La Mort du Veronèse: A Montparnasse Elegy
Under Paris's only skyscraper, the intersection of Boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail was once the city's most venerable cultural hub, illiciting a nostalgia worthy of films like Midnight in Paris and Amélie. Some of the world's most influential novels, paintings, and short stories were born here, bandied about over glasses of whiskey and absinthe by Les Mardistes and La Generation Perdue.
Yet the quartier has lost its bohemian luster to gentrification, and one of the last vestiges of the Montparnasse ancien régime, Le Veronèse, is the latest casualty in a perpetual and increasingly one-sided culture war.
In the decades sandwiching World War Two, the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented bars and brasseries like Le Dome, La Rotunde, Café Select, and most exquisitely La Closerie des Lilas, resting further to the East on Boulevard Montparnasse. The Great Gatsby was conceived of at La Closerie, and Select was where Hemingway did much of his scribbling and drinking that somehow turned into classics of American literature. Stein, who lived just a few blocks away near the Luxembourg Gardens, would bring disparate artistic cultures together, introducing the likes of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to her trans-atlantic cohort.
While many of the cafés that once served these legends still stand, they have changed drastically in pricing and ambiance, perhaps best shown in the shrinking of the once bustling terrace outside of La Closerie des Lilas that has now disappeared in favor of an enclosed labyrinth guarded by trimmed shrubberies. The last vestage of this bohemian spirit clung onto the corner opposite Le Dome on the true corner of Boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail: Le Veronèse.
Named after the Italian Renaissance painter, Le Vero humbly encroached on the sidewalk in the form of a pine-green glass enclosure—looking like something between an aviary and a greenhouse. Without the fancy architecture and neon lighting of its neighbors La Rotunde and Le Dome, the Veronèse drew far fewer tourists, but those who managed to afford to live in the quartier kept it lively and authentic. It was kept in ship-shape by its silver haired waiter and manager, Frédéric, a French version of Mad Men's Roger Sterling who had bared witness to the transformation of the intersection.
Frédéric had an encyclopedic memory for his clientele, always greeting me with a predetirmed order of a Croque Madame, carafe d'eau and double espresso. He also served as a paperless archivist of Parisian history, and was never shy to weigh in on current events after sifting through his daily edition of Le Figaro.
Yet upon my return to Paris for a teaching fellowship, Frédéric was nowhere to be found, and the Veronèse had lost its green aviary to become a gilded, bougie bistro, simply named 'Mont.'
Mont Bistro replaced the Belle Époque-inspired decor of its predecessor with oblong hexagonal tables meant to fit together, with "conceptual ashtrays" and painted wick chairs.
The menu was not revolutionary enough to warrant the jump between bistro and brasserie—other than in price increase,—feeding the beast of gentrified Montparnasse.
The wait staff are now all millennials in jet black drab, old vests and bow ties be damned. The view remains the same, but the feeling is gone, and the spirit has let go.
Perhaps it's up to nostalgic patrons to keep the true spirit of Montparnasse alive, serving as sandbags in a battle that more closely resembles Dunkirk than D-Day against the axis powers of haute-bourgeoise sensibility and the tourism industrial complex.
Thankfully, Frédéric is happily retired, free to dedicate his gifts to whatever leisure he chooses instead of the Starbucks-esque orders of an unfaithful clientele at Mont Bistro. If only the next generation could come into contact with such a spirit.