John Baxter talks about sex and love in the City of Light
Renowned film critic, biographer, and Paris resident John Baxter’s new book, “We’ll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light,” is a gushing love letter to his adoptive city.
Both an autobiography as well as an exploration of the French capital as a sexual and artistic center, “We’ll Always Have Paris” delves deeply into the seedy – and not so seedy, focusing on this town and its history of sexual liberty, institutional eroticism, and aristocratic deviants. Born in Australia, Baxter is a first-rate globetrotter, having worked in the film industry in Sydney, as a broadcaster in London, and as a screenwriter in Hollywood before deciding to move to here.
He has also found the time to write over 40 books, including acclaimed biographies of Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick and Robert De Niro. In person, he’s gregarious and charming, the kind of man who’s at home with interviews, and he happily obliges when asked about what it is about Paris that gives it its reputation as a haven for pleasure-seekers. “The French are after all the world’s great connoisseurs, and the language of sensual appreciation is French,” he says. “We all grew up with the idea that things French are first of all sexy, and secondly very detailed. The detail is what sets it apart – when you speak of France from anywhere else in the world, it’s always with a sense that, ‘Ah, there they do pleasure properly – they don’t skimp, they do it right.'”
Baxter’s personal history proves his genuine belief in the superiority of all things French. At the age of 50 and living in Los Angeles, he dropped everything – his job as a screenwriter, a comfortable home, and a wide circle of friends – to follow a woman to Paris, a city he hardly knew. The woman, Marie-Dominique, would later become his wife, and the story of their marriage and the subsequent birth of their child is central to his book.
It’s great fun to read about John Baxter’s own particularly interesting life, but even more intriguing is his no-holds-barred appreciation of Parisian excess, especially that of the early 20th century. On the subject of opium dens, Baxter is quick to note that it wasn’t easy to smoke opium in the days of Jean Cocteau, as the paraphernalia was quite excessive. “To be an opium smoker was quite a responsibility – you had to have the gear, and you couldn’t show up with crummy stuff. In that sense, it was a lot like golf,” he says with a grin.
As for brothels, Baxter clearly has a respect for this French cultural mainstay. “The brothels were wonderfully elegant with special appointments and customized rooms, and they often had a kitchen where special sexual dishes were prepared,” he says. It’s evident from his half-reverential, half-incredulous tone that the Paris Baxter uncovered in his research is uniquely hedonistic. Above all, though, he commends Parisians for their insistence that pleasure be done right. “After all,” he says, “if it’s hard to make a soufflé or a great baguette, why should it be easy to smoke opium or go to a whorehouse?”