The Washington Post
The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europeby Paula Fox
In this elegant and affecting companion to her "extraordinary" memoir, Borrowed Finery, a young writer flings herself into a Europe ravaged by the Second World War (The Boston Globe)
In 1946, Paula Fox walked up the gangplank of a partly reconverted Liberty with the classic American hope of finding experience—or perhaps salvation—in Europe/p>/b>… See more details below
In this elegant and affecting companion to her "extraordinary" memoir, Borrowed Finery, a young writer flings herself into a Europe ravaged by the Second World War (The Boston Globe)
In 1946, Paula Fox walked up the gangplank of a partly reconverted Liberty with the classic American hope of finding experience—or perhaps salvation—in Europe. She was twenty-two years old, and would spend the next year moving among the ruins of London, Warsaw, Paris, Prague, Madrid, and other cities as a stringer for a small British news service.
In this lucid, affecting memoir, Fox describes her movements across Europe's scrambled borders: unplanned trips to empty castles and ruined cathedrals, a stint in bombed-out Warsaw in the midst of the Communist election takeovers, and nights spent in apartments here and there with distant relatives, friends of friends, and in shabby pensions with little heat, each place echoing with the horrors of the war. A young woman alone, with neither a plan nor a reliable paycheck, Fox made her way with the rest of Europe as the continent rebuilt and rediscovered itself among the ruins.
Long revered as a novelist, Fox won over a new generation of readers with her previous memoir, Borrowed Finery. Now, with The Coldest Winter, she recounts another chapter of a life seemingly filled with stories—a rare, unsentimental glimpse of the world as seen by a writer at the beginning of an illustrious career.
The Washington Post
"In this lovely wisp of a book . . . Fox zeroes in on a limited number of evocative details and anecdotes . . . [and] offers madeleines that stir memories in us that aren't even ours."The New York Times Book Review
"Lean, exquisitely written."Entertainment Weekly
"One of the many virtues of this uncommonly fine book is that it brings [post-World War II Europe] almost palpably back to life, yet without an ounce of sensationalism or sentimentality. . . . Beautifully written but never showily so."The Washington Post
"As always, Fox writes with spare lyricism and emotional force, spinning a fever dream so powerful that her experiences feel as though they're our own."Vogue
"In thoughts as stunning as camera flashes, Fox knits her past together. She presents startling images and unforgettable stories. . . . Chekhov's stories come to mind, with their ethical dilemmas, their human ugliness and pathos, their unquestionable beauty and compassion. The Coldest Winter recalls a year or so in Fox's life, but even more it asks why her experience, or anyone's, matters."Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Fresh, exceptionally fine . . . Contains a wisdom and maturity that should be lost on no one."San Francisco Chronicle
"So vividly detailed that it seems to contain a universe . . . Fox's gift of recall is a boon for the reader, but it's her piercing attention to details picked out of the surrounding turmoil that lends Winter its visionary gifts. Scenes emerge before our eyes like shadowy images from a European film noir. . . . Fox's writing has remarkable precision and restraint, even when describing the most painful, disturbing circumstances."Time Out New York
"Summons a lost era without indulging in nostalgia . . . What lingers is the taste of being twenty-three-years-old and at large in a broken but dazzling world."The Village Voice
"There is an unnerving current of tension in Fox's writing . . . an eerie power to her prose."The Star-Ledger (Newark)
"Elegant . . . Her simultaneously spare and lyrical sentences usher in a world that is tenuous, foreboding, tender, comiclife itself, in other words, as described by a trustworthy, soulful, unegocentric observer."Bookforum
"In her acclaimed memoir Borrowed Finery (2001), Fox wrote with quiet power about her traumatic childhood. Now she writes about huge political upheaval, and once again she brings it close with small, intimate details. . . . You read the simple words slowly, and they haunt you."Booklist
"The picture Fox paints of postwar Europe is both profoundly beautiful and sad, and her memoir is affecting, leaving one wishing she had stayed there longer."Publishers Weekly
"Resonant . . . With her signature concision and understatement, Fox, now in her eighties, reassesses her past and extracts indelible insights. . . . Fox's minimalist prose evokes for the reader something other than ourselvesand the effect is deeply moving."Newsday
"A travel diary written in hindsight, this slender, elegant memoir is both hypnotic and sharply lucid. . . . Fox's vision encompasses history and humanity, thereby taking in so much more than the self."Bust magazine
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THE COLDEST WINTERA STRINGER IN LIBERATED EUROPE
By PAULA FOX
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2005 Paula Fox
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNEW YORK, NEW YORK
I was born in New York City, and I have lived in or around it for a good part of my life. Some neighborhoods, although altered nearly beyond my recognition, are charged for me with the emotions of long-past events-at least during those moments I pass through them.
For what seemed one hundred years, I paid rent to landlords for wildly differing lodgings in various sections of the city. I was always trying to find a way to get out of New York during that time, a time when I imagined that if I could only find the right place, the difficulties of life would vanish.
The first time I recall glimpsing New York as a whole was from the deck of a Hudson River Dayliner when I was four or five years old. But perhaps I found the view of Riverside Drive and its towers oppressive, for I remember I soon returned to a spot near a railing from which I could stare down at the heads of the musicians of a band, two decks below, sitting on camp chairs and playing "Hail Columbia" for the pleasure of the passengers. Seventeen years later, in 1946, a year after the end of the Second World War, I saw the city again-from the outside-as I stood on the deck of a partly reconverted Liberty Ship on which I was sailing to Europe. I didn't look at it for long that second time either. I was getting away at last!
By then I had come to know New York well, the way you know a city where you've had jobs-most of them pretty awful-that keep you more or less fed and out of the weather. No matter what my circumstances were, I always found the city hard to live in. But there were moments of vividness and promise, even of glamour. It is startling to recollect them. As Cesare Pavese wrote in his diary, The Burning Brand, "Real amazement comes from memory."
People, some of them now names on headstones, were walking around the city in the days of my youth, and you might run into them in all sorts of places. I met Duke Ellington on a flight of marble steps leading down from an exhibit by the painter Stuart Davis. I heard Huddle (Leadbelly) Ledbetter play his guitar and sing "The Midnight Special" at a party in Greenwich Village for a cause I've forgotten. In a jazz club on 52nd Street that was called, I think, Kelly's Stable, Billie Holiday turned from the bar as I was passing and asked me-"Darlin', would you mind?"-to pick up her fur coat, which had fallen from her shoulders to the floor behind her bar stool.
Later that same evening, the club doors were shut and I was among the people who stayed inside, sitting around a table, listening to her sing far into the night. I was escorted to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem by a boyfriend, where I watched dancers bend and circle and hurl their partners into the air and, miraculously, catch them, to the music of two bands led by Cootie Williams and Lucky Millinder and then was, myself, drawn into the dance, wondering when the floor would give way and then not caring whether it did or did not. From Charles Street, where I borrowed a one-room apartment for a while, I could walk a couple of blocks to a bar on Seventh Avenue and hear Art Tatum play the piano for the price of a glass of beer, one dime.
One evening I went to Lewisohn Stadium to hear Paul Robeson sing. Planes flew overhead, and searchlights played against the sky. Quite suddenly, Robeson walked out onto the stage in a navy blue suit. He was so splendid in appearance, his profound basso so exalted, that the audience itself, I among them, seemed to feel an answering exaltation.
I met him twice after that concert, once in San Francisco during the run of Othello and a second time in New York City a few weeks after I had returned from Europe.
Memory often seems to begin in the middle of some story. I had a friend who was a friend of Robeson's. Robeson was spending time with his son, Pauli, who had come to the city from his prep school, somewhere to the north. I recall the four of us in a taxi, but not where we had met before catching it. We were going to a nightclub, Café Society Uptown, to hear a French chanteuse, Lucienne Boyer. There was conversation but I don't recollect saying a word, though I must have done so for I remember Robeson looking at me and speaking, smiling. I stole a quick glance at his hands. Someone had told me that when he played football at Rutgers, his own teammates had deliberately trodden on his hands during practice sessions.
The doorman of the club and the maître d'hôtel who hurried toward us through a shadowed foyer, both recognized Robeson, at whose request we were taken to a small room with a balcony that overlooked the cafés main space. Lucienne Boyer was singing in French as we sat down. She stood in a shower of light in a gold dress. She sang a few songs in English; one of them was "The Man I Love." Robeson hummed along with her, filling our little room with his plangent voice, though it was inaudible to the people sitting below. He whispered to me suddenly to sing too. I quavered out a few lines but then fell silent, overwhelmed at the thought of singing with Paul Robeson-well, almost singing.
Afterward we all went to Grand Central, where Pauli was to take a train back to school. It must have been nearly midnight. In those days, railroad stations were often deserted at such an hour. As we walked down the broad staircase, our footsteps echoed throughout the vast reaches of the terminal, where not even a single late traveler could be seen, hurrying to the last train home. The four of us could have been alone.
Then, from every corner, silently flying toward us like swallows, came the baggage porters in their red hats, converging on Robeson and his son as they reached the bottom step. He stood among them for several moments, talking and listening, laughing at something that one of the redcaps said to him. That is where the memory ends: Robeson on a step, laughing, his head thrown back, his son standing next to him, one of the porters gesturing toward a platform entrance as though Pauli's train was about to leave and they must run now to catch it.
I see the past differently as I grow older, so in a sense the past changes. I once thought it was the high emotional tone of that evening-its drama-that made it so memorable for me. Now I wonder if I did not feel some immense consolatory quality in Robeson's presence that was perhaps reflected on the faces of the redcaps. I don't really know.
HOW I EARNED MY PASSAGE
We emerged one by one from a large round hole in the ground, each of us, waiters and waitresses, bearing trays of food and drink for the patrons of a Catskills resort. It was early summer, 1946. My left arm was swollen and sore from the tetanus and typhus shots administered by a doctor in anticipation of my passage across the Atlantic Ocean to Southampton, England.
To distract myself from the soreness in my upper arm, I sometimes imagined the tips I might find among used glasses, dessert plates, and spilling ashtrays on the stained tablecloths when lunch or dinner was over. Those who tipped me at the end of their stay, rather than each day, would press pocket-warmed dollar bills into my hand.
The underground kitchen where we worked was connected to the upper world by a short spiral stairway. It was a hard climb upward, turning in a circle while carrying a full tray; sometimes one of them was dropped to the floor below. China crashed and fragmented, liquids splattered, food fell in repugnant lumps, the metal trays and covers banged and clattered, leaving silence in the wake of these disasters soon broken by our murmurs and cries of sympathy for the waiter or waitress whose tray had fallen and who was staring down in dismay at the underworld.
The dining room was thirty yards or so across a lawn, and its glass doors provided another hazard when they were closed against inclement weather. Yet it was a relief to be aboveground, out of the tight kitchen quarters and away from the predictable outbursts of the three bad-tempered cooks.
The male customers I waited upon called me dear or darling. Their wives or girlfriends gave me hard looks if they glanced up at me at all. Younger guests ignored me, except to send me back underground for more bread and water. I worked at the resort for five summer weeks, sleeping nights on a cot in a staff dormitory that smelled of unwashed socks and raw pine boards.
When I went back to New York City, I sublet a room in a tenement on Morton Street from an American Indian who was returning to his reservation in Arizona for a two-week visit.
There was, unaccountably, a shower stall standing in the center of the room that resembled a shaky voting booth. When I turned the taps, a spray of tepid water dropped on and past me to the grainy floor. I kept beneath the cot mattress a small roll of money I'd saved from the resort tips and my wages. The amount was enough to pay for my passage to England and, I estimated, a month of living in London.
The only window was close to the cot and gave onto a rusty fire escape. Beyond it was a narrow, dark airshaft.
Early one morning I awoke to find a young man crouched on the metal bars, staring at me through the open window, which I had flung up the night before. When he saw I was awake and staring back at him, he asked me for a cigarette, saying in a slurred voice that he had run out. He was fair-haired and thin, and his eyes held a reddish feral glow. I had a nearly empty crumpled pack of Camels beside the cot. I eased one out so it wouldn't break in two and handed him the rest of the pack; he muttered thanks and climbed back up the fire escape until he was out of sight. A few days later, I learned from the old Italian landlady that he'd overdosed on a drug she didn't identify and had been taken to a nearby hospital in an ambulance.
Decades later, at a party given by the painter Wolf Kahn on a Martha's Vineyard farm he had rented for the summer, I saw the red-eyed man again, recalling his face at once perhaps because he had startled me so-and frightened me, too, although I had not at the time recognized that fear. It came to me now. Wolf told me later his name was Miles.
He didn't recall the circumstances, but he remembered me too. I reminded him of the cigarettes I'd given him as he crouched on the fire escape. He pressed nearly a whole pack into my hand as we stood there on the hummocky ground. Both of us were struck by the same impulse; we bent forward and embraced, then stepped back and stood silently for several moments until Emily, also a painter and Wolf's wife, came between us with a plate of fresh corn.
THE SHIP I SAILED ON TO ENGLAND HAD BEEN MINIMALLY converted from its wartime function as a troop carrier. I wasn't troubled by its discomforts; I had hardly noticed them. I was departing from what was for me a land of sorrow. But it turned out that when the ship sailed one morning from New York City, my past followed me like its wake. On deck were the substantial ghosts of all the people I had ever known.
The journey took six days. One hot night, I was uncomfortable in my berth and went up to the top deck to sleep. I found a large group of people on deck in their nightwear, each one equipped with a pillow and a light blanket as I was, laughing and talking beneath a sky spangled with stars, some leaning on their elbows or sitting up and clasping their knees. Among them were several young people going to Yugoslavia to work on the "youth railroad" only for the glory of it.
One of them whom I knew, Kurt, who was eighteen, told me that night, or boasted, about his mistress, age thirty, and how she had wept when he said goodbye to her. He was a skinny boy, fluent and good-looking, well on his way to becoming a seducer of women. I could hardly have guessed that night, sitting with him, both of us covered with our blankets-it was chilly on deck-and talking with momentary intimacy, that I would meet him again four decades later at an Italian Center for the Arts that also held monthly conferences.
We recognized each other but had different memories of what had happened. He confided to a member of the bankers' conference he was attending that I had tried to draw him into a shipboard affair. I was happy to see him and recalled how he had spoken of his older lover on the voyage. For the five days the conference lasted, he smiled remotely at me. Once I heard what he had presumed to recollect, I stopped smiling back. I didn't ask him how he had liked Yugoslavia and the railroad.
One morning, seagulls began to circle the ship. Several hours later we landed at Southampton. From there, most of us took the train to London.
During the summer, spent mostly in London, I stayed for varying periods of time, a few weeks or a month, with three couples. My father had given me the names of Benn Levy and his wife, Constance Cummings. Benn was an old friend of his from their days as screenwriters in Hollywood. The other two couples, Nan and her husband, Ted, and a journalist named Claude and his wife, Pat, I met through Maggie, a casual acquaintance of mine who, it was rumored, was an agent for British intelligence. Both these latter couples, although their circumstances and histories differed, had left-wing social and political beliefs.
They were all kind to me. No one made the least effort to press me to adopt their views of life and society-almost certainly because no one took me seriously as a political person.
Nan, a vicar's daughter, and Ted, a Welshman, lived in Wandsworth, a working-class district in the city. Nan was a widow. Her husband, George, had volunteered for the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War and had been killed in the battle of the Ebro River. She had had two children with him, Martin and Frances, who lived with her and Ted in a bleak housing unit that had been thrown up, it seemed to me, overnight, after a bombing raid had destroyed whatever building had been there.
The flat was skimpy, meagerly furnished. A narrow stairway led from the living room to two tiny bedrooms on the second floor, in one of which I slept.
I was fond of Nan and of her son, fourteen-year-old Martin, and his younger sister, Frances, but I had mixed feelings about Ted, who was employed by a London gasworks. He was dry and laconic with me. He rarely spoke to Nan in my presence, as though their relationship were a secret.
Fifty-seven years later, I can still catch a glimpse of Frances through the half-opened door of the bathroom, sitting in a few inches of water in a small tub. She is fleshy and pink and holds a scrap of soap in her plump pretty upheld hands as though she has just fished it out of the water. She smiles faintly at something I am saying as I pass by on my way to the kitchen.
Most of the year the children were away attending Summerhill, an experimental school in the south of England (I'm not sure when the word progressive made its way into the language). It was founded and run by a man, A. S. Neill, who was referred to as Neill by Frances and Martin. Although run may not be the exact word since, I gathered, the students did much as they pleased in the way of classes and subjects.
I got a job at the London office of 20th Century-Fox, where I worked briefly as a reader of manuscripts, looking for ones I thought had film potential. But I found steadier work with Victor Gollancz, reading manuscripts for a guinea or two each. He'd hired me not only because he'd known my father when Daddy lived in England but because his regular and longtime reader had been assaulted by an unhinged Irishman whose stories about the Ulster Legends and Cuchulainn she'd rejected after reading the opening section.
Somehow the Irishman had learned her name, waited until she was on her way home, and sent her to the hospital with broken ribs and a bruised face. She was not expected to return to the Gollancz offices for six weeks. After telling me this, Victor warned me not to speak to anyone about where and in what capacity I was employed.
One afternoon, I was alone in the Wandsworth flat, reading a manuscript, when there was a sharp knock on the front door. I looked through the mail slot, and saw dark cloth. I opened the door with my gut clenched. A bobby towered over me, or maybe it was only his helmet that made it seem so. He touched it with two fingers, addressed me as miss, and asked me if I held a work permit. I shook my head no. He said I'd need to come to the police station with him.
Excerpted from THE COLDEST WINTER by PAULA FOX Copyright © 2005 by Paula Fox. Excerpted by permission.
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