Exiled on Beat Street

In 1957 Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were in the midst of the obscenity trials in the US surrounding the publication of Ginsberg’s poem Howl. After being shunned by the clean-cut conservative American public, (who despised homosexuality and Ginsberg’s outspoken nature in the radicalised work) the pair went left to seek refuge in more liberal and artistic France. Eventually the couple sought exile with fellow Beat poet Gregory Corso in their very own sanctuary of creativity which happened to be a no-name, beaten-up hotel at 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur in the Latin quarter of Paris. The cheap and tacky hotel was later to be christened the Beat hotel by Corso.

The rent at the 42 roomed hotel cost as little as 10 francs a night with the cheapest rooms containing a single bed that had two sheets and a army blanket, radiator, cold-water tap, small table and chairs, and three hooks. The rooms and hallways were dimly lit and the bedrooms had a small window facing the stairwell. The other rooms that were slightly more pleasant then the cheaper ones included such commodities as a telephone and a gas cooker, but the hotel owner, Madame Rachou, was very particular about who stayed. She didn’t mind if they were gay or in interracial relationships and she particularly liked the open-minded creative sorts – she even allowed artists and writers to pay in the form of manuscripts and artwork and she would allow inventive artists to paint and decorate their rooms how ever so they wished.

Other people that also stayed at the 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur residence were the likes of prostitutes, erratic poets, oddball French folks, pimps and also policemen (certain police officers even had a secret mistress that stayed in the hotel).

Despite the owner’s well-wishes and good nature, the hotel was still known as a “Class 13″ – meaning it was bottom of the heap, just a pure sight of decrepitude and disrepair. A minor bonus that the hotel did offer was the privilege of hot water which was offered on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as a bath in the only bathtub that was situated on the ground floor. The ground floor close to the lobby and near the bar was where the Beat writers spent most of their time drinking, smoking, eating, and conversing while Madame Rouche prepared sandwiches for the police and the officers in turn would pay no attention to the scent of hashish that drifted around the bar area.

Rue Gît-Le-Coeur on left bank in the 50s was a lively happening place that bustled with bohemian students, destitute winos, and ladies of the night as the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral, and Fontaine Saint-Michel provided a fine view in the backdrop. As the narrow streets housed the homeless sleeping wherever they could, the hotel accommodation that surrounded the pathways sheltered writers, musicians, artists, and models that came from the nearby school of fine arts known as the École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. It wasn’t only hotels in the district of Rue Gît-Le-Coeur. The tiny medieval region also had a vast array of dusty book shops, antiques shops, art galleries, avant-garde publishing houses and small presses, art cafes as well as drug dealers dealing in broad daylight in the cafes.

In 1956 William S. Burroughs attempted to cure his drug addiction with the help of London physician John Dent. After completion of the treatment he moved to the Beat Hotel to join his friends. Burroughs moved under the recommendation of Allen Ginsberg as Ginsberg thought it would help his friend escape the heroin scene. At the hotel Burroughs began writing patchy, disconnected, and hallucinatory manuscripts that would later become apart of his novel Naked Lunch. Although Burroughs had the help of Ginsberg and Kerouac to edit the novel it too fell to the same ill-fate of Ginsberg’s Howl as it was called upon by the US obscenity trials in the 60s.

He was also introduced to the Dada art technique of cut-up writing by English born artist, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin as Gysin stumbled upon the style by pure accident when the pair wrote together in room number fifteen in the spring of 1958. Burroughs took this method one step further and began cutting up photographs and artwork. This cut-up technique, which could be said to have been invented by Tristan Tzara in the late 1920s, involved cutting sections of writing out of newspaper then putting then them back together in new and creative ways. Whilst staying at the hotel from 1959 to 1963 Harold Norse also experimented with the cut-up style whilst he penned his 280 page novel called The Beat Hotel.

Brion Gysin moved to Paris in 1934 where he studied the open course La Civilisation Française at the Sorbonne University, an academy that wasn’t too far from the Beat Hotel. His most famous creation at the hotel was in the early 1960s with fellow creator Ian Somerville called the Dream Machine. The creation which was the only piece of art that can be viewed with your eyes closed and is meant to stimulate the brain’s alpha patterns with rhythmic strobing light effects thus producing a natural high. The device is a large piece of cardboard with slits down the side and spun on a gramophone turntable. In the middle a light bulb hangs down to the centre creating a flicker effect as the machine spins. The pair had calculated it to flicker at fifteen flickers per second resulting in a type of hypnotic trance-like state. The device seemed to take off as people began to take notice and the creators were due to market their work as a representative turned up at the hotel, but as luck would have it the rep ended up breaking his leg in the hallway which ended with the creation never seeing the light of day.

As the years passed the beats were beginning to be noticed on the international scene as word spread across the globe that the wonderful, tiny, wild, and heavily neglected hotel in France was the place to be and from the years 1957 to 1963 Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Burroughs, Corso, and Sommerville were joined by other imaginative creators from England and Europe. The Beat Generation had officially taken over the Latin Quarter of Paris, creating a symbolic freedom of mind, a simple atmosphere where they could escape the troubles of their homelands in a place that was much more tolerant of anything written or in the visual arts. France in that time was way ahead of up-tight countries like England and America. Although the Beats couldn’t actually speak a word of French they did have in their group the French artist, poet, publisher, and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel who they would use as their go-between. Label also introduced the group to the Partisan art community that included the likes of Marcel Duchamp and André Breton.

Great works of poetic art was also being produced at the hotel as Ginsberg started work on his second poem Kaddish and Gregory Corso created some of his most famous works whilst living in the hotel’s attic like his controversial piece called Bomb that was written in the shape of a mushroom cloud.

English photographer Harold Chapman spent a year living in the attic with Corso, documenting photo-by-photo the scene that was happening around him. According to Ginsberg Chapman didn’t speak to anyone for two years because he wanted to be invisible – transcribing the environment without him in it. Chapman came up with the idea of making a photographic book called My Paris whilst working as a waiter in Soho. After hitchhiking to Paris a friend told him that he must see this crazy hotel in the area and was later introduced to Ginsberg and Orlovsky, the rest was to be photographic history.

By the time the trial for Naked Lunch ended in the early 60s (resulting with the novel being made example of and prosecuted for being too obscene by the state of Massachusetts followed by other states in the US and the rest of the world) the Beat Hotel ceased to be as Madame Rachou retired in 1963. Harold Chapman was the last person to leave.

Nowadays the tramps that covered the streets of Rue Gît-Le-Coeur are gone, the prostitutes that hung around the wine bars have moved on, and those bohemian types have been replaced with camera-snapping American, English, and other Western world tourists that have now taken over the place. Rue Gît-Le-Coeur is now a tourist destination and the time of the beat generation has long since died a creative death. ‘Ci-Gît’ is an old expression found on French graves meaning ‘here lies’ and Rue Gît-Le-Coeur is said to signify ‘here lies the heart’, yet all that stands at once the heart of the beat movements Beat hotel (which this isn’t even the Beat hotel, the original Beat hotel has been closed for decades the one that it’s actually placed against use to be an apartment building) is a bronze plaque with the words: B. Gysin, N. Norse, G. Corso, A. Ginsberg, P. Orlovsky, I. Sommerville and W. Burroughs scrawled across it like some gravestone reminder of what was once a artistic environment.

Beat Hotel Plaque

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Author: Daryl Marc Clifford

Daryl Marc Clifford is a a male 29 year old south London-born essayist, short story and poetical prose writer studying in his second year for an honorary degree in Professional Writing at Grimsby University.

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