La Comtesse et Le Greffulhe – What’s In a Name?

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La Comtesse Café, from the hotel website
Shortly after our arrival in Paris, we were surprised to see a new café, La Comtesse, at the corner of Avenue de Tourville and Avenue Duquesne. I was intrigued by the décor that I could see inside, and also the name. I thought “Which Comtesse?” The Comtesse Greffulhe perhaps? We went to lunch at the café a few days later and learned from our waitress that the owners had no particular Comtesse in mind, but rather the idea of the 18th century salon movement, in which ladies of the upper crust would invite accomplished persons, such as artists or musicians, and not only society people, into their homes, to cultivate the arts and learning generally, and to drink hot chocolate. The café is thus an important conceptual part of the Comtesse hotel, which advertises 40 guest rooms, with front or side views of the Eiffel Tower.

I wrote earlier that we had sought out Proust’s home of many years at 102 Boulevard Hausmann. A few days later we decided to seek out another place where Proust once lived, 9 Boulevard Malesherbes. Along the way toward the Madeleine we passed by the Elysée Palace, the Colombian and British Embassies, on the Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré. From the Madeleine it is a short walk up to this site:

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9, Boulevard Malesherbes, boyhood home of Marcel Proust
The plaque beside the door announces a dental surgeon’s office. This is a nice Haussmannian building, much more so than 102 Boulevard Haussmann, which has no grill-work window treatments. In any case it is through these portals that the young Proust regularly passed on his way to and from school or play.

Not far from here is another establishment connected to Proust indirectly: Le Greffulhe, a brasserie/restaurant at 29 Rue des Mathurins. It is situated across the street from the Théâtre des Mathurins and the Théâtre Michel, and according to the website is indeed named after Henry Greffulhe, “elected deputy in 1889.” We decided to eat lunch there.

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The rue des Mathurins is very narrow
The food was excellent, the service efficient. The tables near us began to fill up, not with tourists, but with working people on lunch break.

Le Greffulhe is a short walk from Proust’s boyhood home. Also it is not expensive. The website suggests making reservations on-line, so it might be advisable to do that for dinner. For lunch, the place was about half full by the time we left. The website suggests that you might see some actors dining there, but it does not provide full details about why the restaurant was named for Henry Greffulhe. I wrote an email to the manager, Michel Polard, and he replied to me right away, explaining that the Greffulhe family lived in the Rue Astorg, just a few streets away. So being a representative of the neighborhood in the government, a neighbor, and somewhat famous as well, it made all the sense in the world in 1909 for the proprietor to name this establishment, where one could buy drinks and coal, after him. It probably helped that the place was frequented by celebrities and actors.

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Henry Greffulhe 1881
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Elsabeth Greffulhe (1860-1952), autoportrait, 1899 (Musée Carnavalet), click picture to go to website
His wife was even more famous, and served as a model for two of Proust’s characters, the Duchess and the Princess of Guermantes. Henry Greffulhe was not particularly happy about his wife’s fame, even though she never did anything scandalous. She specialized as a promoter – today we would say fund-raiser – of music, art, and science. Wherever she went, she caused a sensation both because of her beauty and because of her original gowns. Henry probably would not have liked anyone to name a beer and coal supplier after her. He also wound up in Proust’s novel, as the womanizing, Jupiterian Duc de Guermantes.

Paris owes a great deal to its past, and Parisians refer to it, even in such simple things as choosing a name for a hotel or restaurant.

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