In 1907, within five years of his death the new left-wing majority on the Paris Town Council decided to change the name of the recently built (1905) Rue Frémicourt, to Emile Zola, after the prolific social realist writer.
Besides his huge output, Zola’s principal claim to fame is his denunciation of the travesty of justice served upon the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. In 2000 the section of the avenue where Zola’s memorial stone stood was renamed the Alfred Drefyus Square.
For a few years from 1908, No. 146 housed a Mutual Aid (Entr’aide) (lingerie and fashion cooperative founded by the feminist and trade unionist Gabrielle Duchêne, who had become politicised by the Dreyfus Affair and was a rare trade unionist who opposed the First World War. She directed the French section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom from 1919 until her death in 1954.
In the 1760s the avenue that now runs from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the Rue de Vaugirard was called the way to Orléans. It only became known as the Maine road in 1791, and finally the Avenue du Maine from 1821. The only connection with one of Louis XIV’s sons, the Duke of Maine, is that in the early 18th century Auguste de Bourbon used to travel down that way from his chateau at Sceaux to his principal town house on the Rue de Varenne.
Close to the heaving left-leaning cultural centre of Montparnasse in the early 20th century, the Avenue was where many artists and writers chose to live and work. Mondrian lived and worked at No. 33 at the end of 1911; Douanier Rousseau was at No. 44 from 1893 to 1905; Diego Rivera lived at No 52 after returning from Mexico where he had feted the centenary of the Mexican Revolution.
The Russian artist Marie Vassilieff opened her first art school in 1908 at No. 54 and after she moved down the Avenue to No. 21 in 1911, Emmeline Pankhurst stayed at No. 54 briefly in 1913.
During the First World War Vassilieff opened a ‘canteen’ there, providing very cheap meals for often starving artists and their models. Apollinaire, Matisse and dozens of others benefited. Operating as a private club Vassilieff was also able to avoid the curfew, with music and dancing in the evenings.
Among others known to have attended Vassilieff’s cheap lunches and night club were Trotksy and Rosmer. Lenin according to one rumour also visited. Her studio walls were covered with paintings by Chagall and Modigliani and with drawings by Picasso and Fernand Léger. On May 5 and 9 1913 Léger lectured there on the balance between lines, forms and colours and representation in contemporary art.
Owned by the City of Paris, No. 21 is now the Villa Vassilieff – a contempory art and research centre ‘dedicated to un-explored resources and aims to rewrite and diversify the history of art’.
In 1880, after his return from exile after having been joint administrator of the Louvre during the Commune (he had been sentenced in 1874 to forced labour for life), Jules Dalou lived with his wife and disabled daughter at No. 22, near his studio in the nearby Impasse du Maine (now the Rue Antoine-Bourdelle. Dalou’s studio was knocked down for an extension of the Bourdelle Museum in 1961).
It was while Dalou lived at No. 22 that he sculpted many of his most famous pieces, including in 1889 his Triumph of the Republic for the Place de la Nation and in 1890 his Monument to Eugene Delacroix for the Luxembourg Garden.
The Brasserie des Trois Mousquetaires at No. 77 was one of many bars Simone de Beauvoir visited between 1937 and 1939.
On 22 November 1941 three young Communists, Albert Gueusquin (alias Bob), Raymond Tardif and Jean Garreau threw a fire bomb into the Hôtel Océan at No. 100 that had been requisitioned for the exclusive use of German soldiers.
After Léon Jouhaux agreed to set up a new anti-Communist trade union confederation, the Confédération Générale du Travail-Force ouvrière (FO), the funding it received from the CIA allowed it to move into headquarters at No. 198. The Palais d’Orléans the FO took over had been built at the end of the 19th century as a huge house for weddings and banquets. The building has now been transformed into flats.
FO remained at No. 198 until 1996. André Bergeron led the union from there from 1963 to 1989 when he was succeeded by Marc Blondel, under whom FO moved to its newly-built headquarters at No. 141 in 1996.
The boulevard du Montparnasse crosses three arrondissements. The odd numbers on the north side are all in the 6th; the even numbers from 2 to 66 are in the 15th; and from number 68 onwards the addresses are all in the 14th. It was named with reference to the Greek residence of the muses by 17th century students after a tiny hillock in the area.
One excellent source on the left in Paris, the website Parisrévolutionnaire suggests that both Lenin and Trotsky were at the Dôme in 1905. Hazan (IOP), however, insists the Dôme… should never have been allowed to call itself the café of Trotsky and Kertész.
What is certainly true is that in the early years of the 19th century, the Dôme at No 108 became a major intellectual centre, and attracted many left political and artistic people.
Pablo Picasso as well as Modigliani, Utrillo and Apollinaire all drank or ate at le Dôme(No. 108) and la Rotonde(No. 103). The owner of La Rotonde was denounced by Aragon on July 13 1923 for having been a police informer on Lenin before World War One. Other neighbouring well-frequented intellectual and artist cafes of the interwar years included la Coupole (No. 102-104) and le Select (No. 99) .
The wounded black Foreign Legion corporal, Eugene Bullard, is reported as having decided while at the Coupole in the Spring of 1916, to become a pilot in the French air force.
Diego Rivera was also part of this leftish Montparnasse scene in the early 20th century.
Léon Blum saw himself primarily as a writer before 1914, moving into the artists’ block of flats and studios at No. 126 boulevard Montparnasse. Henri Matisse lived and worked at No. 132 in 1927.
From 1865 to 1866, after the publication of his first novel, Émile Zola lived in a room at No. 142.
At the eastern end of the Boulevard near the Port Royal, this famous restaurant is where in June 1941 Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre organised a clandestine ‘Socialism and Freedom’ meeting of about 50 intellectuals, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Yet in the face of increasing repression they did not do much more, and in September 1941 Sartre agreed to take the job of a secondary school teacher who had been fired for being Jewish.
Hemingway was also known to eat frequently in the years 1924-1926 at the Le Nègre de Toulouse restaurant at No 159.
Louis Aragon met Mayakovsky for the first time at the Coupole on November 5 1928. The Coupole was requisitioned between 1940 and 1944 for German-only events
Earlier, under the Second Empire that he satirised so brilliantly, Émile Zola lived at No 142 in 1865 to 1866.
The Chilean embassy was in a prime location at No. 2. It had previously been the private mansion of the Tour-d’Auvergne family.
This is where Louis Aragon was allowed to take refuge for a few days on August 28 1939 by fellow poet and Communist, but also a diplomat there at the time, Pablo Neruda. Aragon had been attacked in the street by the extreme right-wing after the French Communist Party had been banned on August 25, two days after the Hitler-Stalin ‘Non-aggression Pact’.
In 1971 Neruda was named Ambassador to France, and he lived at No. 2 until the fascist coup in Chile in 1973.
As early as the 14th century the 1.5km-long road from central Paris towards the village of Sèvres six miles away (nearly 10km) got its name. The name was later made famous by the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres (the porcelain factory) moved there in 1756 at the demand of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, and then bought by the king three years later.
One of the largest underground newspapers circulating in the Northern Zone, Défense de la France, during the German Occupation was printed at No. 11. It was printing 450,000 in January 1944. The niece of Charles de Gaulle, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, was one of its supporters. One of those involved in the printing, Jacques Grou-Radenez, was arrested and died in deportation on November 12 1943.
Marc Bloch the Left historian who founded the Economic and Social History Annales lived in a flat at No. 17, above the then Lutetia swimming pool, from 1936 to 1940. Initially used exclusively by the adjoining hotel it was requisitioned by the Gestapo in 1940. In 1945 it became a centre for returning concentration camp inmates and then a public swimming pool. until it was closed in the 1970s. The Lutetia swimming pool is now a Hermes shop.
A rare plaque for the Leftist was put on the first floor wall of the building because of his wartime role leading the resistance in Lyon, after he was sacked from his job as Professor at the Sorbonne University for being a Jew.
The huge establishment at No. 22-24, Le Bon Marche, the French equivalent of Harrods, has been catering to wealthy French Parisians and tourists since 1852, just 11 months after the December 1851 coup d’état when Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte seized power.
Jacques Prévert worked as a salesman there in March 1916, before being fired for having ‘turned a salewoman from the right path’.
The Luxembourg Palace (No. 15-17) is the most well-known building in the old Roman road that is the longest street in Paris. The road now stretches 4.360 Km westwards from the Boulevard Saint Michel to the junction of the Boulevards Lefebvre and Victor on the inner ring-road called the ‘Petite Ceinture‘ on which route a small train used to run round Paris
The end of the road was where, at Nos. 393 and 399 barricades were built across the street in March 1871 to prevent the Versaillais troops from entering.
The road’s name comes from the ancient village of Vaugirard, called after the mid-13th century owner of the land there, ‘Val du Girard’.
Among the tens of thousands who have lived in this old road are some who we feature in Left in Paris, often living alongside forgotten bits of left history.
The Trianon-hôtel, for example, at No. 1- 3 witnessed one of the first attacks by the resistance against a hotel requisitioned by the German army. The bombing took place on 14 November 1942 organised by thelargely foreigner and Jewish Francs-tireurs et partisans – main-d’œuvre immigrée(Fighters and partisans – Migrant Workers) group.
At No. 4, then called the Hôtel Lisbonne, Paul Verlaine lived off and on between periods in hospital from 1889 to 1994. Today the hotel boasts of its earlier desperately poor and severely ill guest, and calls itself the Hôtel Fontaines du Luxembourg.
From 1906 Jacques Prévert lived at No. 7 and went to school next door, in No. 9. I’ve very fond memories of the Vaugirard school where my son Michael spent a happy four months when he was ten. The area has completely changed since then. The school was constantly complaining about the bourgeois dog owners who allowed their tiny animals to deposit all over the surrounding streets as they walked them to the Luxembourg Garden.
Émile Zola lived in rooms at No 10 in 1866 with Alexandre Meley whom he married in 1870.
After the Farmers’ General wall was completed there were two customs posts across Rue Vaugirard. One was at No. 102 and another (la barrière du Maine) from Nos. 111-132.
Victor Hugo and his wife Adèle lived at what was 90 rue de Vaugirard but is now numbered 86-88 for the first three years of their marriage, from 1824-1827.
On December 10 1904 Lenin sat for the Russian sculptor, Naoum Aronson (1872-1943) at his studio in No. 93.
When she first arrived in Paris around 1860, the feminist bookbinder and Communard Nathalie le Mel mother of three worked at Pasquier et Vigneau’s bookbinding works at No. 150 (in the 15th arrondissement).
French measurementsof distance
For the real historical nerds among us, in the wall at No. 85 is an early 18th century ‘half-league stone’. The Fleur de Lys on it was removed during the French Revolution. The marker (borne) indicates the first half-league (lieue) – that is 500 toises.
A toise was the distance between a man’s outstretched arms, approximately 6 feet) or 2 Km from the entrance to Notre-Dame cathedral. 1 lieue = 1,000 toises, or approximately 4 Km. A toise is the equivalent of the fathom in English, but in France it was used both on land and at sea.
At the French Revolution France still used hundreds of different weights and measures, originally derived from Roman units where the leuga (lieue/league) was the distance that a man can run in an hour. King Charlemagne (742-814) had added the pied du Roi (the King’s foot) and the toise. The pouce (inch) was the width of a human thumb, and was 1/12th of the pied du roi. The ligne (line) was 1/12th of a pouce, and the point (Truchet point in English) was 1/12th of a ligne.
After Charlemagne the fragmentation of France and of Europe accelerated. So distances varied from town to town, with the variation in 1 league (lieue) being from 3.268 km to 5.849.
On August 4 1789 a successful resolution from the Jacobin Club at the Constituent Assembly abolished all the privileges of the Crown, including its right to determine measures of distance and weight.
In 1790 Talleyrand proposed the drawing up of a Universal Measure, and the National Assembly proposed doing this jointly with the United Kingdom, who refused.
In 1791 a law established a Commission to establish the universal measure. They decided it should be based on a quarter of the length of a meridian and gave two geographers the task of measuring it exactly. They took seven years to measure the distance between Barcelona and Dunkerque.
This exercise was considered too long-winded for both military and political reasons. So on August 1 1793 the National Convention passed a decree determining the ‘provisional’ length of what in 1795 was named the metre. This was based on a millionth of the 1739-1740 distance measured by Lacaille from the North Pole to the Equator. It was exactly 3 pieds, 11 lignes and 44 hundredths of the principal toise used in Paris.
Finally, on 7 April 1795, the new system of weights and measures adopted by the French National Convention were named: metres and grams. A metal metre-long yardstick embedded in marble was then placed in the wall at no. 36 rue de Vaugirard. And in a shop window at No.r 215 there is an 1840 cast iron kilometer stone marking 3.5 km from the centre of Paris.
The old and new systems were used concurrently in France over the next half century. Metric leagues were used from 1812 to 1840 with one metric lieue = 4000 metres or 4 Km. The use of the old system was finally ended across the whole of France by the law of 1837.
But when in 1988 Joe, Joan and I bought a half-finished farm/barn in the Haute Savoie, and I had to finish off the plumbing, I can still remember the plumbing shop in Thonon-les-Bains where the width of copper pipes and joints were still in pouces (inches). In the UK metrication became government policy under Wilson in 1965 and in 1973, with accession to the European Economic Community, the UK was given 5 years to adopt metric units and by 1980 virtually no schools continued to teach in feet and inches.