Simulacra and reality

A Letter from Paris, a city that holds many special memories for the author

Joan Juliet Buck writes from Paris, and shares her evocative memories of The City of Lights
The renowned Cafe de Flore. PHOTO: CHENG-EN CHENG/CC-BY-SA-2.0

The Eurostar runs between the two sides of my childhood. On the UK side, it’s safe, there are friends, you can dress up and be silly. On the French side, there is excitement, trouble, bad temper. The UK side is howling political comedy, the continent is just that much closer to Ukraine.

London, bland; Paris, bold, like my first taste at sixteen of dark sweet liqueur de cassis at D’Chez Eux, or the immense funerary flag for De Gaulle that filled the groin of the Arc de Triomphe, or Karl Lagerfeld dancing me through a tango between the tables at Bofinger when I was 22, and the muffled “boomf!” each time the police blew open a suspicious car boot the winter that Abdallah was bombing stores, when I wrote novels and lived seven floors above the rue Guénegaud in a garret with a view, but without a man, and had a 50 per cent friend-of-the-house discount at Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche.

The love stories never went well in Paris, but the wish for glitter and fashion was granted: I was invited in, and accepted. Perhaps because of all those well-cut Saint Laurent suits, I spent almost seven years as La Rédactrice en Chef of French Vogue, a role from which I could bestow the acceptance and the glitter I had so craved. I gave parties for friends, dinners that went on half the night, all-day Christmases and egg-painting Easters, a great many parties that left crumbs and sparkles on the rust-red carpet of the wide, interesting apartment that I moved from 21 years ago.

I had power then, I had status. I let it go because it felt wrong; I think I don’t miss it at all.

I went to New Mexico, then to upstate New York. I write what I want and no longer praise consumer goods.

Last year I married my first love, the boy who’d written in my autograph book when I was sixteen, “Existence before appearance.” It took me a life to get to those words.

Iconic fashion on display at the Yves Saint Laurent Museum

Madison Cox, who heads The Yves Saint Laurent Museum, invited me over from London. I’d broken my rule, because Saint Laurent evokes something deeper and wilder to me than luxury, and I’d written a preface for the catalogue to a show of lamé and brocade titled “Gold”.

I had not yet seen the couture house at 5 avenue Marceau as a museum, and my new husband, a mathematician, has not known that world at all.

Inside the Café Flore, the red banquettes looked the same, the mirrors looked just as old, the waiters younger, and the patrons were strangers, mostly female

Brexit replaced imported Gruyère in UK supermarkets with British cheddar, and replaced smooth boarding on the Eurostar with security scrums and immigration queues. The ride itself was still a joy and a miracle. I don’t like tunnels, but this one goes by so fast, and then I’m home, at either end.

In the hotel, the chambermaid was Ukrainian, determined to give us water and a chocolate bar. It seemed the wrong way around.

As we walked up the Boulevard Saint Germain in a beautiful dusk hush, I didn’t wonder why the dusk was, in fact, hushed. In Paris, dusk is the time of maximum traffic and noise and hurry and misery. I didn’t know that a strike had paralysed the distribution of petrol.

We walked past the umbrella shop that no longer sells umbrellas, past the overly glossy kitchen equipment shops, past the not-very-good-bookshop that may have upped its game now that the great bookshop La Hune has given way to a useless Louis Vuitton boutique.

Inside the Café Flore, the red banquettes looked the same, though cleaner, the mirrors looked just as old, the waiters younger, and the patrons were strangers, mostly female.

I hoped none were PRs from the Vogue life. But a closer look told me that fashion itself had vanished. The most stylish woman there had pinned a tiny toy racoon to an edge of her poncho.

The stairs are as steep as ever, with the glass-sided shadow-box hunkering by the window just as the steps curve towards the right, those stairs I used to race up to get to the phone booth or the toilet, and then I’d repowder my nose, recolour my lips, redraw my eyes so as to descend those stairs at the right pace to scope out the room while putting on a show of being me, all the way down into the fug of cigarettes, the mingled breaths, the autumn smell of moist coats and new clothes and recent sex and dense perfume. At twenty I despised authority and loved the expectation at the Flore, the constant hope that another chance would soon come through that door.

Now I wanted to reach through time to give my husband the late afternoons I knew here, the early winter dark, the unlimited summer daylight, with Jane from school who’d introduced me to everyone, Antonio in a Panama hat and Juan and Karl with all the pins on his lapels, all of us posing on the shining red banquettes, catching our reflections in the mirrors. And watching us always from another table was Shirley Goldfarb, a sententious Beatnik painter from the 1950s, out of time and out of place – it was said David Hockney admired her work, but artists were like that, they didn’t understand trends. We loved the 1930s, we did not love the 1950s.

Shirley Goldfarb wanted to be us. We skirted her, ignored her greetings, treated her as badly as the Parisians did. Given half a chance, in private gatherings, she would sing show tunes, often “Over the Rainbow”.

Years later, when Shirley Goldfarb was older, and ill, a young Madison Cox came to Paris. He sat with Shirley at the Flore, he heard her, he arranged for her to give a concert at the Theatre De l’Athénée, and he invited everyone who had avoided her. He was well connected; they all came. Shirley Goldfarb sang her songs, including “Over the Rainbow”, the elegant Parisians applauded her at last, and she died, one dream fulfilled.

And that is why I love Madison Cox.

I did not tell this story that first evening in Paris.

My husband drank a glass of red wine, fixed in the present. I’d brought him into a setting from my past, I wanted him to feel its old buzz. There was no old buzz left, except for the box on the stairs.

Joan Juliet Buck with Peter O’Toole at the premiere of “Lord Jim”, 1965

The box is by Charles Matton, an artist I’d met through the same Jane Gozzett who first took me to the Flore. In his later years he created perfect complex places inside shadow boxes about the size of old gramophones: miniature versions of Freud’s study, of rooms, of the foyers of movie houses, and here, at the Café Flore, by the window at the bend in the stairs, the inside of the Café Flore.

I asked my husband to go look at the box on the stairs, and watched him peer into the facsimile of the room we were in.

The next day, there was so little petrol available that the city was mostly empty of cars, and the bare streets made the truncated corners stand out on the identical, grey, endlessly repeated apartment buildings put up by Haussmann when Napoleon III cleaned up Paris.

The museum that was once the maison de couture has a truncated corner on the avenue Marceau, and the green moiré pattern of the carpet is unchanged, but the little gold chairs for clients are gone. Yves Saint Laurent’s private studio is where it has always been, now the centrepiece. A shock – as the French say, “une émotion” – nostalgic, unnerving – to see something I’d known in life as a museum display. A gold jacket on a stand, rolls of fabric leaning against the back wall, the board pinned with pictures, the tables and desk with pencil cups and the marble ruler, all now behind an electronic guard-rail defined by a thin pink neon line on the floor. Outside the pink line stood Anna Klossowski, the daughter of Yves’ muse and jewelry designer, the Anglo-Irish-French Loulou de La Falaise.

“Mum would say ‘don’t go to school today, come to work with me,’” said Anna. “I could barely reach the top of Yves’ desk, and my favourite object there was that little statue of Liberty, because it shines, and it’s a pencil sharpener.”
The evocative and poetic selection of golden clothes and Loulou’s jewelry, displayed alongside new gold ceramics by Johan Creten, showed my husband what he’s missed.

We moved to another hotel, where the chambermaid was another Ukrainian. The war felt near. In the Luxembourg gardens, the leaves on the trees were piercing yellow against the grey air.

Friends said the lack of traffic was a relief, so much less polluting.

Paris was a treat that began to ache. I couldn’t reconcile the beautiful gold clothes with the carnage in Ukraine. I could only think of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, the book that inspired The Matrix. I wanted existence more than appearance. When the Eurostar went into the tunnel, I understood I wanted to go home, and when it came out of the tunnel between the concrete and barbed wire and into England, I felt safe for the first time in three days.

© Joan Juliet Buck 2022. Joan Juliet Buck spent her life between Paris and London, writing, editing and acting. Her Apple Podcast “Serial Tales of Littleburg” is set in a version of the hamlet where she now lives, north of New York City

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Life, November 2022

7 Comments. Leave new

  • Avatar
    Katherine Valin
    2 November 2022 4:45 AM

    Good read! Thank you.

  • Avatar
    Marylyn Haspel
    2 November 2022 7:09 AM

    Joan, this is you at your very best.

  • Avatar
    Paris with you alarmed and unnerved by wants to come and what is
    2 November 2022 9:34 AM

    I feel like I am in Paris with you alarmed and unnerved by wants to come and what is

  • Avatar
    Natasha Kaplan
    2 November 2022 11:22 AM

    Joan’s writing leaves me agog…

  • Avatar
    Kaplan Rachel
    2 November 2022 1:00 PM

    You can’t go home again, seems to be the message of this essay. I have lived in Paris for over 28 years without nostalgia. I never hung out at the Flore and never wore Yves St. Laurent even at 50 percent off. I came to Paris for its art and history and beauty. For those things alone I have found endless riches. I also met the love of my life 21 years ago….

  • Joan’s writing is gorgeously evocative. I want to be there. I feel like I was there through her words.

  • I gobbled up these visions and memories. Delicious popcorn. Thank you Joan


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