It is one o’clock and a heat wave has Paris under a languid spell: conversations are hushed and bodies move slowly on the boulevards of the Montparnasse neighborhood, once the unofficial headquarters for artists of all kinds from Picasso to Hemingway.
I am meeting singer-songwriter Marianne Faithfull at the Closerie des Lilas, a well-known Left Bank café, which was a favorite of writers. We settle in and Faithfull orders langoustines, French fries and a green salad. I order Gillardeau oysters, fish, and a glass of Côte de Beaune.
As the daughter of a Jewish-Austrian aristocrat involved in the resistance and an English intelligence officer—her parents met in Vienna during World War II—one could expect Faithfull’s childhood to have been an odyssey of exotic meals.
Quite the contrary: “My parents had a very unhappy marriage” she explains, “and one of the worst things about it was food.” She frowns when she describes produce in England after the war: fatty meats that children were pushed to eat; olive oil mostly sold at the chemist for ear aches; “salad cream” on lettuce at the Oxfordshire commune that her father started.
Maybe to avert these unpleasant dressing memories, she starts talking about her mother, Eva von Sacher-Masoch, and her vinaigrette recipe, which calls for sugar in the vinegar. Her mother’s family included Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs, whose writing and name gave birth to the term masochism. She even inherited some silverware that “has ‘SM’ on it, which is very cool.”
Faithfull, who visits Paris quite often from her home in England, talks about her first trip to the city after the success of her debut album, “Marianne Faithfull,” in 1964, which she recorded when she was just 17. She recalls her first steak tartare, the fun she had at cafes Flore and Les Deux Magots, as well as at bistro La Coupole. (She adds that the restaurant has gone down since then.) These days, besides the Closerie des Lilas—where we met—she goes to the Le Dôme Cafe, sometimes with her friend actress Charlotte Rampling. Her standard order there is the mussels or the sole, and she likes the Dôme because “it is not very popular. Thank god! The one opposite, the Rotonde, got really fashionable because the French president went there. It is not worth going anymore because it is completely full and you can’t hear yourself think.”
I hear a faint gasp and big flames catch my eye in the background: a waiter is enthusiastically flambéing something with Four Roses Bourbon. It is the Hemingway beef filet I am told. I feel a pang of panic fearing that the meat may now be overcooked, but I divert my eyes from the scene and instead focus on the fleshy oysters atop a bed of ice in front of me—they are excellent.
Faithfull’s first culinary adventures began when she moved to London in the 1960s. “One of my great friends was Wolf Mankowitz’s son Gered, a great photographer. His father owned the Pickwick Club. It was the first time I had things like whitebait and all sorts of wonderful things. The food in the ’60s just changed for the better.”
With the beginning of the hippie movement, people became more conscious about fresh and organic food, she says. England also became more receptive to foreign foods; Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking introduced the masses to a different sort of cuisine. “The whole world opened. There was a very posh Greek restaurant called the White Tower where I used to go to with all my friends when I was with Mick [Jagger]: we would go with Robert Fraser, Christopher Gibbs…Keith [Richards] and Anita [Pallenberg] never came on these things. It was the first time I had moussaka. There were lots of things that I had for the first time… Japanese food…Sukiyaki…Mick was very interested in food: he had had the same experience as me I suppose, those awful foods. I think that he still is, even if he is so thin, dear old thing!” she laughs.
What does she cook at home? Mostly English food, shepherd’s pie (she gives me the recipe), cockles with lots of garlic and lemon, green vegetables and fish. (She reminisces about once cooking baked fish for cult filmmaker Kenneth Anger.) Lately, she has been drinking a fresh juice daily that she swears by, it’s a mix of beet, carrot, apple, lemon and ginger.
And when she works? She just recorded a new album, “Negative Capability” and meals were an important part of the working process. “We were at a lovely old house in the country with a very good cook. The whole band, Rob [Ellis], Warren [Ellis], Nick [Cave], Rob [McVeigh] and Ed [Harcourt] would eat together, it was a lovely bonding time.”
We finish our lunch. She wants to take her salad home: I see alarm in the waiter’s eyes as they usually don’t do that sort of things. Eventually, he relents.
Over the years, Faithfull, singer, book lover, actress, friend, found herself at the heart of many iconic scenes. She was there when John Lennon met Yoko Ono, and witnessed Jimi Hendrix’s first London performance in a tiny club. She hung out with the Beats at Naropa University: she fondly recalls Allen Ginsberg’s awful cooking— but decent porridge—and William Burroughs eating a boiled egg with soldiers.
Not all the meals are as memorable, like a dinner in New York with singer Harry Nilsson in the ’70s. “I remember the things we talked about, but not exactly what we ate,” she admits. “Also, when you’re taking a lot of coke, food isn’t really on your mind.” Hearing her telling vivid stories, I am reminded that there are different forms of hunger, that have more to do with the intensity of the moment.
We leave and on the terrace of the café, I spot a young woman scribbling feverishly in a notebook. Like many before her, did she come here to write the next great American novel? The lyrics of one of Faithfull’s songs come to mind: “There is a dream you’ve had before, and forgot many times, so many times.”
Marianne Faithfull’s new album “Negative Capability” will be released on November 2.