If it is true that behind every great man there is a woman, it may be equally true that one of them is hogging the spotlight. That was certainly the case in Paris in the early part of the century, when behind the great men, the literary and artistic titans, were equally great women, standing unquietly in their shadows. Gertrude Stein, Picasso’s first patron, Sylvia Beach, publisher and patron of Joyce, and countless others may be numbered among the influential but overshadowed Parisiennes of the period. Paris was a muse to the men who made it their home, the American expatriates and native Parisiens, but to the women of Paris, she was companion and liberator, an island of freedom in a world that did not always welcome their particular talents. Paris, Natalie Barney said, “is the only city where you can live and express yourself absolutely freely.” She meant, of course, the only city where a *woman* could live and express herself freely. And women did.
Based on Andrea Weiss’ book, *Paris Was A Woman* is a broad and comprehensive excursion through a forgotten Paris. Paris then, in the years between the wars, was an alluring haven to a new kind of woman: artistic, iconoclastic, intellectual, adventurous. Many were lesbians, seeking sexual freedom, while others were escaping the fetters of marriage, family and gender discrimination. Writers, painters, booksellers, they were at the very center of avant garde culture, of artistic life in Paris at a time when Paris was at the center of artistic life in the Western world. Yet so many of these women, recognized as equals in their own time, were virtually forgotten later, relegated to the back pages of cultural history. To find their contributions, one must read between the lines; *Paris Was A Woman* reads even deeper, like a secret history, full of scandal, romance, grand dreams and grander illusions, triumph, despair and forgotten treasures.
*Paris Was A Woman* draws concentric circles around two amazingly influential women: Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, whose neighboring bookshops, Shakespeare & Company and A. Monnier, were the epicenter of culture in Paris in this golden age, the very carefully tended cradle of Modernism. The two women, friends and companions, pioneered the concept of the lending library in France, lending books out of their shops to foster the appreciation of literature, and to benefit ordinary women who could rarely afford to buy books. The American Beach attracted English-speaking ex-pats, while Monnier’s shop drew Francophones, but the dedicated among the literati crossed the street both ways. Their circle of personal friends and salon regulars, most of whom were also nearby Left Bank neighbors, included Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Romaine Brooks, Giselle Freund, Djuna Barnes, Genet, Colette, and the usual suspects of Paris at the time: Picasso, Joyce, Eliot, and many others. *Paris Was A Woman* focuses on the women in that circle, neglecting their better-known male counterparts except where their fortunes are inextricably bound, as in the case of Beach, an early champion of Joyce, who went bankrupt publishing *Ulysses* only to have the author sell his book to Random House, or Stein, whose extensive personal collection of Picasso’s works served as a permanent, informal exhibition.
Using filmed interviews old and new, written excerpts, photographs, and remarkable home movies from the period, *Paris Was A Woman* is an absorbing retelling of the times, viewed through a different lens. The documentary is studded with precious jewels, too, like recordings of Stein reading poems in her smooth, rich contralto, and Natalie Barney’s housekeeper, confidante and nursemaid to heartbroken drunks and privy to everyone’s secrets, who offers simple and honest character assessments of an astonishing number of artistic giants.
If *Paris Was A Woman* has a flaw, it is that it is both too broad and frustratingly shallow, skimming the surface of too many fascinating lives. So many important women are recalled in such a short time -- any one of them alone could warrant an entire film -- that the result can be a bit sketchy, like a swift walk through a huge museum, offering all-too-brief views of a dazzling lost world, and leaving one hungering for more detail, more information and more depth. Yet the glimpses it offers are tantalizing, promising great riches upon further exploration. In that way, *Paris Was A Woman* serves as an interesting and provocative primer, a worthwhile first look at the overlooked.