Americans in Paris Cemeteries

Dennis Bartel & Erin Kyle

Is Paris not the elite cemetery city in the world – the haut monde of final resting places? Anyone who dies in Paris can be buried in one of the city’s 15 cemeteries, but when it comes to Paris’ prized granite jewel boxes, Père-Lachaise and Montparnasse, Parisians have traditionally been selective about whom they inhume.

For one thing, the price is set high. “To be buried in Père-Lachaise is like having mahogany furniture,” said Victor Hugo, who is not buried there.

What’s more, as Paris’ finest cimetières are for the finest Parisians, it has been customary for dead foreigners to look elsewhere, s’il vous plait. Even a hero such as John Paul Jones, awarded the Sword of Honor by the French monarchy, wound up buried in a cemetery for foreign Protestants. Rare is the foreigner buried at these exclusive addresses.

Gioacchino Rossini, an Italian, was one.

As were Ireland’s Samuel Beckett and Poland’s Frederic Chopin.

Distinguished company indeed. As tourists, we searched for fellow countrymen & women who dwell in the land of the noblesse morts.

The garden Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, in the east Paris 20th arrondissement, is rich with cherubic marble ornamentation. It is the city’s largest at 110 acres, 97 divisions. Six American-born artists have found sanctuary here, most notoriously Jim Morrison, originally from Melbourne, Florida. In the summer of 1971, at the height of mania for the Doors, the 27-year-old lead singer was in Paris with his girlfriend Pamela Courson enjoying a spree débauche. While walking through the chestnut-tree-lined cemetery, Morrison reportedly said he wanted it as his final asylum.

A week later a heart attack, as it is officially recorded, claimed him.

Pamela quietly arranged for Morrison’s remains to be buried in a cheap veneered coffin during a 10-minute, ill-attended ceremony. The Morrison estate has ever since picked up Père-Lachaise’s substantial 30-year lease.

The site is near the foot of the hillside, in Division 6, only strides away from that of French music rule-breaker Francis Poulenc.

Guided tours visit the Morrison grave site frequently each day. When we combed through the dense granite orchard and found it one warm spring afternoon, a random crowd of about 30 had gathered to pay silent tribute.

A security camera mounted in a linden tree kept electronic vigil. A uniformed guard admonished over-zealous mourners. “No vid-ee-o!”

Jim Morrison’s mourners over the years have proved his undoing at Père-Lachaise.

This coming July 6, the lease runs out on his grave, and cemetery officials have indicated this is The End for all the liquor bottles, condoms and graffiti (5,000-franc fine). This is The End for Paris’ fourth-most-visited site, after the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Pompidou Center. Morrison’s remains will be disinterred and buried elsewhere, location TBA. [Twenty years later, this has still not happened.]

Following a sketchy map, available at the gatehouse for the price of a cup of café, we strolled over the cobblestones of Avenue Saint-Morys, up the hill to the Columbarium, in the 87th Division. The Columbarium is a working crematorium, in use since Paris acquired Père-Lachaise in 1804.

Along its two-story walls are thousands of glossy marble compartments. There, after much searching, we found the ashes of another American artist.

The San Franciscan Isadora Duncan was no stranger to death in Paris. In 1913, her two children, Deirdre and Patrick, drowned when a limousine in which they sat with their nanny rolled backward into the Seine. Duncan was 35. In the next 14 years the “mother of modern dance” would endear herself to Parisians as one of their own. Her art-enlightened school in Paris thrived. When she adopted six of her pupils, the cheering French hailed them as the “Isadorables.”

Then came her sudden au revoir. A sleek convertible. Isadora’s long scarf rippling in the wind, an arching arabesque. It is too terrible to recount. The scarf! In the spokes of the wheel!

“The body is simply the luminous manifestation of a dancer’s soul,” said Isadora Duncan. Now her ashes are mingled with those of her children upstairs in the Columbarium, compartment 6796, across from another foreigner who once won Parisian hearts with her bel canto singing, famed soprano and Manhattan native Maria Callas, who, living alone in Paris after being jilted by Aristotle Onassis for Jackie Kennedy, died at age 53.

Downstairs resides an American native son, Richard Wright. In 1946, following the best-selling success of his novel about growing up in the American South, Black Boy, Wright moved to Paris at age 38 and lived with his wife and two daughters in the Latin Quarter. He rubbed elbows at cafés with the existential likes of Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and soon became a central figure in Parisian literary life. He helped established two important magazines, Presence Africaine and The Paris Review. The ex-patriot also wrestled with his homeland from afar by founding the Franco-American Fellowship, intended to protest racist actions by U.S. companies operating in France. Wright’s books consistently won warmer receptions in France than in the United States.

In 1960, weakened by a year of failing health, Wright died in a Paris clinic. His remains were cremated in the Columbarium along with the ticket that brought him to Paris, a copy of Black Boy.

Ah, such langueur to walk among the ornate sepulchers and proud obelisks of Père-Lachaise. Part of the cemetery’s charm is its layout on the land. On the lower half., the streets curve and twist, even sometimes forming circles and cul-de-sacs. Conversely, the upper half is rigidly defined as an urban grid, with street signs at most intersections. And everywhere such breathtaking ostentation!

Just off the Avenue Carette in Division 89, we encountered another famous foreigner among Parisians, Oscar Wilde, whose tombstone carries an epitaph from The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

Two divisions east, in 94, there rests the American artist who first welcomed Richard Wright to Paris, as she did for an entire Lost Generation, in her salon at 27 rue de Fleurs – Gertrude Stein.

A tomb is a tomb is a tomb, but Gertrude Stein’s tomb is an unadorned slab with a disputed death date and a misspelled birth place. It should be A-L-L-E-G-H-E-N-Y, thank you, messieurs.

Stein’s salon, shared by the Californian Alice B. Toklas, is eternally renowned for its galaxy of brilliant artistes. Less well known is that after coming to Paris with her brother at age 29, Stein stood side by side with the Parisians through two wars. In World War I she joined the American Fund for French Wounded.

She sent for her “Auntie,” a Ford from the United States, and delivered supplies to hospitals around the City of Light.

She died of cancer in 1946, and was buried in her hometown – no, not Allegheny City (Pittsburgh’s North Side). The self-proclaimed Greatest Mind of the 20th Century explained, “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.” Buried behind her, with her name on the opposite side of the unadorned slab, is Alice B. Toklas.

After three funerary hours, we bid adieu to Père-Lachaise and sought the sustenance of the living at a nearby brasserie. Le Saint Amour specializes in cuisine from the Auvergne region of France. The famous bleu cheese of Auvergne, lined with cow’s milk, may be enjoyed at a sidewalk table with poilane bread.

Crossing over the River Seine to the Left Bank, we went south to pay our respects at Paris’ other address of elite deceased, Montparnasse, in the 14th arrondissement. We were near enough to the Jardin du Luxembourg to smell the flowers on the wind. Despite being named after the mountain home of Apollo, god of music and poetry, Cimetière du Montparnasse is flat, with soft beret-like undulations in the land. Its 47 acres are neatly sectioned into 30 divisions, housing 35,000 sepulchers amid scattered ash and maple trees.

A free map, available to the left of the gateway, led us to an American artist revered by French Surrealists. The Philadelphia-born Emmanuel Radnitsky, a.k.a. Man Ray, followed his fellow Dadaist Marcel Duchamp from New York to Paris in 1921. At age 31, with his first wife, Man Ray took a flat in the avant-garde haven Montparnasse. For the next 40 years, he was Paris’ peintre et photographe magnifique. He had exclusive rights to photograph Gertrude Stein. He made a film with Picasso.

Jean Cocteau asked Man Ray to photograph Proust on his deathbed.

Man Ray’s camera lens was shut forever in 1976. He was interred in Division 7 of his neighborhood cemetery. Fifteen years later, his second wife, Juliet, was laid in the same crypt. They share a headstone with this surreal epitaph: “unconcerned but not indifferent.”

Lest we forget, cemeteries are for remembering, so we did not forget to remember an American actress, now mostly forgotten: Marshalltown, Iowa’s own Jean Seberg. In the late 1950s chic Parisian teenagers emulated Seberg’s look – the ultra-short coiffure, the off-the-rack clothes. She played the role of femme du monde in French New Wave films, but privately Preminger’s St. Joan lived a martyr’s life. After her only daughter died at birth, Seberg suffered through several years of nervous breakdowns, ultimately leading to her suicide in 1979, at age 40. Today she shares a division with another grieving parent, French composer Camille Saint-Saens.

If by now refreshment has become a life or death situation, nearby is Le Sèlect, where a gray marble, brass-edged table awaits you. A café crème is 22 francs. Or, should you need stronger spirits in the wake of your visit to death’s doors, a cold foreign beer is 24 francs. Sip, and ponder the words of Baudelaire, who dwells in repose a few arms’ lengths from the tormented Seberg, “O Death, old captain, it is time! Raise the anchor!”