The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

The Other Alcott is a novel I’ve been waiting for for a long time. I’ve known about Louisa May Alcott’s younger sister – the artist, the one after whom the fictional Amy March was created – and I knew the outlines of her story. But that is like the difference between sketching a skeleton and the full, live human figure.

In Elise Hooper’s able and generous hands, May’s story is fleshed out. It thrums with life, passion and imagination, and becomes one that we can relate to. It speaks to us across the centuries, a timeless story of one woman artist that can inspire, encourage and guide 21st century women still trying to figure it out today. What else could you possibly ask from historical fiction?

I have to admit that even I underestimated May Alcott. When I first saw the illustrations May drew for her sister Louisa’s book Little Women, I agreed with her contemporary critics. The drawings were amateurish, not lifelike enough, the product of an artist not without natural born talent, but still, with a long way to go.

The Nation’s critique was brutal: “May Alcott’s poorly executed illustrations in Little Women betray her lack of anatomical knowledge and indifference to the subtle beauty of the female figure.”

The criticism stung. But yet she persisted.

May might have been hurt, but she was humble enough to understand that she needed professional instruction. (Lesson #1: Accept valid criticism.) So she figured it out.

In 1860s America, art training wasn’t an easy thing for a woman to find, especially in a small town like Concord. Victorian society was squeamish about women looking at naked bodies or studying anatomy. Nevertheless, May found a doctor in Boston who offered anatomical drawing classes to women. (Lesson #2: Ignore the prudes.) Thanks to the money from the sale of Little Women, her sister Louisa was able to afford an apartment in Boston for the two of them to share. (Lesson #3: Accept help graciously.)

May absorbed everything in Dr. Ritter’s drawing classes, but there was no drawing from life. Day after day, the women copied sketches of hands and wrists or they drew from plaster casts of skulls and human bones. May’s skills improved; her eye for the human form awakened. (Lesson #4: Start at the beginning.)

In Elise Hooper’s novel, May meets a number of established women artists who show her the way. The first is Elizabeth Jane Gardner, a Paris-trained American artist who in 1868 was one of the first women (including Mary Cassatt) who had a painting accepted in the Paris salon. They meet at a Boston art gallery (Lesson #5: Go to art galleries) where Gardner holds court and tells shocking tales about her bohemian life in Paris: dressing like a man so she could have access to live models, dragging a sick lion into her studio in order to study animal anatomy. It might have been a bit of shock and awe, but it inspired May to go to France. (Lesson #6: Listen to the stories of those who’ve come before.)

Elizabeth Jane Gardner as painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (her mentor, teacher and future husband) in 1879. I love how little this portrait reveals of her true spirit, except for that hint of a smile.

Inspired by Gardner’s stories, May and Louisa head off on a European adventure together in 1870. I’ve previously written on this blog about May’s first trip to France in a post titled Little Women in Dinan, France. I walked in their footsteps in the pretty historic village where May first stayed in Europe. May was frustrated that she couldn’t get to Paris for art lessons, but she spent the season exploring and sightseeing with a sketchbook in hand. (Lesson #7: Take your sketchbook.)

14 Place Saint Louis, Dinan, France, the location of Madame Coste’s pension where the Alcott sisters stayed from April to June, 1870. As Louisa May Alcott described it in a letter dated April 24, 1870: “We are living, en pension, with a nice old lady just on the walls of the town with Anne of Brittany’s round tower on the one hand, the Porte of St. Louis on the other, and a lovely promenade made in the old moat just before the door.”

May’s first trip to France was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, but on their detour to Italy, May finally had the chance to see nude paintings and sculptures and to draw from a live nude model. In the book, May encounters the “sniggers and chuffs” of  from the men in the studio, but she ignores the sexual harassment and soldiers on, overcoming her own embarrassment in order to learn valuable skills. (Lesson #8: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.)

May’s studies would continue back in Boston with William Morris Hunt, advancing from live drawing to oil painting, and then in London, where she copied the masters in the National Gallery and discovered the wonders of J.M.W. Turner. (Lesson #9: Study the masters.) While sketching at the gallery, May met John Ruskin, the Trustee of the National Gallery’s Turner collection, who connected her to London art dealers interested in selling her Turner copies. May finally began to earn an income from her art. (Lesson #10: Make connections.) 

In 1874, May’s efforts to pursue her art in London would be interrupted by family caregiving demands. Her sister Louisa demanded that she come back to Boston to help take care of their ailing mother. But somehow May figured out a way to juggle her responsibilities at home with opportunities to study and teach art in Boston, all the while saving her money and dreaming about her chance to study in Paris. (Lesson #11: Become a skilled juggler.)

By 1877, May was making her way in the Paris art world. She got a painting accepted into the Paris salon, she met Mary Cassatt, and was seeking a way to earn a living by selling her own original paintings. In the lovely painting below, you can see how far May had come from her early days in Concord.

May Alcott Neiriker, La Nigresse, oil on canvas (1879). Source:

May’s final challenge would be to find a way to balance love and art, to make sure she continued to pursue her painting even after she fell in love and faced the responsibilities of keeping a home and starting a family. (Lesson #11: Find the nearest Planned Parenthood?)  

As you can see, Elise Hooper’s book is a lovely story about May Alcott Niericker’s struggle to overcome criticism, sexism, sibling rivalry and family caregiving demands in order to pursue her dream to become a professional artist. It’s chocked full of lessons in both humility and persistence, lessons we still need today. At least I do.

The Other Alcott: Highly recommended.


For further reading:





Madame Picasso in Paris

madame picasso

I heard about Anne Girard’s new novel Madame Picasso (Mira Books, August 2014) and made sure it was packed in my carry-on bag when I boarded my recent plane to Paris. The cover is gorgeous and the book is that luxurious kind of trade paperback that feels soft and good in your hands.

Madame Picasso is the story of Pablo Picasso’s love affair with Eva Gouel from 1911 until her tragic death in 1915. Picasso had many other lovers, muses and wives over the course of his long life (1881-1973), but Eva Gouel can show us a side of the young Picasso we might never have known.



I began marking up the pages and taking notes of all the scenes from the book, eager to walk in Pablo and Eva’s footsteps through Paris. It’s a walk that will take you from one end of Paris to the other, from the top of Montmartre all the way across the Seine to the center of Montparnasse. I walked it all on a beautiful fall day in September. When I was done, I was exhausted, inspired and very thirsty.

Madame Picasso begins at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Eva Gouel arrives from her family’s home in the outskirts of Paris and is lucky and talented enough to get a job as a seamstress. Eva is well on her way to becoming a costume designer, but fate interrupts. Pablo Picasso comes to the Moulin Rouge one night and notices the pretty girl working behind the scenes.

The Moulin Rouge in Paris where Eva first meets Picasso

When Picasso and Eva first meet, he is already involved with his long-term mistress Fernande Olivier. He has a studio in the run-down Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartrre. The studios got their famous nickname from the artist Max Jacob, who thought they were so rickety that they rocked like a houseboat on the Seine. Once Picasso had some success, he moved out, but still kept a studio there to keep up with his artist friends and have a little privacy with his models.

There is a little piece left of Bateau-Lavoir that you can still see today. It’s located near the top of Montmartre in place Goudreau.

The plaque on what is left of the old Bateau-Lavoir located

The plaque on what is left of the old Bateau-Lavoir located at  No. 13 rue Ravignan at Place Emile Goudeau. A fire destroyed most of the building in the 1970s, leaving only the façade.


Bateau-Lavoir, Montmartre

Bateau-Lavoir, Montmartre. Eva and Pablo spend their first night together here after meeting at the Moulin Rouge. Here’s a passage from the book: “Picasso squeezed Eva’s hand when they finally arrived at the ramshackle building in the center of a sloping square, lush with rustling chestnut trees. She knew this shabby old place, with its sagging roof of filthy glass skylights, was a haven to impoverished painters, models and thieves.”


The historical marker at Bateau-Lavoir

The historical marker at Bateau-Lavoir tells the story of the old piano factory that was turned into art studios in 1889. This was where Picasso spent the end of his blue period, as well as his rose period with his lover Fernande.


rue Ravignan is a lovely spot near the top of the hill of Montmartre.

rue Ravignan is now a lovely little street near the top of the hill of Montmartre.



Place Emile Goudeau from below the steps, in front of La Relais de la Butte, a great place to catch a café or a beer in the sun.

Picasso had been living in Paris since 1901, and by 1911, he was sufficiently on the rise that he and his lover Fernande Olivier could afford a nice apartment on avenue Clichy. To get there from the Bateau-Lavoir, all you have to do is keep walking down the butte of Montmartre, across the bridge that spans over the Montmartre Cemetery, down to place de Clichy and past the Blanche Métro stop. It’s now a bustling, somewhat seedy area, but back in their day, it was considered very nice.

11 boulevard de Clichy, the upscale apartment where Picasso lived with Fernande Olivier when he met Eva.

11 boulevard de Clichy, which was then an upscale apartment where Picasso lived with Fernande Olivier. In the novel, Fernande says to Eva: “It’s such a grand place we’ve got now. . . . Did you know Pablo rented me an apartment on the boulevard de Clichy? Everyone who is anyone lives there.”


Picasso lives near place de Clichy, not far from the Moulin Rouge and the

In 1911, Picasso lived near place de Clichy, not far from the Moulin Rouge where he met Eva.

Pablo Picasso in his boulevard Clichy apartment/studio,

Pablo Picasso in his boulevard Clichy apartment he shared with Fernande Olivier.

In the novel, a mutual friend introduces Eva Gouel to Fernande Olivier at the Dome in Montparnasse. To Eva’s surprise, Fernande calls herself “Madame Picasso” although Picasso and Fernande are not married. Eva is drawn into Fernande’s social circle and tries to avoid a love triangle with Picasso. But of course she can’t.

Le Dome in Montparnasse where Eva meets Fernande Olivier.

Le Dome in Montparnasse where Eva meets Fernande Olivier. “The Dome was the best of the four cafés on the corner of the bustling boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail. It was shaded by an elegant bower of horse chestnut trees and had a butter-yellow awning, Le Dome was a lively spot, harboring a tangle of closely packed tables with chairs spilling out onto the sidewalk. All of it was full of such life, young Parisians chattering endlessly about politics, art and literature.”

You can almost picture Fernande and Eva chatting over un verde du vin at these café tables outside Le Dome.

You can almost picture Fernande and Eva chatting over un verre du vin at these café tables outside Le Dome.

Eva, Picasso and Fernande meet again at Gertrude Stein’s Saturday night salon at 27 rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank. Eva and Picasso find that their initial attraction is undeniable, despite his relationship with Fernande. They make plans to meet again.

Gertrude Stein's apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus not far from boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse.

Gertrude Stein’s apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus not far from boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse. There is a plaque that says, “Gertrude Stein lived here with her brother Leo Stein, then with Alice B. Toklas, she received there a number of artists and writers from 1903 to 1938.”


Gertrude Stein's apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus. It's just a short walk from Luxembourg Gardens or boulevard Raspail.

Gertrude Stein’s apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus. It’s just a short walk from Luxembourg Gardens or boulevard Raspail.


The attraction between Eva and Picasso deepens, but Eva is shocked when Picasso is arrested in connection with the theft of the Mona Lisa. This set of events presents a nice little historical touchpoint for the story. Most people have heard about the shocking theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, but to see unfold from Eva’s point of view is really interesting. Picasso is eventually cleared of the charges and Eva surrenders to his persistent charms.

Le Petit Parisen - La Jaconde

What follows are beautiful scenes in which Picasso paints Eva in his Bateau-Lavoir studio. Anne Girard imagines the chemistry and energy that buzzed through Picasso’s studio, and bring this famous cubist painting of Eva (“Ma Jolie”) to life.

Pablo Picasso, "Ma Jolie" (Woman with a Zither or Guitar) 1911-12, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Pablo Picasso, “Ma Jolie” (Woman with a Zither or Guitar) 1911-12, Museum of Modern Art, New York


Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie (1913-14), Indianapolis Museum of Art

Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie (1913-14), Indianapolis Museum of Art

Eva and Pablo spend a golden summer together in the south of France. They stop in Cérete where Pablo meets up with Geroges Braque, and paints side-by-side with him in a large borrowed villa. Then Eva and Pablo move on to Avignon, where they run into Henri Matisse and his wife Amélie. They finally find a quiet villa in Sourges, where they spend the rest of their summer in inspired seclusion.

Eva and Pablo return to Paris as a committed couple and live at 242 boulevard Raspail. Eventually Eva finds them a beautiful well-lighted studio apartment at 5 rue Schoelcher, directly across from the Montparnasse Cemetery, where they lived from 1913 to 1915.



The view down the lovely rue Schoelcher as it runs alongside the Montparnasse Cemetery. Pablo and Eva's apartment actually overlooked the cemetery.

The view down the lovely rue Schoelcher as it runs alongside the Montparnasse Cemetery. Pablo and Eva’s apartment actually overlooked the cemetery.


Picasso and Eva's home at 5 rue Schoelcher, Paris

Picasso and Eva’s home at 5 rue Schoelcher, Paris. The most beautiful building on the block, still.


A photograph of Picasso in his rue Schoelcher studio 1915-16. I can almost see what Eva saw in him. . . .

A photograph of Picasso in his rue Schoelcher studio 1915-16.

Of course, everyone knows that Eva only survived until 1915. Picasso could barely step foot in the rue Schoelcher studio again.

It was hard to leave Eva behind, but I couldn’t finish my Madame Picasso Walk through Paris unless I stopped at what might be Picasso’s most famous studio on rue Des Grand Augustins in the 6th arrondissement. It was where Picasso lived from 1936 to 1955, and where painted he Guernica in 1937.

IMG_9207 IMG_9208



After a long day walking the streets of Paris in Eva and Pablo’s shoes, you are no doubt in need of liquid reinforcement at a sidewalk café. I recommend you stop in for a glass of wine at Café La Palette on rue de Seine in the 6th, not too far away from Picasso’s studio on rue des Grand Augustins. In fact, the café boasts that Picasso used to frequent there back in the day.

And while you’re there, you can think of Picasso and Cézanne and Braque and all the other artists who drank there, but also? Make a toast to Eva, and to Anne Girard, for bringing Eva out of the shadows of history.


La Palette, rue de Seine, Paris

Café La Palette, at the corner of rue de Seine and rue Jacques-Callot, Paris


Madame Picasso by Anne Girard: Highly recommended

For Further Reading: Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti

vanished smile by RA SCOTTI












The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Autobiography of Alice B. toklas

A Paris Apartment: Boldini’s Madame de Florian



I’ve got a new Paris art novel for you: A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable (St. Martin’s Press 2014).

It all began with an amazing but true story of a long-lost Boldini portrait of a woman named Marthe de Florian, pictured below.

Madame de Florian by Giovanni Boldini (1888), private collection. Sold for 2.1 million euros at a Drouot house auction in September, 2010.

In 2010, the London Telegraph reported the fascinating true story about an abandoned Paris apartment. When estate representatives entered the dusty apartment, it had been untouched for 70 years. They discovered roomfuls of antiques and what appeared to be a previously unknown portrait by the Italian painter Giovanni Boldini. It turns out the woman in the portrait was Marthe de Florian, who had lived in the abandoned apartment back in the 1890s. A love letter from Boldini to de Florian confirmed the painting’s provenance and a record-setting auction followed.

Marthe de Florian's apartment in Paris, abandoned by her descendants in 1940, reopened in 2010.

Marthe de Florian’s apartment in Paris, abandoned by her descendants in 1940, reopened in 2010. (Source: )

This book brings to mind one of my favorite art history novels, Gioia Diliberto’s I Am Madame X, which told the story of the woman behind John Singer Sargent’s infamous painting. I’ve blogged about that book, that painting, and John Singer Sargent’s years in Paris here.

It turns out that Giovanni Boldini was a friend of John Singer Sargent’s and they traveled in the same Paris art circles. As Gable reveals in the book, Boldini took over Sargent’s art studio on rue Notre Dame des Champs after Sargent abandoned Paris in favor of London. Boldini’s style is similar to Sargent’s, but perhaps even bolder and more stylized. He was, as Michelle Gable says in the book, known as “The Master of Swish.”

Giovani Boldini, Self-Portrait (1892)

Giovani Boldini, Self-Portrait (1892)

73 rue des Notre-Dame-Des-Champs, once Boldini's studio in Paris

73 rue des Notre-Dame-Des-Champs, once Boldini’s studio in Paris

But who was this Madame de Florian? We know that she was an actress and demimondaine who modeled for Boldini in a scandalously seductive pose. She lived in a lovely Paris apartment in the 9th arrondissement. She had at least one descendant who lived in the south of France and who cared little for the remnants of her grandmother’s life. But the limited information available about her just makes you want to know more. Wouldn’t it be great if she had left behind a diary, telling us the secrets behind this mysterious life?

Thanks to Michelle Gable, that’s exactly what we get in A Paris Apartment. Marthe de Florian’s fictional diaries are rich, engaging and completely alive. Gable conjures up a woman who started as a bartender at Les Folies Bergères (I couldn’t help but picture her just like the bartender in Manet’s famous painting, including the dress and the jewelry). It was well known at the time that many of these bartenders were semi-prostitutes who supplemented their earnings at the bar with gifts and income from their customers. Michelle Gable’s Marthe de Florian knows just how to target the wealthiest customers, and soon she is living in a grand Paris apartment and wearing the most fashionable clothes.

Edouard Manet, A Bar at The Folies-Bergère (1881-1882)

Edouard Manet, A Bar at The Folies-Bergère (1881-1882)

Michelle Gable’s Marthe fully enjoys the demimonde lifestyle, sipping beer or absinthe with bohemian artists, writers and dandies, including Boldini, Singer Sargent, Proust, Zola, Dumas and the Count de Montesquiou. We even have an appearance by Victor Hugo’s granddaughter Jeanne. Like Marthe de Florian, many of these real-life characters posed for Boldini portraits, including de Montisquiou, Jeanne Hugo and Singer Sargent. A quick look at each of these portraits can really add to your enjoyment of these historical passages of the book.

Robert de Montisquiou as painted by Giovanni Boldini (1897), Musée d'Orsay

Giovanni Boldini,  Count Robert de Montesquiou (1897), Musée d’Orsay.  As Madame de Florian says in her fictional diary in the book: “According to Montesquiou, Boldini positively insisted on the inclusion of Le Compte’s beloved turquoise-handled cane in the portrait. He ordered Robert to hold it up near his mouth and gaze at it fondly, as one might an old lover one was glad to see again.”


Giovanni Boldini, Madame Georges Hugo (Jeanne Hugo) and Her Son, Charles Daudet (1897), private collection

Giovanni Boldini, Madame Georges Hugo (Jeanne Hugo) and Her Son, Charles Daudet (1898), private collection

Giovanni Boldini, JOhn Singer Sargent (1890), private collection

Giovanni Boldini, John Singer Sargent (1890), private collection

In addition to the story of Marthe de Florian, there is a parallel modern-day story of April Vogt, an American furniture expert from Sotheby’s who is called to Paris to help prepare the contents of the apartment for auction. Although these chapters might feel a little  “rom-com” predictable to some, they offer fascinating insights into the world of art world auction houses and estate sales, and add another layer of interest, romance and fun Paris scenery to the novel. One of the highlights is when April attends a traditional bal des pompiers (Fireman’s Ball) with an attractive French lawyer on the night before Bastille Day. I’m picturing the movie trailer already!

A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable:  Highly Recommended

Related Reading: I Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto

Related Post: John Singer Sargent and Madame X 




Book Review and Related Paris Sites: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

lovers chameleon club

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. I mean, just look at that cover. So hard to resist for a lover of all things Paris.

But I have to admit, the charms of the story resisted me for nearly 200 pages. While the structure of the book makes it feel as if it was enormously fun to write, it makes it quite a challenge for a reader to slip into. It is the story of a band of friends, acquaintances, enemies and lovers in Paris in the 30s and 40s. Their story doesn’t unfold, it demands that you piece it together for yourself, like a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of a Picasso painting.

You hear the discordant voices of a number of strange and lively characters, from a Hungarian photographer named Gabor (modeled after the true-life Brassai ), an American expat writer (à la Henry Miller), a French baroness married into the Rossignol car dynasty, a French language teacher named Suzanne who works for the Resistance, and then most bizarrely of all, the alleged great-niece of a character named Lou Villars, a lesbian race-car driver, German spy and agent of the French Gestapo (a stand-in for the real-life Violet Morris). Yes, there’s a lot on the plate.

Violet Morris, French race car driver and Nazi spy. Source:

Violet Morris, the French race car driver and Nazi spy who inspired the character Lou Villars. Source:

The characters are all drawn to a fictional Chameleon Club in Paris, a free-wheeling 1920s-40s era nightclub with singing acts by cross-dressing sailors and mermaids, men in drag, women in tuxedos, and an owner named Yvonne who parades around with a pet chameleon on her shoulder. When Gabor takes a photo of Lou Villars and her lover Arlette at the club, it is a clear shout-out to Brassai’s Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932 (Cleveland Museum of Art Collection).

"Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932" by Brassai, Cleveland Museum of Art

“Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932” by Brassai, Cleveland Museum of Art

A photo from Le Monocle, a lesbian bar in Montmartre in the 1920s-40s, via

A photo from Le Monocle, a lesbian bar in Montmartre in the 1920s-40s, via

The fictional Chameleon Club is the perfect setting and a revealing title for a book about people who cross all sorts of lines in all sorts of ways. Especially when war comes.

That’s when the narrative shifts into a faster, more sinister gear. Lou Villars takes up professional race car driving on behalf of the Rossignols and becomes a public relations sensation. She dresses like a man and gets a double mastectomy to fit behind the wheel. But soon, enemies in France take away her license on the grounds that she is a threat to morality. Smelling opportunity, the Germans invite her to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and to dinner with Hitler. Lou is easily seduced into becoming a German spy, and agrees to travel through France seeking out intelligence such as the weakness in the Maginot Line. (Believe it or not, nearly all of this is a true story about the real Violet Morris.)

The stories about Lou Villars continue, and by now, you don’t care who’s narrating or why. You’re hooked into hearing about how the good people of the Chameleon Club endured and resisted the horrors of the Occupation, and how people like Villars could possibly rationalize the evils they perpetrated. We learn that Lou Villars (and in turn, the real Violet Morris) may have been involved in the Vel d’Hiv’ Round-up of 1942, and then became an agent of the French Gestapo, known for her violent interrogations of French resistance workers. Which would all be terrific fiction, but is actually based on the true story of Violet Morris.

Lou Villars becomes a notorious interrogator with the 93 rue Lauriston Gang, a group of French Gestapo gangsters who have been the subject of many books and films, including Louis Malle’s 1974 film, Lacombe Lucien and the 2004 television movie 93, rue Lauriston. The gang’s headquarters were located on a quiet little street in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Lou Villars conducted her interrogations in the cellar of their building.

I first spotted the plaques for 93 rue Lauriston on my frequent walks through my old neighborhood in the 16th. In fact, the address was just across the street from one of my favorite boulangeries. I took photos of the plaques and went back to learn more about the horrible history of this neighborhood.


The plaque outside the former 93 rue Lauriston in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. "In homage to the resistants tortured in this house during the occupation 1940-1944 by the French agents, auxiliaries of the Gestapo, the group "Bonny-LaFont"

The plaque outside the former 93 rue Lauriston in the 16th arrondissement of Paris: In homage to the resistants tortured in this house during the occupation 1940-1944 by French agents, auxiliaries of the Gestapo, the group called “Bonny-LaFont”


93, rue Lauriston

93, rue Lauriston

97, rue Lauriston, just a few doors down from the old Gestapo interrogation house, where a lovely boutique hotel now stands is a plaque commemorating one of the heroes who died trying to liberate the Quatier Lauriston.

At 97, rue Lauriston,  where a lovely boutique hotel now stands, there is a plaque commemorating one of the heroes who died trying to liberate the Quatier Lauriston. The hotel is just a few doors down from the French Gestapo house.



The plaque at 97 rue Lauriston: Here Died For France, August 25, 1944, Louis Moreau, FFI, Married, Father of his Family, Came from Bourg-la-Reine for the Liberation of the Quartier Lauriston. In His Memory: Those He Delivered.

Here's my favorite little rue Lauriston boulangerie, which just goes to show how history and present day life go hand-in-hand in Paris.

Here’s my favorite little rue Lauriston boulangerie, which is just across the street from 93 rue Lauriston. It just goes to show how history and present day life go hand-in-hand in Paris. Maybe that’s why I love it so much.


The book ends without clear resolution, offering different versions about what might have happened to all of the friends and enemies from the Chameleon Club. To me, that was the most satisfying ending of all. Because if there is one thing that historians have learned about the aftermath of the Paris Occupation, is that truth and virtue are very slippery things. Kind of like a chameleon.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose: Highly recommended.



Related posts on this blog about World War II Reads:

Sarah’s Key Paris Sites:

In this blog post I share my own photographs of the plaques and memorials near the site of the old Paris Velodrome (Vel’ d’Hiv’), along with directions on where to find them.


Some V-E Day Reading – Paris During the Occupation:

suitefrancaise journalofheleneberr2 andtheshowentnon americansinparis


Coco Chanel: Sleeping with the Enemy:


Wine & War in France:


Crossing the Borders of Time:


Art, Books, Paris – The Hare with Amber Eyes:


Pictures at an Exhibition: Art, War and Memory in Paris:




Paris Was the Place


You probably think I will buy any book with a picture of Paris on the cover. No, really. I won’t. I’m not that easy.

But when your cover is this pretty, the font this inviting, and you have blurbs on the back from the likes of Lily King, Richard Russo, Ayelet Waldman, Margot Livesy, Maryann O’Hare and Sarah Blake, you’ve got me.

Paris Was The Place by Susan Conley is the story of a young woman’s experience while working at an immigration detention center for girls in Paris. You could say it’s Little Bee in Paris, but that would be missing half of the book’s appeal.

In some ways, Willow (“Willie”) Pears is a refugee too. Broken and lost after her mother’s recent death, Willie leaves California and comes to Paris in search of connections. Willie is estranged from her father, but wants to be closer to her brother Luke who lives in Paris with his boyfriend. Willie is a poetry professor at the Academy of France, and begins volunteering at an immigration center for girls. As Willie draws out the refugees’ heartbreaking stories, which they need to prepare for their asylum hearings, she becomes deeply involved in their desperate hope for a better life in France. In the meantime, Willie makes her own “French Connection” with an immigration lawyer who works at the center.

Part of the appeal of Willie’s story is the way she makes Paris her place. When Willie first arrives in Paris she is mystified by the geography of the city:

The sequencing of the neighborhoods here baffles me – arranged like the curvature of some terrestrial snail. I’m in the tenth arrondissement, anchored by two of Paris’s great train stations, where the alleyways weave into mapless places. I’m not embarrassed to carry my Michelin.

With her Michelin in hand, Willie maps her way through Paris, narrating her trips and transfers on the Métro, guiding us through each arrondissement. From her brother’s nice apartment on Victor Hugo in the 16th, her own apartment on Rue de la Clef in the Latin Quarter, the detention center on Rue de Metz in the 10th, and the Academy of France in the 6th, Willie stakes her claim on her new city.

Just for fun, I plotted out Willie’s Paris on this Google Map. Now you can walk in the footsteps of the characters of Paris Was the Place too.

Willie’s Michelin guide helps her unlock the baffling secrets of Paris. And isn’t that exactly the way it is when you’re a tourist or an expat in France? You might not understand half of what is said around you every day, but at least you can read your Métro map. Like color-coded bread crumbs that will always lead you home.

But there’s rarely a direct route. You need to study the map and plot your connections. What’s the best way to get from the 16th to the 10th? Can I get there without having to crowd in with all the tourists on Line 1? Can I do it with only one transfer? I used to start every day with my home-brewed espresso, plotting out my day on my own dog-eared Paris L’Indispensable.

And then, one day, just like Willie, you’ve mastered the Métro and you’ve developed an instinct for the spiraling arrondissements. You learned to cope with a life that isn’t always linear. You’ve made your connection and you feel like you belong. Paris is your place.

What makes Paris Was The Place so wonderful is the way Willie’s search for geographical connections runs parallel with her efforts to navigate through her personal connections: with her brother, her French lover, the girls at the detention center, her complicated family history, her widowed father. Some connections are made, while others are tragically lost. The fact that Willie’s estranged father is a mapmaker adds even more depth and grace to her story. Because belonging isn’t always just a matter of maps and Métros. It’s about making connections in the baffling, mapless places of the human heart.

My dog-eared L'Indispensable Paris Arrodissement Map. My own personal Rosetta Stone.

My dog-eared L’Indispensable Paris Arrondissement Map. My own personal Rosetta Stone.


My home stop on Line 6 in the 16th, which Willie calls “the grown-up part of Paris” with “older women in pencil skirts walking their miniature poodles.” Ouch. That hurts. I swear I don’t own a pencil skirt or a miniature poodle.


Willie, a fellow word nerd, would have loved this Métro stop too. The words from the Declaration of the Rights of Man form a word search at this Concorde Métro stop.


I love this Art Nouveau Métro stop at Réaumur Sébastopol on Line 4. Only one more stop until Willie’s stop for the Rue de Metz detention center.

One of my favorite Métro stops. The Port Dauphine Métro stop on Line 2, just one stop past Luke's apartment on Victor Hugo.

One of my favorite Métro stops. The Port Dauphine Métro stop on Line 2, just one stop past Luke’s apartment on Victor Hugo. Just a short walk from the lovely Bois de Boulogne.

Who doesn't love the whimsical Louvre-Rivoli Métro stop?

Who doesn’t love the whimsical glass beads in the design of the Palais-Royal-Musée de Louvre Métro stop at Place Colette?

The gardens of Musée Rodin, the site of Willie and Gita's field trip

The gardens of Musée Rodin, the site of Willie and Gita’s field trip

Luxembourg Gardens - where Willie and Gita enjoyed their brown-bag lunches together

Luxembourg Gardens – where Willie and Gita enjoyed their brown-bag lunches together

I have a feeling that it’s not just Willie and I who share this need to map out our place in Paris. Check out this quote from Susan Conley’s website, where she talks about her own Paris map OCD:

My craziest Francophile moment came when I found myself making these gigantic maps of the Paris neighborhoods covered in my novel. I used indelible markers on poster board in my little rabbit warren of an office on the third floor of our old house, and I tried to recreate the streets that Willie and Macon walked on in Paris. These hand-scrawled maps were my blue print of the city. They’re almost illegible but they gave me access to the parts of the city I really had to make sure the novel rendered fully. I needed to make the maps to feel like I was there in Paris. Then I knew that the reader would (hopefully!) feel like they were there too.

Yes, Susan, when I read your book I felt like I was in Paris too. Thanks for that, because now I miss it just a little less.

Paris Was The Place by Susan Conley:  Highly recommended.

Paris L’Insdispensable: Indispensable.

John Singer Sargent and Madame X in Paris

I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto

I first read Gioia Diliberto’s  I Am Madame X back in 2004. I might have even picked it as a book club read. It’s a fabulous Belle Epoque novel about the life and times of the celebrated 19th century American portrait artist John Singer Sargent and his most infamous model, American beauty Virginie Gautreau.

I read it again recently, because John Singer Sargent’s name keeps popping up on my travels through Paris art history. This book is even better the second time around, especially now that I know my way around Paris and I can really appreciate what it meant to be a Left Bank artist versus a Right Bank Artist.

John Singer Sargent had the best of both worlds.

He was the son of a wealthy, cosmopolitan American family that had lived abroad for decades by the time they arrived in Paris in 1874. They settled into a posh Right Bank apartment near the Champs-Élysées, which has since become a commercial building at 52 rue La Boétie. Sargent’s father took him to meet the young teaching master Carolus-Duran, who ran a popular Left Bank painting atelier in the heart of Montparnasse.

Sargent was only 18 years old, but he was already bursting with talent. He quickly earned the admiration of his fellow students and within a year was accepted at the rigorous L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. In 1875, Sargent moved out of the family’s home and into a fifth-floor studio apartment at 73 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs with fellow art student James Carroll Beckwith.

The young American artists had found a promising location. The studios at 73 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs had also housed the famous French painter Jean-Paul Laurens, while 75 was the mansion-atelier of Adolphe William Bourguereau. By the 1860s, this small, winding road had already been nicknamed “the royal road of painting.” Even today, the address looks inspiring. It still has an impressive entrance and an inviting green courtyard.

Sargent, Beckwith and their pals led a young bohemian life in the Left Bank. They worked hard but still had time for wild evenings, moving the easels aside for dancing and drinking right in the studio. Sargent was known for entertaining his guests on a rented piano. On Sunday nights, they would clean themselves up for  a proper dinner party at Sargent’s family’s home with “educated and agreeable” conversation.

73 rue des Notre-Dame-des-Champs, once the art studio of John Singer Sargent

Courtyard of 73-75 rue Notre-Dame-des-Petit-Champs. Back in the 1870s, the gardens probably went all the way through to Luxembourg Gardens

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Carolus-Duran (1879)

In 1879, Sargent painted the portrait of his art teacher Carolus-Duran, and it absolutely launched his career. It was bold, theatrical, and presented a stunning likeness in both spirit and physicality. Sargent was only 23 years old and already one of the best portrait artists in France.

In Diliberto’s novel, Sargent meets the future Madame X at a Montparnasse restaurant. In reality, they may have met when Gautreau attended an informal party at Sargent’s studio on rue de Notre-Dame-des-Champs in 1881. Sargent was celebrating the completion of his portrait of Dr. Pozzi, one of Gautreau’s many reputed lovers. According to Diliberto, Gautreau was shocked by Sargent’s portrayal of Dr. Pozzi, a charismatic ladies man (and gynecologist) who had ungraciously tossed her aside before her marriage to Pierre Gautreau:

On an easel near the French doors stood Sargent’s painting of Dr. Pozzi. It looked like a portrait of the devil. Virtually the entire canvas was red – the sumptuous curtains in the background, the carpeted floor. The doctor himself was dressed in red slippers and the red wool dressing gown that I had seen him wear dozens of times. His pose was hypertheatrical; his face was caught in an intense observance of an object outside the canvas, and his elongated fingers tugged nervously at his collar and the drawstring of his robe. His fingers were as sharp as pincers and seemed spotted with blood. Had Pozzi just performed a gynecological operation? Deflowered a virgin?

I just love how Diliberto gave Gautreau such a blunt and penetrating voice. She is clearly no innocent about men, or for that matter, about Sargent’s ability to portray a model’s true character.

John Singer Sargent, Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881)

Sargent was determined to get the chance to paint Gautreau’s portrait. He obviously understood the PR value of painting the “professional beauty” who was the focus of such much attention and gossip in the affluent social circles of Paris. Gautreau thought about giving her business to other more traditional French portrait artists, but she may have felt a special connection to Sargent. They were both up-and-coming Americans with something to prove to the French.

In the meantime, steady commissions enabled Sargent to buy a large, new home and studio on the Right Bank, closer to all of his wealthy patrons. In the winter of 1883-84, Sargent moved to 41 boulevard Berthier, on the shaded side of a wide street whose light made it a popular location for art studios. It wasn’t far from the new mansions near Parc Monceau, and in fact just a few blocks from Madame Gautreau who lived at 80 rue Jouffroy d’Abbans.

In The Greater Journey, David McCullough describes Sargent’s new Right Bank studio:

. . .  a workplace elegantly furnished with comfortably upholstered chairs, Persian rugs, and drapery befitting his new professional standing, and with an upright piano against one wall, . . .

No longer would Sargent’s patrons have to track through the mud and past the questionable bohemians on rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs.

41 boulevard Berthier has been replaced by a newer building, but this one next door is a good example of the types of buildings that once dominated the street, with large windows  and skylights on the top floors.  It was on this street that Virginie Gautreau would have gone to pose for her portrait.

Parc Monceau in the 17th, the center of the fashionable new Plaine Monceau area of the 1870s-80s. Monet painted this park several times.

80 rue Jouffroy, the home of Virginie and Pierre Gautreau in the 1880s.

By 1883, Gautreau finally agreed to pose for Sargent. He talked her into wearing a black dress that would highlight her unusual color, which included rouged ears, white pastey skin (thanks to lavender skin cream) and brightly hennaed hair. At the end of the day, Sargent may have painted her color a little too well. He captured her true character, just like he had with Dr. Pozzi. Her pose was so confident it seemed haughty.

But the strap was the last straw. The painting we know now, as it appears at the Metropolitan Museum in New Yorkwas retouched. The original painting looked like this – a little risqué, no doubt, but more balanced and much more interesting.

Nevertheless, it was a disaster at the 1884 salon. “Quelle horreur!” said polite Paris society. One critic said the flesh “more resembles the flesh of a dead than a living body.”

Sargent soon left for the summer in London while Gautreau disappeared to Brittany, far from the judgment of Paris. Sargent would keep his Paris studio on boulevard Berthier for two more years, where he proudly displayed Madame X. 

Although Sargent may have misjudged the limits of Right Bank tolerance and underestimated their hypocrisy (after all, many of the traditional paintings in the Salon were nudes, and they’re complaining about a little strap?), he would later say that Madame X was “the best thing I have done.”

John Singer Sargent in his boulevard Berthier studio with a retouched Madame X. The strap is repainted.

If your read I am Madame X you will find out much more about Virginie Gautreau: her New Oreans background, her family’s escape to Paris during the Civil War, her early years in a Paris convent school. It’s a well-told story in the voice of a fascinating woman.

 I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto: HIghly recommended.

Stumbling into History: Square Louis XVI

When you walk the streets of Paris you just never know what you’re going to stumble onto next. Back in November, I was walking in the Malesherbes neighborhood on my way to Galleries Lafayette and I passed a pretty little square, so I went in and sat down to read for awhile. It was only later that I realized what kind of history I had stumbled into.

I’d been sitting on top of a mass grave dating back to the French Revolution.

Square Louis XVI was a cemetery for the nearby Madeleine church back in the 18th century. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were buried here after their execution by guilloutine at Place de la Concorde. They were buried in a mass grave along with about 3,000 other victims of the French Revolution. Twenty-one years later, King Louis XVIII exhumed their bodies and moved them to the Bascillica of St. Denis for a proper royal burial.

There is some debate whether the King and Queen’s bodies were properly identified when they were exhumed. There is some evidence that the King and Queen’s bodies were the only bodies actually placed in coffins, or that their burial places were marked with trees and hedges. However, some claim that their bodies, like all of the others, had been covered with quicklime, so that their remains would have been too decomposed to identify some twenty years later. Enjoy some of the debate and discussion at author Catherine Delor’s blog.  Either way it’s pretty creepy.

Louis XVIII built the Chapelle Expiatoire in the square to commemorate the first burial place of the royals. I didn’t go in the chapel (it’s only open Thursday-Saturday afternoons), but for some great photos and more information about the sculptures and a crypt inside, go to Travel with Terry’s Paris blog. The crypt contains a black coffin that supposedly marks the original site of the King and Queen’s burial plot.

If you know me, you know that’s all I needed to get inspired to do some reading about the French Revolution. I highly recommend Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran (Broadway, 2011, now available in paperback), which I hear is going to be turned into a television miniseries by the same folks that brought us The Tudors. Count me in for that – the book was fascinating. Gruesome, but in a good way – did you know Madame Tussaud was compelled to make death masks of the key players of the French revolution? Ewww.

I need to add Mistress of the Revolution (NAL 2009) by Catherine Delors to my reading list now too. Check out Delors’ blog post  called “La Chapelle Expoatoire, and Marie-Antoinette’s smile” to learn about the connection between Square Louis XVI and her book.

Oh-oh, I can tell I’m going to get on another one of my “reading rolls.” Please leave some comments and let me know what French Revolution era books you recommend, whether fiction or nonfiction.









With thanks to Travel with Terry’s blog, here are the details you will need to visit the Chapel inside Square Louis XVI:

Chapelle Expiatoire
29, rue Pasquier – Square Louis XVI
Open Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays 1-5 pm; entrance fee 5 Euros (free to holders of the Paris Museum Pass)
Closed January 1, May 1, November 1, November 11, December 25.
Métro: St-Augustin

Art, Books, Paris: The Hare with Amber Eyes

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal has been out in Picador paperback since this summer, but it took a personal recommendation by a fellow art history friend to get me to finally pick it up and read it.

My friend and I toured the Stein Exhibit at the Grand Palais together a couple of weeks ago, and she couldn’t stop raving about this book. “Speaking of collectors,” she’d said, “there’s this fabulous book about a Jewish family’s collection of Japanese netsukes.” To which I said kind of sheepishly: “what’s a netsuke?” (De Waal pronounces it something like “netski.”)


In case you don’t know either, netsukes are small wood or ivory carvings that originated in 17th century Japan.  De Waal’s ancestor Charles Ephrussi, a wealthy art patron who lived in Paris at the height of the Belle Epoque, bought a collection of 264 netsukes when Paris was all abuzz about Japanese art. The Ephrussi collection now belongs to De Waal, and one of his favorites is the Hare with Amber Eyes, pictured above.

De Waal’s netsukes were owned and treasured by truly fascinating people. The story begins with the rise of the Ephrussi banking family in Odessa, and follows them from late 19th century Paris to 20th century Vienna, through the horrors of World War II and beyond.

Charles Ephrussi was a fashionable salon-going Paris aristrocrat, an “aesthete,” after whom Marcel Proust modeled his character Swann in Remembrance of Things Past. Charles Ephrussi was a friend and patron of Renoir, Monet, Cassat, Degas and more. The walls of his study on rue de Monceau were filled to the ceilings with impressionist paintings.

When I read that Charles Ephrussi had been invited to be a model in Renoir’s painting The Luncheon of the Boating Party, I couldn’t resist pulling out my own tattered copy of the book of the same name by Susan Vreeland. (Another great art history/Paris read to add to your list if you haven’t already.) Charles is the man in the top hat with his back to the viewer. See the names I scrawled on the cover, as I worked to keep track of all of the characters? In fact, Vreeland’s website offers a summary of each model including Charles.


Source: Parisian Fields

Charles Ephrussi is such an interesting character it might be worth a field trip to 81 rue de Monceau to see the former Hotel Ephrussi and the Parc Monceau neighborhood. I think I will follow the lovely travel guide by a like-minded blogger Parisian Fields, whose photograph of the former Ephrussi home is pictured on the left.

Getting to learn about Charles Ephrussi is just one of the many discoveries you will make while reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes. As the story moves on to 20th century Vienna, you will read about the rise of anti-semitism through the eyes of Charles Ephrussi’s cousin Viktor and his young beautiful wife Emmy, who received the netsukes from Charles as a wedding gift. Their children, including De Wall’s great uncle Iggie, grew up playing with the netsukes at their mother’s feet as she donned her gowns and jewelry. Before long, however, the Nazi’s seized power in Austria and stole nearly everything in the Ephrussi mansion, including their furniture, their extensive collection of books and their Old Master paintings. The family barely survived the war. The remarkable and heartbreaking story of how their netsuke collection survived the Nazi horrors is one you will just have to read for yourself.

The latest news is that De Waal has just published an illustrated U.K. edition of The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I am dying to see. If you can’t get a hold of the U.K. edition, you can at least enjoy the photos of De Wall’s netsuke gallery on his website. They’re enchanting, just like the book.

The Hare With Amber Eyes is a beautifully told story of art, family history and the connection between our lives and the objects we appreciate. Highly recommended.