain, had a window facing the stairs that showed the legs of anyone coming in or out–ideal for grabbing the ankle of a welching lodger attempting to sneak out. Next to the hall doorway, facing the bar, was Madame’s control panel of electrical switches; the number of the corresponding room was identified by a small enamel plaque. Above each was a small flashlight bulb that glowed when the light in that room was turned on. Each room was supplied with 40 watts, just enough for a dim 25-watt lightbulb and a radio or record player. The electrical system was archaic: it was extremely sensitive and periodically plunged everyone into darkness if someone overloaded the circuit. When a bulb flared on her control panel Madame knew that someone was using an illicit hot plate and would rush upstairs to confront the offender. The power could be increased to 60 watts but naturally there was a small surcharge for this service. Rather than pay the extra, most residents cooked on small two-burner gas or oil stoves, which they’d bought themselves. The gas stoves ran on individual meters and Madame always seemed to choose the most inconvenient time to arrive in the company of the meter reader.
The forty-two rooms had no carpets or telephones. Some were very dark, as their windows looked out onto the stairwell inside the building and so received only indirect lighting from the grimy landing windows. The corridors sloped at strange angles and the floors creaked and groaned. The ancient wooden doors had a handle in the middle instead of the side. Each landing had a Turkish chiotte: a traditional hole-in-the-floor toilet with a raised footprint-shaped platform on either side upon which to position your feet while you squatted. Torn sheets of newspaper hung on a nail in lieu of toilet tissue, though many residents bought their own and carried it with them. There was a bath on the ground floor but advance notice had to be given so that the water for it could be heated. Naturally there was a small surcharge for this service. Brion Gysin maintained that if you put your head under the water in the bath, you could hear the gurgling of the Bi”vre, the underground river that enters the Seine a few blocks east of the rue Git-le-Coeur, across from Notre Dame–a claim he enlarged upon in his novel The Last Museum. Like everything else in the building, the plumbing was ancient, and it was consequently subject to backups, clankings, fiercely loud vibrations, and leaks. There was radiator heat all week and hot water only on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
The curtains and bedspreads were washed and changed each spring, and the bed linen a little more frequently–in theory, at the beginning of each month. After the death of Monsieur Rachou, Madame employed a janitor, Monsieur Dupr’s, who occasionally wandered through the hotel with the apparent intention of cleaning the rooms and making the beds. He was often accompanied by a collection of small children and, like Madame, inevitably chose just the wrong moment to walk into a room. Some of the walls were very thin, little more than hardboard partitions, and sound traveled in mysterious ways, sometimes blaring from the waste pipe in the sink.
The front door was never locked or controlled, but Madame Rachou had an uncanny, almost clairvoyant knowledge of everything that went on both in the hotel and in the street outside. She could “hear” trouble–a strange footstep, an unusual creak–and was able to materialize at the door to protect her residents from creditors, con men, or occasional visits from the police. No matter what time of night, she would appear stone-faced in her white nightgown: “Monsieur? Que voulez-vous?” Not even the police were a match for Madame. In 1962, during the Algerian crisis, a spotty-faced young flic (cop) was on duty across the street, guarding the house of an ex–police chief on the OAS (Organisation Arm”e Secr”te) death list who was expecting a bomb or assassin’s knife at any moment. The flic saw an attractive young American woman enter the hotel and followed her up to her room, whereupon Madame Rachou appeared and drove him from the hotel with a barrage of abuse, her tiny arms flapping and her blue-rinsed hair luminous in the dimly lit corridor.
Still, she could not control visits from the immigration inspectors. As William Burroughs has described: “The `police of foreigners,’ the immigration police made passport checks from time to time, always at eight in the morning, and would often take away some guest whose papers were not in order. The detainee would be back in a few hours, having paid–not a fine–but a tax, attendant on the application for a carte de sejour; though few had the time and patience to fulfill the complex bureaucratic regulations required to obtain this coveted document.” Most of them, including Burroughs, undertook the expedient of a brief trip to Brussels or Amsterdam every three months so that they could begin their three-month allowance afresh upon each reentrance of France.
The culture of bohemia is a very French one. In fact Henri Murger, author of Scénes de la Vie de Bohéme, claimed that true bohemians could exist only in Paris. Britain was less tolerant of unorthodox behavior. London produced eccentrics and aesthetes but had no tradition of bohemian poverty. Byron and Shelley had found life easier on the continent in the nineteenth century. When he was released from the Reading jail, Oscar Wilde moved to Paris to live out his life.
The rue Git-le-Coeur has always had its bohemian residents. In 1930 Dorothy Wilde, Oscar’s wild niece, lived at number one, and Lord Gerard Vernon Wallop Lymington, ninth Earl of Portsmouth, used to have rooms high in the eaves of the same building, where, in the late 1920s, he used to smoke opium with Caresse and Harry Crosby. In the ’30s Brion Gysin lived in a beautiful apartment on the corner of the quai, never thinking he would return to the same street two decades later.
The rue Git-le-Coeur was also the setting for the famous arrest of e.e. cummings. At 3 A.M. on a July morning in 1923, John Dos Passos, Gilbert Seldes, and cummings were headed for “the Calvados joint on rue Git-le-Coeur.” When cummings paused to urinate against the wall, “a whole phalanx of gendarmes” materialized. He was arrested and taken to the police station on the quai Grandes-Augustins, where he was booked as “un Américain qui pisse,” and told to return the next morning for arraignment. Seldes telephoned his writer friend Paul Morand, the Ministre des Affaires Etrang’res, who had the charges dropped, cummings was not informed of this development and he reported to the police station the next day. He was dismissed, but when he left the building he was confronted by a band of his friends carrying placards reading “Reprieve le Pisseur Américain.” cummings was profoundly moved by their solidarity until he learned that their protest was all an elaborate joke.
The Rachous’ hotel maintained the bohemian tradition of the quartier. There was a photographer in one of the attic rooms who had not spoken a word to anyone for two years, and an artist who had filled his room with straw. Among the whores, jazz musicians, and artists’ models were characters such as the giant man from French Guyana who could barely squeeze through the narrow corridors, and an imperious Indo-Chinese lady who always dressed in silk and had a bamboo curtain at her door. The first of the so-called beatniks came in 1956: a Swiss painter everyone called Jesus Christ. He wore his thick dark hair long, almost to his waist, and left his beard and mustache untrimmed. He wore flowing robes of dirty white cotton and went barefoot in sandals even in the bitter cold of the Paris winter. As he could not afford to buy canvas, he painted on the walls, and, in turn, the ceiling and floor of his second-floor room. Monsieur Rachou was unconcerned, as, he believed the paint would discourage bugs.
Unlike the hundreds of other run-down hotels in Paris that offered the bare necessities, the Beat Hotel was exceptional in the way that Madame Rachou encouraged artists to reside there and allowed her guests the freedom to live exactly as they pleased. You could take anyone back to your room, boy or girl or group, provided that they signed the fiche guest register if they stayed overnight. The police insisted on this. In every other respect, the hotel was just as squalid and dirty as its neighbors. There were rats and mice, the rooms and stairs were filthy, the toilets stank, and the corridors reeked with stale cooking odors. The artist Jean-Jacques Lebel lived nearby on the rue de l’Hotel Colbert and often visited the American Beats there. “It very often smelled very bad in that place,” he recalled, “because a lot of people were cooking in their room, and there was Dixie Nimmo, who was a Jamaican fellow, he would cook with a lot of garlic and oil and stink up the whole place. And there were a few old French people who had been there since three centuries who would cook with a lot of grease and the place stank…. The rats were on the ground floor, not on the top floor, and it’s only when the Seine would come up that the rats would come up out of their holes. And when there’s junkies around there’s rats. It was a ghastly thing, an atmosphere a bit like the Naked Lunch.”
The first of the Rachous’ guests to gain celebrity was the African-American writer Chester Himes. His first story, “To What Red Hell,” was published in 1934 by Esquire when Himes was serving an eight-year term in the Ohio State Penitentiary for armed robbery. His first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, was published in 1945 to critical acclaim, but his follow-up, Lonely Crusade, was too brutally honest about the conditions under which black people were living in the United States and was not so well received. He arrived in Europe in 1953 and remained abroad, living mostly in Spain, until his death in 1984. His French translator, Marcel Duhamel, suggested that he try his hand at detective novels, which were very popular in France at the time. He created a pair of African-American Harlem detectives, Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, whose exploits over a series of eight novels made Himes a star in France, though he remained relatively unknown in his own country. It wasn’t until 1970, when director Ossie Davis made Himes’s 1965 book Cotton Comes to Harlem into a successful film, that Himes was brought to the greater attention of American audiences.
At first Himes experienced outright racism when he tried to find a hotel room in Paris. In his autobiography he described hotel-hunting in 1954: “The Hotel Welcome overlooking the Od”on, a favorite of the young white Americans, set the pattern. They said they couldn’t rent to noirs; their clients wouldn’t like it. The first nine hotels we tried turned us down because I was black. The majority of the proprietors unequivocally gave that as the reason.” Many of the Americans on the Left Bank had brought their prejudices with them and expected the hotels to operate with the same color bar that they were used to back in the States. Eventually Himes sent his young white girlfriend to a hotel that had already claimed to be complet. She was given a room and they moved in. He traveled in France and Europe and, on his return to Paris in the spring of 1956, he had the good fortune to encounter Madame Rachou. He moved into the hotel with his young German girlfriend, Marlene Behrens. It was one of the few hotels where a black man was able to live with a white woman, much less one half his age, without opprobrium.
They lived in the front on the second floor above the proprietors in a room equipped with a marble-topped dressing table, which doubled as both a kitchen and dining table complete with a gas ring. It was a small room almost filled by the bed but a giant battered armoire with a full-length mirror gave the room the illusion of space. It was here that Himes worked on portions of Mamie Mason, and it was here that he wrote The Five Cornered Square, which he finished on January 18, 1957. He completed A Jealous Man Can’t Win on May 3 of the same year. He was a fast worker. After M. Rachou’s death, Marlene spent a lot of time consoling Madame Rachou, sitting with her at the bar, sympathetically listening to her stories of the old days. She had been a child in Germany during the war and Madame’s stories about the German occupation of Paris were an education to her. Himes and Marlene left for Palma, Majorca, in October 1957, a few weeks before the first of the Beat Generation writers moved in.
The new arrivals were never to know what the hotel had been like with the solid presence of Monsieur Rachou or that Madame Rachou was broken-hearted. She continued with her life, but now she relied more heavily on her guests for companionship, treating them as a substitute family. In the evening she would sit talking endlessly to her tenants over cups of watery espresso, Mirtaud the hotel cat curled on her lap, until the bar closed at 10:30 and she pulled down the iron shutters.
With the arrival of the Beats that October, the hotel entered another phase, and for about the next six years it was home to a sustained burst of creative activity equal to that which they had achieved recently in San Francisco. There, the presence of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac had catalyzed the poetry scene, creating what came to be known as the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance–a loose grouping of poets including Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Whalen, Richard Brautigan, and others. (It was presumably named after the Harlem Renaissance, since there had been no previous literary movement in San Francisco.) A series of poetry readings, beginning with the now legendary Six Gallery reading on October 7, 1955, when Ginsberg first read “Howl,” brought the San Francisco poets to the attention of Richard Eberhardt, who wrote an important article on the scene for the New York Times. This, coupled with the fortuitous seizure of copies of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems for obscenity, focused nationwide attention on the poets of the Bay City. More readings were organized, and coffee bars began to feature live poetry. Poets collaborated with jazz musicians in late-night clubs. Suddenly there was a vibrant, active literary scene, with Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookshop, publishers of the popular and prestigious Pocket Poets series, which included Ginsberg’s Howl, as its center.
©2000 by Barry Miles. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.