Over the decades, I have enjoyed researching the lives of the cultural icons in the cemetery, the history of burial traditions, as well as attitudes toward death and dying through many films, books and websites.
The following are a few recommendations:
FOREVER – Heddy Honigmann’s 2006 documentary (English subtitles). On the Internet, one can find a myriad of home-style videos about the cemetery with varying degrees of production value and content. However, I find the documentary FOREVER to be the most interesting and well-produced. For one, I discovered the Iranian poet Sādegh Hedāyat through this film and for that I am eternally grateful. Check it out on Netflix.
The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Ariès, Oxford University Press. A landmark history of Western man’s changing attitudes toward death — and life — over the last one thousand years. This is a tome at six-hundred-plus pages but it is an important book and a fascinating read by a remarkable author.
The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in 18th Century Paris by Richard Etlin, MIT Press. Etlin is an architectural scholar who serves on the faculty of the Department of Architecture at the University of Maryland. I was lucky enough to see a galley of his book through my friend, the late author John Russell, so I knew I had to purchase a copy the minute it was published. It’s out of print now, but well worth the investment if you want to purchase a copy through an online source.
A Guide to the Art in Paris Cemeteries — Père Lachaise Cemetery by Steve Soper and Marie Belyheme, Old 3rd Printing. All text. This updated, expanded version came out in fall, 2017. Both are passionate historians who have informative web sites: Steve’s focuses on sculpture, while Marie’s French language site covers the early history of the cemetery.
Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith Publisher. A field guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Doug is a master photographer and his writing style makes the subject entertaining, as well as informative. He has many other titles to his credit. Check them out.
Beyond Grief by Cynthia Mills, Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press. Sculpture and Wonder in the Gilded Age. A gem of a book that delves into the stories behind great funerary monuments. I was drawn to it because it includes the Augustus Saint-Gauden’s sculpture, The Adams Memorial located at Rock Creek Cemetery in my hometown of Washington, D.C.
These are books by or about creative spirits buried in Père Lachaise:
My self-imposed reading list through the 80s and 90s was exclusively books about people buried in Père Lachaise. I was never at a loss for fascinating stories.
The Journal of Eugène Delacroix edited by Hubert Wellington, Cornell University Press, part of the Landmarks in Art History series. There is nothing like stepping into this artist’s 19th century studio and following along on his travels. I am so grateful that this man kept a journal where I discovered his conversations with another resident of Père Lachaise, Théodore Géricault.
Modigliani A Life by Merle Secrest, Alfred A. Knopf. Full disclosure, I personally know and admire Merle. I met her when she was at the Washington Post doing profile interviews of notable personalities from Leonard Bernstein to Anaïs Nin. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and all her books are wonderful, including biographies of Romaine Brooks, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Rodgers and many more. I live vicariously through the lives of artists and their times. Merle delivers an intimate view of Paris in the artistic zenith of the late 1800s and early 1900s through Modigliani’s eyes. I LOVE THIS BOOK.
Black Boy (American Hunger), Richard Wright’s autobiography, HarperPerennial. Richard Wright was a new author to me back in the 1990s. Wright’s Black Boy charts his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. This edition includes an unused portion of Wright’s original manuscript, which, among many issues, revealed how the racism Wright encountered in Mississippi was disappointingly duplicated when he moved to Chicago. Wright moved to Paris in 1946 and became a permanent American expatriate. His words had a profound effect on me. Next on my list is his highly lauded, Native Son.
Gertrude and Alice by Diana Souhami, Harper Collins. This is a love story for the ages. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were together from the day they met in Paris in 1907 until Gertrude passed in 1946. Souhami is a superb story teller and she leaves nothing out concerning these two women’s sex lives, (very active), to their running an ambulance service during the war, (comical and harrowing automobile adventures), to their circle of equally illustrious friends including Natalie Barney, Picasso; PLUS the amazing trio that photographed them: Stieglitz, Man Ray and Cecil Beaton.
No One Here Gets Out Alive by Jerry Hopkins and Daniel Sugarman, Warner Books. And, Light My Fire My Life with the Doors by Ray Manzarek, G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Why two books? Both are terrific and told from distinctly different points of view, plus I met two of the authors; Danny Sugarman one of the managers of The Doors and Ray Manzarek, The Doors keyboard player. Both granted me interviews and Ray was particularly generous with his time and thoughts about his bandmate and inspiration, Jim Morrison whom he called a Shaman.
I owe a great debt to my father Don Campbell, who, in his last days gave me the best advice a daughter could ever have, “Never put off your dreams.”
My unwavering respect and thanks go to John Russell, the late art critic of the New York Times, whose support of my passion for Père Lachaise Cemetery began when I worked at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Our friendship continued for decades based on our shared love of France, culture and storytelling. John introduced me to Richard A. Etlin’s book The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris, which served as my true north in writing about Père Lachaise.
Words can’t express how British photographer Joe Cornish’s friendship and early images of Père Lachaise over the years have stood in as my muse when I was not in Paris. Another invaluable colleague was the late Patrick Bracco, head of the French Bureau of Historic Monuments, who first opened my mind and heart to the cemetery’s rich history and artistic significance.
I extend my deepest appreciation to the Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris for their photo permissions, and the many officials of the French government in the United States and in Paris without whose cooperation I would not have had the access to the cemetery and research that I have enjoyed. I am also eternally grateful to Christian Morieux, former cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., who made the crucial diplomatic introductions for me in the early 1980s.