The Beat Hotel: American Writers in Paris, 1957-1963

Beat Hotel, ParisBy Matthew Nilsson

Standing on the shores of Paris’ Left Bank, tucked away on Rue Gît-le-Cœur, I check my map, look up, and there it is—the Beat Hotel. Scanning the beige unassuming exterior, the only indication I can find that this present-day boutique hotel once housed some of the best minds of a generation is a transparent plaque with a list of the hotel’s most renowned patrons: Brion Gysin, Harold Norse, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ian Sommerville, and William Burroughs—all members of the legendary Beat Movement.

It was within these walls that several of the most important works of the Beat Generation were composed from 1957 to 1963. The atmosphere of the hotel during this time was one of congeniality and creativity. Writers, painters, poets, photographers, and artists of all mediums had a home where ideas could be shared and shaped into their final forms.

Yet, the epithet is a bit of a misnomer. The Beat Hotel was less a hotel and more of a boarding house. It met the minimum health and safety standards, and rooms were often paid for by the month. At 10 francs a night (roughly 50 U.S. cents), this was an affordable rate for the artists living there. The cheapest rooms contained a single straw-stuffed bed with two sheets and an army blanket, radiator, cold-water tap, small table and chair, and three hooks. Nicer rooms included a telephone and gas stove. The hotel’s main floor had the building’s only bathtub, with hot water available on occasion, as well as a lobby and bar where the Beats would gather for music, food, drink, and conversation.

Madame Rachou, the hotel’s proprietor, was very exclusive as to whom she would let in the hotel. Beyond artists, it was a place for gay and interracial couples to live out their lives unperturbed and for members of the resistance movement against the French occupation of Algeria to stay hidden.  She would make sandwiches for the local police, and they would turn a blind eye to the permanent odor of hashish.

The Beats who occupied the hotel were unintentionally inclusive, as most of the expatriated residents spoke no French at all. Fortunately they had French artist, poet, publisher, and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel as their go-between. Lebel would eventually introduce several of the Beats to prominent members of the Parisian art community including Marcel Duchamp and André Breton

While the Beat Movement had its roots on American soil, many of it’s better known figures expatriated for a time. One of the first to arrive in Paris was the poet Gregory Corso, who occupied a tiny room in the attic. During his stay at the Beat Hotel, Corso would compose most of the poems at the end of Gasoline and many in The Happy Birthday of Death including his most famous and contentious poem “Bomb.” The poem was written in the shape of a mushroom cloud and Corso himself was often misunderstood as being militarist simply because the poem didn’t explicitly speak out against the use of nuclear weapons.

Allen Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky soon joined Corso in September 1957. The two had fled America in the wake of the much-publicized obscenity trial of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” and after visiting William Burroughs in Tangier and trekking through Europe they stayed put in Paris.

By the time he arrived, Ginsberg was an established poet, but his canon was still at the early stages of development. Shortly after settling in Paris he began working on “Kaddish,” his second masterpiece alongside “Howl,” in which he eulogizes his mother, Naomi, and reflects on the estrangement he felt from Judaism—his born religion. The first lines of the poem were composed at Le Select, a café in the Montparnasse district where figures of the Lost Generation, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald, had sat decades before.

Ginsberg would continue to compose his own poems during his stay at the hotel, but he also took on the challenging role as editor for Burroughs when he arrived shortly after Ginsberg and Orlovsky. Before settling in Paris, Burroughs had been living in Tangier, Morocco where he could obtain both opiates and homosexual prostitutes—just two of his vices—with little interference. It was under a drug-induced haze in Tangier that Burroughs began penning the earliest drafts of what would eventually become Naked Lunch. When Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac visited him there in 1957 the vignettes comprising the text—mostly drawn from journal entries and letters from Burroughs to Ginsberg—were assembled into a more coherent form.

Burroughs found more assistance completing Naked Lunch after leaving Tangier and settling in at the Beat Hotel, where he began cultivating a fruitful friendship with painter Brion Gysin. The two developed “the cut-up technique,” which involved taking the Naked Lunch manuscript, cutting each page horizontally and diagonally, and reassembling the text to create a new structure. These steps were repeated until Burroughs was satisfied with how the text read. This is what gives Naked Lunch its non-linear structure and allows the reader to dig in at any point—similar to how Dr. Benway treats his patients in the novel.

Later that year, while Ginsberg and Orlovsky returned to New York City, Burroughs remained in Paris hoping to find a publisher for Naked Lunch. Eventually, he found Olympia Press, the courageous publisher known for previously publishing other controversial works including Lolita, Beckett’s trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable, Story of O, and Tropic of Cancer.

Shortly after its publication, Naked Lunch, like “Howl,” faced an obscenity trial. The novel’s depictions of drug use, homosexual acts, pedophilia, and violence led it to be banned in Boston in 1962. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned this decision thanks in large part to testimony from Ginsberg and Norman Mailer. The court said in its decision, “We cannot ignore the serious acceptance of it by so many persons in the literary community. Hence, we cannot say that Naked Lunch has no ‘redeeming social importance.’”

By the time the trial concluded, the Beat Hotel was no more. Madame Rachou retired in 1963 and opened another hotel directly across the street. Photographer Harold Chapman, who candidly documented the Beat Hotel’s time as an artistic enclave, was the last to leave.

Throughout the 20th century, Paris was home to artistic and social movements that helped form the zeitgeist and sent ripples around the world. Picasso entered his Rose Period; Hemingway, Miller, and Fitzgerald bolstered the American canon; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir reshaped existentialism; the Beats turned life itself into subject matter.

The work that sprung from these periods represent a time and place that never can or will take that exact form again. In one of his final journal entries before his death in 1997 Burroughs tried and was unsuccessful: “Can I bring it back, the magic and danger of those years in 9 rue Git-Le-Coeur and London and Tangier—the magic—photographs and films.” All that remains are their works.

Originally Published on Nov 14, 2013

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