“We went to the American Club.” The words sound simple enough. But if you want to identify the address in question, complications arise. It depends on who is talking and when. Paris is positively littered with sites that are or have been referred to as “the American Club” over the past century or so.
The quest began when I tried to track down what Canadian writer Morley Callaghan meant when he wrote about boxing with Ernest Hemingway in June 1929 at the “American Club.” The story appears in his memoir That Summer in Paris, published in 1963,
Today, if you Google “American Club of Paris,” the location specified is that of Reid Hall on the rue Chevreuse in Montparnasse. Reid Hall was once the American Girls’ Club, later the American University Women’s Club (not to be confused with the American Women’s Club on the Right Bank), and is now part of Columbia University. Today, the American Club holds monthly Happy Hours at Reid Hall. In the 1920s, though, Reid Hall was the preserve of women. I can’t picture Hemingway and Callaghan sparring there.
So I think Callaghan must have been referring to the United States Artists’ and Students’ Club at 107, boulevard Raspail. The building is still there, visible on Google Street View.
It was a shape-shifting entity that changed its name and location three times and is more celebrated now by the French than the Americans. Here is its story.
In the 1920s, the clergy of the American Cathedral in Paris wanted to offer young Americans a wholesome alternative to the temptations of Montparnasse cafes and dance halls. The club they created became a home away from home for many visitors. When it outgrew its original premises, a new building was constructed farther down the boulevard in the early 1930s.
I found a nostalgic description of the original club from that time:
The United States Students’ and Artists’ Club soon moves into a magnificent new building of imposing dimensions. [But] we shall question… whether the spacious accommodations of the new club building can promise anything like the rich quality of familial intimacy 107 [boulevard Raspail] afforded us…
In all the world, will it ever be given to any kitchen, let alone that of the new building, to be the scene at tea times of such incredible commotion and unheard of traffic as was that silly little two by four cupboard so generously and euphemistically termed “kitchen”?
[And] is it likely that we shall be at liberty to sprawl over, under, and inside Canon Belshaw’s desk, as we did at 107 whenever the spirit moved us, and shall we be able to make his office the warehouse for our books, hatboxes, suitcases, radio sets, umbrellas, baby carriages, etc., etc., and leave them there till we sail for home?*
One can just picture the place: overcrowded, a bit shabby perhaps, but welcoming and full of life. But – and this immediately piqued my curiosity – it was hard to picture the new building. It has gone, demolished to make way for the Cartier Foundation at 261, boulevard Raspail. Try as I might, the only images I could find online showed the front door only. The following is from Wikipedia:
Eventually, I found a picture in a book,** and as a service to anyone else who might be curious, I provide this aerial view of it in the 1970s:
And a view of the library:
Renamed the American Students’ and Artists’ Center, it occupied a tree-shaded property that included a huge cedar of Lebanon planted by Chateaubriand. The facilities included a fully equipped theatre, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a library, and artists’ studios on the top floor.
After the Second World War, membership was opened to people of all nationalities. Renamed simply the American Center, it developed a reputation as a venue for avant-garde concerts, plays, exhibits, and those indescribable events known as “happenings.” It was a far cry from the intentions of its founders, but it filled a need at the time, and artists from all countries gathered there. Today, the main records of the place are in French, not in English (there is, for example a French Wikipedia article, but not an English one devoted to it).
When the building started to deteriorate in the 1980s, the management sold the property and commissioned a new facility by Frank Gehry for a site in Bercy. Big mistake. The cost of the new building bankrupted the organization. The French government bought the Gehry building and turned it into a cinémathèque. And the American Center vanished.
But that was in the 1990s and I’m getting away from my original mission. In the 1920s, it was a club, not a an arts centre, and its function was very different. So it is a reasonable candidate for the location of Callaghan’s and Hemingway’s boxing practice.
I even checked a 1927 copy of Express Guide to Paris and Environs. It lists something called the American Club and notes that it holds weekly lunches. But it does not provide an address. I assume the this entity had no fixed premises and members met at various restaurants for its events. For example, when Charles Lindbergh addressed the American Club just after his Atlantic Crossing in May 1927, he did so at the Hotel Ambassador. The guide also mentions the United States Artists’ and Students’ Club at 107, boulevard Raspail, and notes that it had a billiard room.
So what did Callaghan say about the “American Club” in his memoir?
The story starts when he and his wife Loretto visit Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, at the Hemingways’ apartment at 6, rue Ferou, near the Luxembourg Gardens.
Hemingway challenges Callaghan then and there to a quick demonstration of the latter’s boxing skills, and after some cautious sparring in the drawing room, Hemingway suggests a proper round. “Not far away was the American Club. It had no ring, but there was lots of space.”
Could that be the overcrowded place on the boulevard Raspail? A few days later, they visit the “American Club, where Ernest seemed to be at home.” They go “downstairs and into a back room that had a cement floor” which appears to be used for gymnastics, and is next to a billiard room. Aha, a billiard room.
After boxing, they go for drinks at an unnamed café, but when they part, Callaghan heads for Le Sélect on the boulevard de Montparnasse, which is in easy walking distance. Another time, they repair to the Falstaff Bar, near the corner of the boulevard de Montparnasse and the rue de Montparnasse. Again, in the general vicinity.
Then comes the fateful afternoon when Callaghan knocked out Hemingway, possibly because F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was acting as timekeeper, failed to stop them after a three-minute round. Or possibly because Callaghan, who had learned to box at college, was simply a better trained and more experienced fighter. In any case, the round went on for at least an extra minute (in later life, Hemingway suggested that it was even longer than that) and Hemingway wound up flat on the floor. And very cross indeed.
Where did that take place? Callaghan again places the event in the “American Club” and refers to the billiard room and the bare floor, but now we have a new contender for the location: a gym on the rue du Vaugirard.
A Guide to Hemingway’s Paris by John Leland places this particular event at the Gymnase George at 33, rue du Vaugirard, citing a biography of Fitzgerald by Sarah Mayfield. Leland even calls it this spot “the American Club,” although I don’t think anyone else called it that at the time. It was certainly closer to Hemingway’s apartment, but much farther from the Falstaff Bar and Le Sélect. And it was a proper gym, whereas Callaghan’s description suggests a less well-equipped space. I think Mayfield and Leland are wrong.
What does it matter? Who cares? It matters because I am putting together a walking tour. Again. This one is focused on Montparnasse in the 1920s. I feel that if I am going to show someone a building and say, “This is where Callaghan clocked Hemingway,” I need to know what I am talking about. Oddly enough, most biographers of Hemingway do not bother to identify the location, except for the one I’m fairly sure is wrong.
This story has an odd coda, which Norman discovered as I obsessed over American clubs in Paris. After the death of Morley Callaghan in 1990, an antiquarian bookseller in Toronto whom we know, David Mason, received some letters pertaining to the fight, written by Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He advertised them for sale and published a catalogue.
But one night in 1993, someone broke into his shop and stole the letters (as well as other valuable material) from the safe. Two years later, a suspect was arrested, but he died in jail – either a suicide or a homicide. The letters have never been recovered, but Mason remembers them.
In an undated, never-before-published follow up [letter to Callaghan], Hemingway threw down the gauntlet.
“I honestly believe that with small gloves I could knock you out inside of about five two-minute rounds,” Hemingway taunted, adding later, “So if you want us to disarm let me know.”
“Astonishing,” Mason says today. “Just astonishing. This is one of the most stunning Hemingway letters, in which he basically tells Callaghan, ‘In an alley, I could clean your clock.’ What kind of a person acts like that? Especially one of the greatest writers in American literature. And he’s acting like a 7-year-old.”***
So which alley did Hemingway have in mind? No idea. It won’t be on the walking tour.
Text by Philippa Campsie.
The walking tour is available from VoiceMap. It is an audio guide that works with GPS on an iPhone or Android device.
* Quoted in Cameron Allen, The History of the American Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Paris, 1815-1980 (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2012).
**Nelcya Delanoë, Le Raspail Vert: L’American Center à Paris: Une historie des avant-gardes franco-américaines (Paris: Seghers, 1994).
*** Toronto Star article by Bill Schiller.