From Canvas to Café to Crown: The Inimitable Kiki of Montparnasse

Heather Hartley

For all of the bohemian brouhaha of 1920s Paris, a woman still had to wear a hat to be seated in the main room of the popular and posh brasserie La Rotonde. It follows that climbing up on tables to sing bawdy, comic songs in cabarets or posing nude for artists might not be the best way for a single girl to go in the early part of the twentieth century.

It was pretty clear that Alice Ernestine Prin wasn’t too concerned with convention, even after being crowned the Queen of Montparnasse. By then, she was well known as Kiki, and with sovereignty, set out her own rules. Among them, the dictate: “All I need is an onion, a bit of bread, and a bottle of red [wine],” she said, “And I will always find somebody to offer me that.”

Photo by Roger Violle

Posing for Soutine, Cocteau, Calder, Modigliani and many others, she was also a main muse and model for Man Ray. Her lover for over six years, he took hundreds of photographs of her, including the startling and stunning Le Violin d’Ingres. “There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love,” Man Ray said. “There are simply different ways of doing it.” And his way of doing art—photography, film, rayographs—featured Kiki throughout most of the 1920s.

Not a woman to sit still for long, she also appeared in films like Fernand Léger’s “Ballet Méchanique” and “L’Étoile de Mer,” by Man Ray in collaboration with poet Robert Desnos. Add to that the sell-out exhibit of her paintings in Paris in 1927 and her book Kiki’s Memoirs with a preface by Hemingway. “She was very wonderful to look at,” he writes. “Having a fine face to start with, she made it a work of art.” Published in 1929 in Paris and translated the next year into English, Kiki’s Memoirs was banned in the US and later reprinted in the 1950s with the title The Education of a French Model.

Fresh, humorous and unfussy, Kiki’s Memoirs is a candid chronicle of the rowdy, radical and sometimes fickle Roaring Twenties from the perspective of one of the darlings among the Montparnasse movers and shakers. It’s a rare and exceptional find in Paris, in English or French. Audacious, indulgent and daring, Kiki proclaimed, “Poet, painter, actor. Outside of these three occupations, I admit no other mortal [into my life].”

Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She has been Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.