When we first became friends, at age thirteen, Scott and I were Hollywood brats who had been transplanted to London. But despite that similarity, our situations were actually rather different. Nunnally, Scott’s father, was one of the most famous screenwriters of the era, and sufficiently entrenched in the Hollywood establishment, and sufficiently trusted by the 20th Century Fox home office, that he had been put in effective charge of the studio’s European operations. My father, on the other hand, had been blacklisted during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings some ten years earlier, and as a consequence had been unemployable in the United States under his own name for almost a decade. My family was in London, in other words, as something akin to political refugees; Scott’s was there as showbiz royalty.
But the Hollywood expat community didn’t divide along ideological or class lines in those days; just being from Los Angeles was bizarre enough that all of us were drawn to one another, all of us shared a common (and no doubt distorted) view of the world. One of my sister’s first boyfriends, for example, was the son of a woman who had named names in front of the House committee (it would have been poetic in a Romeo-and-Juliet sort of way if my father had been one of the people she had named, but life is rarely quite so neat; still, it’s hard to imagine my parents were overjoyed at my sister’s choice of romantic partner). Many of the other members of the community were there simply as a result of the boom in international movie-making that drew large numbers of film people to London in the ’60s. In any case, political differences were no barrier to friendship, and besides, fink or blacklistee, artist, salary man, movie star, or suit, virtually everyone in the community voted the same. Those political differences weren’t nearly as large as they seemed, even if differences in the various levels of personal morality and courage were. It was a community that would cast its absentee ballots en masse for Lyndon Johnson in the ’64 election.
Scott and I had quickly become fast friends. It wasn’t so much our ostensibly shared background that drew us together — the Hollywood he’d known was an unrecognizably glamorous place to me, and our points of shared reference were haphazard — it was that the same things struck us as funny. Almost every serious friendship I’ve ever had, as child, adolescent, or adult, has been based on unruly, subversive laughter.
Given the strength of the dollar in those days and the proximity of Europe to London, both Scott and I had already done some traveling on the continent with our families. But at age fifteen, neither of us had gone anywhere remotely exotic on our own. And then, somehow, in our tenth grade at the American School in London, as spring break approached, we concocted the scheme of going to Paris, just the two of us, alone and unsupervised. I can’t remember now whether we were more exhilarated or terrified when our parents acceded to this plan, and even agreed to underwrite it. I doubt either of us anticipated that happening. We were more likely counting on feeling thwarted, and being able to nurture a satisfactory level of adolescent resentment throughout spring break.
The decision was definitely uncharacteristic of my parents, my father especially. It may have been the bitter experience of the blacklist, or maybe it was having grown up in the Depression, but he had a genuine, visceral aversion to doing anything that encouraged my sister and me to consider ourselves rich Americans (that combination of adjective and noun was very common in those days, virtually a single word). We weren’t rich at all, of course, and that was the primary thing. But he also found the notion that we might consider ourselves in any way entitled, or might assume privileges to which we had no claim, aesthetically as well as morally offensive. We lived fairly frugally in London, possibly more frugally than our objective situation necessitated. So his willingness to let me go to Paris, even agreeing to pay for the trip, was a surprise for more than one reason. But now, with parental permission in our pockets, there was no turning back.
Scott’s mother and my father took the two of us to the Bank of America branch in Mayfair to get travelers’ checks. Our first ever. We apprehensively learned the mechanics of keeping the registers current, and in a different place on our persons from where we kept the checks themselves. I fully expected to have mine stolen; this was just one of several disasters I anticipated. The reality of what we had got ourselves into was looming large. An adventure is an adventure partly because you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I wasn’t a naturally adventurous adolescent.
Did Scott and I have an ulterior motive in contemplating this trip? Of course. And it wasn’t as ulterior as we might have fancied, as became evident when, a day or two before our departure, Scott’s father unexpectedly presented him with a packet of three Durex condoms. “We all know why you boys want to go to Paris,” he said as he handed it over, “so you might as well be prepared.” When Scott told me about this later, I couldn’t decide whether it was very cool or totally cringe-worthy. Either way, it seemed out of character. Nunnally was in his late sixties, more grandfatherly than fatherly, a courtly, reserved, drily witty, rather proper, and thoroughly intimidating gentleman from Georgia; despite his long-lived movie career and his three marriages, neither Scott nor I could imagine condoms ever figuring in his consciousness.
You live and learn.
Not that either of us had any fixed plans about losing our virginity. That would just jinx it. But Paris was Paris — or rather, there was a Paris of our teen-age imaginings, and we had no way of knowing whether it was real or a phantasm — and our hormones were raging, and should the opportunity somehow arise, we weren’t going to let it pass without an armed struggle. It occurs to me now that Nunnally might have thought we intended to launch an occupy-and-hold expedition on the Place de Pigalle, but that was never under active consideration. Since the street tarts of Soho, impossible to avoid in those days, had never seriously tempted us, whores who didn’t even speak English exerted no appeal whatsoever. No practical appeal, that is. Leaving everything else to the side, the negotiations alone would be a nightmare. And what about the humanizing small-talk before or after? Quel horreur!
It was thrilling to arrive at Orly. We were in a foreign country, and there were no grown-ups to tell us what to do. Just figuring out how to locate the train taking us from the airport into the city felt like an accomplishment. And to emerge from the Gare du Nord into the Parisian streets…it was liberating and frightening. Walking the boulevards that first afternoon, on a crisp, sunny, rather blowy day, I think we both felt, in some indefinable way, that we’d crossed some sort of boundary. The competence required to get us to where we now were — if you exclude the financial and logistical assistance provided by our parents — was close to nonexistent, but nevertheless, we were experiencing it as a new sort of independence. Our command of the language was less than rudimentary, our knowledge of the city’s geography a great gaping void, but here we were, and at least so far, we had survived and were wandering the arrondissements intact and unmolested.
Not that my dignity was entirely intact. Like the kid in the famous joke who runs away from home but isn’t allowed to cross the street, I was obliged — upon pain of excommunication and loss of allowance in perpetuity — to call my mother the moment we arrived. No easy matter, as it turned out. International telephony was still a complex business in those days. To make a collect call from France to England, it was necessary to place it from a post office. Discovering this fact (and understanding it when it was explained to me), and then finding a post office, and then making my needs known…let’s just say the whole operation consumed a substantial chunk of our first afternoon. To his credit, Scott was understanding about it, even though no similar obligation had been imposed on him. And my successfully navigating this annoyance somehow added to my sense of savoir faire.
Simply to have got this far encouraged us to feel like young men of the world, teen-aged sophisticates.
I can’t now recall how we found a hotel, but the fleabag in which we ended up was so atrocious I seriously doubt arrangements had been made in advance by our parents, unless some crapulous British travel agent had lied through his teeth. More likely, we got it from one of those tourist kiosks that used to exist — maybe they still do — in train stations. The hotel was near the Pantheon, a neighborhood that had definitely seen better days — or maybe it hadn’t, in which case, tant pis — boasting a large number of ratty-looking hotels of the same ilk as the one where we were staying. At night, the area was rife with homeless men sleeping on the sidewalk, newspapers spread over them as their only protection against the cold. A bit of gritty reality we found piquant as well as disturbing, an exhilarating soupçon of Orwellian squalor. Our room itself was dark, dingy, and dirty, with two lumpy beds under faded maroon chenille duvets the only furniture, and an exposed bidet (bidets were a source of wonder and confusion to all adolescent boys worldly enough to be aware of their existence) against one wall. No windows. An inadequate overhead bare light bulb. To our pampered eyes, our surroundings couldn’t have been more sordid. It was heaven.
I phoned my family’s former au pair — local calls turned out not to be a major challenge — a Frenchwoman now married and living with her husband in Paris. She was extremely welcoming, and invited Scott and me to join her and her husband for dinner five nights hence, our last night in Paris. That was good: A free meal in congenial company, very reassuring to two boys on their own in a foreign country. I think we both felt we’d be more than ready for such a thing by then.
Scott had brought a guidebook with him. It was hardcover, published by Life Magazine, with glossy color pictures of frolicsome Parisians in their natural habitat. It probably belonged to his parents, and was no doubt several years out of date. But it became our bible. Oddly, I don’t remember where it took us during the day; the days, after our morning croissants and coffee, about which we felt inordinately cosmopolitan, are an indistinct blur to me now, although I assume we did the things tourists always do, and which we had already done during previous visits with our parents, visiting the Louvre and Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower and so on, and stopping at cheap neighborhood bistros to eat ham sandwiches on baguettes and drink, with much puerile hilarity, bottles of Pschitt. I do remember Scott’s having a run of luck at the pinball machine in an unprepossessing tabac one afternoon, and becoming, briefly, the center of attention as a number of disreputable Gitanes-smoking Left Bank types gathered round to observe him.
In truth, I can recall one other daytime incident, from the very first morning; it’s an embarrassing memory, embarrassing enough that I suppressed it for years, but it’s come back to me now, while reconstructing the particulars of the trip. Scott must have slept late that first day, because I remember descending to the ground floor on my own and wandering into the café for my continental breakfast. While eating and perusing The Herald Tribune, I was given an unexpected, friendly hello from a very pretty, very wholesome, very blond American girl seated at an adjacent table. We began to chat; she was from North Dakota, she told me — which seemed exactly right somehow, since she was so pretty, so wholesome, so blond, so wonderfully, disingenuously American — she was spending her junior year in France, and was taking a little spring-break Parisian holiday of her own. She was very cheerful and outgoing, and she had a lovely, ready laugh, and we seemed to be hitting it off, and I could barely credit my luck and also was beginning to wonder whether I was or wasn’t misreading the signs — she must have been five or so years older than I, after all, so was it possible she might actually be interested, or was it far more likely she was merely an amiable person pleased to have found a fellow American with whom she could chat about inconsequential matters over morning coffee? — and also to wonder how to go about converting this innocent breakfast conversation into something less innocent at some later point, should such a thing prove possible if handled with sufficient adroitness. And then, suddenly, the concierge from my hotel swooped into the café, grabbed me, and good-naturedly (all things, including the fact that she was Parisian, considered) let me know I had accidentally wandered into the wrong café, the café affiliated with my hotel was in fact next door, and thereupon dragged me out of there before I could say another word to my pretty new friend from North Dakota.
It was mortifying. Mortifying too, in retrospect, is how passively I let myself be dragged away, without resistance or protest. Of course, it’s possible, even probable, that the concierge saved me from even greater mortification later. But I’ll never know. (If you’re out there, Ms. North Dakota, and recall this incident, please get in touch and tell me if I might have ever had a shot. It would be interesting information, even at this late date, and even though I don’t know which answer would cause me the more pronounced pang.)
But my little breakfast misadventure is by the way. I was saying that it was the nights when Scott’s guidebook came in handy. Not for restaurants, although the bulk of the guidebook was devoted to gastronomy; we did have one meal at the Brasserie Lipp, feeling it was something one was more or less required to do during a visit to Paris, but we weren’t especially interested in or knowledgeable about haute cuisine. The foodie revolution was still a couple of decades away, our palates were unabashedly unevolved, and in any case we wouldn’t have been able to afford a restaurant with stars by its name. Our parents had been generous, but they hadn’t been that generous, they hadn’t been Guide Michelin generous. (We had several of our meals at Le Drugstore, in fact, out of laziness primarily, or maybe it was typical American teen-age desire for something that bore a passing resemblance to a hamburger. After one of those meals, we jointly ordered an embarrassingly gigantic dessert, an immense tower of pastry and ice cream and chocolate sauce, into which the waiter had laughingly shoved a number of miniature French flags and a couple of sparklers; he made us shout “Vive le President Charles DeGaulle!” before he consented to set it down in front of us). So, as I say, to the section of the guide devoted to fine dining we gave barely a passing glance. We were, on the other hand, determined to experience a generous sampling of Parisian nightlife, and it was to that section of the guide that we avidly turned. There was a brief but urgent debate about the merits of going to the Crazy Horse; we figured we had a better than even chance of being admitted and served, since under-age Americans were often able to pass for adults in those days (was it a post-war nutritional discrepancy, or was it simply that they were assumed to possess so many disposable dollars maitre d’s chose to cast a blind eye?). But we finally decided against that plan, either out of timorousness, or maybe a suspicion that some elaborately choreographed strip show with hundreds of bare breasts on display just wouldn’t be that interesting. Okay, it was timorousness. Obviously it was timorousness.
A couple of the promising spots recommended by the guide no longer existed, as we learned to our chagrin when we attempted to visit them that first night. Urgent, abject apologies to our taxi driver. But among those that did, two became our homes-away-from-home for the duration of the visit.
The first was a sleek jazz club on a side street off the Champs Elysees. I don’t remember its name, but it was in the basement of its building, and had a bar, sleekly modern décor in deep purple and yellow, subtle indirect lighting, and two massive grand pianos. A chic, upscale sort of place in every way. The Life Magazine guide assured us that visiting American artists, including Duke Ellington no less, often visited the club after their own gigs were through for the night, and sat down to jam till dawn. We never saw any sign of the Duke, or any other luminary, or, indeed, much of anybody else. The club wasn’t always completely empty, but it didn’t appear to be thriving either. Over the next few days, when we showed up, we were often either the only customers or among a very small number. The manager — or was she the owner? — was a sexy American woman of a certain age, with brassy blond hair and, if I’m recalling correctly, a vividly bright red dress. She was perfectly cordial in a businesslike, impersonal sort of way, and she let us have our gin-and-tonics without cavil. The club had two pianists performing in rotation (I can’t remember their ever playing together), a tall, lanky, middle-aged American with the jaded, ironic look of a man who’d seen a fair amount of life and wasn’t sure he approved, and a rather squat, bespectacled younger Brit. They both played very well.
It was the fact that business was so sparse that permitted us to enjoy the club as much as we did. Since the room was almost empty, it wasn’t hard to chat with the two musicians, who seemed genuinely pleased to have appreciative English-speakers to talk to between sets.
But before I go on, this is probably the right place to explain something crucial about Scott in those years, something that’s relevant to all that follows. Probably as a result, at least in part, of his privileged Hollywood upbringing, and the many celebrities who passed through his parents’ front door, and the variety of exotic worlds he had been required to navigate during the first fifteen years of his life, he possessed impressive social poise. He wasn’t easily intimidated, he was rarely at a loss for words in unfamiliar settings, and he didn’t feel hesitant about initiating conversations with adults when there was no reason to expect they’d be even remotely interested. Of course, his father’s name was a useful calling card in this regard. If strangers recognized Nunnally’s name — and although it wasn’t exactly a household name, it was well-known to people in, or interested in, show business — they suddenly became much friendlier, and much readier to offer assistance or company. Hardly a novel situation; young people pretending to be celebrities’ sons and daughters have been pulling scams along these lines for years, getting comped at clubs and restaurants and shows, talking their way past a multiplicity of velvet ropes. In this case, though, it was no scam, and most of the benefits accruing from the association were unsought although definitely welcome.
In addition, and at least as importantly, Scott (the fucker) was enjoying a distinctly unawkward awkward age. Whereas my teen-age years were plagued by acne and weight problems and a pervasive self-conscious klutziness and that hideous facial loosening and rearranging that afflicts so many adolescents, Scott somehow contrived to remain lean, fair, athletically graceful, and serenely handsome during what should have been the worst of puberty’s ravages. All of this certainly reinforced his confidence, and also — by definition, and all by itself — added to his appeal.
So it was Scott who began talking to the pianists as they took their breaks. He may have even offered to buy one or the other of them a drink, the kind of suave gesture that wasn’t within my repertoire. I would have felt like a schmuck doing something like that, whereas Scott managed it with aplomb. And once the connection had been made…well, I joined right in. My mother was a night club singer, and I played the piano and was studying music, so there was plenty to talk about once I got over my initial shyness: Obscure repertory, various piano stylings, impressions of other jazz pianists and vocalists. I occasionally worried that they might regard the two of us as pests, but in retrospect, I don’t believe that was the case. They certainly devoted time to us when they didn’t have to — it would have been easy enough for them to make excuses and disappear — and after that first night, whenever we returned to the club, which was every subsequent night we were in Paris, they waved a warm welcome as we came through the door. We apparently had succeeded, despite our sweaty eagerness to be liked, in making ourselves likable. Scott even tried to inveigle me into playing them something I’d written, an innocuously pretty melody he had taken a fancy to, but, showing rare good judgment, I demurred. Scott wasn’t being mischievous, incidentally, or trying to play a malicious prank on me; he was fond of the tune and was generously eager for me to share it with these two professionals, our new acquaintances. But some instinct told me that doing so would be a very poor idea. No call to lose face when so far, against all odds, I’d managed to save it.
Before I leave this club and proceed to the other, I should mention one very strange, almost eerie event that occurred there. Scott and I had gone to a movie one afternoon (Seven Days in May; it was interesting to be the only people in the theater listening to the dialogue rather than reading the subtitles; our reactions had been ever so slightly out of sync with the rest of the audience), and then had had dinner (at Le Drugstore, natch) and were now walking along the Champs Elysees toward the jazz club, which had become our first stop in the nightly regime we rigorously followed. And as we walked, we were singing, no doubt a little rambunctiously, the opening movement of the Bach D minor keyboard concerto, a piece we had discovered independently, before becoming friends, and both liked. We quieted down just before entering the building. And as soon as we were through the door, what did we hear wafting up the stairs from the basement? Someone playing the last movement of this selfsame concerto. We rushed down the stairs, startled and transfixed. It wasn’t one of the two house pianists playing, but a customer who had commandeered the instrument during a break. Scott and I looked at one another in astonishment. What were the odds? Everything wonderful about our trip seemed symbolized by this uncanny synchronous occurrence.
I can remember the name of the second club we frequented. It was called L’Abbaye, and it was a Parisian Mecca for folk music. Folk music enjoyed a special kind of cachet in the early- and mid-sixties; there was an aura around it of left-wing political rectitude and social enlightenment. The feeling that it bestowed moral superiority on both its practitioners and its fans was part of its appeal. It had entered the mainstream in the late ’50s, producing a few solid Billboard hits for slick commercial groups like the Kingston Trio. But it hadn’t lost its ethical pretensions, deriving from the Great Depression and artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Leadbelly. The music still spoke to, and sang of, industrial injustice and agricultural toil, and had recently added civil rights and nuclear terror to its heady mix of high self-righteous dudgeon.
All self-respecting liberals had to like this music whether they enjoyed it or not. And they had to be solemn about it, even sanctimonious. It was a test of their seriousness, their probity, their commitment. Small wonder that when Bob Dylan amped up his band at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and they launched themselves into a raucous, rocking rendition of “Maggie’s Farm,” the high priests of folk were scandalized and outraged. It was as if his dirty electrified hands were groping and violating their beautiful, chaste maiden daughter.
And here was L’Abbaye, over a year in advance of that historic enormity. Imagine a club devoted to folk music, founded by two expatriated, disaffected Americans, one black and one white, who happened to be life partners as well as business and performing partners, situated on Paris’ Left Bank, less than a block’s walk from Les Deux Magots, its ambiance insouciantly seditious. Couldn’t miss, right? Well, it didn’t. Now, Scott and I didn’t know anything of the history of the place — we did speculate on the possible sexual proclivities of Gordon Heath and Lee Payant, the two star performers at the club, without coming to any firm conclusions — nor did we realize that Heath and Payant were the club’s owners as well as its headliners (I discovered that fact only recently, some 52 years after our visits, by consulting Wikipedia), but regardless, the trusty Life Magazine guide informed us in no uncertain terms that this was a happening sort of place, which is exactly what it turned out to be.
Happening, and lively, and very successful — unlike the under-populated jazz club, there was always a big enthusiastic crowd in attendance — and not a little obnoxious. Or so I found it. Of course, Scott and I were both in thrall to its sociopolitical ethos, its biracial playbill, its funky atmosphere; those were all irresistible. (Today we have somewhat divergent memories of that funky atmosphere, incidentally: I remember with stark clarity a relatively small number of tables and the large spill-over crowd — ourselves often included — seated on the floor in front of the stage; Scott, with equal insistence, remembers a sufficiency of tables and no floor seating at all. Well, memory plays tricks, God knows, and I’m unable to say with confidence which of us is remembering aright.) But for all its positive aspects, there also seemed to me to be something sanctimonious and smug about the place that I found distasteful and maybe even a little ridiculous. As one example of what I mean, applause was frowned upon; after a song was finished, the audience expressed its approval by snapping its fingers. I swear to God. Anyone who clapped his hands was immediately identified as a clueless newbie, and found himself on the receiving end of supercilious, disapproving smirks. We initiates knew better; we initiates, upon hearing a song of which we approved — and it goes without saying we approved of all of them — snapped our fingers with passionate fervor. The cacophony of clicking could be heard from, oh, two or three meters away. A few of the most passionate fans, in transports of aesthetic bliss, also gave muted voice to Gallic mutters of approbation. That was apparently acceptable, as long as the fingers kept snapping at the same time.
Let me be clear: Scott and I both enjoyed being there, and Gordon Heath and Lee Payant were unquestionably accomplished professional singers with first-rate stage presence. They put on a very good show. The black-and-white thing was a novelty at the time, and their choice of international folk repertoire — I don’t think there was a continent unrepresented other than Antarctica, and if penguins had a folk music culture Antarctica would have been represented too — was lively and varied. And as if that weren’t enough, we were given the gin-and-tonics we ordered without any hesitation or suspicious glances, the same as at the jazz club.
But whereas I found the scene itself a little silly even while thoroughly enjoying myself, Scott seemed to have far fewer misgivings. And since his bullshit detector was every bit as sensitive as mine, I don’t think it was because he didn’t notice the club’s pretentiousness. There were other factors at work.
For one thing, when Scott approached Payant and Heath to pay his respects (and as I indicated, this was something he was able to do comfortably and confidently), both men, New York stage actors before their expatriation as well as singers, recognized Scott’s father’s name immediately, and were visibly impressed by the connection. On a more visceral level, Scott’s good looks might have appealed to them as well, although I’m confident they were never less than discreet about that aspect of things (otherwise, we wouldn’t have had to speculate about their sexual inclinations, we would have known for certain). So they — and especially Lee Payant — took Scott under their collective wing during our visits. They were perfectly pleasant to me, too, but they didn’t seem especially interested. It wasn’t like at the jazz club, where I shared a common set of interests and a common fund of knowledge with the musicians. Here I really couldn’t think of much to say beyond complimenting their performances, and this left me shy and tongue-tied. Scott, on the other hand, was neither. Between sets, he often spent time talking to Lee Payant off-stage. Off-stage, not backstage. I’m not sure there even was a backstage at L’Abbaye. When they weren’t performing, the singers were usually in view, off to the side, and it was there that Scott chatted with them.
The second locus of attraction for Scott was the coat-check girl, Sophie. Sophie was, at least in an abstract way, the locus of attraction not only for Scott, but for every heterosexual male within hailing distance of the building. She was gorgeous. Heart-stoppingly gorgeous, breath-catchingly gorgeous. Gorgeous like Juliette Greco or Francoise Hardy or any other of the spectacular French ingénues of that era, with the same awesome cheek bones and huge doe-eyes, the same wide generous mouth, the same slender, lithe body. In addition, she was sleekly coiffed, stylishly dressed, impeccably made-up, and, amazingly, unbelievably, incomprehensibly, not much older than we. Fifteen- and sixteen-year-old American girls just didn’t look like that. At least not the ones we knew. They weren’t allowed to look like that, but neither, I suspect, was it within their power. Some witchery was required, witchery known only to French girls.
Don’t take my word for it. Read Collette.
All I could do was look on in lustful awe. But Scott was bolder, and in some cockeyed way he seemed to have caught Sophie’s fancy. Using gesture and mime along with some hybrid of bad high school French (which he employed to deliberately comic effect) and carefully, slowly enunciated English, he spent some of his time hanging around the coat check station, making her laugh and making himself agreeable. From one point of view, I thought his a thankless quest, but on the other hand, I envied his ability to sustain the palaver and retain her attention; it was clear she didn’t find his efforts unamusing or unwelcome, although she occasionally looked puzzled by his antics.
As with the jazz club, and despite the greater customer traffic of L’Abbaye, by our second night there we were treated like regulars. This was solely due to the rapport Scott had developed with Payant and Heath, but we were both the beneficiaries. We quickly established a routine of going to L’Abbaye for the final stop on our evening’s itinerary, after whatever casual dinner we’d picked up on the fly and after listening to a couple of sets at the jazz club. We would stay late, till closing time, through at least two complete sets. By the third night, I believe Scott and I were so familiar with Gordon and Lee’s material we could have performed their entire act ourselves. Our fingers had developed calluses from all the appreciative snapping we were demanding of them.
I had arranged for us to go out with my former au pair and her husband on our final night in Paris, but Scott was eager to spend a little more time at L’Abbaye. Mysteriously eager, I should say, only at the time I mistakenly thought there was no mystery. I just assumed he liked the place so much he didn’t want to miss a final opportunity to visit. So, to accommodate this wish of his, I arranged for Helene and Max to meet us at L’Abbaye, from which we would proceed on to dinner and whatever else the evening had in store. We had a very early flight the next morning — to get to the airport in time, we would have to check out of our hotel before 5 AM — but we weren’t going to let that impose restrictions on our last night in Paris.
Helene and Max arrived at L’Abbaye in the middle of a set. My memory is that Scott and I were seated on the floor, although, as I say, Scott insists I’ve got that wrong, and at this remove anything is possible. In any event, I do remember the slightly mistrustful look on Helene and Max’s faces as they joined us. All this Left Bank quasi-beatnik weirdness wasn’t their style at all (Max may have been a Frenchman, but he was also a Jewish dentist), and in their eyes it didn’t even have the saving allure of exotic foreignness; to them, L’Abbaye was just another scuzzy Paris boite, the sort of place where they wouldn’t ordinarily be caught dead. And after no more than two rounds of finger-snapping, Helene, for whom indiscretion was virtually a point of honor, put her face up to my ear and with her heavy French accent, in a whisper that was a whisper in name only — it was probably audible all the way to the Bois de Boulogne — said, “Don’t you think this finger-snapping is very phony?” I put a panicky finger to my lips even as I nodded my agreement. It was as if she had asked me whether I thought the concept of the Eucharist was bullshit during a convocation of the Spanish Inquisition.
Well, within a couple of minutes it was clear she and Max wanted to leave, and I was more than willing. I leaned toward Scott, sitting on my right (either on the floor or at a table, but damn it, it was the floor) and told him it was time for us to move on. He looked at me for a second and said, “I’m going to stay.”
I felt, I admit, offended. More on Helene and Max’s behalf than my own; they were putting themselves out for us, and this seemed like a fairly cavalier, and far too casual, last-minute rebuff of their hospitality. I don’t recall remonstrating with him; it’s possible I did, but I don’t remember it, and the fact that a live musical performance was taking place at the moment, and that Helene and Max were within earshot, and that a multitude of fingers were about to be snapped, suggests to me I didn’t. But if I didn’t, the look on my face must have been remonstrance enough, because he quickly murmured an explanation: “Lee Payant told me he’s talked to Sophie. About me. He said she likes me. She told him she’d let me take her home tonight.”
I stared back at him with a mix of emotions so confused and conflicted that even now I’m unable to disentangle them. I suppose, though, there’s no point in denying the one that had the upper hand: Envy. Pained, bitter, desperate, hole-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach envy. This was the perfect realization of every boy’s perfect Paris fantasy — the ideal that’s too ideal ever to really occur, like winning some sort of adolescent sexual lottery — and here it was, happening to my friend on our very first trip abroad together. To my friend and not to me. But at the same time, my anger and disapproval instantly and completely vanished. There was an unwritten code about this sort of situation, a tacit, shared hierarchy of values. Loss of virginity — especially loss of virginity to a young woman as exquisitely beautiful as Sophie, although that part was simply icing on the cake — trumped every other consideration in the world. It was certainly ample justification for any minor lapse in etiquette toward two people Scott didn’t even know. The contest wasn’t close, wasn’t really a contest. After a few seconds to recover my composure, I told him I’d make excuses, I’d invent something, congratulations and good luck. Which I meant sincerely, albeit with a few pesky inward reservations.
Helene, Max, and I made our exit from the club to the sound of snapping fingers, like a swarm of ravening cicadas chasing us out into the street.
We first went to Le Coupe-Chou, an astonishing restaurant in le Quartier Latin, one of the oldest surviving sections of Paris, housed in some low-slung medieval building that, except for having at some point in time been equipped with electricity and running water, didn’t look as if it had changed much over the course of the previous millennium. My hors d’oeuvres consisted of a terrine of fois gras under a hard crust of black pepper and spun sugar. It was revelatory, as delicious as it was weird. With the first bite, I understood this meal was going to offer me a novel and magnificent experience. And then it grimly dawned on me: Not nearly as novel or magnificent as the experience Scott was about to have.
I tried to banish such thoughts from my mind for the remainder of the evening. Unsuccessfully.
After dinner, we went to a night club and heard Jean-Luc Ponty, still largely unknown at the time, certainly unknown to me and unknown also to Max and Helene. We had no intimation he was about to become a major international figure in the world of jazz. I didn’t enjoy the performance, felt the violin was a peculiarly inappropriate instrument for what he was playing. This feeling probably derived more from my painful consciousness of what Scott was up to than anything specifically musical, since, aside from everything else, I had a treasured old Django Reinhart LP at home on which Stephan Grappelli fiddled away to beat the band, and nothing about that record bothered me at all. It was just my receptivity wasn’t all it should have been; my mind was elsewhere.
When Helene and Max finally dropped me off at my hotel, and I climbed the stairs to our room, it was empty, of course. Who knew what ecstasies Scott was currently experiencing? I packed up my stuff, and then set the alarm clock for 4:45. I left Scott a note. I can’t, of course, remember exactly what it said, but I recall its tone very clearly. This would be a reasonable approximation of its content: “Congratulations, you son of a bitch. I’m dying of envy. I want to hear everything, even though every detail will be a knife in my vitals. Don’t forget we have to wake up early tomorrow. I’ve set the alarm.” Then I went to sleep, visions of sugar plums (so to speak) dancing in my head.
The alarm was amazingly jarring after only four or so hours of sleep. When I glanced over, there was Scott, in the other bed, also rousing himself. His process looked even more painful than mine. We dressed quickly, and as we did, I finally, grudgingly broke the silence. “So? Are you a man now?” Protecting myself with irony.
“Well…” he began, looking a little sheepish.
“Start at the beginning. Don’t leave anything out.”
So…here’s what he told me: He waited around the club till it closed, occasionally receiving an encouraging wink from Lee Payant. He bade Lee and Gordon goodnight, and then walked Sophie to her apartment not far from the club. She invited him in. They sat side by side on her sofa, made broken conversation for a while, and then they started to kiss a little bit. And then she murmured three little words, in English, that changed everything.
No, not those three little words. These three little words: “Three hundred francs.”
Scott was as startled, as nonplussed, as he was upset. But he was pretty upset too. This seemed so contrary to everything he believed had been passing between them over the last four nights, during the clowning and charming and wooing. He stammered out, “But, Sophie…why?” That “why” was, I think, a rebuke for perceived betrayal, although it came out as a request for an explanation.
“Your father,” she said, “Lee says he is rich.” Scott reported that she was completely matter-of-fact about all this, direct and unapologetic.
So there it was. Nunnally’s name had gained Scott his entrée, but it had come with unacceptable conditions. Lee Payant hadn’t been acting as Friar Lawrence, he’d been Pandarus. Well, that wasn’t what Scott had bargained for, and it wasn’t what he was interested in. Without any fanfare, and certainly with no apology of his own, he upped and left.
As he described the night’s events this pre-dawn morning, he seemed rueful, philosophical, wryly amused, not excessively put out. It was impossible not to admire his style.
We left the hotel, suitcases in hand, to try to find a cab to the Gare du Nord. It was still dark out, and very cold. We walked toward the Pantheon, where we encountered the now-familiar sight of bums sleeping on the sidewalk, newspapers covering them for warmth. As we passed by, one of them groggily got up on one elbow and said, in a deep, raspy voice, “Quelle heure est-il?”
I checked my watch, and then summoned up the nerve to put my high school French to use: “Cinque heures et demie.”
My French teacher, Mrs. MacLeish, would have been proud. It was my first irreproachable French utterance of the entire trip, and the bum understood me perfectly. “Merci,” he grumbled, and lay back down to catch a few extra winks.