Friday, December 4, 2009

Goodbye Haynes, Hello Again Miles

Paris has lost its first and its last African-American landmark. When GI Leroy Haynes and his French wife opened a soul food restaurant in 1949, it was a lifesaver for Black GIs hankering for some homestyle fatback and sausages. In the 50s and 60s, within its pale yellow walls it gathered together the famous – Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison; the stars – Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot; and the locals. And right up until its closing in April 2009, visitors to Paris came looking to sample that last taste of African-American history in Paris.

Were you one of many who had your picture taken outside against its odd log cabin exterior on narrow rue Clauzel in the 9th district? Or could be you gawked at the glamorous gallery of autographed photos that decorated every inch of the inside. Or if you were lucky, you got a glimpse an original Beauford Delaney painting of James Baldwin that used to hang above the hallway to the kitchen.

Memphis Slim                                                          Marianne Faithfull                                                      Cab Calloway

With its closing, we’ve lost a real brick and mortar place where you could plant your feet and say: this was created by a Black American in this cosmopolitan city. It outlived any other African-American owned businesses that followed. What we’ve lost also is a concrete I-can-touch-it sense of continuation. Its location in Lower Montmartre dovetailed neatly into history already engraved in this area by Bricktop, Eugene Bullard, Sidney Bechet and Josephine Baker during the 1920s & 30s. After the numerous black-run/owned clubs shut their doors in the face of Nazi occupation, GI Haynes returned and planted the flag for African-American culture once again.

It wasn’t the only place to get authentic soul food in Paris. Anybody still smacking their lips over the ribs at Randy & Jays Rib Joint from the mid-1990s?  And more recently, Percy’s Place, in the bourgeois 16th district served up a refined blend of soul and French cuisine (as did Chez Josephine in 1927).

For those of us in the tourism biz, it’s sad not to guide visitors down the street and say voila, we’re still here. That said, since manager Benny Luke left the house around 2000, the spirit has been fading. Haynes’ 3rd wife, Maria Dos Santos, did make an effort to keep the black focus but in the end, even adopting the trendy Brazilian theme couldn’t keep the pots on the stoves, nor the bottoms in the chairs.

A bit of history on Haynes: Kentucky-born GI, Leroy Howard Milton Haynes, and his French wife, Gabby, opened Gabby & Haynes in 1949 on rue Manuel, just off rue des Martyrs. Although the relationship and partnership broke up in 1960, Gabby and their son Richard continued offering tradition cuisine.

 Then in 1964, a stone’s throw on the other side of rue des Martyrs, Morehouse grad Leroy H. opened his own Chez Haynes.  How popular was he? Years ago, I came across some wonderful news footage in the archives of French Television where the journalist literally drooled over Haynes’ exotic food prep. By then bon vivant Haynes was also known for his small parts in French movies. His celebrity status and his big laugh had them lined up at the bar waiting for a coveted place at the table. But he was just plain comfort to Americans. Louis Armstrong himself once left his own concert early to scoot over where a plate of red beans and rice were waiting for him.

If you’ve got stories to share about your own experiences at Chez Haynes, we’d love to hear them.

Otherwise, grab a hankie and enjoy these great nostalgic pictures graciously made accessible by journalist Jean Segura.