“Bérénice…Wake Up!”

Pierre "Pitou" de la SalleHE HAD LOOKS, CHARM, ELEGANCE, INTELLIGENCE, WIT—in short, everything.  Everything, except money. And, even that he should have had, given the love and trust that his maternal grandmother, Julia Rols de Rop, felt for him. A wealthy widow by the time Pitou was  fourteen, her last will and testament had left everything to her only grandson—purposefully excluding her spendthrift daughter, Ghislaine, while sidestepping any bequest to Pitou’s older sister, Nicole.

Julia Rols de Rop with daughter, Ghislaine

Julia, with Ghislaine

It is difficult to imagine the state of financial naiveté that prevailed for an adolescent growing up during the War. In a world where the Internet did not exist, where the television set had not yet been invented, and the subject of money was not considered  a proper topic of conversation for a well-bred Catholic, a conniving and manipulative stepfather could cleverly create the circumstances to divest a young man of his birth right. And, given the opportunity, Georges Cazals didn’t hesitate.  By playing on Pitou’s youth, inexperience, and legal ignorance, he convinced the boy that Julia’s will could not be respected in France due to its well-known legacy laws that prohibit a parent from disinheriting a child. What Pitou wasn’t told was that, being of Belgian nationality, those laws didn’t apply to Julia.

Antwerp, during the Second World WarAnd then there was the inevitable guilt to contend with; the guilt that ensues from, inexplicably, having been favored by the wealthy matriarch. Despite Ghislaine’s glaring faults, her narcissism, inability to hold on to money, and sexual tendencies, which had pushed her to walk out on Pitou’s father for the cad who was Cazals, Pitou nevertheless loved his mother deeply. When the  lawyers, whom Cazals hired, approached the young man with the legal documents that would transfer Julia’s inheritance back to her only daughter, he innocently signed away a fortune. In the years that followed, as he watched his mother lavish his inheritance on her profligate lover, the respect the boy had once felt for her slowly burned into a deep hatred. City blocks of bombed out apartment buildings, left to him in Antwerp, sat crumbling. Yet Pitou’s hands were tied. Preferring to spend Julia’s money on dresses at Dior and yachts on the Mediterranean, Ghislaine opted to abandon the properties rather than refurbishing buildings that, today, fetch hundreds of millions.

There is nothing more devastating than betrayal by one’s mother.  A mother who deceives her child by profiting from his innocence does far more than rob him of his inheritance.  She robs him of his confidence, in himself and in the world.  For, when you cannot trust your mother, who can you trust?  Hatred would simmer until it bubbled up as mépris.  After leaving the south of France for Paris, I can count the  times Pitou would see Ghislaine again – on one hand.

John Lobb shoesFortunately, he was a man who looked dashing in thirty-year-old suits; a man who kept wooden shoe-trees in his bespoke Lobb footwear, whose one fault was that he came to understand the power and importance of a shoe treesdollar—too late. With the little money he did manage to make, he learned to be very careful—purchasing only items of the highest quality that he then cared for avec soigne.   Soigné: it was a word that described him well; from his hair, to his nails, to his impeccably chosen shoes, to his thoughts. He took care in projecting the momentary images we are granted throughout a lifetime, as if he understood that, somewhere, they would linger for eternity.

It was early on a Sunday  morning and I was snuggled  in bed where I had intended to spend the better part of the day—a day when I would come to understand  to what extent the subject of deceptive, spendthrift women had remained a sore point in Pitou’s life.

“Bérénice…wake up.”

He was whispering while gently shaking me from my slumber, as if fearing that someone might overhear us.

“What time is it,” I grumbled, upset at having been woken.

“A little past seven,” he answered. “Get up – vite, vite.

Pulling the covers over my head I groaned: “You’re kidding.” Sundays were sacred and I had grown accustomed to spending them with a linen lined tray on our bed, replete with tea and toast, while I indulged in a good book and listened to the fabulous collection of classical LPs that, years ago, Gérard Mille had given to Pitou.

Gerard Mille

Gérard Mille

Mille was France’s most prominent architecte d’intérieur of the Fifties and Sixties. Catering to the renowned and the wealthy, with his elegant and rarefied style, he was also the critical influence in Pitou’s young life—the man who had formed his discriminating taste for everything, from his Sulka silk shirts to his preference for Baroque classical music. Upon his arrival in Paris at the end of the War, Pitou quickly was spotted by Mille and immediately adopted into his acquired family of celebrities and amis intimes. [1]

Herve Mille

Hervé Mille

Mille’s brother, Hervé—equally prominent in Parisian society at the time—served as rédacteur en chef for Paris-Match and, lovingly, provided Pitou with the key to its guarded gates.  As I reflect  upon Pitou’s life, I can’t help think of the words uttered by Maria in The Sound of Music: “When God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.” If a door closed for Pitou when his step-father  tricked him out of his inheritance, the Mille brothers were the window that opened.

“We have to leave the apartment right away,” Pitou told me, still whispering.

“What?” I answered as I sat up in the bed, bewildered. There was a tone of anxiety to his voice that I had never heard.

“I’ll explain later. Just get dressed…quickly.”

la Petite MarquiseBy 7:20, we were walking up the avenue Raymond Poincaré toward La Petite Marquise where Pitou said he would buy me breakfast. It was the eighteenth of March. The sky was grey, and the cold Paris air showed no sign of impending Spring.

“Would you please tell me what’s going on,” I asked, as we stood before the trays of freshly baked croissants and pains au chocolat from Pitou’s favorite pâtisserie.

“We have to stay out of the apartment,” he answered, “for the entire day. Deux cafés, s’il vous plait.”

He smiled at the young shop girl while making his request.

“Why?” I asked, still perplexed.

“Have you ever found yourself captivated by the will of another?” he asked me, while counting the francs he had just pulled from his jacket pocket. “So mesmerized by her scent that, paralyzed, you can only watch as she wrecks havoc with your life?”

It was as if he was speaking to himself more than to me; as if, reminiscing, he could still feel the irresistible tug of some force, stronger than he. And yet, there was no passion in his words. He spoke them with cold, reasoning logic as he paid for our breakfast, while seemingly pondering feelings that had left him long ago.

“That was Sandra,” Pitou continued. “That was the effect she had on me.”

“Who is Sandra?” I asked, wondering how a woman of such import in Pitou’s life could have escaped my attention for over a year.

When he had told me that we would need to stay out of the apartment for the entire day, he wasn’t joking. As we walked the boulevards of Paris, he recounted stories from the last year of his marriage to Suzy, and of the woman who had been responsible for shattering their union.

Letter from Sandra Litman Howard to Pierre "Pitou" de la SalleA few days earlier, he had received a letter written from the Villa Taylor in Marrakech.

“Je regrette que nous ne soyons plus au temps ou nous passions des moments exquis ensemble, pourtant cela ne me semble pas aussi lointain, peut-être pars le fait que a chaque fois j’aie la même joie de te revoir. Je serais a Paris le 18-20-21 Mars. J’espère que cela ne te dérangera pas si je profite a nouveau d’habiter chez toi deux nuits.” [2]

“I can’t say no to her,” he explained. “But, to not do so…c’est de la folie pure.[3]

I was confused.  Had I been deluding myself into thinking that Pitou and I had a viable relationship? Was he still in love with this woman?

“No, no,” he answered emphatically. “It’s not like that. It’s just that we went through a lot together, and if I see her… well, it’s impossible to explain. She will weave her way back into my life, Bérénice—shredding it along the way.”

After hours of browsing bookstores, and sipping more coffee at the Café de la Paix, morning turned to afternoon. We went for pizza in Saint Germain followed by a long walk through its boutique littered streets. Luckily, I love to window shop. Admiring the shoes in the display case at François Villon, I caught a glimpse of the anguish on Pitou’s face in the reflection from the glass panes.  He must have thought I was safely preoccupied with the work of the master styliste de chaussures, and had dropped his guard—allowing me to see the hold this mysterious woman still had over him.

Sandra Litman Howard, Countess of Suffolk and BerkshireSandra Litman Paulmier Howard was the daughter of a wealthy Rumanian businessman who had made his fortune distributing SOFAM engines for the AMX French artillery tanks that were sold throughout the Middle East and India. She was also the wife of Michael “Micky” Howard, 21st Earl of Suffolk, 14th Earl of Berkshire. Eight years younger than Sandra, he is the son of “Wild Jack” Howard, the handsome and aristocratic 20th Earl of Suffolk known for his buccaneering spirit and, more notably, for smuggling physicists Lew Kowarski and Hans von Halban out of France in June of 1940 along with all of Norsk Hydro’s heavy water before the moderating substance, indispensable for making an atomic bomb, could fall into the hands of the Germans.

"Wild Jack" Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk

“Wild Jack” Howard

The Howard title dates from Queen Elizabeth 1st and is the oldest in England. Some of the more notable members of the Howard family have included Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk and mistress to King George II, and Kathryn Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII and daughter of Lord Edmund Howard–a younger brother of the Duke of Norfolk.  Interestingly, Kathryn was also a 
first cousin to Anne Boleyn, Henry’s 
ill-fated second Queen who shared
 the same destiny as Kathryn: death
 at the ends of the executioner for
 alleged infidelity to the King.

Howard Family Crest, Earl of Suffolk and BerkshireNot known for her beauty, many had wondered how Sandra  had managed to wrest Pitou from the arms of his sensational, supermodel wife. The answer was simple enough; her charm resided elsewhere: in her elegance, her wit, her unorthodox views on life and—above all—her undeniable sex appeal.  Where Suzy fascinated with her beauty, Sandra captivated with her sensuality.

“She was intoxicating,” Pitou remarked. “When we were together, she seemed to exist only for me.  It was a strange feeling, being the center of someone’s world.  And yet, she didn’t cling.  In many ways, she was more of a wife than Suzy had ever been.  She believed in me.”

Over the years, I would hear from others of Sandra’s spell binding effect on men. Pitou was never able to put it into words, but the memory of her always left him shaking his head, as if to say: “I still don’t understand.” Years later, after we had been married a couple of decades, I found him staring at a young woman on the cover of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue sent to me in Victoria's Secret Coverthe mail.

“That’s the closest I can come,” he said, “to explaining the effect Sandra had. The undergarments, the look in her eyes, the certainty that she could do whatever she pleased with you.”

Like the sting from a paper cut, the memory of her lingered. Pitou never could bring himself to throw away that catalogue.

Hubert de GivenchyHubert de Givenchy had introduced them at an impromptu dinner he had held at a little bistro in the fifth arrondissement: Chez René. There had been so many people Pitou had met only once in his life, never to see again. Upon first meeting Sandra, she had struck him as just another one of them. How wrong he was.

“She had what the French call du chien,” Pitou remarked.

It refers to an appeal that emanates more from a rough and tumble chic than from classical beauty. Jackie Kennedy had it. As a young woman, so did Coco Chanel.

“Suzy was in Hollywood, trying to make a career of acting,” he continued. “And I was in Paris, trying to become a reputable journalist at Match. Qu’est-ce que tu veux? I was young, lonely, and she was so available.”

Cary Grant with Suzy ParkerJerry Wald had thrown Suzy into the arms of Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. “Perform!” Wald had commanded.  And, tired of modeling, Suzy seized the opportunity to do so.  Jumping on a plane for the west coast, she spent the better part of 1959 shuttling between Hollywood and the magnificent penthouse apartment she shared with Pitou at 444 East 57th Street in New York.   There, between films, she took advantage of her spare time to study acting with her coach Stella Adler while,  unwittingly, leaving Sandra free to whittle away at the underpinnings of her marriage. In the year that followed, she would prove the aft quoted words of Zsa Zsa Gabor: “Husbands are like fires. They go out when unattended.” Trying to make sense of what had happened to him, Pitou attempted to explain Sandra’s appeal.

“Her touch had something inexplicably sensual,” he commented, “riveting. She didn’t need words to speak to a man; her touch said everything.”

“And yet,  it ended,” I added. “What happened?”

“Henry Miller once said that fiction and invention are the very fabric of life,” Pitou answered as, that afternoon, we walked through le bois de Boulogne.  “Sandra taught me what Miller meant. In her presence, I never knew what was real and what was not.”

“You’re talking in riddles,” I responded.

“Yes, but that is what she is…a beautiful riddle—one that almost drove me crazy.”

Their relationship had begun innocently enough, with jaunts for lunch at the cafes in the 8th district near Pitou’s office at Match. He had told himself that it would stay platonic only to discover that, where Sandra and men were concerned, the term was oxymoronic.

“I was weak, it’s true. But, with infidelity, that’s never the full extent of it. There’s always a reason. Suzy never wanted to look at the reason.”

I knew the reason had to be consequential. Pitou once told me that if there is one thing every woman should know it’s that, for a man to be a good lover, he must be deeply in love.

“Otherwise,” he noted,  “it’s just like going to the bathroom.”

He had engaged in many meaningless affairs over the course of his life.  But he was not a man to jeopardize an important relationship for anything that was meaningless.  Suzy was important, which meant that Sandra was not meaningless.

14 rue Francois 1er, apartment of Gerard MilleThe restaurants she chose for lunch were conveniently close to her fourth floor apartment overlooking the place François 1er. Ironically, when her father fell on hard times and could no longer pay for the Chanel suits and the endless traveling which his daughter required so as not to go out of her mind with boredom, she would sublet the flat to none other than Gérard Mille who, transforming the residence into one of the most beautiful living spaces in Paris, would then invite Pitou to call it his home. Sandra’s constant need of cash to maintain her fabulous life style had weighed heavily on her father,  although it would be unfair to attribute his ruin entirely to his improvident daughter.  In the late Fifties, Litman was married to Dolores Sherwood Bosshard Guinle, the sleek beauty who had snared South American playboy, Jorge Guinle, back in the Forties.  Like Sandra, she had a thirst for haute couture. To quench it, she insisted that Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga bring their entire Spring and Winter collections to her home in Neuilly where she could view the works of art in the privacy of her living room.  Needless to say, she and Sandra got along famously. But, between the two of them, and the endless train of servants, cars, vacations, and sumptuous residences they felt were their due, the old man who loved and supported them both, slowly and quietly went bankrupt.

14 ure Francois 1er, apartment of Gerard Mille

le 14 rue François- Ier – click to view

It made me wonder how Pitou could have fallen for Sandra. Frugality was the hallmark of his existence.

“But, she had a way about her,” he answered, “… a veiled sensuality that beckoned you to step closer until you found yourself falling into a bottomless well of sexuality.”

After a while, he gave up resisting her endless invitations to “come up for a drink.”  A drink of Sandra.

The bed sheets were of silk, her underwear of lace, and although her conversation was fascinating, she never forgot for one second the real reason they were spending time together. Half Jewish, half Gypsy, Sandra was one hundred percent seductress.

“She knew all of my faults,” Pitou lamented. “She was aware of every one of my weaknesses. And yet, she made me feel as if I was the only man of any importance in the world. She could listen endlessly to my thoughts—my worries for the future—while reassuring me that I had everything a real man needs to make it in this world…to count. Suzy never had any time for me. She was too wrapped up in herself. Sandra was like a long drink in the middle of the desert.”

Unlike Suzy, I questioned him about “the reason,” wanting to know everything that had led to the failure of his first marriage, wondering if I might learn something that could head off the possibility of such a betrayal ever occurring—with us.

“You know,” he commented,  “unless you are dealing with sociopaths, every adultery involves at least three traitors; the two who accept responsibility for the part they have played, and the one who doesn’t.  But then, all of life is like that.  La Rochefoucauld was right. If we didn’t have any faults, we wouldn’t take so much pleasure in pointing them out in others.”

Brigitte Bardot with Pierre Pitou de la Salle

with Bardot, in a black wig

Brigitte Bardot had a more banal, yet equally plausible, explanation for marital demise.  She once told Pitou that the failure of every marriage could be whittled down to five words: Le tue l’amour du quotidien—the daily routine of life that assassinates all passion. It starts with that moment when you suddenly realize that you’ve stopped surprising each other.

“Sandra was one surprise after another,” Pitou added.

“But, if you left Suzy for her…why didn’t it last?”

“Have you ever lived with a mythomaniac?” he asked. “Someone who feels compelled to make things up constantly, to distort reality, solely for the purpose of seeking attention from others? Like I said, I never knew what was real and what was not.”

And yet, this very trait that made her impossible to live with, made her impossible to ignore. Her audacity and refusal to settle for life as it had been dished out to her, made Sandra a constant topic of conversation—of fascination—among le tout-Paris.

“She once asked Hubert if she could borrow a fur coat earmarked for one of his early Collections d’Hiver,”  Pitou remarked.   ” ‘Just for an evening,’ she told him, failing to mention that ‘the evening’ was in New York.”

Sandra Litman Howard, Countess of Suffolk and BerkshireOn the eve of his show, Givenchy had to airlift the coat back to Paris.

“ ‘May I borrow your Cartier cufflinks?’ she’d ask. ‘I would like to have them copied,’ ” Pitou continued.

Weeks later, realizing they had never been returned, he would spot his boutons de manchette on the wrists of a friend.

“A gift…from Sandra.”

My favorite stories of her, however, were of her dinner parties for “Monty.”

She had never met Montgomery Clift, but that didn’t stop her fantasies about the man and the close relationship they were destined to have one day.

“Can you come for dinner on Thursday?” she’d inquire. “I’m giving a small soiree for Monty.”

Once all of her other guests had arrived, and had been sufficiently saturated with Champagne, the housemaid would appear.

“C’est Monsieur Clift,” she’d feign, au téléphone pour vous, madame.”

“Oh…excuse me for a minute,” Sandra would announce to her dinner guests.

Then, from the adjacent room, speaking just loudly enough for everyone to over hear her, she would give the performance of her life.

“Of course I understand. Don’t worry, mon chou…we will see each other the next time you are in Paris. Oui, bien sûr, bien sûr. Je t’embrasse très fort mon Chérie. A bien tôt.”

Montgomery CliftQuite obviously, Monty would not be coming to dinner.

“The poor dear,” she’d exclaim as she re-entered the salon. “He’s exhausted. He hasn’t recovered fully from that terrible car accident.   I worry about him,  you know – the pills, the alcohol.  And he has to be in London in a few days for another film with Liz.”

Luis BunuelShe, once, even managed to fool Luis Buñuel.

And yet, when confronted with her fabrications, Sandra was the first to admit to them.

“Mais, mon chérie, ”  she’d explain, “le monde est tellement ennuyeux. Tu ne peux pas me reprocher si je tente de la rendre plus intéressante.” [4]

Marilyn MonroeShe gave new meaning to a question once posed by Marilyn Monroe.  “It’s all make believe, isn’t it?”

Some may have taken Pitou’s stories of Sandra with a laugh,  as amusing anecdotes about a  frivolous woman who had crossed his path by chance. Yet her ability to fabricate intrigued me at a deeper level.  For the woman who had been responsible for so much destruction in Pitou’s life, shared at least one of his first wife’s traits.  Suzy, too, was known for the art of mendacity, although she would have told you that she “never lied”;  she only “exaggerated.”

Suzy Parker“I always tell the truth,” Parker told Time magazine in 1958. “But today’s truth might not be tomorrow’s.”

As we walked the streets of Paris, it struck me that we are only the victim of the liar’s web if, innocently, we trust when we shouldn’t. Was Pitou’s association with these two fabulists the result of his innocence? or was it the evidence of an atavistic willingness to be attracted to women whom he should have never trusted?

We dined at La Coupole that evening, and didn’t get back to the apartment before midnight. And, although Pitou had spent the entire day filling me in on the details of the affair that had put an end to his ten years with Suzy, it wasn’t until we were in bed that I came to understand the true source of his angst.

“There’s something else,” I said. “Something you’re not telling me. I mean—I get that she’s a mythomaniac. But it doesn’t make sense…the fear you have of her.”

“You can’t understand,” he replied. “She’s a woman who is used to getting her way. Most people know that having what you want in life requires choice. You choose one path at the expense of another. Not Sandra. Her mind doesn’t work that way. When she sees something she wants, she will stop at nothing to get it.”

He knew what I did not; that, at forty-five years of age, she was perfectly capable of re-entering Pitou’s life as if no time had elapsed, as if I did not exist.

“Her wants are inextricably intertwined with her self-esteem,” he continued,  “as if satisfying them is une épreuve…a test, where she is driven to win…at any cost.”

“Did she want you,” I asked, “or just the man who was loved by Suzy Parker?”

“She wanted everything,” he answered, “a titled husband, the money behind him, a lover… her freedom. There are two things she finds indispensable in life. The first is writing checks–lots of them. The second is drama, a tourbillon of action constantly swirling about her.  Without it, life just isn’t interesting enough to get through. She takes André Malraux’s words to heart: ‘Surtout, il ne faut pas s’ennuyer.’ ”[5]

“But, how could she think that could work? How could she think you’d put up with that?”

“Because,” he answered, with a tone of exasperation over my inability to understand, “she was stuck between two dreams; of the happiness she could never bring to the man with whom she lived, and the happiness she was afraid of losing with the man with whom she could never live. Can’t you see? One of Sandra wasn’t enough. There had to be multiple Sandras, leading multiple lives simultaneously. It was the only way for her to avoid the boredom of having everything.”

I liked to fall asleep to Isaac Hayes back then. Bumpy’s Blues was playing softly in the background as, lying on my side with my hands under the pillows, I watched Pitou’s face in the darkness while listening to him speak.   I thought of how Suzy must have felt, upon learning of her husband’s betrayal.  

Suzy Parker, with baby Georgia de la Salle

April 26th, 1960

She decided to divorce Pitou on the 3rd of May, 1960.  Yet, just a few  days earlier,  when the Queen Elizabeth had docked at Pier 90 in New York, she descended the plank, with baby Georgia proudly in her arms,  still proclaiming her undying love for him.   A waiting press, eager to hear of the demise of her marriage,  had bombarded her with questions.

“Are you leaving Pierre?” they asked.

“I’m certainly not getting a divorce,” she answered. “I still love my husband very, very much and I hope he loves me too.”

“But, you’re here for three months,” they countered, “and Pierre will stay in Paris.”

“I don’t think being separated for three months from my husband is grounds for divorce. We are frequently away from each other because of our work.”

One week after debarking from the boat, Suzy called her attorney, Paul O’Dwyer.
“File for divorce,” she told him, without first informing Pitou of her decision.

What had happened in the space of seven days?  For me, it was a mystery.  But then, I don’t believe in giving up on a good man because of a digression.  It strikes me of giving up on a war because of a lost battle.

“How did Sandra’s husband take it?” I asked, “her infidelity, I mean.”

Pitou started to laugh.

“You’ve got it backwards,” he said. “She wasn’t yet married to Micky when we were together. You should be asking me how I took it.”

“You mean, she left you?”

Sandra Litman Howard. Countess of Suffolk and Berkshire, with Pierre Pitou de la SalleÇa vas pas,” he chuckled. “No, no… she had no intention of ever leaving me. She wanted us both. Me, to father her children, and Micky to provide for them.”

Years later, Kim Carnes would come up with the lyrics to describe Sandra:

She’ll take a tumble on you; roll you like you were dice. She’ll turn her music on you; you won’t have to think twice.

“But…when did she marry Micky?” I asked, trying to make sense of what Pitou was saying without digging into him with more personal questions. My curiosity was insatiable, but I knew I was walking on eggs.

Lucinda Howard

Lucinda

“In October of 1960,” he answered, “three months after she got pregnant.”

Suddenly, the pieces began to fall into place.

“With your child,” I said, already suspecting his response.

“Well…that’s what she told me, that the child was mine.”

“But you didn’t believe her?”

“Like I said… with Sandra, I never knew what was real and what was not. Her spectacles of egotism and futility made me tremble. She infuriated me. But, in the face of my rage, tenaciously, she wrapped herself around me, refusing to let go. She is dangerous, Bérénice. And yet, she saw me for who I truly am, and loved me in spite of my enormous failings.”

“And the baby? What …. ”

“She died,” he announced abruptly, cutting me off in mid sentence,  “…at the estate, at Malmesbury.”

The 4,500 acre property, dubbed Charlton Park, had been in the ownership of the Earls of Suffolk since the 16th century. It wasn’t to Sandra’s exacting taste and, no sooner married, she had flown Gérard Mille to the Jacobean mansion in the county of Wiltshire to renovate its drafty living spaces. Knowing Sandra better than many, Mille was convinced the baby she carried, at the time of her nuptials to the Earl, had been fathered by Pitou.

Charlton Park, Malmesbury-Wiltshire

Philippe de la Salle“I’ve decided on the curtains for the nursery,” Gérard announced to Pitou one day late in the Fall of 1960. “They will be made from eighteenth century silk fabric,” the famous decorator said with a wink, “by le grand dessinateur-ornemaniste français—Philippe de la Salle.

The gesture had brought Pitou to tears. In divorce from Suzy, he had lost his first daughter, who had been removed from his life to the outer limits of California by a mother intent on using the child as her pawn in an all too female game of revenge. The thought that he would now lose his second child to the ploys of a woman obsessed with how to maintain her extravagant lifestyle had just about broken him.

Pitou often tried to minimize the events that were of true importance in his life. But he was never very good at fooling anyone. He left traces, bits and pieces he was compelled to keep with him in some form of souvenir; letters he kept from the women he had loved, neatly bundled and tied with silk ribbons; receipts from the purchases of gifts made to them; notepaper where, hurriedly, he once had jotted down something of significance—a time, a phone number, a place for a rendez-vous. As the years would pass, these clues to his life would crop up and show themselves, transporting him back to a moment in space where he had learned something—or felt something—extraordinary. These traces served as markers, indicating the turning points on the long road he had travelled since his birth. One of them came in the form of a torn slip of eggshell white notepaper upon which he had scribbled an address given to him by Sandra.

Sandra, Countess of Suffolk, with daughter Lucinda HowardNote, Pierre de la SalleIt was the darkest day of the year—Winter Solstice—and he was in a state of shock when he wrote it. Lucinda, the little girl Sandra had born on the 26th of March, 1961, was just shy of twenty-one months. The Countess had left Charlton Park for London early that morning to do some last minute Christmas shopping.   It was cold and damp in the rooms of the sixteenth century stone mansion.  Softly, Lucinda’s nurse had checked to see if the child was still napping, before leaving the second floor apartments for Christmas Card, Le Comte et la Comtesse de Suffolk et Berkshirethe ground level of the house.

To keep the dank nursery in the mansion warm, an electric heater had been placed at the foot of Lucinda’s crib. It was within inches of the silk curtains commissioned by Gérard Mille, the curtains embroidered with the delicate designs of Philippe de la Salle.

When Sandra called from London to tell Pitou that they had caught on fire, filling Lucinda’s room with smoke, he had dropped everything and jumped on the first plane out of Orly.   There was no thought of what, if anything, he could do. He just knew that he had to go, as if his presence somehow might safeguard the child from the threat of death now upon her.

On the plane from Paris to Bristol the words Sandra had written to him, a few months earlier, ran through his head in an endless loop.

“Because of her… because of this love I feel, I cannot conceive of any other. The three of us seem to me the most beautiful thing that could ever happen. Only her smile suffices to keep me alive… the living proof that, for one brief moment, I once was loved profoundly by you.”

“At first, the doctors thought she would survive,” Pitou told me in a voice still broken with pain. “Late that afternoon, she seemed out of danger. But she died in the wee hours of the morning.”

I could see the agony he had experienced over Lucinda’s death and wanted to empathize.  But, I still lay trying to fit the pieces of Sandra’s bizarre puzzle together.  For they held the clues to understanding the man with whom I knew I would be spending the rest of my life.  After all, if François Mauriac was correct when he said that human love is often but the encounter of two weaknesses,  what did Sandra’s weaknesses have to tell me about Pitou?

Up until that day, I can’t remember focusing on any of Pitou’s flaws. I had not yet seen him afraid or in doubt of his ability to control a situation. Yet,  rather than confront a woman whom he had once loved, rather than risk having to say no to her, to close the door on her, he had preferred to flee his apartment and spend an entire day traipsing through the streets of Paris. That day, I saw the child still in him, sa roublardise d’enfant gâté ;[6] the tender soul who didn’t want to disappoint but who, when faced with the certainty that he would, saw only two choices: run for cover or explode in rage.  Suddenly, this man whom I loved so profoundly appeared before me as a character made interesting—not by his strengths, but by his vulnerabilities, his weaknesses.

“Did Micky ever suspect that the baby might not be his?” I asked.

“If he did, he’s never admitted to it,” Pitou answered. “Lucinda is buried in the church graveyard at Charlton Park.”

By now, he was drifting off to sleep, exhausted by a day that had taken its toll on his emotions more than on his physique.

“Is Sandra still married to him?”

“No…they divorced, in 1967,” he answered, his words muddled by fatigue.

“Are  you certain that Lucinda was yours?” I whispered, half thinking he had already left me for the land of dreams.

“Certain?” he asked. “With Sandra, nothing is ever certain.”

But, in the seconds before falling into a deep sleep, he gave way to his true feelings about Lucinda. 

“The thing is,” he managed to murmur, “her little hands, her fingers… they were just like mine.”

 

Pitou de la Salle with baby Lucinda HowardPitou de la Salle with baby Lucinda HowardPierre de la Salle with baby Lucinda HowardPierre de la Salle with baby Lucinda Howard and Geoff Paulmier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Intimate friends

[2] “I miss the days of our exquisitely passionate moments together, which do not seem so long ago, perhaps because the thought of seeing you again still brings me such joy. I will be in Paris from the 18th of March until the 21st. I’m hoping it will not bother you if I could stay at your place for a couple of nights. “

[3] “It’s sheer madness.”

[4] “But, my darling, the world is so boring. You can’t possibly reproach me for attempting to make it a bit more interesting.”

[5] “Above all, don’t bore yourself.”

[6] the tricky spoiled brat in him

Next Post:  Paris–The Cinderella Years: “Tell Me Everything About You!!”

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

Pitou My Love

4 thoughts on ““Bérénice…Wake Up!”

  1. Despite all the pain, Pitou emerges with grace. We are told that we are the sum total of all our past. That few emerge victorious speaks volumes of those who do.
    Beautifully expressed here by you, Berenice. Please keep writing!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do wonder how women like Sandra come to be. Most I’ve met in real life had terribly unhappy childhoods. Part of me is jealous of her power; imagine being able to attract any man and keep him in your thrall, having him spoil you and adore you to your heart’s content! On the other hand, I don’t think women of this ilk seem happy or live with integrity, so I can’t bring myself to fully envy her.

    Like

We welcome your questions and comments!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s