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Jan 09, 2022
You’ll find me most weekends sitting at a streetside café or in an atmospheric bar, reading the newspaper or a novel, and writing. Wherever I’ve lived, from Paris to Hong Kong, this has always been my favorite pastime. When I travel, I particularly like to seek out venues once frequented by famous writers and poets and imagine the joints’ past lives and the greats who’ve graced their terraces or drank in their smokey interiors. From cafés and bars to hotels and bookstores, these are some of my favorite literary haunts from around the world, as well as a few I still plan to visit.
— With reporting by Kate Bartlett
1 - Café de Flore
Studying the existentialists as a literature student at university, it was my naive, and admittedly pretentious, dream to live in Paris and model myself after Simone de Beauvoir (given her troubled relationship with that mansplainer Jean-Paul Sartre and my own run of difficult boyfriends, I’ve at least in part succeeded). At 24, with no money and even fewer French language skills, I upped and moved to the City of Lights, where I swiftly made my way, black turtleneck, beret and all, to the art deco Café de Flore — a favorite stomping ground of the existentialists. I imagine in the 1940s it was a wild place of heated philosophical debate and steamy affairs, but these days a croissant costs almost $4 and it’s an obvious tourist trap. My younger self made up for this capitalist affront by heading to the nearby Shakespeare and Company bookstore, which didn’t disappoint.
“I sat in a corner with the afternoon light coming in over my shoulder and wrote in the notebook. The waiter brought me a café crème.” It was at this Montparnasse institution that Ernest Hemingway wrote those lines from A Moveable Feast as well as parts of his seminal novel The Sun Also Rises. Today, a placard marks his seat at the bar. Des Lilas and a few other cafés in this neighborhood, including Café du Dôme, were also popular with other members of America’s “lost generation,” from Hemingway’s great friend Gertrude Stein to Ezra Pound and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. While likely quite grungy in their absinthe-soaked heyday, today the mythology around such establishments in Paris’ fashionable quartiers means high prices and well-heeled clientele.
1 - New York
As with Paris, my impressions of New York before I ever set foot there were all conjured out of novels and literary history. So as soon as I first touched down in the Big Apple aged 19, I headed straight for Greenwich Village, to the White Horse Tavern. Haunt is a good word for this pub, which is where legendary poet Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, allegedly downing 18 whiskey shots in November 1953. It was also favored by Beat Generation icon Jack Kerouac as well as New York School poets Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. After that, it was off to the Nuyorican Poets Café, beloved by Allen Ginsberg in the ’70s and where decades later I got spittle in my hair from an angry, over-enunciating slam poet. On a more recent trip to New York, I found myself downing whiskey (though not as much as Thomas!) with a bunch of foreign journalists in the Blue Bar at the Algonquin Hotel, frequented by the late Maya Angelou and others.
2 - San Francisco
If Shakespeare and Company is Europe’s most historic bookstore, City Lights is certainly one of America’s. Co-founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died last year, the shop is a must-see for anyone interested in ’60s counterculture and progressive politics. Remember “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection,” the famous lines from Ginsberg’s “Howl”? Well, the poem wouldn’t have seen the light of day if not for City Lights, with Ferlinghetti later having to stand trial for publishing “obscene” material. After I’d stocked up on books there on my last San Fran trip, I headed for a coffee at another West Coast literary haunt: Caffe Trieste, a favorite spot of Ginsberg’s and other beatniks.
3 - New Orleans
This city, at once hedonistic and gothic, is one of my favorite places. When I found myself in the Big Easy for a friend’s wedding a couple of years ago, I made it my mission to head to its many literary watering hotels — one of which is the famous Hotel Monteleone. Truman Capote claimed he was born in the hotel’s Carousel Bar, a classic exaggeration, though his mother did go into labor there. But Capote did frequent this NOLA institution, as did many other writers such as William Faulkner, who drank “massive quantities” of liquor while writing his first two novels in a French Quarter attic that he reached by climbing up the balustrades. Kate Chopin set The Awakening and many of her other works in the city too. In honor of A Streetcar Named Desire, by another New Orleans resident, Tennessee Williams, the city holds an annual Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest.
english charm to eastern opulence
1 - Oxford, England
Before the pandemic shut the world down, I was on a journalism fellowship at the University of Oxford, though I admit much of my studying involved the town's quaint pubs. Basically every cobblestone in the historic city is imbued with history, as are the pubs, many dating to the 1400s with low ceiling beams and big, open fireplaces. You can order some quintessential English pub grub, like shepherd’s pie or toad in the hole, and imagine the writers who did likewise through the centuries. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Thomas Hardy all drank at the Lamb & Flag, which sadly closed during the pandemic after 400 years but is now set to re-open. Down the road is the amazingly atmospheric Turf Tavern. If the walls of this 14th-century pub could talk, you’d likely hear a few bon mots from Oscar Wilde, who came here during his student days.
2 - London
“Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale.” The line comes from Henry V, but the play’s author was himself believed to be fond of a tipple. When in London, what better way to soak up history than sitting where William Shakespeare himself once sat at the George Inn in the 16th century. As if that wasn’t enough, Charles Dickens also frequented the Southwark pub in the 18th century, even referring to the place in Little Dorrit. If your taste in writing leans more toward modernism, head to the Fitzroy Tavern, where George Orwell drank while working at the nearby BBC or take a walk in Tavistock Square where Bloomsbury group great Virginia Woolf dreamed up To the Lighthouse. Hatchards Booksellers, opened in 1797, is London’s oldest bookstore and was a favorite of Woolf’s as well as Wilde’s.
3 - Hong Kong
I worked in Hong Kong for years, where I was a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, an old colonial bar full of literary and journalistic history in the midst of Asia’s bustling equivalent of Manhattan. You could always meet interesting, and sometimes famous, people at the FCC, and I was lucky enough once to hear war stories directly from Clare Hollingworth, the trailblazing female foreign correspondent who had made a name for herself with an amazing scoop: that World War II had started. The club is members-only, maintains a strict dress code harking back to its British imperial past, offers a menu that includes a good curry, and of course provides daily newspapers from around the world. It was used as a setting in The Honorable Schoolboy, by spycraft master-novelist John le Carré.
4 - Ho Chi Minh City
Living in Cambodia for five years, I can’t tell you how often I found myself exclaiming: “This is straight out of a Graham Greene novel.” From the French colonial shophouses to the rickshaws and the Buddhist pagodas, there are so many things to remind you of his brilliant novel The Quiet American. That novel, of course, was set in neighboring Vietnam, and if you want to retrace Greene’s footsteps, you need go no further than the opulent Hotel Majestic in Ho Chi Minh City — which Greene knew before the war as Saigon. I stayed there on one Vietnam sojourn, and it’s worth the price because every brick exudes Indochinese charm and the rooftop bar overlooks the snaking Saigon River.
5 - Tangier
William Burroughs and Paul Bowles went to Morocco for inspiration, as did I in my 20s (but I just got bed bugs and an unwanted marriage proposal). Still, the seaside city of Tangier, with its colorful souks, cobblestone alleys and shisha cafés, exudes literary charm, and it’s no wonder so many expat authors called it home for a while. Burroughs wrote his genre-breaking novel Naked Lunch (later banned in the U.S. for obscenity) in this Mediterranean city while living at El Muniria hotel and dependent on methadone. Bowles wrote The Sheltering Sky in Morocco, and scenes from the movie version were filmed at Hotel Continental. Morocco was favored by gay writers like Burroughs, Ginsberg and Bowles in the 1950s, as it was a laissez-faire kind of place. And, at a time when few women traveled, Edith Wharton visited Tangier, albeit in more luxury than the grungy Beats, and wrote In Morocco about her experiences.
6 - Istanbul
For a writer whose subject was always America, James Baldwin actually wrote a lot of his major works in Istanbul. Baldwin was depressed while struggling to finish Another Country when he first moved to the Turkish city. It soon cured him of his writer’s block and he completed the book, living in a friend’s apartment off Taksim Square. The writer said Turkey “saved” him, and he enjoyed the country’s heady mix of East and West, eventually renting a place of his own there. He was also a regular at the Divan Hotel bar and Urcan restaurant, where he once took Marlon Brando for lunch. When I was in Istanbul, I happened to stay at another famous literary haunt: the Pera Palace Hotel, which today has an Agatha Christie room in remembrance of one of its famous residents who wrote Murder on the Orient Express at the hotel.
1 - Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar writer may have been American, but she spent most of her literary career in England, after marrying fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956. Plath’s London was the area of Primrose Hill, where she lived at two addresses over the years. Her second dwelling, at 23 Fitzroy Road, has a particularly illustrious literary history as it was also once home to Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Plath wrote how delighted she was with that home, saying it was “the street and the house . . . where I’ve always wanted to live.” But after struggling with depression, the 30-year-old writer died by suicide there just a year after moving in. Despite the tragedy, the poems she wrote there for her collection Ariel live on and are among my favorite verse.
2 - Mark Twain
“To us, our house was not unsentient matter — it had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals, and solicitudes, and deep sympathies.” So wrote Mark Twain of his beloved Hartford, Connecticut, home. Twain, real name Samuel Clemens, lived there with his wife, Livy, in the late 1800s, before they emigrated to Europe due to financial problems. Now a museum, the house was decorated in a grand style, taking design inspiration from Japan, Morocco and Turkey. Today, visitors can walk the rooms and see where the Missouri native wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other American classics. “That was his base camp. He was constantly going to Europe to think about America — see America at a distance. He’d come back to Hartford. I like this idea of having this home base,” says Christina Greer, who serves on the board of the Mark Twain House & Museum.
3 - Langston Hughes
Hughes was reportedly fond of taverns, drawing inspiration for characters from people he met at Patsy’s Bar and other Harlem drinking spots. One of the main writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes’ brownstone on East 127 Street, where he wrote Montage of a Dream Deferred, a paean to African American life, is now open to the public. The house is also home to a nonprofit organization that serves as a space for young artists from underrepresented communities and hosts poetry salons and other events.
4 - Ernest Hemingway
If you’re in Florida and a Hemingway aficionado, a visit to the writer’s house in Key West is a must. The two-story home with yellow shutters and wraparound balconies nestled among tropical palms is where the writer lived with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, in the 1930s, when he wasn’t in Spain covering the civil war. The house is where many of Hemingway’s classics were written, but is perhaps even more famous for the polydactyl, or six-toed, cats that stalk its grounds. They’re descendants of Hemingway’s Papa’s original cat, Snow White. Another famous Hemingway home-turned-museum is Finca Vigía on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba, where the author lived for many years.
5 - Christopher Isherwood
When I realized how expensive an espresso at the Café de Flore was and gave up on being an existentialist, I decided I wanted to be Sally Bowles instead: the wild, fishnet-stockinged bon vivant in Isherwood’s seminal prewar novelGoodbye to Berlin. For a glimpse into the city’s hedonistic heyday before Nazis and air raids ended the excesses of the Weimar Republic era, you can visit Isherwood’s old home in Nollendorfplatz, where he shared an apartment with the cabaret singer who served as the inspiration for Bowles.
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