Memoir recalls the erotic feminist revolution of Paris in the 1970s

By Christina Campodonico

Photographs from the archives of Renate Stendhal: From left, “Snapshots from Ballet Practice,” “Diary and Letters,” “Love in the Afternoon,” “The Good Girl” (the author at 18 with her mother).

Lambda Literary Award-winning author Renate Stendhal’s new memoir “Kiss Me Again, Paris” begins with an illicit visit to the Paris Opera. She mixes in with a group of well-dressed patrons and sneaks in without a ticket. Then rendezvous with an usherette for a spontaneous tryst in the loge.

This was Stendhal’s Paris of the 1970s, a time when women — gay and straight — were not only flocking to Paris to ride the second wave of feminism, but also falling for each other.

“… All women were beautiful, bedecked in red tailleurs and tight uniforms, smelling of cinnamon, carnations, and all kinds of imponderables,” she writes. “In a mood like this night, every single one of them had to be loved, embraced, enchanted, had to melt like butter in the sun, like snow on the tongue.”

And Stendhal loved many of them, as she recounts in her book. As a professional ballerina-turned-cultural correspondent for the German press in her twenties and thirties, Stendhal emigrated from Hamburg and embedded her personal and professional lives in Paris’ avant-garde art scene. She frequented chic cafés, theaters, salons and art houses, worked as a personal assistant for the surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim, dabbled in multimedia and performance art, and ran with a crew of lesbian artists, writers and thinkers that included feminist writer and activist Monique Wittig.

A love of women, feminism and art united these multiple facets of her life, but also the zeitgeist of the era.

“This vast, erotic wave of women loving women broke out in Paris,” recalls Stendhal, who reads from “Kiss Me Again, Paris” in Venice on Saturday.

What was it like for you when you arrived in Paris?

I arrived without a penny, a little dancer girl with two suitcases. Being a bohemian, really having no money, I had to find jobs paid under the table.

I was also a hostess in the cinema for a while — an interesting cinema though that had lots of art films, and it taught me French in quite an incredible way. To see all these French movies and to see them again and again, like “Belle de Jour” … I could see it 30 or 40 times until I really understood every single word. I  got obsessed.

And I took to walking in Paris, like day and night, walking, walking, walking all over. I couldn’t stop. I just had to walk my way into the heart of that city, and it was wonderful.

How were you initiated into Paris’ bohemian scene?

Falling in love with a woman. …     Having a real Parisian lover is a door-opener in every kind of way.

What was the LGBTQ dating scene like in Paris at that time?

One could say, really, the hour of the couple was over. ‘Couple’ was an outdated kind of bourgeois notion. Every woman was basically declared an object of desire for every woman. There was a big wash of woman-loving.

Every day a new swarm of people were coming into the city from the provinces in order to be with women and explore feminism and the lesbian scene, and there were of course cafes and places where a newcomer would be able to begin her exploration. … There were many American women, Irish women, English women, Scandinavian women, German women — all formed groups. Poetry groups, theater groups, philosophical discussion groups — everything under the sun.

Did people really have trysts at the opera?

Yes, absolutely. It came definitely with that territory of breaking out of all these conventions and rules of behavior and coupledom and all of these old notions. When you have a revolution
and totally new ideas, everybody goes way overboard and you cross all the lines. Sometimes you cross the lines
of decency.

What do you think made that period so romantic and sensuous? Something in the air or the water?

Yes, there was something in the water. It was the water of the Seine River.

And the [French] women’s movement started out in such an interesting and unusual way. Right from the get-go, there were major women writers and thinkers who were role models and the guiding forces of the movement. And some of them, like Monique Wittig, became a star for a lot of women who admired and adored her. Her writing was so inspiring and radical — radical lesbian — and she looked so gorgeous that everybody — heterosexual women, just as much as bisexual or lesbian women — was attracted by this androgynous style that she had.

That is part of what made the French movement, at least in my eyes, very particular. There was an ideal of feminine and masculine beauty that was mixed in this new ideal of the androgynous. You could be as butch as you like, as femme as you like, but the best was really to be both.

Do you feel this was a precursor to the sexual and gender fluidity we’re seeing more of now?

Yes, absolutely. The idea of androgyny, of course, would lead to more extreme and experimental forms of being, right into the trans movements’ feelings and needs. All of this came out of that period.

Renate Stendhal reads from “Kiss Me Again, Paris” at 1 p.m. Saturday (June 3) at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. $6 to $10. Visit beyondbaroque.org or renatestendhal.com.

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