“Oh Yeah? Just Watch Me”

Berenice de la Salle, in ParisWITH THOUGHTS OF EVER RETURNING to California buried deep within the neo-cortex, I contemplated what most women in 1972 still deemed impossible: landing a job as a female stockbroker on Wall Street—without a college degree, at the ripe old age of twenty. 

“Il faut un peu de patience,”  Gérard cautioned. “Mais, finalement…pour quoi pas?” [1]

Gérard had a hee-hee-hee kind of laugh. I can still hear it today as I reminisce upon this moment when, with  drôlerie and love, he decided to help propel my career.

“Get me an interview,” I begged.

The President of Merrill Lynch’s Paris office at that time was a man by the name of David Rosenthal—a New York Jew who had a keen appreciation of high  finance, as well as good-looking women.  Understanding Rosenthal’s weakness, Gérard cajoled:

“Ne t’enquête pas, Bérénice. Ce n’est qu’une question de temps.” [2]

Save for a pretty young English girl who, not coincidentally,  served as Mr. Rosenthal’s assistant, the secretarial pool at the Paris office of Merrill was a bit dour, to put it kindly. I knew that interjecting some fresh young blood into it would amuse Gérard.  And so, leaving my future to his timing, I sat back and relaxed while enjoying my first spring in Paris.

With time on our hands, Pitou continued to introduce me to his world. We spent most of our weekends at the country estates of some of his old friends. One of them stands out in particular—a rambling nineteenth century manoir in Neauphle-le-Chateau occupied by French screenwriter, actor and director: Paul Gégauff. Plein soleil He was best known for his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley which, in 1960, he had turned into the smash French thriller Plein Soleil.  With Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet playing the parts of Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf, Gégauff and French director Réne Clément won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America while the movie received honors as “Best Foreign Language Film.”

Paul Gegauff

Gegauff

That Gégauff had talent was undeniable.  But I couldn’t stand him.  Une belle gueule de la Nouvelle Vague who spit on Truffaut, inspired Rhomer, and collaborated with Claude Chabrol on fourteen films, Paul was also an accomplished womanizer–one who, nonetheless, disrespected the female sex. Deeming them unworthy of anything more than being bedded, in my mind, Gégauff had been born two hundred years too late.  He thought of himself as an anarchiste de luxe.  Mean and injurious, I thought of him as the most sadistic alcoholic I had ever met.  And yet, blinded by the man’s talent and intelligence, his male friends never hesitated to stand up for him— albeit, while recognizing his faults.  Chabrol once said of Paul: “When I want cruelty, I go off and look for Gégauff.”  Nevertheless, my visceral reaction to the man took Pitou by surprise.

Pitou had taken many of his past girlfriends to spend weekends at the sprawling manor house where, in his kitchen, Gégauff liked to discuss politics and history while cooking and downing several bottles of red Bordeaux.  I can only conclude that these past girlfriends had never dared open their mouths while in the company of this notorious misogynist. When I did, however, Paul’s reaction left me nonplused.  It was as if I was not in the room. Talking over me, I quickly came to understand that, in his eyes, I had about as much weight as a ghost.

“Why did you bring me here?” I lamented to Pitou. “You couldn’t possibly think that I would put up with this for an entire weekend, did you?”

Mais, mon chou,” he responded, “haven’t you ever observed a Bull dog?”

Instantly, the image of this little animal’s contorted face, with its lower teeth locked upon its upper lip, surfaced.

“They are mean because they are in pain.  Bérénice…aye un peu de compassion.” [3] 

That was Pitou.  Like most men, as long as he wasn’t the brunt of the heat, he had difficulty understanding why a woman might sweat.  I tried to ignore Gégauff’s slights.  But, as I have already mentioned, I love to converse.  And spending an entire weekend with a man who refused to consider me as anything more than a flower arrangement at his table did not sit well. That evening, shortly after dinner, we returned to Paris.

Hennessy XOI resolved to never see the man again.  But Pitou was a loyal friend and, somehow, Gégauff would continually resurface.  In 1974, shortly after we moved from the avenue Foch to our apartment overlooking the Champ de Mars, Pitou couldn’t resist inviting Paul over for dinner.   We had spent a small fortune having the second floor apartment remodeled by close friend and renowned architecte d’interieur, Alain Demachy.   Katherine Hennessy, heir to the cognac fortune, occupied the apartment directly above us and, generously, had stocked our wine cellar with all forms of libations…at wholesale prices.  A poster boy for bad behavior, Gégauff arrived on his VéloSoleX and, deciding to take advantage of our good fortune,  immediately downed an entire bottle of XO by himself.  That was fine; we had cases of the stuff.  But consuming the rarity wasn’t enough for Paul.  Once he had emptied the bottle, he chose to mark his territory–by pissing on the newly purchased royal blue wool carpet in Pitou’s study.

“Have you had enough of this yet?” I asked Pitou.  But, wondering how the hell his friend would ever make it home on his moped, in resignation, he just shook his head.

Daniele Gegauff with Marianne Haas

Daniele & Marianne

A decade later, and back in California where we would raise our daughter, Devon, I would learn of Gégauff’s demise from  French friend and photographer, Marianne Haas, who had called to wish us a happy new year.  Paul’s first wife, French actress Danièle Gégauff, had known to get out of the relationship before something uncontrollably tragic had occurred. Unfortunately, his second wife, Coco, was not as lucky—nor as fute-fute —as Danielle. [4]

“She stabbed him to death,” Marianne announced, “with a kitchen knife on Christmas day!”

It is a terrible thing to say but, as Marianne spoke, I could see Gégauff’s young Norwegian wife wielding her knife in a desperate act of revolt against a man who had spent his entire life shitting upon “the second sex.”

Arielle Dombasle 1982

Arielle Dombasle

Coco was introduced to Paul by French actress, Arielle Dombasle, who recently had spent the weekend with us at our home in Malibu.  Arielle should have been the ideal person to find the perfect spouse for Gégauff.  As feline and feminine as any woman can get, submissiveness appears not only second nature to her, she gives the impression that being any other way while in a man’s presence is simply stupid.  Yet, in playing matchmaker, she made a huge mistake by choosing Coco who, quite obviously, felt otherwise.

Pitou was deeply saddened by the news of Gégauff’s death.  He and Paul went back to the years just after the Second World War.  Coco had murdered more than just his old friend; she had killed off a part of Pitou’s youth.  I, however, sat pondering the fact that Paul’s death had not come as a surprise to me.  Such was the dramatis personae in Pitou’s life.  From the Aga Khan, to Somerset Maugham, to Gégauff.  The range was astounding, and the moments never boring.

Looking back, I now know why I had found Paul such an irritant.  At a time when I was hell-bent on busting the mold, on proving to myself that anything was possible, as long as you believed it was, Gégauff served as the nagging reminder of female historical impotence—the man ready to quash a girl’s nascent  dreams the second she dared to entertain them.  Fortunately, his antithesis was there to catch me: Gérard.

It was August, and I had just returned from a month in LA where I was visiting my family.  While I had been in California, Pitou had flown off to India with  Demachy who, as an eclectic collector of objets d’art, was on the hunt for Buddhist thangkas and other colorful relics one could still snap up at dirt cheap prices.   I flew from LA in to Geneva around the fifteenth to find Pitou tanned and smiling.

“I missed you,” he said.  “I was afraid you might not come back.”

I knew he wasn’t lying because, when he was overcome with emotion, his eyes would become moist.  With his index finger, he wiped a tear from the corner of a lid before taking my bags.

Pitou, July 1972

Pitou, July 1972

We drove to Verbier where,  upon his return from New Delhi, he had relaxed with Gérard.   On the way, he gave me a recap of the goings on at the chalet and the guests who had come and gone.

“Has Gérard said anything more to you about  Merrill Lynch?” I asked.

“Yes,” Pitou answered. “He said that Gold just hit a record high of $70 an ounce and that you should buy…it’s going higher.”

“That’s not what I was hoping you would say, Pitou.”

Taking my hand in his as he navigated the night road through Martigny, he reassured me.

“Your moment will come,  don’t worry.”

It came the next morning, shortly before lunch.  While sunning on the terrace, Gérard suddenly switched the subject from bullion’s spectacular performance on the London Exchange to his tantalizing accomplishments as my mentor.

“Tiens,” he said suddenly, “j’ai parlé avec Rosenthal à propos de toi. Il veut te rencontrer.” [5]

“Really?” I asked, trying to appear nonchalant.

With his eyes half closed while drinking up the sun, he repeated the telephone number he knew by heart.   Memorizing it, I tried to stay calm.  But the suspense was too much. Within five minutes, and unable to hold myself back, I ran to the up stairs bedroom overlooking the Swiss Alps where Pitou had  slumbered for the past week. Changing into a pair of white star-studded Sisley jeans, I snatched the keys to the mini and dashed off to town where, from a phone booth, I could call Mr. Rosenthal’s office—in privacy.

Although I had spent July in LA studying with a private tutor at Berlitz, my French was still abominable. Fortunately, the young woman who answered the phone was merciful. Putting an end to my misery, she responded to my questions in English.

“Mr. Rosenthal is out-of-town for the week,” she said.

What was I thinking? Of course he was out of town…it was August! the month when all of Paris deserted its cobblestone streets for the countryside or the south of France.

“But, he can see you during the first week of September,” she continued.

“Yes, yes, anytime!” I replied.

The next two weeks I spent concocting my speech: a summary of all there was to know about me—from my political affinities to my natural proclivities for everything running the gamut from economics to disco dancing. Having never been interviewed for anything, I tried anticipating every conceivable question this seeming wizard of finance named Rosenthal might ask me, not yet realizing that I would cinch the position the second I passed over the threshold of his commanding corner view office.

On the morning of my appointment, Pitou dropped me off at the corner of the Avenue Marceau and the rue de Presbourg.

“Relax,” he admonished. “Just be yourself.”

As I jumped out of the car, he delivered the Frenchman’s salutation for “good luck.”

“Je te dis merde,” he said with a wink. [6]

cadeau-pour-fete-papas-3The glass doors to the building open on a large circular lobby of terrazzo flooring.  With my heart thumping, I took the elevator to the fourth floor. The receptionist for Merrill was busy slipping a copy of Barron’s onto a large wooden porte journal.

“I have an appointment,” I said, “with Mr. Rosenthal?” 

Barely acknowledging my presence, which is the French woman’s way of saying “you look good,” she walked to a cabinet stacked with third quarter editions of stock guides from Standard and Poor’s.  Placing the newspaper pole on to a wall rack, where Barron’s draped over copies of its sister edition, the Wall Street Journal, she mumbled: “un instant, s’il vous plait.”  Then, turning, she walked down the hall toward the President’s office.

Fiona Montanaro

Fiona

What would come next I shall never forget.  For, if the young French girl who spent her day answering the phone had left me at attention, the laugh of the young British woman who, next, barreled out from Rosenthal’s door quickly slapped me back at ease.  Fiona Montanaro was a force of nature.  Her short brown hair draped her round cheeks with curls, and her eyes twinkled as if to say “what are you worried about?”  Walking toward me with supreme confidence, she was smoking a Butz-Choquin pipe as her long silk skirt swished from side to side.Butz-Choquin

“Ms. Stevenson?” she asked. “Come with me. Mr. Rosenthal is expecting you.”

Eyeing me with a smile, Fiona could see that I was tense.

“Don’t worry,” she laughed. “He doesn’t bite.”

And with that, she gave me a pat on the back and pushed me through the door to Rosenthal’s office.

How to describe David Edward Rosenthal?  He was forty-three years of age on that seminal day of my life. Somewhat freckled, with reddish-brown hair, he sat behind his desk in a swivel chair with his most important weapon in hand: the telephone receiver.  Talking with New York, he joked with a superior as if they had attended le lycée together and, while finishing his conversation, beckoned me to sit down.  He gave the impression of always being busy.  Attentive to the slightest detail, nothing seemed to get past him.

“Ms. Stevenson,” he said as he hung up the phone, “so, tell me… why do you want to work here?”

Rosenthal was a no-nonsense kind of guy who got directly to the point.  He didn’t talk much.  His strategy was to let you ramble while, carefully, he observed—dissecting your every thought, scrutinizing your every move.   I rambled, all right.  But, confronted with his complete silence, in a last desperate plea for him to take a chance on me, I suddenly heard myself blurting:

“Look…I’ll do anything; stuff envelopes, lick stamps–you name it.  I just want to be in the middle of it all.  This is where I can learn—not back at home in some university.”

His eyes moved up and down me.  He didn’t smile, but nor did he frown.  And then, after a long pause, he said:

“You’re obviously very intelligent.  And, rarely have I met anyone as young as you with such a command of the English language.”

Thank you. Westlake, thank you, I murmured under my breath, as he continued to speak.

“The problem is…I don’t have any openings for the moment.”

My heart sank as Rosenthal waited a second while observing my reaction to his demoralizing words.

“But I promise you this,” he suddenly continued.  “As soon as I do, it’s yours.”

Stunned, as I watched him get up from his chair,  he  told me the interview was over.

I walked out of his office and caught a glimpse of Fiona smiling.  With the headset from her Dictaphone covering her ears, she stopped typing for a second to laugh.

“Looking forward to getting to know you,” she said.

Elation best describes my state of mind for the next two days.  But, two weeks later, I was just  plain worried. The phone had not rung, and Gérard had no news. It would be another week before I would hear anything back.  Then, one crisp autumn morning in the first week of October, the call I had waited for finally came.

“Report tomorrow morning,” Fiona said. “Nine a.m. sharp.”

“You mean, I’m hired?” I asked.

I didn’t even know as what.  And, frankly, I didn’t care.  All I could think was that the largest brokerage firm in the world had just taken me on, and my future in Paris with Pitou was now cemented.

Rosenthal threw me into the institutional pool, a set of desks at the far end of the trading room where the phones rang off their hooks with calls for orders from the largest banking institutions in Europe.  Stationed next to a room encased with glass where the firm’s commodity traders congregated—I watched in awe as hot-blooded young men, with three receivers in their hands at any given moment, shouted so loudly over the phones that their bullet proof cage barely protected the rest of us from the noise. The commodity pit was a risky place, in more ways than one, and would lead to Rosenthal’s eventual undoing.  But that’s for another chapter.

Under the stress of wanting to make good, my French improved dramatically, as I struggled to comprehend the lingo of European traders rattling off quotes for corporate bonds with the cadence of a machine gun.

“La Schlum, a nonante-sept et demi !” they’d holler. Translation: Buy Schlumberger Eurobonds at 97 and a half.

Dow Jones, 1972Within weeks of my arrival, the Dow Jones Industrial Average would close above 1000 for the first time in history, with “rebounding glamours,” including Polaroid, rising to 115.   The excitement in the office was electric and, caught up in the buzz, my colleagues congenially overlooked both my inexperience and the myriad mistakes I made those first few days on the job.

The view out the office windows was breathtaking, but the hours slipped by so quickly that I barely had the time to notice.  It seemed that, each day, before I could grab a couple of glimpses, I would find the Arc de Triomphe inundated in a golden light against a midnight blue sky.  Where had the time gone?  Because it was already 4:00 in the afternoon in Paris when the stock exchange in New York opened, I couldn’t leave the office before 7:00.  It was exhilarating, walking out side of the ground floor lobby at night, waiting on the terrazzo steps of the building for the little blue mini-cooper to appear with Pitou in it, anxious to find out how my day had gone. I would drink in the crisp air while staring at the beauty of Paris—the avenues bustling with life, the streetlights showering their inhabitants with piercing warmth.

Arc at night

I’m the luckiest girl in the world, I thought.  I have it all.

Jumping into the shotgun seat of the mini, Pitou could see both the excitement and the fatigue written all over my face.

“Oh, mon chou…you’re tired,” he smiled. “Tiens, let’s not cook tonight. I’ll take you to l’Entrecote.”

relais-entrecoteLe Relais de l’Entrecote, on the rue Marbeuf, is one of those marvelous restaurants where, to this day,  the menu is still written by hand. Pitou loved the place.  Ordering steak and pommes frites–his idea of heaven–over a glass of Bordeaux, he would hold my hand from across the table as I recounted all that I had learned that day.

“I got a grilling from Rosenthal,” I mentioned, while cutting my meat. “His mind runs at a million miles a second.  I was standing over the Reuters machine this afternoon, reading the news, when he snuck up from behind me and said: ‘That line, that line there.  Did you catch it?’ ”

Taking a gulp of my wine before continuing, Pitou stared at me, intrigued.

“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” I added. “The line he was referring to was something that the chairman of the Federal Reserve had uttered that morning, and it seemed pretty innocuous to me. But to Rosenthal, it was of the utmost importance. ‘Listen to  Burns carefully’ he said. You have to learn to read between the lines, Bérénice. The next time he utters a word, I expect you to tell me how the market will react.’

With my fork still in my left hand—as European’s will tell you it always should be—I placed it, face down, on the edge of my plate to pause for a moment and digest.

“And, what did he do then?” Pitou asked.

Arthur burns

Burns

“Then,” I responded, “he walked down the hall leaving me in a pile of carbon paper at my feet, to contemplate Arthur Burns.”

“Well darling,” Pitou exclaimed in his decidedly French accent, “that’s wonderfool.  Be thankfool that he isn’t ignoring you.”

Ignoring me would never be my problem.  During long conversations over many dinners and lunches, Rosenthal never hesitated to criticize my train of reasoning, or point out where I might be making an error in judgment. He had the mind of a detective and, in his presence, I must admit, I felt intimidated.  But, as was the case with many older men, I knew he had things to teach me.  And, when he had the time to waste talking, I was ready.

Over the next year, I would get to know David Rosenthal better than most in the office, only to discover years later, that no one had ever really known him—least of all, me. Right around the time I was born, Rosenthal was already working with the Central Intelligence Agency in Korea and Japan.  Somehow, that paved the way for a position as a senior vice president of Merrill Lynch International.  Years after he left the company, however, he would prove the truth of the saying that no one ever “retires” from the CIA.  Along with former associates of Henry Kissinger, David Rosenthal would consecrate his later years as a director of the Paris and London offices of Kroll Associates, the world’s largest corporate investigative agency where, among other things, he would use his twenty some years of past service at Langley to hunt down the international financial assets of Saddam Hussein.  Have I already mentioned that the characters in my life have been fascinating?

But the moment where I would find myself reflecting the most upon this enigmatic figure from my past came around the time when CNN fired the two producers who had blown the lid off of “Operation Tailwind”—the Pentagon’s Black-Ops use, during the War in Vietnam, of deadly nerve gas to kill young GIs who, so horrified by U.S. aggression, had gone over to the Vietnamese side.

It was in mid 1998 and, by this time, Pitou and I were happily settled in Mammoth Lakes.  Not surprisingly, no sooner was the account about the nerve gas attacks revealed than CNN ordered an “internal review” of the report which, eventually, caused the news outlet to retract its story.  Thereafter, the entire Fourth Estate fell into line by denouncing the two producers who, in the wake of the retraction, were sacked.  The pressure on them was so great, it had caused CNN’s founder, billionaire Ted Turner, to deliver a public apology in which he had stated dramatically: “I’ll take my shirt off and beat myself bloody.”  The real story, however, was not about the retraction; it was about whom CNN’s internal review team had consisted of: four former members of—you guessed it—the CIA.  As this classic farce of the Agency investigating itself came to light, I could hear Rosenthal’s laugh, for Kroll Associates had appointed him as one of the four ex-CIA men to conduct CNN’s “neutral investigation” of the Special Forces death squad.

David Rosenthal from Kroll Associates

David Rosenthal

Black Ops CIA

Some contend that it was Rosenthal’s job to, not just kill the story but, simultaneously, intimidate all journalists–wiping out any notions that freedom of the press can co-exist alongside of the mass media’s loyalty to the corporate interests who own and control it;  interests incestuously intertwined with a military-industrial complex committed to enforcing the unwritten code of military censorship in the U.S, even when the dirty misdeeds occurred some 30 years ago.  In silencing an important exposé of criminal government conduct, Rosenthal and his Kroll associates served as agents of repression: brokers who literally shaped what passed for news. I couldn’t help think of the irony: the man who had taught me to “read between the lines” had eventually become responsible for making sure that no one could.

No matter… in the fall of 1972, David Rosenthal held my future in his hands.  I wanted nothing more than to get to know him as well as possible, and he gave every appearance of wanting to oblige.  Yet, in the days that followed, it became crystal clear that, while this senior vice-president of one of the world’s largest investment firms was willing to let me stuff envelopes for the company, sending me off to Manhattan, where Merrill trained the men in brokerage, was out of the question.  My frustration grew and, not knowing how to quell it, Pitou worked desperately at talking me through it.

“You’re at the forefront,” he said “of a movement that is just now getting under way. So what, if you can’t get in through the front door…climb in through a window.”

“But, how?” I asked. “I don’t know a thing about finance. How can I convince anyone to take me seriously if I can’t get the education I need?”

Mais, Béréniceça vas pas. [7]   Who said it would be easy? Tiens, you brought home a booklet the other night…who gave it to you?”

Modern Money Mechanics“You mean, the stuff on Modern Money Mechanics? The workings of the Federal Reserve?”

It was an extraordinary piece of financial literature, plopped upon my desk by Rosenthal himself, that explained the inner workings of the Federal Reserve System and central banking in general.

“Yes,” Pitou responded.  “I read it. C’est très intéressant.  Have you studied it?”

“Well, not completely…”

“Devour it,” he ordered, interrupting me half way through my sentence. “Study it so that you know the material backwards and forwards, better than anyone else in the office.  Better than Gérard.  And then, with subtlety and intelligence, let them know that you know the material better than anyone else. Tu sais, Bérénice, an intelligent asset isn’t left to flounder for long. Sooner or later, if you are smart, Rosenthal, or someone else, will realize that you are a wasted resource sitting behind your desk licking stamps.”

“Perhaps,” I responded. “But the man has shaken my confidence.”

Pitou started to laugh.  Pushing the dish of crème brulée we had shared from the center of the table toward me, he leaned over it in a gesture of reassurance.

“Would it help if you could dress the part?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

Eyeing me compassionately, he continued:

“Well, London is dirt cheap now.  And I know a great little place on Regent Street where you could acquire a professional wardrobe at a tenth of the price here in Paris.   We could catch an early plane tomorrow morning and be home by evening.  How much do you want to bet that your confidence will come right back once you look like a million bucks?”

Jean Shrimpton, JaegerIt was the first week of November and, miraculously, the sun was out when we arrived that Saturday morning in London. We caught a cab from Heathrow and went straight to Jaeger, the UK-based retailer traditionally known for its classic designs and high quality natural fibers.  During the Sixties, Jaeger had gained credibility with the younger set as a result of its women’s wear being modeled by Jean Shrimpton and photographed by David Bailey.  It was a beautiful if rather stiff look that had evolved into a more relaxed chic by the time I had hit Paris.Vintage Jaeger in the SeventiesJaeger, 1972  Pitou knew Bailey, of course; not through Suzy, whose career was fizzling  out by the time David had appeared upon the swinging London scene of the Sixties; but through his close friendship with Donald Cammell, the darkly mysterious writer and co-director of the demonic cult film, Performance.  It was through Donald that Pitou had also met Mick Jagger.  Yet, as intrigued as I was with this cast of characters, Pitou’s sixth sense warned him to keep me at a safe distance.

“Donald will end up putting a bullet in his head,” he told me.

He loved the guy–loved rapping with him for hours on end; but Cammell frightened him. Sure enough, in April of 1996, after kissing his third wife, China, on the head, Donald slipped silently into his bedroom over looking Mulholland Drive and pulled the trigger.

During that first year of living with Pitou, Cammell spent many evenings with us.  Dropping in at the apartment on the avenue Foch with an impromptu bag of hashish, he would spread out in one of the Charles Pollack arm chairs, light up a pipe, and talk—mostly about the absurdity of existence.  I didn’t like to smoke; but those first few months in Paris were all about going with the flow.  He had recently divorced his spectacularly beautiful wife of ten years, international model Deborah Dixon.  Her image, as the classic and worldly sophisticate, was hard to reconcile with that of Mr. Cammell.

Deborah Dixon

Donald Cammell

But her imageof money, good breeding and international  éclat– was exactly what Pitou was in search of.  And, flipping through the cloths’ rack on the second floor of Jaeger’s, he quickly reconstructed it.

“Try that on,” he said, throwing a jade green suit made of heavy tweed into my arms.

“And this… try this too.”

It was a navy blue sleeveless day dress, with gold buttons down the front and a white leather belt tied loosely at the waist. Grabbing a rectangular checkered scarf, he threw it around my neck and, pulling me towards him with it, kissed the tip of my nose.

Voila…two more outfits and you’re set.”

It took him less than an hour to have me dressed for an entire year.

Brigg_Home3_mobile-281x300With the afternoon left to kill, we lunched leisurely at Wilton’s on sole meunière and white wine before shopping for stray odds and ends around New Bond Street.  Pitou had thought of everything I would need to “look the part”– from the gold tipped jotter pad in ebony saddle leather from Asprey, to the Brigg umbrella we bought at Swaine Adeney’s—right down to the scent of my perfume: Malmaison from Floris.

AspreyFloris, Malmaison

“Don’t you want to get anything for yourself?” I asked, now laden with the excess shopping bags I helped him to carry.

“Oooohh, yes,” he proclaimed, while licking his chops. “Earl Grey tea and Stilton from Fortnum and Mason’s.”

fortnum and masonearl grey Fortnum and Masonstilton potThat was all he needed.  It was the little things, the simple things in life, that brought him the most pleasure.  And seeing the happiness on my face was one of them. From Jermyn Street, we headed toward Piccadilly before grabbing a cab to the airport.

Bright and early Monday morning, I knocked on Rosenthal’s door. Dressed to the nines in a black velvet jacket over a crème silk shirt and a knee length red and black plaid skirt, I strode confidently toward his desk.

“How can I study to become a broker,” I asked, “without you having to send me to New York?”

Eyeing me up and down, he paused for a second.

“I was wondering when you were going to, finally, knock that chip off your shoulder,” he answered.

Then, with a devilish grin, he flipped through his Rolodex in search of the card carrying the contact information for the New York Institute of Finance.

“Get a letter off to them today,” he continued, while scribbling the address on his personal note pad. “There’s a correspondence course they offer—it’s called work of the stock exchange and brokerage office procedure.  If you order it, I’ll get Merrill to reimburse you.   Don’t worry” he continued, as he ripped the page from the pad and handed it to me, “you’ll have plenty of time to study, right here in the office.  Business is going into the toilet. The Market is about to tank.”

I didn’t say anything in response.  I was too surprised at how he had been expecting me to come to him.

“And, while you’re at it,” he added, his attention already focused on the next order of business in his day, “stop by Brentano’s this evening on your way home and pick up a copy of Graham, Dodd and Cottle.”

I always knew when to leave Rosenthal’s presence because, when he was done with whatever it was he was telling me, his eyes switched back to his work: the papers on his desk, or the telephone.  Strangely, it was a bit like the treatment I had received from Gégauff.  One second I was there, and the next—I was a ghost.  I didn’t care. With Pitou’s invisible hand to guide me, I was getting everything I wanted.

Work of the Stock ExchangeThat said, I had no idea who Graham, Dodd and Cottle were;  but I wasn’t going to let another day pass without finding out.  The sales rep at Brentano’s  knew instantly who the three men were.  Plopping the 778 page Bible on “Security Analysis” into my hands, he joked, “Have fun.”  It was first published in 1934 and covers everything a budding stock broker needs to know–from the analysis of financial statements to the principles and technique for valuing common stocks. It kept me busy while I waited for the material from the Institute to arrive from New York. When the package carrying the two-volume course finally did, I scrutinized the table of contents, sectioning off the material as if preparing for finals. The six years of training I had received, cramming at Westlake, had left me ready and fit to attack.  Each night, while Pitou cooked dinner (roasted chicken), I sat at the card table where he kept his most precious asset—his typewriter—and, with a glass of red wine by my side, waded through “the elements of corporation finance” and “trading procedure in round lots on the New York Stock Exchange.”  I underlined the material copiously, filling the margins with my notes.  The excitement, as I studied, was palpitating.  Visions of business cards, and leather brief cases from Hermès, danced through my head.

All of this amused Pitou enormously.  He was so tired of his past decade dating fashion models, of waiting for a woman whom he could talk with for hours on end, that as I sat in front of him studying the esoteric world of finance, he literally rubbed his hands with joy.  Right about this point, my insecurity over the fact that the love of my life had once been married to the woman whom Christian Dior had characterized as “the most beautiful in the world” began to vanish.  Pitou was starving, and my order of preoccupation promised to satiate his hunger while, simultaneously, showing me that there is more to love and to life than the images that are crammed down our throats by Madison Avenue.

And, so it was that, each day, I diligently studied in an office atmosphere where, just as Rosenthal had predicted, business dwindled as the Market tanked.  The Bear would arrive in January Bear marketwhen, suddenly, the Dow would lose 10% of its value in one month.  It was the era of the “two tier” market when large-cap “nifty fifty,” or “one decision stocks,” had forged ahead as the secondary market had languished. With the big caps powering the Dow for over a decade, the “smart money” reasoned that, even with the smaller caps doing nothing, institutional funds would be safe as long as they stayed in blue chips.  How wrong the next year would prove them to be.   One by one, even seasoned investors would begin screaming like Chicken Little.  It would prove to be a learning experience, bar none, where I would sit and watch as grown men cried.

One evening, in the midst of the Arab Oil Embargo,  which, increasingly, was being blamed for the collapse of the Dow, I readied myself to leave the office. Picking up my books and holding them to my chest, I proceeded to walk toward the elevator bank off the fourth floor lobby of Merrill. As I pushed the down button, the gold metallic doors slide open.  Stepping across the threshold, I suddenly realized that the secretarial pool was right behind me.  As I smiled, congenially, at the four or five women, they all broke out in a nervous giggle.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

But, rather than answering me, they just giggled some more.

“No, really…have I got egg on my face? Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” [8] 

Shy and demur stares focused their attention upon the elevator floor until, courageously, one of them dared to speak.

“It’s you we are laughing at,” Annie Coutre blurted mockingly. “You’re not in the States,” she continued while glaring at me through black-framed eyeglasses. “You can’t make it here. This is a man’s world…you are dreaming if you think that you can become an Account Executive.”

Westlake LogoHer disdain dripped from her lips as, viciously, she attempted to lower me into her world.  With the rest of the secretaries continuing to laugh, I felt my blood rise to a boil.  At the time, all I could think of was the Latin motto that had been drilled into my head during my six years at Westlake: Possunt quia posse videntur. “They can, because they think they can.”

As the heavy metal doors opened at the ground floor lobby, I was the first to exit the elevator by walking backwards on the terrazzo while facing the enemy. The heels of my Celine shoes clicking mercilessly against the floor, I stared her down intensely before shouting:

“Oh yeah?… Just watch me.”

I would spend six wonderful years at Merrill Lynch.  And when I would leave in the autumn of 1978, it would come as no surprise to see Annie Coutre busily attending to her institutional clients as the Account Executive she had become, on the heels of my success.

Berenice Stevenson

Next Post:  Paris–The Cinderella Years: “A Toast…to the Next President of the United States.”

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

Book Cover, Pitou My Love

[1]  “You will have to be patient,” Gérard  cautioned.  “But, after all, why not?”

[2]  “Don’t worry, Bérénice. It’s just a question of time.”

[3]  “Bérénice…have a bit of compassion.”

[4]  French slang for “smart.”

[5] “Hey,” he said suddenly, “I spoke with Rosenthal about you. He wants to meet you.”

[6]  Literally translates as “I say shit to you.” The French way of wishing you “good luck.” The connotation is the same as the English “break a leg.”

[7]  From ça ne va pas, which means “That won’t do;” ça va pas is a very common French expression often used to express surprise, as in: “are you crazy?”

[8]  “What’s up?”

12 thoughts on ““Oh Yeah? Just Watch Me”

  1. Oh, I love it! Success is the best revenge!! (about Annie Coutre). All the people come to life as I read about them…it’s as if I am standing in the midst of a cocktail party! Berenice…you were not only born to live this life … you were meant to write it as well! Can’t wait for Paris!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Just the right combination of love story, entirely fabulous name dropping, and period detail. Berenice is Alice in Wonderland parachuted into the seventies Paris beau monde, an unlikely protofeminist heroine in impeccable Jaeger tweeds who became the first female stockbroker at Merrill Lynch. Chapeau, Ms. de la Salle!

    Liked by 2 people

    • well…I wasn’t the first. There were some women in NY who made it before me. But I was definitely the youngest in the history of Merrill, which was no small feat given that I did it in Europe. Thanks Simon. Love your comments.

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  3. Berenice dear, You brought me back to the time we met and the memory of our fight as women to succeed in a mans world. You were definitely the youngest to become a broker. In 1973 at 24 years old I also got my exam and I stayed for 23 years! What fun it was, do you remember there were only one million shares traded daily!

    I love your prose. Thank you
    Fiona

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear, dear Fiona, I had so much fun remembering and writing about you. That image of you, with the pipe, walking toward me with that look on your face that said “I’ve got the world by the tail,” I will never forget it. I thought, instantly, “I want to get to know her.” I can’t wait to see you again soon. Love to you, Berenice

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  4. Bérénice, what a wonderful book! I cannot stop reading and re-living YOUR memories with you. I’ts like I stepped back in time and found myself in the middle of YOUR life. Paris, here I come….. once again! Keep writing my friend. At the end of the rainbow you will find an amazing reward. My promise to you!
    Ali

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is another extremely well written chapter, Berenice! I think I would have detested Gegauff as well. I think the life you have lived is the best revenge and I’m so happy to be able to read about it! I am fascinated to read about the people who have met. It’s been a while since Phil and I have seen you and we’re getting fresh powder by the minute. Your ensuite awaits; hope to see you again soon. Love you, Adie

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve enjoyed every single part of this story! You were so young, and so adorable –it’s no wonder he fell in love and knew you would be the love of his life! Keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, when I was in my adolescence, we knew the Rosenthal family quite well. David, of course, his wife Judy, their 4 children. We were all appx the same age. At the time, we were all living in Brussels. My dad, Ted Simpson, met David I believe through either the American Men’s Club of Brussels or maybe the American Chamber of Commmerce. Not sure. Both David and my father became fast friends and my mom and Judy, as well. Later, when they moved to Paris, we visited them in La Muette on weekends quite often. Fond memories and many Thanksgivings together. We also made it a habit of visiting them on vacation near Marbella, Spain, where they have a house to this day. David and Judy divorced but I believe she lives there to this day. We also would see them later in David’s career, when they moved to London. Not sure where David is today but last I heard it was in NYC. The kids are scattered (now adults like me) but they’re all in the States last I heard. I enjoyed reading your story very much and have a bit more to go. It revealed to me a lot about a man I spent al lot of time around in my youth but like many in this position, no one really knew him well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brian, I enjoyed your comment. David was a very important person in my life. I did some research on line and believe that I found his address in NY. If you would like it, you can send me a private email. There is a contact function under the How It Began tab on the site.

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