When I saw that a book devoted to one of my favorite streets in Paris, the Rue des Martyrs, had recently been published, I leapt at the chance to read it. To be honest, the apartment that has been my Parisian home for the last 16 years is located just off the lower part of the Rue des Martyrs, and I was looking forward to gloating at my superior knowledge of the neighborhood while tut-tutting at all the inevitable omissions in this new book.
Elaine Sciolino’s The Only Street in Paris (recently published in French as La Dernière Rue de Paris by Éditions Exils), however, turns out to be a treasure trove of extraordinary historical, cultural and everyday facts and anecdotes that were completely new to me. Who knew, for example, that St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, secretly took holy orders in a tiny chapel located just off the top end of the street in 1534, or that the painters Monet and Gauguin and the composer Bizet (best known for his opera Carmen) were baptised in the Notre Dame de Lorette Church at the bottom of the street? And I was astounded to learn that the extremely unprepossessing Carrefour supermarket located at No. 7 used to be one of the most notoriously louche 19th-century nightspots, frequented by writers like the poet Baudelaire and artists like Courbet. The celebrated novelist Émile Zola, who also lived in the area, even set part of his novel Nana on the street.
The Rue des Martyrs runs all the way from Notre Dame de Lorette in the ninth arrondissement up the hill into Montmartre in the 18th. Sciolino (who herself lives nearby) vividly captures the sheer diversity of the area, with its wonderful array of food shops, bookstores, secondhand clothing shops, bars, cafés and nightclubs.
The former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, Sciolino displays tenacious reporting skills, doggedly tracking down every lead and refusing to take no as an answer. As soon as a fruit shop opens or new owners take over a fish shop, she is on hand to introduce herself and become what appears to be an indispensable part of their lives.
I found myself quaking in my boots when her favorite greengrocers left without informing her, and she found out that everybody else in the street had known about it: Elaine Sciolino is clearly someone who does not like to be left out of the loop. No wonder everybody from former mayors of the arrondissement to Rue des Martyrs tradespeople did not dare to refuse her invitation to a potluck party celebrating the street.
If Sciolino’s wide-eyed wonder at the down-at-heel drag bar or at the hip joint at the top of the street can come across as curiously old-fashioned, her enthusiasm and love for the Rue des Martyrs shine through at all times. While she occasionally laments the passing of traditional customs, like the itinerant knife-sharpener who used to pass through the area or the circus (complete with roaring lions) that used to be located in the upper reaches of the street, she also embraces the new, such as the Belgian waffle shop that replaced the old DVD store – her tale of the lengths she went to to extract the old shop’s large neon sign as a gift to its bemused former owners is amusingly and self-deprecatingly recounted. Nor does she shy away from the street’s less savory past – a tragic example being the Jewish schoolgirls and teacher who were taken from the Edgar Quinet High School in 1940 and sent to Nazi death camps.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay to Elaine Sciolino is that she has made me eager to rediscover an area I realize now I know all too little. As I make my way up the Rue des Martyrs toward the Sacré Coeur, I will make sure I have The Only Street in Paris in hand as my guide.