Paris in the Twenties


Michael O'Donoghue

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 37 in 1965, and featured in issues 102 in 1999 and 108 in 2004.

Once their heart belonged to DADA;
Now their art belongs to MOMA.


I recall I was raping Josephine Boulanger (she was younger, of course). Yes, I was jazzing her — “Josephine” (as I called her). Jazzing her ON THE FLOOR, if I remember correctly. And all the while she sang “Trois Ballades de Mallarme” — beautifully. After, we smoked long Russian cigarettes and chatted of Hitler’s watercolors. The sun was warm and bright breezes moved the curtains. Paul Eluard came to visit later (we were still nude) and told us of Huneker’s death. There was no more love-making that afternoon, I assure you.

Montmartre was scandalized! Erik Satie had rented the Kleber Conservatoire to premiere his latest composition; scored for “La Jazzband,” cello, harpsichord, Hispano-Suiza (a touring car the size of a locomotive), and continuo. All went smoothly until the musician “playing” the Hispano-Suiza missed a corner, roared down the apron and plunged into the audience. Perhaps 20 persons were killed. I really can’t be sure (among them: the Duchesse d’Audiffret-Pasquier, Comtesse de Noailles, Princesse Philippe de Caraman-Chimay). We were so convulsed in laughter at this “unexpected turn” of events that no one even noticed Chaim Soutine slip away.

You can imagine our surprise when he appeared stark naked on stage and commenced urinating on the dead and dying, quipping: “I PISS ON YOUR MIDDLE-CLASS MORALITIES!!!” The crowd, already surly, took immediate offense to this. Fistfights broke out. Bombs were detonated. We considered the evening an unqualified success and discreetly retired to “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” for a few rounds of Pernod.

“Say, Jake, I’ve got a really swell idea. Let’s steal the Mona Lisa!” “Madame Curie,” I replied, “You’re a heller!” She stood beneath the Lion de Belfort, wearing only a pink Cloche hat. A crescent moon barely outlined her firm, ripe breasts, veiling her thighs in umbrient darkness. It was April. In the distance we could hear the wail of the Rue Blomet’s Negro saxophonist, laughing couples tangoing on the zinc tables, and, above all, Robert Desnos drunkenly hurling invectives at the monkeygland experiments. It was as if time had forgotten us … that the world would turn, wars would be fought, civilizations rise and fall … and we would still be here, just as we were now.

I pulled her to me; savagely bit her ear. We fell to the cobblestones, venting our burning passions with all the fury of youth without hope or hopes. The saxophone screamed one final blasphemy, then dies, washing away the stars. Hours later I awoke, still pressed against her, and looked up to see Desnos leaning against a gas lanp, calmly watching us. Noting I was awake, he smiled and reflected whimsically:

“Il y avait une mouche artifcielle entièrement blanche que j’avais dérobée en rêve, à un pêcheur mort et que je passais des heures à regarder flotter sur l’eau don’t j’avais ampli un bol bleu: c’était l’appât que je destinais à l’inconnu. Il y avait ce qui peut venir du fond de la terre, ce qui peut tomber du ciel.”

and vanished into the shadows. Only an empty congnac bottle remained to show he was ever there. I felt a sudden chill. The calmor of the St. Sulpice bells startled a flock of pigeons up into the gray Paris dawn, and my love awoke. We did not learn until late Thursday afternoon that Desnos had set fire to the Reichstag.

Kiki left early, complaining of a headache, so Nijinsky and I decided to drop in on Jack Dempsey and smoke opium. The leaves had begun to turn and it was too cold to stay in the park. But when we arrived at Jack’s, we found, much to our dismay, a note tacked to the door explaining he’d gone to Zurich for the 6-day bicycle races. “Tant pis!” Waslow snapped, “Let’s go sniping from the Dôme.” It seemed as good a way as any to pass a bleak Sunday afternoon and we walked back to Montparnasse. By the time we reached the Dôme, it had started to rain (I suspect this was the Sirocco), but Nijinsky was not to be put off so easily.

He insisted on renting a cheap Italian rifle which we took turns firing from the terrace. The rain had become heavier making accuracy near impossible. Nijinsky, concentrating more on the Bois de Boulogne, finally managed to wing a pumpkin vendor in the abdomen, but as for myself, the afternoon proved fruitless.

For more than a week the Fauvists had been bombing the city with their manifestos. The ear had almost grown jaded to the drone of their motors. One considered them only as so many giant bumblebees. Leaflets lay heaped knee-high in the streets and walking for more than a few blocks was tiring if not exhausting. Even the horse-drawn busses were forced to a halt. It was as if all Paris, caught in that lazy Indian summer of 1928, had taken a brief respite from the hurry-scurry world, to sit back and enjoy one final fling before the long winter. I’d dined with Mata Hari at a little sidewalk bistro near the Odéon. Even in the twilight we could still make out the brightly colored biplanes twisting and diving above le cathedral Notre Dame. Suddenly, across the street, I spotted Eugene Brieux.

Knocking over my pousse-café in my haste, I leapt to my feet, shouting: “EUGENE! DID YOU READ? … TROTSKY HAS BEEN MURDERED!” But my cries went unheard for just at that moment one of those massive planes chose to zoom down and strafe the street. When the thousands of leaflets settled, I looked for my friend. The disheartening scene that awaited me will stalk me to my grave. I shall never forget it. Apparently on of the Fauvist aviators had carelessly left a bundle of manifestos still crated and had tossed it from the plane, hitting Brieux. The bundle would seem to have landed on his head as he was bleeding profusely from the nose and ears. I rushed to his assistance, but with the addition of a new layer of manifestos, the pile was up to my shoulders.

Progress was slow and difficult. Often, when I had cleared a path, the sides would cave in, and I would have to start over. It took near an hour and forty minutes to reach him. Seeing me approach, he turned as if to speak. But before he could utter a word, his eyes went blank, and he collapsed into my arms. Later, Mata joined us. She knelt beside me and observed, mustering a wan smile: “The ship is sinking.” Our eyes met, and at that instant we shared the terrible secret knowledge that, with the passing of Eugene Brieux, an era had died.


My airplane is burning.
My formal gardens cross their legs.
Negroes have eaten up my sister.

My mother has been revoked.
Gypsies stole my father,
Repainted him,
And sold him across the border.

My wife is a sailor.

My wolves are housebroken.
My cat is a dog.
The goldfish drowned.

Emery dust in my monorail.

My arsenal is doves.
My caprice is annotated.
The bathtub tried to bite me
And did.

Hunchbacks gave me money.

My screams are dead snowflakes
Falling on dead people
Making them feel all warm and loved.

*author’s note: I originally wrote these poems in French and translated them into English. They lose quite a bit in translation.


… after it happened, all these things we found in the ruins.

a stuffed indian with dead feathers.
a snare drum mouche for the inside thigh.
an enormous owl.
a mirror composed of white flesh.
3 zinc centipedes.
a blind fish.
another blind fish.
another zinc centipede.
a hand-painted virgin.
a broken grasshopper and a mallet to keep it that way.
a mezzotint made from a photograph of a zinc centipede.
a sign that read “DEFENSE DE FUMER”.

… after it happened, all these things we found in the ruins.

a glass monkey who sang Debussy.
a piano that told one’s fortune.
a watch that guessed one’s sex.


“A young man goes to Paris
But finds that it’s a cheat;
His mother’s read Frank Harris
Et le rue is just a street.”