Paris, 30 August 1997
“Louis Quatorze est mort en . . . en . . . en . . .”
“Oui! Oui! Oui! Oui!, says the old man’s friend quickly, hoping to forestall a lecture.”
It is my last day in Paris, and I don’t yet know that Princes Diana will die tonight, so as I continue up the Rue des Abbess toward the Montmartre Cemetery I don’t think about her, but about the Sun King.
He died in 1715, I could have told the Frenchmen. Yesterday, in the Louvre, I wandered into a palace room hung with tapestries depicting “L’Histoire du Roi.” They were woven at the Gobelin works between 1667 and 1672, and thus necessarily dodge the question of the king’s death. Instead, the huge wall hangings glorify that celebrity of celebrities.
In the seventh of the series, for instance, the King sports high-heeled boots with satin bows. Courtiers stand amazed, mouths open. One of them adjusts a 17th-century pair of glasses to see the King in all his glory.
In another section of the Louvre, I again find Louis in high heels (red heels and red bows), this time in Rigaud’s portrait done in 1701. Revealed and framed by a drawn-back ermine cape, muscular legs encased in white stockings rise up from the shoes, powerful columns that announce this king’s steadfastness, his ongoing victory over the entropy that finally lays us all low.
I sit down in a little park and pull out Sam Levin’s photo of Brigitte Bardot, bought from a rack near Sacre Coeur. Bardot, also standing on high heels, has lifted her skirt to reveal legs as brilliant as the Sun King’s. She manifests a stylish verticality, an enduring youthful uprightness, celebrity in all its seductive power.
“She’s acting as if something were wrong with her bo-w-el,” says one thick-legged woman to another as they pass my bench.
“Paris,” writes Malte Laurids Brigge at the beginning of Rilke’s 1910 novel, “is a good place to die.” This morning I woke up in my claustrophobic hotel room thinking of that line, not yet knowing about the coming night and the paparazzi and the tunnel, and decided to spend the day in the Cimetiere Montmartre.
As I walk through the gate into the cemetery, it begins to rain lightly. A map hangs behind glass with a table of celebrities. Pasted over one full quarter of the map is a hand-written sign: FOR “JIM MORRISON” GO TO THE CEMETERY “PER LACHAIS.”
I read through the alphabetic table, taking notes on locations: Dumas: 21.3, Fourier: 23.2. Fragonard: 21.4. Bodies filed like books.
“Who was Jim Morrison?” asks a woman behind me. “A rock star,” answers an uninterested man.
My list complete, I set out to visit this cemetery’s famous inhabitants.
Heinrich Heine is first, that romantic and revolutionary German poet who wrote a workers’ poem so strong in its three-fold curse of those eternally recurring celebrities “God, King, and Fatherland” that simply possessing the poem was grounds for arrest in Prussia. A sappy bust on top of a square column, head reverently declined, eyes half-lidded; a cheesy harp with roses; and a sweet little poem about where will I be buried when I die: In Paris or Berlin? in the mountains or on a beach? buried by strangers or friends? no matter, the stars will still shine over me. Gag me with a spoon.
If monumental burial is intended to lend immortality, why are Herr and Frau Heine stretched out horizontally? Why not bury them upright in the square column. “Bury me standing,” the gypsy says, “I’ve spent my life on my knees.” Because, perhaps, after a lifetime of struggle we like the idea of resting, finally, in peace: Ici repose. . . .
Ici repose Hector Berlioz under a shiny black marble slab and a flamboyant bas-relief bust, buried with both Harriet Smithson and Marie Recio.
Ici repose Vaslav Nijinsky. Not much room in this stone box for a dancer. Two photos in a painted wooden frame leaned soggily against the headstone: One of Nijinsky as a young man in coat and tie, hair parted severely in the center, the other of the dancer with a white-painted face and the hat and ruffles of a clown.
Ici repose François Truffaut. Flat black marble with no headstone for the elegant filmmaker.
A gaudy grave meant for Èmile Zola and Mme Alexandrine Èmile Zola, sweeping curves of red marble framing a noble bust. But the activist author of “J’accuse” has been separated from Mme Alexandrine, a sign says, and now lies with other immortals in the Pantheon. Immortality. The word itself is hyperbole.
Ici repose Alexandre Dumas Fils. The novelist gets a marble bed with recumbent statue complete with poet’s laurels and a heavy roof held up by four columns. Someone, however, has made off with most of his left big toe and much of his nose. Even stone can’t ultimately withstand the ravages of time (or of the impious).
Charles Fourier, fantastic prophet of harmony and early 19th-century socialism (“magnificent denunciations of exploitation and sham in family, society, church, and state”), is memorialized by a slanting stone that acts as the final page of his book: “Les attractions sont proportionelles aux destinees.”
My favorite among these luminaries? Ici repose Louise WEBER, dite “La Goulue,” 1866-1929, creatrice du French Cancan.
The rain has let up. I decide to walk across town to the “PER LACHAIS.” If I could foresee Diana’s last words tonight, “My God, what’s happened!”, I would place her in Morrison’s context: superstar cut down in relative youth. But I can’t, so I search for the grave of the man who urged me, in my high-school years, to “break on through to the other side.”
This cemetery is too large for any kind of quick overview. The sign touched by too many reverent fingers is blank where the name “Jim Morrison” and the site address ought to be. “Oscar Wilde” and “Gertrude Stein” are only slightly more visible.
It’s late in the day. I’m tired. Diana is worrying about what to say when Dodi Fayed asks her to marry him tonight. I wander among monuments and empty little crypts. The rain begins again.
“JIM ➔” is scratched onto the mossy side of a crypt. I walk in the direction indicated by the arrow, guided by an increasing flood of colorful graffiti: “Jim Morrison ist unser Gott”; “”Jim, je t’aime”; “the doors”; “The 27 Club.”
In the middle of the path ahead of me stands a big man in uniform. He signals with his arm. He blows a whistle. He shouts “C’est fermé!” Closed. It’s 6 p.m.
So I see Jim Morrison’s much decorated grave only on the postcards for sale outside the gate. A year later I will hear on NPR that “his” lease is up. “Unser Gott” will have to find a new home.
By noon tomorrow I’ll be in Cologne, Germany, where my friends Žarko and Anne will break the news to me about the once and future celebrity Princess.
[Published in The Salt Lake Observer, 28 August 1998]