7.14.2012

For Bastille Day, a French-Themed Walk

Happy Bastille Day. Le jour de gloire est arrivé!

(Event notes for 2013: July 14 is Bastille Day, the traditional date for La Fête Nationale. The annual New York Bastille Day celebration hosted by the French Institute Alliance Française takes place Sunday, July 14, from noon to 5pm. The location is 60th Street, Fifth to Lexington Avenues. The event is free and open to the public. See more at  www.bastilledayny.com. )

Walking Off the Big Apple draws enthusiastically on several strains of French social and cultural thought, including 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. The photographs are inspired by the life and work of Eugène Atget. 

In celebration of Bastille Day, please enjoy the following collection of French walks and stories, revised and updated, from this website. -

French Culture and Old New York

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 (22 E. 60th Street) offers programs for New Yorkers interested in French language and culture.
The institute hosts the annual Bastille Day Celebration.

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. In New York, a significant portion of the immigrant population speaks French, including people originally from Haiti and Quebec.


A French-Themed Walk in the East 60s

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. monpetitcafe.com

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) grolierclub.org

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.


Additional Places of Interest

• Antoine de Saint-Exupery and 3 East 52nd Street

"-S'il vous plaît… dessine-moi un mouton!"

Like many others, I learned French in school by reading Le Petit Prince, the charming and thoughtful story written and illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. So I was delighted, even in a child-like way, to come upon a charmer of a building, 3 East 52nd Street, and to see on the exterior a plaque honoring the French author and aviator.

According to Christopher Gray, in an April 2001 NYT Streetscapes article about the building, the organization La Section Americaine du Souvenir Francais put up this plaque memorializing Saint-Exupery. It's not where he lived, as I shall explain.

During the early years of WWII, from January 1941 and April 1943, the writer lived much of the time in a penthouse at 240 Central Park South and in a rented mansion in the village of Asharoken on the north shore of Long Island. He also spent some time in Quebec City. He wrote The Little Prince in the Long Island mansion during the summer and fall of 1942. In 1943 Saint-Exupery left New York for Europe where he joined the Free French Forces as a pilot. On July 31, 1944 his plane went down, and he was not seen again. (The Wikipedia article on Saint-Exupery presents fascinating material on the many efforts to account for what happened on his last flight.)

In his article for the Times, Gray reported that the commemoration group that put the plaque on E. 52nd St. tried originally to place it on the front of 240 Central Park South, but the owners refused, worried that it would draw crowds. So why 3 E. 52nd Street? Well, this is a place where Saint-Exupery liked to hang out, spending time with his friend, the painter Bernard Lamotte. In 1942 the first floor housed the French restaurant, La Vie Parisienne (now La Grenouille), and Lamotte used the top floors for a studio. With the fall of France, 3 E. 52nd became a favorite gathering spot for an artistic circle of friends.

The charming building is best viewed from the Olympic Tower and its arcade that connects E. 51st Street to E. 52nd St. With its unusual steep dormers, blue trim, and over-flowing window boxes, the house seemed a perfect place for French charm in Midtown.

"Mais les yeux sont aveugles. Il faut chercher avec le coeur. " - Le Petit Prince

In the Village: Edgard Varèse, 188 Sullivan Street

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), a French-born composer, moved into a house on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village with his wife Louise in 1925. He became an American citizen the following year. While he was alive, people strolling by the townhouse must have been struck by the frightful sounds emanating from the basement. The timbres and rhythms from strange and unearthly instruments seemed like something out of a horror movie. The composer was not unfamiliar with the genre. He played a bit role in the 1920 film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the one starring John Barrymore.


The music Varèse created challenged the existing paradigm of composition. "Organized sound," as he called it, grouped rhythms and timbres with others of similar qualities. He said he was not a musician but a "worker in rhythms, frequencies and intensities." In the 1910s he started exploring the idea of music made with electronic instruments, but many people found his ideas too unconventional. It took many years before his experiments were accepted. He designed his Poème Électronique (1958, link to documents and clip at Columbia University), made for the Brussels World's Fair, to be played through an array of 400 loud speakers as part of a large multi-media installation (directed by Le Corbusier).

Fans of Frank Zappa know of Varèse because Zappa idealized him and inspired his own course in avant-garde composition. See Zappa Wiki Jawaki link for Zappa's essay, "Edgard Varèse: The Idol of My Youth," originally published in Stereo Review, June 1971. In the essay Zappa explains how he always wanted to meet his idol at the composer's home in Greenwich Village, but the meeting never came to pass.

Varèse lived in the house on Sullivan Street until his death in 1965. His wife Louise lived there until 1987. According to her obituary in The New York Times, Louise was a translator of French literature, winning an award for her translation of Baudelaire's ''Paris Spleen.'' She also wrote a biography of her husband.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple. 

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