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Paris Nights

A novelist remembers the city's glory days and recalls his adored La Coupole, a restaurant with a soul

The 1920s were the great years in Paris, the vintage of the century. The war was over, the franc was cheap, the city was at its zenith. The painters and writers were there, amid names that have lasted: Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Gertrude Stein. A. J. Liebling, who became a celebrated New Yorker journalist, was more or less attending the Sorbonne, and although he was too young and unaccomplished to mingle with the gods, he summons up much of the period in Between Meals, his wonderful recollection of that era.

There was a restaurant called Maillabuau on Rue Ste-Anne, unimpressive, even shabby in appearance, known for superb food and staggering prices. Liebling had never so much as crossed the threshold of Maillabuau and certainly never would have had it not been for a visit from his parents and sister. When they turned to him for a suggestion of where to have their first dinner together, Liebling, as if he dined there regularly, proposed Maillabuau. He had read its description in a guidebook. The menu that night was simple: a delicious soup--a garbure--followed by trout grenobloise,poulet Henri IV and, for dessert, an omelette au kirsch. The food was incomparable, the wines splendid and the check, Liebling recalled, "one of the most stupendous . . . in history."

Not long ago, I was walking down Rue Ste-Anne, past Japanese restaurants, nightclubs and travel agencies. Of Maillabuau there was not a trace. Like the legendary Le Chabanais, the most luxurious brothel in Paris, and the Hotel Louvois, where Liebling used to stay, Maillabuau had disappeared, devoured by modern times.

Of course, I knew this beforehand. I was merely strolling after lunch on Rue Vivienne, a couple of streets away, thinking of the 1920s and times past.

I came to Paris too late, not in my own life, but in the life of the city. I missed its years of glory. In the 1950s, the period of my first acquaintance, I was never in Paris long enough to have more than a vague impression of it, but eventually--I forget how--one night I walked into a restaurant that would become the restaurant in Paris for me. If I were asked to name my favorite restaurant in London, I might unconvincingly mention a place or two. The same for Rome. For Paris, however, there is no question. Not a moment of hesitation. The answer is La Coupole.

Is it because of the food? Not really. The food is good and so is the service. But it isn't just for these things that one embraces a restaurant. The crucial elements, though they don't last forever, are style and, for want of a better word, character. And in the case of La Coupole, something more: Whatever the hour, but especially at night, there was the expectation of finding there le tout Paris--that is to say, everybody, from top to bottom: actors, intellectuals, journalists, musicians, along with many others whose occupation it would be difficult to judge.

Night. You cross the wide avenue, the Boulevard Montparnasse. There is the wide glass front, the garish neon letters above. People are sitting on the enclosed terrace, lingering over coffee, talking. Passing through the doors you are struck by the full sound: conversation, laughter, knives and forks clattering, bottles being opened, plates stacked. The long aisles running front to back with tables and banquettes on either side, the flood of faces. Each section has a maître, implacable as a croupier, in a dinner jacket. You know them by sight, polite but reserved. This is a profession, a life. If men like this are running the lines for the boat across the Styx, you're in luck. "You wish a table? For four?" He casts an appraising eye over his domain. "Dix minutes, monsieur." You can rely on the estimate. He'll call you in the bar.

Countless nights. I was having dinner at La Coupole once while thieves were stealing my car a few blocks away. In the police station there was a line of at least a dozen people waiting impatiently while the particulars were carefully being typed. "Ne vous inquietez pas," I was told, when I asked if this was just for the files or if patrol cars were being advised. He said 95 percent of all stolen cars were found Monday morning abandoned outside the gates of Paris-- portes was the word he used--though it turned out that my car was in the minority and was never seen again.

La Coupole was open late. I often saw Polanski there and Gerard Brach, his screenwriter, who returned from living in England for two years, saying with pride that he had not learned a single word of the language during that time. You found Styron there, and Claude Berri. Of course, Paris is small, at least compared to New York.

These were the years when I was passing through the world of film. One unforgettable night I sat talking with an actor I had just met who was in Paris making a movie. Rip Torn. You know his face. There is a hint of the diabolic in it--this was years ago, but even then. I was fascinated as, later in the evening, he began to tell me the story of his life, but gradually a strange sensation, of being tricked somehow, being made a fool of, came over me. The details of Torn's boyhood--his years at military school, his idealism, hopes--they were all mine! How did he know all of this? No one did. How could he have known? I was watching him closely, trying to find the deceit, the slight lip-quiver of falseness. He betrayed nothing. Finally, almost frightened, I said to him, "This isn't your story."

"What do you mean?"

"The one you're telling. It's not your life," I said.

But it was. Every word. I don't remember what I said, my thoughts were too confused. I was staying at a hotel not far away on the Boulevard Raspail, and I walked back to it like a ruined man. I felt weak. I could not believe what I had heard, but I could not figure out how not to believe it. There was someone almost exactly like the secret me. I felt exposed, undone.

The odd thing is that La Coupole itself is not the original La Coupole. It is a copy, refurbished after having been sold. The new La Coupole has everything the earlier one had--appearance, location--everything except one small detail, the soul. Somehow that got painted over. The timeworn quality of the restaurant, the bar that was isolated and a kind of afterthought, the feeling of being aboard an aging ship, launched in the 1920s but still holding the record--these are the things that were not passed on. Still, I cannot break the habit or resist the pull. Favorite Paris restaurant? The answer is immediate and unthinking: La Coupole. I always go back. The oysters, served on the great mounds of shaved ice, are the same, the neon sign, the front window, the crowd and the noise. For all we know, the singular lean face over there, the high forehead, is Cocteau's, and that attractive woman, face among faces further down, is definitely Djuna Barnes.

JAMES SALTER is the author of the celebrated novel A Sport and a Pastime. His book Burning the Days has just been published by Vintage in paperback.

Published October 1998
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