PARIS––Reine Marie Paris, the niece of renowned sculpture Camille Claudel, was a regular guest, as was a heartbroken Argentinian multi-millionaire who fled to the French capital after discovering his wife's infidelity. Mysterious Russian visitors left a cat behind that today cowers beneath an antique side table in fear of the manager’s dogs. An American teenager made a desperate, early-morning phone call to the staff after being arrested in the adjacent Luxembourg Gardens following a failed attempt at an after-hours tryst with a fellow guest.
Pension Les Marronniers, one of the last remaining pension de famille (the French equivalent of a boarding house) in Paris, has been welcoming visitors since the 1960s, and with them enough stories and secrets to fill a Balzac novel.
Even the pension’s location is discreet. Situated beside a lively café in the 6th Arrondissement, the building’s façade is identical to those gracing dozens of centuries-old Parisian buildings that line the streets of this upmarket Left Bank neighborhood. With only a small sign affixed to a first-floor shutter to mark its location, you could walk past it dozens of times without knowing it was there.
Marie Poirier, who has run Les Marronniers for more than 30 years, told The Daily Beast that the building was erected shortly after the French Revolution and the unit housing Les Marronniers (which is French for chestnut trees), has functioned as a pension since the late-1800s. Her parents ran it in the ‘60s and she wistfully recalls the small shops along the neighboring Rue Vavin—an artisan stationary store, a cobbler—that have since vanished.
“It’s all food and clothes now,” she said with a tone that was half-exasperation, half-resignation when referring to the metamorphosis of her beloved neighborhood. “It's not the same.”
When we met, Poirier was clad in head-to-toe black, including a beret-like hat, under which she had neatly tucked her hair, and was wearing a chunky necklace comprising various carved wooden animals. She has a direct, no-nonsense manner—part mother hen, part eccentric, curmudgeonly historian—and was quick to correct me if I mispronounced a French word. She could be in her 60s, but in this dwelling where discretion is everything, even her age is a mystery.
“I have no idea how old I am,” she said. “I stopped celebrating my birthday years ago. I don't celebrate holidays at all. I really couldn't tell you my age.”
While it may have been an entertaining attempt to dodge a question many femmes d’un certain age prefer to avoid answering, her response suited a woman who runs an establishment that has an intriguing, frozen-in-amber quality to it. Although myriad Paris lodging options try to lure visitors with promises of “historic charm,” modern conveniences (and furnishings) typically fill the interiors of the city’s hotels and Airbnb rentals.
Les Marronniers, by contrast, literally evokes another age—a Paris out of the pages of Jean Rhys or Ernest Hemingway complete with the requisite air of faded grandeur that inspired many expatriate artists decades ago. Sepia portraits are mounted over the plush sofa, and the flower-printed wallpaper could have been lifted off the set of a pre-war comedy of manners. An imposing malachite-green armoire dominates one corner of the dining room, and while the payphone in the foyer still functions, it only accepts French francs.
An eclectic collection of books, everything from foreign language dictionaries to Conrad's Heart of Darkness to a guide to Masonic symbols, cram the shelves in the living room. A clutter of plants, sculptures and other bric-a-brac gives the space a homey, bohemian feel, as do the two resident canines—a tiny, energetic terrier, and a hulking sheepdog—both with identical gray-taupe coats.
Rates at Les Marronniers start at €78 ($97), including breakfast and dinner (prepared by Poirier) and several rooms overlook the Luxembourg Gardens. There are nine rooms, Poirier told me, and up to a dozen people may be boarding there at any given time. The interiors are basic and comfortable, and no two are exactly alike. And despite the bygone-era vibe, there is indeed WiFi.
On its (circa-1992-style) website, the pension is described as “a boarding house with very unique and charming atmosphere,” and while the site lists an email address, phone calls are a more effective way of getting through. I learned this the hard way about a decade ago when I thought I had booked a room via email, only to learn, two days before my arrival, that no such reservation existed. And even then, you might be hard-pressed to score a room here. The rise of Airbnb, while alarming to Parisian hoteliers, has had no negative impact on business, and rooms are often booked up months in advance. Guests can stay anywhere from a single night to years on end. And many do.
Although it is one of the last of its kind in the city, decades ago such residences were common in Paris, especially among the student and broke writer set. In George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell drew much of his Paris material from a stay at a seedy boarding house at 6 rue du Pot-de-Fer in the then-scruffy Latin Quarter, which is about a mile from Les Marronniers. French writer Henri Barbusse’s scandalous 1908 novel L’enfer is set in a pension, where a young man spies on his fellow boarders through a hole in the wall.
In the fiction of British postmodernist writer Jean Rhys, pensions provided a cheap refuge for down-at-the-heels expat women in 1920s and 1930s Paris.
“At first the landlady had been suspicious and inclined to be hostile because she disapproved of Julia’s habit of coming home at night accompanied by a bottle,” Rhys writers of her central character, Julia Martin, in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. “But then, having become accustomed to her lodger, she had ceased to speculate and had gradually forgotten all about her.”
“Julia was not altogether unhappy,” Rhys continues. “Locked in her room—especially when she was locked in her room—she felt safe.”
Certain guests at Les Marronniers also seem to prefer their rooms to the common areas, with several eschewing meals at the communal table in favor of a private dinner for one. Indeed, Poirier's clientele appears to be as eclectic as the pension's interior design scheme. There is no typical guest, she said. “Everyone comes here.”
That would include Camille Claudel’s aforementioned niece, Reine Marie Paris, who Poirier said arrived at the pension with a small bronze elephant sculpture in tow, apparently hewn, Poirier recalled, by Claudel herself. Paris may have made for an interesting guest, but she was far from the most mysterious. One wealthy gentleman apparently rented a room from Poirier for years, but only slept in it for a couple of months. A current guest, she said, has kept a room at Les Marronniers for decades.
“But he won't talk to you,” she quickly added, resulting in yet another layer of intrigue to the pension’s air of discretion and secrets.
This long-staying visitor wasn’t the only one to be reluctant to speak to a journalist. Over dinner, many of the pension’s residents, while polite, were less-than-forthcoming. Although Poirier's communal feasts are usually international, on the night of my visit the six guests dining on a soup of pureed veggies, accompanied by fish and salad, and followed by an apple tart, were all French. Sonia, a brunette who looked to be in her 30s told me she had been staying at Les Marronniers for two years.
“Where are you from originally?” I asked her.
Sonia regarded me silently from across the table as though unsure of how to respond before carefully answering.
“From the Paris region…”
“So will you be staying much longer?”
“Oh no. I don't think so.” She returned to her meal.
I turned to the elderly woman beside me.
“And you Madame, are you here for a visit?”
“Oh no, I have been here a while—two months,” she answered, refusing to elaborate further.
More talkative was Katia, a sixty-something resident of the southern city of Toulon, who discovered Les Marronniers in a guidebook three decades ago, and has been booking rooms here on her regular visits to Paris ever since. The location and the familial atmosphere keep drawing her back, she said.
One male guest didn’t speak at all, save for perfunctory “mercis” as Poirier served various dishes. His silence was so bewildering that I approached Poirier about it after dinner.
“Oh, he is like that, he never speaks,” she reassured me. “He is highly gifted in math, he is not exactly autistic, but he lives in his head. He has been here for a while, and is a bit of a genius.”
The taciturn mathematician aside, the other dinner guests readily engaged in conversation, provided it didn’t linger too long on the exact reasons for their stay. Among the topics covered at the long wooden table were the Trump election, recent art exhibits in Paris and the South of France, and prominent French resistance members. At one point a pretty Chinese student walked through the door, before hurrying past the table and into an adjacent room. A man in his 60s also emerged from a nearby bedroom bearing a tray, and then wordlessly retreated back to the room with his dinner, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was the decades-long boarder Poirier had mentioned.
As I was preparing to leave, I was approached by one of the more gracious diners—a tall, elderly woman (she gave her age as 87) sporting a periwinkle cardigan who comes to Les Marronniers every winter from her home in the southern Le Lavandou region to visit her diplomat sons who work in the French capital.
“Will you come back?” she asked as I began gathering my things.
Since I live in Paris, there is really no practical need to return, but I answered that yes, I would like to. For all its quirks and puzzling silences, there is something soothing about this place. I could envision disconnecting from my laptop for a night or a weekend, settling onto one of the faded sofas with a notebook or a good novel, and looking out over the Luxembourg Gardens. Losing myself, however briefly, in a stubbornly insular vestige of the city’s past that continues to exist and to thrive.