TSC Interviews| Madam Odillard (The Beat Hotel)

Aletta Andre and Abhimanyu Kumar

A view of the street which leads to the Beat Hotel / Photo : Aletta Andre

Aletta Andre: Are you from Paris? 

Madam Odillard: Yes.

AA: You were born in Paris?

MO: Yes, I was.

AA: Is this your family’s property?

MO: No, I bought it. But I did not know it was a hotel so famous when I bought it. 

Abhimanyu Kumar: When you bought it, it was already in existence (as the Beat Hotel)? 

MO: Someone bought it in 1968 and renovated it. I came in 1980. I could not have run a hotel like that! 

(Before the start of the formal interview, she spoke of how she too renovated the Hotel and did away with the hole-in-the-floor latrines, and the stairs to construct a lift) 

A photo Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in the lobby of Beat Hotel/Photo : Abhimanyu Kumar

AK: How did you come to know of the Hotel’s existence?

MO: By chance. I lost my job. I was in the east of France. The whole east district was working with iron and steel. Steel works left for south of France. The industry moved and everyone was fired. My parents were living in Paris. I walked alone in the streets and I did not know what to do. (One day) I met a lady in a hotel, Hotel Odeon, it is still there. 

I asked her, “To run a hotel, it is difficult?” She said, “No, if you can manage people, you can do it.” Two weeks later, I came back and (I was) walking in the same street, I don’t know why, because my parents lived in another part of Paris, but I was walking here… (In the Latin Quarter – Ed) 

AK: It was in 1980?

MO: It was in 1979. I saw the same woman standing in the doorway and she asked me if I was the one she met two weeks ago. I said yes. She said, “Come in and have a cup of coffee. I have someone who wants to sell a hotel. You can speak with him.” I went in, had a cup of coffee. And the man said, “Look, if you want to see what a hotel is, I can take you around. And he took me to the worst hotel in Paris!” (chuckles again)

AA: Was it this hotel…?

MO: No, no, no, no, no! Because he did not know me, he wanted to see who I was…

AA: Yeah, how you would respond…

MO: So he took me around a few hotels, the worst ones…

AK: Why were they worst?

MO: They were dirty. (Exhales) With girls!

AA: After seeing that, you still wanted to run a hotel…?

MO: (Laughs) So, after months, he said,“Ok, you know how to count, you know how to speak, so I am going to show you a better hotel.”

AK: This man was like an agent?

MO: Yes, he was an agent, dealing in hotels. He had contacts. So I took out a map and I said,“I want a hotel in this part, or that part, I don’t want to go where the brothels are”; I wanted to come this way, to the south of Paris. We started to look around and when we came here, I said,“I want this one.”

AK: The Beat Hotel?

MO: Yes. 

AK: How did it look and why did you…

MO: Dirty! I will show a picture of what it looked like, I have a picture. Voila… (Shows a picture of the wallpaper in those day) The flowers (on the wallpaper) were grey, and brown… I said, “Look, I like the location and I think in my mind, I can make something of that.” And I kept the name like the previous owners who bought it from Madam Rachou. 

AK: So you are the third owner?

MO: Yes. 

AA: Why were they selling it? 

MO: Because they wanted to retire. 

AK: How long did they have it? 

MO: About ten years…So, I did not have any money; I went to see my mother-in-law, to ask her if she would sell an apartment so she can give(some) money…I (also) had three friends who said, “Look, you lost your job, you are crying. If you make a business, I will put money with you.”  When you are fired, you feel five years older, you think you are nothing. So, in my mind I said, if they put money in something I want to do, I am worth something….

AA: If other people trust you…

MO:  First, my husband did not want to tell his mother I wanted money (laughs). So for one month, we did not say anything. (Laughs again) At the end of the month, I prepared my luggage, and opened the door of the lift and I started to pull my luggage and I heard a voice behind me say, “Look, you can type the papers (of authorization)”. She was giving me the power to sell it. So, I pulled my luggage back from the lift…it is true! (laughs) I typed the papers of authorization…

AA: Your husband had a job?

MO: Yes. For three years, he stayed in the east… I bought the hotel, I started alone here…

AA: He was supporting you? 

MO: Yes, and he would come every week, on weekend, with paint, and he was painting the rooms and the stairs, just so we would forget about the dirt (guffaws). It was really dirty!

A mural of William Burroughs in the same street as the Beat Hotel/ Photo : Aletta Andre

AK: And they were regular visitors, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and others…?

MO: They were there at the time, they were coming all the time …

AA/AK: Until when/How often did they come ?

MO: Pouf! Every month! (Reminisces) My husband did not speak any English at all. (Once) Allen Ginsberg came and said, "I have a lecture at the Pompidou Centre"... Have you heard of it?

AK: Yes, they just had a Beat Retrospective.

MO: Did you go there? 

AK: No, I just came so I missed it. 

MO: You could have seen me 20 years ago, in a picture … I went and saw the exhibition, (there was) the scroll (on which) Kerouac wrote (On the Road), I saw Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs in Tangiers, on New Year…There was a screen and I  saw a girl crossing the street, (near) the Beat Hotel. She had the same coat I had! I looked and said – That’s me! 

(Everyone laughs)

AK: This was in the exhibition? 

MO: Yes! Yes! 

AA: When you started, did you know these writers used to come here? 

MO: When I started to renovate, somebody pushed the door and said (voice drops), "Where did he sleep?" I said – "Who? Danton, Voltaire, (must be) a Frenchman you know (I thought)…Montaigne, Victor Hugo, I don’t know! He said – (almost whispering) Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs…"

AK: So Burroughs also used to come here? 

MO: Yeah…(laughs) So I said I really don’t know. So he started to tell me the story.  He made this book (points to the copy of Beat Hotel). Banal, Gris Banal…

AA:The editor …

MO: Then I met Harold Chapman (whose photographs of the Beats in Paris are collected in the book Beat Hotel - Ed) when he came and lived here. They were living for months here because they could cook in rooms. You can understand the smell and the dirt, whoo! 

AK: They came I think till until their deaths? 

MO: Yeah.  

Madam Odillard/ Photo: Aletta Andre

AK:I know that Ginsberg died in ‘97. Did they give you trouble? 

MO: No. When I came in, they were old.

AA: I did not know they came so often to Paris? 

MO: Yes, they did not need a passport, they could have the drugs and the owner here Madam Rachou was paying the (voice drops) …

AK:She was the second owner ?

MO: Yeah. She was paying the police …

AK: So this could continue …

(MO laughs.)

AA: So she was supporting them…

MO: When they could not pay, she was cooking for them. They were like children to her. 

AK: Who did you like best? 

MO: Allen Ginsberg was nice, Gregory Corso was nice. Look…

AK: (Corso) was quite wild they say…

The postcard that Ginsberg sent to Madam Odillard/ Photo: Aletta Andre

Ginsberg's photo makes up the front part of the postcard/ Photo: Aletta Andre

MO: They were all wild! Allen Ginsberg sent me this postcard…(shows it

AA: Did you speak English from before they were coming? 

MO: Yes. 

AK: But you said your husband did not speak English. 

MO: No. And we went to a lecture (where) Allen Ginsberg put us  at the first rank. I could not understand anything and my husband was worse. My husband was ready to divorce me! And we were in the first rank so we could not move!

AK: Did Burroughs not have a reputation for being difficult? 

MO: Burroughs was more pretentious. He was the one with money in fact. He was friends with the police…that was his job. He was putting the people together, keeping them quiet. 

AK: He took charge when he was here? 

MO: Voila! 

AK: They listened to him because he was elder …

MO: Yes. And when you needed a shower, you had to buy your key. And when you had the key, you invited all your friends to shower.  

AK :So the sexuality was quite in-your-face? 

MO : O Oui!   They were gays, you know. Look, Gregory Corso wrote this (shows the hotel’s reception book) 

A bluebird alights
Upon a yellow chain
Spring is here.

(Sotto Voce )Blue and yellow make green…

AK : Right. 

MO :Ah, you see! 

AK : Alchemy it’s called, in fact. 

(MO starts to read from a note in the reception book, by Corso but stops, missing her reading glasses.)

MO: “Dear old Beat Hotel, bonne nuit, with once rats from the cellar to the street. So were we, poets, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso, Orlovsky, Gysin… The sun…” Well, I don’t  have reading glasses.

AK : I can read…(starting from where she left) “The sun was as bright for us poets as for the rats. Now, forty years later, the rats are gone. And so are we. What was a no-star hotel has become a four-star hotel. My attic room tho changed still shows the St.Chapelle …”

MO : That’s the church behind.

AK : …Back I am, 1997. First came here 1957. 40 years ago. Bless all, Gregory Corso.” 

MO: I show you something which is really something. One day, I was at the door and a girl came and said,“I was there with Gregory Corso”. And look what she writes: “Hey Gregory, remember me? Sorry for what I have done to you.”

AK : What was her name? 

MO: I don’t know…here, (first name not audible on tape) Dora. 

AK: He had a great affair with a woman called Hope Savage so I was wondering if she appeared…

MO: He had so many (laughs). Go on…

AK/AA: (Reading from the note by Ms. Dora) “But regrets are no good. If you  pass by here again, please contact me”(the note is followed by an address)

MO: She even gives the code!

AA: So she left a message for him in your book.

MO: Oui, oui!

AK: (Still reading) “I had a wonderful time with you. Unforgettable!”

MO: Unforgettable, ah!

(Everyone laughs)

MO:But she never came back. 

AA: When did you last renovate the hotel? 

MO: From 1980’s, I started to clean it. I put nice paper on the wall. But you know what? People were pulling my paper! Because they were painting, there were designs on the wall…You know, I had a gallery from New York coming, and they said, “if you find a nice picture, we will buy the wall.” I said,“I am not going to sell you one of my walls!”

AA: How many rooms are there? 

MO: 19. At that time, there were 35. 

AK: Then what happened? You had to demolish some of them?

MO: Because they were so small…some of them did not have any lights. No windows. 

AA: Now all the rooms have bathrooms also.

MO: And when you were using too much electricity, Madam Rachou used to cut it. And in the reception, it was a bar. 

AK: That has closed now? 

MO: Oui. There was no name. William Burroughs started to call it the Beat Hotel. 

The Dream Machine/ Photo: Aletta Andre
AK: Kerouac never came?

MO: Oui, he came and for one night, he slept in Allen Ginsberg’s room. 

(Points to a corner in the room) You see that machine? 

AK: Is it the Dream Machine? 

MO: Yes. It is used in psychiatry and epilepsy (treatment). And some doctors come here and look at it. 

This is the original machine. Now it is more complex. They modernized the machine but the basis is this. And it is working. You have epilepsy? 

AK: I don’t. 

MO: (Puts it on) Close your eyes… (Whirring motion starts) You feel good? We don’t! (Stops it) The box came from China. We saw the box and saw a telephone number in New York. We called the number and asked what it was for. The man said, we are producing the machine in mass but I want you to have the first one. 

AK: And Brion Gysin had ordered it? 

MO: He made it! He made it in his room. 

AK: He was a painter…

MO: He was everything, he was painting, and he was cutting up pictures… books…

AA: And do you get a lot of visitors these days interested in the history of the hotel?

MO: Yes, that’s why we put pictures in (the lobby of) the hotel. Harold Chapman took these photos… He is too old now, lives in England... Have you been to New York?

In New York, there is Chelsea Hotel and there is a bookshop in San Francisco (The City Lights).  

(Madam Odillard is interrupted at this point by a staff member of the hotel with a housekeeping concern and the interview also comes to an end). 

Plaque at the entry of the Beat Hotel / Photo : Abhimanyu Singh 

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