Illustration by Fernando Vicente

To live, paint and drink in Montparnasse

In the first decades of the 20th century, the bars in a small district of Paris hosted some of the greatest artists, writers and intellects of the age. Jack Castle takes a tour

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  • La Rotonde 105 Boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris

Who drank there and when? Having opened in 1911, La Rotonde was the  café pre-World War I and continued to be the centre of Montparnasse life long after it. Along with Le Dôme, it provided a key attraction to artists moving away from Montmartre to the Left Bank in search of cheap rents. Famous patrons included Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Soutine, Diego Rivera, Zadkine and Gris.

Overheard at the bar: ‘I was sitting opposite Modigliani. Hashish and cognac. Totally unimpressed. No idea who he was. He looked frightfully ferocious and vulpine. Met him again at La Rotonde. He was clean-shaven and charming. He elegantly doffed his hat, went bright red and invited me to come and see his works’ — Beatrice Hastings

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  • Le Dôme 108 Boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris

Who drank there and when? The oldest and most famous café in Montparnasse, Le Dôme was frequented by painters such as Gauguin, in addition to serving as an occasional meeting place for Lenin, Trotsky and other revolutionaries, as well as painters like Archipenko, Chagall and Kandinsky. After World War I it was co-opted by British and American émigrés such as Gertrude and Leo Stein, Ezra Pound and Man Ray, and also German painters such as Wilhelm Uhde and Hans Purrmann.

Overheard at the bar: ‘Within a very small area you could find bohemians, priests, students, mystics and ladies of easy virtue. Before the outbreak of war in 1939, I remember sitting on the terrace of Le Dôme at certain times of day and hearing every language in the world being spoken’ — Jean-Marie Drot

Who drank there and when? Originally a country inn, La Closerie des Lilas was slightly removed from Carrefour Vavin, which had already become a trap for tourists and drunks by the mid-1920s. As a result, it was a place to work rather than drink, and more French in character and clientele. 

On 1 July 1925, at a grand banquet in honour of the poet ‘Saint-Pol-Roux le Magnifique’, André Breton caused a ruckus after springing to the defence of Max Ernst after someone made an anti-German remark. A brawl was soon raging between some of France’s most prominent intellectuals, including the critic Philippe Soupault who swung from the chandelier and sent flowers and wine flying.

Overheard at the bar: ‘It was warm inside in the winter and in the spring and fall it was very fine outside with the tables under the shade of the trees on the side where the statue of Marshal Ney was, and the square, regular tables under the big awnings along the boulevard. Two of the waiters were our good friends. People from the Dôme and the Rotonde never came to the Lilas. There was no one there they knew, and no one would have stared at them if they came’ — Ernest Hemingway

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  • Le Select 99 Boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris

Who drank there and when? Having opened in 1925, Le Select was renowned for two things: its Welsh rarebit, and the fact it was the first café in Montparnasse to stay open all night. 

In 1929, while besieged by hard-drinking Americans such as Hemingway, Robert McAlmon, Harold Stearns and Morley Callaghan, the bar’s imposing proprietor, Mademoiselle Jalbert, called the police on Hart Crane for either brawling or refusing to pay his bill. The Paris police had clearly had enough of rowdy émigrés by this time, and beat Crane bloody before dragging him face-down along Boulevard du Montparnasse. Artists Stuart Davis, Isamu Noguchi, Jo Davidson and Alexander Calder were also known to have been occasional patrons.

Overheard at the bar: ‘The Montparnassians sleep in the morning and in the afternoon and spend the evening and the neo-evening, up to the rising hour for ashmen and concierges, upon the terraces of the Dôme, the Rotonde, the Select, and other neighbouring cafés. They have dark circles under their eyes, have read parts of Ulysses, and are likely to be self-made Freudians’ — Elliot Paul

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  • La Coupole 102 Boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris

Who drank there and when? Rumour has it that La Coupole opened on 20 December 1927 because of the pun ‘le vingt dissipe la tristesse’, which when said aloud sounds like both ‘the 20th drives away sadness’ and ‘wine drives away sadness’. Fronted by neon lights and adorned with two magnificent pillars designed by Léger and Kisling, its scene was renowned, with Chagall, Cocteau, Vlaminck and Josephine Baker all in regular attendance.

Overheard at the bar: ‘Met Friesz and went along to La Coupole. Bumped into Kisling who’d been looking for me… Man Ray, Kiki… Desnos. All very pleasant and good fun. At one point someone was talking about Derain and I said: “Now there’s someone who I’d like to see again before going back to America.” Two minutes later, who turned up but Derain himself, totally drunk! I had a marvellous time’ — Jules Pascin

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Who drank there and when? The majority of the main characters in Hemingway’s 1925 novel A Moveable Feast  were based on certain heavy-drinking patrons at Le Dingo (slang for ‘The Crazy Man’). The bar’s Liverpudlian barman, Jimmie Charters, lured a crowd made up of English-speaking boozers and the emotionally fragile with his corned beef and cabbage, real American soup and thick steaks. ‘We let some of the clients run up bills,’ he later recalled. ‘I’m told the unpaid bills over a nine-year period in the Dingo totalled half a million francs.’ This was also where Hemingway first met F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Overheard at the bar: ‘After dinner someone would say, “Let’s go round to the Dingo”… where you knew the waiter, the owner and barman by their first names, and knew practically every client… Here you settled down to serious drinking’ — Jimmie Charters