Before completing his studies in a Jesuit college, Jean-Paul Clébert left to join the French Resistance in 1943 at the age of 16. After the liberation, he spent six months in Asia and then returned to France. He described his unusual life as follows:
My secondary education was interrupted by the war but continued as a prisoner. I have never had a regular job but have been successively a house painter, cook, newspaper seller, farm worker, navvy undertaker’s mute, valet, cafe proprietor and tramp. Lived for some years with gipsies and am now engaged on writing a book about them. Have also traveled widely in the East. I now live alone on a farm in Haute Provence.
On returning he lived for 3 or 4 years as a clochard amongst the many homeless people in the underground world of Paris. This experience inspired his classic study of the underworld of Paris Paris insolite/Unknown Paris (1952), which he dedicated to his companions Robert Giraud and photographer Robert Doisneau. The book was championed by the remaining Surrealists, and the emerging Situationists based their theory of the dérive on Clébert's principles, using his book as a literal guide to the underside of the city. An illustrated edition with photos of Patrice Molinard (who debuted as a stills photographer on Georges Franju's documentary le Sang des bêtes) and layout by Massin was published in 1954.
Clébert’s friends Jacques Yonnet and Robert Giraud were inspired to write their own tales of the vagabond life on the streets of Paris; Yonnet’s Rue des Maléfices (1954), his sole novel (originally Enchantements sur Paris, English translation Paris Noir), and Giraud’s Le Vin des rues (1955). The three frequented Chez Fraysse on Rue de Seine in Saint-Germain-des-Prés with Doisneau, not far from Clébert’s other haunt Chez Moineau, the dirt-cheap refuge of bohemian youths and of Guy Debord, Michele Bernstein, Gil J. Wolman, Ivan Chtcheglov and the other members of the Lettrist International, and which was the subject of Ed van der Elsken’s photo-romain Love on the Left Bank (1956). Thus did Clébert attend both the last Surrealist meeting and some of the first gatherings of the Situationists. For two years he was a reporter in Asia for Paris Match and France Soir.
Clébert retreated from urban life in 1956 to the mountainous Luberon region of Provence, in which he discovered abandoned stone villages, and took up residence there without running water or electricity, before moving in 1968 to Oppède-le-Vieux. The village had been a refuge for artists during the war, where Alexey Brodovitch owned an old mill occupied by his brother, and where Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, widow of the aviator, was still resident. He spent the rest of his life there, dying on September 20, 2011.