With the Liberation of Paris in August of 1944, the city erupted in celebration at finally being free from the Germans who had oppressed its inhabitants for four long years. Photographer Lee Miller, working as a correspondant with the Allies, said that "...Paris had gone mad...The avenues were crowded with flags and filled with screaming, cheering, pretty people. Girls, bicycles, kisses, and wine."
The euphoria of the Liberation would not last long; the harsh reality of life after the war with its poverty and political instability, loomed over the heads of the Parisian population. In addition to the internal struggles of the nation, the atrocities that had taken place in Nazi concentration camps became known, and by August of 1945 the atomic bombs dropped on Japan by the Americans demonstrated a new possibility for the total destruction of human life. As Simone de Beauvoir stated in her diary from the mid-forties, "...the war was over, it remained on our hands like a great, unwanted corpse and there was no place on earth to bury it." Although the Parisians were dealing with the aftermath of a brutal war, their feelings of despair were coupled with a new sense of individual freedom and hope for the future. Life was beginning again, and nowhere was this rebirth more apparent than in the artistic and intellectual scene surrounding the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
Many writers, intellectuals and artists were regular patrons at cafes in the area like Le Flore and Les Deux Magots during the years of the Occupation. The Germans rarely socialized in Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and the cafes were attractive establishments due to their heating and gas lamps that functioned while the electricity in the rest of Paris was out. Writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were regular patrons; the existential ideas and philosophies they developed during the Occupation had a central role in shaping the youthful and fashionable post-war cafe and nightclub scene.
The autumn of 1945 saw an explosion of Existentialist literature published in Paris in a relatively short amount of time. The first issue of Sartre's monthly magazine Les Temps Modernes appeared, along with his two novels The Reprieve, and The Age of Reason. Beauvoir's novel The Blood of Others was published, in addition to her only play Useless Mouths. The couple became overnight celebrities. Beauvoir explained their sudded success as merely an economic solution for difficult times as "...France was exalting her most characteristic national products with an eye on the export market: haute couture and literature." Their existential ideas of the man of action, and of the individual creating their own morality, however, reflected the zeitgeist of the time, and resonated strongly with the youth of Paris.
Both authors embraced the youth who flocked to them and to Saint-Germain-des-Pres; as Beauvoir says in her memoirs, to be young at the time "...seemed to be the most fantastic piece of luck; all roads lay open...Their gaiety fortified my own." Thus began the transformation of existentialism from a revolutionary philosophy that had been in development through the Occupation to a youthful and fashionable mode of living that embraced jazz music, artistic self-expression, and a hedonistic nightclub culture. It was the mainstream Parisian press who regularly referred to the young revelers as 'existentialists,' much to the chagrin of the older intellectuals and philosophers.
Who were these young existentialists who made Saint-Germain-des-Pres the most exciting neighborhood in Paris during the late forties? With the Germans gone "...everyone wanted to party...what (these youth) stirred up was an exchange between bohemian American jazz culture and the French intellectuals." In a way, these young Parisians can be seen as descendants of the zazou teenagers with their love of dancing, late night parties and jazz music. They flaunted their independence, and refused bourgeois conventions by choosing to live communally- perhaps in reaction to the alienation and isolation experienced by many during the Occupation. The fashionable existentialists formed and artistic and diverse artistic family composed of writers, poets, dancers, actors, painters, singers, jazz musicians, and anyone else looking for a good time. As a group "...the Saint-Germain crowd had a strong spark of unpretentiousness and coolness." Perhaps the best known existentialist of the period was the singer and actress Juliette Greco.
Greco was a beautiful young woman, nicknamed 'la toutune' for her voluptuous figure; of her good looks writer Boris Vian said "...imagine her in profile, hands on hips, head turned towards you...and count on a medic standing by to resuscitate you." Miles Davis, while playing in Paris met Greco, and the two fell in love. Davis thought Greco "...was so fine...so stylish, so different from any other woman I had ever met." She was the existentialist ideal with her long, dark straight hair and pale complexion.
The existentialists were famous for wearing head-to-toe black ensembles. As actor Marc Doelnitz, an ex-zazou said "...black was the dominant color of our wardrobe." Perhaps the abundance of black garments amongst the existentialists "...reflected the moral quandry and chaos..." of post war Paris. Black could also be a practical solution to poverty as dark clothing would not show stains or age like light colored garments would.
The most fashionable figure in black was Juliette Greco; her black turtleneck sweaters and trousers were copied by many young women in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. With her black ensembles Greco would wear heavy black eyeliner, a look she claimed to have copied from Helene Rochas who was a regular patron of the nightclub scene. Greco became a famous singer in the late forties, and she was able to be dressed by couturiers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior. Even in couture, however, she never lost her bohemian aura, or her love of black.
The heyday of the Saint-Germain-des-Pres scene was short lived; youthful existentialism had a three year lifespan in Paris, and was finished by 1948. The start of the Cold War, and the influx of curious tourists to the neighborhood ended the party once and for all. The intellectual and artistic spirit of the Saint-Germain scene, however, did not die. A new generation of American writers, the Beats, took inspiration from the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, jazz music, and the bohemian lifestyle.