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Der Himmel über Paris


Imagine that you are the two angels in Wim Wenders’ film, “Der Himmel über Berlin,” (“Wings of Desire,” in America, though himmel translates as both "sky" and "heaven"), but instead of Berlin, you are in Paris on the evening of May 17, 2011. You can fly anywhere in the city and overhear conversations inside apartments you pass, or linger and watch and listen to the thoughts of the humans.

You might feel compassion for every human in every dwelling place you pass, including the men and women who make their home on the streets.

But surely there would be certain scenes you'd find more compelling than others. Even angels have preferences.

Surely if you’d passed by the windows of a certain apartment on Boulevard Saint-Germain, and saw a queenly woman dressed in black, with a humorous, wry expression on her face, seated on a divan facing a gathering of men and women eager to hear her stories, you would perch on the windowsill to listen. For this was a woman who’d traveled widely, and interviewed many of the leading artists of our time.

She wore big red sunglasses, red lipstick, and a scarf with a design like black and white piano keys. She wore sandals like those Gertrude Stein wore. She wore a black and white turban on her head like the ones Simone de Beauvoir wore.

And her first story was about Simone de Beauvoir.

Edith Sorel was living in Cuba, married to a Haitian, earning a living as a translator for Fidel Castro of his speeches.  Since he paid by the word and discoursed at length, it was a good job.



Jean-Paul Sartre came to speak in Havana, accompanied by Simone de Beauvoir. The state newspaper, Revolución, wrote an article about the noted writer, Sartre, and his companion, de Beauvoir, without a word about de Beauvoir’s accomplishments.

Edith wrote her first-ever article and fired it off to Revolución, detailing Mme. de Beauvoir’s importance as both a writer and philosopher, whose 1954 book, The Second Sex, was a clarion call for a feminist awakening.

The article was published the next day, and voilà, she received a call the following day from Simone de Beauvoir herself, inviting her to visit them at their hotel in Havana.

Edith knocked at their door, and de Beauvoir opened. She was quite beautiful, with dark hair and blue eyes, yet her voice was shrill. Whereas Sartre, who was the ugliest man Edith had ever seen, had the most beautiful voice.

Edith arranged for the French couple to meet Che Guevara, who now had the post of director of the National Bank. The meeting occurred at 4 a.m. in the bank, and Edith said that because she served as translator among the three of them, she doesn’t remember a word of what was said.

So began her career as a journalist—all because Revolución had not understood the importance of de Beauvoir, but Edith had.


She was hired first by Revolución, then was swapped for a French journalist, and sent to work in Paris. Since she wasn’t paid much, the newspaper supplemented her pay with winters in Cuba.  Her first "major assignment" was covering the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial.

For years, Edith had lunch in Paris every six weeks with de Beauvoir. The writer liked to break from her work for lunch later than most, for exactly two hours, then return to her writing. She was very disciplined, Edith said.

And throughout the time she knew de Beauvoir and Sartre, they always looked at one another as if they’d just fallen in love, each alert for every word of the other, each acting as if they were seeing the other for the first time.

From Paris, she was sent to interview Pablo Picasso in Vallauris for his 80th birthday celebration.



She was immediately struck by his piercing eyes. Scorpio eyes, she said. Everyone brought him huge, extravagant gifts. Great bottles of champagne and massive quantities of food. Even a large painting painted by the children of the local potters.

Picasso got down on the floor with the children and discussed every detail of the painting: “This bull is very fine, but perhaps his ear could be changed like this…”

He was full of curiosity and excitement, said Edith, just like a child, always curious about everything.

Later, as she was walking in the street with her photographer, a long Lincoln Continental pulled up beside them.

Hola, chica,” came Picasso’s voice from the back seat. “Get in.”

They climbed in, went with him to a café, where he asked Edith, “Did you like my birthday exposition?”

The photographer kicked her under the table.

“I haven’t seen it,” she said (although she had).

“Then I will take you to see it right now!”

And so, just as the photographer knew would happen, the two of them were led through the show by Picasso, who told them all about each painting while the photographer snapped photos.

Henry Miller… Edith was assigned to interview Henry Miller in Pacific Palisades. He was close to 80 years old at the time, and his wife was nearly 50 years younger than he.

Before Edith could get to her first question, Miller said, "Sex.  Right?  You want me to talk about sex."

She was taken aback, but only for a heartbeat.  "No.  I want you to talk about love." 



Miller looked pleased.

“You married five times. Why did you marry so often?”

“Because you had to marry women then to sleep with them.” (Does this remind you of anyone else, say, Elizabeth Taylor?) “But my great love was a woman I didn’t marry. She was 20 years older. I was 19 at the time.”

(Although Miller may have married for sex each time, his last wife, it is reported, refused to sleep with him because, "You are an old man.")

Everywhere you looked there were paintings, Edith said. Covering all the walls, and even on the ceiling. Henry Miller painted a water color every single day.



Edith made an appointment three months in advance to interview Ingmar Bergman the director of famously angst-ridden films. He was directing a play in Munich, Germany. When she arrived, the Nazi-like guard at the playhouse stopped her. No, she did not have an appointment. No, she could not see Bergman. She asked to speak to his secretary. No, he did not have a secretary.

She raised her voice, in German. The guard made a phone call. Down came Bergman’s secretary, who was appalled; apparently she had forgotten to write the appointment in Bergman’s calendar. However, Bergman’s home was not far from the theater. Perhaps she’d be willing to meet him there? This was even better, Edith said. She always liked to meet people in their own homes; it was more revealing. When she arrived, he was not there, so she poked around, and even read one of his letters.  (Or so she told him, though perhaps she didn’t.)

Bergman was a man with big ears and a big nose, so in photos you couldn’t see how attractive he was.  His height and figure and face all together were quite arresting. He was in an anguish of apology with her. He offered her a drink. She had her usual Scotch, and so did he. Still anguished over the forgotten appointment, he apologized, and then as they talked, they laughed and laughed, and had a wonderful time. The master of Scandinavian angst was a man of tremendous humor and joie de vivre.



The interview with Bergman was in sharp contrast to her interview with the comedian-filmmaker Woody Allen ("He had flaming red hair, you know.") in his apartment in New York City. You would recognize it from “Annie Hall,” "Manhattan," and “Hannah and her Sisters.” All the familiar rooms.

She began by asking him about his prolific output, making a movie once a year.

“Yes,” he said.

She asked him various questions, to which he responded “Yes.” Or “No.”

He offered her a drink. It was only 11 a.m., but she needed a Scotch. It was apparent to her by now that she’d need the skills of both a dentist and a psychiatrist to get Woody to talk.



She asked him about the films of Ingmar Bergman.

“Bergman!” said Woody Allen. “He’s my god!”

“Have you met him?” Edith asked.

“No,” said Allen.

“Well, I have,” said Edith, and then, beginning with her stories of Bergman, the interview flowed.



We who were perched on the windowsill wanted more stories from Edith. But a documentary is being made about the ABCs of her great life, and perhaps we’ll hear more of her stories then.

Even angels have to wait for things to come forth in their own time. And we have all eternity to receive them.




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Reader Comments (28)

An especially interesting post, Kaaren - thanks!

Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 15:26 | Unregistered CommenterMiriam Berkley


You're welcome. We're so glad you enjoyed it!


Kaaren and Richard

Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 16:35 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren & Richard

I particularly loved the last picture, the one of a park with green trees and building far off. I don't know why. Perhaps it is because it seems like part of a city that would be ideal because of it.

Thank you for sharing your good fortune with me. You found your way into the heart of things so soon.


Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 16:37 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Moody

I can't think of two more attentive and attractive angels than you and Richard. And the photos! It's like an arsenal.

Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 16:39 | Unregistered CommenterAnna


Thank you! This last photo was taken by Richard in the large park closest to where we live (and my favorite), the Jardin du Luxembourg. Richard had to wait quite a while until people drifted out of the picture.

Actually I think the heart of things is wherever any of us live right now. Wherever our hearts are beating. Wherever we are alive. It's just easier to feel alive in a beautiful city or natural setting.


Kaaren & Richard

Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 18:05 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren

Dear Anna,

Oh no, the two angels are not Richard and me. They were an imaginative invitation for anyone who was not present at Edith's talk to perch on the windowsill invisibly and be there with us. Richard and I were fully in the room. By no stretch of imagination are we angels.

An arsenal of photos! That is a good description.

Much love,

Kaaren & Richard

Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 23:35 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren

YUMMY!!! This is good nourishment. And imagistically in word and visuals, each gets finer, more informative, and more surprising in its weave.

And where is the wall art coming from ,Richard? Papers emerging from walls, bodies in walls emerging from paper modernism and cartoon line art : love em. Oh the hanging pipe fetus boy. Oh the Père Lachaise hooded haunted shade queen...yum again.
You Go, guys!

Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 23:40 | Unregistered Commenter`Margo Berdeshevsky

This is so fascinating. I had a great time reading it. I loved the photos, too. Is the tombstone at Pere La Chaise (did I spell that right?) ? We had a wonderful visit there (almost got locked in at closing time), especially looking at Chopin's grave with its magnificent white marble (I think it's marble -- or maybe alabaster) monument. It happened to be Chopin's birthday and crowds of people had decorated the tomb with gorgeous flowers. I can't imagine that happening here. On the other hand, the most visited site is Jim Morrison's grave.

Has "Midnight in Paris" opened yet there? Great reviews here and we're seeing it next week.

Love to you both,
Ruth & Bill

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 5:02 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Lansford

Yes, yes, more Edith stories. I want to hear them from you, not wait for some documentary, you tell them so well. That picture of the clouds is breathtaking!

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 5:56 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Sherry

Dear Ruth, Hello!

Yes, the hooded figure is my favorite "shade" at Pere-Lachaise. I always think of Odysseus' trip to the underworld when I see it. Pere-Lachaise is a favorite spot of mine (see our journal "Rub it for Luck" a couple of posts ago) because it really is a necropolis, with its own architecture, its own sentiments, its own feelings, and with the juxtaposition of the truly bizarre and the truly treacly sentimental. And with birding.

We saw Midnight in Paris last night, with a truly receptive French crowd. In the opening montage (this gives away no plot points), the camera lingers on a local movie fourplex, Danton UGC, at which point the crowd burst into laughter, since it was the exact theater in which we were sitting.

Again, without giving away any plot, let's just say it's Woody's best, funniest and lightest in years, And the film is a justification of our recent life-changing decision to come here for good. Thank you, Woody. We expect an influx of Americans to follow.

Perhaps you and Bill?


Richard (& Kaaren)

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 13:36 | Unregistered CommenterRichard (and Kaaren)

Dear Margo:

We're so glad we can serve up a meal for your dining pleasure! Thank you!

Here are Richard's reports on the graffiti/street art photographs: Karl Marx is in the sculpture park along the Seine below Quai St. Bernard, in the 5th; the pencil is near you in the Marais, walk toward the Seine from Cafe Les Philosophes, second story on the right; the faux Picasso is in the 11th on rue de la Roquette; the lovers are in the 11th or 12th, in an alley in the garment district; "People like us…" is also in the Marais near Les Philosophes; the fetal figure hanging off the bucket is wall art in the 10th, overlooking Canal St. Martin; and the arrow with apostrophe is near Gare de Lyon, in the 12th.

Love to you,

Kaaren & Richard

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 15:53 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren & Richard

Dear Diane,

Stories for a storyteller, and images for an image-maker. Are you up in the clouds of Nepal in the story you're writing now? Is it turning out to be a novella or a novel? On that subject, talk to you tonight!

Much love (and thanks from Richard),

Kaaren & Richard

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 16:07 | Unregistered CommenterKaaren

So Nice, Richard and Kaaren....So Very Nice!
sid g.

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 18:39 | Unregistered Commentersid g.

Merci beaucoup!

Good luck on the new series. Please make sure that the version shown on the Web is not Flash, since we are Mac people!

And, as you know, Paris awaits the two of you. Woody Allen's new movie sums up many of the reasons. This journal tries to sum up the rest.

--Richard & Kaaren

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 19:32 | Unregistered CommenterRichard and Kaaren

I woke up to breakfast in Paris and oh what a feast! Thanks Kaaren and Richard.

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 21:51 | Unregistered CommenterClara Hsu


You are welcome. We will HAVE breakfast here on one of your trips, we hope.

R & K

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 23:38 | Unregistered CommenterRichard and Kaaren

Hi Kaaren,

I have been getting your wonderful journals. For half the winter I was living on the beach in a fishing village in Mexico, and the other half I have been home waiting for signs of spring!!

No matter where I am when I read your stories I am transported momentarily to the streets of Paris.

Your posts remind me of Klezmer music, which I have recently started listening to because I have a new boyfriend name Jeff and he plays violin in a Klezmer band, so I listen to it a lot.

The reason I am liking it is the same reason I like your posts, unlike Irish music or bluegrass, where all the songs sound like the other ones, each of his songs are different, there isnt any one "klezmer" sound...happy ones, fast ones, slow ones, interesting ones.

You flip all over the place, each new post a surprise; they all have the same Paris Play wrapper, but we never know what to expect inside.

Your postings go from observations on the street, to dialogue, to philosophy, to memory lane. I feel your love for animals, and poetry, and myths and legends, and all things Paris..

I love the photos and I love the writing, and its never boring.

So Kaaren... stay thrilled and healthy.

I send my love and best to you,

Liza M.

Monday, May 23, 2011 at 10:33 | Unregistered CommenterLiza M.

This is better than my cherished Paris Review Interviews collection. I am sitting on the edge of my chair! Thank you so very much for writing this and the art is fabulous. Wow. What a Monday morning gift!

Monday, May 23, 2011 at 15:24 | Unregistered CommenterJodi Barnes

Hi Kaaren, just read your post about Edith Sorel. It's marvelously evocative. And Richard, I'm adoring your photographs. (I've been shooting semi-seriously now for a few years.) Of course I am very happy for you about your move and not a little envious! Judith

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 1:46 | Unregistered Commenterjudith taylor

I am loving your blog and hope you both are seriously considering gathering these terrific posts together into a book. Kaaren, we haven't met but I've been hearing about you for years through Richard. After reading so many of these posts back-to-back, I would cherish a book about your life stories (both of you). What I'm so struck by is the joy and fearlessness with which both of you seem to approach life. Here in Ohio it's been raining for about six weeks straight. Everything is lush and green but I am longing for some of that Parisian mojo you two seem thigh-high in. Fan-fucking-photos, Richard, and Kaaren, your prose is thoughtful and offers something for those of us deep in a wet Midwestern spring.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 17:50 | Unregistered CommenterD'Arcy Fallon

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