© 2023 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The blue house in San Francisco that captured the heart of the French

Astrid Fedel

I am on a walking tour of San Francisco, specifically designed for French tourists. Our guide, Florence Maurel, is leading us on a quest - to find a piece of French pop culture. And it’s standing between Dolores Park and Castro street. We’re looking for a Victorian blue house or as the French call it, la Maison Bleue. The group, who’s visiting from France, is getting excited.

Here’s the thing, there’s a few blue houses on this part of the street. One of the tourists asks Florence for clues. Is it a sky colored blue ? A smurf colored blue?

And then, we find it. We’re standing right in front of it and we're not alone.I turn around and see about 50 French people all looking up, at this same house.

The maison bleue looks just like a regular victorian house but for the French it’s a historic landmark. Since 2011 French tourists have come here because of a beloved song. Florence explains, and in English s’il vous plaît. Does the color of this house speak to you? It seems because you are French and you know this song and the famous singer who lived here, Maxime le Forrestier”.

In the summer of nineteen seventy one, Maxime joined his sister, the singer Catherine Le Forestier on a trip. They came to visit their friend in San Francisco. For a few months they stayed at this house and lived with a commune of hippies, gay men, artists, activists and leather lovers. When he came back to France, the group kept in touch, sending him letters and drawings. “He receives drawings but does not speak a word of English” Florence says. “He wrote them this famous song to thank them” she adds. Maxime Le Forestier named the song San Francisco

“The song you call San Francisco, we always call it “La Maison Bleue””. This is Ellen Helferd, one of the first and last members of the commune. She lived in the Maison Bleue between 1970 and 1976. “As you enter, there's this big beautiful staircase going up, and between the staircase and the wall was a whole wall of hooks. And it was so cool, like so many different, costumes, uh leather, and anybody could take anything that was there if they needed it”, she says.

“These really were the years of magic”. That’s Phil Polizatto, another member of the commune. He actually wrote a book about his time in the Blue House. “Hunga Dunga was one of the most beloved communes. Everyone wanted to be part of it” he says.

They named the commune “Hunga Dunga” after a Marx Brothers skit. “ We all moved into Big Blue before the Castro was the Castro. It was a neighborhood with a hardware store and a movie theater and a grocery store”, says Phil. He adds “Harvey Milk was one of our good friend and we used to hang out at his camera shop. And then I don't know what happened overnight, it became this gay heaven”.

Ellen says living in the Castro at that time shaped her attitude towards life. “There would be people wearing drag, there would be men holding hands and kissing. It just felt very liberating, even as a straight woman just to be in a place where people could be themselves.

Some commune members were also part of drag and theater troupes, like the Coquettes, the Angels of Lights or The Gay men’s theater collective. “It wasn't a monolithic group of people. And yet it was a group of people who loved each other” Phil says.

It also became a laboratory for a new way of living: the communal way. At that time there were over 300 communes in the Bay Area.

Ellen says “we were family by then and, you know, sharing money and sharing resources and sharing work, it's a good way to live really”. One project that got most of them involved was the Free food Conspiracy, a movement started by another commune called KALIFLOWER. “We also pooled our food stamps and bought food in bulk together with 10 other communes or so” says Ellen.

The Dungas became the name of those assigned to buy food from the farmers market. And the Hungas were the ones who got to deliver the food. Phil says everyone wanted to be a Hunga. “Every commune you visited, got out the weed and you know, and the hash”.

People were always coming and going at Hunga Dunga. That’s how the commune connected to the rest of the world. “We had Chilean refugees that stayed with us. after Allende was executed in Chile”, says Ellen.

Group photo of the Hunga Dunga commune members: (from top to bottom) Tom, Phil. Lizard, Duck, Bobby, Nicky, Little Richard, Ellen, Psylvia & Baird
Courtesy of Phil Polizatto
Group photo of the Hunga Dunga commune members: (from top to bottom) Tom, Phil. Lizard, Duck, Bobby, Nicky, Little Richard, Ellen, Psylvia & Baird

In April of nineteen seventy one, Maxime and Catherine showed up at the house. We tried to teach them the ways of Hunga Dunga and Catherine caught on immediately and she was wonderful and, helped out with everything. Maxime on the other hand, seemed to fill an overstuffed chair quite well in the living room. I tried to purposely find him, uh out of the chair”. Phil says that some of them were annoyed by Maxime’s behavior which was not really commune-friendly. He adds, “Maxime never spoke to anyone, never did any errands whatsoever. All he did was sit in that overstuffed chair with a little notebook and every now and then, I'd see him write something down and then he closed the notebook and stared off into space”. People in the commune ended up ignoring him and letting him be.

“But then he started making music,” Phil says. The living room was lined with all sorts of musical instruments. “When Tom or Maxime got out their guitars well that was it! Everybody, grabbed an instrument”. He adds “Somebody would grab a tambourine, somebody would grab the maracas. Uh Somebody would grab a thin can and a spoon”.

Phil says that Maxime was a fantastic musician, but very secretive. So no one knew that he was writing a song about them. “It just so happens that all that scribbling that Maxime was doing were the words to San Francisco”.

After spending their entire summer in the commune, Maxime and Catherine came back to Paris and the Hunga Dungas went on with their lives. A few months later, a package came in the mail, a vinyl. Phil says “ It was Maxime's first album, and we listened to the song and we cried. Maxime had really captured the feeling of the house.

Ellen translates the song. “It's a blue painted house against the hillside it's leaning.

We come there on foot. We don't have to knock for those who live there threw away the key.

And together we meet, after years on the road. We come there on foot and sit all around the meal at 5pm at night”.

Phil remembers this clearly, “All of us were creatures of the road of the freeways”.He adds “And the only time that we ever got together was for dinner”. Ellen says “if there were too many people to sit around the table, we'd sit in the living room on the ground on the rug and eat, put down a tablecloth and it was all just very friendly.

She continues translating, “embraced, rolling on the grass. We'll listen, how Tom plays on the guitar, Phil on Kena until the darkest night”. I bet this is Phil’s favorite part of the song. “Every body made music no matter how bad or how good it was. We just enjoyed making music with each other” he says.

Phil translates the last part of the song, “even though physically an earthquake may happen and the house fall apart, what the house represents will always remain”.

Ellen says that the song immortalizes a great memory in her life. “To have that song be like, representative of an era, and to have it be memorialized by someone in another country, it's a fabulous feeling”. Phil says Maxime gave the commune a gift, even greater than doing the dishes. “He had given us a song that little children sing in school”.

The album launched the singer's career in France, The song became a hit, and Maxime, - a hippie icon despite himself. But as the song grew more popular, the house was forgotten. “I think we were starting to grow up and I think people were starting to realize that living collectively might not last forever”. Ellen says the values of society were changing too - people wanted to own things, and make more money. Plus, the communes were facing an even bigger threat: the AIDS epidemic.

Phil remembers, “it was terribly scary. Everyone was dropping dead, including in the Hunga Dunga”. Commune members Tom, Lizzard and Luc, also mentioned in the song, were among those who died. The remaining Hunga Dungas moved away and the Maison Bleue became just another Victorian house, until 2010, when a French intern at the Chronicle - Alexis Venifleis - went on a mission to find it.

Alexis Doesn’t speak proficient English so he mostly did basic tasks. Still, he was on a hunt for a story he could bring back home. And so he decided to search for the lost iconic blue house. He knocked on the doors of any French businesses he could think of, French bakeries, French restaurants. He said it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, a hopeless search.

Until one day, when he managed to track down Maxime’s phone number and call him. Lucky him, the singer had kept his notebooks, and so he found the address: 3841, 18th street. Alexis went there right away. But when he saw the house it was…. Not blue! It was green! kind of aqua-Mmarine. A large family was living there at that time. Alexis published the article on the 1st page of the Chronicle’s culture section.

Suddenly, there was a lot of attention on the house. Maxime came back to visit and his team organized a ceremony with a few ex-Hunga Dungas. The house was repainted in blue. The French consulate got involved and added a plaque.

Now it’s a landmark that’s visited by 50 French tourists on any given day. Like today standing in front of the maison bleue, with Florence the tour guide and dozens of people gathered around. She explains, “his record company offered him the honor to repaint it in blue. In 2011, he came to give the last brush and you can see the commemorative plaque on the front of this purely victorian house

La Maison bleue
Astrid Fedel
La Maison bleue

Today another family lives there and the Blue house has nothing of its commune past. Some (people) would argue that this part of San Francisco is lost. But there are legacies from this time that still live on. The sister commune Kaliflower is still alive and operating in the Mission. The Free Food Conspiracy movement, led to the creation of coops like Rainbow Grocery. And Greenleaf, started by a Hunga Dunga became The Leading Food Distributor in Northern California.

For the French the maison bleue canonizes an ideal of the 70’s and the Californian way of life. Tourist George Martins - who’s on the tour with us today - says that when he listens to the song, he feels transported to a peaceful time. Tour guide Florence Maurel says the song reminds her of the hippie movement that arrived in France in the seventies

I too, grew up listening to this song, it created this myth of San Francisco in my head. But when I moved here I couldn't quite find that San Francisco. Talking to Phil and Ellen made me realize how much of the city is rooted in what happened at that time. It may be hard to find but it’s still here, if you know where to look.

This story is made to be heard, click the play button above to listen

This story aired in theSeptember 18, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

Arts & Entertainment Crosscurrents
Astrid Fedel is an Audio Producer and a KALW Audio Academy Alumni (2022-2023).