Friday, August 4, 2017

Paris 1928, McGill and Boiled Dishes


Edith Nicholson, 1913 with sister Flora.


Ah, Paris, 1928.   The center of the artistic universe.   Sigh. Paris between the wars. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein. Henry Miller and the down-and-out George Orwell.

And let's not forget Edith Sophia Nicholson.

Yes, my husband’s great Aunt Edie, born in 1884 in Richmond, Quebec to Norman Nicholson and Margaret McLeod,, spent half of July and all of August 1928  in City of Lights  -and I have two of her letters to prove it.

Alas, Edith never passed into Gertrude Stein’s legendary salon to rub shoulders with future art legends. Her visit to Paris was of the more conservative kind, but interesting in its own way. She was on a student tour, acting as a chaperone.

Aunt Edie was no boho artist. She was a teacher, the “wise and sympathetic” Tutor-in- Residence at The Hostel at McGill University, a place where the female physical education students boarded.
Aunt Edie was a culture-vulture, all right, but of the prim and proper variety.  In a letter she writes “I try to go into the Louvre as often as I can. It is so wonderful to see the original pictures we have always loved. A French artist took ten of us on a tour of the Italian paintings.”

(See no mention of the Impressionists .)



Edie in the 1920's,  I assume from hair-do and Mrs. Ethel Hurlbatt, the Warden of Royal Victoria Women's College at McGill from 1911 to 1928.  Hurlbatt was ill in 1928 and that may be why Edith got to go to Europe, taking her place.  They look alike. Scots.


As a chaperone, Edith had to attend three hours of morning  lectures with her students. She also ate meals, speaking only French, with them.  “Well, one must make an effort.”

There were many guided tours, to Versailles, for instance, “We were  lucky to see the fountains playing.” and to a Chateau in Chantille, “A wonderful place filled with treasures.” The group attended a ceremony at the tomb of the unknown soldier, in the presence of the British Ambassador. Edith had the honour of placing the wreath.

Edith and two other teacher-chaperones were guests at a luncheon hosted by a Monsieur and Madame  Roy, “such lovely people” where she has two long talks with a Mrs. Lapointe, the wife of the Chief Justice of Canada.

As one might expect the food was very good.  “At luncheon we had cabbage and sausages, a boiled dish that was delicious, with crusty bread (no butter except for breakfast and then only one little pat) then veal chops and green peas and for dessert stewed peaches. The French take such care with every dish. The way they cook the food seems to bring out the best in it.”

(It’s hardly likely Edith would have been treated so well at the Stein salon, which was famous for its casual informality.)

Paris, in the summer of 1928, was hot. Edith remarks upon it in both of her letters. “I am staying in today. The heat has been intense.  Some people are quite played out.”

Luckily, her digs at 33 Boulevard des Invalides were cool and comfortable. “This is quite an interesting place we are staying at. The Lycée (means school) is surrounded by a high wall which encloses this building and a beautiful garden with flowers, trees and walks. And adjacent the grounds of the Rodin Museum.”

From what I can see on Google Earth,  the white stone building at 33 Boulevard des Invalides is still there, and it still houses a school.  I checked, and the building is just a 20 minute walk away from 27 rue Fleurus,  where Gertude Stein lived!

In fact, back then, had Edith taken a walk with her student charges to Le Jardin de Luxenbourg, and that’s pretty likely, (she does mention a walk to Champ de Mars, 20 minutes in the other direction) she might have passed right by the famed salon, and, maybe, even bumped shoulders with a  bohemian artist or wine-soaked patron.


Then again, if she had, it wouldn’t have been anything to write home about, right? Pablo Who?