It was in that Paris of the spring in the 1960s, in the Latin Quarter, whose recently watered down streets in the early hours of morning smelled of freshly baked baguettes and croissants, when I settled in the Hotel Louisiana on Rue de Seine, lured by the mythology which forgave the austerity of the place as long as one could occupy the same space in which had lived Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir for many years — and also Albert Camus, Juliette Greco, and all the North American jazz musicians of the time. In the elevator, there was barely enough room for two people, and it was extremely complicated to accommodate oneself in this little crate if you ran into a musician who was carrying his instrument in its case. In that run down elevator, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had ascended many times. Sometimes it retained traces of the rich perfume that had been left by a model of Dior doing her internship, or the aroma of alcohol left by some bohemian.
To enjoy oneself amid these discomforts, one must appreciate the luxury that is not seen.
The luxury of The Louisiana lay only in its guests. The reception desk consisted of a small shoemaker’s hovel below the stairs, with a small parlor in the attic occupied by a table and an old three piece sofa to which one gained access via a few wooden steps which creaked beneath worn out carpeting. At that time, they had installed small bathrooms with showers in some renovated rooms. The open windows facing the Rue de Seine allowed the most subtle sounds of Paris to enter the room. In the early hours of morning one heard the raising of the metal shutters of the stores, and the wheels of the carts which carried merchandise — fruit, vegetables, meat, fish — to the street market set up at the corner. One of the privileges that the landlord offered to the most cherished guests was a room with a view of the street.
With all its sophisticated dinginess, this hotel was a luxury if one saw it as a stopover that offered the Café de Flore as a breakfast lounge, the Brasserie Lip as a dining room, and the Luxembourg Gardens as a courtyard. That’s what the experienced guests did. There was no greater pleasure in the world than to be twenty-something years old, open the window of your room in the Hotel Louisiana, breathe in the Parisian April wrapped in the flavor of oysters which floated up from the market along with the cries of the vegetable peddlers; shower, and descend in the elevator in the company, perhaps, of a long-legged model, or a musician, or a German Professor, or with the Egyptian writer, Albert Cossary, who lived there for 40 years; greet the Vietnamese who was in charge of the intercom, weave through the fruit stands, and arrive at the Boulevard Saint-Germain in order to get into the Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots and request a breakfast of a double espresso, a croissant or baguette with butter, and realize that at the next table was Alberto Cossery, as dry and as stiff as a log, allowing himself to be seduced by a very young woman. The normal ritual was to hang out until mid-morning reading the newspaper, and then wander through The Latin Quarter until winding up on Place Saint Michel.
The first time I entered The Louisiana Hotel, there was a poster nailed unpretentiously to the wall with thumbtacks with the names of 100 of the most famous artists who had lived in Paris in the interwar years. Many had lived in this hotel — Boris Vian, Giacommeti, Jean Genet; but at that time I was trying to trace the footsteps of Sartre and Albert Camus. And it didn’t matter to me at all that the mattress was matted wool, that the bed springs emitted veritable shrieks with the slightest movement, that you ran into naked people running into and out of other rooms, that one heard the moans of love-making everywhere — upstairs, downstairs, and from the opposite side of every wall. Everything was fine if I could just live for a short time where my literary heroes had lived.
One of my moments of glory in this world may have been when I ran into Miles Davis in the elevator of The Hotel Louisiana and in that claustrophobic little chamber had breathed the sweat that emanated from his body. It was almost noon and he had probably not slept all night. I remember that his corneas were yellowish and he was panting. He arrived at his floor, put the case of his trumpet between us, and left without saying goodbye — just “Okay.” Along the Rue de Seine, on her way to The Bridge of Arts, “The Maga” of Julio Cortázar might have passed by before winding up on the pages of rayuela and perhaps she stopped for a cappuccino at La Palette.
Every time I recommend the Hotel Louisiana to a friend, it turns out badly. To enjoy oneself despite the discomforts of the place, one must be possessed by a series of ghosts that are overly literary: the pipe of Sartre, the trench coat of Camus, the dark voice of Juliette Greco. As for me, I’ve remained faithful to The Hotel Louisiana of Paris when I’ve gone there in the company of someone who knows how to appreciate the luxury that isn’t seen.
(Translated from the Spanish by Louis Bedrock.)