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

Mary Mcauliffe

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews - LEE POLEVOI

Rowman & Littlefield Pub­lish­ers Hard­cover $29.95 (344pp) 978-1-4422-5332-2 This book proves to be a cor­nu­copia of de­lights, and a vi­brant pre­sen­ta­tion of the frenzy and hoopla that char­ac­ter­ized Paris in the 1920s. The fri­vol­ity and ex­cesses of les an­nées folles was a nat­u­ral re­sponse to death and de­struc­tion, whether as a kind of doom-in­fused es­capism or sim­ply a de­sire to have fun.

When Paris Siz­zled is a cul­tural his­to­rian’s foray into Parisian lore and cul­ture. Mary Mcauliffe fa­vors a pointil­list ap­proach to cul­tural his­tory, serv­ing up snap­shots of the many col­or­ful artists, de­sign­ers, and other celebri­ties who made Paris “siz­zle” dur­ing the 1920s. The depth of re­search—and the range of in­ter­ests—ev­i­dent here is strik­ing.

“The mauve-col­ored ro­man­ti­cism of pre­war days had dis­ap­peared in the shock of aerial bom­bard­ment and mus­tard gas,” Mcauliffe writes of the pe­riod, and dis­il­lu­sion­ment drove Parisians. Theirs was a gen­er­a­tion of men and women forged by the hor­rors of the First World War. Among the artists and writ­ers on the scene were Hem­ing­way, Jean Cocteau, Josephine Baker, Cole Porter, Stravin­sky, Proust, and Gertrude Stein. The soon-to-be-le­gendary ar­chi­tect Le Cor­bus­ier was present, as well as the in­dus­tri­al­ist An­dré Citroën and pi­o­neer­ing au­tomaker Louis Re­nault, who both “emerged from the war as in­dus­trial ti­tans, even wealth­ier and more suc­cess­ful than be­fore.” The need to in­habit ev­ery mo­ment to its fullest reigned.

By cat­a­logu­ing the an­tics, ob­ses­sions, and at times self-de­struc­tive im­pulses of th­ese and other prom­i­nent fig­ures, Mcauliffe paints a deft por­trait of a place and time suf­fused with cre­ative des­per­a­tion. “The fri­vol­ity and ex­cesses of les an­nées folles” was, she notes, “a nat­u­ral re­sponse to death and de­struc­tion, whether as a kind of doom-in­fused es­capism or sim­ply a de­sire to have fun.” The cul­tural epoch of Paris in the 1920s re­ver­ber­ates down to our present era, rang­ing in pur­suits as di­verse as ar­chi­tec­ture and fash­ion to mod­ern mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture.

When Paris Siz­zled fol­lows this wide cast of char­ac­ters year by year, many of them de­picted in brief anec­do­tal fash­ion. The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of this nar­ra­tive strat­egy is con­sid­er­able, though at times it is chal­leng­ing to keep track of key in­di­vid­u­als.

This book proves to be a cor­nu­copia of de­lights, and a vi­brant pre­sen­ta­tion of the frenzy and hoopla that char­ac­ter­ized Paris in the 1920s.

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