As Malcolm mourned his lack of early love, I mourned my father, dead at fifty, a musical prodigy born in Rotterdam who, at the age of twelve, had won a scholarship from Queen Wilhelmina to Brussels Conservatory. Arriving in America in his early 20s, he was already a brilliant violinist, proficient in five instruments and fluent in half a dozen languages. When, in the flood of reminiscences that succeeded Malcolm's death, I found my father referred to by a witless churl as "probably a bootlegger" I was homicidal.
Mother, small, feisty, and good looking, began teaching in her teens and never stopped, her dedication warmed by her affection for small children. Reading aloud to me from the time I was a baby, father and she together sparked my lifelong love of literature.
At four, I started school, in Kate Greenaway bloomer dresses and fat ribboned pigtails, both of which I hated. By the time I graduated from high school at 15, swamped in a sea of leggy blondesfor I was always youngest and smallest in my classesI had determined to escape from academia; instead of Radcliffe, for which mother had been hoping, I enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. While there I had my first real date, with a whimsical young writerFran Mattison. To my amazement, he fell in love with me.
After summer stock (where I first took the stage name of Jan Gabrial) and modest roles in the theater plus a fruitless stint as Lee Patrick's understudy (she missed nary a performance), I was cast as the ingenue leadin a vaudeville skit erroneously intended to be a comedy. My vis-à-vis was Teddy Gordon, who bore a startling resemblance to the blond, young, and still idolized Prince of Wales. Ted shared the opulent digs of Eldon, a waspish writer of simmering religious novels, weighty with sin and regeneration and much purple prose. This household was swelled from time to time by Anne Hunt, whose liaison with Ted had waxed and waned for years. I was convinced sophistication could scale no greater heights than this ménage.
Between engagements in upstate New York towns like Watervliet and Saugerties, though we likewise appeared (more grandly) in Albany and Troy, Ted and I haunted booking offices and foraged for fabric remnants for my costumes. (Ted was a skilled designer and Anne's clothes were stunning.)
We hear much of the liberating sexual revolution of the sixties, but that of the Roaring Twenties was no less dramatic. "Companionate marriage" might be denounced from pulpits but the arts bristled with relaxed moral codes, defying Billy Sunday's thunderings of hellfire. I recall with delight the amused veneration accorded Les Grandes horizontales in the so-called Naughty Nineties in my wise, beloved France.
At about this time I read Stendhal's Lamiel, with its famous scene in which Lamiel pays the cloddish Jean Breville to seduce her. "What?" she asks herself, "can love be merely this? What's the use of prohibiting it so violently?" And she bursts into laughter as she repeats, "What, this love they all talk about, is that all there is to it?" "Is that all," which Edward Rod called the leitmotif of Stendhal's life. Like Lamiel, I was eager to investigate for myself. My theatrical and literary heroinesBernhardt, Duse, Rachel, George Sand, and Colettehad each led spectacularly experimental lives. My own, alas, had so far been unsullied. What if I died a virgin? Lord knows the possibilities looked bleak enough. Fran was usually upstate. The only man whom I saw regularly was Teddy, whose romantic ties were surely more than ample. Besides, how on earth could I approach the subject? "Take me?" He'd have choked with laughter!
But he didn't. Two days before my seventeenth birthday, with Eldon out of town, we were alone in the apartment. It wasalasas well that I'd read Lamiel, for hopeless as Jean Berville had proved to be, he might well have outpointed Ted. We ploughed through l'amour in a state of casual good fellowship (though I was sure I was fatally in love), and finally, with some measure of relief, abandoned it. Happily, the good fellowship survived. While I'd failed to experience the oft-sung joys of sex, I'd at least learned to create a fetching wardrobe. It was not a total loss. In fact, Teddy and Anne and I now became comrades, and presently Fran came back into my life.
In January 1931, an event occurred that was to change my world: Mother had been tutoring the obnoxious son of a vapid pretty woman named Helen who was convinced that her dentist was madly, if secretly, in love with her and that only her own divorce could effectuate their union. Reno-bound to attempt to force his hand, she invited me along for company, and flying merrily in the face of superstition we left New York on the thirteenth and headed south. By Thursday we had gotten as far as Appalachia, by which time it had become apparent that Helen was addicted not only to her dentist but likewise to White Lightning. At Knoxville, where we passed our second night, she secured a bottle of the harsh corn liquor and nipped happily away at it throughout the next day's drive.
Snow had covered the Tennessee mountain roads with solid ice by the time we approached Surgoinsvilleand then it happened! Swerving to escape a large oncoming truck and at the same time avoid the precipice, Helen overcorrected and crashed into the truck broadside. Those being pre-safety-glass days, when I slammed into the windshield, it shattered and so did my nose.
I could remember my name but absolutely nothing else. When I finally reassembled pieces of my memory I found myself in a primitive drafty cabin with neither heat nor electricity, my abortive theatrical career as shattered as my face. Through two subsequent surgeries and the artistry of Dr. J. Eastman Sheehan, I emerged from my nightmare feeling, for the first time in my nearly twenty years, that I was pretty. And now life rearranged itself.
Back in New York, while still at Doctor's Hospital (where I spent ten days), I read a joyous article by William Lyons Phelps about a cycling trip through England and the lights came on. My new face and modeling millinery provided the ticket of my dreams ... a one-way passage from New York to France. In any case, by that time I had decided that I might follow my second bent, which was writing.
On April 6, 1932, I sailed on the SS American Importer with a suitcase of clothes I'd made myself and the book which would become my Bible for the next two years, Through Europe on Two Dollars a Day. Mother gave me her blessing. "I know you've done things of which I wouldn't approve," she told me staunchly, "but so long as I don't know about them it's all right." It was her absolution to her cub, releasing me. She was a gallant lady and my friend through life.
Of the golden cities of Europe, I have seen many. Cherbourg, where the ship finally put in after our Atlantic crossing, was least among them. It rose from the pages of Julian Green, squat, bitterly cold, streaming with rain, blackish-gray. I settled at a cheap hotel and fled the livid wallpaper and fleshy-looking bed to explore the town where I'd be immured till the 6 A.M. Paris train. Wandering streets of soiled cafes and ugly shops, I hurried till I reached the city's outskirts. Low white cottages, vivid roofs, ubiquitous shutters, and forbidding walls. "The Closed Garden" indeed.
Having eschewed dinner as a gesture toward economy, I settled for black coffee and a cigarette in a waterfront cafe which announced Enlish -pok-n in a corner of its windowed entry. It proved an inauspicious choice. "Cafe noir," got me exactly nowhere until I made vague motions to indicate a cup.
"Ah, oui ..." the waitress exclaimed happily. "Café natur! Tres bien, Mademoiselle." Three men at a nearby table snickered. I lit a cigarette to appear world-wise. Seven French grammars and not one of them contained café natur! The waitress brought a small cup with a thick black bitter liquid which repaid me later with a panic attack. Trouble began anew when she reappeared.
"Combien ça fait?" I asked her doubtfully.
Every word I had faithfully studied had gone south, but she was quite patient with me. A small gold coin (which resembled mother's dollar gold-piece) proved insufficient, but from a five-franc note she returned change. My café natur, it seemed, had cost three cents. Back in the noisome hotel room, two people next door making vociferous love all night in groaning French did nothing to allay my feelings of abandonment.
But the "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" receded forever as I sallied forth next day into the brilliant Paris sunshine. Most large cities can, in time, become friendly, but Paris is if only you are receptive to her loveliness.
Here, like a litany, I sang to myself that I was at last in the city where Balzac (mourning each orgasm as the loss of another book), envisioned his Comédie Humaine; where students unhitched the horses from the carriage of the very young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette to pull it through the Paris streets in homage; where my beloved Stendhal paid his way into society with his conversation; where Chopin and Sandeau and deMusset, among the lovers of the fabulous George Sand, helped to enlarge her legend. With the sun setting over the Place de la Concorde, I breathed what will always be, for me, the scent of Parisa compilation of hot, musty subway odors overlaid with garlic and with perfumes and with wine. If I were to name one day of perfect happiness, it would have to have been that.
"Were I to die tomorrow," I wrote, "it would all have been worthwhile. I am in Paris!"
After my first week at the Hotel Regina (where I'd negotiated a pretty room ... no bath ... for a dollar a night ... more than I could afford for long)I moved into Mon Foyer, a pension run by Mme. Goifon and her sons at 8 Square Delormel. Madame accepted me into her household with but four stipulations: that I pay my bills in advance; speak French at table; not forget my key and thereby wake up the establishment; and refrain from the seduction of her sons, who were of such unfortunate ugliness that I all but took an oath. With demi-pension the monthly tab equaled $37.50, well within my budget, and the room was pleasant. Among the residents was a beautiful Hungarian, two years my senior. Taking her baccalaureate at the Sorbonne, she spoke five languages and radiated an infectious gaiety. Her name was Erszi and we became inseparable.
In Paris I caught up with my belated adolescence and found myself immersed in comradeship and romance. To be young and pretty and light-hearted and American in Paris in 1932 was to possess the world.
On June 11, I turned 21. With Erszi and her friends we picnicked near Fontainebleau, and that night descended on the Hôpital Salpêtrière for a ribald supper with the students of pharmacy. Dining room walls sported explicit and merrily pornographic murals and the songs we sang were bawdy, yet the evening brimmed with an exuberance that banished smarminess. It was a bang-up fête.
On the twenty-sixth I left for Heidelberg after a farewell evening with Erszi and our friends. In a scant ten weeks she'd become the sister I had never had, and in leaving Paris I would miss her most.
I was later to learn that this gorgeous, laughing, generous-hearted girl was to die horribly with all but one of her elegant and cultured family in that abomination known to the world as Auschwitz.