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From the Living Garden to the Garden of the Dead

It’s the strangest thing. There may be a part of the city that hasn’t been on my radar for a really long time and then suddenly, I’ll find myself there once, twice and sometimes three or four times within a really short period of time…like less than one week.

29-4-13HarrietyWeltyRochefortHarriet Welty Rochefort 29-4-13GardenofHarrietyWeltyRochefortHarriet’s garden29-4-13PlaceGambettaPlace Gambetta29-4-13DavidBurkeDavid Burke29-4-13DavidBurkewithGroupCemetery tour with David Burke29-4-13OscarWildeTomb“Sterilized” tomb of Oscar Wilde29-4-13OscarWildeTombBEFOREThe tomb pre-sterilization29-4-13VictorNoirThe virile Victor Noir29-4-13YvesMontandResting place of Yves Montand29-4-13JImMorrisonJim Morrison’s grave site29-4-13RichardWrightPlaque29-4-13george-whitman-pere-lachaiseLocating George Whitman

This time it was Place Gambetta, the Père Lachaise Cemetery and the 20th arrondissement. Last week’s lunch date with author Harriet Welty Rochefort (French Toast, French Fried and Joie de Vivre) had been on the agenda for a while, with a date to meet “chez elle” to see how her garden was looking.

Harriet and her husband, Philippe Rochefort, moved 11 years ago into an unlikely part of Paris from the chic suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine…just because the apartment had a private garden about double the size of the spacious two-bedroom apartment itself (about 100 square meters) with glass doors leading to the garden from every room (except the bathrooms). Such an attribute is near to impossible to find, but they found it — and because it was in a ‘less-than-chic’ district, it was affordable.

I visited Harriet there years ago and wrote about the discovery as long ago as 2004 (Off-the-Beaten-Expat-Paris-Path) and hadn’t been back to see how it had matured. When Harriet and Philippe moved to the 20th arrondissement, her friends were all in shock, but now 11 years later, she hasn’t changed her mind about feeling like she is living in the country, but with Paris just outside her door and all the amenities Place Gambetta affords her.

Place Gambetta connects avenue Gambetta, rue des Pyrénées, rue Belgrand and avenue du Père-Lachaise. It’s the shape of a hexagon 90 meters in width on which the Mairie du XXème (City Hall of the 20th District) is situated. From here, the back entrance into the Père Lachaise Cemetery is just a few short blocks walk.

I found myself there again on Sunday morning to join author David Burke on his walking tour of the writers buried in the famous resting place. David is author of “Writers in Paris” and regularly leads walking tours in intimate groups Writers in Paris Walking Tours in such part of Paris as the Latin Quarter, Saint Germain-des-Prés, the Marais, Montmartre, other literature-soaked districts and of course, the Père Lachaise.

The group met (not too early) in front of the Mairie at Place Gambetta — eight of us total, several of which I knew and some newcomers who we all came to know over the course of the tour and lunch following. One of the advantages of taking tours of this kind is meeting the people. For those of you who want to make new friends, this is an excellent way — not in a large walking tour group, but in an intimate one, where you really have a chance to chat, exchange ideas and get to know one another. In this event, two of the women and I learned we have several friends in common and even considered we could be related!

David Burke is a particularly charming host. He shares “the fruit of his long years of research about the lives and works of such writers as Balzac, Hugo, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, and many others in this hothouse of literary works.”  As we stood before their graves and tombs, he recounted their illustrious careers, told astonishing anecdotes and we laughed about all the tawdry tales.

As we wandered along the cobblestoned paths of the famous cemetery under the freshly-budding trees, we questioned more than just the lives of the writers buried there and I vowed to find the answers to our questions. Today, I share these with you along with some of our more fascinating finds, thanks to David’s clever itinerary.

The Père Lachaise was established in 1804 as a public and non-denominational cemetery on 44 hectares (110 acres) as the largest in Paris and home to over one million interments. It is thought to be the most visited in the world. Entering via Place Gambetta, it’s easiest to visit Oscar Wilde’s tomb, which is one of the most popular. It was a sad and rude awakening to see that the the tomb had been stripped of all the kisses that women had planted on the stone, had been ensconced in a glass walled protective casing and then furthermore, surrounded by metal barriers so that even the glass walls couldn’t be touched. While logically we know that this was done to protect it, at the same time, there was a romantic charm about all the attention it received and this seemed so sterile in comparison.

One of the more interesting tombs is that of Victor Noir, a French journalist who’s bronze replica of himself on his tomb has become a symbol of fertility. Son of a Jewish cobbler who converted to Catholicism, he found himself in a political dispute with Prince Pierre Bonaparte (the great-nephew of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte), and was challenged to a duel. Without going into detail over the encounter, Noir was shot to death by Bonaparte causing a public outcry. More than 100,000 people attended his funeral, and his body moved to the Père Lachaise following the establishment of the Third Republic.

What makes the bronze likeness so virile, is the noticeable protuberance in his trousers, making it a popular tomb particularly by women to visit. The bulge has been rubbed shiny by the hands and lips of adoring women, as has his face been kissed. “Myth says that placing a flower in the upturned top hat after kissing the statue on the lips and rubbing its genital area will enhance fertility, bring a blissful sex life, or, in some versions, a husband within the year.” In 2004, the cemetery officials erected a fence around it to protect it, but protests by outraged women led by French TV anchor Péri Cochin had it torn down!

While Yves Montand’s and Simone Signoret’s grave is not normally on David’s walk, our discussion led to the exhumation of Montand’s body that took place in 1998 as a result of a paternity suit by a woman accusing him of being the father of her daughter. The woman had the right to have his body unearthed to have DNA samples taken. After all the ‘hullabaloo,’ the court determined he was not the father and he was re-laid to rest.

The graves to which we paid respect over the course of the two-hour tour, other than those already mentioned, were Gertrude Stein, Apollinaire, Balzac, Colette, Molière, La Fontaine, Musset, Nerval, Proust, Delacroix and Héloïse and Abelard. We wouldn’t have left without visiting Jim Morrison’s which is the cemetery’s biggest attraction. In 2002, a photo was taken at his grave that shows rock historian Brett Meisner standing next to Morrison’s grave with a white figure in the background, with its arms seemingly outstretched. It was thought to be Morrison’s ghost and the photo was analyzed, rendering the image unexplainable. Meisner’s life was ruined as a result, as he’s been plagued by eerie events ever since.

The Père Lachaise is one of the world’s most desirable cemeteries in which to be buried. It’s still accepting burials, however the rules are strict — people may be buried there if they die in the French capital city or if they lived there. There is a waiting list and very few plots are available, ranging from simple unadorned headstones to towering monuments and elaborate mini chapels. Most are the size of a phone booth. The bodies are squeezed in and many family members may be interred in one grave. It is not unusual for the grave to be opened to add another coffin. Recently, they adopted a standard practice of issuing 30-year leases on the gravesites so that the remains can be removed if the lease is not renewed.

George Whitman, legendary founder of the Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co. was buried there in December 2011. It was not on our walk, but perhaps should have been. You can find him near the edge of division 73. Maybe next time…

For more information, visit pere-lachaise.com and/or pariscemeteries.com and do visit the cemetery itself…with David Burke in the lead.

A la prochaine…

adrianinthegardenAdrian Leeds

Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC

(in Harriet’s garden)

Respond to Adrian

    

 

le-matisse-adP.S. When traveling to France this summer, be sure to make a trip to Nice on the gorgeous Côte d’Azur for a little fun in the sun! For the perfect pied-à-terre in the best location in the city, book a Parler Nice Apartment — choose from the sunny one-bedroom Le Matisse or the luxurious two-bedroom La Côte du Paradis, both with air conditioning. If you’re traveling with a larger party, these apartments can be booked together. For photos, information and to book your stay, visit Parler Nice Apartments

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