|Jul/Aug 2018 Nonfiction
Image by Edward S. Hasicka
for Marilyn Sorel
It was 1958. I was 21 and had just married my boss. This was my first marriage, his second, and he had two young sons who lived with his former wife and her new husband whom she had married before the divorce was final.
Immediately upon returning from our three-day honeymoon, the two other partners in our public relations firm, who had attended the wedding, fired me, saying it was not appropriate nor economical to have more than one member of the same family working there. Devastated at having my clients taken from me so abruptly, and at being out of work, I tried to find another job as a press agent but, as I was married to a partner in a competing agency, no one would hire me. I had no idea what I might do next.
My husband said, "Write your novel."
"What novel?" I asked.
"You know what novel," he replied, and so I sat down and wrote my novel. It sold, almost immediately, to a New York publisher. Along with the advance, the publisher signed me to produce a second novel to be delivered within 18 months and for which I would receive a monthly check of 500 dollars. Taking this as a sign, my husband convinced the Hollywood representative of a New York publishing house to hire him to find French books for publication in the US. He had lived in Paris for a year and always talked about going back, speaking enthusiastically and at length of that city. Writers I admired had written about Paris and the fine lives they had lived there, so that his memories, added to what I had read, formed a romantic whole. Finally, he announced we would be moving to Paris in a month, taking it for granted I would agree. I did not question his decision, being enamored of him and convinced he knew best, having had more experience and seeming far more sophisticated than I.
My husband spoke some French. I knew nothing other than the words "amour" and "merci" but had heard of a man in Beverly Hills named Michel Thomas who was reputed to be a genius at teaching languages. I tracked him down and spent a long weekend working with Michel. In three days he had me speaking grammatically correct French. Now all I needed was a wider vocabulary, but Michel assured me that would come on its own. Within the month we had sold or given away our furniture, said goodbye to all our friends, and set off for France.
We arrived in Paris to find the Algerian War I had thought was taking place in North Africa was being fought in the city itself: armed soldiers in the streets made for an impressive welcome. From his earlier time in the city, my husband knew a few people: Art Buchwald, the star expat newspaper columnist; Mosk, the Variety reporter; Alain Bernheim, the agent for international celebrities in France and England; and Claude B., a French journalist.
It would take us a while to find Claude since he, his wife, and three children were in hiding after an extreme right-wing political group bombed them out of their apartment. Claude would be the only French civilian I ever met permitted to carry a handgun.
We had checked into a small hotel on the Avenue Montaigne, a place my husband remembered fondly. This would be my first experience of an extremely narrow double bed, hard bolsters instead of pillows, a single communal toilet down the hall, and a bathing room two floors down where one had to register in advance in order to bathe. The next day, Sunday, we took a taxi to the Bois de Boulogne where Buchwald and his friends held their weekly softball game. The group was immediately welcoming, and I was invited to pitch, lasting two innings and giving up one run. I had never been particularly good at sports, but I did have a fairly accurate arm. This was obviously not what they wanted from the game, and so their regular pitcher, who diplomatically threw fat, easy pitches almost everyone could hit, replaced me. My two times at bat, I hit a grounder and a pop-up fly, both of which were easy outs.
Afterward, we all drove to "Chez Anna," a celebrity bistro on Bd. Delessert, in the 16th arrondissement. A few days later we would rent an apartment in the building housing the bistro and would live there for almost a year.
Anna was small, round, aggressive, and much admired since she refused to recognize differences in social or celebrity status, bullying everyone equally. Of course she was aware of who each was, his or her place in Paris society, and even transferred her bistro to Deauville for the month of August so her clients had a familiar place to frequent and where she could freely display her famous ill-temper.
That meal was a chore for me: I used my knife and fork like an American while the others, including the ex-pats, handled theirs in the European manner, which made me feel rustic and inept. Too, the servings were smaller than I was accustomed to, but the fact that there were five courses evened things out.
The first course was an artichoke, and even though I came from California where artichokes grew in abundance, I had never seen that vegetable. Alain Bernheim endeared himself to me by discreetly whispering instructions on how to gnaw at the bottom of the leaves, then scrape away the choke to reach the heart. Throughout my years in Paris, Bernheim and Buchwald would on occasion be accessible and at times, helpful. Years later, they became heroes to me when they sued Paramount Studios over its fanciful accounting practices. Eventually they forced the studio to open its books and pay them after a script they had written and offered to the studio was refused but then showed up as a project of another production company on the lot, the resulting movie eventually earning the producers and Paramount a handsome profit. To everyone in the business, the damages plus interest they received was universally hailed as a moment, long overdue, of justice for all the pieceworkers in the industry.
Once settled in our apartment above Chez Anna, and having mastered the eccentricities of the kitchen's small water heater, I began to learn how to dress and to cook. The clothes I had brought from California were inappropriate, and my cooking was dull and simple-minded. Our neighbor, Jacquine, was a "pied noir," a Frenchwoman who grew up in Algeria where she and her family had lived a splendid colonial life until the present upheaval began. After the family removed to Paris, her husband abandoned her and now she, her young sons and her widowed, still glamorous mother lived in a two bedroom apartment, surrounded by fragile remnants of their former wealth and glory: a few pieces of Louis XV furniture ("d'époque!") and several delicate examples of early 19th century blue opaline glass, all that remained of a once large collection. Unlike most Parisians, Jacquine was quick to knock at my door and quick to invite me into her home, that generosity another remnant of their life in Algeria where visitors had been welcome as long as they were courteous, interesting, or exotic. Our being from Hollywood helped.
Jacquine was a splendid cook handicapped by an extremely tight budget, but she immediately taught me the basics: how to make vinaigrette; how to "mount" a mayonnaise and then transform it into an aioli; how to sauté small amounts of meat and glorify them with a shallot, two sliced Paris mushrooms, a dash of wine, and a large spoonful of crème fraiche; how to prepare an omelet, French fries, and steak-au-poivre; how to choose which fat medium to use in preparing various dishes; how to brew decent coffee and keep it warm without ruining its flavor; how to prepare fragrant vegetables I had never seen before. These casual lessons ended in an apotheosis of three dishes laden with cholesterol, which was not yet known to be a problem: cheese soufflé, endives wrapped in thin slices of Paris ham and baked in a Mornay sauce, and a brilliant chocolate mousse. With that, she decided I had assimilated enough of her approach to French home cooking and was on my own. I became fearless, on occasion daring to invite people to dinner, and delighted when they indicated their surprise that an American could cook as well as a French woman. It had immediately become obvious to me that Parisians were standoffish and cool to foreigners, but the coldest of them would warm up whenever the conversation turned to food—although most spoke disparagingly of American cooking. Filled with strange prejudices, they were uniformly convinced that corn on the cob was fit only for animal feed and that American ham with pineapple was an abomination even though, I pointed out more than once, pork with prunes was a classic of their own bourgeois cuisine. Their vehement denial that there was any comparison between the two convinced me the French were illogical.
Among my earliest discoveries in Paris were fines de claire, Portugaises and belon oysters, which we tended to eat at two in the morning at a café near the Champs-Elysées where the Blue Bell chorus girls gathered after the last show at the Lido Music Hall, and at several cafés in the Pigalle area where sex shows could be hired for close-up viewing—although we only did so when visiting Americans insisted they wanted to see "the real Paris" and it was obvious what they meant. During one of those performances, while the younger of the two women was fluffing up the blond, Hungarian stud whose body was unprofessionally recalcitrant, I had a fairly long, quiet conversation with the older woman, who explained that when this job was over, she was going home to prepare a leg of lamb. I asked for her recipe; she explained it in detail, the marinade, the rosemary, the garlic, the caramelized onions, and all these years later it remains my favorite extravagance for important family dinners.
We also discovered several excellent, cheap neighborhood restaurants on the Left Bank. Our late afternoons were often spent at Le Flore and Les Deux Magots cafés, where we met our slowly growing circle of acquaintances. During one evening there, to my amazement, the couturier Michel Goma invited me to come for a try-out at Patou, the venerable fashion house where he was the designer in residence. My husband insisted on accompanying me to that first meeting, but the salon manager firmly put him in his place, somewhere far back in the show room. I was wearing plain white cotton American underwear. Goma had never seen the like. Appalled, he had one of his assistants hand me a French garter belt that was airy where the American was merely sturdy. For the next hour Goma peeped at me from behind a curtain while I tried on several of that season's afternoon dresses and suits. It was immediately apparent that couture dresses were not sewn but engineered, having an endoskeleton of wired or over-sewn seams that gave the garments their shape. Strangely, those seams and wires were not uncomfortable and, even on my very American body, the garments were elegant.
When the hour ended and I had returned to my own clothes, which now felt badly fitted and awkward in comparison to what I had been trying on, Monsieur Goma hired me, "on a temporary basis, to see if I would suit." My husband hovered behind me, uneasy but trying not to show it, and for once allowed me to speak for myself.
I worked only briefly at Patou. The staff taught me the proper way to walk, and for a very short while I presented garments in the showroom. I never did succeed in merely displaying the dresses and afternoon suits since I could not make myself disappear behind the clothes, wearing each garment as if it were my own. In my first week there, it was suggested I lose two kilograms, but as I was by nature very thin, I ignored the request.
It was an interesting and badly paid interlude. The show models arrived at two o'clock and sat in a small dressing room, wearing nothing but bikini panties and cotton robes as they applied their make-up, fixed their—or each other's—hair for the showing, chattering as they waited for three o'clock when the collection was displayed. They would prattle on about rich men's newest mistresses who had recently taken the place of earlier mistresses and how and why such shifts in fortune had occurred; about where one might find clothing discounts; about free trips in the offing and their latest invitations to weekends out of town. Most of the models were French, but they never mentioned food. In the weeks I was there, they were uniformly rude to me. As I was not emotionally invested in the job and my real work was waiting for me at home, I refused to be offended.
After several weeks, M. Goma decided I was neither skinny nor invisible enough to show his garments, being far too purposeful in my posture, attitude, and stride. This was before the time of star models with a personal style: a very few years earlier, Dovima and Suzy Parker had appeared on the scene, but they were photographic, editorial models and rarely walked the runway. And so we parted company but on good enough terms that I was allowed to keep the French bra and a slightly used pair of Roger Vivier shoes M. Goma had provided me.
I returned to my typewriter and the novel I had contracted to write. Our apartment was so small, there was no place to keep my typewriter, my ream of paper, carbon paper, and thesaurus. The round dining table, which could seat four fairly comfortably, served as my desk during the day. In the evening, I placed all my writing paraphernalia on the floor in a corner of the room. My husband began making telephone calls, one or two each day, attempting to introduce himself to editors at various publishing houses. I mailed all the letters of introduction I had brought with me and waited for a response, unaware I should have hand-delivered them and included my card. I did not yet have a card.
Only a few of the persons to whom I sent letters of reference responded. One was a grande-dame literary agent with a magnificent apartment on the Ile St. Louis. She invited us to tea, which turned out to be a bottle of champagne and several finger sandwiches. The visit went well enough for her to invite us again, every three months or so. When it was published, I sent her a copy of my first novel and, two years later, the second novel, which, she telephoned to tell me, was "a great improvement." Over the years, she would introduce me to several well-known visiting American authors, all of whom seemed to be behaving badly now that they were far from home.
In the meanwhile, I was learning other rituals of the French kitchen: that the bottom of asparagus spears were to be broken evenly and then peeled; that French milk tasted weak and needed to be heated for use in coffee; that one sort of yogurt was actual yogurt and another sort was a kind of custard; that "room temperature" when referring to red wines meant somewhere around 65°F and not modern room temperature; that green beans should never be served with red wine as they altered the taste of the wine and vice versa; that vegetables could be served as a separate course, after the meat, for French vegetables had so much flavor they could stand by themselves. I discovered what green peas actually tasted like, and tomatoes. I was taught that wood salad bowls were to be wiped dry but never washed; that cast-iron skillets were never to be washed with soap and water but scoured with coarse salt and then carefully dried and lightly oiled, the patina attached to them to be left untouched as it was useful, acting almost like Teflon in those pre-Teflon days. Eventually, I even learned to eat langoustine with a knife and fork without making a mess, a technique so precise it is much better learned very early in life.
In those first months we were often invited to join some person or a couple for dinner in wonderful neighborhood restaurants but rarely to someone's home. Restaurants and cafés served as alternate living rooms, and only family and the closest friends ever saw the real thing. I found this puzzling since we came from a place of easy invitations and quick although not always profound friendships. It took a long while before a few French acquaintances became actual friends, and even more time before we were invited into their kitchens and dining rooms. By then I knew how to tear the various sorts of lettuce properly, sliver endive, peel tomatoes and peaches, prepare an herbed or otherwise flavored vinaigrette, and do such other small chores to make me part of the show.
Claude B. and his wife, Janine, were the first to accept us into their home. Perhaps the fact that there was a price on his head, a bodyguard outside the door, and some of their friends had abandoned them, as it was dangerous to be in their company, made it easier to invite us. After the bombing of their previous apartment, they were now in a larger one with no windows facing the street. On our very first visit, Claude showed us the handgun he was permitted to carry, but since we accepted it with no show of fascinated horror, nervous laughter, or macho posturing, taking it as natural and necessary, he never displayed it again. I asked if he knew how to use it; he said he'd had an hour's training at a shooting range in the heart of Paris, a place where the social elite went to be outfitted with hunting rifles, and thus felt capable of defending himself. My husband and I avoided looking at each other.
That first dinner at the B.'s apartment was a lesson in how a family meal was served and what was expected of the children and the guests. The next time we were invited, I went into the kitchen to watch Janine prepare the evening's dishes and offered to help. Even though she was wary of my expertise, she agreed, and aided by my neighbor's lessons, I acquitted myself well enough. Ever after, when invited to dinner, I would take some small part in the preparation of the meal, watching Janine as she tasted and added a pinch of salt to a boeuf bourguinon or a veal blanquette, or deep-fried small sardines, basic dishes served to guests by a family on a budget.
In late summer, my husband's young sons came to stay with us. One weekend, the B. family and we travelled to Trouville on the Normandy coast, where the children, who could not understand each other, played on the beach. On our way back to Paris, we stopped at an inn outside Caen. It was closed for the day, but Claude knew the owners, Royalists who considered the Count de Paris the true head of the French government and were waiting for his restoration to the throne. The auberge had its own kitchen garden, and so we played football/soccer while the meal was being picked and prepared. When we sat down to eat, it was immediately apparent that while French children were expected to keep their arms from just below the elbow on the table, American children were expected to keep their free hand in their lap. As the meal progressed, each course ending with gulps of local Calvados and toasts to "Le Roi, the King," it was decided the children could forego table manners for the moment as the constant, contradictory reminders were confusing them.
Janine had inherited the title of La Comtesse de la Gr… but she was as natural as a Parisian woman could ever be, generous, seemingly openhearted, and steady. Her children were charming and, after they saw we liked them and would talk to them as if they were grown people, generous with their affection. The one thing that forever bothered me about how French children were raised was that the girls all spoke in a high-pitched, cajoling voice, especially when dealing with men, obvious preparation for flirting and manipulation when they grew up.
"Why do your daughters talk to you like that?" I asked Claude.
"Like what?" he asked.
"Like geishas," I said.
"They do? It will have not occurred to me." Claude had an uneasy grasp of compound verbs in English.
A year or so later, he at last introduced us to his best friend, Gilles, a handsome, funny, daring stuntman who had once soared across the English Channel and up the Seine wearing aluminum wings of his own design. Gilles was a careful daredevil, a parachutist, a stunt driver, and a sleight-of-hand artist. He would take on almost any stunt a director or screenplay writer could think up, except for those few he swore never to do: every gag he undertook was accomplished with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of flair. One summer I cajoled him into taking me parachuting, for which I was completely unprepared, but I had watched him float to earth several times and wanted the experience. On the day, my husband and I took a train to the small town where the film was being shot. While Gilles spent a long while teaching me how to fall from a height and land correctly, my husband wandered about, smoking cigarette after cigarette and taking pastry after pastry from the small food cart.
Finally, Gilles strapped a parachute on me, lifted me up into a single-engine plane, and we took off. High above the airfield, which now resembled an abstract expressionist painting, an aerial landscape, he pushed me toward the open doorway. The sound of the wind matched the sound of the engine. "Saute!" he said, "Jump," and gave me a shove. I fell into space, my legs together and my arms by my side. Suddenly, Gilles was beside me, mouthing something. His arms opened, his legs bent at the knees and I fell past him. Then he was beside me again, having dived down to join me. This time I mimicked his movements, spreading my arms and bending my knees. It felt as if we were slowly floating downward even though the wind was pushing against my body and rushing past my helmet. Gilles shot away from me and then back again, circling around me while performing somersaults. Then he reached out one hand and turned me so that we were facing each other as we fell. There was still no sound except the wind, no sensation of falling except the pressure of the air against my body. I laughed, and my lips peeled back from my teeth. Gilles pulled me toward him and shouted, "Regard en bas!" I looked down and saw that we were nearer the ground than I had thought.
"Pull!" he shouted in English and sped away from me. I pulled the ripcord. For an instant nothing happened, and then something hammered me between the legs and I was jerked upward. I watched the parachute deploy overhead, a great, billowy rectangle that stiffened into brightly colored stripes. My fall slowed, but still I was nearing the ground more quickly than I had expected. The aerial landscape resolved into sharply detailed brown and yellow and green fields that were coming closer at a frightening rate. Then I was almost down, and then I hit and rolled and was dragged a short distance as I pulled on the lines on one side of the parachute, trying to spill the air it still contained. The chute collapsed and I came to a stop, shocked, dirt-smeared, and ecstatic. My husband, pale and obviously frantic, rushed over but did not touch me or the parachute.
"Can we do it again?" I asked. But we couldn't as Gilles's crew was practicing an elaborate aerial stunt and my own jump had been a favor during a time-out from shooting.
The Algerian war ground on. There were protest marches down the Champs-Elysées that ended with people being tear-gassed and beaten. One morning, we heard several near-naked bodies had been found floating in the Seine, signs of torture on each of them.
As we were living mainly on what I was making and the pittance my husband received as an advance against the New York publisher's purchase of whatever acceptable French book he might find, we moved to another, far less expensive place near Place Victor Hugo, a ground-floor studio apartment with a bedroom in the basement. My writing desk was a small table in the main room, and I found a pad to cushion the bottom of my typewriter, as I was afraid to mar the table's leather top. My husband tracked down the housekeeper who had worked for him during his earlier time in Paris. I was certain we could not afford a housekeeper, but he was adamant her expertise in running a household on a tight budget would save us money. Yvette came to work for us, and for the first time in my life I had someone to do the housework, which was more complicated than it had been in Los Angeles since the stoves in Paris were fed by butane or propane tanks purchased at the local hardware store and that one had to install oneself; floor mopping techniques were different; I had never lived with marble and did not know how to care for it; and it was a given that all gentlemen's shirts were to be boiled in a vat on top of the stove. I gladly left all this to Yvette, who took me food shopping and did the cooking, adding to my repertoire by making quiche Lorraine every Monday when the butcher shops were closed; clafoutis, flan and fruit tartes for dessert; ragouts using the cheapest cuts of meat; and baked Spanish mackerel on Friday. She also found—and introduced me to—a bougnat, a local wood, coal, and wine merchant who kept the best bargains, which he set aside for favorite customers, in the back of the shop.
Soon after we were settled in the new apartment, my husband's efforts to find French books for publication in the US dwindled and eventually came to an end. He now spent much of his time telephoning acquaintances and reading newspapers and magazines, insisting this would improve his French.
One afternoon, Place Victor Hugo and the streets leading into it were filled with groups of CRS paramilitary police. All traffic stopped. The only sounds were of creaking leather, boots on the pavement, and the slides of automatic weapons clicking open and shut again. Then several shots came from a building on the Place. The CRS men looked toward the sound but, under tight control, did not rush forward or even speak. Black cars arrived carrying colonels. Doors slammed. A police ambulance arrived; a body was carried away. The next day, the headline of Le Canard Enchainé, the satirical political weekly, announced that one of the men leading the rebellion against handing over Algeria to the Algerians had been found hiding in a building on the Place Victor Hugo and subsequently "committed suicide with three shots to the head."
Janine was pregnant again. Unfortunately Claude, still under threat to his life and chafing at the restrictions on his travels, took a sudden hankering to me. I avoided him, and luckily this condition lasted only about three weeks, but afterward he remembered how jealous my husband had been and seemed to take pleasure in baiting him. One afternoon Claude arrived with a gross of roses, blooms of every color and aroma and in every stage of maturity. Yvette pulled out our rented pots and casseroles and pitchers and two vases, and we arranged the flowers as best we could, but the majority of them wound up in the bathtub and in the bidet. All the while, Claude and my husband sat in the living room, sipping coffee and discussing the political situation as if nothing unusual was occurring.
A year later, freer to travel, Claude would fly down to Rome, where we were vacationing, to help celebrate my birthday. He was often in Rome now for his newspaper and kept a room in a private apartment in Trastevere. We were staying with friends and expecting a couple of Hollywood actor acquaintances, who were filming in Nice, to join us. They were unfamiliar with the French character and so were completely vulnerable.
We met at a restaurant where guests ate at communal tables in a small piazza, and the waiters were famously bawdy, not hesitating to grab or pinch a woman if they found her attractive. The actress was immediately set upon, rendered off-balance even before the meal began. At one point during the evening, a window high above the piazza flew open; a woman leaned out of it and sang an aria. At another point, a nearly naked girl rode a white horse through the restaurant, threading her way between the tables. Carafes of wine appeared on our table, followed by more carafes. Seated across from me, Claude was smiling wickedly. He looked at the actress, who was next to him, then meaningfully at me again. All these years later, I am ashamed to say I did not stop him as he began to speak to her softly, asking her about herself, her work, her life, leaning seductively toward her as he poured more wine into her glass. From time to time he looked over at me to make sure I was watching his progress. I had known he prided himself on his seductive powers since he made no secret of his little afternoon dalliances, but what surprised me was that in less than ten minutes he had her leaning toward him. It was a neat performance, a birthday present for me, as a pianist might give a small impromptu recital if he had no other gift to offer.
Dinner over, we piled into the car Claude had borrowed from his landlady and went careening through Rome. At one point Claude stopped the car, ran over to a balloon seller, bought his entire stock, and tied it to the back bumper. Balloons streaming behind us, we drove on through the city. At last, we reached the Campidoglio with its stairway designed by Michelangelo, which rose up a hill and ended at the piazza where Mussolini had once given many hysterical orations. Michelangelo had designed the stairway so a man on horseback could easily ride up it. Now, late on that night, Claude drove the car, its engine straining as it bumped up those steps, to the top of the hill where he swerved left and parked near the overlook above the ruins of the Forum. They were filled with light. Claude turned on the radio and found some music. Unfolding ourselves from the car, we walked over to look down onto the stone pillar remnants of the city's history. And then we danced.
Upon our return to Paris, my husband seemed to have little inclination to see Claude and his family. He would remain in our apartment while I worked, then read the day's pages and give me his opinion or make suggestions, some helpful, some intrusive and irritating. Occasionally we would go to the movies, but he had trouble understanding the dialogue and we would often leave before the film ended. From time to time I suggested we telephone and arrange to dine with Claude and his family. I missed seeing them, missed their company, missed chatting with Janine in her kitchen, missed watching the children grow and change, but I could find no way to persuade him to continue what I had thought of as a true friendship.
A year later, Claude was returning from covering a story near the English Channel when his car, a Volvo, the safest car he could find now that he had four children, went off the road, turned over and smashed into a wheat field, killing him. At the funeral, Janine, the children, and her family arrived in a small bus. At first, I did not recognize her for her face had collapsed into great age.
Two weeks later, anxious to finish his day's work and rejoin Claude's family in the country where they had gone to mourn, Gilles let himself be pressured into crashing a convertible, a stunt he had always refused to do. He was killed on the first take. Janine and the children returned to Paris for his funeral. Then Janine went into hibernation, never answering the telephone or a written note or the delivery of a small bouquet of flowers. A year or so later, I heard she was working at a fan magazine and I telephoned her there, but she was too busy to take my call. After several more attempts to reach her, I at last realized that what tied us together had died with the two men.
My novels had been published but remained almost unnoticed by the critics. We were now broke and so moved to an apartment in the Rue Seguier, on the third floor of a 17th century building on a 16th century street. There was no heat, the stone steps narrow, curved, and eroded from centuries of use. From time to time a rat would precede me up the stairs.
The kitchen and bathroom were in a small cubby. I suppose it could be called a bath/kitchen because it had a two-burner stove with a tiny oven and a sink that served for brushing teeth and washing dishes and vegetables. There was no tub, only a makeshift shower whose water fell into a square of tin that slanted toward a drain. The toilet was in a closet in the hallway.
Yvette's husband, Roger, hung a wooden plank along the kitchen wall to serve as a counter, and it was there that Yvette prepared our meals. She did not seem to find it strange we had gone from marble to cold stone and tommette tiles, from a properly sized kitchen to a bain/cuisine, and that the only heat came from a fireplace in the sitting area and a small stove. Our bedroom was not heated, but we could not afford a space heater as, in those years, the cost of electricity was very high. In winter I would shriek each time I slid between the icy sheets.
Yvette and Roger owned a farm outside Dijon where they escaped every weekend from March to November. Yvette planted vegetables and canned them. Roger hunted in season and—at times—out. Once, Yvette arrived with a brace of pheasants she had hung two days earlier and now plucked and gutted. That afternoon we feasted; that evening we ate poached eggs and a few noodles. We were very poor but somehow managed to find the money for Yvette's tiny salary, eggs and noodles being a small price to pay for having her care for us.
I was urging my husband to find work: surely his acquaintances would be able to introduce him to one of the publicity and advertising companies that were beginning to appear in Paris; certainly they would be interested in hiring a successful Hollywood publicist. Instead, my husband began to act as my agent, selling my services wherever he could. I found myself writing English subtitles for French films, writing or translating voice-over scripts for documentaries, editing and translating French public relations texts, or whatever other chore he could find for me. One of our French friends took to calling him "the literary pimp."
After a year of this, my husband managed to find a job at an international photo agency, and we eventually moved to a new apartment in Montparnasse. Advertised as a duplex, it was actually a small loft with the bedroom on the half-floor hanging over the living area. Yvette was relieved to have an actual kitchen in which to work and a small refrigerator to hold dairy products—although she purchased vegetables and fruit daily, convinced refrigeration ruined their flavor. Now having enough money to spend on food, I began learning to bake beyond clafoutis, even mastering a buttery pear and apple cake—a success with our French friends who thought it an American invention. I had found the recipe in a very old French cookbook, so old the measurements were rarely indicated except the occasional mention of "one demi-tasse of coffee" or "a quarter wine-glass of sherry." To my regret, I have forgotten the recipe.
By then I had been hired as a reader for a French publishing house, going there once each week to pick up English-language novels I would take home, read, write a précis for, and critique, expressing my opinion of whether or not they should be translated and published in France, and then return to the publishing house to receive another batch of novels. This soon led to my being hired to cut and edit the novels they chose to publish since a novel translated from English into French runs longer than the original: in those years, this was too expensive for both publishers and readers.
Around this time, our marriage began its final disintegration. One morning, when looking in the bathroom mirror, I saw no one there and so returned to my bed. I would remain in bed for three months, my only attachment to the world being reading novels, writing my opinion, and somehow managing to travel to the publishing house and back again. During all that time, I could barely eat. Concerned, Yvette prepared stout soups, showing her unhappiness when the next morning her soup was still on the stove, untouched. Although it was obvious I was having a nervous breakdown, my husband did nothing to help me, never once asking me what was wrong. He who, in Hollywood, had been a loquacious fan of psychology, having once gone to see a therapist three times in two weeks before declaring himself "much better," sat in the living area each evening, reading the New York Herald Tribune and, on weekends, leaving the apartment to spend time at a well-known café in Montparnasse, only to return just before the dinner hour.
At the end of the three months, my husband suggested we divorce and handed me a series of contracts he wished me to sign. He had made a list of our property, including my writings, dividing everything between us: 90 percent for him, 10 percent for me. Being of unsound mind, I signed. The remaining problem was who would have custody of Yvette. The question being posed, she said, "I remain with Madame." He took this badly as she had worked for him during the time of his first marriage and no doubt felt she was only on loan to me and belonged to him, first dibs.
He moved out, taking everything I had signed away, even the 33 rpm vinyl jazz records I had brought to the marriage. As I had no money coming in, other than my reading and editing fees that would not have supported a squirrel, I soon left, too, Yvette promising to wait until my fortunes improved. I later learned that, once the apartment was empty of my presence, he moved back in. Just at that moment, as if we were living a bad melodrama, an English movie producer sent a check to our New York bank, payment for a year's option on one of my novels. When I wrote to the bank, asking that they send me $1,000, they replied that my husband had withdrawn most of the money, leaving only $500 in the account.
Friends told me he had purchased a car and new clothes, and they sent me to a "notaire," which in France is a person who handles family and estate matters. The notaire helped me sue for divorce, one of my demands being that my soon ex-husband return at least half the funds he had taken, but of course, as the New York account was in both our names, he had a legal right to all of it. While waiting for the divorce to be adjudicated, I was living in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank, sustained by the very small salary I earned from a job I found at a very small publishing house. But I was meeting friends again, relieved to find that none of them had abandoned me, as often happened to divorcées, especially in Paris.
One night, just after the divorce had been granted, I left my hotel and walked across the Pont des Arts where, at its very center, I took my wedding ring from my purse and in a silly, dramatic, final gesture, threw it into the Seine. The next day, it came to me that I could have pawned it.
I would see my husband one more time in Paris, about a year after the bank episode and shortly after our French divorce was granted. On a warm summer day, I was sitting in a friend's garden, sipping a glass of Vouvray when a shining figure stepped through the French doors. The man, wearing a silver-gray silk suit, his hair turning white, was resplendent. It took a moment before I recognized him as my now ex-husband: evidently he had used my film option money very well. He accepted a drink. I finished my glass of wine, kissed my host and hostess, and walked away.
The next several years were a struggle, yet I never thought of leaving Paris, where I felt at home. I found a better job, found a Frenchman, found a small apartment. In the long term, the job proved unsatisfactory, as did the Frenchman. As I moved from small apartment to small apartment, Yvette accompanied me, now working only a half-day as I could not afford more of her time and help. At last, I managed to convince a New York publishing house to sign me to a contract for a novel I planned to write and began receiving a monthly stipend, portions of the advance on the book. My days were spent at the typewriter, but in the evenings I went out to any of the endless entertainments Paris offered, or invited friends and acquaintances to dinner, usually to reciprocate their own invitations.
And then, suddenly, I found myself becoming uneasy and ill tempered. At times I would think of pastrami on rye, and tacos. To settle my nerves, I invited some French friends to an American-style dinner. Upon entering the apartment, one of the women said "Ça sent le mule," "It smells like mule." I had made a stockpot full of chili. There was rice on the side, corn bread, and a Waldorf salad for dessert since the French expected a salad and a sweet at the end of every meal and this served as both. They had never seen the like. Mule or not, they finished off every bit of the chili so that there was none left for my breakfast the next morning.
Very soon after this, it came to me that it was time I left Paris. Having lived there for almost a decade, I constantly spoke French, easily wrote letters and editorial notes in French, but knew I was not proficient enough in the language to write a short story, much less a novel. Worse, I was dreaming in French, which, to me, was not a good thing for someone who writes in English.
As a farewell gift, I gave Yvette my small refrigerator and stove; she hugged me, saying they would be very useful at her farm, and promising to prepare pheasant if I ever came to visit.
I sent a footlocker of my kitchen equipment, including a copper saucepan and sauté pan, knives, a mandoline, a chinois with its pestle, a salad spinner and other necessary tools, piles of books, and clothes, by sea, not knowing if I would even have a place for them in New York but taking it for granted I would find somewhere to settle. And then it was time to say warm, sad farewells to my French friends.
On my last day in Paris, baggage in hand, I went to lunch at Chez Anna. Even though I had not been there in several years, I was greeted warmly. For once, I would order à la carte: an artichoke, a very rare steak, French fries, a small carafe of burgundy, and, after that, a portion of Brie. For dessert, there was an unctuous crème caramel I would eat slowly, savoring each small spoonful, followed by two demi-tasses of coffee. Anna sent over a few sugar cookies to finish off the meal. The waiter asked if I wanted a brandy, but I did not, even though a small glass of pear or raspberry flavored eau de vie would have been wonderful. The check was presented. I paid, leaving a proper tip and asking that a cab be called. Anna came over and said that next month, there would be chanterelles on the menu. "You're trying to seduce me into staying," I said. When I rose from the table, she shook my hand, an unusual gesture from her, especially to a woman guest.
And with that, I left Paris.