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A Café Crème at La Closerie

by Robert F. Burgess

The first thing you notice is that La Closerie des Lilas, Hemingway's favorite café for writing on cold Parisian mornings, sits partially hidden by shrubbery just in from a sharply-formed street corner.

  La Closerie des Lilas exterior view.
La Closerie des Lilas exterior view.

Looking a bit modern with a glassed-in terrace, this is where Ernest sought to keep warm while he nursed a hot cup of fragrant café crème and laboriously penned his tightly-worded thoughts in blue-covered French notebooks. In his day, however, there was no glassed-in terrace.

Today, the café is still on the corner of boulevard du Montparnasse, and boulevard St. Michel next to the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and the avenue de l'Observatoire. As in the past, La Closerie des Lilas (which means a small enclosed lilac garden) still sits apart from the three other popular literary cafés: the Dôme, Select and Rotonde several blocks west where the broad boulevard Raspail cuts across boulevard du Montparnasse at carrefour Vavin.

Ernest preferred the Lilas to the others for two reasons: it was just around the corner from his rooms over a noisy sawmill on rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and it was a bit out of the way for everyone else. Most of the literary crowd and tourists flocked to the cluster of cafés down the street at the carrefour. Hemingway occasionally visited them too, but when he wanted to work undisturbed, it was the Closerie des Lilas and a hot cup of French coffee and cream that claimed him.

Today, the café is not remiss in claiming him as one of its famous patrons. Immediately inside is a polished mahogany, low-lighted, red-leather, brass-and-chrome-mirrored bar. We ask the white-jacketed bartender if he remembers Ernest Hemingway.

Not only does the genial bartender remember him but he can point to the very spot at the bar where he says Hemingway sat to write, a barstool site bearing a brass marker on the bar with his name engraved on it.

The brass nameplate reads: "E. Hemingway." In fact, along the entire upholstered bar and at all the tables are small brightly polished brass nameplates of notable literary and artistic personages of the past who supposedly sat there.

Hemingway's likeness also appears sketched on the cover of the café's menu, which offers, "Le pavé de rumstak au poivre Hemingway" said to be a fine, peppery flavored beef dish served with peas. Whether or not Ernest ever ordered it is questionable.

Common sense suggests that unless he was in a hurry, Hemingway would never have sat at a bar with his back to the boulevard in easy view of anyone who cared to interrupt him. He would have sat at a side table, away from the bar with his back to the wall so he would have a clear view of the field in front of him.

In fact, he sat at several favorite places at the Closerie. In the mornings he regularly sat at a table to the right of the bar and away from it where the sun rises from the east. It afforded a clear, well-lighted place for him to write and he could look over his left shoulder out past today's shrubbery which was not there, for a clear view down the avenue de l'Observatoire to the distant green of the Luxembourg Gardens. In the late afternoon he chose a corner table with the low light from the west coming in over his shoulder, drinking half of his café crème when it cooled and leaving the rest to wait as he wrote about what was to be his short story, Big Two-Hearted River.

Ernest Hemingway at work.
Ernest Hemingway at work.

In his book, The Best Times: An Informal Memoir [The New American Library, New York 1966], Hemingway's friend John Dos Passos recalls a spring day when they both sat outside at a table in the garden triangle under the shade of the chestnut trees and how amused Dos was to actually see a lilac blooming in the shrubbery of the café named for its lilac garden.

If you wonder how the Closerie des Lilas looked in Hemingway's day, the friendly bartender will give you a souvenir postcard with a picture of the café as it appeared then. The black and white photograph lacks the full, luscious greenery that now makes the garden area a pleasant cul-de-sac of privacy.

In nice weather Hemingway sat at the square marble-topped tables outdoors where there were no walls of glass then, and where he enjoyed the openness of it. There, with his two short pencils, pocket pencil-sharpener, and blue-backed notebooks, he wrote, savoring the smell of early morning and the sounds of waiters sweeping out and mopping the café, the sharp, hollow clopping of the horses' hooves and wagons rumbling over the cobblestones of the boulevard du Montparnasse in front of him.

In his right pocket for luck he carried a horse-chestnut and a rabbit's foot, both rubbed so many times for luck that the chestnut glowed ebony black and the rabbit's foot had long since lost its fur until all that remained were the rigid bones and sinews, the claws scratching through the thin lining of his pocket letting him know that its charm still worked.

Certainly something was working for the young writer. He felt good about writing Big Two-Hearted River at the Lilas. He had written about the country so that a reader could walk through it reading his words and see the timber, the clearing, the hill, the river and everything as they were. That was pure rabbit's foot luck, plus hard work. And again later at the Lilas he finished the first draft of his novel, The Sun Also Rises. He knew the luck had held with that one, too.

The tall trees that surrounded the café to give it a touch of shade and a touch of country, were horse chestnuts in Hemingway's early years. Today they are London plane trees that perform the same function and convey the same feeling as the chestnuts did in the past. But no horse-drawn wagons rumble over the cobblestones today. All one hears from the boulevard is the steady hum of vehicular traffic.

  Marechal (Marshal) Ney
Statue of Maréchal Ney.
Sculptor: François Rude.
Pedestal by Alphonse de Gisors, architect of the Luxembourg Palace.

What often caught Hemingway's eye from his vantage point at the Lilas was the impressive bronze statue of Marshal Ney just forty feet from the café, standing dark and tall atop its stone pedestal. Appearing quite dashing, the figure looks east up the divided boulevards, legs spread, arm raised, Ney's sword brandished defiantly overhead. A most imposing heroic figure that Hemingway couldn't help but notice each time he stopped at the café. At the base of the greenish bronze twelve-foot-tall statue is inscribed:

    Duc Delchingen
    Prince de la Moskowa
    7 Décembre 1853

Michel Ney, who was marshal of France and once Napoleon's most trusted general, turned traitor for the restored monarchy after he was sent to track down Napoleon following his escape from Elba. General Ney promised to return the ex-emperor to Paris in an iron cage, but instead when he found him, he knelt before Bonaparte and presented him the gift of his 60,000-man army. Together, they charged into the battle of Waterloo where Napoleon and his armies were defeated. For his traitorous action, the Royalists executed Ney against a wall across the street from where his present statue stands. Executed on December 7, 1853 at 43, rue de l'Observatoire, Ney is buried in Paris' Père Lachaise cemetery.

Seeing the statue gave Hemingway the courage to remember the evening that he was walking home and he stopped by the Lilas to see his old friend, the statue, and found him glowing in late afternoon light with the shadows of the tree branches on the dark green bronze.

He thought of Gertrude Stein calling them the lost generation. He thought about General Ney and the mess he made of Waterloo and he recalled that all generations somehow lost something. Then he drank a toast to the general — thinking about how many days he had fought, personally involved in the rear-guard retreat from Moscow while Napoleon escaped through the snow in a horse-drawn sledge with Caulaincourt.

Ney's fidelity to Napoleon made Ernest remember how close he and Gertrude Stein had been. He pledged to do his best to serve her and to see that she received the just acclaim due her for all the good things she had done "as long as I can, so help me God and Mike Ney. But to hell with her lost generation talk."

After that, Ernest headed home to his rooms over the sawmill where his little family — Hadley, his son Bumby and their cat F. Puss — sat happily around the warm fire in the fireplace.

CONTINUED » Inside the Closerie des Lilas


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