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Master of soirées brings back taste of Paris

by Tim Cornwell,
Scotland on sunday, 16 August 2009

THEY have become a Parisian institution attended by grateful guests from across the world.

Jim Haynes' dinner parties – open to all – have been attracting the great, the good and the well-travelled for the last 35 years to his Montparnasse home. Since the first, more than 135,000 people have trooped through his front door to be fed and watered at the weekly events.

Now the Haynes recipe is being transported across the Channel. Later this month, the Festival veteran will hold his first Parisian-style soirée in Edinburgh.

The 75-year-old American arts producer and academic, who co-founded the Traverse Theatre and hasn't missed a Festival since 1957, says he has no idea yet what's on the menu or who will turn up. "In life, I have modest expectations of everything," he said. "What happens will happen. When the word goes out, and who wants to come, and whether divorces or love affairs or marriages come out of it. Que sera sera."

The venue will be the Scottish Arts Club, another venerable institution. Haynes is yet to settle on numbers or a menu, and has no idea how the night will turn out, but it's certain he won't be short of guests.

photograph©Jesper Haynes, 2009
photograph©Jesper Haynes, 2009

"In Paris, people start arriving at 8pm. I start introducing people, offering drinks, and fairly soon after this the first course is served and the evening unfolds. There's no music, there's no entertainment, just people meeting, talking, exchanging cards and gossiping.

"I have regulars that come – Parisian regulars, and people who come from New York, Paris, London, Berlin, the world."

The Assembly's programme director Mary Shields has been a regular attendee. "What he does with his dinners is what he does everywhere," she said. "He's a facilitator and introducer of people. Distilled down, that is what he does. He sits on his high stool and makes sure that everyone talks to someone else. It's life-affirming."

Veteran Edinburgh arts entrepreneur Ricky Demarco said: "Jim Haynes is a force of nature. Everyone should try to get to that dinner."

Louisianan Haynes first came to Edinburgh in 1956 when he was posted with the US military to an airbase at Kirknewton used as a Cold War listening post.

When he left the military he stayed in Edinburgh and opened the first paperback book shop in Britain, The Paperback.

In 1969, a visit by a group of French students and professors to Edinburgh saw him invited to join the University of Paris - where he taught media studies and sexual politics, his own choice of subject, for the next 30 years at its Vincennes campus.

The first dinner happened by accident in 1974 when a Californian dancer, Kathy Sroufe, who knew no-one in Paris, sat next to one of Haynes' friends at a restaurant.

"My friend said: 'You don't know anyone in Paris? You'd better call Jim'," said Haynes. A grateful Sroufe told him that she loved to cook, and made dinner for his friends. There were 20 of them, and she insisted on doing it again. And again.

Now married to a diplomat with two children, Sroufe returned to Paris a fortnight ago to cook for him again. These days, on a quiet night, Haynes expects about 70 people at his home; when the weather is good enough to use the garden, it's more like 130.

In the early days, word of mouth brought gently swelling numbers. Then, in 2002, the Chicago Tribune wrote the first article about him. Haynes always has a photocopy to hand with his telephone number and e-mail, as a calling card and invitation to strangers or friends.

In January the stakes went higher. Haynes had a five-minute interview with National Public Radio, the US public radio network, about his legendary dinners.

In a day, he got a thousand e-mails from people wanting to come to dinner, he said, from all over Canada and the US, and from others who were listening in Hong Kong and Chile.

The dinners now have a waiting list, and Haynes urges people to book by e-mail. The dinner of 6 September, when he will be back in Paris the week after being in Edinburgh, is already full.

Haynes' Parisian regulars also include Faith Liddell, head of Festivals Edinburgh. "Any time, people from New York or Edinburgh or London visit Paris, they try to arrange that they are there on Sunday night," said Haynes.

In answer to the question most people ask – how does one pay? – the answer is that guests are asked to bring an envelope with ?15 to ?20 inside. It's a simple menu, with all the wine and beer they can drink.

Haynes doesn't judge his dinners' success by the future novelists or film stars who might have passed through his doors. It's more the encounters between people from all walks of life and nationalities who make connections.

"I didn't plan to have a salon, I suddenly had one," he said. "It's marriages and divorces and love affairs and jobs and trips and just people, from an actor in St Petersburg meeting a musician from Buenos Aires.

"Things happen. There have been so many characters at so many events.

"As it was in the 1960s, Edinburgh is very stratified. The doctors stick with the doctors, the lawyers stick with the lawyers, the students stick with students.

"I like the idea of mixing people up. I'd like to have a mixture of people: performers, Morningside matrons, visitors from New York."

read the article online on the Scotland on Sunday's Website
Tim Cornwell©Scotland on Sunday, 2009



2009, Scotland on Sunday : Master of soirées brings back taste of Paris

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