IT WAS FUN TO BE POOR IN PARIS
now tediously well-to-do in Toronto, recalls somne of the snows of yesteryear. The girl from Winnipeg who kept a monkey has gone home, and the one with the orange hair has married a dentist. As for the girl from Cambridge who wanted a companion to walk with her to India . .
ONCE I WAS SURE that what I wanted to do was write I quit college, where I was bored anyway, and went to live in Europe. That was in 1951. I was nineteen.
My mother had been paying fifty cents a week on an insurance policy for me ever since I was born. The poi icy wouldn't have come due until I was twenty-one, but, by cashing it in ahead of time, I was able to leave Montreal. I can still remember the insurance man waving his cheque at me across the desk. "Do you realize," he said. "that
the minute I hand this over you will be walking the streets completely un protected?"
The Korean War was on at the time.
“You're a very bad risk, you know. The rates are going to double soon on fellas your age. But if you were to act now.....”
I grabbed the cheque and beat it.
It was a splendid time and an excellent age to be silly, idle, and hopeful in Paris, and I do not regret it. There was a girl from Winnipeg who kept a monkey and took it everywhere with her, and another, from Australia, who had dyed her hair orange. 1 had a friend, a young Frenchman, who was writing a book called WAR: A Capitalist Sex Need. A girl sent down from Cambridge asked me — asked everybody in fact — if I was interested in walking overland to India with her. We were all writing or painting. Everybody was talented. Nobody had money. “But remember one thing,” a French writer told me, “we’re not poor. We’re broke. The difference is important.”
My first publication was in Points, a little magazine that was edited by a man who was actually named Sinbad Vail. (In the same issue there was a
much better story by another unknown, Brendan Behan. He was described as “at present working as a housepainter on the state railways.”) Some friends of mine were putting out another magazine, this one called New-Story. The magazine was always in financial trouble. One day an extremely well-turned-out young American walked into the office. “For ten thousand dollars.” he said. "I will step in front of a car on the Place Vendôme and say I did it because New-Story rejected one of my stories. Naturally. I’m willing to guarantee coverage in all the American papers."
The editor of New-Story, a gentle man. said, “But what if you get hurt?”
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’m a paraphrase artist.”
“I can take any story in Collier’s, rewrite it, and sell it to the Saturday Evening Post.”
EVERYONE WAS AN EDITOR
Sunny afternoons the editors of New-Story used to go out canvassing ads for the magazine. They would seek out restaurant and café proprietors with an American clientèle and tell them the magazine was backed by the American colony, the embassy and (darkly, this) possibly even the FBI. The editors, an easier-going bunch than most ad men, generally drank up the price of an ad on the spot, made out a receipt, and moved on to another café.
Other magazines coming out at the time included Id, Janus, Merlin, and Zero. Nearly everybody took a shot at being an editor, published himself large and — in the little space left — his friends. Janus, very hard-pressed at one point, discovered some hitherto
unknown Maupassant letters in the attic of a Left Bank hotel. Several columnists, and at least one news agency, were taken in by the hoax, and sales of Janus went up briefly.
But the most memorable of all the little magazines, one that actually lasted for two issues, was Ur. Ur was edited by one Isador Isou. embattled leader of the short-lived Lettrist movement and uncelebrated author of A Reply to Karl Marx. (A word about this latter volume, a slim one. It was hawked by pretty girls in blue jeans, all disciples of Isou. to American tourists at the better Right Bank cafés. The tourists bought the book under the illusion that it was hot stuff.) Lettrism was based on the assumption that all the arts were dead and could only be saved by a synthesis of their collective absurdities. The poems that M. Isou and his friends wrote and published were made up of sounds, incoherent arrangements of letters, set to a musical background of vacuum cleaners, drills, car horns, and train whistles. These poems used to be read aloud (with accompaniment) every Friday night at a café on the He St. Louis.
One American writer 1 knew would not read anybody, living or dead, because it might affect the purity of his style. Another, a forerunner of Kerouac, was an advocate of automatic writing. Every morning, before brushing his teeth, he told his thoughts to a tape recorder. Yet another waiter, a Frenchman, will always stay fresh in my memory because he used to order double gins, pick up the glass with his teeth, and drink the stuff down straight. Jean was w-riting a play. The idea was the stage w'ould be set up like a stuck TV picture. That is, you’d see the feet
CONTINUED ON PAGE 49
It was fun to be poor in Paris
Continued from page 17
of the people upstairs and the head of a man in the basement. All the action was to take place upstairs, among the feetpeople, bxit the man concealed in the basement hears and reacts to everything. He never speaks. He’s an anarchist hiding from the police. In the last scene of the last act one of the feet-people, a lovely girl, comes downstairs, shoots the anarchist, and gives him an opportunity to say his one line. “Why did you shoot me?” he asks. “Because I love you.” she says. Curtain.
Once a month a black Citroën pulled up at the café. A chauffeur got out and gave Jean his allowance. It was a considerable one.
Not all the writers in Paris after the last war — only a very vocal minority
This way out
On an early trip to open up their cottage near Parry Sound on Georgian Bay. a Windsor couple were outraged to discover a porcupine had evidently chewed his way in through the wall. When they got inside they were even madder to discover the beast had chewed his way out again through the opposite wall.
really — could be classified as lunatic fringe. But they were the ones, naturally, who most interested the picture magazines. Among the serious young writers in Paris in those days who have since gone on to make reputations were James Baldwin, Terry Southern, Alexander Trocchi, Allan Temko, and Herbert Gold.
If we shared one problem it was money.
Ostensibly, we had left America because it was so money-ridden, but from morning to night we ate peanuts, drank beer, and usually got around to the one pressing subject: money.
The luckier Americans, the war veterans, were on the GI Bill. They got a hundred dollars a month. A fabled few got a special allowance just to stay away from home. Still more lived by their wits.
A painter I knew fought with his girl friend over her two gold fillings. “It wouldn’t hurt one bit,” he said.
“They’d give you gas. You wouldn't feel a thing. Honestly.”
“I come from a good family,” she said.
On Dominion Day eight of us walked to the Canadian Embassy, shook hands with the ambassador, and ate or carried off as many sandwiches as possible. A friend of mine went home. I asked him to see my father, in Montreal, and, by the way, tell him how hard up I was.
“Sometimes,” my friend said, “your son sits up all night in his cold little room, writing.”
“What does he do all day?” my father asked shrewdly.
At night, we stole carrots and bunches of radishes from the stalls at Les Halles. Some got work dubbing French films,
others went off to Germany to sell encyclopedias to the American troops. We worked as carters. Even if we had wanted proper jobs, and we didn’t, we couldn’t have had them. It was impossible for a foreigner to get a work permit. We had our fantasies. We were going to import popcorn-vending machines, unknown in France at the time, corner the market, and make our fortunes. Conversely, we considered exporting hashish to America.
I got scurvy, of all things, from not eating enough fresh fruit or vegetables. I wrote a rich uncle to explain what I was up to. I told him in detail about my writing, and how I was dedicated to the cause of humanity. “I can hear that kind of crap any Sunday morning on the radio,” he wrote me, but there was a cheque enclosed in the letter. My father helped me too. “It’s money down the drain,” he wrote, “but. ...”
If somebody didn’t turn up at the café one morning we knew what had happened. There had been a cheque from the government or money from home. We went and searched him out.
Joe, my best friend, took to gambling. Baccarat. He did very well at first. Nine other friends moved into a flat off the Place Pigal le and immediately sued the landlady. They claimed, with justice, that the rent was illegally high. The case, as they expected, took two years to reach the courts. In all that time the landlady collected no rent. In the end, my friends scattered.
This was not irresponsibility, it was a symbolic act of vengeance. The landladies of the Left Bank, a greedy lot, cheated us at every turn.
Money and shelter were not our only problems. We were innocently involved in political difficulties. The Algerian troubles had begun. The police began to raid the Left Bank hotels one by one. Six o’clock in the morning they would pound on your door, open it, and demand to see your passport. They were searching for Algerians without the proper papers. There was a war in Korea and an uprising in Indo-China. One night, an anticommunist group pasted up posters everywhere. A flag, the Hammer and Sickle, flew from the top of the Eiffel Tower, HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE THIS? the caption read. Early the next morning the Communists went from poster to poster and stuck up the Stars and Stripes over the Hammer and Sickle. More than once I saw the police break up a student demonstration, and I have been left with an abiding hatred for them. The colorful blue capes, the ones you’ve seen in the tourist posters, are weighted down with lead pipe. One swing of the cape is enough to crack a boy’s head. I’ve seen it done.
Moving among us, at the time, was the mysterious Mr. Sone. He was, he said, the first Citizen of the World. He had preceded Garry Davis. Mussolini had deported him from Italy and the Swiss had promptly shipped him back again. He had no papers. He had a flowing white beard, the clothes we gave him, and very little else. Mr. Sone wandered the streets through the night and during the day slept for a couple of hours in my room. Joe’s, or somebody else’s. The police were always taking him in for questioning. They wanted to know about drug addiction, foreigners who had been in Paris for more than three months without a carte d’identité, and other things. Mr. Sone became an informer.
"And what.” he once asked me out of nowhere, “do you think of the poetry of Mao Tse-tung?”
“I think it's the most.” I said.
“And how," he asked, “does one spell your name?”
I gave him the name of a magazine editor in Canada who had turned down one of my short stories.
A week later I left Paris. I could no longer afford it and, what’s more, I wasn’t getting much work done. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and cheap and write a novel. I went to Ibiza, one of the Balearic Islands.
Today, Ibiza is overcrowded with foreigners. It’s an art colony. But in those days I was one of only four foreigners living there. I lived alone in a five-room villa by the sea. There were lemon trees in my garden. I kept a cook. All this, on seventy-five dollars a month.
My friends the fishermen believed I was a rich man’s son who had been sent to Spain to evade military service. I told them that there was no draft in Canada, but they wouldn’t believe me. There was a big army camp on Ibiza and, occasionally, I’d climb a hill to watch the men train. They stood in a square of com-
A young man with a beard, an armful of envelopes and a sheet of stamps was seen busily stamping envelopes at a counter in the Vancouver general
post office. The job done, he hung around, peering under, over and around the counter. Finally he left with a still-baffled look, and a strip of purple fours stuck fast to his beard.
Parade pays $5 to $10 for true, humorous anecdotes reflecting the current Canadian scene. No contributions can he returned. A ddress Parade, c/o Maclean's Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto 2, Ontario.
fortable concrete trenches and took potshots at a tank in the middle. As there was only about one rifle to every five men, it was passed from hand to hand. The rifle was filled with blanks. Not only that, the tank was wooden. But Juan, a friend of mine who was a captain in the army, said to me feelingly one night, “We will stop Stalin in the Pyrenees.”
“With your bare hands?” I asked.
“We stopped Napoleon.” he said with fierce pride, “didn't we?”
I never got around to writing my first novel on Ibiza, but I did meet one of the people who was to figure as a major character in it. I met the man, a tall German, in a bodega. He asked me when 1 had last seen Paris and I told him. “And you?” I asked.
“1 left with the SS in 1944.”
“I’m under sentence of death in France for war crimes,” he said.
I laughed some more. Foolishly.
"A war’s a war,” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
“I’ve been married four times. I don’t count the Tahitian girl.”
"Neither would I.”
We went to his hotel to get a bottle. There was a signed picture by his bedside. “Say,” I said, picking it up, “that looks just like Mussolini.”
“I promised the Spanish policeman that Louis St. Laurent was not going; to attack the Balearios”
“Mussolini was a man just like any other man,” he said. “He had his faults.” Finally, it reached me. The man wasn't joking. He had been in the SS. A colonel. He had also fought with Franco in Spain.
The colonel and 1 quickly became enemies. Smiling enemies.
"I’m having people in for cocktails tomorrow. All types, you know. Perhaps you would shave and come too?”
“I’d love to. colonel. But tomorrow is shabits, the Jewish day of rest. Another time, maybe.”
One day the colonel’s villa was robbed and I knew' he thought I’d done it. He told me about it at the café. I sympathized. “Isn’t it funny,” I said, “you lose money and I find some. I just sold a short story. I’ve come into quite a bit. Come on. I’ll buy you a drink.”
The colonel left my table. We were no longer on speaking terms.
About a week later I left Ibiza for a trip to the mainland. I went to Madrid and Valencia. A day after my return, Guillermo, of the state police, came to see me. “You say you are a writer,” he said. “Where do you get your money?” "I have some. I get more from home.” “So you admit the money comes from Canada?”
“Perhaps from the government?”
It sounds incredible, 1 know, but Guillermo thought 1 w-as a spy. I wasn’t angry. 1 was flattered. "But that’s ridiculous,” 1 said.
"We have a big military station here. I have seen you standing on the hill. I know' you have a camera.”
I promised him Louis St. Laurent was
not going to attack. “We’re a peace-loving people,” 1 said. But he didn't laugh, so 1 offered to show' him all the pictures I had taken.
"Why do you go round asking at the hotels how many rooms each one has?”
A friend had been to stay with me. He was going to write a travel piece for the New' York Times. After he had left he wrote to say he had neglected to check on possible hotel accommodation, and would I do it for him.
Guillermo listened to my story, and shrugged his shoulders.
A little frightened. 1 said, "1 have some very powerful friends in Ottawa. You’d better not put me in prison.”
He laughed. So did 1. Finally, he said, “The colonel has signed a,complaint against you. He says you’re a Communist. If you leave Spain the complaint will stop w'ith me and you w'ill be able to enter the country freely again. If not. you will be deported. The colonel w'as decorated by Franco.”
So 1 left Spain and moved along the Mediterranean coast to France. To Cannes, on the Côte d’Azur. If every place has its time, then this w'as certainly a time for Cannes. Many of my friends from Paris had drifted down there for the summer. We clubbed together and rented a rundown villa. We used to drink red wine and talk until dawn and then we ran dowm the hill to the sea and swam. We lived on pâté sandwiches and fresh figs. An English lady w'ith an impressive villa on top of the hill took pity on us. Occasionally, she used to leave parcels of meat and fresh vegetables on our doorstep. One day a cheque came.
The F.nglish lady looked in the door and saw' us all sitting round a table drinking good, expensive liquor. She never left anything on our doorstep again.
We used to wonder who read our stories. “Let’s say,” one writer said, “you move to NewYork and there are ten people there w'ho like your work. Well, if each one agreed to give you one free meal a week. ...”
We began to sell things. Typewriters. Books. Watches. Then, when we all seemed to have reached the bottom, as our credit was no longer good anyw'here, something turned up. An ex-GI. Seymour, w'ho ran a tourist office in Nice called SEE-MOR Tours, became casting director for extra parts in films. We all got jobs as extras for ten dollars a day. In TwentyFour Hours in a Woman’s Life it is my friends and I who are the indifferent, sophisticated gamblers at the tables in the background. Earlier, I had been refused entry to the casino at Monte Carlo. I was not yet twenty-one.
I was paid for being French
I w'ent beyond the extra stage in my movie career. One day I got to play a part w'ith a close-up all to myself. Some Englishmen were making a documentary on the Côte d'Azur. We sat at a café in Cannes, watching them. Finally, the director approached one of my friends. “Would you ask that young Frenchman.” he asked, pointing at me, "if he’d mind being in our movie? We need a typical existentialist.”
In those days, I’m sorry to say. 1 used to wear a beard. My friend approached
me. “Pardon, mon vieux, mais. . . .” We argued. He went back to the director and told him that, being a typical Frenchman. I wanted money. So I w'as paid a small sum.
Even so, at the summer’s end, I did not have enough money to get back to Paris. 1 sold most of my clothes to a French boy. A day later his father died and a week passed before 1 felt it would not be indecent to ask him for my money. He paid me and, to celebrate my impending departure, 1 threw a party at one of the cafés. When the party w;as over all my money was gone.
Again, something turned up. A friend, w'ho had somehow wangled a labor permit. had landed an important position with a recording company. He sent me the fare to Paris and put me up in his stylish apartment on the Right Bank. My friend, by the nature of his position, got passes to the opera and all the best concerts. And so. for a while. I had a box at one of the better concert halls. When an orchestra played the Beethoven cycle, a different symphony each Thursday night, I took my friends along. What 1 had overlooked was that we sat in the box reserved for the representatives of an internationally important recording company. After the sixth symphony, the conductor, a distinguished man. came tip to me and asked if I had enjoyed the performance. "Very much,” 1 said, retreating.
"The string section is a little weak.” he said, rubbing his hands, "but if we were to record this for you. ...”
I made an excuse, beat it, and never returned.
Old friends were beginning to go home. Some had novels accepted for publication, others took teaching jobs at universities. Still more returned to New York, got a shave, a shine, and a haircut, and took jobs with ad agencies. Joe, my gambling friend, was down on his luck. But because he had been a regular for so long at the Aviation Club on the Champs Elysées he was able to eat there free. This courtesy was extended to me. I ate there almost nightly with Joe.
Other friends without money began to write pornographic novels under pseudonyms for the Olympia Press. One became
the Baron de-, and another, Count
B--. The most inventive of these
books, written by a poet from New York, is about a man who teaches at a school for beautiful blind girls. He is, in effect, the invisible man, and so he conducts all his classes in the nude. Another one of these books was written by a social-con-
scious British poet and it is, I think, the only pornographic novel with a message in it. A revolution, actually.
Joe, determined to pay off his gambling debts, accepted a job working on the airfields in North Africa. He asked me to come along.
I was tempted, but my father sent me the fare home and, regretfully, I went to the steamship office. I had been away for two years.
I have been back to Paris several times since.
The girl from Winnipeg, the one with the monkey, is gone. The girl with the orange hair has married a dentist. Some, I must say, have stayed behind. They still live by their wits. But somehow it all seems less wild, more seedy, when you see that the men are now fat and balding. But, as they say, they can’t go home. They’ve been away too long for that, ic