The novel L’Hôtel du Nord by Eugène Dabit (1898-1936) tells the story of a working-class couple — the author’s parents, in fact — who ran a small working-class hotel in the 1920s on the left bank of the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris.
The author kept the real first names of his parents, Èmile and Louise, but gave them a fictitious last name, Lecouvreur. (I like the name Lecouvreur because of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea, which I have seen several times in a fine production at the Frankfurt Opera and more recently at the Festival Hall in Baden-Baden, Germany.)
Émile and Louise Lecouvreur rented out rooms by the day or week, mainly to people from the country who had come to Paris looking for work in the factories or building trades. Some of the tenants only stayed for a day or week, others for months or years. Some of the older people lived out the rest of their lives at the hotel.
The novel is a loosely organized collection of stories and anecdotes about people who stayed at the hotel. Most of them were people who worked long hours at hard jobs for little money, and the author describes them with sympathy but without any sort of romantic idealizing. The book was a great success when it was published in 1929. It was awarded a prize called the Prix du roman populiste in 1931.
My copy of L’Hôtel du Nord is an old paperback edition that I bought from a bouquiniste on the left bank of the Seine for all of two Euros.
In 1938 the French film director Marcel Carné made a film version of L’Hôtel du Nord. The stars of the film were meant to be Annabella (1907-1996) and Jean-Pierre Aumont (1911-2001), but the film is remembered mainly for two of its supporting actors, Arletty (1898-1992) and Louis Jouvet (1887-1951). In my post entitled Atmosphère, atmosphère . . . I have attempted to describe their most famous scene, on a bridge over the Canal Saint-Martin.
Louis Jouvet in this film looks and sounds like a French version of Humphrey Bogart, with a cigarette constantly dangling from his lips or his fingers. Besides being a popular stage and film actor he was also the director, from 1934 until his death in 1951, of the beautiful Athénée theater in the center of Paris. I have so far been to two opera performances at this theater, which is now called the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet in his honor.
In the last chapter of the novel, Èmile and Louise Lecouvreur watch wistfully as their hotel is demolished to make room for a new factory. But this was only a fictional ending, because the hotel wasn’t really torn down until the 1980s. Even then, the façade and front end of the building were preserved thanks to the efforts of a preservation committee led by none other than Arletty, who was then blind and in her eighties and had long since stopped performing in public.
The Hôtel du Nord is on a street called Quai de Jemmapes which runs along the side of the canal. Since streets in Paris tend to be named after saints or battles, and since there has never been a saint named Jemmapes, it should come as no surprise that Jemmapes (a town in Belgium) was the site of a battle in 1792 which resulted in a French victory.
Today the Hôtel du Nord is no longer a hotel, but there is a popular café/restaurant on the ground floor — and a Vélib’ station, number 10111, right in front.
Since 1989 the façade of the Hôtel du Nord has been classed as a historical monument with a “History of Paris” plaque at the front.
Just to confuse matters, there is another Hôtel du Nord (which really is a hotel) just three or four blocks away (depending on what you count as a block) at 47 Rue Albert Thomas.
So far I haven’t stayed at this other Hôtel du Nord, but I once went over and had a chat with the owner, who was very friendly. In the lobby he has some posters from the film Hôtel du Nord by Marcel Carné.
Judging from their website, they seem to have reasonable prices and even have ten free bicycles for their guests to use. Their website used to say that the bicycles were only for people up to age 65, but now they have removed the age limit — perhaps as a result of my protest?
As far as I know, this hotel is not listed on any of the booking websites, so if you want to stay here you have to contact them directly. If I ever manage to stay at this other Hôtel du Nord, I’ll update this post and tell you all about it.
My photos in this post are from 2012 and 2013. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Canal cruise on the Canal Saint-Martin