Jim Haynes was both an icon and a relic of the Swinging Sixties, an American in Paris who was famous for inviting hundreds of thousands of strangers to dinner at his home. He died this month.
Last February, I took my last trip abroad before lockdown closed in on us. I bought a last-minute ticket and jumped on the Eurostar to Paris, motivated by a sudden urge to have dinner with a friend. Jim Haynes had entered his late '80s and his health was declining, yet I knew he would welcome a visit. Jim always welcomed visitors.
The essence of that trip now feels like the antithesis of Covid times. I was far from the only guest wandering into the warm glow of his atelier in the 14th arrondissement on a wet winter's night. Inside, people were squeezing, shoulder to shoulder, through the narrow kitchen. Strangers struck up conversations, bunched together in groups, balancing their dinners on paper plates and reaching over each other to press the plastic spout on a communal box of wine.
Jim had operated open-house policy at his home every Sunday evening for more than 40 years. Absolutely anyone was welcome to come for an informal dinner, all you had to do was phone or email and he would add your name to the list. No questions asked. Just put a donation in an envelope when you arrive.
There would be a buzz in the air, as people of various nationalities - locals, immigrants, travellers - milled around the small, open-plan space. A pot of hearty food bubbled on the hob and servings would be dished out on to a trestle table, so you could help yourself and continue to mingle. It was for good reason that Jim was nicknamed the "godfather of social networking". He led the way in connecting strangers, long before we outsourced it all to Silicon Valley.