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The address was for a hôtel particulier in a side street off Avenue Foch in the 16th—a section of Paris us commoners don't often get to see from the inside. If you don't have a de in front of your name, you pretty much have to be a cabinet minister or a call girl to live there, and when you got into that particular courtyard, you could all but hear the rattle of the coach-and-fours on the cobbles and the fanfares of the trumpets. As it turned out, one of Napoleon's generals had built it for his mistress, and to judge, he must have been running the blanket concession during the retreat from Moscow.
I came puddle-jumping out of the dark and rain and went under the porte-cochère on foot behind a swishing Bentley. In front of the glass-canopied entrance on the far side of the courtyard, a chauffeur was helping a couple in evening dress out of a 604 while the Bentley waited its turn. A pair of black brothers stood by in black suits, holding umbrellas instead of spears, while a third checked pedigrees and invitations. I handed him mine, thinking they sure were growing them big down on the Ivory Coast, and followed the couple in, footman-style, past a gold plaque that said simply: ALAN DOVE, courtier en tableaux.
I went up a flight of polished marble stairs. Even before I reached the top, I could hear the clink and babble of the tout-Paree, and there was enough fur in the cloakroom to populate half the zoos of Europe. The tout-Paree? Well literally it means "all Paris," but from the point of view of the tout-Paree, it's "all Paris minus the slobs." The tout-Paree is everybody who's somebody plus everybody who wants to be, and it runs from starlets to promoters, from novelists hustling prizes to politicians peddling influence, from couturiers and fleshmongers to chic freaks and fashionable hoods, and the whole held together by a sort of free-floating cement of bearded revolutionaries and fading beauties from the upper Paris bourgeoisie. Conversation is their stock-in-trade, meaning mostly that they make a lot of noise, all in that high-pitched Parisian twitter, and they've got the swarming instinct of bees. It doesn't take much to bring them out either, just Culture with a capital C, plus a few caravans of canapés and enough champagne to overflow the Seine. In a pinch, the bubbly would probably do.
This wet spring night, though, it was Art that had congregated them. Art with a capital A. A for American. Or A, maybe, for Alan.
M. Alan Dove, the engraved card had said, invites his friends to view some of his latest acquisitions.
And to think I'd known him when his name was Dovici.
I stood at the fringe, watching the banks of smoke curling over their heads to flatten against the Napoleonic ceilings. Already they were jammed between laden buffet tables: short and bulky men in tuxes, sharp-featured dames sipping champagne in St. Laurent pantsuits, and the inevitable operetta of liveried young queens off the rack at Pierre Cardin, with the elevated shoes and the upswept shoulders. Somewhere behind the din a rock group was playing, and I was pretending like I was looking for someone I knew when a piece of the décor broke off from a wall and headed my way.
She was tall and tawny-blonde, and aswirl in chiffon, and she hit me with a gust of perfume, followed by a smile so wide you could see the magnolias blossoming in it, and the darkies swaying in the cotton-fields.
"It's so nice of you to come!" she said in a breathy Southern warble. "My name's Susan Smith, I'm from Savannah, that's in Geo ..." She broke it off and laughed, tossing the tawny-blonde. "But you're American too, isn't that raaa-ht?"
"That's right," I said. "Cage is the name. I'm from Yakima, that's in ..."
"Yakima, Washington!" she exclaimed. "But what a wonderful surprise! I never met anybody from there!" Then, hooking her arm through mine: "But aren't you interested in seeing the paintings? Wouldn't you like me to show you aroun'?"
"I'd like that just fine, Susan Smith," I said. "But tell me, what's a lovely young thing from Savannah, Georgia, doing in Paris, France?"
Chuckling throatily, she steered me into a hole in the mob.
"You're a funny man, Mr. Cage. But there are just loads of Americans in Paris, didn't you know?"
"I guess I did. But do you work here?"
"I sure do!" she shouted at me. "I majored in art history, with a minor in French!"
"You mean you work for Al Dove?" I shouted back.
"I sure do! Isn't it exciting?"
I wasn't sure whether she meant Paris or working for Al Dove or majors in art history and minors in French, but right then there was no finding out. The tout-Paree engulfed us. It seethed and smashed like surf, and every time you came up for air, the Art pounded you back down again. It was everywhere you turned, and so loud you could hear the neon shrieking on the Vegas Strip, smell the Monroe brand of sex oozing off the celluloid. Though I'd have been the last to judge what it might have been worth in dollars or aesthetics, it was big and gaudy and ultra-American, and it sure had stimulated the tout-Paree right out of its cosmopolitan socks. The electric-guitar background must have helped too, also the décor—call it one-third Napoleonic and two-thirds acid modern—also the other larger-than-life Susan Smiths I saw circulating in the crowd, with those widemouthed, help-yourself American smiles. But you could hear it in their decibels, feel it in their heat: a fever of excitement such as Parisians usually reserve for itinerant sopranos and conquering generals, and if it didn't particularly infect me, it must have been because I hadn't been away from home long enough to feel the full impact of a promotion made-in-U.S.A., snake-oil division. Then too, I may as well admit right now that my taste in modern art pretty much began and ended with the work of R. Crumb.
Somebody had stuck a champagne coupe in my hand. I hung onto it, and Susan Smith, and together we fought our way through a series of jammed reception rooms. As we went, she laid it all on me breathlessly, not only who'd painted what, but when, and what they'd had for breakfast that morning, and she sprinkled in bunches of names—deKooning, Kline, Blumenstock—that sounded like double-play combinations off the old San Francisco Seals. The main event, it seemed, was going to be the unveiling of a Blumenstock. And not just any old Blumenstock either, but a late one, never before shown in Europe and rarely seen anywhere. According to Susan Smith, it was a masterpiece and Al Dove had more from the same period. But if, as we went, I spotted the man who'd paid me to come that night, our host was nowhere in sight.
"Isn't it wonderful!" she exclaimed when we came out at the other end. Her eyes were all aglitter and little beads of sweat had broken out in a pretty tiara across her forehead.
"Sure 'nough," I said, while I counted my limbs. "But what about the man who's responsible for it? Doesn't he come to his own parties?"
"Who, Al? Why of course! He'll be down for the Blumenstock!"
"Oh you know Al, he's always got to do things ... well, theatrically, don't you know? He'll stay upstairs till the last minute, pretending he's got work to do." Upstairs, it turned out, were offices and Al Dove's private apartment. "But you do know Al, don't you, Mr. Cage? Isn't that what you said?"
"No I didn't. But I do. How'd you guess?"
It flustered her momentarily.
"Oh I don't know," she said, "I guess I just thought ..." Then, smiling mischievously: "Well for one thing, you don't honestly seem that all interested in the paintings. For another, you don't seem to know anybody else here, present company excepted, and you just don't strike me like the kind of man who'd come to a party just for the champagne."
"You'd make a pretty good detective, Susan Smith," I told her. "But actually I haven't seen your boss in four, going on five, years."
"Four years? But that must have been back in California!"
"So it was. He wasn't in the art business either."
"But he knows you're here, doesn't he?"
I shook my head. "Not that I know of."
"He doesn't? Well why didn't you say so, silly? Let's go find him!"
"I don't think we'll have to," I answered, looking past her pretty head. "That's the great man himself, isn't it?"
It came out casually enough, but I'd be lying if I didn't confess to a certain inner twinge. He was a couple of salons off, and headed in our direction. He had on a cream-colored, safari-cut nubby silk suit, the jacket unbuttoned, a darker silk shirt with long and open collar points and a foulard knotted Western-style around his neck, plus assorted jewels and chains, but except for the threads he hadn't changed: the dark hair, the dark-olive skin, the dark eyes set close to the nose, the same fine features except for lips on the full side. Maybe to you and me he wouldn't have made that much of an impression—after all, you can make Al Doves by the dozen, tooling around Malibu or Century City or Beverly Hills in their silver shades and rented Porsches, and I'd had the added disadvantage of having known him in chinos, not to say fatigues—but to the Paris crowd, in that setting, he was the genuine exotic article. You could see it in the way they stirred and shifted, the numbers arching their necks and jockeying to get their good profiles into his line of sight, and when they made way for him, all you could think of was the Red Sea the day Moses made his move.
"Isn't he wonderful?" breathed Susan Smith beside me.
"Yeah," I said. "Wonderful."
His eyes picked up mine when he was about a room away. He didn't recognize me at first and then he did, and we had a split-second's High Noon over the heads of the tout-Paree. It's just a coincidence, Al, I told him with my eyes. Sure, Cagey, he answered, whatever you say, and then he grinned, yelled something, and flung his arms wide, and the crowd did its Red Sea bit.
We met in a clumsy embrace. I held out my hand but he went inside it into a sort of cross between the French double-cheek smooch and the Mediterranean back-thump.
"Mon très cher ami," said Al Dove.
There was the licorice laugh I'd forgotten about, and the way his voice had of dropping in pitch and volume when he got excited, all the way down to a whisper when he was really turning it on.
"Geezus, Cagey," he said low, "it really is you, isn't it?"
"None other, Al."
"After all this time! And no hard feelings, right babe? But what the hell are you doing in Paris? Isn't it the greatest? C'est fabuleux, mon vieux! I want to hear all about it. Hey, have you met everybody? Hey baby"—this to Susan Smith—"have you been taking good care of my ole buddy here? Introducing him and everything?" Then turning: "Hélène, viens que je te présente à mon ami Cagey," then louder, waving his arm for silence, his other arm slung around my shoulders: "Mes chers amis ..."
It was vintage Al Dove, all of it, with the French thrown in.
There was a woman standing behind him. I'd never seen her before, though I'd been told to look out for her. I heard him introduce her later as "America's foremost art critic," but from her get-up you'd have thought even the art world had its poverty corner. She was dumpy and medium height, but her shape and clothes made her look shorter. Her hair was black and chopped, her skin bad, her expression sullen, and the suit she wore was too big in the jacket, too long in the skirt. We shook hands, but Helen Raven's heart wasn't in it; neither, I guess, was mine, and whatever words we exchanged are distinctly unmemorable.
Because then it was a case of Cagey-meet-Paris, or Paris-meet-Cagey. It was hail-hailthe-gang's-all-here, with one arm around Helen Raven and the other around yours truly, and we were all "ole buddies" or "très chers amis," including ironically my most recent client to whom I was introduced along the way, and if Al Dove really wondered what his ole buddy Cage was doing in Paris or why he'd showed up this particular night, he made up his own answers and drew his own conclusions. Because he was too busy, as it were, taking his ole buddy Cage up the mountain and showing him the view, or that part of the view that was visible and meant to be seen: the success and glory of Al Dove Enterprises, Art Division, and if the guided tour came out half in French and half in English this time, it made no difference. Because I'd been there before, and often enough to have known without briefing that the art operation would have another seamier face, way down below where the deals were made and money went from hand to hand.
Like I've said, the name of the game this particular night was Blumenstock. It was in the air, Blumenstock, and the tout-Paree was already plugged in. A few years back, the painter in question had tried to dive off a bridge somewhere in New England, and maybe he'd've made it if he hadn't been behind the wheel of a car at the time. He'd been fried to the eyeballs, a condition presumably of several years' duration, and the scandal sheets had gone to town on dope, booze, and the tragedy of Great American Artists generally. There'd been something more, some kind of court battle, and then he'd been sent on to painters' heaven. But what I didn't know till later was that ...
Well, but there were a lot of things I didn't know till later.
It was hanging behind floor-to-ceiling velvet draperies on a huge wall in the central salon. Several lengths of velvet rope cordoned it off from the mob. As we worked our way toward it, the rock group stopped playing and the lights dimmed. A cluster of spots went on in the ceiling overhead, and a minute later the din had ebbed so that you could hear the clink of glass in the background.
"Now you're going to see something, Cagey," Al Dove whispered to me.
He stepped over the velvet rope and onto a small platform. The spots framed the upper part of his body. He surveyed the tout-Paree and I could feel them pushing forward at my back.
"Mesdames, Mesdemoiselles, Messieurs" he began, "mes très chers amis ..."
He went into a short speech, punctuated by an occasional exploding flashbulb and delivered in a glib and smoothly accented French. John Blumenstock, he said, had been a great American painter. His work, universally acknowledged, was on display in museums and collections around the world. But what were largely unknown, and seldom seen, were the great canvases of his last years. It was an honor, said Al Dove, for him to have been able to acquire several of them, and a privilege, said Al Dove, to show one of them for the first time to the public, here in Paris, among his très chers amis. But what was he, asked Al Dove, but a humble dealer in works of art? Therefore he had invited the distinguished art critic, Professor Helen Raven, to come to Paris and join him in presenting this remarkable late work. For if many people knew Helen Raven as a critic and mentor, and others as having been a close friend of the artist, few realized the depth of her personal sacrifice in behalf of this great art.
"Je vous présente ainsi ..." said Al Dove. There was a smattering of applause, and Helen Raven stood next to him under the spots.
An unlikely couple, I thought, while one of the Susan Smiths handed them up the drawstrings to the drapery. I felt the push again behind me, the heat of bodies in semidarkness, followed by a great communal "Ahhhhh" like a sigh, and louder applause, and exclamations of "Bravo!" and "Magnifique!" when the velvet curtains slid aside.
A man and a woman were sitting side by side on a couch in a living room. An enormous hound was stretched out on the carpet at their feet. The couch too was larger-than-life, a big overstuffed job in a garish luminous purple, and either it or some other trick of perspective diminished the couple. Their feet were hidden by the dog, but you got the impression they didn't reach the floor. The man had a ravaged face that was twisted into a half-smile or a half-grimace, you couldn't tell which. Somehow I got the idea he was John Blumenstock. He wore a maroon smoking jacket, and the woman, a lime-colored dressing gown with ruffles on the shoulders and a turban around her head. She was sitting straight up, which made her taller than the man, and staring straight out in a kind of stiff-necked, somebody-just-goosed-me expression.
Excerpted from The French Kiss by Peter Israel. Copyright © 1976 Peter Israel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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