December 20, 1970
m. f. k. fisher walked into the lobby at the Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles trailed by a bellhop.
Famously beautiful in her youth—she’d been photographed by Man Ray, and peered out glamorously from her book jackets—M.F. was still a striking woman. Her long gray hair was pinned up in an elegant twist at the back of her head, her eyebrows were pencil thin, and she was dressed in a tailored Marchesa di Grésy suit and a wool overcoat. She made her way to the front desk to check in. The decor was Provençal rustic, almost cliché, with tiled floors and wrought-iron chandeliers. She’d been here years ago, and it hadn’t changed a bit. Her heels made echoing noises in the empty lobby. It was the week before Christmas 1970, and the weather was unusually cold. She had the distinct impression of being the only guest at the hotel. The place was a tomb.
The tall man at the front desk was vaguely hostile. He was sullen, but, then, that seemed to be the default posture of French service personnel in general, at least when it came to Americans during the off season. Veiled contempt. He explained that the room she had written ahead to request—one facing the Place du Forum—would be too cold at this time of year. He did not apologize for the lack of heat, he simply stated it as a fact.
She asked to see for herself, and he was right: the heat was off in that part of the hotel, which was noticeably colder. And so she chose a room at the back of the building, on the first floor. It was named for Jean Cocteau (there was a small brass nameplate on the door), and inside was the largest armoire she’d ever seen. It must have been twelve feet tall. It was grotesque, she decided, but she liked it for the audacity of its scale.
The bed was comfortable, so there was that.
She unpacked her things, three suitcases’ worth, clothes for every occasion and weather, multiple pairs of shoes, books, and assorted papers, all of which fit easily in the enormous armoire. There was a writing table and a chair, and a photograph of Cocteau on the wall. She sat for a moment in the silence of the suddenly foreign room, looking at the quaint toile de Jouy wallpaper, and then withdrew from her purse a new notebook—small, pale green, spiral-bound. On the inside cover, she inscribed the words
WHERE WAS I?
in underlined capital letters. Where was she indeed? And why? She’d spent the previous weeks in the mostly pleasant company of family and friends, having traveled from Northern California to southern France with her sister Norah Barr, and then finding herself swept up in an epic social and culinary maelstrom, which seemed to involve everyone who was anyone in the American food world. Julia Child and her husband, Paul. James Beard. Simone Beck and her husband, Jean Fischbacher. Richard Olney. Judith Jones and her husband, Evan. Together they had cooked and eaten, talked and gossiped, and driven around the countryside to restaurants and museums and to the incredibly beautiful chapel that Matisse designed in the late 1940s.
She had left all that behind at the crack of dawn this morning. Raymond Gatti, the local chauffeur she knew well from a previous trip, had picked her up in his Mercedes and delivered her to the Cannes train station, telling her repeatedly that they would be far too early for the ten o’clock train. But she didn’t care. She preferred to be early: she had a great fondness for leisurely hours in train station cafés. And most of all, she was eager to get away and be on her own. She needed to write, think, and figure out what she wanted.
In her new journal, underneath WHERE WAS I?, she wrote:
I am in southern France, and it is December, 1970 and I am 62½ years old, white, female, and apparently determined to erect new altars to old gods, no matter how unimportant all of us may be.
The “old gods” were French, of course. They were the gods of food and pleasure, of style and good living, of love, taste, and even decadence. M.F. had spent the last thirty-odd years writing a kind of personal intellectual history of these ideals in her books, memoirs, and essays. These works were her “altars,” so to speak, and she was now embarked on a new one. This notebook would serve as the site of her daily communion with France.
France had long been at the center of her philosophy. She had made France a touchstone of her writing, in which she alchemized life, love, and food in a literary genre of her own invention. But she was suddenly keenly aware of the need to make new sense of the old mythologies. The events of the previous weeks had shown her the limitations of her own sentimental attachments—to the past, to la belle France—and confronted her with the too-easy seductions of nostalgia, the treacheries of snobbery.
She was alone in Arles for a reason. It was a reason she was still in the process of formulating.
The next day, M.F. wandered the cold streets, pushing against the wind, looking for a place to eat. The town was closed for the season. fermeture annuelle, read the signs on every restaurant, including, most unforgivably, the restaurant and bar in her own hotel.
The tall and less-than-friendly front desk clerk told her this without looking up. “Rat bastard,” she thought. This occurred with some frequency: she would swear to herself, fuming at an irritation while outwardly maintaining an air of dignified, steely calm. There was the man at the American Express ticket office in Cannes this morning, for example, who had issued her a ticket for a nonexistent train to Arles. She’d returned to the office, and he had impassively explained that she was surely wrong, then looked at the schedule and discovered he was wrong, and blandly handed her back the ticket and said she could take the next train, in a few hours. “Too bad,” he said, diffidently. “You rat bastard,” she thought. “You damned rat bastard.”
And now the hotel clerk and his closed-for-the-season restaurant and distinctly unsympathetic attitude. She asked where she might find something to eat. She spoke excellent French, but had an American accent; he replied in French.
“Oh, a dozen places,” he said idly. “Jean will indicate them whenever you wish.”
“I am hungry now,” she replied.
“Jean!” he said. Jean turned out to be a teenager in a thin, dirty white jacket whose long blond hair whipped in his eyes as he stepped outside and pointed the way.
“Go down to the big boulevard. Turn to the right. They’re all there, quantities of them!” He ran back into the warm hotel.
The sidewalks were icy. M.F. passed by a couple of gypsies playing intense, dramatic guitar music, and eventually made her way to a brasserie on the other side of town, after a half-hour walk. She ordered mussels, followed by pieds et paquets—long-cooked stuffed and rolled lamb tripes—and sat reading Le Provençal and drinking a gin and red vermouth. She watched the room, mostly young men in groups or older men reading the local paper and eating alone. None of them seemed to notice her presence. She felt perfectly invisible.
That night, she wrote in her journal, describing the Provençal locals:
They have a haughty toughness about them, with possible anger and suspicion not far back of their outward courtesy. When I go into a restaurant or a bar, I am given a table when I ask for it, and I am brought what I order to eat and drink, and when I ask for the bill, I am given it, but there is never even a pretense of interest in whether or not I like my table, my meal, whether or not I want to drop dead right there. Good evening, yes, no, goodbye.
M.F. herself had a haughty toughness about her. Indeed, she had embarked on this solo expedition to Arles as a kind of challenge to herself. To travel alone, to see Provence as it really was rather than as she imagined it to be, to compare her fond, nostalgic recollections of the place with its immediate, cold reality. And more than that: to make sense of her life, and what the future held. Her children were grown. She could feel the past slipping away. She wasn’t quite sure what she wanted of the future.
She lay in bed unable to fall asleep, too aware for comfort—her mind racing, her perception over-keen, every distant sound amplified tenfold in the dark. The bells from St. Trophime; the sudden roar of a car engine on the road outside.
She watched the light and shadows on the ceiling plasterwork. There were no spiders or large insects to be seen in the half-light, thankfully. Only the other night, in the apartment she’d rented in La Roquette sur Siagne, near Cannes, a many-legged creature had dropped from the ceiling and landed on her forehead. Without missing a beat, she’d flicked it onto the floor, then lit the lamp and watched it cautiously unwind itself and cross the tiles to the safety under the couch. Even as her heart beat in her chest, she felt strangely sympathetic toward the thing—it must have been as shocked as she’d been to find itself stranded on her forehead. She was reminded of another night not so long ago at her friend David Bouverie’s ranch in California. She’d been put in a little-used guest room, and one of the cats, accustomed to sneaking through the open window and onto the bed, leapt onto her, the unexpected human lying there under a sheet. She kicked intuitively in the pitch dark, and just as intuitively, the cat sank all its claws into her like wires and then leapt with a horrified moan out the window. She went back to sleep. In the morning, the sheets were streaked with blood from more than a dozen neat little pricks in her skin.
Days went by.
M.F. took long baths and drank cafés au lait and set off into town through the pre-Christmas crowds and past shutters closed tight, behind them warmth and family life. She found herself carrying on interminable interior monologues, all in the form of sentences and paragraphs, and often in the third person. “She looked into the glass-thickened air of the café,” for example. Or she would give herself practical instructions: “Mary Frances, go to the toilet while you know where it is.” She was detached: a ghost, observing the town, its people, herself. There but not there. She was hungry all the time, always in search of a decent, open restaurant, and never quite satisfied. She recorded it all in her notebook.
It was ironic. Here she was, the great chronicler of food and love, of appetite and longing, hungry and alone. And furthermore: hungry and alone in France, of all places. It made no sense. This was, after all, the place that had reliably inspired her to eat, and to love.
Again and again, M.F.’s thoughts returned to the lunches and dinners with the Childs, Beard, and Olney, and her friends Eda Lord and Sybille Bedford, whom she had been visiting at La Roquette: one feast after another, the wines, terrines, roasted chickens and jambon persillé, leek and potato soups, and apple tartes tatins. And the gossip, talk, and more talk, comings and goings, trips to town to mail letters and pick up baguettes and groceries, country excursions and impromptu lunches. In the background, all the while, had been a growing sense that they were all on the cusp of something new—a new decade, a new era. It was a moment of flux, of new ideas. But what that meant for each of them was less clear. For M.F., the very meaning of taste and sophistication was in question—as was the viability of the literary voice and persona she had cultivated for nearly four decades.
It was the arrival of Richard Olney, just before Christmas, that had crystallized the contradictions of the moment; he had spurred her sudden departure.
Now, in Arles, it seemed to M.F. almost comical, the sudden change in circumstances. From feast to famine, so to speak. And it had been entirely her own doing! There she had been, in the hills above Cannes, surrounded by warmth, friends, and sustenance, and here she was in Arles, cold and alone.
Why had she left?
Ten Weeks Earlier . . .
late in the afternoon on thursday, october 8, 1970, M.F.K. Fisher and her sister Norah Barr boarded the SS France in New York City, bound for Le Havre, on the Atlantic coast of France. It was a hot day for this time of year, an Indian summer-like eighty degrees, and hazy. Just before five o’clock, the ship’s horn blasted, echoing across the Hudson River and signaling imminent departure.
The France was one of the last of the great ocean liners—a fantastically elegant ship with nearly one thousand staterooms. M.F. and Norah were in tourist class, sharing cabin number 304. The room was tiny, but they were delighted. There was a view of the water through the porthole; they were on their way.
The ship had inherited the mantle of the legendary Normandie, the Art Deco flagship of the French Line (which had caught fire and sunk in this very spot at the New York passenger terminal in 1942, as it was being refitted as a battleship for the war effort). Built in 1961, the France was the longest ship in the world, and fast—it would make the crossing in six days. But this was the end of an era: jet travel had now supplanted ships on the transatlantic route. (The France, in fact, spent much of the winter as a cruise ship in the Caribbean, to make money during the off-season.)
It was a deliberate and nostalgic choice, to travel by ship. M.F. and Norah had been planning this trip since the spring, and hoped to relive some of the glories of previous grand European voyages.
They were sisters of a certain age, and they were women of a certain class and generation. Of independent means. Unattached, husband-wise, at the moment, their children all more or less grown up, or out of the house, anyway—enrolled in grad school and starting to have kids of their own. The two women had been to France countless times over the years. M.F. had studied French literature in Dijon in the late 1920s and early 1930s, while her first husband, Al Fisher, worked on his doctorate. It was during this period that she offered to take charge of her then-fourteen-year-old sister for a year. Norah was far ahead of her class at her local California public school and “too dreamily sensitive to be put into any distant and probably hockey-mad private school,” as M.F. later explained in The Gastronomical Me. So M.F. had brought her sister to France and enrolled her in a convent school. It was the beginning of their love affair with France. Years later, in the 1950s, M.F. and Norah raised their children for a time in Le Tholonet, a small town outside Aix. They were by then both divorced, single mothers. Like M.F., Norah had been strikingly beautiful and strong-willed in her youth, and the two women remained so in late middle age.