Meet Jill Jonnes

Location: Baltimore, MD
Age: 58
Marital Status: Married
Education: BA, Barnard, MS, Columbia Journalism School, PhD, American History Johns Hopkins University

Once an expat, Jill is now an award-winning author of four critically acclaimed books on American history. Her latest tome, Eiffel’s Tower (Viking, 2009), recently available in paperback, is her first book set abroad. It chronicles the construction of the iconic tower and it’s introduction at the 1889 World’s Fair in Belle Epoque Paris. “I knew nothing more about the Eiffel Tower than anyone else when I started out,” Jill told FOF.

The research she needed for her book offered Jill the bonne chance to rediscover Paris as an adult. Here, she chats with FOF about writing her French opus and the Fab Faves she discovered while researching in the City of Light.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Not really. I became a journalist after college, which I enjoyed until it became repetitious. I really stumbled into books when an article I wrote for The New York Times turned into my first book, Conquering Gotham about the construction of Penn Station in New York. Later, I got a Ph.D. in American history at Johns Hopkins. I was enthralled with the Gilded Age and loved trying to bring that world to life. In the last ten years I have written three Gilded Age books. Honestly, I’m feeling somewhat burned out from that and am working on something totally different.

What inspired you to write Eiffel’s Tower?

I read Ross King’s Bruneslleschi’s Dome about the Duomo of Florence and The Pope’s Ceiling about the painting of the Sistine Chapel. I loved those books and wondered if there was a monument I could write about. It turned out there had not been a book about the Eiffel Tower in thirty years.

How did you start your research?Image

I read existing books on the Eiffel Tower–which were either very old or straight biographies about Gustave Eiffel. Then I trolled historic newspaper databases to see how the story played out in its own day. I was fascinated to learn that it had been built for the 1889 World’s Fair. Once I discovered all the famous people whose paths crossed there—James Whistler, Thomas Edison, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley–it was just irresistible. I selected characters who represented different aspects of what made the fair so much fun—art, the new phonograph, the Wild West show, the colonial nations showcasing their exotic cultures.

What’s your writing regimen?

I try to be writing in my study (painted Pompeii red which is supposed to be good for thinking) by 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., Monday through Friday. At some point I take a break and go swim or exercise, take a walk, visit with my neighbors. I try to stop in the middle of a sentence because that way you can pick it right up the next morning. Only in dire situations will I work in the evenings or on weekends. And, my daughter reminds me, if the writing is going well, I keep wearing the same clothes because I feel they’re part of the positive karma. I have a lime-green British budgie who likes to sit in my lap when I write.

How much time did you spend researching in Paris?Image

I spent a month in Paris in November 2006, researching at the Eiffel Archives at the Musee d’Orsay, the Bibliotheque Nationale, the Library of the City of Paris—and of course I visited the tower itself.

What is your favorite restaurant there?

Allard at 1 rue l’Eperon, 6th. It’s an old-fashioned bistro that has been there for decades. I first ate there long ago with my parents and have returned over the years. The duck smothered in olives is always delicious.

What is your favorite hotel?

Hotel Clement at 6 rue Clement, 6th. A small, quiet two-star hotel with very charming rooms, next to St. Germain market. In the summer, the A.C. is heavenly.It has a very handy location; 100 yards to the Gérard Mulot pastry shop, frequently cited as the best in all of Paris. And for those who like to swim, there is a public pool deep below the market, which offers some first-hand experience with French bureaucracy.

Do you have a secret place?

Deyrolle at 46 rue du Bac. Imagine an eccentric museum of natural history—but all of it for sale! Deyrolle has been a Left Bank fixture since 1831 and features everything from actual stuffed animals— tigers, elephants, camels, sheep—to drawer upon drawer of beetles, butterflies and sea shells. In February of 2008, it all went up in flames, but it re-opened in September of 2009. It’s truly a cabinet of wonders.

What is your signature Parisian perfume?

Diorissimo–the classic lily-of-the-valley scent created in 1955.

Do you have a favorite store?

Eva Tralala at 1 rue Gay-Lussac, 5th. Eva Tralala is a wonderful brand (not too expensive) of women’s clothing designed and made in Paris. It’s very satisfyingly French in its cut, look, and quality.

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