“Et Moi, Alors?”

Pitou with Suzy

with Suzy, 1954

He had the reputation of a playboy, a misnomer if ever there was one. Other than that he had remained a bachelor since his divorce from Suzy Parker in 1961 and, in the ten years after, was seen around town with an uninterrupted string of beautiful women, Pitou had none of the attributes, nor any of the toys, of the typical playboy. No race cars, no cigarette boats, no death-wish attraction for the fast life that had felled a couple of his friends while they had still been in their prime. In fact, as I would soon discover, he much preferred staying at home at night, in bed with a good book, than being out carousing with his French cuffed, tailor suited male comrades—many of whom suffered from a deep-seated fear of spending an entire evening in the company of no one other than themselves.

Card 2During the Fifties and early Sixties, he had worked as a journalist—initially free lancing before gaining entry into the coveted cabine de Paris-Match where he acquired many of his life-long friends. From there, he had gone on to become an editor at Marie-Claire until the tumultuous days of May of ’68 when all of Paris seemed to come apart at the seams. On the day we met, he was working as the Chef de la Publicité Litteraire for one of the largest advertising agencies in France, Régie-Presse, otherwise known as Publicis. And yet, his reputation as a “playboy” doggedly pursued him.

That next morning, Debbie let me sleep until sometime around 10:00, at which point her curiosity got the better of her.   Shaking me from my slumber, the questions poured forth.

“Well, how was it?  What happened to you?  I was beginning to worry.”

A sleepy smile came over my face as I struggled to open eyelids heavy with fatigue.

“He’s marvelous,” I whispered, my mouth still parched from the residual taste of gin.

“Did anything happen?” she continued. “I mean, God…what time did you get in? I fell asleep at two.”

In those days, it was understood between Debbie and me that “anything” could only mean “one thing.”

“No, he’s too much of a gentlemen,” I answered, with a large stretch of my arms.

“So, where did he take you? Tell me everything. Are you going to call anyone else on the list??”

For the next hour I did my best to recount to her the events of the  evening, while giggling as only best girl friends can.

“Oh, God, Debbie…what if he doesn’t want to see me again?” I asked, after delivering a second by second replay of my memorable soirée.

But, with a confident wave from her wrist, she perfunctorily dismissed my concern.

“He’ll want to see you again,” she said. “Quite frankly, I’m wondering what you’re going to do when he keeps wanting to see you. What about Bruce?”

Bruce… the sweet young love whom I had left in California.  He was busy, completing his last year of undergraduate studies at UC Irvine where he planned to continue as a medical student. Prior to my leaving LA, instead of writing letters, we had decided to exchange tape recordings while I was in Europe.  During those first couple of months away from each other, it had been a system that had kept us in constant contact. But in that second after Debbie’s question, it suddenly hit me: I hadn’t given a single thought to my young fiancé all evening. Reflecting before answering her question, I responded:

“Well…why does he have to know anything?”

With bug eyes, Debbie stared at me for a second before we both burst out laughing.

“You’re right,” she answered, crushing her cigarette in the ashtray that sat on the nightstand between our beds. “I mean, when are you ever going to get an opportunity like this again?”

Whenever Debbie asked a question, the look on her face was always full of sincerity. You could tell that she was not just making a glib remark; she pondered what she was saying—conveying that “no, really…think about it” essence to her query.

“Yeah, but if something does happen,” I remarked, “I think I’m going to feel really guilty.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said dismissively. “You’ll be doing Bruce a favor. This way, you can go back to him in a year a little more worldly, without feeling like you’ve missed out on anything.”

I wanted to believe her. In my naïve nineteen-year-old mind I thought that, while in Paris, I might be able to “live a little” before settling down. And all without running the risk of falling in love with another man. You think a lot of stupid thoughts when you’re that young. The point is, it was an honest mistake and, while opening my heart to Debbie on that October morning following my first evening with the man who would become the love of my life, I had every intention of eventually returning to California, and to Bruce, for good.

But that moment was still ten months away. And, in the meantime, I decided to enjoy myself.

The sunlight from the rue de Lubeck streamed through our living room window.   Still in our pajamas, we spoke of young dreams for the future while eating tapioca for breakfast and listening to Yes on the cassette player I had brought with me from California. With Roundabout roaring from its tiny speakers, a rush of goose bumps reminded me of my incredible luck—to be so young and living in Paris, with nothing to worry about other than if Pitou would ever call.

He didn’t let me worry for long. Around 11:30 that morning, the phone rang.

“Have you been to Versailles yet?” he asked.

“No, not yet.” I responded. “I tried to get Debbie to go there with me, but she said she’s already been. She’s already been everywhere.”

“Oh, I see. Well… it’s beautiful this time of year. Would you like to take a walk with me this afternoon through the park gardens?”

Hanging up the phone, I glanced at Debbie—flush with the excited knowledge that I must have made a good impression on my debonair new friend.

“I told ya,” she said, with a big smile.

Sketch of Mini cooperI threw on a pair of bell-bottom blue jeans and, at the first sight of the little mini, darted out of the apartment. Half parked, Pitou opened the door from the inside of the car while still at the wheel.

“Alors, ma petite Bérénice …pas trop fatiguée après une virée en ville?[1]

With only three weeks of French courses under my belt, I panicked as I searched for the right response.

“Tu parle!” I finally blustered, only to cause him to chuckle while slightly shaking his head.

I amused Pitou immensely those first few months, as if, unwittingly, I had provided him with a window into the mind of an innocent, still in that raw state of star struck wonder where she sat marveling at the foreign world that had been laid at her feet. He had already seen so much of the world; it was as if, through me, he was being given a second chance to experience the awe all over again.

As an art history student I had studied Versailles, but nothing prepares you for it.  Still, it wasn’t the opulence or grandeur that struck me. It was the little things that I found captivating: the doorways, the hidden staircases, and above all—the light.

Dauphins Salon

Doorway petite trianon Versaille hallway

 

 

 

 

 

Sun King

Learn about The Sun King

We began the afternoon by walking the interior corridors of the palace. The red brick structure had once served as Louis XIII’s “little hunting lodge” until his son Louis XIV, who preferring to hunt slightly different prey, had decided it was the ideal spot to escape from his elders with his mistresses. Pitou didn’t care much for the palace. He loved walking the pathways through the forest where, unexpectedly, you would fall upon a small deserted fountain or a lone stone bench. There, he would sit while breathing in the autumn air.  I thanked God that, during the summer months before leaving for Paris, I had taken the time to read Nancy Mitford’s account of the life of The Sun King. Had it not been for that book, Pitou’s mention of his regard for André Le Nôtre would have had me conjuring images of chocolates, instead of the magnificent formal gardens that had been so beautifully designed by the seventeenth century master of horticulture. The groves of chestnut trees formed archways of branches that were beginning to shed their orange and gold foliage; and the walkways, carpeted with their leaves, guided us toward the far end of the park.

path in autumn

Tour the gardens

“Did you know that Le Nôtre was one of the persons whom Louis XIV liked best in the world?” I commented to Pitou, more as a statement than a question and, above all, hoping to impress him. “He felt more at ease with his servants,” I continued, “than with the pompous aristocrats who surrounded him.”

“Did you know that Louis offered his gardener a coat of arms?” he quickly retorted.

“No!” I responded, suddenly thinking that I may have confused Le Nôtre with Le Brun.

fr_blason-lenotre“Oui” he answered. “And Le Nôtre responded by telling the King, ‘I’ve got one already. Three slugs crowned with cabbage leaves’.”

Despite, Le Nôtre’s lack of pretension, the King insisted on ennobling him and, in 1681, faithful to his quip, the humble gardener chose as the design for his coat of arms a large head of cabbage with three silver snails against a green background with a chevron in gold.

We spent the entire afternoon exploring the grounds surrounding le Grand Trianon, le Petit Trianon, and le hameau de Marie Antoinette, before heading east along the boulevard de la Reine.  Near le bassin de Neptune there is a magical place—the Hotel Trianon.

“Let’s have tea, shall we?”

Trianon Tea Hallway

Click to View

Pitou adored nothing more than taking tea in the afternoon and was always ready to suggest it. He loved the strong taste of the black leaves scented with bergamot, poured from a heavy silver pot into a cup of fine porcelain. And les gateaux… from the ovens of Ladurée and Chez Carette, Le Nôtre and La Petite Marquise. That afternoon, as we sat in the splendid white plaster hallway of the Hotel, with its marble floors and hanging glass chandeliers, we shared our thoughts along with bit sized cakes, while sipping Earl Grey until well past five.

“You take the last piece,” I offered, although secretly coveting it for myself.

“No, you take it,” he said.

I couldn’t fool him. He, quickly, had figured out that I was “gourmande.”

Eyeing the small remaining morsel of une tartelette au citroen, I asked:

“Are you sure?”

“It’s for you,” he answered, with a smile stretched from ear to ear.

It would become a familiar refrain. For the next forty years, each time we would share anything, be it a meal, a piece of pie, a bowl of ice cream or a glass of champagne, he would always leave the last bite, the last gulp, for me. No matter how much I might coax him to “take it,” waving his finger in my face, he would smile while proclaiming: “no, no…it’s for you.”

Day I Met Pitou 2We drove back to his apartment on the avenue Foch.  Already, he was so at ease with me–it was as if we’d been living together for months. He had a whole chicken in the refrigerator—his favorite dish, and sprinkling it with coarse sea salt, fresh rosemary leaves, and a bit of olive oil, he threw it into the oven. Then, turning on the TV, he moved intermittently between the library shelves and the kitchen, checking in on a live address to the nation by Pompidou while attending to our dinner.  The nightly news was about the only thing he ever watched on television and, even so, he was usually suspicious of what ever was broadcast.  Most of the time, Pitou preferred to mute the tube, leaving the images to run along the screen while playing Beethoven’s piano sonatas softly in the background.

C’est de la propagande. Il ne faut pas leur faire confiance.” [2]

 

“You mean you don’t believe anything that’s being said?” I asked.

“Moi?” he answered. “Moi, je ne croîs en RIEN.” [3]

Who was I to argue with him?  He was the one who had spent fifteen years of his life as a journalist.

By now, it was past seven, the hour when tous les potes wanted to know what he was up to. The phone began to ring incessantly. With the music of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg playing softly in the background, as they made wild love to each other while singing Je t’aime, Je t’aime moi non plus, I watched Pitou laughing with his friends over the phone while explaining that he couldn’t possibly meet with them that evening…he was too busy at home, with “a charming young American.”

Me, 1971, shot by Pitou

The men understood and forgave him. It was a different story, however, when the women began calling. At one point, some Swedish model, furious because Pitou declined seeing her that evening,  expressed her wrath by screaming obscenities through the receiver in French. The answering machine had not yet been invented and, to gain respite from her repetitive calls,  the only remedy Pitou could think of was to bury the telephone under a stack of cushions he removed from the sofa. Surprised by her persistence, he looked at me a bit confounded, seemingly unaware of the passion he was capable of evoking in women.

“Mais, enfin” he exclaimed, “ce n’est pas vrais. Je suis désolé, Bérénice.”[4]

Anna_GouldComte de Bonnie de CastellaneThe windows to his apartment faced the old Palais Rose which, recently, had been torn down to make way for a modern apartment building. It had once served as the residence of Anna Gould, the countess Boniface de Castellane, and second daughter of the American railroad magnate—Jay Gould.  Its architecture was inspired by le Grand Trianon at Versailles—the small summer residence built by Louis XIV where we had spent part of that afternoon. Demolishing the little palais had saddened Pitou. While he carved the chicken from the kitchen off the entrance hall, I stared out the windows at a series of posters plastered on the wooden walls, surrounding the construction site, that had been erected to protect the public from flying debris.The posters were bigger-than-life photos of French pop singer, Michel Polnareff, wearing his trademark white framed rectangular sunglasses while, impishly, baring his ass to the passers-by on the street. Paris was a sweet and marvelous lesson in irreverence. In 1971, the French laughed at everyone, and everything.

Polnareff best

Those years would mark an awakening, a period in time when I would question everything I had been taught—a moment in my life when the people surrounding me would open my eyes to a world formerly unseen. They woke me up, freeing me to think for myself.

With Cat Steven’s singing Hard Headed Woman, we dimmed the lights, drank wine, and got to know each other better. I told Pitou all about Bruce but, refusing to acknowledge any possible threat to our budding relationship, he playfully referred to him as “Charlie.”

“Are you going to visit Charlie at Christmas?” he asked.
“His name isn’t Charlie,” I responded, “it’s Bruce.”

“Oh, okay. Well… if you don’t visit Charlie, why don’t you come with me to Verbier for the holidays? I have a friend with a marvelous chalet there. Do you ski?”

After another week of this little game, I finally gave up correcting him. But giving up on my future with “Charlie” was another thing. Stubbornly, I held on to the idea that my time in Paris was limited and that, when it would be up, I would return to my former existence. Have you ever listened to Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Tank”? The syncopated rhythm of the moog synthesizer laughed at my credulous nature, as Pitou, effortlessly, fascinated while ensnaring me.

In the following two weeks, not a day would pass without him calling at least once. We quickly fell into a routine, of long walks through the Bois de Boulogne, window-shopping on the avenue Montaigne, late lunches at The Tea Caddy on the rue Saint Julian Le Pauvre, and dinners at the elegant apartments of his close friends. Sensing the pain that I was experiencing as, slowly, the realization that the door to my past was closing, he remained patient and understanding—never demanding that I give of myself completely, while gently coaxing me to trust him with his love.  And although, each evening upon returning to my apartment, I confided in Debbie how deeply I cared for this man, the conception of what my future held kept getting in the way of my emotions. The remedy to this dilemma, I decided, was to keep things light; but it only created another problem.  Pitou wasn’t accustomed to women who resisted his gentle attempts to bed them, and my refusal to cross that line had left him nonplused.

“Et, moi alors?” he complained. “Si les potes savaient, quelle honte… Je me sens ridicule.”[5]

He wasn’t wrong to think this way. They have an instinct, les potes, and a number of them honed in on me while Pitou wasn’t looking. On the days and evenings when he had other engagements, I attended lunches at Fouquet’s and soirées at New Jimmy’s—the other sleek boîte de nuit in Montparnasse owned and operated by the flaming red-haired symbol of Parisian night-life, Regine. Pitou was aware of the fact that I was moving about Paris; but he guarded his reaction to my free-wheeling nature. Treating me like an exotic bird, he intelligently reasoned that the best way to keep her in his gilded cage was by leaving its door flung open. How right he was. After an evening with any other man, all I wanted to do was fly back to him.

This said, he had his limits.  And, on the afternoon of October 26th, I discovered them.

It was the opening day of the Francis Bacon retrospective at le Grand Palais, and Pitou had tickets. The imposing glass and steel exhibition hall, with its classical stone façade and tempest of Art Nouveau ironwork, was built for l’exposition universelle de 1900. It was a fitting venue for the violent and seditious works of Francis Bacon.

700px-PanoramiqueGrandPalais-3600

Click to discover le Grand Palais

The contemporary artist had arrived in Paris weeks earlier with his lover and muse, George Dyer. Their relationship, ongoing since 1963, had been stormy and ultimately proved tragic. Two days before the opening of the retrospective, Dyer committed suicide in their room at the Hotel des Saint-Pères in Saint-Germain-des Près.

The horror of Bacon’s work fascinated. We spent several hours admiring the pieces while wondering if confronted with the art of an enduring genius.  If price is the arbiter of this artist’s staying power, Bacon is right up there along with Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt and Picasso.  At a recent auction at Christies’ in New York, one of the pieces we stood before on that day in late October of 1971—Bacon’s Triptych of fellow artist and friend, Lucien Freud—went for one hundred and forty-two million dollars, the most expensive piece of artwork sold at auction to date, toppling the price paid for Edvard Munch’s fabled pastel, “The Scream,” by more than twenty-two million.

Three_Studies_of_Lucian_Freud

For whatever reason, I found Bacon’s small-scale triptych of Dyer, painted the year before,  the more interesting piece.  Bacon is known for having said that, “in order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”  His study of Dyer reflects this.

Three studies, Francis Bacon
It was fitting that, on this day, I would catch my first glimpse of the dark side of Pitou. The epitome of grace and cordiality, I had not yet seen him angry and was beginning to think that he could not be provoked. But I was about to learn that there was one human characteristic capable of inciting his ire: stupidity.

tea caddy, street view

Click to visit The Tea Caddy

After we had our fill of Bacon, Pitou took me to the Tea Caddy for a bite to eat.  Always curious to learn of my most recent impressions of Paris, my adventures while away from him, I innocently mentioned that I had spent the past evening with an acquaintance of his—a man known throughout town for his impartial and somewhat Machiavellian womanizing.  Suave, the man was known for slipping Quaaludes into the champagne flutes of unsuspecting young girls—a fate I fortuitously escaped. I hadn’t considered it at the time but, although well-known in Parisian society, Corinne had omitted his name from her list.

Visibly furious upon learning that I had accepted to have dinner with this man, Pitou’s eyes burned with fire as he just about knocked his cup off the linen laden table where we sat sipping thé de Chine and feasting on tarte tatin.

“Be careful, Bérénice,” he admonished me, while raising his voice just enough to drive home the point. “Not all men in Paris will handle you with kid gloves.”

He was jealous–yes. Yet I could see that there was a larger concern brewing inside of him. My candor had led him to understand that he was in the company of a still young girl—one who, quite apparently, lacked judgment.   It may sound cruel, but Pitou could size people up instantly, walk into a room and immediately understand the players.   And it astonished him that I could not.  He didn’t want me anywhere near this man, and he couldn’t have made himself clearer. Abruptly, he rose from the table.

“Let’s go…I’m taking you home.”

That evening, after explaining to Debbie what had happened, I wondered if I would ever see him again.

You would have never made that mistake,” I said to Debbie. “You would have sniffed that guy out at first blush.”

“Well,” Debbie remarked, “you’ve always said that you’ve suffered from not having a father. It looks like Pitou agrees with you.”

For the next three days, the phone didn’t ring. On the fourth morning without hearing from him, I broke down.

“Oh my God, Debbie…am I falling in love? What am I going to do?”

She had seen to it that I arrived in Paris and, without knowing how, had delivered me into Pitou’s arms. Debbie’s next move would make sure that I stayed in them.

 

Footnotes

[1] “So, my little Bérénice…not too tired after a night out on the town?”

[2] “It’s propaganda. You mustn’t ever trust them.”

[3] “Me?  Me, I believe in NOTHING.”

[4] “But, it’s not possible. I’m so sorry, Bérénice.”

[5] “And, what about me? If my friends knew, what a disgrace…I feel ridiculous.”

 

Click on the  photo, below, to watch the progression of the palace at Versailles

as it moves from its ownership by Louis XIII through Louis XVI.

VERSAILLES3d

 

NEXT POST: Paris–The Cinderella Years: “Don’t Worry About It. You Still Have Two Weeks.”

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

Book Cover, Pitou My Love

5 thoughts on ““Et Moi, Alors?”

  1. I believe you couldn’t be more correct in that particular observation. Berenice, you have lived a gift and you possess a gift. You cannot go wrong by sharing those gifts in such a tremendously talented manner. Your writing makes my heart fly – and I can’t wait to read more (and more importantly, see it all in print.) Your book will be lovely and astound. If only I had your talent! Never mind, it’s blessedly beautiful reliving my own experience living in France through you. Thank you, dear friend.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I can just picture myself in your bedroom the morning after your blind date with Pitou, asking you the same questions that Debbie asked, wanting you to relive every moment. How lucky you were to have chosen him from “The List.” How lucky you were to have had such an incredible life with your beloved. I truly hope that your blog ends up in print. You write with such detail, I feel like I’ve been transported back to Paris in the 70’s. Keep ’em coming, Berenice!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It is more fun than I ever could have imagined to relive this through your eyes. The 70s’ come back, a Paris I have yet to experience, and a young, funny girl I knew from Westlake, suddenly in the arms of this fabulous man. It’s all too much, except it’s all very true. I’m in love wih every bit of it. xo Pam

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a grand seduction! However naive you were, it was also a part of your charm…and if you believe that you were indeed so comfortable in Paris….it is definitely possible that you had lived there before. Although you might not have had ‘love at first sight’, you did feel inside a certain feeling…a pull…a magnetic energy with Pitou. It’s really a subconscious recognition of a previous existence in another lifetime…this was definitely a soul connection! How wonderful you had this magnificent adventure!

    Now on to “Don’t Worry About It. You Still Have Two Weeks.” (What a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon!)

    Merci Berenice!

    Liked by 1 person

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