“I Fell On My Baby Bottle”

BY THE TIME I WAS NINETEEN, I had been on several blind dates—only one of which had gone well. It had been at the beginning of my junior year at Westlake when some friends had paired me with Jonathan Harshman Winters IV, son of the brilliant comedian, Jonathan Harshman Winters III.  A senior at Harvard Military Academy, “Jay” had instantly captivated my attention with his good looks, quick wit and hilarious sense of humor. He was the kind of guy with whom you could never share a meal. He had you laughing so hard, you couldn’t chew your food let alone swallow it.

Maybe I’ll get lucky a second time, I thought, while dressing that afternoon for tea.

pitou-petite-panthere-boostedConcerned about his being able to find a parking space, Pitou asked me to meet him in front of my apartment building. His nickname, pronounced pee-too, is one that  he did not particularly care for. But he had been slapped with it, at an early age, like a wet kiss. And, as hard as he might try, it became the term of endearment from which he would never be able to escape. In 1951, the year I was born, the French cartoonist, Pierre Probst, had given the name to one of his characters: Pitou la petite panthère, known for being paresseuse et rusée. Over the years, I wondered if that might have been one of the reasons for his displeasure with the “pet name.”

“I’ll be in a blue mini-cooper,” he told me over the phone that morning.

“Okay…I’ll be in a purple mini-skirt,” I replied.

More like a mini shirt that buttoned down the front and ended just shy of the crease at my thighs, the garment was so short, bending over while in it was an absolute impossibility. In spite of the fact that this wisp of a dress had turned me into a pro at vertical knee bends, I thought twice about wearing it that afternoon. Little did I know the impression that dress would make on Pitou. Four decades later, and thinking it discarded long ago, I would find it tucked away at the bottom of his dresser drawer. Carefully folded in tissue paper, he would keep it for all of his remaining life—a sweet and sentimental reminder of the day when we first met.

Everything about Pitou would take me by surprise. As I stood on the rue de Lubeck, waiting for him to appear, I imagined him as the rather traditional Frenchman…of slight build, somewhat short, impeccably dressed. Spotting the mini-cooper as it rolled slowly toward me, I walked in its direction as he brought the car to a halt. With the motor still running, the door of the little car opened—freeing its passenger like the sprung lid from a Jack-in-the-Box. Tall, about six-foot-two, as he towered over the white roof of the mini, I remember thinking: How did that man ever fit into that little car? He wore a black velvet jacket over a light blue cotton shirt from Mr. Fish, with torn jeans at the knees and cowboy boots. Still tanned from the summer in the South of France, his full head of hair hadn’t been cut in months. He was nothing as I had pictured.

Over the phone, it had been impossible to discern his age and, as good-looking as he was, the years surprised me. Clearly in his mid-forties, I had never dated someone born a quarter of a century before me.  Yes, I know…I began this story by telling you that I have always been attracted to older men. That doesn’t mean that, at nineteen, I felt capable of taking one on.  But then came the grin…a broad, magnanimous smile that radiated pure joy, as crystal blue eyes momentarily paralyzed me.

He had removed his Ray Bans to greet me. Taking my hand in his, he squeezed it firmly. It was a warm hand, with muscular palms and long, strong fingers.

“Hello Bérénice,” he laughed, before guiding me to the other side of the car.

As he pronounced my name, I vowed that I would not let anyone mispronounce it again. Although I have always spelled Bérénice with the second “e” given to me at birth, as a child, it was systematically overlooked. Timid, and fearing that I might be labeled pretentious, rather than correcting my friends I allowed a beautiful and unique name (pronounced bear-uh niece) to be abridged to the utterly common and flat sounding “Bernice.”  Just hearing him call to me provided the necessary resolve.

Never again, I thought.

At the place du Trocadéro, he navigated toward the avenue du Président Wilson before heading for the Rive Gauche.

“I thought we’d go to Les Deux Magots. Do you know it?”

winter of 1973

“Huh?” I mumbled, transfixed by his profile. I couldn’t take my eyes off of his nose. It was long and chiseled—one of those snouts I had seen in so many of the oil paintings I had studied of French nobility from the seventeenth century. But what made it so distinctive was a feature created from some past event that, I assumed, must have spelled tragedy—a scar running from its bridge clear down through the right nostril to the lower lip, as if someone had taken a knife to him and made a slit.

“Les Deux Magots,” he repeated, while taking his eyes off the road for a second to glance at me.

les deux magots-3Most everyone has heard of the Café de Flore, the celebrated Art Deco coffee-house on the boulevard St. Germain frequented by literary celebrities of the twenties. Les Deux Magots, however, was Pitou’s preferred spot for sipping espresso while killing an entire afternoon engaged in, either, conversation or that other favorite French pastime: people watching. One block east of the Flore, on the Place Saint-Germain des Prés, it was the favored haunt of André Gide, Picasso and Fernand Léger, of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. In business for more than two hundred years, it derives its name from the two Chinese merchants in figurine, perched high above the interior tables, who symbolically witness the goings on at the café.

But it was a warm fall day, more like August than the beginning of October, and we chose to sit at an outdoor table facing l’église on the Place.  There, we talked easily for hours.

les deux magots water color

Click to View

I felt instantly comfortable with this man. In fact, my only discomfort came from a fear that, at any moment, he might announce some pressing prior dinner engagement that would necessitate his taking me back to my apartment. It wasn’t difficult to imagine him with some spellbinding woman, a woman like the beautiful cellist whom I had met at Corinne’s a week earlier. And yet, he was so focused upon me. He never spoke of himself. Instead, he wanted to know everything about me. How long could I keep his interest?

Somewhere around six, he reached into his breast pocket for his wallet before signaling to the waiter.

“L’addition, s’il-vous-plaît.”

My heart sank. While my studies of art history and my abhorrence of the American war still raging in south-east Asia had given me some topics of conversation, for the first time in my life, I sat sparing with a man who had been raised surrounded by the art I had only encountered in books; a man who had grown up under the watchful eye of the Gestapo during the Second World War. His interest in history was prodigious, his ability to correlate the past with the contemporary, limpid. I was out of my league, and I knew it. And yet, there was nothing arrogant about him. To the contrary, although forthright, he expressed himself with modesty and humor.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that our chief want in life is “someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” While my love for Pitou was not at first sight, I think I knew immediately that I finally had met a man who could be that someone, and I didn’t want the afternoon with him to end.

Emerson 2

Emerson

Thoreau

Interestingly,  Emerson is well-known as the mentor of his fellow Transcendentalist and friend, Henry David Thoreau—a man to whom Pitou is related.  More interestingly, Pitou and Thoreau were born on the same day: July 12th.

“It’s too early for dinner,” he smiled. “Why don’t we go back to my apartment? We can have a drink there and, later, get something to eat. Would you like that, Bérénice?”

He spoke to me almost as if I were a child—carefully, politely, but with a great deal of affection that, I sensed, he carried within him for all of humanity. And, other than an inability to pronounce the letters th, and the minor transgression of dropping the s at the end of plural words, his English was perfect. I didn’t need to answer his question. He could see by the smile on my face that I was ready to leave with him.

The books were the first things I noticed upon entering his apartment. His books were his friends, and he had many of them. They were everywhere; on the side tables near the sofas, in the ceiling to floor library shelves from Herman Miller, on the coffee table—they littered the apartment, a testament to the order of preoccupation of the man who had collected them.

My next impression was of the simple elegance of the room. Heavy raw silk curtains adorned the eight-foot windows overlooking the street. An eighteenth century jardinière, with claw feet, stood underneath a cut glass mirror placed between the windows, effectively doubling the appearance of the room. A black lacquered coffee table designed by the renowned architecte d’intérieur, Gérard Mille, separated two contemporary leather armchairs by Charles Pollack. Everything, down to the Braun cigarette lighters—the models of which are found, today, in the New York Museum of Modern Art—had been chosen with discernment and care.   I have parted with many possessions over the course of my life. But there isn’t a single piece from that apartment that I do not have with me, still, to this day.

“Pour your self a drink,” he said, as he dropped the keys to the mini-cooper on the faux-marbre table in the entrance hall.

Day I Met Pitou 4, boostedIn the autumn of 1971, I was a gin and tonic girl and, today, just one drop of the elixir is enough to catapult me backwards through time by forty years. As I stood over the writing desk en marqueterie where he had set up a make shift bar, with cut crystal tumblers from Baccarat and a red ice bucket in the shape of an apple from Puiforcat, he did something that, at that moment, struck me as odd.  As if he already knew what I did not yet, he picked up a camera from the library shelves and snapped a picture of me.

“Go on,” he said. “Just pretend I’m not here.”

 

That was a tall order. Pitou had a charismatic presence that never ceased to amaze me and would only grow with age. He was not a man you ignored.

When I had finished mixing my drink, I noticed a number of framed pictures next to the liquor bottles. Spotting one of a beautiful woman, I picked it up before turning to him.

“Who is she?”

“My ex-wife,” he said, while placing a vinyl LP of Tea for the Tillerman on his turntable.

I didn’t recognize the woman, and it would be weeks before I would figure out who she was. For some reason, she struck me as Italian and, mentioning this to him, he began to laugh.

“Suzy?” he replied. “Pas de tous. She’s from Texas. Or, at least, her parents were.”

“Texas?” I responded with surprise.

She looked like anything but a girl from Texas, although the three-year-old child, in a photo next to her, dressed in a cowboy hat with a toy gun holster slung around her hips, could have been. I picked up her picture next.

“She’s my daughter,” he immediately informed me.suzy002Georgia

“She’s adorable,” I responded, thinking he would take the remark as a compliment. But instead, I detected a wince—a split second of glaring pain on his face that left me a bit startled. Placing the photo in its silver frame back on to the writing-table, I almost asked him “what happened?” before biting my tongue and deciding not to go there.

While I am not a snoop,  I love nothing more than discovering the mindset of a stranger by studying the titles on his bookshelves. With my gin and tonic in hand, I perused Pitou’s library, in awe of the breadth of topics that appeared to preoccupy him. From Suétone to Churchill, Balzac to Racine, Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, and the divine Marquis de Sade, my fingers grazed the gold inlaid titles to a wealth of knowledge, all bound in leather. One book in particular caught my attention, only because he had removed it from its spot on the shelf and it appeared to have a marker protruding from its middle. It was Philippe Erlanger’s account of the life of Diane de Poitiers and, as I picked it up, the pages, which he had cut with a letter opener to read, released from their folds a photograph that fluttered to the carpet. Executing one of my perfect vertical knee-bends, I retrieved it. Tattered at the edges, it was a shot of him in a cashmere sweater with a wood driver over his right shoulder.

Pitou with club“Do you play golf?” I asked, trying to make chitchat as he watched me move through his bibliothèque.

“I used to, during the War.”

“You look really confident in this shot. You must be a good player.”

“I had a good partner,” he answered.

Taking a sip from my glass, I asked: “Who?”

“The Aga Khan.”

I just about choked.

“Which one?” I asked.

At least I knew there had been a few, albeit, only because of my Hollywood upbringing and knowledge of Rita Hayworth’s marriage to Aly Khan.

“The Third,” he replied. “He had a Villa in Cannes during the War. My mother had a Villa in Nice.  She took me and my sister to live there  when the Germans invaded Paris in 1940.”

“Was he the one to whom his people paid tribute, by gifting him with his weight in gold?”

“Yes…but that’s myth. He was a very funny old man. And I was young. He enjoyed being around young people.”

Aga Khan, golfHH_the_AGA_KHAN_1936As jovial as he was corpulent, the Imam was the spiritual leader of twenty million Moslems of the Ismaili sect, and could trace his lineage to the prophet Muhammad through the prophet’s daughter, Fatima. Worldly, immensely rich, and easy to talk to, he had spotted Pitou on the fairways at Biot and had insisted that the teenage boy play with him. And so, during the summer of 1944, in the early hours of the morning, Pitou would bicycle to the course where he would meet with his Highness to talk about life and love and just about anything else that ran through his mind, while taking in a few holes.

“Those must have been difficult years,” I commented. “…the War years, I mean.”

Au contraire…they were the best of my life. We lived for the day. We never counted on tomorrow. I had no worries. And, best of all, I had TIME.”

“Who else did you get to know during the War?”

“Pour me a drink, will you? A scotch…on the rocks.”

Throwing some ice cubes into a glass, I thought, finally…I’ve got him speaking a bit about himself.

“Who else?” I asked once more, while fixing his drink.

He waited for me to hand him the tumbler, as he thought for a second.

“Go to the end of the book shelves near the window.”

By now, it was dark outside. Flipping a switch, he set off a series of spot lights attached to the aluminum posts of the Miller library shelves.

“Stop,” he said. “Third shelf from the top…what do you read?”

I was staring directly at a copy of The Razor’s Edge.

“Somerset Maugham?” I asked.

“He had a Villa on the sea at Cap Ferrat…the Villa Mauresque. I needed a male role model back then and he spent many afternoons with me, discussing life.”

“What about your father?” I asked. “Couldn’t you talk with him?”

The razor's edge“When I was about three, my mother left my father for another man…a man whom I detested.  Maugham gave me the chance to exchange my thoughts with someone who was sensitive, someone I respected. He was a fascinating old guy. He’d seen everything by the time I got to know him. That copy of The Razor’s Edge… he gave it to me, in the summer of ’46.”

During the late twenties and thirties, the Villa Mauresque had been one of the great literary salons of Europe. But, by the end of the War, it was the home of a lonely, seventy-two-year-old man who was feeling a bit abandoned. Maugham enjoyed spending his afternoons gabbing with the neighboring youth. It must have given him fresh material for his writing.

His villa was next door to Daisy Singer’s—the heir to the sewing machine fortune—and after spending the War years in Hollywood, he had returned to it. It was Maugham who turned Pitou on to the works of André Gide and so many of the other literary giants of his time. Riding his bicycle from Nice, along La Moyenne Corniche, he would leave it in the front courtyard of the Villa and, without having to knock, enter the house through the unlocked front door. Depending on the season, Maugham would either be in his study, where he wrote his manuscripts by hand, or on the back terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea where he liked to review his work once his secretary had typed it up.

somerset, distinguishedW-Somerset-Maugham-Villa-Mauresque“Ah, Pierre,” he would greet Pitou, while lowering his reading glasses to the tip of his nose. “Back for more instruction on the human condition?”

I had never read The Razor’s Edge, although I had seen the film with Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney.

“It is one of my favorite books,” Pitou commented.

“Why,” I asked, hoping to get him to open up, hoping to glimpse further into the mind of a man who was appearing more fascinating to me by the second.

“Because of the two themes that run through it: following your path in life instead of the path that others would have you follow. And dealing with loss without losing your soul. I think they are the two most difficult things to do in life.”

He pulled the book from its station on the shelf and rifled through the first few pages.

“There is an epigraph taken from the Katha-Upanishad. Here it is. It reads: ‘The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.’  My memory of Maugham’s interpretation of this is that the path to saving your self from destruction is narrow, and as difficult to walk as a razor’s edge.”

He closed the book and, returning it to its home, remarked:

“Maugham told me that to live life is to walk the razor’s edge.”

I didn’t know what to say. No man had ever spoken to me in this way. I must have looked a bit like a deer in headlights as I stood there, thinking that I hadn’t really lived at all.

“Tu es très jolie,” he said, breaking into a smile.

Then, without warning, he grabbed me by my arms and, taking me into his, gave me a long and passionate kiss. He wasn’t in love…not yet, but his spontaneity and ardor left him flushed.

“What would you like to do?” he asked, while still pressed against me.

“Get something to eat?” I grinned, a bit nervously.

day i met pitou_ RepairedDay I Met Pitou, boosted

Laughing, he released me.

“Okay,” he answered with a tinge of resignation.

Relieved that he hadn’t changed his mind about our spending the evening together, his kiss had given me the courage to ask the one question I had kept on the tip of my tongue all afternoon.

“But first tell me… how did you get that scar?”

He took my shoulders into his hands and wiggled me lightly back and forth. Then, mockingly, he said:

“I fell on my baby bottle.”

In the few hours we had spent together, I had already gleaned that Pitou adored “la taquinerie.” He loved to tease. Even so, this was the last answer I was expecting. Laughing out loud, I exclaimed:

“Oh, come on…tell me the truth.”

But with a wink, he just repeated himself.

“I…fell…on my…baby…bottle.”

In the years to come, no matter how many times I would ask this question, he would always respond with the same unnerving line. It wouldn’t be until the year of his death that I would, finally, resolve this puzzle and, in the process, come to understand a fundamental truth about my husband—one that I should have seen instantly.

Viens,” he said. “Allons-y. J’ai faim.”

ave foch sign

Click to View

His apartment building was on the corner of the avenue Malakoff and the avenue Foch. The leaves from the trees that lined the surrounding streets were beginning to turn a bright yellow-gold and orange. Drinking in the beauty of the city as we walked to his car, I began to feel the wonder of it all, to realize that I was being offered a great adventure.That evening, for the first time since my arrival in Paris, I relaxed completely.

Paris par Arnaud FrichHe took me to Le Berthoud, a little bistro on the rue Valette, within steps of the Panthéon. Expertly steering his way through the tight streets of the Latin Quarter, we circled the magnificent neo-classical church. The burial-place of France’s legendary men, such as Mirabeau, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Victor Hugo, it was beautifully and strategically lit to highlight the temple portico, with its sweeping Corinthian columns modeled after the Pantheon in Rome.

le-berthoud-parisThat evening, we drank Beaujolais while feasting on traditional French fare: blood rare entrecôte et frites with crème brulee for desert. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Pitou was a no frills “meat and potatoes” man. Intelligent and elegant, yet simple and devoid of all pretention, his qualities made him as appealing to men as he was captivating to women.

“So, how long are you planning on staying in Paris?” he asked, as I finished off the last slice of baguette smothered in butter.

“Only a year,” I answered.

“And then?”

“And then I will return to school in California…to study economics.”

“Are you sure you will want to return?” he asked.

“I have to,” I responded, without thinking. “I have to finish my education.”

“And you think that the only way to get it is through an institution?”

As I stared at him, blankly, he took a final gulp from his wine glass before adding:

“There’s a difference between knowledge and indoctrination.”

“You’re speaking of the difference between practice and theory?” I asked.

“No,” he responded. “I’m speaking of the difference between discovering the truth, and being told by others what it is. You don’t have to finish college to acquire an education, Bérénice. Fais attention. Cela peut meme t’empêcher de l’acquérir.” [1]

By the time we were back in the mini, it was a little past eleven. And, while the evening had provided one surprise after the other, the best was yet to come. Taking the Quai Voltaire, and crossing the Seine at the Pont Royal, through the windows of his little car, I saw the city as it had never appeared to me before—a safe haven whose imposing facades, enshrouded in gold light, were beginning to feel like home. Catching my thoughts, I stopped for a second.

Is it the city that feels like home? Or being in his presence?

I fell in love with Paris that evening.

Paris at night

After traveling the length of the rue de Rivoli, he turned up the Champs-Élysées at the Place de la Concord, and headed toward le Rond-Point.

“Where are we going?” I asked, thinking what every young and pretty girl thinks after a man has just paid for her dinner: that he might be heading for his apartment.

“Where everyone in Paris goes at this time of night,” he said, “…to Le Privé.

The buzzer past the entrance on the rue de Ponthieu rang instantly, allowing him passage through the guarded second door of the exclusive boîte de nuit.  Inside the club, it was dark and elegant and roaring with life. Packed to the gills, I held on to Pitou’s hand tightly, afraid that, were I to let go of it, I’d get caught in a wave of Le Tout-Paris that would leave me stranded in some far corner of the room. As soon as we crossed its threshold, a barrage of internationals began their approach.

“Pitou, mon pote… ça va?”

“Eh bien, pas mal mon vieux.  Et toi?”

Marisa-Berenson-bookJagger, 1971Between the double-palmed handshakes of the men attempting to catch up on his life, and the kisses on both cheeks from the women who had flung their arms around his neck, it was all that I could do to stay at his side. He tried to introduce me to as many people as possible—from Marisa Berenson, who had known him since her childhood, to Willy Rizzo with whom he had worked during his years as a reporter for Paris-Match, to Mick Jagger who, signaling from across the room, acknowledged him with a wave of his gun pointed index finger. But I quickly came to understand that, while everyone seemed to know Pitou, he stood returning warm greetings and kisses from people whose names he couldn’t remember. And, always, with a heartfelt laugh and twinkle in his eyes, conveying how truly happy he was to see them.

Taking his place at a ringside banquette, he served himself scotch from his personal bottle, kept in his name behind the bar, while I stayed faithful to my gin and tonic. In the moments between the conversations with friends who dropped in at our table, we danced to the southern soul music of Isaac Hayes and the early disco beat of Curtis Mayfield.

And then, the most surprising thing of all occurred. Somewhere, around three in the morning, he drove me back to my apartment.

“Good night, dear Bérénice,” he said, after delivering me to my door.

And turning, he began to walk away.

“Will I see you again?” I called timidly to him one last time.

But, looking back at me briefly, he just smiled—and continued on to his car.

 

[1] “Be Careful. It might even stop you from acquiring it.”

 To view the avenue Foch from l’Arc de Triomphe, Click Below and, once in the Panoramic Tour, Click on one of the photos of the Arc to the right of the Screen.

Avenue-Foch(Paris)

Click to View the avenue Foch

 

NEXT POST: Paris–The Cinderella Years: “Et moi, alors?”

To be taken to the post, click on the dust jacket of the book, below.

Book Cover, Pitou My Love

6 thoughts on ““I Fell On My Baby Bottle”

  1. I can see why and how you fell in love with this extraordinary gentleman.
    Beautiful memories, poignant recollections and lovely pristine writing filled with a cornucopia of literary, cultural and societal tidbits.
    Waiting anxiously for this to be published and have it signed by its amazingly talented author.
    It will be a fitting tribute to Pitou and all those who appreciate culture and believe in enduring and everlasting love!
    I am hooked!
    Z
    x

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Bérénice, I can’t possibly express with words the joy I feel in reading your posts. You take us back to a time and place that I miss so much. You bring it all back to life so astoundingly well. You appeal to all perceptions that being the five senses (and possibly more – if indeed that is possible!) I absolutely love living the experience of your blog posts – reliving the past – music, words, images and the reality you create – well done – and thank you for taking me along for the ride.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dear Bérénice … You take me back in time! “Tea for the Tiller]man” … Aha Khan…W. Somerset Maugham…. From your very first sentence (Culture Shock) I feel as if I was reliving your life…your courtship. My mind itself, went back in time to being 19 again myself! You define how all of us young girls felt at that age!
    I am now onto the next…. “Et Moi, Alors?”
    Bliss to you!

    Liked by 1 person

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