Mark Axelrod

Balzac’s Coffee ™


“But of course, it’s obvious, no?” was Balzac’s response to the question posed to him by George Sand during one of the latter’s candlelight dinners, “Why a coffee shop?”  "Coffee is a great power in my chases away sleep, and it gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects," Balzac continued. The fact that Balzac drank an enormous quantity of coffee (Maurois once suggested up to 50 cups per day) would lend credence to the decision.  But it wasn’t just the stimulation that convinced Balzac, but something much more tangible.  To understand why Balzac went into the business of coffee, one must know what his philosophy of coffee actually was.  It’s a bit like reading Poe without understanding his “Philosophy of Composition.”  To that end, one needs to read what could be called Balzac’s “Philosophy of Caffeine.”

            “Many people claim that coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people more boring. But, as Brillat-Savarin has correctly observed, coffee sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles; it accelerates the digestive processes, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects.

            Rossini has personally experienced some of these effects as, of course, have I. "Coffee," Rossini told me, is an affair of fifteen or twenty days; just the right amount of time, fortunately, to write an opera." [After consuming coffee] one wants everything to proceed with the speed of ideas. One actually becomes that fickle character, The Poet, condemned by grocers and their like. One assumes that everyone is equally lucid. A man of spirit must therefore avoid going out in public. Coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale.

            For a can obtain the right amount of stimulation with one, then two cups of coffee brewed from beans that have been crushed with gradually increasing force and infused with hot water. For another week, by decreasing the amount of water used, by pulverizing the coffee even more finely, and by infusing the grounds with cold water, you can continue to obtain the same cerebral power. When you have produced the finest grind with the least water possible, you double the dose by drinking two cups at a time; particularly vigorous constitutions can tolerate three cups. In this manner, one can continue working for several more days.

            Finally, I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigour, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain.

            From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink -- for the nightly labour begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

            I recommended this way of drinking coffee to a friend of mine, who absolutely wanted to finish a job promised for the next day: he thought he'd been poisoned and took to his bed, which he guarded like a married man. He was tall, blond, slender and had thinning hair; he apparently had a stomach of papier-mâché. There has been, on my part, a failure of observation.

     When you have reached the point of consuming this kind of coffee, then become exhausted and decide that you really must have more, even though you make it of the finest ingredients and take it perfectly fresh, you will fall into horrible sweats, suffer feebleness of the nerves, and undergo episodes of severe drowsiness. I don't know what would happen if you kept at it then: a sensible nature counseled me to stop at this point, seeing that immediate death was not otherwise my fate. To be restored, one must begin with recipes made with milk and chicken and other white meats: finally the tension on the harp strings eases, and one returns to the relaxed, meandering, simple-minded, and cryptogamous life of the retired bourgeoisie.

     The state coffee puts one in when it is drunk on an empty stomach under these magisterial conditions produces a kind of animation that looks like anger: one's voice rises, one's gestures suggest unhealthy impatience: one wants everything to proceed with the speed of ideas; one becomes brusque, ill-tempered about nothing. One actually becomes that fickle character, The Poet, condemned by grocers and their like. One assumes that everyone is equally lucid. A man of spirit must therefore avoid going out in public. I discovered this singular state through a series of accidents that made me lose, without any effort, the ecstasy I had been feeling. Some friends, with whom I had gone out to the country, witnessed me arguing about everything, haranguing with monumental bad faith. The following day I recognized my wrongdoing and we searched the cause. My friends were wise men of the first rank, and we found the problem soon enough: coffee wanted its victim. But to be frank, it I had one business I would be eager to engage in, it would be the coffee business.  No other would allow me the freedom to express my thoughts without restriction.[1]


            So it was that obsession, if not that addiction, plus Balzac’s insatiable desire to make a lot of money that drove him to create Balzac’s Coffee.  However, when it came to business, Balzac was an perpetual failure.  He had tried every conceivable scam to make money from publishing fraudulent editions of Molière to starting Balzac’s Balls (See: Borges’ Travel, Hemingway’s Garage), but they were all disasters (See: The Politics of Style in the Fiction of Balzac, Beckett and Cortázar).  However, Balzac was absolutely positive that the coffee business would be his ticket to an early retirement on Antibes and he even said as much to Sand in a note he wrote to her on 31 March 1846:  “Coffee shall be my financial elixir just as it has been my creative elixir.”  Sand, who was a lot better off financially than Balzac, advanced him some money to open the first Balzac’s Coffee on the Rue Fortunée on 31 March 1847.

            After an initial four months of success, the shop fell on tough times when a harsher than normal winter destroyed a major coffee crop in Colombia and Balzac’s manager, a certain Vautrin, absconded with a month’s worth of receipts (See Café Molière).  Balzac became disconsolate.  In October 1848, Balzac travelled to the Ukraine to visit his love, Mme Hanska whose husband had died in 1841. But neither Madame Hanska’s love nor Sand’s encouragement nor Chopin’s music could comfort him.  Disconsolation became depression and depression became dissipation.  His health in disrepair, Balzac and Hanska were married in March 1850. Balzac returned with her to Paris, where he tried to salvage what little he could of the business, but died on 18 August 1850.

            In order to settle his debts, Balzac’s debts, Madame Hanska sold the franchise to a German company which maintains the rights to his name to this day.    In death as in life, coffee played a vital role in work.  In a letter dated 17 August 1850, Balzac wrote, “if ever a sculpture is chiseled in my memory make sure I am holding a cup of coffee.”  Rodin was aware of the letter, but thought a cape was more majestic.



Dante’s Café


Dante was on a roll!  After opening a chain of cafés in South America, it was only a matter of time before he opened one in Europe and where else but Amsterdam.  But the original idea wasn’t Dante’s at all.  Actually, it was Beatrice Portinari’s who suggested the café idea in the first place.  In a recently released book by Allesandro Civitas, he writes that “…the Divine Comedy wasn’t meant to be a comedy at all, but a chain of restaurants as witnessed by the café he opened in Santiago de Chile.”[2]

Civitas also goes on to say that as early as 10 March 1301, a year to the day before Dante was banished from Florence under pain of death, Beatrice had written Dante with the idea of beginning a restaurant franchise.  This new document does shed light on the actual origins of the Dante chain of restaurants.  The origin of the South American restaurants has been thoroughly documented (See: Borges’ Travel, Hemingway’s Garage), but how the Amsterdam café originated has long been speculated until Civitas’ book.

            One has to remember that between his exile in 1302 and the repeal of his sentence in 1315, Dante had spent most of those years in South America.  However, according to Civitas, the years 1315-16 were, until now, undocumented.  Some have suggested he was in Romagna, others, Ravenna, but no one had ever suggested Amsterdam.  And this is the most astonishing evidence to date.  In his research, Civitas discovered that Dante had a long and unknown correspondence and subsequent affair with a 19-year old Dutch milk maiden who only went by the name, Marietje.  Just how Dante met Marietje is unknown, but a packet of letters found by Civitas in, of all places, Amsterdam's Red Light District tells the entire story.  Known locally as the Walletjes, or generically as Rossebuurt, the district is near two of the city's oldest canals, the Oudezijds Achterburgwal and the Oudezijds Voorburgwal and around the Oudekerkplein, in an area bordered by the Warmoestraat and the Nieuwmarkt.              Now just how Civitas “chanced” upon this letter he doesn’t say, but the letter has been evaluated and carbon dated and it appears genuine.  Unfortunately, the letters Dante sent to Marietje are exact duplicates of those he sent to Beatrice with minor modifications.  And though he expresses his love for her in various ways, he is clear in a letter from Ravenna dated 13 August 1321 that his intention was to return to Amsterdam and open a café there with Marietje.  Included in the letter was an itinerary and a business plan based on the one he used in Chile and an allusion to the fact that he was not “feeling well” since part of the letter uses the phrase, “pisciare sangue.”  He was also clear that if anything happened to him, Marietje was to open the café on her own accord.  How prescient he was since Dante succumbed only a month later.  There is no documentation available on how Marietje found out about Dante’s death, though there is some speculation that she became a prostitute and discovered that one of the other women in the brothel had been Dante’s consort at one time. Regardless, she followed his directions completely and the café, located at 320 Spuistraat, still stands as a testament to her love for him.

DaVinci’s Restaurant


Ah, DaVinci…inventor, military engineer, sculptor, illustrator, architect, scientist, restaurateur.  Restaurateur?  Yes, it was the DaVinci no one knew about, but it was only a matter of time before DaVinci would open a restaurant since food was so important to him.  As a matter of fact, it is now known that the Mona Lisa was actually modeled on a woman who was to become his first waitress![3]  It’s also patently clear by the subject matter of his paintings: The Last Supper, 1497; the Proportions of the Human Figure, 1490 (which was originally titled the Proportions of the Human Waiter); the restaurant in the background of St. Jerome, 1480; the restaurant in the foreground of the Annunciation, originally commissioned for Verrocchio, 1478; the background of the uncompleted, Adoration of the Magi, 1482; and the recently discovered sketch books, titled Coglioneria: Sketches of a Frustrated Restaurateur.  In the sketch book, DaVinci had designed over 236 different restaurants in hopes that some day he might have his own. 

            This all came to a head 8 April 1476 when Leonardo, then 24, and several others were denounced to the police for having "committed sodomy" with a 17-year old model named Jacopo Saltarelli.  The anonymous accusation was found in tamburo outside the Palazzo Vecchio and read that Saltarelli "...consents to please those persons who request such wickedness of him" and that he had "served several dozen people." The assumption was that Saltarelli was a male prostitute and though the case came before the courts twice, it was dismissed on both occasions.  But the truth was Leonardo and Saltarelli eventually became lovers! 

            In a recently published book titled Lui gli ha fatto una bella pipa[4] it is clear that they had remained lovers for decades and eventually moved to California where, Leonardo thought, homosexuality would be more tolerated.  In 1516, a 40-year old Leonardo and a 33-year old Saltarelli, with some funding from Lorenzo di Pietro de' Medici, both sailed to California on board one of Colon’s ships, the La Quaglia which was headed for the port of San Francisco.  Unfortunately, their cartographer became confused and they ended at what is now known as Laguna Beach.  What they discovered was a haven for homosexuals and they bought a bungalow there before making their way inland to Tustin where Leonardo fulfilled his desire of opening his own restaurant (and, eventually, a motel) due to the astute real estate savvy of Saltarelli who opened his own real estate agency there as well.  But in June, 1518, Leonardo was recalled to Italy to plan the festival at Amboise for the wedding of Lorenzo di Pietro de' Medici and Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne.  Though he had full intentions of returning to Tustin, that never happened.  In January, 1519, he became sick and only a few months later, he died.  Hearing of Leonardo’s death some months later, Saltarelli could not face living in Italy without Leonardo and remained in Tustin where he continued to own and operate all three businesses.  As living testimony to both of them, the businesses remain to this day.



Eisenstein’s Café



The question naturally arises: What could be the relationship among Eisenstein, Walter Benjamin, Mickey Mouse and a café in Hamburg bearing the former’s name?  Well, let’s work that one out.  There is a very famous photo of Eisenstein shaking hands with Mickey Mouse in 1930 (See: Last Page).  What very few people know is that the handshake wasn’t done as a publicity stunt, but was actually the conclusion to a business deal that Eisenstein made with the Mouse and brokered by Benjamin to open a café in Hamburg.  In her brilliant text, Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde, Esther Leslie writes that Walter Benjamin not only mentioned Mickey Mouse in the first draft of his monumental essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” but, at his death, left an assortment of press-cuttings and notes on the Mouse as well.

            What Leslie does not include is the chance meeting that took place with Eisenstein, the Mouse and Benjamin at, of all places, Cantor’s Delicatessen on Fairfax in July, 1930.  In 1929, Eisenstein had arrived in the United States for a tour.  He eventually came to Los Angeles where he was befriended by such Hollywood notables as Douglas Fairbanks, von Sternberg, Chaplin, and, eventually, Disney. But even before he arrived in the United States, Eisenstein had a contractual agreement with Jesse Lasky, who was head of Paramount at the time. Unfortunately, what Eisenstein learned during his tenure in Hollywood was what everyone else knew about the experience and what Brecht was to discover later (See: Brecht’s BMW).

            Though Eisenstein pitched a number of different projects, the Hollywood moguls rejected all of them.  And even though two scripts were written, Sutter's Gold, about the California gold rush, and An American Tragedy, based on Theodore Dreiser's novel, neither project went farther than the script phase.  Though Dreiser championed Eisenstein's script, Paramount rejected it flat out.  In short, Eisenstein's treatment by the Hollywood moguls was best summed up in a remark attributed to Samuel Goldwyn: “I've seen your film Potemkin and admire it very much. What I would like is for you to do something of the same kind, but a little cheaper, for Ronald Coleman.”[5]  Eisenstein was to have responded to Goldwyn’s comment with a comment of his own, “Er zol vaksen vi a stsibeleh, mit dem kop in drerd.”  The response loses a lot in translation.  Back to Cantor’s.

            Coincidentally, Benjamin happened to be in Los Angeles at the same time conducting a lecture tour that included UCLA.  Needing a corned beef fix as Benjamin said, he went to Cantor’s where he bumped into Eisenstein.  The two were familiar with each other’s work and in the course of the conversation Eisenstein mentioned that he was interested in eventually opening a café.  Benjamin said that he had some property in Hamburg located adjacent to the Filmstudium at the University of Hamburg and asked if Germany would be okay for him. Eisenstein said, yes.

At that very instant, none other than the Mouse walked past their table.  Benjamin who knew the Mouse well and had written about him in his essay, immediately invited him to join them whereupon Eisenstein graciously complimented the Mouse on "Steamboat Willie."  Eisenstein admired Mickey for being what he called "Plasmatic" in other words, the Mouse's animated form wasn’t fixed, but abstract and flexible like the music that paralleled the script.  Embarrassed, the Mouse thanked Eisenstein, asked what he was doing in Los Angeles and soon the conversation returned to the café in Hamburg.  Eisenstein said he’d like to open a café in the future as a retirement investment, but really didn’t have the capital.  That was not a problem for the Mouse who, flush with capital after signing a long-term contract with Disney, suggested the two of them go into partnership and buy Benjamin’s property.  To make a long story short, the café was opened in 1939, closed during the war, then reopened under new management in 1950.  It still operates today adjacent to the Filmstudium at the University of Hamburg where two of its most popular dishes are Lebkuchen von Mickey and Brotzeitteller von Benjamin.

[The Mouse and Eisenstein sealing the deal at the front door of Cantor’s Deli, Fairfax, Los Angeles, California.]




Manon Frères Sweet Pea

New York City

Yeah, right, well if you think Lolita was a handful you look at Manon and tell me what you wouldn’t do for her?  Clearly, Des Grieux had his hands full with Manon in more ways than one, but what’s even more interesting than Des Grieux’s dilemma is Prévost’s dilemma.  After all, he didn’t start off as a monk.  So what, in fact, drove him to monkdom, then away from monkdom, then back to monkdom?  These are questions that have been recently answered in a stunning biography, Porn, Perfume and Prévost: Notes on a Decadent Monk.[6]

It’s common knowledge that Prévost had a Jesuit education and felt he wanted to take the calling.  It’s not exactly clear when he first hung up on the calling, but what is known is that he went into the military after that.  But since he returned to the calling at the age of 23, one can speculate that at least for a few years Prévost discovered the fruits of debauchery and the decadent life through his acquaintance with “She Who Was Manon.”  For about eight years he worked at several abbeys in France while simultaneously writing the novels that composed the Man of Quality.  But the cloth never really fit Prévost and in 1728 he actually took a position as a tutor for a former Lord Mayor of London.  Where “She Who Was Manon” was at that time there has only been speculation, but Scaramouche’s biography clears it all up. What is common knowledge is that The Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, popularly known as Manon Lescaut (Vol. VII of the Mémoires ), is the moving account of the passion of a rather nerdish Lescaut for the lascivious Manon whose sexual capriciousness eventually leads him to prison and her to death in America. What Scaramouche reveals in his book is that in those missing years Prévost had engaged in all sorts of youthful debaucheries encouraged by “She Who Was Manon” a Dutch-German beauty.  

From the summer of 1730 and for the next five years, Prévost lived and tediously worked in Amsterdam while Manon essentially lived the life of a princess. This is all meticulously documented in Scaramouche’s book.  What is even more revealing is that the real Manon didn’t die.  Like the Manon of the novel, Manon left France for New Orleans in 1734, but it was because she had brothers in the States.  Once in New Orleans, Manon fell out of love with Prévost and in love with a jazz musician.  Prévost, crushed by the experience, returned to France and re-entered the order where he eventually was made a priory by the Pope.  Meanwhile Manon not only became a top fashion model in New Orleans, but, with the help of her brothers, moved to New York City where they started their own line of perfumes.  Ironically, the most well-known of them was Sweet Pea, the nickname Prévost gave to Manon when they were lovers in those heated Holland days in Amsterdam.


[1] The Reign of Caffeine: Balzac, Coffee, Realism.  François Déconnage.  Golden Triangle, N.C.: Dook University Press, 2003.

[2] Alighieri’s Appetizers: Dante’s La Divina Comida.  Rome: Edizioni Focoso, 2003.

[3] From  Lasagne Magro to Mona Lisa: The Waitress Behind the Genius  Carlo Emilio Calvino.  Milan: Edizioni Scola, 2002.

[4] Lui gli ha fatto una bella pipa. Luchresi Rizzarsi.  Edizione Foccaccia. Translated by Mark Axelrod as The Saltarelli Diaries.  Tustin, CA: Saltarelli Press, 2003.

[5] Leon Moussinac, Sergei Eisenstein, New York: Crown Publishers, 1970, p. 167.

[6] Porn, Perfume and Prévost: Notes on a Decadent Monk. Etienne Scaramouche.  Paris: Balzac Press, 2000.



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