Historian George Hruby stumbled onto the Procope in Paris or maybe, it was the Procope that found him! Originally a coffee house, founded in 1686, it is today a profound and haunting restaurant in Paris. Not only for such world icons and intellects that ate and drank within its walls throughout history but for the ideals, philosophies, and debates shared there that helped shaped governments and the world at that time. Throughout nearly eight years in Paris, Benjamin Franklin would frequent there and, wine and dine with young men that would later become the early Fathers of the French Revolution. And as legend holds, discussions, debates, and decisions made there, may have well led to the incarnation and deaths of thousands of French citizens including some of the Revolution’s own founding fathers themselves.
Cover: Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, age 79, completed in Paris in 1785 by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis and later inspiration of Franklin’s likeness on the American twenty-dollar bill. Portrait is now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C..
In his own words ….
Once upon a time, a man named Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios at the time, in a commencement speech given in 2005 to a graduating class, said that life was “about connecting the dots.” He said that “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.” He said that “you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
So here I was at this point in my life, living in Paris. I was a transplant from America. My girlfriend and I were still recuperating from a previous night out when late, one afternoon, we decided to venture out to a location somewhere in the city. It was a place we had wanted to check out but had never been to. So, we thought we would try and find it. We set out on the metro with a map and off we went. However, by the time we reached our stop and got off to walk to our destination, we discovered that we were at the wrong metro stop. It was now nearing sunset when we made a decision to drop our previous plans. Since neither of us knew where we were exactly at in Paris, we decided to just stay in the neighborhood we were in and go exploring. As the sun set and the night took hold, we were busy checking out the many store fronts that lined the streets.
A new resident to Paris, I was a foreigner in a new and strange land – France. And as it had been with thousands before me, Paris, like the rest of the country, was short of nothing but adventure and discovery at every level. This truly so, from an intellectual, historical, and artistic standpoint. For someone like me, it was like a child in a candy shop. My eyes so wide open at every little detail that was to be observed.
Intermittent rain did not deter us from checking out the endless storefronts that lined the Parisian streets. They glowed back at us in bright colors that glared off from the wet cobblestone streets.
While she enjoyed checking out the big store windows glaring out the glitz and glamour for which Paris is known for; for me, everything was a wonderment. As a couple, we made our way through the arrondissement. Slowly, making it street-by-street, we searched for a destination of which we had no idea what it would be. We had made no other plans and were simply happy to be with each other on such a beautiful evening.
* * *
Statues and mascarons seemed to stare at us from squares, enclaves, and door fronts. As night began to take hold, we ducked out of the rain through a large stone passage leading us down and away from the main street. More of an old passageway for deliveries to the local businesses, this centuries-old cobblestoned, open alleyway now known as “Commerce Saint-Andrѐ.”
It was lined with so many different and unique restaurants of every sort. And the heavenly aroma’s swirled toward our noses reminding us of how hungry we now were. So, down this old ancient street, we curiously strolled while carefully exploring each and every restaurant along the way. We found it fun to read all the menu’s shown outside each restaurant entrance. With so many lining the sides of this narrow carriage alley, we decided we would walk the entire length of the street before finally stopping and making a decision on where to eat for the evening.
Other than bits and pieces of fragmented French history taught in classes when I was growing up, I knew relatively little of anything here in France. Everything was stone. From the buildings to the streets. Coming from America, old buildings were generally made of wood and adobe. And while I grew up in a ‘baby’ country just a couple of hundred years old, the country I was to now live in transcended time it seemed. From the Lascaux network of caves, famous for its prehistoric cave paintings over 17,000 years old; to the fact that Julius Caesar conquered the country in 46 B.C. and made it very much a part of Rome, indeed, even the occupation by the German Nazi’s here in World War Two was only something I grew up seeing in movies on black-and-white television as a child.
As a U.S. historian, I could not fathom such history here in Paris. While that would quickly change for me, this particular night now found me wandering down Commerce Saint-Andrѐ. This cobblestone alleyway had been here for centuries. It was where most of the deliveries were made to the many medieval establishments from their backsides while their storefronts were facing other outer streets.
On this night, I had no idea that where I was walking was where the Roman city of Paris had once existed by 3rd century A.D..
As we continued walking down the old alleyway, the wet cobblestones on the street glared after yet another small rainfall. I had absolutely no idea as I passed the restaurant “Dimanche A Paris” to my right, that in plain view inside were the remains of a massive medieval tower that had been part of the original fortress walls surrounding Paris in the middle-ages. I was actually walking just outside of where those original walls had once stood. But like most of the foreigners and tourists passing by, I had no clue of anything that was around me.
At some point as I was slowly walking along and taking in everything that I saw, I suddenly noticed to my left, a large encased-in-glass façade, featuring a long row of portrait paintings of French men. I noticed that the building housed a restaurant and I assumed the paintings were of famous men that had once frequented the establishment. Being that I was not French, glancing across the lot of them left me to look away as I knew none of these men. So, they meant nothing to me. At least, not at this time. So, I continued walking on.
But, at some point while passing all these portraits, one caught my eye. I stopped and looked directly at it in an attempt to confirm I was seeing it correctly. It was a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. And there was no American that did not know who Benjamin Franklin was. As an American, I was completely taken back. Why was a portrait of Benjamin Franklin hanging here on this street, at this restaurant? I then briefly remembered something from my school days about Franklin having been in France in the 1700’s.
My first indoctrination of Benjamin Franklin came as a small child in San Antonio, Texas. My mother took me one day to a store called the “Ben Franklin Store”. It was also referred to as the “Five and Dime Store”. It was in a small strip mall next to a large grocery store called “Piggly Wiggly.” Of course, I had to ask her, “Who was Ben Franklin?” She explained to me that he had help found the United States of America; that he was a very wise man and used to say such things as “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Growing up in school, I learned more about Franklin in that he was more taught to students rather as a scientist than as a founding father of the country. His study of electricity and the incident of him flying a kite during an electrical storm with a key at the end of a string, was standard learning for most American children then. By college age, we learned more about him as a person; running one of the first printing presses in America and his wisdom on many subjects. You could not just say that Benjamin Franklin was just any one thing. He was a man of many things. Known as a polymath, he was a man of great learning in several fields of study. Indeed, he was a great political philosopher.
So, why was his portrait hanging here at this restaurant on this cold and damp cobblestoned street in Paris?
With my girlfriend in tow, I entered the restaurant now having to answer this question.
* * *
I managed to find myself to the front of what I was to discover, was the Procope restaurant located at 13 rue de l’ancienne Comѐdie. It had been established at this location in 1686 as a coffee shop by 36 year old Francesco Propopio. A Sicilian, he was born in the village of Palermo, Italy. He arrived in Paris as a young immigrant at the age of 22.
With coffee still relatively new to the French, it became the new ‘in thing’ for many Parisians to experience. Francesco however, brought the charm of Italy into his coffee house, wanting it to be something quite different and more ornate and luxurious than other Parisian coffee houses. At this location, he purchased an old bath house and two adjacent houses. Then, he went to work on merging all three into one building and transforming them into his vision of a truly unique coffee house.
As if inside a chateau, the coffee house walls were lined with mirrors and glass. Tapestries hung from the walls. Curved wooden legs held up marble tabletops while black and white tiles lined the rooms. Candles flickered off of crystal chandeliers.
Besides gourmet coffee, he offered to his customers, fine foods. He brought in wines from the Rhone being a master distiller, offered unique liquors and sweet drinks. Even Gelato served with spices and herbs was offered on the menu. Now known as the Procope and already famous for its gourmets, it quickly started making a name for itself along Rue Saint Germain.
A great stroke of luck occurred in 1689 when a group of actors in Paris known as “The King’s Actors” opened up a theater directly across the street from the Procope. The coffee house quickly became the hangout for the actors and theatrical crews. It also became, where gala events were put on by the theater after their shows. It began to be a place of where a “group of select clientele” now hung out among various Parisian artists of the time to “swap news and ideas.”
The early 1690’s found the Procope to be the scene where some of Paris’ most notable artists were now to be found. The who’s who of Paris arts. Jean de La Fontaine, who was one of the most widely read poets of the time. Jolyot de Crébillon, who was a poet and tragedian of the time. Alain-Renѐ Lesage, a young French novelist and playwright. Jean-Francois Regnard, a Parisian Dramatist who after Moliѐre, was one of the most distinguished comic poets of the 17th century. Last-but-not-least, Jean-Baptiste Racine, one of the three great playwrights of 17th century France could be found hanging out at the cafѐ.
The Procope began a habit of hanging copies of Paris’ two leading newspapers (The Gazette and the Mercure Galant) over the fireplaces that heated the rooms. Here, patrons could read the latest happenings in Paris through the news.
Going into the 18th century, the coffee house morphed from being the ‘in’ place in the Latin Quarter of Paris to becoming the daily news hub. It was now becoming the place to discuss social events, politics, and the daily news. It began to become the place where intellects came to discuss and exchange ideas. As it was written, the Procope became a place where conversation was “free and easy and, ideas and theories could be debated.”
* * *
My girlfriend and I found our way to the front podium at the entrance to the restaurant. There was a young attractive woman there to greet us with a big smile. She asked if we were there for dinner and my girlfriend responded back that I was a historian from America and interested in why a painting of Benjamin Franklin hung with others in the rear of their establishment. The hostess then responded back in perfect English (and with a big smile) that she couldn’t answer that but that I was very lucky. She told us that a certain member of their management, who was an historian on the restaurant just happened to be working on this particular evening.
She left and came back, telling us he would arrive there shortly to assist me in my inquiries. Then, moments later, a young gentleman came to greet me. He spoke to me in both French and bits of English. Between both my girlfriend and I, we were able to enjoy an amazing conversation with him. Being also an historian, it was evident that he enjoyed connecting with someone else who was also very much into history.
It happened to be late and parts of the restaurant were already beginning to empty out. As a result, this manager at the Procope, had the time to dedicate to me and began to give me a VIP tour of the restaurant. It was a whirlwind of history beyond my comprehension as an American. Even more so, that individuals who were icons in the U.S. and global history, had all hung out here while in Paris. This was where so-to-speak, they would “eat, drink, and be merry.” But with the Procope, it was much more than that.
I was led around two floors of the Procope and shown various artifacts in glass cases from famous people that had once visited the restaurant through time. I was shown rooms where Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States, had frequented as a young ambassador to France from America. He had replaced Benjamin Franklin as the ambassador in 1785. Franklin left for back to the States after eight years in France. The young man explained that Jefferson had refused to use the same room as Franklin and preferred his own. Franklin and Jefferson had never gotten along well with each other. That was apparent even here at the Procope.
The manager then took me to the room where Franklin had frequented upon his many visits to the Procope. With the room filled with people still enjoying their dinners, he led me to the back of the room and showed me a bust of Franklin that was mounted there in his honor. I then went back to the front of the room. I asked the gentleman if I could take a photograph or two of the room to which he replied, “Yes, of course.” I could not help but stand there silently, taking in the gravity of the sense of it all.
You see, it was one thing to be where Benjamin Franklin had appeared at and perform tasks at while in the performance of his work duties. But, here inside this room was different. It was here that he relaxed, drank, ate, and enjoyed many conversations and debates of a sort with many. Here, I felt was where one would have seen, known, and experienced the true Benjamin Franklin indeed.
* * *
In 1717, Francesco’s son, Alexandre took over the Procope.
The coffeehouse/restaurant only grew in popularity with the Paris intellectuals. It was said that it was frequented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a noted Genevan political philosopher whose philosophies had helped influence the progress of enlightenment throughout Europe as well as the French Revolution that was later coming in this century.
The noted French poet and playwright, Alexis Piron, was said to frequent the Procope.
Noted French mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and music theorist, Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert was often seen at the Procope.
It was said that on occasion, the famous French philosopher, Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet), had visited the Procope. He was also known as an historian and a “French enlightenment writer.” He was also an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church at the time. He mentioned the Procope in a line from his comedy, “Le caffѐ ou l’Ecossaise” where he writes, “… the cavern of Procope.”
It was said that it was at the Procope where the concept of the “Encyclopѐdie” was born.
In 1753, Alexandre Procope died. However, by then, the Procope was established as the hub of news and intellectual sharing and debate.
As far as the Procope, it was during these years that it was successfully sold across three different times to three different owners. The last one was again an Italian immigrant. His name was Zoppi and by 1864, the Procope was now also known as the “Zoppi.”
It was said that the French Monarchy was well aware of the Procope/Zoppi and the type of discussions and debates occurring there among scientists, artists, politicians, and intellectuals. It kept its eye on the Procope.
* * *
As the young manager disappeared back into the restaurant with duties to attend to, I just quietly floated around the various rooms upstairs trying to imagine the gravity of where I was at.
Indeed, the Procope today looked nothing like it originally did in its day. The black and white tiles in the rooms were long gone. The tapestries were now gone, as were many of the glass-and-mirrors that had once adorned the walls of the many rooms. No more of the many burning candles, lit fireplaces and stoves nor many “marble tables with curved legs” anymore. But, that was not what was so important. It was the location itself and more specifically, the rooms themselves.
As the Procope emptied out, I soon found myself standing upstairs, alone with my girlfriend. I slowly looked around at the open dining area and then the large rooms that adjoined it. I tried to take in for a moment that such human icons of history had walked about, right where I was standing. That some of history’s greatest known names, found in almost all history books; like Napoleon Bonaparte and Voltaire, had once too visited here at the Procope. That Chopin had been here before he died in Paris in 1849. The names just kept going.
But now, I was standing alone in front of the “Franklin Room.” Empty, I could not but help take in the fact that my country’s beloved Benjamin Franklin, loved to frequent this very room at the Procope back in the late 1770’s and early 1780’s. That it was usually this room where he liked to dine and drink while discussing much of America’s ideologies in forming the United States of America and in how it formed its own revolution against England. And most of all, how it formed its own “Constitution.” His audience consisted of very interested young men at the time who unbeknownst to all, would eventually become some of the Founding Fathers of the French Revolution.
The young manager then returned and saw me standing alone inside the Franklin room, still taking it in. He asked if we would be staying for dinner? While we were starving and indeed would love dinner, especially in this room, I told him they were closing and that we did not want to inconvenience them. I explained that I did not want to be rushed with such a dinner in such an extraordinary place.
He laughed and said we would not be inconveniencing them at all and in fact, we could enjoy the entire Franklin room alone and in complete privacy. He said we could take as long as we wished with dinner too as he and his crew would be working for many hours yet in the restaurant.
I thanked him a few times over for his gracious hospitality and giving us such a unique opportunity. I followed this with asking him what would a popular dish have been then, that such men would have ordered in the 1700’s and did they still have that on their menu now?
He understood the question and replied that coq-au-vin (roster in red wine), cooked inside a copper kettle would have been a popular dish then and that they still had that on their menu. I quickly seized that opportunity. Not only did I want to enjoy a cuisine that I had never tried before but, to also be enjoying the aromas and tastes that such men then would have also experienced.
I must say that across the next several hours, over wine, appetizers, a historical entre, and sitting alone inside the Franklin Room at the Procope, was transcending. The words of Voltaire were scrolled above me across the ceiling. In this very room was where it was said that Benjamin Franklin often sat through meal, drink, and no doubt, held haunting conversations with the eventual fathers of the French Revolution which would transpire just years later. There was no price tag to be given for such a dinner that night. This was one dinner that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To me, this night’s dinner was ‘priceless.’ I had no idea the Procope would become my favorite restaurant for many years to come and my favorite place to bring my friends for intellectual entertainment.
Indeed, many legends proceed the Procope including some of its displayed artifacts. There is always a thin line between legend and truth. For example, there is the displayed “Table of Voltaire” which is said to have been his table where he always sat at as a frequent guest at the Procope. There is no real historical evidence to substantiate that Voltaire frequented the Procope although I feel confident that he of course, like many other intellects of the time, had indeed, visited the Procope. There is no real way to authenticate the table they display there as being ‘his’. It even shows a section of marble broken off which is said to have been documented as occurring in 1790 when a gentleman by the name of Herbert, in an attempt to climb up on the table to speak, broke off a piece with his boot. What we do know is that the table suddenly shows up after 1987 when the two new current owners bought the restaurant that you see today.
Likewise, there is on display there, a hat that is said to have belonged to Napoléon Bonaparte, who was then a young Lieutenant in the army. According to the legend, the young lieutenant was said to have eaten dinner there on July 27th, 1794. When he came up short on funds, he left his hat as collateral saying that he would return to pay his bill and pick up his hat. Of course the hat was a popular one at the time and this one shows up again, after 1987 with the restaurant’s two new owners. Is the legend true and the hat truly Napoléon Bonaparte’s? Who knows?
The restaurant put out a pamphlet on the history of the Procope where it stated, “He (Voltaire) made himself comfortable at his favorite table, where he talked with Benjamin Franklin. Our American friends confirm that a large part of their constitution was drafted in the old cafѐ.” The problem I had with this statement is that I have never seen any hard evidence supporting that Voltaire ever frequented the Procope, much less, ever spoke to Benjamin Franklin there.
Let me put some things into perspective concerning Benjamin Franklin, the American Revolution, and France, in relationship to the Procope.
The American Revolutionary War was declared in 1775 and would not end until 1783. Almost every American knows of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, of which Franklin in part, helped add too.
Years ahead of this however, at the age of 49, he had been dispatched to London by the Pennsylvania Assembly as a colonial agent. This would turn into several long missions to London from America between 1757 and 1775. This was a very long time for a Native American to be in Europe. During these years, he traveled extensively, visiting many countries and their governments, including to Paris, France in 1767. Indeed, he spoke and listened to many from numerous European countries concerning their governments, including about their laws. There is no doubt that Franklin grew in much international wisdom and took from Europe, what he brought back with him to America by 1775.
It was this very same year that the Revolutionary War officially started with several skirmishes between colonists and British Soldiers having already taken place.
With the Revolutionary War now underway, Franklin was chosen to become one of the “Committee of Five.” These were five members of the 2nd Continental Congress that were chosen to draft America’s Declaration of Independence. He was suffering from gout at the time and not able to be part of the initial work on the important document but upon the completion of the initial draft by the other four members, it was presented to him by Thomas Jefferson to go over and review. It was said that Franklin had made several “small but important” changes to the final draft. The document would finally be officially signed as the American’s “Declaration of Independence,” on July 4th, 1776.
Just months later in December, Franklin was sent by the newly formed America, to France, in the capacity of “Commissioner.” He would remain in France for many years thereafter, not returning back to the United States until late 1785.
Residing at the time in a suburb called Passy, just outside Paris, he was constantly back and forth across Paris conducting much governmental business. However, he was also across Paris for reasons of science, intellectual debate, the arts, entertainment, and pleasure.
The building at the corner of Singer and Raynouard streets has an obelisk on the corner façade. Indeed, here stood a pavilion attached to the Hôtel de Valentinois, which Benjamin Franklin lived in from 1777 to 1785. He placed the first lightning rod in France a top this building.
The next eight years that Franklin is in Paris; it is during this time that he is said to have frequented the Procope.
Indeed, it is during this time that much is going on in Franklin’s life and of which great accomplishments would occur. In February of 1778, Franklin brought his grandson to meet the great French philosopher and the father of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire, who was sick at home. A few months later, in April, both Franklin and Voltaire would share the stage at the Academy of Arts in Paris. John Adams, also from America and in France at the time, witnessed the meeting between the two, describing how they embraced and kissed (cheek-to-cheek) and the crowd’s great pleasure in both icons-of-their-time being there that evening. These are the only known two documented meetings between Franklin and Voltaire in Paris. Voltaire died the very next month of natural causes.
Of great consequence, was the military alliance between United States and France. Franklin was able to successfully secure this in 1778. There is little doubt that without the help of the French to take on England, a world power at the time, America would have ever stood a chance of winning the Revolutionary War. It changed the outcome of the war leading to the birth of the United States of America.
By March of the following year, Franklin was officially designated as the U.S. Ambassador to France.
During these years, Benjamin Franklin became a celebrity-of-a-sorts in Paris. Unlike his formal attire that he had worn most of his life in America, he had now reduced himself to more comfortable and leisured clothing. While the Parisians considered the colonists in America as primitive, they considered Franklin as one of these primitive colonists who was enlightened with unique intelligence. Thus, they saw him usually dressed in homespun clothes and leather, with a rounded-fur cap a top his head, complete with a tail attached to it. Thus, the look of a true ‘Frontiersman.’ He was loved everywhere by the Parisian aristocracy, including the King and Queen of France, Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette.
To this very day in France, Franklin is still known to have been a lady’s-man. It was said he was very popular among the women of Paris and that he loved them as much as they did him. In his autobiography, he writes of himself, “The hard-to-be-governed passion of my youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell my way.”
The Procope meanwhile, by 1782, was still very popular with those of the Arts and Sciences. Although the theater directly across from it had now closed (Comѐdie Francaise), it did not seem to slow down neither business nor popularity.
The following year, in September of 1783, Franklin is at the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War between England and the newly formed, and now free, United States of America.
By the next year, a play entitled “Mariage de Figaro,” written by Pierre Beaumarchais and “censored” for six years, was celebrating its opening at the Procope. The play was censored and considered so controversial for its time because it vilified the French nobility against the French citizenry. One of the Founding Fathers of the French Revolution, Georges Danton, said of the play, that it “killed off the nobility.” In later years during his exile, Napoleon Bonaparte called the play “the Revolution already put into action.” During this year, the play opened as a great success. It was said to have grossed over 100,000 francs in just the first twenty showings and on its opening night, at least three people were crushed to death due to an over-crowded theater. The music for this play it is said, was provided by Mozart. Indeed, the Procope was the place of who’s-who in Paris.
It is during these years that the true significance of the Procope Restaurant, with history, becomes most powerful.
It is said that during these years as Franklin was securing an alliance with France and ultimately seeing the securing of a treaty between England and the United States; thus, effectively ending the Revolutionary War in America and freeing the colonists from colonial rule, … that inside the walls of the Procope, yet another unforeseen revolution was brewing. It was the French Revolution. And Benjamin Franklin was sitting right in the middle of it all.
You see, America had just thrown its own revolution. It overthrew England itself and its colonial control of the colonies there. Understand that at this time, England was one of the most powerful countries in the world. And yet, as many in France saw it, a bunch of primitive frontiersmen banded together, made a Declaration of Independence from England, and then waged a revolution to overthrow England’s control of the colonies.
It was inside of the Procope coffeehouse/restaurant, sitting in the Latin Quarter of Paris, where a small group of men, loved to learn so much from the icon known on both sides of the Atlantic – Benjamin Franklin. This small group of men would grow to become some of the founding Fathers of the French Revolution, which was quickly coming its way.
I have absolutely no doubt that the Procope was in a sense, ground-zero for a revolution that would finally topple the French aristocracy and also form a democracy for its people. In this light, these early Fathers of the French Revolution, wanted to learn from someone like Franklin, who had helped in the American Revolution in toppling England. Indeed, he knew the draft of the Declaration of Independence and was already working on a draft for the first U.S. Constitution. If such men were to topple the French Monarchy and replace it with some form of workable government by the people, the Americans were a great blueprint to follow.
And so, the Procope had now found itself with frequent customers during these years such as America’s Benjamin Franklin but, also now, some of the French Revolution’s future founders like Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton, and Maximillian Robespierre.
I have no doubt that Franklin, in his favorite room at the Procope, entertained and schooled the very Father’s of the French Revolution. And from this very location, much was discussed, debated, and planned out, even carried out, in what would eventually result in the toppling of France’s aristocratic rule that had ruled for centuries, untouched.
By Summer of 1785, Benjamin Franklin left France for the final time. Headed back to his United States, the early rumblings of the French Revolution were now starting to be heard. As France had so long ago, influenced him in ways that helped him in the modifications of the Declaration of Independence and the drafting of the Constitution of the United States in 1787, he had now helped influence back, the Fathers of the French Revolution.
Just a couple of years later, in 1789, the opening volleys of the French Revolution were heard. On July 14th, 1789, the storming of the Bastille in Paris occurred. An old medieval fortress, it had now been turned into a political prison. Ninety-eight people were killed and almost the same number of people injured in the event.
Later that same year, on the 6th of October, the Palace of Versailles was also stormed by the people. Started the previous morning in an open market by women upset over the extravagant high price of bread, a subsequent mob of thousands formed and marched on the Palace of Versailles located ten kilometers away from Paris. The result was that the next day found the King and Queen of France, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, being escorted in their carriage back to Paris by an estimated 60,000 people.
By April of the next year, in 1790, Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the age of 84. By the time that the Procope received the news of his death, it was in June. They recognized a three day ritual of mourning his passing by covering the lights in black crepe paper. It was also said that an organization called the “Friends of the Revolution and of Humanity” raised a “catafalque” (a raised structure on which the body of a deceased person lies or is carried in state.) a top the table known as “Voltaire’s Desk.” It was said that Robespierre came by during this time to pay his respects as well as touch base with fellow originators of the French Revolution.
Again, the Procope was right in the middle of ground-zero for the French Revolution. It is no coincidence that several key things were happening all around it. For Benjamin Franklin, who frequented this establishment concerning much revolutionary ideologies shared, he would sign the Treaty of Paris, ending America’s Revolutionary War, just a couple of blocks away from the Procope.
That same year, founding fathers Marat and Danton formed a new organization called the “Club des Cordeliers,” a populist political club. According to legend, it was during one of these meetings that the editor of Le Pѐre Duchesne, in an attempt to climb up on Voltaire’s table, caused his boot to break off a piece of the table-top which is still visible today, on display at the Procope.
It is in this neighborhood, later to be known as the 6th arrondissement, where in my most humbled opinion, much of the birth of the French Revolution was conscripted. And, the Procope was a major meeting location for many great minds of the revolution to discuss and debate much, including both in forming a new government of the people (should they be successful) as well as revolutionary actions that would be undertaken.
It was no coincidence that the Procope sat right in the middle of where Benjamin Franklin and the early Fathers of the French Revolution either worked or resided. All were walking distance of the Procope. Few people know that although Benjamin Franklin’s residence in Passy is widely recognized; that from 1777 to 1783, he largely resided at 52 Rue Jacob, just blocks from the Procope. His residence in Passy was largely used for entertainment and selected visitors.
The famous red hat worn by French Revolutionaries at the time, the “Phrygian Bonnet,” though said to have originated in 1789 at the start of the Revolution, and made “de rigueur” for “sans-culotte” militants to wear, had its own legend at the Procope. It was said that one day while Danton was playing dominoes at the coffeehouse/restaurant with the famous French Mathematician, Adrien-Marie Legendre in 1792, that three “patriots” entered the Procope wearing these red hats and that this was the first appearance of this bonnet. This legend seems to conflict however with written history which shows that it was being worn years before 1792. Regardless, the hat had been chosen as a symbol of the revolution, taken from its original use during Roman times as worn by freed slaves. It has been worn yet again throughout French history, even into the 20th century, during times of political unrest.
Another extraordinary legend concerning the Procope is that the orders to attack the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, came from inside this coffeehouse/restaurant. The Tuileries was a building that was the King’s Palace when in Paris. It faced the Tuileries gardens which were created in the 1560’s by Catherine de’ Medici. It closed off the Louvre Palace to the gardens.
While history portrays this attack originating the night before at the Hôtel de Ville (Paris City Hall), I have no doubt that early discussions and planning may have well taken place at the Procope. Indeed, Danton himself was involved as the Deputy-Prosecutor at Hôtel de Ville the night leading up to the attack. While this attack is another complete blog story to be made, its significance to the Procope is haunting to say the least.
Called “The Insurrection of 10 August 1792,” its brutality across one day and one location was simply unparalleled. I, personally found it shocking and horrifying even to this day. As a mob of thousands descended onto the Tuileries at approximately eight o’clock in the morning; by evening that day, the grounds at the Tuileries and inside the palace itself resembled a battlefield. Over a thousand dead laid strewn about. While various historians go back and forth on the exact numbers; approximately 800 Swiss Guard defending the palace were horrifically killed while approximately 200 civilians also lay dead. These numbers do not include the countless wounded that had survived this bloody fight to take control of the palace.
It had become a bloodlust as certain soldiers’ bodies were decapitated, dismembered, and mutilated. Some dragged through the streets by ropes tied to their legs.
Shockingly, early on that day, in the morning as the crowds began to converge upon the Tuileries, King Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, and their children, were all inside of the palace. They were quickly snuck out and taken over to the Legislative Assembly building located not far away. At one point when it was feared that their flight to the assembly may have been discovered, the King, Queen, and their children, were hidden inside of a small closet underneath a stairwell. I have always tried to imagine this scene; the King and Queen of France, with their children, hiding underneath a stairwell, in fear of their lives from an out-of-control mob. What the horror and terror of that day must have been like indeed.
The French Revolution eventually ended in November of 1799. However, the Procope now braced for a new era into the 19th century.
Now called the “Romantic Era,” the Procope became the destination for many of the new emerging artists and political icons of its new future. French poet, novelist, dramatist, and playwright, Victor Hugo dined at the Procope. So did the French poet, novelist, dramatist, Alfred de Musset. As did Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin; a French female novelist, journalist, and memoirist who wrote under the pen name at the time – George Sand.
Frѐdѐric Chopin, the Polish Composer who would die in Paris in 1849, was said to have hung out at the Procope.
Even Lѐon Gambetta visited the Procope. This French lawyer and republican politician would in 1870, declare the “French 3rd Republic.” He would hold a very prominent role in its early government.
Sadly however, the Procope finally closed its doors in 1872.
The establishment sat in silence for 17 years before finally being sold at auction. Even then, it sat idle for another 3 years before finally being rented out to a young Thѐo Bellefonds, the son of a bookseller, in 1893.
Bellefonds did his homework on the Procope and knew well of its legacy. He wanted the Procope to return back to being the hub in Paris for the cutting artists of the time. Not long after the Procope reopened, it is said that writer Oscar Wilde visited there.
Famous French writer Paul Arѐne was said to have enjoyed writing some of his famous fairy tales upon the marble tables there at the Procope.
Bellefonds also opened up a small theater on the upstairs floor.
Song writers and poets again hung out at the Procope. The likes of Gaston Dumestre, Xavier Privas, and Pierre Trimouillat were said to be frequent patrons there.
One of the rooms was called “The Lounge of the Fifty” and was where Bellefonds began to exhibit art pieces. Works from Jean Courbet (one of the fathers of the Realism Movement in French panting) and Jean Corot (a famous French portrait and landscape painter) hung there.
Numerous literary societies met on a regular basis at the Procope. Once, a party was thrown there for Nobel Peace Prize Recipient in Literature, Frѐdѐric Mistral. He was also a member of the Acadѐmie de Marseille and a founding member of the Fѐlibrige, an organization of writers to defend and promote the Occitan language and literature of France.
It was during these years that even a newspaper was sold in the neighborhood called “La Procope.”
Despite it all, Thѐo Bellefonds could no longer make the Procope work. The coffeehouse/restaurant again closed its doors. Its owner, the Baroness Thѐnard, willed it to the State upon her death in 1916. She stipulated that though they receive possession of the Procope, that they must protect and preserve the beautiful cast-iron balcony above its entrance.
The Procope sat silent once again for 24 years before being bought in 1940 by a Madame de Joncquiѐres. However, it remained closed as France was now involved in WWII and occupied by the German Nazi’s.
In 1957, a gentleman named Monsieur Deroussent, bought the building as an investment, reselling it in 1985 to a holding company. The building was then liquidated in 1987.
It was at this time, in 1987, that two brothers, Jacques and Pierre Blanc, saw the potential treasure that the Procope was to Paris and the world. They purchased the building and after extensive remodeling, refurbishing, and a lavish menu befitting of such an iconic restaurant, the Procope was brought back to life yet once again.
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I have no idea how the universe crossed my path that evening in Paris, down some old cobblestone street, and had me look up right at the moment when I suddenly recognized the face one of the American Founding Fathers – Benjamin Franklin. Discovering the Procope completely by happenchance was just another on a long list of accidental discoveries involving the past and connecting the dots in history. Some of those dots included my own life and its relationship to many of these discoveries.
There are several other restaurants in Paris that boast being an operating restaurant across several centuries. They too have extravagant menus, price lists, and often play host to many VIP’s among the world of the rich and famous. However, I argue that the Procope is different from any other restaurant in Paris for I sincerely believe that inside of its walls, do the ghosts of two revolutions live.
Much happened in the late 1700’s. Both in a young and emerging America as well as in France, where the lingering’s of a Feudal system from the middle-ages would finally be abolished forever. During this time, two new world-class democracies would emerge. The United States of America and today’s modern France. And much of the early ideologies, concepts, and intricacies of these two revolutions were in part, born within the walls of the Procope. It was here that much of both revolutions were discussed and debated over fine food and drink by many of the most famous icons in history of that time.
The Procope provided a completely different stage than the French Legislative Assembly or Philadelphia Hall. It was here that great men could eat, drink, and be merry while also discussing and debating revolutions within their countries and the ideals and Constitutions that would follow. Even today, discussing major business transactions over lunch or dinner is still practiced across the world. The Procope is an iconic example of this tradition in the most monumental way.
America’s Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, dined and discussed within these walls. Some of which would help form the history of the United States. Even Jefferson’s Montebello and his vineyards were influenced from his stay here in France. And France made it mandatory that every building have a lightning rod attached because of the influence and discoveries of Benjamin Franklin. Of course such topics would have passed from the lips of these great men while in the enjoyment of the Procope.
But, the Procope also held a much darker side. It was the ghosts of the Fathers of the French Revolution. It was not like the United States and its revolution which had in a large part, involved military engagements of a sort. The French Revolution was far bloodier and crossed well into the slaughter of many civilians, clergy, and nobility through mass executions. Some of the Procope regulars, Fathers of the French Revolution, were in themselves quite provocative, enthralling, and in some cases, very dark characters too. Indeed, Hollywood script writers could not have thought up some of the true stories associated with these men, in what they did and how they lived.
For example, Georges Danton, originally a French lawyer, is sometimes the poster-boy for both the September Massacre of 1792, where between 1100 and 1600 people (nearly half of the population of Paris at the time) were killed. He is often held responsible for starting the “Reign of Terror.” He was a massive man, over six feet tall and indeed, quite loud and intimidating when he wanted to be. He was a man that people listened to when he spoke. While he and his friend, Jean-Paul Marat, were indeed great supporters of both of these events, historians have never been able to find any evidence showing that Danton was directly responsible.
But, like his friends at the Procope, Danton had a most colorful side to him as well as a dark one.
In the very next year, Danton began to go through changes. Some of which might have caused a few people to question his mental and/or emotional stability during 1793.
At the beginning of the year, on February 10th, Danton’s 33 year old wife, Antoinette Gabrielle Danton, died while giving childbirth to their 4th child, who also died during delivery. Danton was at the time on a diplomatic mission to Belgium. He arrived back to their three sons in their six-bedroom apartment, not far from the Procope. However, he discovered that his wife had been buried just the day before.
Overcome with grief over her death and not being present at her burial, he orchestrated some dark theater as a result. Next door in the 5th arrondissement, in Faubourg Saint-Marcel, he found a deaf and mute artesian named Claude André Deseine. The 53 year-old man was an accomplished sculptor. On the night of February 17th, Danton took Deseine to the Sainte-Catherine cemetery (which no longer exists) where his wife had just been buried.
He had her body exhumed. Her casket was opened and in the middle of the night, Danton knelt by his wife’s body. It is said that while he cried, he kissed her corpse repeatedly while begging her forgiveness for his infidelities during their marriage. He then had Deseine make a death mask of her face before she was then reburied in the middle of the night.
It should be noted that there are versions of this night that have been much more detailed. How melodramatic however, is unknown. Such as; his wife’s body dug up while it rained and the casket carried over to a nearby tool shed. Once inside the shed, it took half-an-hour to carefully pry off the lid to her casket. Once off, it was said that Dalton literally took her body out of the casket and cuddled her corpse, kissed her, and spoke to her. Was all this exaggerated about Dalton? We will never know.
In the 2009 book release of “Danton: The Gentle Giant of Terror,” by author David Lawley, a translated letter Danton received from his friend, Robespierre is shared.
“In this sorrow that alone can break a heart such as yours, if the assurance that you have a tender and devoted friend offers any consolation, then I give it. I love you more than ever, until death. In this moment, I am you. Do not close your heart to an expression of friendship that feels all your pain. Let us weep for our friends and let our deep grief defeat the tyrants who are the cause of all our misfortunes, public and private.
I would have come to see you except for the respect in which I hold your first moments of grief.
Embrace your friend,
Deseine took the death mask and as commissioned by Dalton, completed a very detailed bust of his wife. Danton had the bust exhibited later that very same year which it is said many people found aghast that such a bust was displayed at all and so soon after her death.
Just months later in July, Danton remarried 16 year-old, Louise Sébastienne Gély. The girl had been a friend of a couple who took care of his children.
By October of 1793, he began to have second thoughts about the violence against the people brought on by the Revolution. This would eventually put him at odds with his partner, Robespierre. Danton decided to quit politics entirely and move to Arcis-sur-Aube with his new teenage bride.
By 1794, he was brought before the same Revolutionary Tribunal that he had once supported. Now under the eye of Robespierre, who tried to defend his friend, Danton was found guilty on several unrelated charges and was himself executed on the guillotine on April 5, 1794 at the age of 34.
It was said that he was defiant before the Tribunal and was ushered out as a result, to which he yelled out, “I will no longer defend myself, let me be led to death, I shall go to sleep in glory.” He was also quoted on the scaffolding as saying out loud to his executioner, “Show my head to the people, it is worth the trouble.”
Camille Desmoulins, also one of the Fathers of the French Revolution and regular at the Procope/Zoppi, would also accompany Danton that day on the guillotine, April 5th of 1794. He became yet another founding father to fall victim to the very revolution that he helped create. He was one of 15 individuals executed that day on the guillotine. Like Danton, he was only 34 years old.
As Desmoulins was to enter a tumbril [horse drawn cart] to take him and the 14 others to the place of execution at today’s Concord Square, he was only then told that his 24 year-old wife, Lucile, had just been arrested. He went crazy as men tried to hold him down and get him inside the cart to be transported. It was said his shirt was ripped off of him in the process. Even his boyhood friend, Robespierre, who argued on his behalf before the tribunal, could not save him. He was executed along with the rest. His wife was taken to the guillotine just 8 days later.
Lucile, 10 years younger than Desmoulins, had a younger sister who had at one time, been engaged to Maximilian Robespierre.
Lucile and Camille had been barely married for a little over three years. While waiting her turn for the guillotine on April 13, 1794, she was quoted as saying, “They have assassinated the best of men. If I did not hate them for that, I should bless them for the service they have done me this day.”
Their infant son would be left with relatives (grandmother and aunt) to be raised. He left France permanently in 1817 for Haiti where he died of yellow-fever in 1825.
Jean-Paul Marat, whose printing shop was just a few houses away from the Procope/Zoppi, died a more dramatic death during the Revolution.
He was a French scientist, doctor, journalist, and politician, with a common-law wife. He suffered the last three years before his death of suspected Dermatitis Herpetiformis which leaves the body in a rash of red and watery blisters. One person wrote of him that he was “short in stature, deformed in person, and hideous in face.”
However, it was not his infliction that killed him but rather his deeds as one of the Founding Fathers of the French Revolution. Marat is often the one credited with inciting the “September Massacre” in Paris. He was also held largely responsible for a fierce political fight and ultimate destruction of the Girondins, a political party (1791-1793) largely opposed against any further mass violence by the Revolution. Marat, a member of the opposing party, the Montagnards, eventually won political control of the Revolution, not only ordering mass executions of members of the Girondins in retaliation but, largely responsible of the “Reign of Terror” for which the French Revolution would be most known for.
A year before the deaths of his comrades, Danton and Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, now 50 years old, would be killed by an artful and beautiful assassin. It was a major news story for its day in Paris and is still talked about to even this day.
In the late morning of Saturday, July 13th, 1793, at Marat’s flat which was located some distance from his print shop. It was across town at 30 rue des Cordeliers (the current medical school on rue de l’Ecole-de-Médecine). Both his common-law wife, Simonne, and her sister, Catherine Evrard, were in the apartment with Marat when a knock was heard at their door. Marat’s sister-in-law, Catherine Evrard, opened the door and observed a 24 year old woman standing there. She stood 5’1, with long auburn hair and eyes of gray. Her face was oval and her chin, dimpled. She wore humbled clothing and asked to see Marat. Her name was Marie Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont.
Twenty-four year old Corday was 5th generation from the family of Pierre Corneille. He was considered one of France’s three greatest French dramatists of the 17th century, during the age of enlightenment. Sent by her father to a convent in Caen located in lower Normandy, it was here that she received a very formal education. There, she was exposed by the nuns to the teachings and works of the priest of Apollo (in Delphi) and Greek Platonist philosopher – Plutarch; to a Genevan writer, composer, and philosopher – Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and to Voltaire himself. Corday eventually left the convent, living in Caen with her cousin, Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville. The two women became very close and Corday eventually become the sole inheritor of the estate.
Corday had become repulsed by Marat’s September Massacres and his fanning the flames of the Reign of Terror. Corday had come to side with the political party known as the Girondins. This more moderate political party contained many of France’s nobility and they saw a more non-violent way for change in France than Marat’s radical Jacobin Political Party. However, Marat, Robespierre, and other regulars of the Procope, seemed more than determined to try and execute as many members of the Girondins Party who dared to oppose their vision for France.
Corday, and many others of the Girondins feared that Marat and others would bring France to a Civil War. French fighting French to a bloody end. Corday felt that something had to be done to save France and to save the lives of as many French people as she could. She believed that Marat, armed with his newspaper “The Friend of the People,” was a true threat to France.
She left Caen on July 9th, 1793, for Paris. She took a room at the Hotel de Providence (which no longer exists). Over the next several days, Corday did two important things. The first, was that she bought a kitchen knife with a 6” blade (15cm). The second thing was that she wrote a manifesto. It basically explained why she felt compelled to kill Marat.
It was later learned that Corday originally had planned to kill Marat at the National Convention whereupon she would then read her manifesto. However, upon her arrival to Paris, she discovered that he no longer was attending the convention due to his deteriorating health.
So, on July 13th, she went directly to Marat’s flat just before noon. Some historians have incorrectly stated that it was then that Corday killed Marat but that is not so. When she went to his residence late that morning, she was greeted by Simonne’s sister, Catherine. Despite Corday stating that she had important information to give Marat involving the names of members of the Girondins who had fled Paris and were supposedly hiding in Normandy, she was turned away.
However, it was later that evening that Corday again knocked on the door to Marat’s residence and this time, Marat insisted on seeing the woman. This, despite Simonne’s plea to not let the woman in. She drew Marat’s interest in stating that she knew of a planned uprising by the Girondins in Caen.
Marat decided to remove his clothes and enter a bathtub filled with water and ointments to combat his skin affliction. He had the attractive young woman sit next to him at the tub. With a wooden plank placed across his tub to write and read upon, he conducted approximately 15 minutes’ worth of interview of which it is said that he wrote down the names of those involved.
Then, with no warning, Corday pulled out the knife that she had bought just days before and plunged it into Marat’s chest. According to legend, it is said that after being stabbed, he cried out “Help me, my dear friend.” He then died as Simonne and several others began to rush in and attempt to revive him but to no avail. Corday was held by those present. A crowd quickly grew outside, some wanting to lynch Corday who was then escorted out of the building by officials under guard.
Just four days later, on July 17th, 1793, she was tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal where she had called Marat a “Monster” and “Hoarder.” Found guilty of the murder of Marat, she was sentenced to death that day. Having been liked by some of the prison guards during her incarceration, Corday asked the court if one of the National Guards, Jean-Jacques Hauer, could paint her portrait before being led to the guillotine. The court granted the odd request. Hauer had already been sketching her during her trial and just hours before her execution, he painted her portrait, finishing it right before she entered the cart, alone, to be taken to her place of execution.
Her solidary appearance in the cart as it was being led to her place of execution, was met with an eerie silence from the crowds that day. While many threw “filth” at the cart while yelling obscenities’ at her, many more sympathized with her and like her, hated the violence that the Jacobin Party had become so known for now thus, their silence as she passed by.
She wore a red over-blouse denoting to all that she was a “condemned traitor who had assassinated a representative of the people.” A sudden warm Summer rain suddenly fell, drenching her before she got to the scaffolding.
Instead of the Place de la Concorde where most public guillotining was being performed at, the execution by guillotine for Corday was to be carried out at the Place de Grève which is today called the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. Right in front of Paris’ City Hall.
Strapped to the board and then decapitated, her head was immediately picked up out of a basket and shown to the crowd. It was at this point, much to the executioner’s dismay, a carpenter, against proper protocol, slapped Corday’s face which to the shock of the crowd, clearly responded, showing strong displeasure to the assault. It was said that her face also turned flushed where he had struck her.
This offense made against the face of the executed woman, and the head’s visible response to the assault, incited the crowd. Considered in very poor taste, the carpenter was arrested and jailed for three months for the offense. This incident would also spark new study by doctors in Paris at the time, as to whether or not a person’s head remained alive, at least for a short while, after execution on the guillotine.
If not enough could have happened to Marie Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont up to her execution, even more things continued afterwards. Fearing more conspirators were planning to kill more Jacobin Officials, investigators wanted to know if she had a male partner; and if so, who he was? So, from the scaffolding, Coday’s body was taken to a location and given an autopsy, primarily to establish whether or not she was a ‘virgin.’ If not, they would search for her male partner. However, as it turned out, she had died a virgin. It is said that her body was thrown into the trenches that were then at the Madeleine Cemetery. Legend says her skull was removed from the trench and has passed along to several private collectors through the centuries.
The Madeleine Cemetery, during the French Revolution, became the site of huge trenches dug and where the decapitated bodies of those guillotined were thrown after execution. It was where the bodies of 800 Swiss Guards were thrown after the Insurrection of 10 August, 1792. It was also where the bodies of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were deposited … the only bodies allowed to be placed in caskets. Today, this site known as Cimetière de la Madeleine, is a memorial located in the 8th arrondissement and walking distance from Concorde Square.
Yet another of France’s Revolutionary Fathers that had once wined and dined inside the walls of the Procope, rubbing shoulders with other founding fathers, was its most notorious leader, Maximilien Robespierre.
Both he and Marat were of the more extreme political-party, the Jacobins. This, before both eventually became part of “La Montagne” or, ‘The Mountain’ political party, commonly referred to as the Montagnards. Upon Marat’s death, Robespierre basically picked up where Marat had left off. He began a renewed “Great Terror” across France and especially Paris, ordering the arrests of thousands, along with their executions on the guillotine. He pushed hard for the execution of the French King, Louis XVI and for the arrest of the Queen, Marie Antoinette. Even of the incarceration of her daughter and son, the 8 year-old Dauphin, was included. The Dauphin would die in prison at the age of ten.
In basically one year of Marat’s death, Robespierre would rise to be one of the most powerful, and most feared man in France before spiraling back down to his own destruction. Thousands would die while he was in office. This included even his good Procope friend, Danton, along with Desmoulins.
It was under this new version of Robespierre in 1794, that he saw Danton, Desmoulins, Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles, and Pierre Philippeaux, along with others, arrested on charges involving the French East Indian Company, and charges of conspiracy, corruption, and theft. They would all be executed on the guillotine in April of this same year.
While the guillotines worked across Paris and the blood flowed, several key things happened with Robespierre from 1793-1794, all of which questioned also, his mental stability from this point on. The first was that he grew tremendously paranoid. This air of paranoia followed him with everyone and everything. He began to trust no one.
By May of 1794, an incident occurred showing just how far it had gone.
On the evening of May 20th, a young Cécile Renault, arrived at the house of Maximilien Robespierre. It was said that her lover had already been taken by the Reign of Terror and had been guillotined. She had cause to visit Robespierre in an attempt to want to speak to him. She arrived carrying only three items: a basket, a parcel, and some extra clothing. Within these three items were later found some miscellaneous paperwork, two small penknives, a change of clean underwear in her bag, and a change of clothes under her arm. Though busy on this evening, she wanted to stop by Monsieur Robespierre’s residence and speak with him. What happened was, she sat there for several hours in the foyer waiting patiently to see him.
The young twenty-year-old, like perhaps any of us would have, had become very upset over having to wait so long to see the deputy. She initiated a verbal altercation with the guards demanding that Robespierre meet with her immediately. She was quoted as saying “A public man ought to receive at all times those who have occasion to approach him.”
At some point, the commotion also caught the attention of Robespierre. The guards then in responding to the angry young woman, searched through all of her belongings. This incensed Renault even more who now became belligerent with the group. She was asked why she had come to see Robespierre in the first place to which she blurted out that she wanted to see “What a tyrant looks like.” It was also later said that she yelled at them that she “preferred to have one king than sixty.” Robespierre had her arrested on the spot and in talking with his guards, began to accuse the woman of being an assassin. This based on her outbursts and her weapon supposedly being the two small pen knives; which were very common in that day for women to carry as protection while walking alone upon the streets of Paris.
It was said that Robespierre used the assassination of Marat as an example to now bolster his accusation that Renault was an assassin that had come to kill him.
She was thrown in jail and interrogated over the next several weeks before finally being placed on trial. She was said to have heckled the chief prosecutor as well as the members of the council presiding over the proceeding. She mocked the court and remained sarcastic of the entire hearing. She always maintained her innocence saying in part, that she “Never designed harm against any living being.” She was brought to tears upon seeing also brought into court as prisoners, her father, brother, and aunt. Although they had denied any knowledge of a plot by Renault against anyone, Robespierre accused the family of being involved in a conspiracy to assassinate him.
On Friday, June 17th, 1774, Renault, her three family members, and an estimated 50 others from her village, were all guillotined in Paris at Place de la Nation.
The young girl became very distraught on her cart ride to the place of execution. However, witnesses told of her sudden show of courage as the climbed the scaffolding to the guillotine. It was said that she “smiled” and acted most lightheartedly till the end.
The High Executioner of the First French Republic, Charles-Henri Sanson, who presided over the 53 executions that day, was said to have gotten sick as he left the scaffolding upon completion.
It was only weeks earlier on June 8th that Robespierre had held the “Festival of the Supreme Being.” The Cult of the Supreme Being was a new belief-system pushed by Robespierre onto the new government as a religious alternative to the then much hated Catholic Church.
On this day, a procession was organized, mostly of women, to walk from the Tuileries to the Place of the Bastille. Here, Robespierre had the Guillotine set up as a visual prop and the procession proceeded onto the Champ de Mars where he gave several speeches. He had dressed rather flamboyantly, wearing platform shoes with silver buckles and a feathered hat, carrying flowers and fruit in his hands. He eventually became the bunt of ridicule from many of his political peers.
At the same time that the Renault incident had occurred at Robespierre’s residence, he had also issued an arrest warrant for yet another young woman, the girlfriend of one of his political rivals in Bordeaux, another Deputy of the National Convention, Jean-Lambert Tallien.
Tallien, who had been placed in charge of the trials, convictions, and executions by the Tribunal in Bordeaux; while initially very aggressive, had slowed the number of executions way down after meeting, and being influenced by a beautiful young, 21 year old, Thérésia de Cabarrus. A French noble, she was Spanish born in the social circles of Bordeaux.
Robespierre heard of this and summoned Tallien back to Paris. Cabarrus had brazenly accompanied him only to find herself arrested by Robespierre and imprisoned. She would have most likely been placed on trial and executed had it not been in part, of a defiant speech given on July 27th by Tallien before the National Convention. Tallien threatened to stab Robespierre with a dagger if the Convention did not stand with him against the man. The truth be told, many of the remaining delegates feared for their lives with Robespierre and in a moment of French history, they sided with Tallien. Orders were immediately issued for the arrests of Robespierre and others.
Robespierre, upon his arrest, was transported to the Luxembourg Palace to be incarcerated. However, the guards there refused to accept the arrest as legitimate.
Robespierre, then fled from Luxembourg Palace to the current city hall building (Hôtel de Ville) in Paris with fellow allies. However, a detachment of soldiers eventually arrived by 0200 the next morning to take him into custody. Secluded in an office, soldiers burst in as he attempted suicide by firing a gun into his mouth. However, it is said that one military officer present, through his actions, managed to knock him as he was firing. The result was that Robespierre shot his lower jaw, destroying much of it and causing it to hang from his face. He was later transported as-is to the Conciergerie where upon he was placed in the very same cell where his once-friend from the Procope, Danton, was placed before his execution on the guillotine.
On Sunday, July 28th, 1794, at around 6:00 p.m., three carts filled with Robespierre (and his bandaged head) and twenty-one other “Robespierrists” left the Conciergerie for the Place de la Concorde (then called, Place de la Révolution). The crowds jeered the condemned and cheered the executioners as each one was brought up the scaffolding to the guillotine.
The small 5’3’’ (160 cm) Robespierre was the tenth one brought up the scaffolding. His bandages painfully removed as he screamed out in pain before the crowd, his head then cut off and shown to the cheering audience. And thus, the Great Terror was finally over in the French Revolution. Robespierre was just 36 years old.
And Thérésia de Cabarrus Tallien became the wife of the triumphed Tallien.
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While there are other restaurants in Paris that have been established for several centuries, there is none like the Procope. I say this because there is no other restaurant where within its very walls, were discussed and debated, elements of two Revolutionary Wars. One, in America and the other, in France. And, this done over food and drink, and good company.
My father once said “If the walls could talk.” Indeed, the power of the Procope is even though it is remodeled and looks nothing like it once did centuries ago, the rooms and walls are still there. And indeed, …. if the walls of the Procope could talk, the extraordinary sounds, conversations, and song that once reverberated off of them would indeed be haunting. Such powerful and iconic men within these walls, who would go down forever in history books across the world; whose lives they would touch, for better or for worse, in the legacy of which we see today in the countries of both America and France. Can you imagine the things that we might have heard them say to each other within the walls of the Procope?
Both Revolutions, though successful, were carried out quite opposite of each other. Case-in-point; most of the Fathers of the American Revolution lived out their lives peacefully in the new country they created. However, for the Fathers of the French Revolution; many that helped create it, were killed by it. Including those that ate and dined within the walls of the Procope.
I submit that if there were such a place to commemorate the founding of the United States, its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution, even its treaty in ending the war itself; that pieces of their construction came from the mind of Benjamin Franklin through the years, in part, from the many conversations he had with others here at the Procope.
Likewise, to commemorate the founding of the French Revolution at the Procope, as it was well indeed such a place that congregated the founding fathers of the revolution and upon which many of their ideals, dynamics, and actions were born from.
For it is often not in such places as the Hall of Independence in Philadelphia, or at the Nationally Assembly in Paris that such great accomplishments were truly made. Rather, it is often in those small unknown places, where men ate and drank, shared ideas, discussed, and debated ideological platforms upon which revolutions were created, great world powers toppled, and brand new democracies created. Such a place was the Procope.
I have always been fascinated as a businessmen how internationally, the practice of discussing business over food and drink is still widely practiced today. And from these business luncheons and dinners, great alliances are formed and entities created. This practice has been for millennia.
What makes the Procope such an amazing piece of history is that not only the powerful men and events that took place within its walls but, that it is still here today. It still is open and providing food and drink internationally to people from all over the world. And indeed, in the very footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and many others.
Where some of France’s greatest authors, playwrights, scientists, artists, politicians, and revolutionaries once hung out. Where a young Napoleon once dined. Where the brilliant composer, Chopin, came. All, within these walls. And despite that all these great men in history are now long gone, the walls and rooms of the Procope still remain in silent testimony to those that once dined there. Most buildings throughout Paris cannot make this claim.
I once wrote, “Nothing is forever yet nothing changes.”
I thought of the conversations and debates inside of the Procope over the Insurrection of August 10th, 1792 when the Tuileries was stormed and the King and Queen were hunted for by the mobs. I could not help but think of January 6th, 2021, when the U.S. Capital was stormed and the Vice-President was hunted for by the mobs.
I tried to imagine sitting at the Procope, if Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams, could have ever imagined that one of their country’s two political parties, the Republicans, would radicalize and attempt to overthrow the U.S. election and impose a fascist dictator and, to end the democracy they had suffered so hard to get for the United States.
Or for the same political party in America, to weave its government with fanatic Christianity, in establishing oppression and control over women’s bodies in outlawing women’s right to abortion. Ironic, given the fact that America’s own Benjamin Franklin, in the 1780’s, joined with his French colleagues (politicians, philosophers, etc.) in advocating for Religious Tolerance in France; to allow all religions to be practiced and no one religious belief to force its rule unto the land. French nobility and the Catholic Church had been in bed with each other across centuries and much to the demise of the common people. It is for the ‘common people’ that such democracies are created. America is now a country of all religions and not of any particular one. When Franklin arrived to France, non-Catholic residents were not allowed to publicly practice their religion nor were they allowed any of the social services at that time, reserved only for French Catholics. Non-French Catholics held no civil status in France. Franklin’s arguments, along with others, got Louis XVI to sign the Edict of Versailles in November 1787 which allowed non-Catholic religions to be practiced openly and civil status granted to all those in France and not just Catholics.
Indeed, some of America’s other Founding Fathers had found it so important as to establish separation of Church and State which the Fathers of the French Revolution would eventually do as well. However, by 2022, this was no longer the case in America.
I could not help but stand inside the Procope and stare yet again into the Franklin Room. I could not help but wonder in today’s modern political climate and the fragility of democracy in both countries, which had been so hardly fought for; what would be discussed and debated today by these powerful men of their countries within the walls of the Procope? What indeed would they have to say about the way of their governments today? These ghosts of revolutions … at the Procope.