THE CLOCK ON THE MANTLE READ 6:00, and Debbie had just gotten out of bed. From the living room of our one bedroom apartment at 34 rue de Lübeck, I could hear her feet shuffle along the oak parquet flooring as she walked toward the adjoining double doorway. Yawning, she looked at me as I sat on an eighteenth century day-bed that served as our sofa, with the phone on my lap.
“Oh, God,” she remarked. “Did I do it again?”
The disappointment she read on my face was affecting her. It was the end of September; we had been in Paris for over a month and I was getting very discouraged.
Didn’t I mention it? that clock on the mantle? it read 6:00 p.m., not a.m.
I can’t explain the terror of living in a foreign city unable to speak more than five words of the native language, not knowing a single soul, unfamiliar with the streets or the system of public transportation; afraid that, should you venture outside the safety of your Haussmann flat, you might not find your way back home at night. Suffice it to say that, under these circumstances, we do strange things to protect ourselves. Debbie’s solution to the problem had been to stay awake all night, while smoking cigarettes and listening to Derek and the Dominoes wailing “Layla,” only to finally fall asleep each morning sometime around 7:00. The result of this circadian imbalance was to slumber all day and, voilà...problem solved: no need to venture outside.
Incapable of arousing her in the morning, I had taken to walking our neighborhood each day without her. Fortunately, our beautiful little apartment, which Debbie’s father had obtained for us through a friend at the French consulate in New York, was just steps from the Esplanade du Trocadéro and the Champ de Mars. As long as I stuck to the areas immediately next to the Eiffel Tower, I felt safe; I couldn’t get lost. I’d visit the shops–les boulangeries, les charcuteries–stop at Carette’s to savor multiple cups of espresso, and then pass the time reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead on park benches under chestnut trees, always hoping that when I returned to our apartment, I would find Debbie—awake.
On the evening when I sat staring at the clock, I was particularly despondent. It was beginning to dawn on me that we might not make it; that we might have to go home. I didn’t want to return to California. I wanted to live Paris, not just visit it. There was something out there, I knew it; some wonderful adventure that I could smell, but hadn’t yet tasted. And I was hungry.
I like to think of myself in the winter of 1951, still out of my body–watching Pitou from some distant and heavenly plane. From that vantage point, I can see the future of this gorgeous young man unfolding and I am thinking: “It’s not too late…if I dive in now, and jump into my body once again, somehow I will find him. Somehow, I will meet the people I need to meet who will take me to the places I need to go so that I can run, headlong, into his arms. Somehow, it will happen–if I just have courage and faith.” I don’t want to think how scared I must have been from that lofty plane, seeing him fall head over heels for Suzy, not knowing if their love would last; wondering if my plunging to earth again would only mean crashing into a lifetime spent with the wrong man. Whatever Debbie’s failings during that first month in Paris, had it not been for her I would have never left the States. For that matter, had it not been for her penchant to sleep all day, I may never have met Pitou. Because of this, and our otherwise symbiotic and instantaneous attraction to each other upon first meeting up at Briarcliff College for women in the fall of 1969, she counts as one of the most important persons of my life.
That said, by the end of October of 1971, I wanted to kill her. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Back in the Seventies, the telephone company in France was notorious for its terrible service and even more horrible reception. The audio quality of calls was so poor that it was not uncommon to scream through the receiver while holding two earphones to one’s head. In those days, le téléphone à doubles écouteurs était de rigueur.
Picking up the hand piece, I dialed the only number I had of someone living in Paris. For weeks I had not been able to muster the courage to call this stranger, to beg her for help. Corinne Buchet’s name had been given to me by a young Englishman, Richard Tuck, whom I had dated briefly during my last year at Briarcliff. He had met the beautiful young French model the summer before at Roundhill—the exclusive resort of John and Liz Pringle in Montego Bay.
“Make sure you call her as soon as you arrive,” Richard said to me while jotting her name into my address book without my permission. “She knows evverry-bodddy,” he laughed. “At least, everybody whom you will want to know.”
My heart was pounding as I waited for Corinne to answer.
What if she doesn’t want to meet me? I worried. Then what? Practicing the two or three sentences I could barely mutter in French as I waited for her to pick up, the phone kept ringing—and ringing.
“Hello?” I asked, startled once someone finally responded.
« Je m’appelle Bérénice » I articulated, a decibel higher than my normal speaking voice. « Je suis une Américaine à Paris et une amie de Richard Tuck. Au secours! »
Calmly, Corinne answered in perfect English.
“You sound like you are in pain,” she began. “How long have you been in Paris?”
“A month, and I don’t know anybody, and I’m going absolutely crazy!”
“Where are you staying?” she asked.
“With my best friend, on the rue de Lübeck…”
Mercifully, before I could finish my sentence, she interrupted.
“Ah…you are just around the corner from me. I am on the avenue de Iéna. Can you come for dinner tomorrow night?”
“Can I ever!!” I exclaimed.
My only anguish now emanated from the fact that she had not invited me for that same evening.
The next twenty-four hours seemed interminable. Corinne invited us for dinner at eight. I started to dress at four.
First impressions, I kept thinking. Dear God, if I don’t make a good one, I’m a dead duck.
By seven-forty, and skipping down our street, Debbie and I were giggling for the first time in weeks as we anticipated our evening with une vraie Parisienne. We cut across the rue de Longchamp before moving up the avenue de Iéna toward l’Arc de Triomphe.
It doesn’t matter how equipped you may think you are. In the presence of a French woman, an American girl is never chic enough. French women can take the most inexpensive clothing off the racks at the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville and have you convinced it walked straight off the runway from the house of Chanel. When the door of Corinne’s apartment opened, Debbie and I found our selves standing in front of a beautiful woman somewhere in her mid forties. Blonde and tanned from a month spent in the South of France, she gave us that look that only French women can give. That look that says: «Vous vous êtes ratée ce soir. » Waiting for her to break the ice, my toes slowly turned inwards as Debbie and I stood awkwardly before her, wondering if she was about to slam the door in our faces. But, instead, she smiled.
“I’m Pep…Corinne’s mother,” she blurted. “Corinne went with her brother this afternoon…to the country, to pick wild mushrooms for you. Won’t you come in? They will be back any minute.”
Heaving relief, we followed her into an immense salon that overlooked the avenue d’Iéna.
“Sit,” she said.
And as I did, I fell into an armchair that the man, who was soon to become the love of my life, had occupied innumerable times before me. Staring at this intimidating and gorgeous woman I, of course, could not know that she was one of Pitou’s oldest and dearest friends. She recently had returned from Saint-Tropez where they had sunned and dined together. And I would wage a million dollars that she never, in her wildest dreams, thought for one second that the gangly young American now seated before her would, one day, become his wife.
Laughter from the hallway, as the front door opened and then slammed shut, signaled Corinne’s return. With a silk scarf tied jauntily around her neck, she entered the salon wearing a well-tailored jacket over tight-fitting bell-bottom jeans. Her reddish-brown hair cut short like a boy, she still had the basket in her hands, filled with cèpes that she and her older brother had picked for us that afternoon. All I remember of what Jean-Marie Buchet wore that evening was a grin that stretched from ear to ear. Tall and blonde like his mother, he was quintessentially French; the kind of young man whose good looks and relaxed savoir-vivre left a girl itching to know him. But, before he could approach us, his best friend popped up from behind him like a musketeer who had just jumped from his horse. In knee-length boots, and as dark as Jean-Marie was blonde, Edouard de Nemours exuded confidence. Sure of his commanding sex appeal, he quickly took center stage and introducing himself, just like that, I was taken …at least, for the evening.
Other than the mushrooms and the wine, I don’t remember what was served for dinner. The bottles of bordeaux were old and dusty and I drank readily from them, as well as from the exquisitely foreign atmosphere that lay at my feet. A fire crackled from a large stone hearth in an adjoining study. Several other guests had arrived as Debbie and I were attempting to converse intelligently with Edouard and Jean-Marie. Pep’s amusing companion, Aldo Crommelynck–one of the world’s foremost intaglio printers who worked with generations of artists including Picasso, Braque, Miro and Matisse–sat at the head of the table, with a female cellist named Danielle to his right. Her sophistication and elegance left me with my mouth wide open most of the night.
How will I ever fit? I wondered. How will I ever amuse a man the way she does?
With a subtle look in her eyes that told you she had learned la drôlerie at a very early age, Danielle intrigued effortlessly. Sipping from a cut crystal glass of ’66 Chateau Haut-Brion, I fixated my gaze upon her.
“Have you been to Castel’s yet?” Edouard whispered. He had made a point of escorting me to the long mahogany dinner table before pulling my chair out and seating himself next to me.
“No,” I answered, not yet knowing who Jean Castel was.
“Well then…we will take you there tonight,” he winked, while pouring me another glass of wine.
Edouard had a devilish, irresistibly wicked smile—a young man who, at the age of twenty-two, had already had his fill of sophisticated women. Fresh from the California sea, I must have appeared as an invigorating challenge.
“He’s this wonderful old voyou who knows everyone in Paris,” Edouard continued, affectionately referring to the gentleman who, nightly, held court in his boite de nuit on the rue Princesse. By deciding who would, and who would not, enter his discreet little lair, Jean Castel literally defined the small and infinitely élite world of le tout Paris. Clearly, Edouard had never had difficulty passing through its guarded gate.
We laughed easily that evening, and I sensed that this was something Corinne and her family did regularly. Their table was an open one, ready to accommodate their friends at a moments notice. Warm, yet abundantly polite, they made sure that everyone spoke in English. Still, there were moments when, suddenly, they would revert to French. Alone with my thoughts during these seconds of reprieve, I reflected upon the realization that my entire world was about to change. California was quickly slipping into the background.
By the end of the week, it would fade to black.
Next Post: Paris–The Cinderella Years: “The List”
Click on the photos of Paris and experience the Esplanade du Trocadéro as I did.