Paris: the city of lights, and the city of endless romanticizing from Americans who have heard that it’s a magical land of baguettes and artistic freedom. Americans have been traveling to Paris to be appreciated for their poetic struggle for years, and a whole Seine’s worth of books have come along to share the story of Americans in Paris, from the Lost Generation to Henry James to James Baldwin. In this list we’re looking at some of the best and most crucial memoirs and biographies of some of (North) America’s best artists and most interesting expats.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
A crucial piece of the Hemingway mythology, this memoir takes you to 1920s expatriate Paris with Hemingway and the rest of the gang, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ford Maddox Ford, among others. Learn where Hemingway smoked, drank, and wrote, and feel some sort of inspiration in that knowledge.
Paris Notebooks by Mavis Gallant
Canadian author Mavis Gallant took her Saturn Returns seriously, and gave up her job as a journalist in order to move to Europe and write. She had no money, but she had her brilliant short stories and she had her eye, and her Paris Notebooks span her criticism and detail her experiences living in the city of lights during the 1968 revolution.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
James Baldwin was, perhaps, one of the most notable American ex-pats living in Paris for the freedom that it provided. His experience as a black man in Paris is addressed in three essays at the end of this book, exploring race in Europe and what it means.
An Extraordinary Theory of Objects by Stephanie LaCava
As an American teenager in ’90s Paris, Stephanie LaCava was an outsider, “obsessed with cabinets of curiosities.” In these essays, LaCava finds comfort in the objects that shaped her life.
Breathless: An American Girl in Paris by Nancy K. Miller
An American girl graduates Barnard and leaves for Paris in 1961, where, instead of getting her MRS. degree, she’s setting off on a life of adventure and (many) fancy lovers.
Dreaming In French by Alice Kaplan
To go to France in your 20s is to offer up the chance that life in Paris could change the very shape of you, and this biographical triptych argues that Paris left its mark on Susan Sontag, Angela Davis, and Jackie O. herself.
Paris In Love by Eloisa James
A romance author and professor survives a bout of cancer, decides to live life to the fullest, and takes a sabbatical year in Paris, where life can slow down and be lived moment by moment.
Paris by Julien Green
Travel the rues with Green, a writer known for his divided heart, although his memoir of Paris takes the popular perspective of a “flaneur;” ostensibly an American writer born to American parents, he was raised in Paris, only wrote in French, and was the first “American” to be elected to a seat in the Academe Francaise.
Paris I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin
Not every Paris book is a wildly romantic look at walks on the Seine. Baldwin comes to Paris for an advertising job, remains confused and in a culture clash, and is very funny in all his honesty about what Paris really is, in reality.
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
A plus about writing for The New Yorker: they will send you to Paris. You will probably have to write about your impressions. Gopnik calls his time in Paris, with un bebe in tow, a “sentimental re-education.”
The Sweet Life in Paris by David Leibowitz
First off, cook every David Leibowitz recipe. They are all delicious. Secondly, this memoir-with-recipies is about Leibowitz’s journey to Paris after the death of his partner.
Paris Was Yesterday by Janet Flanner
Janet Flanner, the first Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, wrote a Letter From Paris for 50 years, and Paris Was Yesterday collects her early works: the pre-WWII era of James Joyce, the Stavisky Affair, and writing Edith Wharton’s obituary.
Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach
As the owner of Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach was at the center of the Lost Generation’s literary scene, and in this book she recounts her time with the usual crowd (Hemingway), but read it for her memories of friendship with James Joyce and her work bringing Ulysses into the world.
Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer
A Canadian journalist, on the run from mobsters, chucks it all and hides out at Shakespeare and Company in the age of George Whitman, living above the store and immersing himself in the community around all these books.
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough
Leave it to unparalleled dad-historian David McCullough to go into the root of the American artist’s journey to Paris, covering minds like John Singer Sargent, Isadora Duncan, and Mary Cassatt.
Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling
A year of apprenticeship in Paris was a year of delicious and dying gluttony for (New Yorker, of course) writer Liebling: 1927 was a different age in French food, and he will tell you about every meal.
My Life in France by Julia Child
The story of a chef finding her true passion for France and French food in her late 30s, and how that passion changes her life (and yours, too).
American Cocktail: A ‘Colored Girl’ in the World by Anita Reynolds
Anita Reynolds was African American but could “pass” for a variety of backgrounds, and the French called her an “American cocktail.” This biography highlights her forgotten, extraordinary life, from life as a silent film star with Rudolph Valentino to falling in with the Left Bank intellectuals and artists like Pablo Picasso. Fascinating.
Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris by Craig Lloyd
The first African American fighter pilot, Eugene Bullard won the Croix de Guerre and is virtually unknown in America (he does have a cameo in Max Brooks’ upcoming graphic novel on the Harlem Hellfighters). This biography travels from Georgia to Paris, peacetime to war, showing Bullard as an extraordinary expatriate in the middle of Paris, where he owned a nightclub and, coincidentally, hired an American dishwasher named Langston Hughes.
Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris by Edmund White
A brilliant fiction writer and a man with a knack for being in the right place at the right time, White’s seven years in Paris are recounted as a joyous monologue abroad containing delightful and sharp gossip.
The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter
When you have a job giving “literary walking tours” of Paris, you have a particularly wonderful perspective on the secrets of the rues of Paris.
C’est La Vie by Suzy Gershman
Please, look at this blurb: “Anyone who wonders about sex with a Frenchman will love this inspiring story of starting life over in Paris.” – Diane Johnson
Henry James Goes to Paris by Peter Brooks
Find out about what Henry James was like as a dorky 32-year-old, before he wrote his great books and before he had great taste. All he had was what he would learn in Paris.
Living Well Is the Best Revenge by Calvin Tomkins
Gerald and Sara Murphy were at the center of the Lost Generation crowd, the inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. Tomkins’s essay tells us why they mattered and why this generation mattered, mattered to the point that people are still romanticizing their lives to this day.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
Stein was the center of the American expat crowd, and you can learn about it through the perspective of her partner, Alice B. Toklas. Avant-garde, naive, and gossipy, it’s the closest thing to Stein writing about her era and what happened.