The Wicked Pavilionby Dawn Powell
The “Wicked Pavilion” of the title is the Café Julien, where everybody who is anybody goes to recover from failed love affairs and to pursue new ones, to cadge money, to hatch plots, and to puncture one another’s reputation. Dennis Orphen, the writer from Dawn Powell’s Turn, Magic Wheel, makes an appearance here, as does Andy Callingham, Powell’s thinly disguised Ernest Hemingway. The climax of this mercilessly funny novel comes with a party which, remarked Gore Vidal, “resembles Proust’s last roundup,” and where one of the partygoers observes, “There are some people here who have been dead twenty years.”
"For decades Dawn Powell was always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion." -- Gore Vidal
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The Wicked Pavilion
By Dawn Powell
Steerforth PressCopyright © 1996 The Estate of Dawn Powell
All rights reserved.
... entrance ...
Shortly after two a sandy-haired gentleman in the middle years hurried into the Cafe Julien, sat down at Alexander's table as he always did, ordered coffee and cognac as he always did, asked for stationery as he always did, shook out a fountain pen and proceeded to write. Considering that this was the very same man who spent each morning staring, motionless, before a typewriter in a midtown hotel, it was surprising how swiftly his pen moved over the pages at the café table. At five, just as the first cocktail customers were arriving, he paid his check, pocketed his papers and went to the desk in the lobby.
"Keep this for me," he said to the clerk, handing over the manuscript.
"Okay, Mr. Orphen," said the clerk, and opened the safe to put it with Mr. Orphen's other papers.
The sandy-haired man went out, buttoning up his overcoat in the flurry of snow over Washington Square, hailed a taxi and drove back to the hotel room where he sat for a while staring at the empty page in the typewriter until he decided it was time to get drunk.
That was the day he had written on the Julien stationery:
There was nothing unusual about that New York winter of 1948 for the unusual was now the usual. Elderly ladies died of starvation in shabby hotels leaving boxes full of rags and hundred-dollar bills; bands of children robbed and raped through the city streets, lovers could find no beds, hamburgers were forty cents at lunch counters, truck drivers demanded double wages to properly educate their young in the starving high-class professions; aged spinsters, brides and mothers were shot by demented youths, frightened girls screamed for help in the night while police, in pairs for safety's sake, pinned tickets on parked automobiles. Citizens harassed by Internal Revenue hounds jumped out of windows for want of forty dollars, families on relief bought bigger television sets to match the new time-bought furniture. The Friendly Loan agent, the Smiling Banker, the Laughing Financial Aid lurked in dark alleys to terrorize the innocent; baby sitters received a dollar an hour with torture concessions; universities dynamited acres of historic mansions and playgrounds to build halls for teaching history and child psychology. Men of education were allowed to make enough at their jobs to defray the cost of going to an office; parents were able, by patriotic investment in the world's largest munitions plant, to send their sons to the fine college next door to it, though time and labor would have been saved by whizzing the sons direct from home to factory to have their heads blown off at once.
It was an old man's decade.
Geriatricians, endowed by the richest octogenarians, experimented on ways of prolonging the reign of the Old and keeping the enemy, Youth, from coming into its own. Pediatricians were subsidized to strengthen, heighten and toughen the young for soldiering; the eighteenth-birthday banquets were already being planned, the festive maypoles of ticker tape set up, the drummers hired, the invitations with government seals sent out, the marching songs rehearsed. The venerable statesmen and bankers were generously taking time off from their golfing, yachting and money-changing for the bang-up affair that would clear the earth once again of these intruders on old-men pleasures and profits. Some who had triumphed too long were deviled by fear of turn of fortune and besieged their psychoanalysts for the expensive reassurance that they were after all boss-men, superior to their victims and the ordinary rules. When the stifled conscience croaked of justice to come they scuttled feverishly to the Church and clutched their winnings behind the King's X of the sacred robes.
In the great libraries professors studied ways of doing away with books; politicians proclaimed reading and writing unnecessary and therefore illegal, for the action of written words on the human brain might induce thought, a subversive process certain to incite rebellion at robot leadership. All the knowledge required for the soldier generation could be pumped in by loudspeaker; eyes must be saved for target practice, hands preserved for bayonets. Why allow an enemy bomb to blast our accumulated culture when we can do it ourselves by government process?
In the city the elements themselves were money: air was money, fire was money, water was money, the need of, the quest for, the greed for. Love was money. There was money or death.
But there were many who were bewildered by the moral mechanics of the age just as there are those who can never learn a game no matter how long they've been obliged to play it or how many times they've read the rules and paid the forfeits. If this is the way the world is turning around, they say, then by all means let it stop turning, let us get off the cosmic Ferris wheel into space. Allow us the boon of standing still till the vertigo passes, give us a respite to gather together the scraps of what was once us — the old longings for what? for whom? that gave us our wings and the chart for our tomorrow's.
There must be some place along the route, a halfway house in time where the runners may pause and ask themselves why they run, what is the prize and is it the prize they really want? What became of Beauty, where went Love? There must be havens where they may be at least remembered.
The shadow that lay over the land was growing mightily and no one escaped it. As in countries ruled by the Gestapo or the guillotine one must only whisper truths, bribe or be bribed, ask no questions, give no answers, police or be policed, run in fear and silence ahead of the shadow.CHAPTER 2
... a young man against the city ...
At half past nine that February evening the Café Julien around the corner from Washington Square was almost deserted. Solitary gentlemen on the prowl strolled in expectantly, ready to crowd into any corner if the place was jammed, but horrified into quick retreat at sight of the empty tables. Three young teachers, briefed by Cue Magazine on how to have a typically French evening in New York, had cast a stricken glance into the bleak expanse of marble tables and mirror walls, then backed out.
"This can't be the place," one cried out. "It looks like a mausoleum."
The remark brought complacent smiles to the grim-faced old waiters, guarding their tables with folded arms like shepherds of old. The Julien waiters were forthright self-respecting individuals who felt their first duty was to protect the café from customers, their second to keep customers and employers in their proper places. The fact that only two of the marble-topped tables were occupied was a state of business perversely satisfactory to these waiters, who had the more leisure for meditation and the exchange of private insults. A young Jersey-looking couple peered curiously in the doorway looking for some spectacular rout that would explain the place's cosmopolitan reputation, then drew back puzzled at seeing only two patrons. Karl, the Alsatian with the piratical mustaches, turned down a chair at each of his three empty tables, indicating mythical reservations, folded his arms again and stared contentedly at the chipped cupids on the ceiling. The more excitable Guillaume, given to muttering personal comments behind his patrons' backs, flapped his napkin busily as if shooing out flies, and shouted after the innocent little couple, "Kitchen closed now, nothing to eat, kitchen closed."
The two solitary diners who remained at their tables after the dinner crowd had departed smiled with the smug pleasure of insiders at such a typical demonstration of the café's quixotic hospitality. The plump monkish little waiter, Philippe (said by many old-timers to resemble Dubois, the celebrated waiter of Mouquin's where the artist Pennell, you may recall, hung a plaque in his honor, "A boire — Dubois") turned from his peaceful contemplation of the old fencing studio across the way to twinkle merrily down at his favorite patron, Monsieur Prescott. He liked Monsieur Prescott first because he loved youth and beauty, seldom found in this rendezvous dedicated to testy old gourmets, miserly world travelers, battered bon vivants and escapees from behind the frank-and-apple-pie curtain. Philippe liked Monsieur Prescott above all because he had the grace to appear only every two or three years, while other customers were exasperatingly regular. Philippe felt young and refreshed just looking at Ricky Prescott, a young man built for the gridiron, wide of shoulder, strong white teeth flashing above square pugnacious jaw, long legs sprawling under the table, hard black eyes ever looking for and receiving friendship and approbation. Other Julien visitors were always asking Philippe who was this breezy young man, so obviously from the wide-open spaces, and what did he do.
"It is Monsieur Prescott, a very good friend of mine," Philippe always replied with dignity, as if this covered everything. Hundreds of people all over the world would have given the same answer, for Rick had the knack of getting on with all classes and all ages, ruling out all barriers, loving good people wherever he found them. Stray dogs followed him, office boys called him by his first name; cops, taxi drivers, bootblacks never forgot him, nor he them. He had been back in New York for several weeks and had been popping into the Julien almost everyday. Tonight he and Philippe had gone through their usual little game of ordering the dinner.
"What do I want tonight, Philippe?" Rick had asked.
"Blue points in sauce mignonne, pommes soufflées, squab sous cloche," Philippe had said, straight-faced.
"Fine, I'll have pork chops and Schaeffer's light," Rick had answered, and as always during this routine Philippe had demanded to know why a strapping fellow with the appetite of a bear and no taste for good food should ever leave those big steak-and-pie places on Broadway. Why did he choose to come to the Julien anyway?
"Why does anybody come here?" countered Ricky.
Philippe gave this question some judicious thought. "They come because they have always come here," he said.
"Why did they come here the first time, then?"
"Nobody ever comes to the Julien for the first time," Philippe said, and as this was a thought that appealed to him hugely, his plump little body shook with noiseless chuckles. Recovering his gravity he leaned toward Ricky's ear and asked, "You tell me why you come here."
"I guess because something happened to me once here and I keep thinking it might happen again, I don't know what, but — well I'm always expecting something I don't expect."
He grinned with a confidential wink that captivated Philippe, whose inner chuckles began all over, this time ending in a little toy squeak.
"Maybe you expect Miss Cars, hey?" he said slyly.
Miss "Cars" (and Philippe was tickled to see that the young man flushed at the name) was a young lady romantically identified with Monsieur Prescott, indeed the real reason for Prescott's devotion to the Julien as both of them well knew. It was on Prescott's first visit to the café that he had met Miss Cars, it was Miss Cars he sought in the café every time he returned to New York. It was here they quarreled and said good-bye for ever, it was here they made up after long separations, here they misunderstood each other again, and here Prescott once again was seeking the lost love.
"Oh, Miss Carsdale," Ricky said. "How is Miss Carsdale, Philippe?"
"I no see Miss Cars, like I told you," Philippe sighed. His feet were too tired after a lifetime of carrying trays to and from the distant kitchen to tramp out the final syllables of long words. He would have liked to be able to produce Monsieur Prescott's little lady or at least to give him advice on how to find her again. He had a vague recollection of some scene last time the two had been there and of Miss Cars running out of the café alone.
"Maybe Miss Cars think you not nice to her," he ventured vaguely.
The young man was righteously offended.
"Me not nice to her?" he repeated bitterly. "After all she got me into?"
He was about to recite his grievances to Philippe, decided they were too complicated, and allowed Philippe to waddle away for another beer while he sat brooding. It was undeniably Miss Cars who had made him reject the fine job in Calcutta after World War II for the simple reason that he was wild to get back to her. It was Miss Cars's fault he had got tangled up with three other women just because of her maddening virtue. Yes, there was no question but that Miss Cars, fragile and sweet as she was, had precipitated Rick Prescott from one mistake into another. It was her fault entirely, and this was how it had happened.
Seven years ago in the excitement of our-regiment-sails-at dawn, Monsieur Prescott had made a heavy-handed attack on Miss Carsdale's virtue on the spittle-and-sawdust-strewn staircase of an old loft building on East Eighth Street where she rented a work studio for her photography. Whenever he remembered that night Rick cursed the mischievous jinx that had twisted the most magical day of his life into a sordid memory. It was the first time he'd ever been in New York, the city of his dreams, the first time he'd worn his officer's uniform, the first time he'd been drunk on champagne. New York loved him as it loved no other young man, and he embraced the city, impulsively discarding everything he had hitherto cherished of his Michigan boyhood loyalties. In Radio City Gardens he looked up at the colossal Prometheus commanding the city's very heart and thought, Me! He wandered up and down in a kind of smiling daze, slipped away from the buddies and home-town friends supervising his departure, and strolled happily down Fifth Avenue, finding all faces beautiful and wondrously kind, the lacy fragility of the city trees incomparably superior to his huge native forests. Under the giant diesel hum of street and harbor traffic he caught the sweet music of danger, the voices of deathless love and magic adventure.
My city, he had exulted, mine for these few hours at least, no matter what comes after. He wanted to embrace the Library lions, follow each softly smiling girl to the ends of the earth, bellow his joy from the top of the Empire State building. Wandering on foot or bus in a joyous daze he suddenly came at evening upon the treasure itself, a softly lit quiet park into which the avenue itself disappeared. Bewildered, breathless, as if he had come upon Lhasa, he walked around the little park, seeing couples strolling, arms about each other, windows of vine-covered houses lighting up, hearing church chimes, as if the city outside this was only a dream. The sign on the canopy of a corner mansion, CAFE JULIEN, told him he was in Greenwich Village and this café was the very place he was to meet his friends for dinner. And here they were waiting for him, not believing that he had stumbled there by chance, not even believing his day's adventure had been with a city and not a girl.
He kissed all the girls enthusiastically, regardless of the men in the party who were all spending the war comfortably in Washington or at 90 Church Street. He was handsomer and younger than they, and grateful for his departure they sang his praises while the girls found patriotic excuse to stroke his black hair or urge soft thighs against his. Rick loved them all, loved the café, loved even war since it had brought him here. With each fresh champagne he looked for the wonderful surprise, the special adventure that the city had surely promised him.
All around the café he could see little groups chattering happily, new arrivals being joyously welcomed, tables joining other tables, and though eyes strayed to the good-looking young soldier, Rick had a pang of knowing they were complete without him, they would be complete long after he had left on his unknown journey. Tomorrow night these very friends of his would celebrate without him; even Maidie Rennels, who felt she had home-town rights to him, was already planning a theater party with someone else. The city he had fallen in love with would carry no mark from him, this café would not know he was gone. Impatient with these glimpses of future loneliness he suggested going to other spots, gayer and louder, where tomorrows could be drowned out in music.
"But we have to wait for Ellenora," Maidie Rennels kept explaining. "Don't you remember I wrote you all about Ellenora, the girl I met when I was studying at the League? She has a studio around the corner and we told her we'd be here."
"You mean Rick doesn't know Ellenora?" someone else asked, and shook her head pityingly.
You may have observed that whenever you enter a new group there is apt to be constant allusion to some fabulous character who is not present, someone whose opinions are quoted on all subjects, someone so witty or unique that you find yourself apologizing for not having met him or her. You may think you are having a perfectly good time, but how can you when this marvelous creature is not present? The name "Ellenora" was dangled before Rick until he began working up a foggy hostility to the absent one. Ellenora was everyone's darling, all painters wanted to capture her charm on canvas, and she herself, a child of artists, was wonderfully gifted, studying art on money she earned as a photographer. How exciting for her to be engaged to marry Bob Huron who had proper security to give an artist wife, and who adored her as she deserved. What a pity Ricky might never be privileged to meet her! Ricky began to feel that her absence was a subtle snub to him, and her being engaged to another man without even waiting to meet Richard Prescott was an insult. Then the sudden arrival of Ellenora in person changed everything.
Excerpted from The Wicked Pavilion by Dawn Powell. Copyright © 1996 The Estate of Dawn Powell. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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Meet the Author
When Dawn Powell died in 1965, virtually all her books were out of print. Not a single historical survey of American literature mentioned her, even in passing. And so she slept, seemingly destined to be forgotten – or, to put it more exactly, never to be remembered.
How things have changed! Numerous novels by Dawn Powell are currently available, along with her diaries and short stories. She has joined the Library of America, admitted to the illustrious company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Frederick Douglass, and Edith Wharton. She is taught in college and read with delight on vacation. For the contemporary poet and novelist Lisa Zeidner, writing inThe New York Times Book Review, Powell “is wittier than Dorothy Parker, dissects the rich better than F. Scott Fitzgerald, is more plaintive than Willa Cather in her evocation of the heartland, and has a more supple control of satirical voice than Evelyn Waugh.” For his part, Gore Vidal offered a simple reason for Powell’s sudden popularity in the early Twentieth Century: “We are catching up to her.”
Dawn Powell was born in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, on November 28, 1896, the second of three daughters. Her father was a traveling salesman, and her mother died a few days after Dawn turned seven. After enduring great cruelty at the hands of her stepmother, Dawn ran away at the age of thirteen and eventually arrived at the home of her maternal aunt, who served hot meals to travelers emerging from the train station across the street. Dawn worked her way through college and made it to New York. There she married a young advertising executive and had one child, a boy who suffered from autism, then an unknown condition.
Powell referred to herself as a “permanent visitor” in her adopted Manhattan and brought to her writing a perspective gained from her upbringing in Middle America. She knew many of the great writers of her time, and Diana Trilling famously said it was Dawn “who really says the funny things for which Dorothy Parker gets credit.” Ernest Hemingway called her his “favorite living writer.” She was one of America’ s great novelists, and yet when she died in 1965 she was buried in an unmarked grave in New York’s Potter’s Field.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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If you want to read anything by Powell, this is the book. A wonderfully whitty piece that for all purposes takes life as it is and puts in on paper. If you read this, you will be a fan for life!