The best books about 1920’s Paris (les années folles—the “crazy years”)

Jim Fergus Author Of The Memory of Love
By Jim Fergus

Who am I?

As a young boy, I dreamed of becoming a novelist. I was fascinated and inspired by Les Années Folles, The Crazy Years of 1920’s Paris, when artists of all disciplines, from countries all around the world came together electrifying the City of Lights with an artistic passion. My mother was French. France is my 2nd country, where I spend a portion of each year. While researching my novel, The Memory of Love, I stayed in the actual atelier of my protagonist Chrysis Jungbluth, a young, largely unknown painter of that era. I visited, too, the addresses of dozens of the artists who bring the era alive again in our imagination. 

I wrote...

The Memory of Love

By Jim Fergus,

Book cover of The Memory of Love

What is my book about?

A story based on actual historical figures: After recovering from grave wounds suffered in The Great War, Bogey Lambert, a young cowboy from Colorado, makes his way to 1920s Paris, where he encounters the beautiful painter, Chrysis Jungbluth. Precocious, passionate, talented, the free-spirited Chrysis rebels against a society and an art world in which men have all the privilege and women none. By day, a serious student at the prestigious l'École des Beaux-Arts, at night Chrysis loses herself to the sensual pleasures of the Montparnasse nightlife, where all seems permissible. There, she and the American cowboy will live the love of a lifetime. 

The books I picked & why

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Paris 1919-1939: Art, Life & Culture

By Vincent Bouvet, Gérard Durozoi,

Book cover of Paris 1919-1939: Art, Life & Culture

Why this book?

Having read well over two dozen books on the subject of French history, with a general focus on the especially vibrant period in Paris from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II, and a laser focus on the 1920s, I find it nearly impossible to rank these five books in the order of their importance. That said, I am choosing this book as my 1st recommendation because at 416 pages, and richly illustrated by hundreds of stunning photographs and images, it casts the broadest, most comprehensive net over this extraordinary era. I proclaim the two decades in Paris that readers will discover in this book, to represent the most important international convergence of painters, sculptors, intellectuals, novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, dancers, actors, choreographers, musicians, composers, photographers, designers, and fashionistas, in the history of the world. Do I exaggerate? Here is a very incomplete list, plucked at random from the index, of a tiny handful of the historic luminaries from diverse disciplines who walk through the pages of this extraordinary work:

Guillaume Apollinaire, Josephine Baker, Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Coco Chanel, Robert Capa, Maurice Chevalier, Salvador Dali, Marlene Dietrich, Sergei Diaghilev, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Janet Flanner, André Gide, Jean Gabin, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Kiki de Montparnasse, Jeanne Lanvin, Amedeo Modigliani, Henri Matisse, Friedrich Nietzsche, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Man Ray, Igor Stravinsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Paul Valéry, Emile Zola, among many others...

The Jazz Age in France

By Charles A. Riley II,

Book cover of The Jazz Age in France

Why this book?

This is a terrific coffee table-sized book with wonderful photographs of the sundry characters and vivid reproductions of paintings and other images. Here you’ll find a young, muscular Pablo Picasso with hair—on the beach in his bathing suit in front of Gerald & Sara Murphy’s villa on the Côte d’Azur. This privileged couple—he a fine avant-garde artist in his own right, and she, who became Picasso’s muse, a refined and elegant hostess—were patrons of the arts who surrounded themselves at their home with the young luminaries of the Jazz Age. Chapter headings in this stunning volume tell the tale.

At 174 large pages, this is a beautifully rendered and specific encapsulation of les années folles, from start to finish.

Kiki's Memoirs

By Billy Klüver (editor), Julie Martin (editor), Man Ray (photographer)

Book cover of Kiki's Memoirs

Why this book?

This is an intimate, first-person account of 1920’s Paris, and the life of one of the most central characters of the period—the model, singer, and artist, Kiki of Montparnasse as she was known by all. Born in Burgundy in 1901, christened Alice Prin, and raised by her grandmother in abject poverty, at age twelve she was shipped off to Paris to live with the mother she had never known.

The young Alice’s fierce survival instincts immediately translated into a precocious thirst for experience. At fourteen she had her “first contact with art” when she began posing nude for a sculptor. Thereafter, she assumed the name and embraced life as the irrepressible Kiki. Lover of Man Ray, beloved friend of Soutine, Jean Cocteau, and many other artists of the period, she became the toast of Montparnasse, one of the century’s first truly independent women. Man Ray, Foujita, Kisling, and others immortalized her in their work. Crowds roared for her raunchy songs at the artist’s boîte, Le Jockey. She appeared in nine films, including Leger’s famous Ballet Mécanique, and she painted hundreds of portraits and dream-like landscapes, many of which appear in these frank, funny, and risqué memoirs.

First published in the French edition in 1929, the English translation was banned by a puritanical U.S. Customs and never appeared in this country until this present edition. Kiki’s Memoirs sketches in bold strokes the indomitable spirit of an unforgettable personality who was always a woman, but never a lady.

Kiki's Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930

By Billy Klüver, Julie Martin,

Book cover of Kiki's Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930

Why this book?

Due to the title, and the fact that the authors of this book edited my 3rd book, this may seem to be a redundant choice on my part. But I can assure the reader that it is not. Although a fine photo of Kiki also graces the cover, she plays a minor, more metaphoric role in the grand scheme of this large-format work, and only a handful of pages are devoted to her.

On the inside of the cover, and the first thick page to its right, one is presented with 96 roughly 1”x 2” black & white thumbnail photographs, not alphabetically arranged, but as it happens, beginning with a photo image of a portrait of Louis XIV in the top left corner and finishing in the bottom right corner of the following page with a photo of James Joyce. All those photos in between should tip off the reader to the fact that this is a remarkably ambitious, meticulously researched, incredibly comprehensive book that covers far more than the narrow scope of 1920s Paris.

It is also exceptionally well-written, and beautifully illustrated with hundreds of photos, drawings, and maps of the growth of the city, showing us how Montparnasse came to be, and dozens of photos of the artists of all disciplines who populated the quartier during the pivotal first 30 years of the 20th century. Here you will experience in print and images the sense of entering and participating in this vibrantly creative world, in the company of these astonishing characters.

A Moveable Feast

By Ernest Hemingway,

Book cover of A Moveable Feast

Why this book?

Two titles by the same author were in competition for this recommendation—two of what I consider to be among Hemingway’s best books—the memoir, A Moveable Feast and the novel, The Sun Also Rises. It was in my mind a flip of the coin, but I went with the former, partly because the latter, although largely populated by Parisian ex-pats, was set in Pamplona, Spain, while A Moveable Feast focuses specifically on the author’s years in Paris.

Published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast remains one of Hemingway’s most enduring works. Since his personal papers were released in 1979, scholars have examined the changes made to the book before publication by his 4th and last wife, Mary. Now, this special restored edition presents the original manuscript as the author himself prepared it to be published.

Featuring a personal foreword by Patrick Hemingway, Ernest’s sole surviving son, and an introduction by the grandson of the author, Sean Hemingway, editor of this edition, the book also includes a number of unfinished, never-before-published Paris sketches revealing experiences that Hemingway had with his son, Jack, and his first wife Hadley. Also included are irreverent portraits of literary luminaries, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford, and insightful recollections of Hemingway’s own early experiments with his craft.

Widely celebrated and debated by critics and readers everywhere, the restored edition of A Moveable Feast brilliantly evokes the exuberant mood of Paris after World War I and the unbridled creativity and unquenchable enthusiasm that Hemingway himself epitomized.

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