Thursday, July 29, 2010

Remembering Chester Himes

Chester Himes was born on this day 101 years ago.

Himes was one of a number of African-American expats who settled in Paris after WWII. He later wrote a fascinating account about his life there in his autobiographies The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity.

Himes had already established himself as a writer in the United States with critically acclaimed novels such as If He Hollers Let Him Go and Cast the First Stone before he moved to Paris. Though he continued to write "serious" novels in Paris, he eventually turned his creativity toward a series of detective novels commissioned by the French publishing house Gallimard. These works, which featured detective characters “Coffin” Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, propelled him to success in the French literary market. All were translated into French, and were more successful in France than in the U.S. They would become Himes’ literary legacy.

Himes finished the first novel for Gallimard’s La Série Noire in 1957. He called it The Five-Cornered Square in English, and Gallimard christened the French version La Reine des Pommes. Himes wrote it while living at the Hôtel Rachou at 9, rue Git-le-Coeur in the 6th arrondissement. He was the first celebrity writer to inhabit the hotel, which would become renowned as the beatnik hotel, or Beat Hotel.

Hôtel Rachou
Photo by Harold Chapman

Hôtel Vieux Paris (formerly the Beat Hotel)
© Discover Paris!

In the same year, Himes would write A Jealous Man Can’t Win (renamed The Crazy Kill) at the Café Select. He claimed not to like the waiters or the clientele there, but he used the café as his workplace nonetheless.

 Café Le Select
© Discover Paris!

La Reine des Pommes won the Grand Prix du Roman Policier (Grand Prize for the Detective Novel) in 1958, and catapulted Himes to celebrity status in France. The Five-Cornered Square was renamed For Love of Imabelle, and later, A Rage in Harlem.

Already celebrated for his detective series, Himes’ popularity was considerably boosted as a result of two major press events organized in Paris. The first, in 1964, culminated in a feature article about him in Condé Nast’s Adam Magazine. The second, in 1970, was a five-day publicity event arranged by Gallimard to promote Himes’ novel Cotton Comes to Harlem, which had been released as a movie in that year by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.  Gallimard summoned Himes from his home in the Alicante province of Spain for the second event, booking him and his wife Lesley into the Hôtel Pont-Royal on rue Montalembert. Le Monde ran a two-page spread on him, and Life Magazine ran a two-page spread on the movie, as well as a feature article on Himes.

Editions Gallimard
5, rue Sébastian Bottin, Paris 7e
© Discover Paris!

 Hôtel Pont-Royal (Hôtel Littéraire)
7, rue Montalembert, Paris 7e
© Discover Paris!

Himes lived in Paris off and on during the years that he resided in Europe, spending time in the south of France, Germany, Denmark, England, and Spain. He died in Moraira, Spain (near the city of Alicante) in 1984, and is buried nearby at a cemetery in Benissa.


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