Exploring James Baldwin’s Old Haunts in New York and Paris

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James Baldwin in New York City, 1963.

Exploring James Baldwin’s Old Haunts in New York and Paris

The writer — who grew up in Harlem in the 1920s and ’30s, moved to Greenwich Village and later to Paris in the 1940s — was no stranger to either city, frequenting nightclubs, restaurants and more. Here, we retrace some of his steps.

by Samuel Rutter

NEW JERSEY

WASHINGTON

HEIGHTS

HUDSON RIVER

WEST BRONX

BRONX

HARLEM

MANHATTAN

LINCOLN

SQUARE

EAST HARLEM

SOUNDVIEW

UPPER

EAST SIDE

HUNTS POINT

GREENWICH

VILLAGE

EAST RIVER

QUEENS

SOHO

DeWitt Clinton

High School

Frederick Douglass

Junior High, P.S. 139

The New York Public Library

135th Street Branch

Fireside

Pentecostal

Assembly

Taunty’s

candy shop

137 W. 71st Street

81 Horatio Street

The American National Theater

and Academy Playhouse

The White Horse Tavern

San Remo Café

Calypso Restaurant

181 Greene Street

BRONX

QUEENS

MANHATTAN

NEW JERSEY

DeWitt Clinton

High School

Frederick Douglass

Junior High, P.S. 139

Fireside

Pentecostal

Assembly

The New York

Public Library

135th

Street Branch

Taunty’s

candy shop

137 W. 71st Street

The American National

Theater and

Academy Playhouse

San Remo Café

81 Horatio Street

Calypso Restaurant

181 Greene Street

The White Horse Tavern

NEW YORK

133rd Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues, 1939.

Taunty’s candy shop

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, at Harlem Hospital to Emma Berdis Jones, a young unwed mother. When Baldwin was two, Jones married David Baldwin, a preacher from New Orleans who adopted the boy and was a strict, overbearing influence until his death a few days before Baldwin’s 19th birthday. Baldwin’s mother and stepfather had eight more children after him, and the family moved house frequently in his youth, but he had fond memories of his Aunt Barbara (whom he called Taunty) and her candy shop on 133rd St between Lenox and Fifth Avenues. She would later provide inspiration for the character of Florence in Baldwin’s first novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” published in 1952.

Countee Cullen, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in Central Park, 1941.

Frederick Douglass Junior High School, P.S. 139

Long since converted to housing, Frederick Douglass Junior High, which Baldwin entered in 1935, was a place where the future author began to develop his literary voice. Countee Cullen, a teacher at the school and a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, became an early role model of Baldwin’s, introducing him to the possibility that he could make a career out of writing, and encouraging him to write for the school’s magazine, The Douglass Pilot. Baldwin likely learned his first words of French in Cullen’s class, which planted the seed for his later travels to Paris.

A baptism ceremony at a Pentecostal church in Harlem, 1934.

Fireside Pentecostal Assembly

From the ages of 14 to 17, Baldwin preached at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, a storefront church in Harlem located at Fifth Avenue and 136th Street that has since moved to 69-71 Thayer Street. The pull of the church and the high language of the pulpit would forever mark his style, and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” draws heavily from this period in his life. In his 1955 essay “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin recalled a conversation with his stepfather that ultimately allowed him to leave the church to pursue his literary calling: “My father asked me abruptly, ‘You’d rather write than preach, wouldn’t you?’ I was astonished at his question — because it was a real question. I answered, ‘Yes.’ That was all we said. It was awful to remember that that was all we had ever said.”

A page from the 1941 Clintonian, the yearbook for DeWitt Clinton High School.

DeWitt Clinton High School

Following in the footsteps of Cullen, Baldwin enrolled at the prestigious DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in 1938, thanks to the support of various teachers from Frederick Douglass Junior High, as well as his excellent academics. One of few Black students at the school, he became friends with several people who would also go on to achieve artistic success: the publisher Emile Capouya; Baldwin’s future editor Sol Stein; and the photographer Richard Avedon, with whom Baldwin worked on the school’s literary magazine, The Magpie. Although a gifted pupil who was recognized for his writing ability, Baldwin's academic performance suffered as he struggled to reconcile his attachments to home and church in Harlem with his sexual and creative inclinations.

Arturo A. Schomburg in the 135th Street Library, 1937.

The New York Public Library, 135th Street Branch

Opened in 1905 as the 135th Street Branch, this location of the New York Public Library moved a block north in 1941 and was later renamed the Countee Cullen Library. The original building, designed by McKim, Mead and White, housed the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, which is now part of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture next door. In the 1930s, it became a home away from home for the young Baldwin: “I went to the 135th Street library at least three or four times a week, and I read everything there. I mean, every single book in that library. In some blind and instinctive way, I knew that what was happening in those books was also happening all around me. And I was trying to make a connection between the books and the life I saw and the life I lived.”

Baldwin with the civil rights activist Jerome Smith, outside the ANTA Playhouse during the production of Baldwin’s Broadway play “Blues for Mister Charlie,” 1964.

The American National Theater and Academy Playhouse

In 1964, Broadway’s ANTA Playhouse, which is now known as the August Wilson Theater, held a four-month-long run of Baldwin’s play “Blues for Mister Charlie,” directed by the Hollywood actor Burgess Meredith. Baldwin loosely based his play on the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and dedicated it to the memory of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. It caused a minor scandal when the critic Tom F. Driver resigned from the New York City-based magazine The Reporter after it refused to publish his positive review.

Beauford Delaney in his studio at 181 Greene Street, circa 1944. “Dark Rapture (James Baldwin)" (1941) hangs directly above the artist.

181 Greene Street

Baldwin met the artist Beauford Delaney in 1940 at Delaney’s third-floor home and studio (since demolished) on Greene Street in the Greenwich Village, where he painted intense, richly-colored portraits. Delaney was Black, gay and earning a living as an artist; in him, Baldwin found a “spiritual father” and a guide to a world his previous mentors had only hinted at. The pair became lifelong friends, spending time together in France, and Baldwin credited Delaney with opening his eyes as an artist. As he told the writer Jordan Elgrably in a 1984 interview: “I remember once walking in the Village with the Black painter Beauford Delaney. We were stopped at a street corner waiting for the traffic light to change, and Beauford pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was water. But he insisted: ‘Look again.’”

Connie Williams (seated) and a dancer at the Calypso on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village, photograph by Berenice Abbott, circa 1945.

Calypso Restaurant

The Calypso a Caribbean establishment run by the Trinidadian restaurateur Connie Williams where musical performances, soul food and intellectual banter mixed with a steady flow of liquor — was a spiritual home of sorts for Baldwin in his first years in the Village. Baldwin got a job there as a waiter, and when he wasn’t working he’d be drinking with Delaney or Marlon Brando, a lifelong friend and supporter of the author. It was a space where races mixed freely, which was still unusual at the time, and on a given night you might have seen Paul Robeson or Henry Miller eating side by side with Burt Lancaster or Malcolm X. During this period, as he continued to grapple with his sexual identity, Baldwin had relationships with both men and women.

A 1939 tax photo of 81 Horatio Street, Baldwin’s residence from 1958-61.

81 Horatio Street

After his sojourn in Paris, Baldwin lived in this apartment building between 1958 and 1961 while writing his third novel, “Another Country,” which was published in 1962. He befriended Sam Floyd, a Black schoolteacher and journalist who also lived on Horatio Street, and at Floyd’s apartment he spent time with other Black writers and musicians like Nina Simone, Max Roach and Nikki Giovanni. But the social scene made it difficult to work and, throughout this time, Baldwin was also traveling frequently between New York and Europe. His increasing celebrity meant there were often fans waiting outside his apartment. He returned to Paris in 1961 to escape the pressures of New York.

Baldwin and friends in the kitchen of his West 71st Street apartment, 1964.

137 West 71st Street

In 1965, Baldwin purchased a remodeled rowhouse on the Upper West Side as a home for his mother and other family members, as well as a base for himself when he was in town. From the mid-60s until his death in 1987, Baldwin traveled almost constantly, spending memorable stretches in Istanbul and establishing a beautiful light-filled home with a garden in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in southern France. When in New York, he favored Mikell’s jazz club on the corner of 97th Street and Columbus Avenue, where his brother David was a bartender. He held a screening there of his 1982 documentary, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” directed by Dick Fontaine and Pat Harley, which was attended by Toni Morrison, who also lived for a short time at the home on West 71st Street.

The writer William Burroughs (left) and the poet Alan Ansen outside the San Remo Café in Greenwich Village, 1953.

San Remo Café

The San Remo Café, on the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker Streets, was one of the hippest spots during the Village’s heyday. It was a louche restaurant with pressed-tin ceilings and black-and-white tiled floors, where Baldwin and Delaney would drink late into the night with Beat Generation figures like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who immortalized the bar as the Black Mask in his 1958 novella “The Subterraneans.” A mob-owned business, the San Remo Café remained a neighborhood fixture through to the 1960s, when it became a gay hotspot and favorite haunt of Andy Warhol and the Factory set.

The White Horse Tavern, at the intersection of Hudson and West 11th Streets, 1960.

The White Horse Tavern

Originally frequented by longshoremen, the White Horse Tavern became a notorious haunt for writers and radical leftists of the Village’s bohemian set. In 1953, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas went into a coma and died several days after boasting of drinking “18 straight whiskies” there. The Village was already gentrifying by the time Baldwin moved there in the 1940s, and while it was still home to a large Italian-immigrant population, there were very few Black residents — only 602 out of a population of 77,811, according to a 1943 real estate analysis. Baldwin was also one of the White Horse Tavern’s few Black habitués: “There were very few Black people in the Village in those years and of that handful, I was decidedly the most improbable,” he wrote in Playboy in 1985. The Tavern, which dates to 1880, claims to be New York’s second-oldest continuously operating pub, and the property’s landmarked exterior, iconic oak bar and tin ceilings remain unchanged after 140 years.

2ND ARR.

20TH ARR.

1ST ARR.

3RD ARR.

5TH ARR.

6TH ARR.

11TH ARR.

4TH ARR.

Rue du Bac

Café de Flore

Le Montana

Les Deux Magots

Brasserie

Lipp

L'Abbaye

Place de la Nation /Porte de Vincennes

Chez Inez

Le Fiacre

Le Tournon

Le Select

E

S

N

W

20TH ARR.

11TH ARR.

3RD ARR.

4TH ARR.

5TH ARR.

2ND ARR.

1ST ARR.

6TH ARR.

Le Montana

Place de la Nation /

Porte de Vincennes

Les Deux Magots

L’Abbaye

Chez Inez

Café de Flore

Le Tournon

Hôtel de Verneuil

Le Select

Le Fiacre

Rue du Bac

Brasserie

Lipp

PARIS

Café de Flore, 1956.

Café de Flore

Situated in Paris’s Sixth Arrondissement, on the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Benoît, the Flore can arguably lay claim, along with its rival Les Deux Magots, to the title of the most famous cafe in the world. Ever since it opened its doors in 1887, it has served as a haven for writers and intellectuals, and has also been featured in numerous novels, memoirs and, most iconically, in the films of the French New Wave. The Flore was also where a recently arrived Baldwin took refuge from the unheated hotel rooms he lived in while working on the manuscript of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” — which at the time he called “Crying Holy” — as well as the other articles and essays he had been commissioned to write. “As soon as I was out of bed,” Baldwin wrote in a piece for Commentary magazine in 1955, “I hopefully took notebook and fountain pen off to the upstairs room of the Flore, where I consumed rather a lot of coffee and, as evening approached, rather a lot of alcohol.”

Diners at Brasserie Lipp, 1961.

Brasserie Lipp

Just across the street from the Flore, Brasserie Lipp, with its famed purple moleskin banquettes and Charley Garry-painted ceilings, was the scene of a notorious confrontation in 1949 between Richard Wright and Baldwin on the day the latter published an essay in the inaugural issue of the literary magazine Zero, which also included contributions from William Carlos Williams and Christopher Isherwood. In the piece, Baldwin criticized Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son” alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Although Baldwin later regretted the rift he had caused, the two continued to hold each other’s work in high esteem. The iconic restaurant still serves excellent brasserie fare such as choucroute with bière de la maison, as well as the house specialty, pied de porc farci (stuffed pig’s trotter); its current clientele includes professors and policy wonks from the nearby Sciences Po. Every year, the Lipp awards the Prix Cazes, a literary prize named in honor of its former proprietor Marcelin Cazes.

Le Select, circa 1965.

Le Select

Another Left Bank classic, Le Select is an Art Deco cafe dating from the 1920s that featured heavily in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises.” One of the first cafes in Paris to operate 24 hours a day, it attracted nocturnal types like Alberto Giacometti and Samuel Beckett and was popular with Black Americans in the 1940s. (Le Select remains popular with local artists and students today, and its unfussy interior has barely changed over the years.) It was where Baldwin wrote much of his Paris-based novel, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956), whose protagonist, David, visits the cafe after “a solitary drink” at the Closerie des Lilas, a few blocks down on the Boulevard du Montparnasse.

Les Deux Magots, 1956.

Les Deux Magots

Dating back to 1885, this former silk and lingerie store turned cafe, where visitors can sit in rattan chairs facing the boulevard while enjoying a Pernod, is another one of the more popular tourist spots in Paris. When Baldwin got to the city for the first time in 1948 — with barely $40 in his pocket — he was immediately taken here to meet with the writer Richard Wright. Les Deux Magots has its own long literary history, and at the time it was not uncommon to see Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir there alongside American expats and other intellectuals. It was there that Baldwin met George Solomos (who published as Themistocles Hoetis), the editor who gave him his first commission in Paris, for his breakthrough essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949).

Inez Cavanaugh, performing with the Claude Luter Orchestra at Club du Vieux Colombier in Paris, 1950.

Chez Inez

Chez Inez was a jazz spot and soul food restaurant run by Inez Cavanaugh, a native of Chicago who at one point served as the poet Langston Hughes’s secretary. She became the lifelong companion of Timme Rosenkrantz, a Danish baron and jazz enthusiast, and came to Paris in 1946 as a singer on tour with the Don Redman Orchestra. The original restaurant, which operated between 1949 and 1952 on Rue Champollion, near the Sorbonne, was a regular hangout for Baldwin and his coterie, with the cash-strapped author once singing George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” in exchange for a dinner of fried chicken.

The Rue du Bac, photograph by Eugène Atget, circa early 20th century.

Rue du Bac

With a history dating back to the 17th century, the Rue du Bac in Paris’s Seventh Arrondissement has been home to many writers over the years: Chateaubriand and Romain Gary both died in apartments on this street, and André Malraux wrote his 1933 Prix Goncourt-winning novel, “La Condition Humaine,” there. In December of 1949, Baldwin found himself living on Rue du Bac, “on the top floor of a ludicrously grim hotel … one of those enormous, dark, cold and hideous establishments in which Paris abounds.” That same month, Baldwin was arrested at the hotel for receiving stolen goods (namely, a bedsheet taken by a friend from an overpriced hotel near the Gare Saint-Lazare), which led to him spending eight days in prison, as recounted in “Equal in Paris,” a dark yet amusing autobiographical essay written for Commentary in 1955.

Aimé-Jules Dalou’s “The Triumph of the Republic,” the central monument at the Place de la Nation, circa 1920.

Place de la Nation/Porte de Vincennes

In “Giovanni’s Room,” the titular lodgings are said to exist “in a dreadful street, near Nation … among all the dreadful bourgeoisie and their piglike children.” Far from the vibrant bohemian scene of Saint-Germain, Giovanni’s dingy ground-floor room is likely based on an early experience of Baldwin’s in Paris, where an obsessive French lover used to lock the late-sleeping Baldwin in his small room near the Porte de Vincennes, in the city’s leafy 12th Arrondissement.

Le Tournon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, circa 1950s.

Le Tournon

Though Baldwin only came to Le Tournon occasionally, the establishment was a preferred haunt of Black expatriates, including Delaney and the legendary band leader Duke Ellington, throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Richard Wright was known to hold court here, and the literary clique led by George Plimpton of The Paris Review, which was founded in 1953 in a nearby office on Rue Garancière, would often gather around the cafe’s tables as well. Still open today, the property retains its 1950s murals depicting the Jardin du Luxembourg.

The actor and musician Gordon Heath and his partner, Lee Payant (top), performing at their club, L’Abbaye, circa 1952.

L’Abbaye

Located on Rue de l’Abbaye, this Left Bank club, which was run by the actors and American expatriates Gordon Heath and Lee Payant — who would perform a nightly repertoire of folk, blues and gospel music — was a popular destination for Baldwin and his friends. In the 1950s and ’60s, the owners released several albums featuring live recordings of standards in French and English like “Scarborough Fair” and “Le Roi a Fait Battre Tambour.” They ran the club together until its closure in 1976, following Payant’s death.

Juliette Gréco and Annabel Buffet at Le Montana, circa 1950.

Le Montana

Le Montana was a bar just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain where Baldwin and his friends would venture late at night after having spent the early evening drinking on the terraces of local cafes. In an unpublished prose poem (quoted in David Leeming’s 1994 biography of Baldwin), Baldwin’s friend Thomas Maltais recounted their “small meeting at the Montana Bar with Truman Capote,” in which Capote doled out “high-pitched but serious advice.” Until its recent closure, the bar, which was reimagined in 2015 by the surrealist interior designer Vincent Darré to include a six-suite hotel, also now shuttered, remained one of Paris’s most exclusive nightspots.

Rue de Verneuil, photograph by Eugène Atget, 1902.

Hôtel de Verneuil

Shortly after first arriving in Paris, Baldwin moved to this ramshackle hotel run by Mme. Dumont, the matriarch of a Corsican family. Life there resembled Baldwin’s days in the Village, and it was not uncommon for residents to share meals, typewriters and lovers. The author developed strong friendships at the hotel with Mary Keen, a radical socialist from England, and Gidske Anderson, a Norwegian journalist who lived nearby. It was a particularly lively social scene: According to the Leeming biography, at a party thrown to launch Zero, the music was so loud and the revelry so raucous that Mme. Dumont shut off the electricity. Nevertheless, the party continued past dawn, stopping only when there was nothing left to drink. Just down the street, across from the singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg’s iconic graffiti-covered former home, the present-day Hôtel Verneuil (which is not the same building, unfortunately, where Baldwin lived) reopened last year after a complete renovation by the French architect Isabelle Stanislas, with some of its 26 rooms adorned with photos of James Baldwin.

James Baldwin in bed with Lucien Happersberger, 1963.

Le Fiacre

When Baldwin first came to Paris, gay life was visible in certain cafes, but there were still relatively few places where one could find open acceptance. One exception was La Reine Blanche, on the south side of the Boulevard Saint Germain, where, shortly after his short stint in prison following the bedsheet incident at his hotel on the Rue du Bac, Baldwin met the Swiss painter Lucien Happersberger, whom the author later described as the love of his life. Together, the pair frequented the nearby and slightly more glamorous nightclub Fiacre, whose owner would become the basis for the character of Guillaume in “Giovanni’s Room.”

Cover photo: Dave Pickoff/AP Photos (Baldwin on N.Y.C. street)

Paris photos: Critical Past (Café Le Flore, Les Deux Magots); Paul Almasy/Akg-Images (Le Select, Brasserie Lipp); Adoc-Photos/Art Resource, NY (Inez Cavanaugh); Eugène Atget © Beaux-Arts de Paris, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY (Rue Du Bac); Charles Lansiaux/PWB Images/Alamy (Place de la Nation); Dominique Berretty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images (Le Tournon); Justin Locke for National Geographic, April-May 1952. Courtesy of the Special Collections and University Archives, UMASS Amherst Library, Gordon Heath Papers (L’Abbaye); Georges Dudognon/Adoc-Photos/Art Resource (Le Montana); Eugène Atget/PWB Images/Alamy (Rue du Verneuil); Marion Jorrin/Pix/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (Le Fiacre)

New York photos: Sid Grossman for Federal Art Project, Museum of the City of New York (Taunty’s Candy/133rd St); Carl Van Vechten, © Van Vechten Trust. Photo: courtesy of the Beinecke Library (Countee Cullen/Frederick Douglas Junior High); Bettmann/Getty Images (Fireside Pentecostal);via the Clintonian (DeWitt Clinton High School); Critical Past (135th Street Library); © Bob Adelman Estate (Anta Playhouse); Courtesy of the Estate of Beauford Delaney and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY (181 Greene Street); Berenice Abbott/Getty Images (Calypso Club); Municipal Archives, City of New York (81 Horatio St); © Bob Adelman Estate (West 71st Street); © Allen GinsbergCorbis /Getty Images (San Remo); Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images (White Horse Tavern)

Digital production and design by Nancy Coleman, Betsy Horan, Jacky Myint, Caroline Newton and Daniel Wagner.