Paris doesn’t change much, not the way New York changes, where people who have been in the city for just two years are already nostalgic for the good old days before the developers swept away Paddy’s and the delicatessen where you could get those wonderful tapioca puddings. Nobody in Paris is clamoring to pull down the Eiffel Tower to make way for condos and you can still get a small table at the Select where you sat decades earlier with a love whose name you can’t remember but whose smile you’ll never forget.
Nonetheless, some things change. One of them is a hotel I frequented many years ago called the Henri IV. It occupied a ramshackle building which had tipped sideways like a clipper ship under full canvas. The lobby was up a flight of narrow, squeaking stairs and contained a small desk jammed into an area the size of a rowboat. Here presided the owner, who I shall call M. Gestion. He was a man of a well-earned suspicious disposition, who expected little from the world and was rarely disappointed. The good M. Gestion was desperate to keep order in his domain, which, given that his clients were usually poor, rowdy, or eccentric, was not easy.
Up even more crooked stairs were scattered haphazardly a number of rooms of assorted shapes and sizes. The windows were small and the rooms were lit by single ten watt bulbs suspended from the ceiling, making reading after dark impossible. The two or three toilets in the hotel were perched at the top of a small flight of stairs and seemed to be fastened to the outside of the building in some manner not presently taught in schools of architecture, for there was a better view of the park through the toilet floors than you could get from the rooms. Knowledgeable guests usually brought a handful of toilet paper, just in case. The breakfast room was small, tucked in behind M. Gestion’s desk, where he could keep an eye on the clients; he needed to do that. The breakfast fare ran to day-old rolls and coffee that was equally chewy. However, knowledgeable clients knew that M. Gestion kept for his family’s use, some oranges hidden in a small chest close to certain tables in the breakfast room. When M. Gestion was on the phone or arguing with a client, which was frequent, it was possible for an alert diner to snatch an orange and pocket it for future use.
One of the great virtues of the Henri IV was of course the price. At a time when the franc was about five to the dollar, rooms at the Henri IV ran to less than a hundred francs a night. At one point, when the dollar was especially strong, the rate at the Henri IV worked out to about three dollars a night. I will swear to that.
The second great virtue of the Henri IV was its location. Given the price and its impecunious clientele, you might expect to find it behind the Gare du Nord or opposite the flea market at Clignancourt. To the contrary, the Henri IV was situated in the heart of Paris, just off the Pont Neuf on the Île de la Cité. There is a pretty little park here called the Place Dauphine, which opens on the Pont Neuf at one end and backs up against the Palais du Justice at the other. From here, it is a five minute walk to Notre Dame, about the same to the Place St. Michel, and not much further to major stores like B. H.V. and Samaritaine. The famous Centre Pompidou is about ten minutes away.
As a consequence of price and location, this ramshackle hotel was one of the most difficult to book in all of Paris. Off-season, you had to reserve many weeks in advance and if you wanted a room in July you had to book around Christmas time. Further, given M. Gestion’s disposition, it was necessary to send a deposit. My practice was to tuck a ten dollar bill into the envelope with my request for a room. It always worked.
Given the tenor of the Henri IV, you might believe that it was a haunt of students and low-lifes, but in fact the clientele was often rather distinguished. There was always a scattering of professors from around the world researching topics like 12th century griffons or early French paving stones. I once met there the daughter of the editor of the London Times, who could surely have afforded more elegant digs. We started drinking champagne shortly after breakfast for reasons I forget, probably just because it was Paris.
Another time, I brought to the Henri IV Lee Lorenz, whose cartoons appear in WestView. At the time, Lorenz was art editor of the New Yorker. We had just come from a small hotel in London I favored, which was not nearly as ramshackle as the Henri IV, but which also had bathrooms located somewhere north of Paddington Station. As we stood outside the Henri IV looking up at the small windows and sagging structure, Lorenz said rather coldly, “You’ve gone too far this time.”
Lorenz was in Paris to meet Sempe, a cartoonist famous in France. There were of course no phones in the rooms at the Henri IV; business had to be done from M. Gestion’s rowboat, audible to people milling around the lobby, if people can be said to mill around in a rowboat. For a few days, Lorenz and Sempe played phone tag with M. Gestion acting as intermediary. Each time he reported to Lorenz that Sempe had called, his eyes got wider and wider. In the midst of all this I got a phone call from the Authors Guild in New York on some unimportant matter, possibly asking me to bring my dues up to date. At this point M. Gestion presumably was concluding that Lorenz and I were undercover operators, that Sempe was a code name for a Russian double agent and the Authors Guild was a front for the C.I.A. Thereafter he kept a sharp eye on us and it became impossible to filch oranges.
The Henri IV, I am happy to report, still stares out on the Place Dauphine, but in recent years it has been substantially renovated. The rooms are smart and the toilet paper is plentiful. Yet something is missing. I would give a good sum once again to climb those creaking stairs to find M. Gestion glaring at me balefully as I hove into his lobby.