Rendezvous chez Jim

"World space" ... Sunday dinner with strangers.
"World space" ... Sunday dinner with strangers. Photo: Terry Rye

Every Sunday for 30 years Jim Haynes has opened his Paris apartment for dinner. Susan Johnson finally joins the party.

Twenty years ago, as a young-ish writer living in Paris, I heard about a Sunday soiree held in a beautiful atelier. Anyone could turn up, pay as little or as much they liked (nothing if you were broke) and meet a bunch of hipsters over wine and a good dinner.

I use the word "hipster" intentionally, as I had heard these affairs were organised by an American of the hip-cat school, a remnant of the Beat generation. He purportedly knew Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and he also had some sort of swinging '60s sexual revolution connection, having hung out in London with John and Yoko and Richard Neville and Germaine Greer.

I can't remember how I heard about these dinners, since they were never advertised. I never went, either, being too shy to walk into a room of strangers, let alone hip-cat strangers. It was 1989 and I was 32, the lucky recipient of a fellowship with a studio bequeathed by Australian writer Nancy Keesing. I must have thought that to attend such dinners you had to be a star, or at least be star-struck, or maybe I thought the soirees were secret orgies.

This month I finally went to dinner chez Jim. The legendary Jim Haynes is now 76, the survivor of a heart attack and too old to chase women around the table, as I am too old to be chased. He's still inviting the world to dinner 30 years after he first opened his front door and his dinners are now so famous there's a waiting list.

He has still never placed an advertisement, as his dinners remain word-of-mouth affairs. But since the soirees have featured on America's National Public Radio, as well as in the International Herald Tribune, the Sunday Times and countless other newspapers and magazines, dinner chez Jim is a hot ticket.

And there he sits, on his stool by the kitchen counter, wearing a butcher's apron and ticking off yet more names on the long roll-call of more than 130,000 names that have passed through his atelier. To look at Haynes now, a courtly gent who has retained his southern drawl and who recently made a television advertisement for Nestle After Eight mints, it's hard to reconcile him with Suck, the newspaper of sexual freedom published in Amsterdam in the '60s that famously featured a naked Germaine Greer, her legs splayed, her nether regions revealed graphically.

Yet there is still a trace of the '60s about Haynes. This is a man who has had the nerve to keep dreaming the dream long after everyone else woke up and scuttled to the shelter of jobs and pensions. This is a man who still displays a poster reading "Jim's Plan: Stay At Home And Get Paid" and who makes his participation in an advertisement for a capitalist chocolate company sound like a bit of altruistic fun (payment was a modest cheque plus a lifetime supply of mints for his parties).

But, then again, Haynes has never really been political. He considers himself an Earthling rather than an American, a world citizen. He calls himself a "fullerist", that is, someone who is full of life and love and optimism, whose aim is to make not just his own life more fun, more full and more meaningful but everyone else's, too. To that end, his "world space" at Atelier A2, 83 Rue de la Tombe Issoire in Paris's 14th arrondissement is open to everyone and his dinners are really a subversive plan for world peace.

And, man, what dinners! I find a Romanian-German classical pianist named Aude Rain, full of stories about her work accompanying opera singers as they practise. She finds Parisians cold and Jim's parties warm. She's been coming for years.

There is a Franco-American sculptor called Claire who was a consultant for the Isabelle Adjani film, Camille Claudel, and another woman of a certain age who had spent the previous night with a Russian artist, who painted her naked and one thing had led to another. "What the hell," the woman says, "you only get asked once to pose naked by Russian artists in Paris."

There is a group booking of young architecture students from Oxford ("I normally hate group bookings but they begged," Haynes says) and various disreputable-looking characters who publish limited-edition poetry books or are somehow related to fringe members of the Bloomsbury group. There is a Guinness descendant and a gorgeous former model, Mary Bushee, whose father, Ward, is the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and whose mother, Claudia, was once on Jim's rota of Sunday-night cooks. There is Loni Mills, a nurse from Brisbane who wants to be an artist, and Lorraine Bennett, the editor of the Wollongong Advertiser. This is a no-sit-down affair - it's a matter of juggling plates and forks and glasses while standing up in a smallish room with 60 people. In summer there can be as many as 100, spilling out into garden.

And what food! It's the best Greek food I've eaten outside Greece, served by Seamus McSweeney, an Irishman who was passing through Paris 30 years ago on his way to Japan but never made it to Tokyo. (Haynes gets a discount on the food because he's friends with the owner of one of the best Greek restaurants in Paris.)

According to Haynes's 83-year-old neighbour, Madame Paupert, who was born in the atelier above his (and who always gets a plate of food taken up to her on Sundays), the ateliers were built in 1902. Haynes's atelier, shabby and unrenovated, has the most glorious floor-to-ceiling windows, through which the light of the sun - and moon - stream in.

The success of Haynes's soirees has inspired others: Michael Muszlak has a soiree in his apartment in the Latin Quarter; Patricia Laplante-Collins has twice-weekly events on the Ile de la Cite. There are soirees in Barcelona, London, Pittsburgh and New York - but there will only ever be one Sunday dinner in Paris chez Jim.

Susan Johnson travelled to Paris courtesy of Eurostar.

Bookings are essential for Jim Haynes's Sunday-night soiree in Paris, see jim-haynes.com. He suggests a donation of €25 ($38) but will accept less or more; any profits go to charity or help finance publication of books through his press, Handshake.

Michael Muszlak's Saturday night food-and-bilingual event is organised through the New York-based group, Meetup, see meetup.com/TalkTime. For Patricia Laplante-Collins's events, see parissoirees.com.

Comments