Last weekend I did my usual scout around Laser for an interesting documentary and found “Paris was a Woman” and no, it’s not about Ms. Hilton (otherwise it would have to be titled Paris Was An Idiot). Directed by Greta Schiller, “Paris Was A Woman” is a documentary which details the lives of the extraordinary woman in the expatriate literary and artistic circles in post First World War Paris.
Prohibition and the inflation of the American dollar abroad were two of the main reasons for the American post war invasion. Many American artists, writers and socialites set up camp in Paris due to the cheap living and compassionate nature of the French towards artists.
Gertrude Stein moved to Paris with her brother in 1903. A year later she began to amass the art collection for which she would ultimately become famous. She bought works by Picasso, Cezanne, Delacroix, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir amongst others and displayed them in her home on Rue Fleurus. Her home also became known for the literary salons she hosted, bringing together luminaries such as Hemingway, Rousseau, Braque, Marie Laurencin and of course her beloved partner Alice B. Toklas. Stein’s salon became the centre of what she coined “The Lost Generation“.
Janet Flanner and her friend the writer Solita Solano left their husbands in America and came to Paris to begin a new way of life together. They spent all their afternoons at Les Deux Magots where Janet Flanner gained inspiration for her column which ran in the New Yorker, under the pen-name “Genet”, for 40 years.
Adrienne Monnier was the founder of La Maison Des Amis Des Livres, a lending library and bookshop. Together with Shakespeare & Co., owned by her lover Sylvia Beach, they became the centre of cultural life for the expats. Beach and Monnier revolutionised bookselling in France, most notably with Beach publishing the first edition of one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, Ulysses by James Joyce.
Other women flocked to Paris at this time, drawn by the literary and artistic freedom. They included painter Aleksandra Ekster, Irish architect and designer Eileen Grey, filmmaker Germaine Dulac, nightclub impresario Bricktop, photographer Lee Miller, singer Josephine Baker, Colette, stylish American writer Djuna Barnes, and painter Romaine Brooks. American playwright and poet Natalie Barney became one of the most most notorious women in Paris and her salon became an institution.
Paris Was A Woman is a fascinating documentary because the subjects themselves were such inspirational women, the progenitors of modern feminism in many ways. They were women who defied convention, believed in their right to creative self-expression and exercised their right to live however they chose – brave choices in the early days of the 20th Century.