With so many great artists, writers, and statesmen, it is not surprising that a wealth of famous quotes from notable Parisians have worked their way into the contemporary lore of Paris. But like so many sayings that are wrongly ascribed to the likes of Shakespeare, Mark Twain or Winston Churchill, many Paris quotations have either been paraphrased to the point of no longer being accurate, or were never actually uttered by the person they are attributed to.
For those who enjoy the behind-the-scenes details of History, here are four famous quotes from and about Paris that are either misquoted or wrongly attributed (Or both).
“Let them eat cake” – Marie Antoinette
“Paris is worth a mass” – King Henri IV
“Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris” – Oscar Wilde
“Paris is a moveable feast” – Ernest Hemingway
Following the discussion of each quote, I have provided a dining recommendation for an eatery that elicits a connection to our famous subjects or their haunts. Mixing food and history is always the best way to enjoy both, in my opinion.
“Let them eat cake.”
This phrase, which has come to epitomize a cynical lack of concern for the plight of the masses, has long been attributed to Marie Antoinette, the ill-fated queen of King Louis XVI and one of the most famous victims of the guillotine. The story goes that, during a bread shortage in the year running up to the French Revolution, the young queen was informed that the People had no bread (The principal source of sustenance in the 18th-century French diet), to which she heartlessly and sarcastically responded, “Let them eat cake.”.
Among the venomous allegations of royal cruelty that revolutionary French newspapers and pamphleteers reveled in, such a “quote” was too good to pass up. Confirming one’s sources was not yet a journalistic standard so just about any story that could aid one’s cause was printed and all too often believed.
In truth, however, Marie Antoinette never made that comment. The origin of the story can be traced to the Enlightenment philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, in his book Confessions. In it he related the legend of a princess who upon hearing that her people had no bread responded, “Let them eat brioche”. Rousseau’s book was written in 1767, when Marie Antoinette was fourteen years old and still living in her native Austria. Further, Rousseau’s source was a legend from the 1600’s, a century before Marie Antoinette came to the French Throne.
Not only is the timing wrong, but Marie’s biographer, Antonia Frazier, reminds us that letters from Marie Antoinette to her family in Austria at this time reveal an attitude quite contrary to the spirit of “Let them eat brioche”.
“It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.” — Marie Antoinette
In addition to the woefully wrong attribution, the wording of the quote itself presents a problem since Rousseau’s account used the word brioche (A rich bread made with butter and eggs) and not the word gâteau (Cake). Somewhere along the way a translator must have felt that cake would be better understood by English speakers than the less familiar brioche.
FINAL VERDICT: The quote, “Let them eat cake” was never actually said by anyone, and most certainly not by poor Marie Antoinette.
Hotel Trianon Palace
A DINING RECOMMENDATION:
No place is more synonymous with Marie Antoinette than the palace of Versailles. For a very special lunch before or after your next visit to the palace and its grounds, we recommend the Trianon Palace Hotel, a Waldorf Astoria property.
A ten to fifteen-minute stroll from the palace entrance, this beautiful property was built in 1907 amid trees and views of the palace gardens. Its principal restaurant is the Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay au Trianon, but for lunch we opted for a wonderful three course meal in the La Veranda dining room. At the time of our last visit, about a year ago, the prix fixe chef’s menu was 42€.
Consider a morning visit to the palace followed by a leisurely lunch at La Veranda, either indoors or on the terrace, where you will have your choice of both brioche and cake – I think Her Majesty would approve.
“Paris is worth a mass.”
The French Wars of Religion, 1562 – 1598, rarely get more than a mention in American high school history classes, usually as a footnote in the chapter about the Protestant Reformation. But in truth, they were a tremendously important event in French and European history. These ongoing conflicts between French Catholics and Protestant “Huguenots” dragged on for over 30 years. The resulting casualties from war, famine and disease amounted to circa three million deaths among a population at that time of roughly twenty million. To put that in perspective, if a comparable number of modern-day Americans succumbed in equal proportion it would equate to roughly fifty million fatalities.
To make things worse, there was a struggle at the same time for royal succession when King Henri III, a Protestant, was assassinated by a fanatical Catholic monk in 1589. The Catholic League had their candidate for the next king and the Protestants had theirs, Henri of Navarre.
The Protestant Henri had the stronger dynastic claim to the Throne, but Paris was overwhelmingly Catholic and to control France one needed to control Paris. After unsuccessful attempts to take Paris by siege, Henri agreed to convert to Catholicism as a gesture to bring peace and pave the way for his coronation. On the day of his very public conversion in July, 1593, he is alleged to have said to a friend, “Paris vaut une messe.” (Paris is worth a mass), indicating that Paris and the French Crown were worth the conversion to Catholicism.
The problem is that there is no recorded contemporary evidence that Henri said this. It was not until years later that this supposed quote appeared in writing.
King Henri IV went on to ease religious tensions with the Edict of Nantes of 1598 which provided religious guarantees to the Protestants. This helped make his reign one of relative peace after three decades of bloody strife. Henri was also a farsighted urban planner; the Pont Neuf, Place Dauphine and Place des Vosges remain today as examples of his Parisian cityscape projects. For these and many other accomplishments Henri IV earned the name “Le Bon Roi Henri” (Good King Henry) and is considered France’s best and most beloved monarch. Sadly, despite his popularity he had many religious and political detractors. On May 14, 1610 he was assassinated by another Catholic fanatic, François Revaillac.
FINAL VERDICT: “Paris is worth a mass” was most likely never uttered by Good King Henry but has come down to us as one of those charming bits of lore that add color to a historical personage and his time, not unlike George Washington and the Cherry Tree.
A DINING RECOMMENDATION:
On the western tip of Île de la Cité a monumental equestrian statue of Henri IV overlooks two of his most significant urban projects; the Pont Neuf, Paris’s oldest bridge, and the Place Dauphine. Within the quiet triangular confines of Place Dauphine old men play Petanque (The French version of Bocce Ball) and a few cafes and restaurants dot the square. One in particular is noteworthy, Restaurant Paul.
The restaurant dates from the turn of the Twentieth Century. Changes in ownership gave it its present name in the 1920’s and the décor and cuisine remain true to that era. Besides its location on one of the oldest squares in Paris, Paul claims some celebrity as the backdrop for famous movies like Midnight in Paris, and as the haunt of legendary French actors, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, who shared an apartment above the restaurant. In 1960’s Paris, having those two as neighbors would be like having Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie living next door today.
Reliable French cuisine, a serene setting and connections to Good King Henry make Restaurant Paul an excellent choice the next time you cross the Pont Neuf.
Oscar Wilde and Thomas Gold Appleton
“Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.”
This famous quote has struck a chord with American tourists and lovers of Paris for well over a century and continues to find its way into books, magazines, and interviews to this day. Most often it is erroneously attributed to Oscar Wilde, the great Irish wit, writer, and playwright. This mistake is understandable since Wilde paraphrased it in his famous 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Grey, wherein one of the characters, Sir Thomas Burdon, says,
“They say that when good Americans die, they go to Paris . . .”
So, who is Sir Thomas referring to when he says, “they say”? By 1890 this phrase had been floating around the literary circles of Boston and New York for over 30 years. Its gained prominence in 1858 when Oliver Wendell Holmes included it in his series of essays, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. Holmes attributed the quote to “One of the Seven Wise Men of Boston”. Further research reveals that this particular “Wise Man” was Thomas Gold Appleton.
Appleton (1812 – 1884), was An American wit and author, noted for his sparkling conversation. He was well-traveled throughout Europe, a connoisseur, patron of the arts, and brother-in-law of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Appleton’s bon mots would certainly have been well known to New England Literati like Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Appleton’s exact quote is not recorded so the Holmes citation is the one that has come down as the more or less official version,
“Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.”
FINAL VERDICT: Although Oscar Wilde was most definitely not the originator of this quote, he still earns points for his celebrated wit, when in The Picture of Dorian Grey, after Sir Thomas refers to good Americans going to Paris when they die, he is asked where bad Americans go? To which he replies, “To America”.
Le Restaurant at L’Hotel
A DINING RECOMMENDATION:
Oscar Wilde died destitute in Paris following his scandalous trial and imprisonment in England for violating the Victorian prohibitions against homosexuality. His health broken, and in dire financial straits, he spent his last days in a rundown hotel on Paris’s Left Bank. He died in that hotel, then known as the Hotel d’ Alsace, on November 30, 1900, at the age of 46.
Today that hotel, still famous as Wilde’s last residence, is a very upscale boutique hotel known simply as “L’Hotel” and it is arguably the best boutique hotel on the Left Bank. It plays host to well-heeled tourists and celebrities from Hollywood and the Arts. The once shabby rooms have been ornately redone by famed interior designer, Jacques Garcia. If it is available, you can even arrange to stay in the Oscar Wilde Suite (Room 16). For your drinking and dining pleasure the hotel has a wonderful jewel box size champagne bar, and a Michelin-starred restaurant of similarly diminutive size. In keeping with the hotel’s name, they are called simply Le Bar and Le Restaurant.
I hosted a group dinner there several years ago, just before Le Restaurant earned its first Michelin star. Since then prices have risen to a level one would expect with Michelin status. If you are not in the mood for a stratospheric dinner bill, you can enjoy a cocktail or glass of champagne in Le Bar as you ponder the wit and wisdom of the Hotel’s most famous guest.
A.E. Hotchner and Ernest Hemingway
“Paris is a moveable feast”.
Considering the name of my web site and tour company, this quotation holds particular interest for me. The complete quote goes,
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,
then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you,
for Paris is a moveable feast”
-Ernest Hemingway –
These lines stand out among Hemingway’s most famous quotations. But in fact, they are not a Hemingway quote at all, but a recollection from a conversation between Hemingway and his longtime friend and confidant, A.E. Hotchner.
Hotchner was a journalist, playwright, author, and entrepreneur with an uncanny gift for becoming the friend of the famous. In addition to his close relationship with Hemingway, he was a great friend of actor Paul Newman. Together they founded Newman’s Own Salad Dressing as a non-profit concern which has generated over $500 million dollars for charity. In researching this article, I found Hotchner’s personal life story extremely interesting and I would recommend it to anyone. Mr. Hotchner died in February of this year (2020) at the age of 102.
The genesis of the moveable feast attribution was recounted by Hotchner in a New York Times Op-ed article, dated July 20, 2009. The salient passage from that article is as follows:
“Because Mary [Hemingway’s fourth wife] was busy with matters relating to Ernest’s estate, she had little involvement with the book. However, she did call me about its title. Scribner was going to call it “Paris Sketches,” but Mary hoped I could come up with something more compelling. I ran through a few possibilities, but none resonated until I recalled that Ernest had once referred to Paris as a moveable feast*. Mary and Scribner were delighted with that, but they wanted attribution. I wrote down what Ernest had said to the best of my recollection, and this appears on the title page attributed to a “friend,” which is the way I wanted it.”
FINAL VERDICT: Based on Hotchner’s account, the title of Hemingway’s posthumous book, A Moveable Feast, and the attribution which inspired it are the products of A.E. Hotchner’s recollection; a paraphrasing of a thought more than an exact quote from Hemingway himself.
This revelation notwithstanding, the concept of a “Moveable Feast” as a metaphor for Paris, and for my love affair with Europe still works quite nicely. All of Europe is indeed a moveable feast, a floating banquet of history, art, culture, food and wine. And for me, the centerpiece of that banquet table is, and hopefully always will be, Paris.
*Hemingway’s moveable feast reference is a double entendre with a religious connection. In the Christian Faith a moveable feast is a religious feast day that does not occur on the same calendar date each year. The term is used most often in reference to Easter; a rite who’s celebration is not dependent on a specific date. Through this metaphor Hemingway invites us to consider Paris as a concept more than a place, and its ability to be celebrated and relived across time and space in the minds of those who have experienced it.
A DINING RECOMMENDATION:
Hemingway’s DNA is to be found in nearly every quarter of Paris. His haunts ranged from the Ritz Hotel on the Place Vendome to the cafés of St-Germain-des-Prés and from Montmartre to Montparnasse. Many spots still owe their fame today to a passing reference in one of Hemingway’s stories.
With the book A Moveable Feast as a source, what better Hemingway hangout to recommend than Brasserie Lipp?
Lipp is an institution, even without its Hemingway connection. It comprises the third member of the legendary Saint-Germain Triad, along with Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore which are located directly across the Boulevard St-Germain from Lipp. All date from the late 19th Century, all are quintessentially Parisian.
With Alsatian roots, Lipp’s menu is still heavily influenced by sausages and sauerkraut, and of course, marvelous beer. The Cazes family who ran the place for most of the 20th Century also introduced dishes from their native Auvergne region. Politicians, actors, and business leaders have all frequented Lipp, as well as curious Hemingway acolytes trying to divine exactly where the writer sat when he partook of the simple yet memorable lunch so wonderfully described in chapter eight of A Moveable Feast.
Lipp’s kitchen faltered a bit in recent years, but new owners have brought the culinary standard back up. Though certainly not gourmet (No true brasserie is), the quality and authenticity of the cuisine, the Belle Époque décor, and the history of the place make it a regular destination each time we’re in Paris.
Hotel Trianon Palace
1 Boulevard de la Reine, 78000 Versailles, France
Tel: +33 1 30 84 50 00
15 Place Dauphine, 75001 Paris, France
Tel: +33 1 43 54 21 48
13 Rue des Beaux Arts, 75006 Paris, France
Tel: +33 1 44 41 99 00
151 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris, France
Tel: +33 1 45 48 53 91
One thought on ““Let them eat brioche.””
Excellent research, Mike! I think all Francophiles are a little tired of these quotes being misused over and over and over…thanks for setting the record straight. 😉
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