Friday 25 May 2012

The Paris Archives: Un médecin se suicide au cinéma

I recently discovered the online digital archives of several French newspapers, with fully-consultable editions stretching back to the 19th century. After browsing through several editions of Le Petit Parisien I was hooked. Between the salacious ‘faits divers’, the quirky adverts and the often not very appetising recipe of the day, it gives an unrivalled insight into life in the city at the time. I also realised that it was a treasure trove of potential material for this blog!

As a regular new feature, I will therefore publish one item from a newspaper picked at random from the archives and look into the story behind the clipping. First up, the mysterious attempted suicide of a doctor in a Paris cinema.

(Le Petit Parisien, Friday February 18th, 1927)

Quickly summarised, this news brief reports on the attempted suicide of a doctor at the end of a film in a cinema on the Boulevard des Italiens. Apparently lovesick, the doctor, Mr Léon Leslie, shot himself in the heart and was quickly rushed to the Charité hospital
Dramatic but apparently banal, this story really becomes interesting in the reports published in the days that followed the incident.
(Le Petit Parisien, Saturday February 19th, 1927)

Before shooting himself, Mr Leslie apparently wrote a thirteen-page long letter describing in detail his chagrin. The young doctor (28 years old) is in fact a dentist, and unhappily married to a rather fast-living woman of Italian origin, whom he had met in Nice in 1919. According to the article, Mr Leslie was soon 'ruined' by his new wife, and was obliged to move to Saigon to start up a new practice. Once again though, he began to suspect his wife of having an affair, and even fought a duel with one rival, an incident that brought him a one-year prison sentence.

Mr Leslie then decided to return to France, but by that time his wife had met an actor, and moved with him to Germany. Leslie travelled to Germany to try and win her back, but after she refused in no uncertain terms he decided to kill himself. His chosen method? In front of one of the films starring his rival!

Reading Le Petit Parisien, it soon becomes clear that the articles are not always completely reliable. To be more precise, they are often full of errors and imprecisions! Was this the full story? It seemed so until the tale was picked up two months later in the American press, notably here in the Milwaukee Sentinel (which I encourage you to read as it recounts the story in great detail).

Here we learn that Mr Leslie was in fact an American (hence the interest in the press in the states). He originally ran the US army dental clinic in Tours, an institution that the paper amusingly says will be remembered by thousands of veterans "with happy, unhappy or mixed emotions". On vacation in Nice he met an attractive young French girl named Renée Ricci, and the two lovers were soon married. Leslie decided to stay on in France and set up practice in Nice and Biarritz.

(The Milwaukee Sentinel, April 17th, 1927)

Whether Ricci was overly flirtatious or whether Leslie was jealous and possessive is not clear, but the marriage was soon an unhappy one. Each time Leslie became suspicious of his wife, he quickly sold up the practice and moved elsewhere - until the duel in Saigon. 

The article names Leslie's love rival as Warwick Ward, a largely forgotten name in the history of cinema, but described as "a rising star" in the paper. As Leslie returned to Paris after unsuccessfully attempting to win back his wife, it is said that the first thing he saw when stepping off the train was an image of Ward's latest film. He decided then and there that he would kill himself in front of the film.

He didn't do this at the first opportunity though, but instead watched the film for eight nights in a row! It was at the end of the final showing of the film that Leslie pulled out his gun and shot himself (in the head, not the heart according to the Sentinel).

Somewhat incredibly, Leslie did not die straight away. Indeed, the Milwaukee Sentinel article, written two months after the event, still describes him as hovering "between life and death". 

I have little information about what happened afterwards. According to the IMDB, Warwick Ward lived until 1967, becoming a producer after his acting career seemingly came to an end in 1933. The lives - and deaths - of Ricci and Leslie though remain a mystery.  

What is left in Paris of this tale? The Charité hospital, where Leslie was taken after the incident, had been situated on the Boulevard Saint Germain but was closed and demolished in 1935. According to the Sentinel, the incident took place in a cinema called the Imperial on the Boulevard des Italiens. Although there are still several cinemas in this area, this particular one was apparently demolished in 2001. Today the spot is occupied by a Lebanese restaurant, removing perhaps the last remaining trace of the story - outside of the archives!

Sunday 20 May 2012

A little touch of colour in a grey world

The classic Haussmannian structure was built according to very strict rules. It should be six stories tall and no more than 20 metres high, and have eaves with a 45° incline, principally covered with zinc. Generally made using stone that came from the quarries surrounding the city, there was no room for any other material - or was there?

In the 11th arrondissement sits a magnficent 'ilot' structure, covering four separate streets (the Avenue Parmentier and Rues Deguerry, Darboy and du Chevet). It also has two individual entrances (130 and 132 Avenue Parmentier) and four street numbers, although apparently only one architect (Paul Fouquiau) and a single building permit. However, it is not these facts that make it interesting.

On the 5th and 6th floors of the building, which dates from 1891, deep red bricks are clearly exposed. The first similar example in Paris had been built six years earlier in 1885 (12, Rue de la Pompe* - see it here on Google street view), and it was a fad that would continue for approximately 30 years.

Feeling restricted by the very firm Haussmannian rules, a new generation of architects developed this technique as an easy and uncontroversial manner to add a touch of colour to the cityscape. It marked the return of brick to Paris, a material which had been out of fashion for nearly 200 years, and can also be seen as an early pointer towards the arrival of Art Nouveau styles in city constructions.

Can you spot any other examples around Paris?

* "La Brique à Paris", Bernard Marrey

Friday 11 May 2012

Charras: then, now and tomorrow?

I have recently developed something of an obsession with Courbevoie on the Paris city limits, an archetype of the rapidly changing suburban town. There is something completely tangible about this kind of place, offering scenes of urban contrast and conflict that are today rarely visible within Paris.

A recent post on the always interesting Paris-bise-art blog lead me to one particular site in the town, but I was particularly pleased when the trail branched off into on a voyage of urban exploration.

The blog featured the Caserne Charras, a military barracks dating back to the 18th century. Although a listed 'historic monument', it was demolished in the 1960s with only the frontspiece of the building being preserved. Bizarrely this was moved across town and rebuilt at the bottom of the Becon park, a place that has become something of a home for reclaimed buildings - the Scandinavian and Indian pavillions from the 1878 World Fair can also be found here. 

Seen face on the building is still impressive, but move slightly to the side and you'll see that it is barely three metres thick. Somewhat incredibly though it is still in use, offering a shelter and storage space for the park keepers.

The caserne had occupied a large part of what is today the centre of town, so what replaced it? The answer is a huge development also known as Charras, which includes shops, hotels, appartments and leisure facilities - as well as a very unusual (concrete) rooftop park.  

In theory it is the perfect example of faulty urban planning in the 1960s and 70s, and yet it very nearly works. The sky-scraping wealth of the La Defense business sector is clearly visible just alongside, but here we are dealing with something that is very much a second division development. Whereas La Defense is a magnet for workers, shoppers and visitors from across the Paris region, Charras is a very local hub.

Much of La Defense is of a similar vintage, but - for the most part - it has been regularly smartened up and adapted to contemporary tastes. Charras on the other hand has remained firmly in the 1960s. There is a sense of abandonment here. Mirroring the abandoned cars and shopping trollies, the park is a windswept concrete wilderness, used only by the occasional dog walker or as a meeting point for pockets of teenagers.

The shopping centre is a series of short passages with bronze mirrored ceilings. Posters advertise the merits of the development, but even the photos in these show the world as it looked in 1972. It many ways it reminds me of a similar development in my old home town, a now disused shopping centre which has become a 'zombie survival experience'.

Walking along the empty staircases and corridors, it would not be too much of a surprise to come across a zombie here too. Instead of offering a glimpse of the undead though, these paths instead take you to places you do not expect. Along one, the entrance to an indoor market. Down another - sinister - staircase, an ice-rink and swimming pool complex. Plunging further down into the Dantesque depths, a twelve-lane bowling alley.

The biggest surprise though comes on the rooftop level. From what seems to be a small, dated shopping complex, you are suddenly thrown out into a massive expanse of concrete. Few people venture up here, but all are dwarfed by the scale of the high-rise towers that seem to have sprouted from the roof of the shopping centre.

Windblown and slightly disorientating, it is not an immediately pleasant environment, and yet it soon becomes strangely fascinating. It offers panoramic views, and at random intervals, a selection of mysterious geometric forms that have no clear purpose.

Looking around, you also discover that not all is mineral. There are trees and flowers here, as well as small patches of grass. Water is also evident, both in puddles captured on the surface and in the outdoor municipal baths below.

It feels more like a playground than a park. It is a reminder that architecure once encouraged us to explore and appropriate, rather than to be carefully guided. Buildings had mysteries, offering us opportunites to make new discoveries and the freedom to create our own relationships with them. This is a building that has no clear entrance or exit, which can be accessed at many different levels for many different reasons. It offers places to play, to work, to shop or just to relax. And yet it will soon be radically changed.

There is no room for in the new Courbevoie for such an idiosyncratic structure. It is a town that wants to move upmarket, away from an industrial past. The population of the town has increased by around 75% since the Charras development was built with newcomers being generally richer and younger. The municipality is now pushing for a more modern development, offering the same stores and brands as those found in neighbouring La Defense, and concrete will undoubtedly soon be replaced by grass, glass and steel.

An artists impression of what the development may look like. No specific project has as yet been chosen.

Friday 4 May 2012

Birdhouses for the soul in a village without a heart

On the website of the Village Royal, a private, pedestrianised street near the Place de la Madeleine, the location is described as 'prestigeux village au coeur de Paris'. Walking along its polished stone slabs one question comes to mind - how many villages have Dior and Chanel outlets?

Its current aspect stems back to 1992 when the street was completely renovated, with the architect - Jean-Jacques Ory - seeking to recreate the 'esprit d'une rue de village'. Everything was therefore rebuilt 'à l'ancienne', but of course nothing in the Village Royal is authentic, starting with the name. Originally built as a market known as the Marché d'Aguesseau at the end of the 18th century, it was for a long time home to bakers, fishmongers and numerous butchers. It's real name today is the Cité Berryer, an identity it adopted in the 19th century after the market was shut down. 

With its potted palms, the 'village' has seemingly been dressed up as some kind of miniature Saint Tropez, but its principal goal is clearly to promote the exclusive brands that occupy the shop units. There is though - temporarily - one exception to this rule. The single tree in the street is currently providing a home to birdhouses designed by 30 different artists, architects and designers. 

The installation, called 'Commissariat pour un arbre #1', was put together by French artist Mathieu Mercier. Although more likely to frighten any birds that accidently find themselves in the village than offer them a comfortable home, the creations do at least offer a touch of colour and humour in this most pretentious of environments.
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