by Alan Bodian
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 didnt 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.
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 Montmartres 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 aficionados
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.
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 artists 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 Bettys 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 handymans special.
Paris was now or never, I pondered in the agents office, as we began
signing a mountain of papers, each of which required official stamps,
the mandatory embossing by a notarys 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.
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 didnt meet or have any direct contact
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
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 couldnt live. Contemplating
options, Provincetown seemed an ideal destination and we felt profoundly
indebted because thats 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.
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 its 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
Have you read Henry Millers The Colossus of Maroussi?
a friend asked, whose judgement and taste I normally respected.
Henry Miller, youve got to be pulling my leg, I laughed,
citing Millers infamous novels still on the U.S. Post Offices
index of banned books.
to my friends endorsement, I bought the paperback edition of Millers
tour-de-force narrative of his Grecian odyssey on the eve of his leaving
Paris in 1939. It was a consummately fascinating account of Millers
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 Millers
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 Durrells memoirs, he mentions Villa Seurat and one correspondence
from Corfu was addressed to Monsieur Henry Miller, 18 Villa Seurat, Paris
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 Nins 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 couldnt possibly refuse. After years of depending on
the kindness of strangers, now privacy and shelter were Millers
to indulge to the fullest what Nin believed was a prodigious talent destined
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 Millers 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.
* * *
is more than sand, water and light...and when least expected, its
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 werent dated, not surprising when one considers low-priced
art with a famous signature was a simple way of making a fast buck
(Millers words) and negotiable barter to support a household. The
Supreme Court hadnt 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 Waterhouses verdict on a feature
documentary I had written.
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
oclock. Plenty of empties, apparently the local cognoscenti didnt
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 Millers 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!
enchanted with the mellifluous charm of a singers 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, jai 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...
Cest encore tres agreable, she answered encouraging
him to carry on. Its 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
This was our documentary confirmation! Betty and I could now close an
important chapter in our lives.
As I sit and write Im 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.