When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends – Mary McAuliffe

(Reviewed by JD Jung)

“A swelling population of expats, dubbed the “Lost Generation,” either found themselves or became permanently mired in a haze of fantasy and booze. Escapism and creativity mingled for a decade in this fizzy atmosphere, until the tourists vastly outnumbered the locals and the party came to an end.”

The partying in Paris started on Armistice Day and  people continued to party hard for about a decade. Yes, there were foreigners like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker, Picasso and Ernest Hemingway; but also French natives like fashion designer Coco Chanel, film director Jean Renoir, painter Ferdinand Léger and writer/ filmmaker Jean Cocteau. At that time, Paris was the “virtual capital of the world”.

Author Mary McAuliffe gives us as fascinating look at this decedent decade in Paris along with the affairs and excesses of the famous personalities mentioned above. Though the city was brimming with drugs and sexual freedom, she doesn’t ignore the contributions of those such as scientist Marie Curie and industrialists Renault and André Citroën. She covers influences in diverse areas such as business, architecture, art, music, and sports.

Of course, history cannot be contained in a vacuum and she explains the economic, political and sociological influences of the decade. Captain Charles de Gaulle was skeptical about the notion of “The War to end all wars” and there was a constant pull between socialist and right wing ideologies.  Homosexuality was mostly tolerated and Americans coming to Paris had to learn racial tolerance.

Though the book is structured chronologically by year, it doesn’t read like a history book. The writing style keeps the reader engaged, and the personalities reappear as we realize how Paris  affected them throughout the decade.

The party did have to come to an end and there are various theories as to why. In any event,  we  do learn how these celebrities specifically dealt with it.

Personally, I enjoyed learning  about the history of my favorite bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.  The founder and owner, American Sylvia Beach,  had a major influence on James Joyce and his controversial novel, “Ulysses”.

Though I admit that I am a huge history buff, I think that McAuliffe’s writing style will intrigue even the casual reader and those interested in cultural history.

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