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Here Lie the Famous and the Notorious of France

February 16, 1986|STUART NIXON | Nixon is general manager of the Redwood Empire Assn., San Francisco.

PARIS — Some searchers find the heart of Paris on the Champs Elysees, some in the Ritz Bar. I found my version in a graveyard.

One humid fall afternoon we visited La Cimitiere du Pere--Lachaise, where half of France's heroes rest, and which was about to receive France's newest heroine.

At the Place de la Bastille on the Right Bank, a surprised matron replied to my inquiry: "To say au revoir to Simone Signoret?" Then she directed us to the Rue de la Roquette, which runs from the long-demolished Bastille uphill to an evident park. Sadly, she indicated that Signoret's passing that week diminished every French woman who, perhaps past first youth, still retained powers of attraction.

Trees Shade Paths

The imposing cemetery gate fronts on a working-class district of northeastern Paris. We armed ourselves with a cheap map from the gatekeeper. Inside, shady paths helped shed the city heat and the zoo atmosphere of the tourist city.

Pere-Lachaise belongs to the Parisians. Clinging to shade, we passed obliques, winged statues, temples new and temples crumbling in cool silence. We fell in with other pilgrims, heading instinctively to a mutual goal.

Soon we saw it: masses of flowers, wreaths, ribbons, all bearing tribute to the actress--from the president, the mayor, from fellow stars. A hundred French men and women gravely contemplated the display. We had chanced on the ceremony, at once public and private, that exposed the heart of a nation that places immense value on love.

Intruders, we quitted the floral tributes to serve apprenticeship a while at the resting places of Abelard and Heloise, archetypal lovers who embody to the French the most exquisite pangs of Grand Emotion.

Nine hundred years ago Peter Abelard, churchman and scholar, fell hopelessly for a beautiful nun, Heloise. But he was cruelly wounded by envious rivals and their romance dissolved in tragedy. The lovers were reunited in death. In 1817 their remains were transferred to Pere-Lachaise, a focus for today's lovers. Indeed, entwined couples seem to pervade every path and nook.

We strolled up to a little round park where matrons sit and knit as single-minded as Madame Defarge. Solid as headstones, they savor the sunshine and chirp to the omnipresent cats.

Following our map, we inclined uphill past romantic (or maybe just neglected) concrete temples and marble angels bearing noble names, stacked and crowded in disordered ranks. Space is at a premium in all 97 divisions of this 110-acre necropolis, and planning took a back seat to family influence.

Military Heroes

Soon came the corner where rest in theatrical glory many of Napoleon's marshals, upstart executors of France's immense military conquests of 1798-1815. Gouvion St. Cyr's grandiose posture seems to refute his spiteful reputation. Andre Massena, prince of the victory of Essling and Duke of Rivoli, greedy smuggler and looter of churches, has his obelisk.

The cavalry hothead, Joachim Murat, King of Naples, lies with his Queen Caroline, Napoleon's sister. Tragic Michel Ney, hero of the retreat from Moscow (1813), found an obscure corner here after Waterloo took him to a Royalist firing squad. Some say another corpse lies in this grave and that Ney escaped to live out a schoolmaster's life in Carolina.

Nearby are heroes and heroines of another stripe, the Impressionist painter Modigliani, singer Edith Piaf, author Victor Hugo, Beaumarchais, who wrote librettos for Mozart.

At the northeast end of the cemetery is a historic site that begs understanding of how France, especially Paris, views its politics.

It is the Mur des Federes (Wall of the Federalists). Against its bullet-pocked side the final 147 resisters of the 1871 Paris Commune were executed by their countrymen from Versailles, ending a bloody battle through the arrondissements and a two-day gunfight among the tombs.

The fighters lie in a communal trench. This is a place of pilgrimage for hard-liners, who consider the victims proletarian martyrs to the aristocratic appeasers, traitors to France during the Prussian occupation.

Pere-Lachaise has been the scene of fictional combat, too. Novelist Gerald Browne, in "19 Purchase Street" (1982) sets the tomb of Oscar Wilde for a spy shoot-out. Wilde died in French exile and is buried here, guarded by a grim stone Sphinx. Legend says that some strait-laced British women surreptitiously unmanned the monument with a hammer.

Other Notables

To visit all the famous tombs would take many days. Most hasty pilgrims look for those of Frederic Chopin (whose heart, at his request, lies in his beloved Poland); poet Alfred de Musset, shaded by a weeping willow; actress Sarah Bernhardt; authors Honore de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Colette and Gertrude Stein. Art lovers lay at least a symbolic wreath for Dominic Ingres, Corot, Delacroix and Daumier. Balletomanes pay homage to Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller.

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