I was a Francophile by the time I was five. Even as a toddler I was drawn to Paris.
From the tender age of three until about seven, I was known as “Pierre the Artist.” More precisely, I insisted that members of my family address me by that name only.
The sheafs of childish drawings and paintings of Paris saved from that period attest to my commitment to this identity.
For years Paris figured prominently in my suburban Walter Mitty-esque, mid-century childhood and I realize that even now every time I think of that magical city of lights, there is something of that time in my feeling.
The fact that I had never been to Paris as a child, or quite frankly, traveled only as far as any road built by Robert Moses would take me, didn’t matter. The city has always been as much a sensory entity, a symbol of civilization and culture as much as an architectural and physical fact.
Enchanted by the visions of this grande dame of world cities gleaned from Technicolor movies, Looney Tunes cartoons and splashy pictorials in Life Magazine, these stories seeded my imagination, transporting and transitioning a little girl from the south shore of Long Island to the thriving left bank of Paris.
Donning a requisite woolen beret, a striped French sailor shirt and a clip on mustache to authenticate my Parisienne look, Pierre affected an accent that was a cross between Pepi Le Pew and Maurice Chevalier.
While neighborhood girls played house with their dainty toy tea sets tending to their Tiny Tears dolls, I fancied myself a struggling artist in Montparnasse, holed up in a cold water flat reeking of linseed oil and turpentine.
A left bank lair littered with sable brushes, and oily tubes of cadmium red and cobalt blue, I would spend my days in front of an easel, my evening filled with French intellectuals, and cascades of fruity young Beaujolais gushing from magnums in crowded cafes, embracing the joie de vivre of Paris.
In a mid-century suburban world of Malomars and ding dongs, any resemblances to Proustian Madeleine’s existed purely in my imagination.
An Artists Life
Even at a young age, somehow I sensed that for artists, would-be artists, and those numberless people for whom association with art of some sort was important, to be in Paris was a necessity.
From time to time, I might learn to draw from home-grown artists like TV’s Jon Gnegy. But despite his continental goatee, his all American wholesomeness left Pierre flat.
The soulless charcoal sketches of mountains majesty and lovely bowls of ripe fruit paled in comparison to capturing the hubbub of the broad Avenue of Boulevarde Montparnasse with its glaring cinema billboards, packed cafes and wandering pedestrians from all over the world.
The Starving Artist
To be in Paris seemed an ideal state of affairs for any aspiring artist or writer a generation ago.
It was ideal even without money.
Perhaps especially without money. If you had money you were somehow suspect since it was an axiom that money and artistic ability could not belong to the same person.
Since I had yet to receive an allowance, I sensed an artist’s life would not be easy, so to scrape by Pierre was also a pretend waiter. A hand me down clip on bow tie, a cork screw and an aluminum tray became as necessary an accessory as a palette and easel.
Once transformed into Pierre, I was an expatriate without ever leaving the comfortable confines of my N.Y. suburban home.
Suburban Remembrances of Paris’s Past
Initially the Paris of my childhood was informed purely by pop culture, until the summer of 1960 when I met my cousin Paula.
More than any children’s book or movie, it was my mother’s young cousin that burnished my Parisian dreams. When I think of Paula, I think of Albert Camus and drinking absinthe and smoking Gauloise in dark cafes.
Paula had been to Paris. Lived in Paris. Sartre’s Paris. Fitzgerald’s Paris. Picasso’s Paris.
The very definition of avante garde, Paula worshiped at the altar of art.
She would speak about Paris as much more than a splendid city of boulevards, cafes, shops, bright night spots, parks, museums, and historical monuments. It was a crucial to her sense of well-being and she rarely returned to the States.
Paula made her first appearance for me at a family barbecue in 1960.
Although invitations to meet us had been proffered, this was the first one to be accepted. She shunned the sub division world of the suburbs as if they were Kryptonite and would sap her of her vital life force. Now under the hot glare of the summer sun she had ventured into the cold war world of carpools, cook outs, and cream of mushroom casseroles.
Behind everyone’s fashionable Foster Grant Sunglasses, all eyes were on Paula.
Her close-cropped Jean Seberg inspired pixie-cut contrasted with the sea of beehives and bouffants, like a smooth buoy bobbing in a sea of teased waves. The disparity between the beach club burnished tans of most of the girls and her own pale pallor caused her to stick out like crabgrass on a well manicured suburban lawn.
In her cultivated voice – which still had traces of Flatbush in it when agitated – she spoke in whole paragraphs without a pause, her words complex and unfamiliar and she uttered the largest word I had ever heard – existentialism. Her spindly arms gestured these exotic words that just tumbled out in long gracious sentences so far removed from the snappy patter of Madison Avenue or the mundane suburban dialogue I was used to.
At the barbecue while Mom’s other cousins grew more animated debating the well-worn topic of “ring around the collar” and exchanged the latest busy day Jello recipes, Paula mindlessly contemplated a Dipsy Doodle cautiously examining it turning it in her finger slowly before putting it in her mouth.
Wearing her world-weary angst like a Jules Feifer character, she viewed this family get together as a suburban “L’Avventura,” coolly describing the “scenes’ to friends as though discussing Michelangelo Antonioni’s film dissection of the boredom that gripped contemporary Italy’s empty middle class.
Spying an empty lawn chair she demurely sat down next to me. The ash of her French cigarette glowed from the end of a long black cigarette holder and I got goosebumps just looking at her.
Respectfully addressing me as Pierre, she placed a rectangular wrapped present on my lap.
Tearing off the fancy wrapping paper carefully revealed something that looked much like one of Dad’s Old Dutch Masters wooden cigar boxes, but in fact the present had more to do with the famous Rembrandt painting on that box than the stinky cigars the box contained.
Inside this cedar smelling box was the most exotic crayons I had ever seen.
As I held the strange, round brown paper wrapped sticks they left my fingers smudged with a rich luminous color so unlike the squeaky clean no fuss no muss waxy Crayolas I was used to.
Paula leaned in closely the warm smell of sandalwood filling the space between us and explained how a little birdie had told her I was an artist and how these cray pas were developed in Japan many years ago to encourage creativity in children through free expression. They were very popular with French children, she assured me.
You’ll Always Have Paris
Out of her straw handbag, she unfolded an other gift, a beautifully illustrated map of Paris, that would look just lovely on my bulletin board. That thoughtfulness was something I thought of whenever I smell patchouli or picked up one of those amazing amalgams of crayons and pastels.
She was, in my mind, worldly, independent and an artist.
Thank Heaven For Little Girls….
Only years later did I learn that Paula had gone to Paris to follow a boy, an aspiring artist.
The summer of her senior year at Barnard she went to Europe, sailing on a boat that took 6 days. Her mother thought she was studying French at the Sorbonne. Instead she set up an apartment on Paris Boulevard Montparnasse with this boy Peter. Such an avant-garde statement that made in 1957.
In Paris, Peter drank and painted while Paula worked as a “gallery girl” to support them both.
She thought him a genius and was satisfied to merely bask in the light of his reflective creativity. Since Art was the golden calf they all worshiped at, she was willing to sacrifice herself at its altar.
A female in 1957 had been quite conditioned to express her ambitions through a male. Girls who wanted to be doctors married doctors.
In the rarefied masculine world of art a female was far from being take seriously. Paula got used to being known as “the wife of an artist who also painted” or being turned down at a gallery without them even seeing her portfolio saying “sorry we already have a woman.”
It would be years before women began to protest discrimination against sex in the art world.
Somehow as Pierre I understood that. In a pre-feminist era, I pretended to be what I wasn’t, in order to be who I was.
Even in Paris.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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