The Brasserie Lipp is famous for three things: Its choucroute; its cevelas, cold, squishy sausages smothered in mustard; and the man who made those sausages famous, a young writer named Ernest Hemingway, who came here when he had enough francs in his pocket for a cheap lunch. It’s not so cheap anymore.
I had come to Paris’s Left Bank on a quest for all things Hemingway, and I dragged my fiancée Cristina along. Cristina, who is from Mexico, has not read much Hemingway, but she has a great sense of adventure, which she exhibited by ordering the house special without having any idea what the house special actually was.
“What am I eating?” she asked, taking a stab into what looked like pink flesh wrapped in octopus tendon over gristly bone.
“Choucroute,” I said. I thumbed through my French phrasebook. “Sauerkraut.” A remnant of past German occupation, sauerkraut was a rare and unfortunate adoption of German food by the French.
“It’s enough for two people,” she said.
“It looks like it’s enough for six.”
For an American writer, it’s hard to conjure a more romantic place and time than Hemingway’s Paris of the 1920s, when writers could wear out the wicker on café chairs discussing Proust over coffee and cocktails. It’s brasseries filled with poets and poseursenjoying the lack of Prohibition and an exchange rate of 14 francs to the dollar. “In Paris, then, you could live very well on almost nothing,” Hemingway wrote, “and by skipping meals occasionally and never buying any new clothes, you could save and have luxuries.”
Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises have become blueprints of the Paris we long to see. Like so many places where Hemingway left his mark, it’s impossible to think about Paris without imagining the scenes Hemingway painted. Floating past Hemingway hangouts like the Café le Flore and Aux Deux Magots is like drifting into A Moveable Feast for a while. There on Rue de L’Odeon is where Ezra Pound bought the jar of opium he handed off to Hemingway. Over there is where the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore used to be. Owner Sylvia Beach, den mother and patron to the expat community, lent Hemingway books and francs and published James Joyce’s Ulysses here when no one else would.
Down the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs is Hemingway’s old sawmill apartment, then a flat without gas or electricity, just a coal stove for heat. It’s gone now, too. So is the sawmill. The whole thing has been replaced by a modern apartment building with a no parking sign flashing like a disco light: “Jour et nuit.”
To talk about everything that’s gone, though, makes it sound like nothing is left at all, when in fact, Montparnasse is still one of the most attractive neighborhoods in Paris, for all the reasons Hemingway loved it (except those low rents aren’t so low anymore). The streets are still tiny and quiet, lined by white stone buildings that stave off time. Although the horses have been replaced by Smarts and Fiats, these streets look much as they did then, with tidy flowers on tiny iron balconies beneath open shutters.
The Lipp felt much as it must have in Hemingway’s day. It was bright, with yellow-tiled walls, mosaics and stained glass in yellow and green. The restaurant echoed with the sounds of espresso being pulled, glasses breaking on the white tile floor and the chatter of diners at the counter. These were the same sounds Hemingway and his crowd had heard 80, 90 years before. I wondered for a moment, could they be the same sounds, the exact same sounds, still echoing off the tile after all these years? In my jet-lagged brain, it was easy to believe.
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s Bible of Paris living, he described walking into thisbrasserie as a young man when few others were there. He sat down on the bench against the wall with a mirror behind him and a table in front of him. When the waiter came, he asked for cevelas, potato salad and a distingue – a liter-size mug – of beer. Except for thedistingue, I could have said the same. My jet lag was in no mood for a liter of beer. Really, I could have done without the cevelas, too.
Hemingway came to Paris in 1921, assured that for a young writer, Paris was the place to be. Imbued with a Protestant work ethic bred in the leafy streets of Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway was disdainful of the crowd. “The scum of Greenwich Village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited in large ladlefuls on that section of Paris adjacent to the Café Rotonde,” he once wrote. “They are nearly all loafers expending the energy that an artist puts into his creative work in talking about what they are going to do and condemning the work of all artists who have gained any degree of recognition.”
Hemingway dubbed this crowd the Lost Generation, a phrase he stole from Gertrude Stein who in turn took it from the mechanic who fixed her Model T while grumbling about the generation perdue that had invaded his city.
“You’re all a lost generation exactly as the garage keeper said,” Stein told Hemingway.
Hemingway didn’t disagree. He had “not a hell of a lot [of fondness] for my generation,” He confessed. His novel A Sun Also Rises seemed to glamorize the café scene, but Hemingway meant to lambast it.
“Fake European standards have ruined you,” the character Bill Gorton chided protagonist Jake Barnes. “You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”
“It sounds like a swell life,” Barnes replied. “When do I work?”
Hemingway insisted he hung out in the brasseries in the off hours, when he could work without running into others like him. For Cristina and me, here on our first day in Paris, it was time to take those cafés for a spin. Suitably stuffed with sauerkraut and sausage, I asked her if she had room for dessert. This was our first day in Paris, and Paris is a moveable feast, right?
“There’s a place I want to take you,” I said.
Winding through the Latin Quarter, we passed the Hotel d’Angleterre. Hemingway and Hadley checked in here to room 14 on December 20, 1921, the first day they arrived in Paris. Ten years ago, my ex-wife and I had checked in next door to a decidedly cheaper hotel. I had dragged her along on a similar Hemingway jaunt. She wasn’t quite as game as Cristina.
“Oh, look! Hemingway threw up there!” my ex-wife had chided as we walked down the streets, a guidebook gripped in my hand. Hunting down the minutia of Hemingway’s past did seem a little ridiculous, especially since I wasn’t too big a Hemingway fan at the time. Paris’s centuries of art, architecture, kings, queens, cardinals, revolutions and republics were too much for my American mind, though. Hemingway’s Paris seemed accessible. Finding his Paris seemed like a way to find my Paris.
That was when I discovered the little brasserie next door to our hotel, Le Comptoir des St. Peres.
“This is my favorite Hemingway shrine,” I told Cristina as we ducked into the café and sat down near a side passageway. Overhead, in big capital letters, next to an espresso machine stacked with bottles of apertifs, read the magic word: TOILETS.
“This was the bathroom where F. Scott Fitzgerald exposed his penis to Ernest Hemingway,” I whispered.
“What?” she asked. “Were they gay?”
As Hemingway tells it, Fitzgerald invited him for lunch when it was called Michaud’s. “He said he had something important to ask me that meant more than anything in the world to him and that I must answer him absolutely truly,” Hemingway wrote. “I said that I would do the best that I could.”
Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda had apparently been complaining about her husband’s plumbing. “A matter of measurements,” Fitzgerald explained.
The two withdrew to the toilet. Fitzgerald dropped his drawers. Hemingway inspected. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” he concluded. “You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.”
“Those statues may not be accurate.”
“They are pretty good,” Hemingway said. “Most people would settle for them.”
Cristina and I sat for brioche and café crème.
“Men and their penises,” she said. “Is it really that big a deal?”
“Apparently for Fitzgerald it wasn’t a big deal at all. That was the problem.”
After draining my cup, I excused myself to go the bathroom, camera in hand. I guessed I wasn’t the only one. When I came out, I flagged the waiter to settle up the adicion.
“Has the bathroom become kind of a tourist destination?” I asked him.
“Sorry? I don’t understand you,” he said.
“The bathroom,” I said. “Do a lot of people come to see it?”
He looked at me sideways. I tried to explain. The American writer, Ernest Hemingway. The American writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. There, in the bathroom. Together. Their, uh, penises.
I was getting nowhere, so Cristina stepped in to translate, testing her high school French classes. His face lit up.
“Yes, they come in here with the book,” he said and pantomimed a tourist walking with his face in a guidebook. “They say, ‘Is it OK if I see your bathroom?’ I say, ‘Please, help yourself. Have a good time.’”