by CONSTANCE TOMKINSON
I ADORE the Can-Can,” said my hostess. “It’s so gay.”
“Gay,” said I, bitterly. “It’s murder!”
We were seated in a dimly lit night club in the rue Pigalle watching the floor show, and I thought Montmartre seemed much the same as before the war. The names of some of the places had changed, but once inside I recognized them as old friends with their faces lifted. It was pleasant to be sealed in the audience, on the receiving end, seeing somebody else hurl herself around like a jack-in-the-box.
I was worn out just watching that apparently effortless, carefree Can-Can. A strong instinct of self-preservation had taught me ways of faking that devastating dance. My star turn (carefully selected by me) had been the jumping splits. It may seem an odd choice, but there I saw opportunities of faking not possible in the terrifying turns holding an ankle in one hand, or in the killing double kicks. In the splits, I had perfected the technique of only going halfway down and then with a great flourish throwing my billowing skirts around so that no one could see the gap between me and the floor.
The swish of white petticoats and the flash of black net stockings took me back to 1937 and my arrival in Paris from Sweden with five other exhausted chorus girls. The season at the Cabarethallen in Gothenburg, dancing with the Millerettes, was only just behind us. The captious might have regarded our journey as a retreat from Sweden, but we veterans regarded it as a surprise attack on Paris. Beryl had worked in Paris before and knew of a small hotel in Montmartre, La Petite Terrasse, not too clean, not too comfortable, but cheap — an important consideration, as our whole contingent did not possess more than 2000 francs.
In response to our inquiries the Dragon behind the desk busied herself opening and shutting drawers and rustling long lists as she cast a beady eye over our dirty faces and rumpled clothing. She was unable to find any vacancies until her eyes came to rest on Beryl’s substantial cowhide cases; then suddenly she found three doubles. We collapsed on our beds and slept for twenty-four hours.
We woke at noon the next day and we knew we had to get jobs at once. We planned our assault over a yard of bread and a pot of confiture. Pat and Sally drew up a list of the theaters most likely to offer us employment, starting at the top with the Folies-Bergère and working down the scale to the popular music hall, the A.B.C. Beryl said we should arrive at the theaters in the hour before the curtain went up, when everybody of importance would be there. We would not go in a clutch (that would flood the market) but two at a time, with the reserves waiting at a discreet distance from the stage door.
Having put on a light stage make-up, we selected from our combined wardrobes six eye-catching outfits. There was a careful inspection, and when everyone was dressed to everyone else’s satisfaction, we were ready for the onslaught. It was a hot summer evening, and only the threat of a heat stroke prevented Beryl from smothering herself in her silver foxes.
Copyright 1955, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved .
We were pleased with the general effect, and as we passed through the entrance hall of the hotel we were rewarded by an open-mouthed stare from the Dragon at the desk. Our confidence was strengthened by the many appreciative male glances cast in our direction as we clip-clopped along, trailing whiffs of Chanel Numéro Cinq.
We arrived at a door in a narrow street. It was not imposing, but to us it looked formidable — the stage door of the Folies-Bergère. Pat and Sally, our best dancers, were sent in first to beard Bluebell in her den; the chorus here (Les Girls) was her responsibility.
Pat and Sally returned in a few minutes, turned down. “Her loss,” said Sally nonchalantly.
“What’s she like?” we inquired anxiously.
“A bit of a cow,” said Pat acidly.
Our second string, Beryl and Mary, were in and out in less time.
“She likes ‘em tall,” said Beryl in self-defense.
It was debatable whether it was worthwhile for the least experienced members of the team, Angela and myself, even to try.
“Have a go,” said Mary. “What have you got to lose?”
Angela sailed in exuding confidence; I followed exuding nothing at all. Bluebell was standing on the side of the stage, by this time a little startled to see such a procession of English dancers. She was English herself, and an ex-dancer, pretty in a pink and white, Dresden china sort of way with large innocent blue eyes, rather like an expensive doll. Her name and appearance were deceptive. Bluebell was no shy, retiring flower, but a hardy Parisian perennial. She was a capable woman, and under that fragile exterior lurked a will of iron. She took one look at Angela’s plump outline and said kindly but firmly, “I’m afraid not, dear.” We started for the door, Angela’s poise unshaken.
“Do you want a job?” Bluebell was speaking to me.
“Yes,” I said, somewhat taken aback. I had given up all hope.
She gave me a careful appraising look from my open-toed sandals to my top curl.
“When can you start?”
“Oh, er — any time.”
“The pay is 550 francs a week.” There was no nonsense about Bluebell. “Come back in fifteen minutes, and I’ll take you out front to watch the show. You can go on tomorrow in the easy numbers.”
I followed Angela in a daze into the street.
“I’m in!” I told the others. “And she didn’t even ask for a high kick.” They were not as surprised as I. “It’s figures she’s after,” said Pat without malice. They weren’t envious; they were only relieved that we now had one breadwinner. Their parting shot, as they hurried off to the next on the list, the Casino de Paris, was “Don’t let her rattle you, Tommie. Keep your end up.”
It was hard not to be rattled as I waited in the foyer for Bluebell to arrange for my seat. The patrons were crowding in. I was ushered into a second row armchair seat between two male customers — a small, dapper Latin and a large, opulent Teuton. The theater looked immense, and very grand after the Cabarethallen in Gothenburg, and the audience were quite unlike the comfortable, homely types in Sweden. It gave me butterflies in the stomach.
When the curtain went up, I was staggered at the size of the stage. I leaned forward on the edge of my seat, trying to master the routines at a glance. I looked for the easy numbers but I couldn’t find any. I followed every movement of the dancers with my eyes and my head, as if watching an imaginary fly. I tried to do the steps in miniature, denoting turns by twists of the wrist, jigging my knees up and down for the kicks, and doing some neat little footwork under the seat. All the time I was counting, “Up, two, three, four. Down, two, three, four.”
I went backstage in the interval to meet the Captain, who was to take me through some of the numbers. She was tall, blonde, and rather distrait. On the side of the stage, as the sceneshifters rushed around us moving huge flats, in a tired, patient voice she began: “The first number. The curtain goes up, see, and there we are in all those sequins. You know.”
“Oh, yes,” I said, eager to be helpful.
“Put your hands on your knees and waggle them from side to side on the beat.” She demonstrated. “Got it?”
I nodded, and ducked as a sceneshifter missed me by a centimeter.
“And you sing, ‘Jouez-vous, joues-vous, jouez avec nous!' ”
“Jouez what?” I said, trying to get the drift.
“Never mind. It doesn’t matter. Just open and shut your mouth, and smile.” I could see myself with a broad vacant grin operating like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
I was persistent. “Is it sort of coaxing them to come and play with us?”
“Could be.” Her eye traveled over me. “You’ll be able to wear Evelyn’s costume. She’s left.” I didn’t ask why she’d left, but from the look of the arduous routines I had seen, it didn’t surprise me.
After the show I walked back to the Terrasse.
I found that Pat and Sally had been taken on in Maurice Chevalier’s show at the Casino, and Angela was going into Mistinguette’s “Ça c’est Paris” at the Mogador. When I entered, Pat was reassuring Beryl and Mary, “Why, the A.B.C. will snaffle you up like bits of buttered toast.”
“Not me, they won’t,” said Beryl coldly. “Three shows a day! Not bloody likely!” She then revealed that she had a little nest egg (undeclared Swedish booty) and thought she’d earned a little holiday. On this happy note, we sat down to our table (Beryl’s largest cowhide) and dined on another yard of bread and cold saucisson, celebrating with a bottle of vin ordinaire.
THE Folies-Bergére is one of the best shows in Europe. The cast includes some of the cream of Continental revue artists, and as a spectacle, with its beautiful sets and lavish costumes, it has no equal. The show changes every year, but the pattern remains the same. As I it and then I
As a spectator I saw it only once, and then I was concentrating on Les Girls. From then on I merely had a kaleidoscopic impression of entrances and exits — whom we followed and who followed us. I might catch the last few seconds of some Gallic skit, my appreciation of which was marred by feverish efforts to do up the snaps on my costume; or as I left the stage, making equally feverish efforts to undo them, I would bump into the act to follow.
The only artists I had an opportunity to study were those on stage with us, and I was poorly placed to appreciate them. I was at a loss to explain the success of the comedians (one tall and thin, the other short and fat) but I’ve no doubt they were funnier from the front than from the rear. I had no time for a young blonde, billed as an American, who sang songs in English with a French accent and took an unconscionable time about it. I saw her again in New York, where, billed as a French chanteuse, she was singing French songs with an American accent. She seemed to have speeded up her act, and the effect was better when she was facing you.
The artist who was never boring from any angle was our star, Josephine Baker. She enchanted the company as well as the patrons. Josephine with her exquisite figure and lovely long legs was an unusual mixture of glamour and comedy. In one number she would be sleek and sexy; in the next, a droll, touching gamin. In one scene she was the last word in café-au-lait elegance; in another, a loose-limbed, clumsy little waif. She carried herself like a Duchess and could handle a train with dexterity. But she wore her cloak of glamour lightly and never seemed to take herself seriously. She could move an audience from one mood to another with astonishing ease. It was sleight of hand. There was a hint of mockery in everything she did, and a touch of magic.
The first, night I was in the show I was led to believe, from the excitement and general chaos, that there must be some crisis; but I soon learned that every night there seemed to be a crisis at the Folies. There was great dash and élan backstage, but little coördination. Many orders were given, but few taken. I expected what little organization there was to fall apart at any moment, but miraculously it held together. I decided it must be the French way.
The audience were kind to all the acts, but they really came to see Josephine, the nudes, and Les Girls. Les Girls, with the exception of the odd Viennese or German, were English. “Why English?” people used to ask.
I did not know, but that never prevented me from giving an answer. “It gives the show an international flavor,” I used to explain glibly. The real reason, I suspect, was that the English are undeniably better dancers than their French opposites. The Radio City Rockettes would be impossible with French personnel. French dancers are individualists, and too undisciplined to make good chorus girls. There is always a great variety in their execution; they never give the effect of doing the same thing, even when they are, and a good deal of the time they are not.
Half of Les Girls were platinum blondes and half redheads, which was extremely effective on stage. At full strength we were twenty-four, but somebody was always off — on holiday (we were given two weeks a year) or disabled (there was always a sprained ankle, a torn ligament, or a twisted knee among us). If a blonde was missing, the Captain would lop off a redhead to restore the balance. If there were two redheads off, she would rush on a blonde in a red wig to maintain the pattern. I often masqueraded as a redhead, sporting a short curled wig like Harpo Marx.
It was no easy job keeping Les Girls in line, and Bluebell managed it with great skill; she even gained our affection. She had a problem to keep up the standard with dancers coming and going (few could stand the pace for long); and with all the attractions outside the theater, she had to be on the alert. The girls led such active private lives it was a wonder they had anything to give to the show; hardly a week went by without some emotional tangle which Bluebell had to straighten out. Some of the dancers had their regular followers at the stage door; some were involved with members of the male chorus, though on the whole the male chorus were more interested in one another than they were in us.
Despite the fact that the girls spent most of their time grumbling, the morale was high. They took a real pride in the show and tried never to let Bluebell down. I did my best, within reason, not to disgrace her; and with the aid of some judicious faking in the more grueling numbers, I think I succeeded.
I was devoted to Les Girls. They were gay, generous, and highly entertaining. They had the same cockney resilience as the troupe I danced with in Sweden; nothing got them down for long. But they were older, tougher, and more sophisticated than most of the little Millerettes.
Out front the Folies-Bergère may have been splendid, but backstage it was like a huge barn; even the star dressing room looked like a horse box. There were two dressing rooms for the platinums and two for the reds on either side of the stage, way up under the rafters. I was in one that was dark and airless and far too small to accommodate six girls. Mirrors and make-up tables circled the room, and in the middle was a great forest of costumes on racks.
Nobody could have called it a home away from home, but the girls had managed to turn it into a little corner of England. Snaps of their families and friends were stuck in the mirrors, and postcards covered the empty spaces on the walls. Everything they could find which reminded them of home was cherished, from pictures of the Royal Family and tiny Union Jacks to empty Peek Frean biscuit tins and knitted tea cozies for our precious teapot.
We had two elderly dressers, who drifted around aimlessly, getting in our way. They were supposed to take care of us, but wo took care of them. We gave them our cast-off clothing, brought them little treats, and generally jollied them along. They understood no English and thought wo were mad, but they basked in our affection. We always struck them as comic, and occasionally they would glance at each other and go off into cackles of laughter.
Every interval we would have a “cuppa,” carefully brewed by the girls from tea which had been sent from England. I’ll never forget those cups of tea. They were so strong they would have picked you up out of your grave. And, believe me, we needed them. We worked hard for our money. Life at the Folies was certainly gay, but it was not all beer and skittles. In fact, there were neither skittles nor beer — a constant complaint of Les Girls, who hated being deprived of their “mild and bitter.” However, we made do with cheap champagne at twenty francs a bottle. Reinforced with the champagne, we battled through thirteen numbers each performance.
The champagne was merely to quench our thirst in the heat and dust of the theater, but the tea was a nightly ritual performed by each of us in turn. The dressers were under strict instructions never to go near the teapot. There was no silver tea service and no Crown Derby, but the large thick glasses were handed around with ceremony. When my turn came, there were always complaints: “Tommie, you didn’t hot the pot!” or “The pot to the kettle, darling. Not the kettle to the pot!”
The truth was that I hadn’t given it my attention. I had had to wrench myself from Louis the Stammerer, Louis the Foolish, and Louis the Goodfor-Nothing, and my mind wasn’t on making tea. The interval was dedicated to knowledge. I was studying a French history I bought for one franc from a bookstall by the Seine. It only went up to the French Revolution, and from its yellowed pages and general condition it might have been printed shortly after. I was conscientiously endeavoring to broaden my historical horizon by working my way through the Carlovingians, the Capetians, and the Bourbons. A king a night was my target.
As I sat there quietly cursing the Bourbons (Marat, Robespierre, and I saw eye to eye) the girls were cursing the numbers, the costumes, and the primitive plumbing. Their swearing vocabulary in English was extensive, but to this they had added “Merde alors” and a few other French expletives, which added color to the conversational buzz.
Les Girls kept pretty much to themselves in the theater, partly because of the language barrier and partly because they were much busier than anyone else. There was little opportunity for passing the time of day (particularly when you had to pass it in broken French).
I was popular with the other artists, not because of my personal charm, but because I was a Canadian. The fact that I was obviously not a French Canadian did not bother them. There were people of all nationalities in the company, and whenever they needed an interpreter, they would misguidedly rush to me.
“Ah,” they would say, “La Canadienne!” and drag me into some garbled discussion. I consistently let them down with wild and free translations, but they never lost faith in my linguistic abilities. No end of confidences and grievances were poured in my car. I became a sort of mother confessor. Their secrets were safe with me; they went in one ear and out the other untranslated.
WHEN I mention casually that I used to be in the Folies, people give me a rather ooh-la-la look, and usually say facetiously, “Don’t tell me you were a nude!” When I say, “Oh, no. I was a dancer,” they always seem disappointed, and somewhat cheated. But a moment later a more cheerful look crosses their faces, which says pretty clearly, “ Well, naturally, she’s not going to admit it!”
There were good reasons, other than modesty, for being a dancer instead of a nude. Dancers were better paid. And traveling on a British passport, I might have been in trouble with the Consul, who would not have approved of my sporting about in nothing.
The nudes, all French, led a much easier life than we did. They earned less but they needed less. Most of them had wealthy “protectors” and did not have to work. But they enjoyed the camaraderie of the Folies, and the “protectors” enjoyed the prestige of having their lady friends so spectacularly placed. Also, it was a simple way of keeping them happy and out of mischief. On the latter score, they did not always succeed, as there were inevitably in the theater young men of amorous intent. Every night after the show, there would be a cluster of expensive, chauffeur-driven cars parked near the stage door. In the back seats could be seen the satisfied “protectors” patiently waiting.
To say I was not a nude is not strictly true. On stage I was not, but backstage I most certainly was. While the nudes stood demurely in the wings enclosed in wrappers, the dancers tore up and down the spiral iron staircases taking off their costumes on the way up and putting them on on the way down. Modesty had to be thrown to the winds in the desperate struggle to cover the vast distances from the dressing rooms to the stage in time for each number. Nearly all the thirteen changes of costume had to be made at lightning speed, and the split-second timing was a strain on the nerves. I used to console myself with the thought that, if I did not manage to get into my costume, I could not be better placed for such a disaster. It would have been less conspicuous on that stage than anywhere else.
Never in any theater have I worn so much, and never have I had to juggle so many props — maddening little bits and bobs like anklets, armlets, fans, and such impedimenta. The only way to transport these from dressing room to stage was in my teeth.
In one number, I was buried in so many red ostrich feathers I could have equipped a Russian aviary. In another, I was practically covered from head to toe in red and black flannel. This was in a French Colonial setting (apparently a must in every Folies show), and I was a spahi in high black leather boots, full pantaloons, a long-sleeved jacket topped with a red felt hat, and a long flowing cape. It was a beautiful costume, once I had it on, but the trousers were a snare. I nearly fell down the spiral staircase one night in my struggle to get into them. In a hurry, and in the dim light, I got hopelessly entangled with both feet in the same leg. Somebody caught me by the seat of my pantaloons as I started my descent down the staircase, and I managed, with help, to get my legs and pantlegs sorted out.
In one of the gala spectacles of the show, I was attired in a full Louis Quatorze court dress, draped on a great wire frame. This costume was further enhanced by a white powdered wig which was the height of a pagoda. This was the quickest change of the lot and, to confuse centuries, was almost my Waterloo. I used to rush through the corridors in high-heeled shoes with my voluminous dress, the size of a small bell tent, under my arm, struggling vainly to put on my wig. I would arrive on the stage still unclothed — and if I did not have time to slip into my dress before the curtain went up, I could always step behind it. I did not have to move, and stood in a stately fashion with my heavily becostumed front and nearly bare rear. The effect was respectable, the feel drafty. But standing with my arms tightly to my sides to keep my dress from falling off, I was unable to adjust my wig.
That wig was a thorn in my flesh. It was made for my predecessor, Evelyn, who had a much larger head. Every evening with monotonous regularity it gradually sank over one ear. From then on I turned into a subtle contortionist in my endeavors to keep under it. This involved a freewheeling in the knees, and my special Leaning Tower of Pisa technique with a contrary crick to the neck. I kept my wig on, though I dare say something of the general effect was lost through these gyrations.
THE most hair-raising number for me was the Arctic scene. What we were doing in the Arctic was never made clear to me, but there we were, cxiguously clad in white rabbit fur. I made a spectacular entrance leading on six white huskies pulling a white sleigh down a steep runway. In the sleigh reclined Josephine enveloped in luxurious white fox.
Placing me in such a position was, I feel sure, regarded by the management as an inspired bit of casting —the girl of the frozen north in her natural habitat. But I was far from happy, I doubt that those dogs were huskies — they may have been merely chows — but to me they were a pack of wolves and between us was a feeling of mutual hatred. They had a lean and hungry look, and I was convinced they intended to make a quick snack of me. Every performance they used to give me a playful little nip in my most vulnerable spot — between the edge of my skirt and the top of my white kid boots.
One night one of them really got his teeth into me. With a startled shriek and an unmistakable English “Ouch!” I shot forward dragging the dogs, the sleigh, and Josephine. We hurtled down the ramp, gathering speed. Fortunately, I tripped and fell, which pulled the dogs up just as they were poised to leap the crevasse of the orchestra pit. Josephine stepped gracefully out of the sleigh without turning a hair of her neatly trimmed head, and carried on as if it had all been part of the plan; but for the rest of the number I had to prance about gaily with a smudged face and skinned knees. After the show, I told Josephine how sorry I was.
“That’s all right, chérie,” she said in her soft American accent. “They think, being a Canadian, you’re in the habit of taking huskies instead of taxies!” She winked at me. “But don’t worry, darling. I’ll fix it.”
And she did. The next night I was replaced on the polar run by someone made of sterner stuff.
In one number I was entirely hidden from view; that was when I was the back end of the purple cow. Four gaily colored cows did a little dance on point in an attractive dairy scene. It might be more accurate to say three and a half cows did it on point. My ballet training having been somewhat inadequate, 1 found it tiring, and after the first effort I decided to do my bit on the flats of my feet. I had it firmly in mind that because I couldn’t see the audience, they couldn’t see me.
The dancer in front could see through slits in the eyes of the cow where she was going, but the hindquarters had to rely on instinct (and the forward half) to get about. I have no bump of direction, and I was literally in the dark. I didn’t know where I was, but one thing was certain: I was never in the proper place. Most of the time I traveled sideways on to the audience. Occasionally I would give of my best in the wings, completely out of sight, and one memorable night I got us neatly turned around, and danced enthusiastically for half the number with my tail to the audience.
In theory, the front legs gave the back legs instructions. I got plenty of muffled orders but I could not translate them. The front leg’s French was even worse than mine. She was German — a handsome fair-haired Berliner, a slim version of Hitler’s ideal Aryan beauty; but she lacked something essential at the Folies: sex appeal.
It used to upset her that we were always askew. I cannot truthfully say that it ever weighed heavily on my mind. But my better half was a perfectionist, and the goose-stepping tradition was outraged by my sloppiness. In desperation she offered to teach me German to enable me to grasp the instructions, and in exchange she was most anxious to learn English.
The only time we had for lessons was on stage. In a sultry subtropical scene, while Josephine, enticingly clad in a few bits of strategically placed gold leaf, was being hurled around the stage by two partners in a flashy adagio number, the lessons took place. It was not the proper atmosphere in which to master a language, but the two of us stood through this scene, outlined against the backdrop of palm trees, waving our arms in a sultry subtropical fashion, grappling the while with infinitives and past participles.
It was rather difficult to concentrate with all the activity going on around us, but it brought results. The maneuvers of the purple cow improved. As we cruised around the stage, I translated with ease my instructions, “Links, ein, zwei, drei, vier, halt.” The only complication that remained was that I have always had difficulty in remembering which is my left and which my right, and calling them Links and Rechts made it no easier.
I thought we were doing nicely, but she was never satisfied. She used to say severely in her broken English, “Die udder cows dey are goot, but die purble cow, he is sehr schlecht!”
AT THE Folies there were finales within finales, but the number I seem to recall as the final finale was the Wedding Cake scene. A huge tiered cake elaborately iced covered most of the stage. To get into position was like scaling Mount Everest, without an ice axe and crampons. Every night I climbed to the summit unroped; half the cast were involved in the expedition, but few reached my dizzy heights. The air was fresh up there, but I have no head for heights, and behind me yawned a great precipice where the other half of the cake should have been. And the slightest cough sent a tremor through the flimsy structure, which confirmed my lack of faith in French engineering.
The blondes and redheads, as bridesmaids in white organdie, were precariously grouped over the tiers carrying electric candles, which at a given cue were intended to light up (they rarely did). As the first swelling notes of what was supposed to be a church organ emerged from the orchestra pit (cue to turn on our candles) Josephine, the blushing bride in virginal white, appeared over the peak and burst into song. The curtain fell on a wave of sentiment which produced such a roar of applause that I feared it might bring on an avalanche.
The star Can-Can dancers were rushed every night by taxi from the theater to do another finale — the Grande Finale at the Bal Tabarin. My faking at the Folies must have been successful, for when one of the Can-Can girls sprained her ankle, I was chosen to replace her. At first I was pleased. It was a great honor, and it meant fifty francs more a week. But my enthusiasm paled, as I soon found out it was much easier to fake in a theater than in a night club. I was forced to dance full out. A sprained ankle would have been a merciful release. I realized I would be lucky if I didn’t end up with two broken legs. That Can-Can! The music so gay, the costumes so saucy, and the dance such torture!
These dancers were all old-timers and formed the hard core of Les Girls. They had stuck with it long enough to become infatuated with the life, and Paris had become for them a second home. There was Jeannie, who came from Glasgow. She had been at the Folies for years, but she was as much a Glaswegian as the day she crossed the Channel. Her Scottish burr and sound common sense constantly brought us back to earth in that frivolous French atmosphere. But she was happy at the Folies, and liked Paris almost as much as Glasgow.
The Captain, another old-timer, was the only one of us who lead a comparatively normal domestic life. She was “walking out” with a respectable young man who was the representative in France of an English firm of exporters. She had a small flat, furnished as nearly as she could get to contemporary Kensington. She was house proud and loved cooking. Her spare moments, which were few, were occupied in jotting down recipes collected from the nudes. She was Bluebell’s devoted slave, but the exporter was never allowed to suffer. She darned his socks in the interval, and took him home after the show and cooked him a hot meal in the small hours.
Most of the girls stood up well to temptation, but if you wanted to go to the bad, there was no better starting point. Gloria, unlike Jeannie and the Captain, had changed beyond all recognition since joining the Folies. When she first came she had been quiet and rather shy, but now she was as bold as brass.
I lived at the Terrasse with the other Swedish veterans for several weeks until Pat and Sally, with their usual enterprise, found a couple of soi-disant furnished apartments above a boulangerie in a recently converted building in the rue St. Lazare. It was nearer the theaters and would work out cheaper than the Terrasse. They took one, and Angela and I the other. Both were minute. Ours was made up of a triangular room so small you couldn’t swing a kitten in it, and a bathroom which would hold only one at a time. The furnishings consisted of a double bed and the fixtures.
They were bachelor apartments — ideal for a very small bachelor who hadn’t any clothes and didn’t eat. But they were new and clean, the walls done in apple green; and there were no cockroaches or bedbugs. The bathroom fixtures were impressive after the stained relics of the Terrasse; the bathtub even had an escape pipe. The water escaped through the pipe onto the bathroom floor.
It wasn’t smart to live in Montmartre, but we couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. It was cheap, and it was a great advantage, if worst came to worst, to be able to walk home in the small hours.
My family were delighted to hear that I was in Paris and working. They felt, there were far more opportunities there for my cultural development than in Sweden. My father was so proud of me that Mother had to restrain him from rushing out and telling the Sunday School teachers, the organist, or anyone else in his congregation who would listen, that I was in the Folies-Bergère — an explosive piece of information which might have blown my father clean out of his church.
I had dinner after midnight, carried on my social life until two or three, and slept until noon. In the afternoon I went sightseeing. I spent most of my money on clothes, and there was very little left for food. I was prepared to pay for my lunch in a tiny bistro near our apartment, but I had no intention of paying for my dinner. My plan was that some kind gentleman should finance this meal.
It made for some sharp contrasts in atmosphere and food.
My meal tickets were a motley crew. There was Joe, the owner of a successful chain of laundries in Pittsburgh, a tubby little man who always appeared in his American Legion uniform. I had no immediate plans for taking in washing, but I became extremely knowledgeable on such topics as large-scale sorting, the required number of rinses, and the question, to bleach or not to bleach. He was a gentle creature, but on the subject of home laundering he became quite vicious. Our association was nearly brought to an end when he found I washed my own clothes. Joe was a staunch and faithful meal ticket. Frankly, he was not the kind of man for whom I would have counted the world well lost, but he did speak English, and his intentions were strictly honorable.
Not so the Marquis de V—, whose intentions were strictly otherwise. Nonetheless, I managed to dine at his expense for six weeks, while apparently not understanding his intentions. In fact, they were all I did understand, as he did not speak a word of English. When the pangs of hunger had subsided, I would smile at him, and he would gaze soulfully at me with his large boudoir eyes. Intercepting one of those looks, even a sweet girl graduate could have been under no misapprehension as to what was on his mind. In the end, the Marquis came to the conclusion that I could not be as stupid as I appeared, and that I was a poor investment, so he disappeared from the meal ticket roster.
The vacancy was filled by Heinrich, whom I picked up in a church. I spent all my free afternoons with my Baedeker clutched in one hand “doing” Paris. I spotted him for a German, and keen to try out my newly acquired language I ventured a tentative “Wie gehts?” His face lit up.
“Sie sind deutsch, ja?” My accent was excellent., but my vocabulary picayune. “Nein! Nein!” I hastily explained. I then proceeded artistically to arrange all the German words I knew into a few broken sentences. He was so overcome he fell on my neck, and from that moment he dogged my tracks. But in the matter of meal tickets there comes a point when it is better not to eat, and Heinrich was it.
By the time winter set in, I had “done” Paris. I was now scraping the bottom of the Baedeker barrel. I had indefatigably explored Les Grandes Curiosités, visited faithfully Les Monuments Principaux, and paid my respects indiscriminately to every Église except the Mosque; nothing much was left in the way of a Musée; no Galerie I had not tramped through (not even the Galeries Lafayette). I had worn through two pairs of shoes paddling alone or in the wash of a guided party.
It had been from the first my ambition to combine my cultural and my terpsichorean ambitions, and I had. Now it was time to move on.