A Couple Of Americans In Paris
Feature by Alan Bodian

July 14, 1959, Bastille Day. My wife Betty and I disembarked at Le Havre to begin an extended stay in Paris. In preparation, having lived frugally and saving for a purpose, it was hard to predict how far $300 a month would take us but we were determined to give it our best shot. No provisions were made for gala evenings on the town nor for soirees at three-star restaurants.

Ours was a slow beginning and by late September, after some travel and a succession of cheap hotels, our prospects of finding a place to live and work seemed as dim as the lighting in the hotels where we stayed.

France was just coming out of postwar doldrums and housing was historically tight (two great wars were the reason for the absence of new construction) and to make matters worse, archaic codes using pre-war rules protected renters in possession, It didn’t take long to learn the rules of the game–-key money was the operative term–-which took huge sums to get an apartment because rents were frozen. Once you bought your way in, it was almost like living rent-free in perpetuity. Facing this insurmountable hurdle, doubts began to creep in that living in Paris was only a fantasy, or so it seemed after weeks of searching in vain.

The longer we looked the higher the stakes seemed to get. But I refused to give in, remembering other dark moments when all housing opportunities seemed foreclosed. When it comes to real estate, sometimes I am almost a mystic believing that an invisible hand will step in to protect us from the fickle forces of supply and demand.

On a crisp October morning, sitting on the terrasse of The Coupole, one of Montmartre’s legendary cafes, once frequented by the likes of the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway and Jean Cocteau, I was combing through the classifieds of the Paris Herald-Tribune when something caught my eye.

“Listen to this...sounds like a perfect fit.”

I nudged Betty, solemnly in a meditative mode with bubbles on a sparkling café au-lait and the best croissant ever to cross an aficionado’s lips.

“No...not now,” she resisted, wanting to savor the last golden morsel of an incredibly delicate specimen of baking artistry.

“Carpe Diem!” I insisted, paying the bill and remembering that “Seize the Day” was the fighting slogan of one of our winningest college teams...when you see daylight, run for it! Turning up Boulevard Raspail and walking purposefully until we located la rue Sarette, we found the agent who bid us follow him through a maze of streets until we entered a private mews lined on both sides with unglamorous studios more suburban than Vieux Montmartre in design.

At number 18, we entered a compact kitchen layered with dust, rusting food tins and crusted bottles, no sign of refrigeration, up a winding staircase into a fair-sized bedroom dominated by a massive armoire and large bed with undulating mattress, connecting to a full bathroom with bidet and jumble of handheld hoses screaming for a strong wrench and cans of Rustoleum. With hours of sweat equity, I chanted silently, hoping to contact the power of the will, miracles might be possible. But so far nothing prepared us for the Wagnerian crescendo to follow.

A door was opened and we were escorted into a splendid artist’s studio with vintage crank easel and skylight rising from a platform the full length of the rectangular room. Were it not for the scattered bric-a-brac and an oversized country table, this layout would have spelled nirvana for most young artists like Betty. Looking around, I imagined the perfect set for a Puccini opera, but at that moment it was impossible to decode the expression on Betty’s face. Was it to be tears of joy and exultation or an outburst caused by the daunting prospect of pulling this mess into some kind of domestic order? Truly, in the words of real estate brokers everywhere, it was a “handyman’s special.”

Paris was now or never, I pondered in the agent’s office, as we began signing a mountain of papers, each of which required official stamps, the mandatory embossing by a notary’s stamp and a parade of legal documents waiving all rights of possession other than occupancy not to exceed two years. In addition to a monthly rent of $80 calculated in francs we had to ante up a $30 deposit for an estimated three months supply of heating fuel, a rare luxury we later learned from Parisian friends, who told us most buildings had no central heating.

The current owner of the premises, a lady sculptor basking in the warmth of Provence, sent word several days later that she accepted us as tenants and for the entire term of our lease, we didn’t meet or have any direct contact with her.

It was ours. Finally we had a place to live and work in Paris. Villa Seurat was our new address!
In 1959 when we boarded the Flandre in New York, two years seemed like an eternity but once we settled in and adapted to work routines, seasons telescoped and months passed imperceptibly and without pain. As it must for all travelers, there is a time to arrive and a time to leave. As our lease began to wind down we had to think of packing and making plans to go home.

Though not consistently inspiring, Paris was always gentle and aesthetically nurturing which convinced us it would take a soft landing to lessen culture shock, remembering the cacophony of Madison Avenue relentlessly selling America those things without which it couldn’t live. Contemplating options, Provincetown seemed an ideal destination and we felt profoundly indebted because that’s where Betty and I first met. We had little doubt the Cape would cushion us for a kinder and gentler descent, if this was to be our fall from grace.

In the spring of 1961, two months before our departure, we received an invitation to visit friends who had just settled in Lindos on the island of Rhodes–-a much welcomed change of venue. For most of our stay in Paris, we were holed up in Villa Seurat as originally contemplated, Betty in her studio painting and I, sitting at a small kitchen table, writing. Travel to Greece seemed a perfect remedy to decompress before returning to America.

During this countdown period, a chance encounter at the Louvre with Barbara and Phil Malicoat grew into a warm and enduring friendship. Since they had already traveled in Greece and possessed Delphic secrets, they taught us how to rent a government studio for fifty cents a night and how to tap into other privileges reserved for artists. Our conversations were about the Cape and what it’s like to live there year-round. Provincetownians, the Malicoats offered to help us find a place and heroically did–-a floor-through apartment on Bradford Street near Atkins-Mayo Road at $75 a month, heat included, still affordable on a shrinking budget soon in need of nutritional supplements. For mystics like myself, once again the Muse of Real Estate stepped in to deliver us from darkness.

In the days before taking the train to Marseilles and boarding a freighter for Piraeus, we read as much as we could about the glories of antiquity and the least expensive fares on ferries plying the Aegean to the Greek islands.

“Have you read Henry Miller’s ‘The Colossus of Maroussi?’” a friend asked, whose judgement and taste I normally respected.

“Henry Miller, you’ve got to be pulling my leg,” I laughed, citing Miller’s infamous novels still on the U.S. Post Office’s index of banned books.

Giving in to my friend’s endorsement, I bought the paperback edition of Miller’s tour-de-force narrative of his Grecian odyssey on the eve of his leaving Paris in 1939. It was a consummately fascinating account of Miller’s liberation and awakening, the birth of a passion for all that is Greek and the creation of what any critics consider a small masterpiece. Widely translated, Greeks themselves credited Miller with the postwar rebirth of tourism, especially by Germans and Scandinavians who were among Miller’s most ardent readers.

“The Colossus of Maroussi” became a personal favorite and the source of much speculation. Could it be, I wondered, discovering curious coincidences and occasional references to Villa Seurat. In one passage he described a nasty encounter with the tabac on rue de la Tombe Issoire, similar to my experience in an epicerie on that same street some twenty years later. Still, there are other references, notably visits by Lawrence Durrell who considered Miller among the most gifted of contemporary authors. In Durrell’s memoirs, he mentions Villa Seurat and one correspondence from Corfu was addressed to Monsieur Henry Miller, 18 Villa Seurat, Paris XIV, France!

Several years later, after we had settled in and Provincetown became our central focus, once again Paris entered our lives most unpredictably. Late one September, after a powerful hurricane mercifully took a last minute detour at Chatham, I borrowed books from Provincetown Library hoping to restore calm following the ordeal of removing plywood panels from all of our windows. Among the titles was a volume of “The Diaries of Anais Nin,” for the years 1930-1934.

An early practitioner of erotica with two novels, “The Delta of Venus” and “Little Birds,” and later a celebrated icon of the feminist movement, Anais Nin’s intimate revelations was a voyage of discovery but not what I had bargained for and definitely not the missing source of evidence in an unresolved mystery.

It was a meeting of minds as well as bodies, a torrid love affair and literary liaison consummated. In Anais Nin, Miller found an affluent patronne who made it possible for him to settle down and work without his usual dislocations. Living with her banker-husband in the country, Nin decided to rent an “office and studio” on the Left Bank to pursue her own career. After meeting Miller in Montparnasse, she offered use of her studio rent-free, an offer he couldn’t possibly refuse. After years of depending on the kindness of strangers, now privacy and shelter were Miller’s to indulge to the fullest what Nin believed was a prodigious talent destined for greatness.
The address: 18, Villa Seurat.

By definition the French call their relationship une liason dangereuse and therefore a prime candidate for unintended consequences. But no one could have predicted it to be the most important turning point in the career of an unpublished though soon to be famous author. Having read and admired Miller’s manuscript, Nin put up $5,000 of her own money to induce Obelisk Press to publish “Tropic of Cancer.”
The book became an instant success de scandale, gaining for Miller notoriety reserved for rebels who storm the barricades of bourgeois respectability. In his first novel, readers discovered a writer of considerable intellect, a richly modulated style and fearless prose beyond the outer limits of Puritan restraint. Uncensored sexuality came out of the closet and guaranteed Henry Miller a place in literary history.

* * *

Provincetown is more than sand, water and light...and when least expected, it’s a place where the unexpected happens, or so it has always been for me.

One morning in the sixties, a newsletter in the mail announced a Saturday series of films to be shown at the Art Association. Nothing extraordinary until I scanned the list and discovered that the first film was to be about Henry Miller!

The brief description said Miller was now living in California with a young Japanese jazz pianist and turning out watercolors by the dozen. They weren’t dated, not surprising when one considers low-priced art with a famous signature was a simple way of making “a fast buck” (Miller’s words) and negotiable barter to support a household. The Supreme Court hadn’t yet untied the knot of censorship which later provided Miller with royalties from publishers like Grove Press. Most captivating though was that the filmmakers decided to accompany Miller around his old haunts in Paris before the Germans came in 1940.

Barring a major storm or power failure, never had we planned an evening at the Art Association with such anticipation. For us, it could have been the crowning moment at the Academy Awards, an experience we shared five years later sweating out Price Waterhouse’s verdict on a feature documentary I had written.

On Saturday night, we skipped dinner and raced down Brewster Street to the Art Association, staking claim to front row seats close to the portable screen. Another case of anticipatory excess, it was a long and lonely vigil until eight o’clock. Plenty of empties, apparently the local cognoscenti didn’t rate Miller on a par with Matisse, Leonardo and Calder, stars of films to be shown later in the series. Finally, lights were turned off, sprockets threaded as the 16mm film began to flicker onscreen. We suspended disbelief and were transported back in time, the crackling narration of Henry Miller describing Paris before the German occupation. Now a septuagenarian, there was still sparkle in the old boy as he shared memories, climbing the steep streets of Clichy, pointing out hovels masquerading as hotels where he had stayed, spinning tales of binges in working class cafes, recalling the parade of women he had bedded down, for him this was the stuff of life, the raw material of honest writing and the essence of his work.

Late in the film, cameras crossed the Seine and Miller’s face lit up in anticipation of revisiting the Left Bank. For us, the moment of truth was near as we watched a barge draped with laundry glide down river until it disappeared under a bridge.

We sat on the edge of our seats as the gray facades of rue de la Tombe came into view, Miller shuffling up the cobbled street before stopping at the open gate of a private enclave.
Miller went in and strolled slowly until he came to a halt in front of a familiar doorway. We held our breaths. I felt Betty holding my hand.

Suddenly, the upper shutters sprung open and a young woman appeared. She smiled down at Miller, as though he were a courtier under her balcony.

“Bonjour monsieur...bienvenue at Villa Seurat!”

Miller waved, enchanted with the mellifluous charm of a singer’s voice, lapsing into Brooklynized French to respond to her greeting.

I felt my hand being squeezed. That shock of recognition. There it was against the wall, the massive armoire we used to store clothing when this was once our bedroom!

“Jadis, j’ai habite ici pendant quelques annees,” Miller began in the best formal French he could summon after his long absence. “In days gone by, I resided here during several years...”

“C‘est encore tres agreable,” she answered encouraging him to carry on. “It’s still very comfortable.”

“In the studio you now occupy, I spent the most glowing years of my life and did my best writing, the most gratifying interlude in a very long life.”

This was our documentary confirmation! Betty and I could now close an important chapter in our lives.
As I sit and write I’m still at a kitchen table only now I can look out over water and watch a curtain of mist settle on the cliffs of Truro, remembering Paris. Past and present merge, feeling an enormous sense of privilege being here, remembering an artist we once knew in Provincetown who decided to build a studio on the Left Bank.