The young North American men who flocked to Montparnasse in the 1920s came to drink not to eat. The women were another matter.
The men of the “Lost Generation,” as they were famously dubbed by Gertrude Stein, scorned the previous generations of wealthy tourists, like Henry James’s Christopher Newman, who came to improve their “taste” and often started their educations in Paris’s restaurants.
“My generation doesn’t eat supper,” author and editor Robert McAlmon once shouted at the wife of Canadian author Morley Callaghan when she suggested their party of drinkers find a good restaurant. “I’m having another drink. Waiter, five whiskies and water!” Or so John Glassco, another young Canadian author at the table that evening, recalled in his sometimes unreliable Memoirs of Montparnasse. McAlmon, according to Glassco, “never ate anything.”
Simply put, eating was not a manly enough activity for the American expatriate author who sought to project an image of himself as single-mindedly dedicated to his craft. Like today’s Fortune 500 CEOs who refuse to acknowledge their need to sleep, the Robert McAlmons of the 1920s insisted on their ability to get by on the love of language chased with hard drink. Eating was for trifling women, like Loretto Callaghan.
It took the peculiar vision of a writer like Glassco, neither manly nor serious about his craft, to recognize the powerful sensuality of women’s appetites. As Glassco admits repeatedly throughout his memoir of life in Paris during the late 1920s, he always chose pleasure over work when given the chance. And he took that pleasure with whomever he fancied, female or male. He claimed to have slept with everyone from Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the handsome young poet who caused Oscar Wilde so much trouble, to Thelma Wood, the lesbian femme fatale who drove Djuna Barnes crazy. Inclined towards masochism, with a particular fetish for rubber, Glassco was very attracted to strong sexually-assertive women, and his memoir is replete with descriptions of the aggressive women of the Lost Generation devouring French food.
The first time Glassco encounters lesbian sculptor Gwen Le Gallienne and her lover Yvette Ledoux the women bring him along to dinner at Chez Rosalie, at 3 rue Campagne Première, run by one of Modigliani’s former models and well-known for the being “very good and incredibly cheap.” Glassco is turned on by the amount of food the two girls eat. “They worked their way enthusiastically though the entire menu of the prix fixe and I found their healthy girlish appetites stimulated my own. We finished off with a chocolate mousse served in little earthenware pots covered by a circle of silver paper.” Glassco follows the girls home to enjoy a night of three-way pleasure. The next morning the two girls start eating as soon as they wake. Buttered tartines, anchovy paste, tea and apricot jam: a feast of French and Anglo deights far more gluttonous than the pared-down breakfast Parisian women supposedly allow themselves today. Glassco leaves the apartment and buys himself a French pastry full of yellow custard. He is definitely with the girls on this occasion.
Glassco is similarly impressed by the voracious appetite of Caridad de Laberdesque, the Spanish dancer and manhunter who, for a while, was the lover of Glassco’s boyfriend Graeme Taylor. On the evening that Robert McAlmon proclaims himself beyond food, Laberdesque insists that they all head to Salto’s restaurant, above the famous Falstaff bar on rue Montparnasse. (Laberdesque refuses to let McAlmon lead the party to La Coupole, where the restaurant serves the one meal McAlmon will eat: canard à la presse. This gruesome bloody duck is the only dish manly enough for McAlmon.)
Like Rosalie’s, Salto’s is an Italian restaurant “famous for its portions.” Laberdesque devours a feast, making her way through a plate of anchovies, a bowl of minestrone, a mound of spaghetti, an osso bucco, and a yellow cake filled with raisins and drenched in marsala. McAlmon, true to his word, doesn’t eat but pushes his veal cutlet around the plate. Glassco and Taylor both enjoy the spicy rabbit stew, but they cannot match Laberdesque’s appetite.
The most voracious eater Glassco encounters during his sojourn in Paris is the powerful Dayang Muda of Sarawak, a wealthy English woman who married into the English ruling family of the kingdom of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Six feet tall and over two hundred pounds, the Dayang Muda eats vast quantities of excellent food prepared by her Chinese chef. Glassco is awed by the way her “great jaws crunched away on second helpings of everything” – breakfasts of grapefruit, scrambled eggs, grilled sheep’s kidneys, milky coffee and pre-buttered toast and marmalade; luncheons as big as dinners; and dinners of lobster Newburgh, roast beef, saddle of mutton, creamed vegetables, blancmanges, tarts, and trifles.
Three years later, as Glassco ostensibly scribbled his memoirs from a hospital bed in Montreal, where he had been forced to return after contracting tuberculosis, he was haunted by the memories of his meals in France. (Actually, he wrote the memoirs decades later and the hospital-bed reflections were a fiction.) From this later “abode of corned-beef hash and Jell-O!” Glassco dreamt about the pleasures of the palate. He was not troubled by the memory of the sheafs of papers he had composed in Paris which his final lover, the supremely powerful and sadistic “Honour Quayle,” had burnt without his knowledge, but by the longing for the langoustines, oysters, and octopus he once savored when he should have been working.
Glasco was the anti-Hemingway, a writer that he disparaged as “constipated,” a “fabulous phony,” and a “gutless Prometheus.” Hemingway was furious when his wife Hadley accidentally lost a suitcase of his writings. Glassco was unperturbed when his lover scornfully destroyed his works. Hemingway worked so hard at his craft that he went hungry rather than interrupt his flow. Glassco happily chose the café table over the typewriter every time. Hemingway despised men who had sex with other men and sought to demonstrate his own manliness at every opportunity. Glassco was open to sex with just about anyone and embraced his femininity.
Shortly after their meeting in Paris, Morley Callaghan ridiculed John Glassco as a trifling queen in an oft-anthologized short story, “Now That April’s Here.” Callaghan’s story may have been unusually honest about sexuality for its time, but I think that Glassco is the more honest writer about the quotidian hungers that drive most of us. Reading Memoirs of Montparnasse, I found my reflection in the voracious women that Glassco depicts, not the constipated men.