Ever since we went public with Michael Palumbo’s initial sketch of what a new Beat Museum building at 580 Green Street might look like, the feature that seems to inspire the greatest curiosity is the suggestion of a Beat hotel. Sure, it might seem like an odd idea, however, it isn’t without precedent:
The Original Beat Hotel, Paris
In 1957, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky checked into 9 rue Gît-le-Cœur, a dilapidated Parisian roominghouse. Soon after, they were joined by William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Brion Gysin, Harold Norse, Ian Sommerville, and others. Interestingly, for a movement of American writers, it was in France that the Beats undertook one of their most productive and important periods.
Rue Gît-le-Cœur is a short, narrow, medieval street in the Latin Quarter of Paris, a few blocks away from Notre Dame. Number 9 was never given a proper name. The building was built in 1671, on foundations older still, and was purchased in 1933 by Monsieur and Madame Rachou, who opened it as a “class 13” hotel, observing only minimal health and safety standards. The Latin Quarter, named for the use of Latin by students of the nearby Sorbonne, was popular also among artists and bohemian travelers—in short, the chronically broke, living crammed into run-down roominghouses like number 9. Madame Rachou, whose husband was killed in an auto accident shortly before the Beats arrived, had grown up in Giverny, where her parents’ country inn was frequented by artists and writers, among them Claude Monet. So greatly did she enjoy the company of creative people that she was known at times to accept rent at the hotel in the form of paintings or manuscripts, and allowed residents to paint and decorate their rooms as they saw fit. The toilets were filthy, Rachou closely monitored the amount of electricity used in each room, and hot water was available only on certain days of the week—at a surcharge.
Gregory Corso dubbed 9 rue Gît-le-Cœur the “Beat Hotel,” and it was in these meager, squalid lodgings that the Beats created some of their most important works, and made many of the artistic and literary breakthroughs that would come to define the movement. It was there that Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Gysin began the arduous task of organizing the mass of notes Burroughs had written while in Tangier into what eventually would become Naked Lunch, and where Ginsberg wrote much of “Kaddish.” Gregory Corso wrote “Bomb” and “Marriage” whilst living in a tiny garrett room at the Beat Hotel. Gysin invented the “dream machine,” and discovered by accident the cut-up technique, fulfilling his desire to apply the techniques of modern painters to writing. Harold Norse also utilized cut-ups in the writing of his novel Beat Hotel, and created “cosmographs”—paintings made from raw pigments on paper, rinsed in the hotel’s bidet—which attracted the attention of Parisian avant-garde art scene.
Four books about the Beat Hotel by Barry Miles, Harold Chapman, Brion Gysin, and Harold Norse
It was a romantic desire to follow in the footsteps of other great American writers that brought the Beats to Paris. They saw themselves continuing in the expatriate tradition of Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, searching for inspiration in a place that so inspired the greats who came before them. Paris, long a hub of the artistic and literary world, also afforded the Beats encounters and connections with figures they admired, including Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Man Ray, Benjamin Peret, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, Errol Flynn, and Maurice Girodias, (who would later publish Naked Lunch), along with a host of others.
In ways similar to Paris, North Beach has also long been a Mecca for artists, writers, and other creatives. (Of course, Paris has a bit of a head start on us!) Every day, visitors to the Beat Museum from around the world tell us about how they’ve traveled here to experience the neighborhood that birthed so much of San Francisco’s literary and artistic history. Granted, change is a constant in all cities, inevitable and unavoidable. It’s impossible to go back in time to when a room in a shabby old flophouse cost practically nothing. Even the original Beat Hotel in Paris is long gone. And still, artists and writers are drawn to Paris. (In fact, there’s a large exhibition on the Beat Generation at the Pompidou right now.)
One thing we love about North Beach is the neighborhood’s resolute sense of itself—the fact that, as the years go by, as people come and go and the signs on storefronts change, North Beach vigilantly maintains its old-world character, and continues to attract young creatives, searching for the inspiration that motivated those who came before them. The possibility of including a hotel (though hopefully one in a decidedly better state of repair than 9 rue Gît-le-Cœur) as part of a permanent Beat Museum is in keeping with that tradition.