Thursday, January 23, 2014

African Americans in Paris: The 1960s

Sherard Van Dyke has been living, painting and exhibiting in Amsterdam for the past 45 years. She was inspired to write to me after having read Ellery Washington's New York Times article on James Baldwin's Paris. She sent such a stirring account of her recollections of African-American Paris in the 1960s that I immediately asked her to allow me to publish it. Find it below.

Sherard Van Dyke and Sarah Vaughn
Image courtesy of Sherard Van Dyke

Yesterday, after reading the Sunday New York Times article on James Baldwin's Paris era, I began reminiscing about my own youthful years living in that beautiful city. And how the color of my skin impacted the beginning of my 50-year-long painting career.

Due to my fear of flying, I was constantly traveling from Brooklyn to Saint Germain and back again on the SS France, Cunard, & Holland-American ocean liners. On my first transatlantic voyage, Alexander Calder was among the passengers and spent many a night hanging out with us – a group of young French & American kids whom the captain had introduced, and who loved dancing as much as I did. Seems like we never slept during those five days and nights – The Supremes hits were on a loop, the champagne was a-flowing, and each of us was showing off our latest dance moves – all while enjoying every minute of Calder's fascinating anecdotes about his mobiles and stabiles that we had just been studying in college.

Josephine Baker IV
ca. 1928 Alexander Calder
Centre Georges Pompidou
© Discover Paris!

Looking back, I guess this was an omen of many magical, artistic adventures to come.

Although the Times article is full of names and places of years gone by, I remember many others that were not mentioned. Like Johnny Romero and Les Nuages. I hadn't thought about Johnny in decades, so I Googled him. That's how I found your informative site – what a wonderful treasure!

Photo of Johnny Romero
© Discover Paris!

For me, the Paris of the mid-and-late-Sixties conjures up wonderful visions of the amazing Dexter Gordon, living and practicing in the Hotel la Louisiane on rue de Seine, as so many other great jazz musicians did in the day. Bud Powell had sadly passed away shortly before I arrived, but his wife Buttercup was still living at the hotel. She also had a little eatery called Buttercup's Chicken Shack in Montparnasse, known for her late-night fried chicken and ribs.

Up in Pigalle, Leroy Haynes had a most delicious restaurant with the best soul food on this side of the Atlantic. Filled with celebrities, expats, and framed, signed portraits on the wall, it had the most appetizing home-cooking imaginable. Quite a special delight! Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, among others, were often seen there. Haynes was an impeccable chef, a nice gentle man with a terrific sense of humor. We spent many memorable evenings there enjoying all the special dishes on the menu. Even his Greasy Pig Salad (mixed greens, herbs, crispy bacon & secret dressing) was a feast in itself - with hot cornbread from the oven and deep-dish cobbler for dessert.

Drummer Kenny Clarke was always on the scene and the Living Room was one of the most happening places. Through a friend of my mother's in New York, I had met saxophonist Nathan Davis and his wife Uschi, close friends of Eric Dolphy. This exceptionally nice couple lived nearby on rue St Jacques – just a few minutes from rue de la Huchette, which was chock full of amazing clubs in which we heard the best jazz on this planet until well after dawn each morning.

Painters Ed Clark and Bill Hutson, among others, were working and exhibiting in town. Bill was so helpful when we all signed petitions to aid Beauford Delaney in trying to keep ownership of his magnificent paintings after he had been institutionalized due to illness. My very close French friend, Ecole de Nice artist Robert Malaval, also had a studio in Cité Internationale des Arts, where I met a number of American artists.

Ed Clark and Beauford Delaney
Image courtesy of Ed Clark

Miles Davis and Juliette Greco were an item and an ubiquitous vision in Saint Germain's Cafe de Flore, along with their dearest ami, the esteemed Jean-Paul Sartre. Artist Keith de Carlo and his wife Maria were always the nicest and most engaging hosts in their home facing Gare d'Orsay (long before it became a museum).

My studio was on rue de la Bucherie, right across from Notre Dame and two minutes away from George Whitman's iconic Shakespeare and Company bookstore. The original venue had been opened by Sylvia Beach. Shakespeare and Company has always been the perfect home-away-from-home for many a gifted writer. Both Langston Hughes and Ted Joans were among the many who gave memorable readings in this historic meeting place with its wishing-well and a gazillion books.

Shakespeare and Company
© Discover Paris!

Huge, photographic closeups of Hazel Scott, Mabel Mercer, Nina Simone could often be seen in les affiches all around the city announcing their latest gigs. Not one or two poster-sized photos, but a dozen at a time! Repetition characterized the French way of advertising.

Donyale Luna was THE model of the 60's in Paris. Born in Detroit, her extraordinary beauty mesmerized all who encountered her. Federico Fellini took one look at her and signed her up for his fantasy film Satyricon. A few years later Pat Cleveland came to town and changed modeling for ever.

Designer Donald Hubbard from Gary, Indiana worked in Paris, as well as in Milan and Florence. His beautiful apartment on the quay faced the Eiffel Tower...what a view that was from his grand, living-room French doors!

In Johnny Romero's Les Nuages, one would be in the midst of the most eloquent, African-American who's-who gathering of literary and artistic worlds. Romero was very handsome, the perfectly charming host, and evenings there were always exciting.

At Gordon Heath and Lee Payant's club l'Abbaye, I remember how audiences snapped their fingers instead of clapping in appreciation for Heath and Payant's folk song performances.

Gordon Heath and Lee Payant
Image from Gordon Heath and Lee Payant Discography

Sometimes, at La Coupole – the world-renowned, huge, sumptuous restaurant on the Boulevard Montparnasse – we would spot Josephine Baker somewhere in the room, bedecked with jewels and furs, looking like a million dollars. Tout Paris adored her beauty, talent, and exuberance, as did the expats who applauded her tenacity, grace and fortitude.

These are just a few of the many African Americans who made Paris so terribly exciting in the Sixties.

Memories from those days are so rich, and thanks to the City of Light – my Jazz Art evolved there, and I've been painting and exhibiting ever since. Paris will always have a special place in my heart.

C'était FORMIDABLE!!!!


Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.

If you like this posting, share it with your friends by using one of the social media links below!


Amber said...

I'm so happy you have contributed and shared your memories with us. I'm sorry to have missed the party as it sounds amazing. More please?

tganges said...

While this piece is yet very short, it is so rich in content and style that I could readily see and feel those experiences, those times and the richness that Sherard has shared. She may work in color on a canvass as her primary medium, but she certainly wields a mighty pen as well!

Tendaji W. Ganges
Flint, Michigan

tganges said...

While this piece is yet very short, it is so rich in content and style that I could readily see and feel those experiences, those times and the richness that Sherard has shared. She may work in color on a canvass as her primary medium, but she certainly wields a mighty pen as well!

Tendaji W. Ganges
Flint, Michigan

TheWriterStuff said...

A great accompaniment to the NY Times article. Black Paris, beautifully realized. Thank you for sharing.