Americans in Paris this month, foraging around the Flea Market, plumbing the Sartrean caves, or viewing the masterpieces on display at the Louvre—or, for that matter, the Folies-Berg√®re—might well wonder where everyone is. In the spring the French give up philosophy, figures, figurines, yea, even foie gras, for the Bois de Boulogne, a great billiard-green expanse just west of the Eiffel Tower. The Bois is every Parisian's own principality. Lovers park their motor scooters and love in it. Whiskered men park their bicycles and fish in it. Foreigners toting tents park their cars and camp in it.
France's best fighters train along its paths. American Little Leaguers bang out base hits on its broad fields. Cows meander its juicy pastures, and the elegant dine under Japanese lanterns in its leafy arbors.
In more raucous days, kings hunted its woodlands, bombs exploded its native serenity and Russian cossacks once used it as a bivouac. And, while it remains unlawful to beat a rug or sound a hunting horn anywhere within the 2,000 acres, still one can shoot a live pigeon, bet on a horse, ride a merry-go-round, take a railroad ride through a forest, sail on the Enchanted River, or swim in a barge parked along its shore. Somewhere in the big oblong bordered by the Seine and the swank Parisian residences are three lakes, five ponds and 11 private sporting clubs and nine restaurants, all considered chic. (The poor people of Paris must bring their lunch.) Two of its corners are occupied by Longchamp and Auteuil, the prime race tracks of Paris, where the city displays not only horses but the latest creations of the haute couture.
Longchamp, a lovely track brimming with roses, pompons, zinnias and yellow croix-de-feu, is built on the grounds of an old abbey where in ancient days all Paris turned out at Eastertime to hear hymns sung by resident nuns known as the cloistered Sisters of the Humility of Our Lady. Under the shadow of an ivied windmill that still remains from the old abbey, Longchamp now offers flat racing from the first Sunday in April to the last Sunday of October, sponsored by an organization known handily as the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Amélioration des Races de Chevaux en France. Under that umbrella the Société also encourages the amelioration of racing at Chantilly and Deauville, an outpost of elegance on the Channel.
May 26, 1957
The biggest event of the year is the Grand Prix de Paris, held the last Sunday in June. To watch the running for the 27-million-franc purse, the haut monde shows up in gray tails, known as la jaquette, and a gray topper, known as un tube. It is also passable to wear le melon, a bowler of gray or black, and some types affect the black cutaway with striped pants, but, as an official of the Société explained, "this is not tr√®s chic." Parisian designers use the Grand Prix and the running of the "Grand Steep" at Auteuil a week earlier to display their latest collections, which come to the track aboard the most dazzling models. Some grandes dames also arrive dressed to the nines, but whether their gowns have been lent by a house or bought by an admirer is always a popular point of paddock discussion.
A 500,000-franc gown for the Grand Prix is not unknown and, in the half hour between races, the ladies descend from the grandstand, stroll the pebbled walks, watch the weighing in and pose, champagne glasses in hand, before the lacy green railings banked for the summer with thousands of pink geraniums.
While not as voluptuously landscaped as Longchamp, Auteuil, the home of the steeplechase, offers the ultimate in French racing comfort. An elevator will lift 60 aficionados per minute to a second deck. Infrared lamps heat the open stands and, in a four-deck glass-enclosed restaurant, girls collect wagers while you eat, permitting a man to tender a bet and slurp a bouillabaisse practically simultaneously. Out the window, the vast track stretches for nearly a mile along the east side of the Bois. French cavalry officers in their red and gray and gold kepis stroll the center field. A Paris fireman in a wide red-and-blue belt, toting his elegant, gleaming silver helmet, keeps watch of a sort. And, across the field, above the chestnut trees, the orange awnings and the orange shutters brighten the beige terraces of the parkside Paris apartments that fringe the Bois.
Each year on the night of the Grand Prix, Aly Khan gives a reception for 300 at the Pré Catelan, one of the nine restaurants of the Bois, overlooking a meadow once used for fighting duels. Under the soft-cloud murals on the ceiling of its mirrored hall or under the crystal chandeliers that hang from the trees of its outdoor terrace, Saudi princes, Belgian dukes, Aristotle Onassis, Maurice Chevalier, Clark Gable, or anybody with $20 to spend on dinner, can dance away the summer nights. Fridays are formal. For chauffeurs there is a buvette in the back, but gone are the cows that were kept on hand for the frivolous, who used to stop by at 5 a.m. for a sobering glass of fresh milk.
La Cascade, near the Longchamp course, spreads its red umbrella tables amid a lush setting of pink hydrangeas, hard by a grotto and a pool. Armenonville, long a soignée site near La Porte Maillot, has just reopened (May 17) under the patronage of Mme. Queenie-Biancheri, owner of Queenie's restaurant in Paris and Queenie's on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Queenie's kingly decor calls for Louis Seize trappings, orchestra for dancing, thés dansants on weekends, midweek luncheons for businessmen, and weddings and club meetings on demand.
Probably the cheapest place to eat in the Bois is at Le Self-Service, a cafeteria operated by the Racing Club of France and, unfortunately, available only to its members. The largest sports club in the country, the Racing occupies 17 acres of Bois real estate on which it offers its 15,000 members two swimming pools, 50 clay tennis courts, nine volleyball courts, one basketball court and almost anything except serious racing. The location of such an athletic center, just one mile from the Étoile, has proved such an attraction that the Racing is turning down about 4,000 applications a year. Initiation fees are 15,000 francs (about $43), and annual dues for all sports are 17,000 francs, 15,000 for those who only play tennis. Interested Americans accompanied by an introductory letter from the U.S. Embassy should have no trouble joining.
The club known as Étrier (stirrup), on the other hand, keeps its membership to a snug 615 of whom 250 are active riders, and the others are watchers. juniors and military members. Though the aim of the club is to popularize riding, the $70 dues and $70 initiation fee make the place, as a secretary explained, "un cercle un peu ferme, si vous voulez." French Olympic dressage training is done on Étrier's preserve, and there are a dozen horse shows a year to which the public is invited. But, unless one is a member of a society or owns a horse, there is no horseback riding in the Bois, save for ponies which can be hired by children.
The other horsey nook, the Polo de Paris, invites the public in for matches on its greensward not far from Long-champ, but tea on the terrace is a plush and private affair, which might draw such members as the Marquis de Ganay, the British Ambassador; Sir Gladwyn Jebb; the Count Robert Toulouse-Lautrec; or any number of baroneted Rothschilds, whose forebears started the club in 1895.
Crustiest of all is the Tir aux Pigeons, whose 1,000 carefully screened families gather in a manicured park of exquisite flower beds, pebbled paths and still, silver ponds to play tennis, skate in season, and shoot live pigeons. A pair of panneaux de basket is kept on hand to occupy the liveliest of the youngsters. The children's other activities are pretty much restricted to the use of bicycles, tricycles and scooters, and even these are strictly forbidden on Saturday, Sunday and holiday afternoons.
The adults' sport of pigeon shooting, which is forbidden every day in most countries, requires the services of 6,000 pigeons a year, all of which are imported from Spain. Birds cost about $1.50 each and are kept for a month (at 3 francs per day per pigeon) to fatten them up for D day. About 10% die before the moment of truth arrives, about 40% fly off unscathed and roost in the Arch of Triumph and the Eiffel Tower, Spanish veterans of the Bois campaign, far from the homeland in Castile whence they came as mercenaries.
But, for the Parisian possessed neither of a club invitation, the price of an initiation fee, nor even un tube, the subway arrives at the door of the Bois, and there is plenty inside. There is fishing in the waterways, stocked by the city with small carp; cruising by rowboat in the Bois's great lakes, Lac Supérieur and Lac Inférieur; soccer and baseball and model-plane flying on the Champ d'Entrainement. There is swimming in a floating swimming pool tied up along the banks of the Seine, and there is the little train of the Bois de Boulogne driven by an engineer in a beret and faded blue denims that tinkles its bell and skitters up from the Porte Maillot through a pine forest covered with brown-needle broadloom and spread with spindly chairs that look like ballerinas. It stops at the Jardin d'Acclimatation, and the children pour through the gates en route to a cruise on the Enchanted River, a ride on a camel, a stroll through the avenues of caged jackals and foxes, peacocks and Chinese pheasants, and inevitably a lick of la barbe du papa, known in other circles as cotton candy.
Bagatelle by D'Artois
On a pleasant Sunday in July, 30,000 will troop through the ch√¢teau of Bagatelle built by the Count of Artois on a bet with Marie Antoinette. The count had it finished within a few months, held a far-famed reception, at which he received the king, the queen and the court. Black swans float on the waterways of the gardens, and the prize roses of their rosary carry such names as First Love, Mme. Vincent Auriol and Sutter's Gold.
Under the plane trees of the Bois, where the Seine comes to cool the green borders, cars from Sweden and motorcycles from Denmark are parked in the shade. Trailers rest under the willows, campers from beyond the Rhine snooze under canvas, and wash boils in a pot. Forty Germans, lately disgorged from a bus up from Dusseldorf, have opened their collapsible kitchen and are peeling potatoes and mixing batter. They needn't have brought their own food, for a commissary on the premises sells eggs, cheese and—what else?—canned coq-au-vin.
The mallet is cracking into the ball on the Jeu de Polo not a hundred yards away, and over on Lac Inférieur a gentleman has parked his motorized bicycle and stuck a bamboo pole through the reeds in hopes of snaring a carp. Little boys in smocks are voyaging aboard a camel over in the Jardin d'Acclimatation; some of the best people, having tea at Pré Catelan, are up to their spats in pebbles and pink geraniums. The church bells of Paris bong loud and clear over the meadows of the Bois, where the cows low, and, somewhere down in the city, a racing type is getting down a box to inspect la jaquette and le tube, a little more rose than gray now with the years, but just the thing for the leaf-green days ahead up in the greenery.
JEU DE POLO
L'HIPPODROME DE LONGCHAMP
ALLÉE DE LA REIN MARGUERITE
ÉTANG DE SAINT JAMES
ALLEE DE LONGCHAMP
TIR AUX PIGEONS
PORTE DAUPHINE (TO THE ÉTOILE)