French Lessons from the Lower East 60s

In Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, Holly Golightly sprinkles her conversations with just a little bit of French, or more typically, with a mélange of French and English. Par exemple, she decribes one of her suitors as "quel beast." Speaking a few words in French gives our self-made heroine, born poor in rural Tulip, Texas as Lula Mae Barnes, the air of charm and sophistication necessary to succeed in cosmopolitan New York. In an early passage in the book we learn that before she fled to New York a Hollywood agent named O.J. Berman aspired to help Holly make it in the movies. He thus sent Holly to French classes in order for her to sound less like a country girl. A little French seems useful in New York, too, especially if one aspires to move up in the ranks of Old New York.

French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)
FIAF offer programs for New Yorkers interested in French language and culture.

Since the late 19th century and early 20th, wealthy New Yorkers living on the fashionable Upper East Side near Central Park often mimicked the trappings of French royalty, establishing their tony neighborhood as the center of New York with a French accent. Many built their mansions in the highest French styles of the École des Beaux-Arts. Subsequently, New York luxury retailers followed suit, moving their stores from the once fashionable Ladies Mile district to areas uptown to be closer to their customers. In 1886 the pioneering Bloomingdale's opened its expansive emporium on 59th and Lexington Avenue. In 1928 Bergdorf Goodman built its Beaux-Arts store on Fifth Avenue, just south of the Plaza Hotel, on the site of the demolished Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion. Tiffany's was actually a late-comer to the trend, moving to its present location at 727 Fifth Avenue and 57th in 1940. In order to make one's way through this word, it helps to know a little French.

Speaking of sophisticated stores, Henri Bendel was born in Vermillionville, Louisiana in 1868. The town later changed its name to Lafayette.

Grand Army Plaza, Sherman Monument
Sherman Monument, designed by Beaux-Arts trained sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Grand Army Plaza, 60th and Fifth Avenue. The Plaza Hotel is in the background.

Today, French is the official language of 29 countries, with expanding usage in Sub-Saharan Africa. (Wikipedia) In New York, a significant portion of the immigrant population speaks French, including people originally from Haiti and Quebec.

This website draws enthusiastically on several strains of French social and cultural thought, including Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (published 1835 and 1840), poet Charles Baudelaire's idea of the flâneur ("a person who walks the city in order to experience it"), and works of the theorist and writer Guy Debord, the founder of the Situationist International.

• French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF). 22 East 60th Street
Major French cultural organization in New York hosts language classes, cultural events, a cinema, and more. fiaf.org

Paris Theater
Paris Theatre. 4 West 58th St.

• Paris Theatre. 4 West 58th St.
The Pathé Company opened this arthouse cinema on September 13, 1948. The company owned the theater until 1990.

• Sherman Statue. Grand Army Plaza.
Designed by Beaux-Arts trained sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an Irish-American artist raised in New York City. His father was French. When he was 19 he left for Europe to study art in an atelier and also at the École des Beaux-Arts.

• Mon Petit Cafe. 801 Lexington Ave.
French classics served up in an informal bistro.

Mon Petit Cafe
Mon Petit Cafe. Lexington and E. 62nd St.

• Grolier Club. 47 East 60th Street
Club devoted to the bookmaking arts is named for famous French book collector, Jean Grolier (1479-1565)

• Eglise Française du Saint-Esprit. 109 East 60th Street
Diverse Episcopal congregation for a Francophone and Francophile community. The church's history can be traced to the French Huguenots in New Amsterdam.

17 E. 63rd St. French-inspired architecture (middle)
Find French-inspired Beaux-Arts architecture throughout the neighborhood.
Pictured here - 17 E. 63rd St. and neighbors.

• The Pierre. 2 East 61st Street
French inspired hotel constructed in 1929-1930. Founder and restaurateur Charles Pierre was born in Corsica and studied cuisine in Paris. After immigrating to New York in his twenties, Charles worked at several restaurants catering to the wealthy. Charles formed a business partnership to open the grand Pierre Hotel in 1930, but the hotel went into bankruptcy in two years. J. Paul Getty bought the hotel in 1938. Hotel website. The hotel's restaurant is La Caprice.

View French Lessons from the Lower East 60s in a larger map

• Beaux-Arts architecture.
Look for the French-inspired houses from the turn of the century throughout the Upper East Side.

• Rouge Tomate. 10 East 60th Street
Modern American cuisine with a Brussels provenance. In addition to the sit-down restaurant here, look for the Rouge Tomate cart outside the park on Fifth Avenue at 64th St.

Rouge Tomate cart
The Rouge Tomate cart

Stopping yesterday at the Rouge Tomate cart for a little lunch, the nice guy working in the cart explained that the name "Rouge Tomate" translates as "the color red," as opposed to a red tomato. Furthermore, he explained that "rouge tomate" is also an expression for blushing. See? French lessons extend beyond the classroom in these environs.

After school, especially in the autumn, it's nice to grab lunch and then sit in the park, n'est-ce pas?

Central Park October 13, 2011
le parc central

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Thursday, October 13, 2011.


Phil Davis said...


Philip Hartigan said...

Tres bien, Teri. Je suis tres heureux decouvrer que tu viens de commencer tes etudes en francais!

Sud de France NY said...

We really enjoyed reading your article. It's incredible how much French culture has influenced NYC--the architecture, food, music...

In fact, we recently launched a text message-based scavenger that takes players to specific locations in Manhattan that are tied to France in some way. Maybe this is something you would like to check out? If so, more information is available on our Facebook page.


Teri Tynes said...

Thanks, Phil and Philip.

And thanks, Sud de France NY. Your app looks fun.