Showing posts with label Paris. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paris. Show all posts

22 December 2019

Jefferson's Love Letter


Apologies up front: This isn’t a Hallmark Christmassy article. Begun last week, it happened to occur where the schedule fell. Think of it as a Christmas love story, one involving a founding father— author of the Declaration of Independence, future Secretary of State for George Washington, Vice President, and our third President. In Paris, Thomas Jefferson fell in love with a European beauty: English, raised in Tuscany, brilliant, talented, artistic, musical, and a great motivator. And, uh, married.

Not sure about friction, as the French say, but emotional sparks had definitely ignited.

The letter is strong but circumspect. It bears meaning to those who understand. Jefferson even managed to slip in a not-quite-subliminal “I love you,” en français near the end.

Speaking of… the sources I found contained transliteration anomalies of one sort or another. These included transcription errors, a misunderstanding of French, and differences between original and modern spelling. For example, the word ‘shewed’ (meaning showed) was transcribed as ‘skewed’. Mine isn’t a perfect rendering, merely an effort to reduce copy errors.

Settle in with hot chocolate and enjoy a long read. Happy Christmas!

— Leigh

To Maria Cosway, Paris, 12 October 1786


Maria Cosway, 1760-1838
Maria Cosway, 1760-1838
My Dear Madam,

Having performed the last sad office of handing you into your carriage at the pavilion de St. Denis, and seen the wheels get actually into motion, I turned on my heel & walked, more dead than alive, to the opposite door, where my own was awaiting me. Mr. Danquerville was missing. He was sought for, found, & dragged down stairs. WE were crammed into the carriage, like recruits for the Bastille, & not having soul enough to give orders to the coachman, he presumed Paris our destination, & drove off. After a considerable interval, silence was broke with a “Je suis vraiment affligé du depart de ces bons gens.” This was a signal for a mutual confession of distress. We began immediately to talk of Mr. & Mrs. Cosway, of their goodness, their talents, their amiability; & tho we spoke of nothing else, we seemed hardly to have entered into matter when the coachman announced the rue St. Denis, & that we were opposite Mr. Danquerville’s. He insisted on descending there & traversing a short passage to his lodgings. I was carried home. Seated by my fireside, solitary & sad, the following dialogue took place between my Head & my Heart:

Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.

Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fibre of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear.

Head. These are the eternal consequences of your warmth & precipitation. This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us. You confess your follies indeed; but still you hug & cherish them; & no reformation can be hoped, where there is no repentance.

Heart. Oh, my friend! This is no moment to upbraid my foibles. I am rent into fragments by the force of my grief! If you have any balm, pour it into my wounds; if none, do not harrow them by new torments. Spare me in this awful moment! At any other I will attend with patience to your admonitions.

Head. On the contrary I never found that the moment of triumph with you was the moment of attention to my admonitions. While suffering under your follies, you may perhaps be made sensible of them, but, the paroxysms over, you fancy it can never return. Harsh therefore as the medicine may be, it is my office to administer it. You will be pleased to remember that when our friend Trumbull used to be telling us of the merits & talents of these good people, I never ceased whispering to you that we had no occasion for new acquaintance; that the greater their merits & talents, the more dangerous their friendship to our tranquillity, because the regret at parting would be greater.

Heart. Accordingly, Sir, this acquaintance was not the consequence of my doings. It was one of your projects which threw us in the way of it. It was you, remember, & not I, who desired the meeting at Legrand & Molinos. I never trouble myself with domes nor arches. The Halle aux blés might have rotted down before I should have gone to see it. But you, forsooth, who are eternally getting us to sleep with your diagrams & crotchets, must go & examine this wonderful piece of architecture. And when you had seen it, oh! It was the most superb thing on earth. What you had seen there was worth all you had yet seen in Paris! I thought so too. But I meant it of the lady & gentleman to whom we had been presented; & not of a parcel of sticks & chips put together in pens. You then, Sir, & not I, have been the cause of the present distress.

Head. It would have been happy for you if my diagrams & crotchets had gotten you to sleep on that day, as you are pleased to say they eternally do. My visit to Legrand & Molinos had publick utility for its object. A market is to be built in Richmond. What a commodious plan is that of Legrand & Molinos; especially if we put on it the noble dome of the Halle aux blés. If such a bridge as they shewed us can be thrown across the Schuylkill at Philadelphia, the floating bridges taken up & the navigation of that river opened, what a copious resource will be added, of wood & provisions, to warm & feed the poor of that city? While I was occupied with these objects, you were dilating with your new acquaintances, & contriving how to prevent a separation from them. Every soul of you had an engagement for the day. Yet all these were to be sacrificed, that you might dine together. Lying messengers were to be despatched into every quarter of the city, with apologies for your breach of engagement. You particularly had the effrontery to send word to the Duchess Danville that, on the moment we were setting out to dine with her, despatches came to hand which required immediate attention. You wanted me to invent a more ingenious excuse; but I knew you were getting into a scrape, & I would have nothing to do with it. Well, after dinner to St. Cloud, from St. Cloud to Ruggieris, from Ruggieri to Krumfoltz, & if the day had been as long as a Lapland summer day, you would still have contrived means among you to have filled it.

Heart. Oh! My dear friend, how you have revived me by recalling to my mind the transactions of that day! How well I remember them all, & that when I came home at night & looked back to the morning, it seemed to have been a month agone. Go on then, like a kind comforter & paint to me the day we went to St. Germains. How beautiful was every object! The Port de Reuilly, the hills along the Seine, the rainbows of the machine of Marly, the terrace of St. Germains, the chateaux, the gardens, the statues of Marly, the pavilion of Lucienne. Recollect too Madrid, Bagatelle, the Kings garden, the Dessert. How grand the idea excited by the remains of such a column! The spiral staircase too was beautiful. Every moment was filled with something agreeable. The wheels of time moved on with a rapidity of which those of our carriage gave but a faint idea. And yet in the evening when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we travelled over! Retrace all those scenes to me, my good companion, & I will forgive the unkindness with which you were chiding me. The day we went to St. Germains was a little too warm, I think; was it not?

Head. Thou art the most incorrigible of all the beings that ever sinned! I reminded you of the follies of the first day, intending to deduce from thence some useful lessons for you, but instead of listening to these, you kindle at the recollection, you retrace the whole series with a fondness which shews you want nothing but the opportunity to act it over again. I often told you during its course that you were imprudently engaging your affections under circumstances that must have cost you a great deal of pain: that the persons indeed were of the greatest merit, possessing good sense, good humour, honest hearts, honest manners, & eminence in a lovely art; that the lady had moreover qualities & accomplishments, belonging to her sex, which might form a chapter apart for her: such as music, modesty, beauty, & that softness of disposition which is the ornament of her sex & charm of ours, but that all these considerations would increase the pang of separation: that their stay here was to be short: that you wrack our whole system when you are parted from those you love, complaining that such a separation is worse than death, inasmuch as this ends our sufferings, whereas that only begins them: & that the separation would in this instance be the more severe as you would probably never see them again.

Heart. But they told me they would come back again the next year.

Head. But in the meantime see what you suffer: & their return too depends on so many circumstances that if you had a grain of prudence you would not count upon it. Upon the whole it is improbable & therefore you should abandon the idea of ever seeing them again.

Heart. May heaven abandon me if I do!

Head. Very well. Suppose then they come back. They are to stay two months, & when these are expired, what is to follow? Perhaps you flatter yourself they may come to America?

Heart. God only knows what is to happen. I see nothing impossible in that supposition. And I see things wonderfully contrived sometimes to make us happy. Where could they find such objects as in America for the exercise of their enchanting art? especially the lady, who paints landscapes so inimitably. She wants only subjects worthy of immortality to render her pencil immortal. The Failing Spring, the Cascade of Niagara, the Passage of the Potomac through the Blue Mountains, the Natural Bridge. It is worth a voyage across the Atlantic to see these objects; much more to paint, and make them, & thereby ourselves, known to all ages. And our own dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye? Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we there ride above the storms! How sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet! And the glorious sun when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of the mountains, & giving life to all nature? I hope in God no circumstance may ever make either seek an asylum from grief! With what sincere sympathy I would open every cell of my composition to receive the effusion of their woes! I would pour my tears into their wounds: & if a drop of balm could be found on the top of the Cordilleras, or at the remotest sources of the Missouri, I would go thither myself to seek & to bring it. Deeply practised in the school of affliction, the human heart knows no joy which I have not lost, no sorrow of which I have not drunk! Fortune can present no grief of unknown form to me! Who then can so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself? But Heaven forbid they should ever know a sorrow! Let us turn over another leaf, for this has distracted me.

Head. Well. Let us put this possibility to trial then on another point. When you consider the character which is given of our country by the lying newspapers of London, & their credulous copyers in other countries; when you reflect that all Europe is made to believe we are a lawless banditti, in a state of absolute anarchy, cutting one another’s throats, & plundering without distinction, how can you expect that any reasonable creature would venture among us?

Heart. But you & I know that all this is false: that there is not a country on earth where there is greater tranquillity, where the laws are milder, or better obeyed: where every one is more attentive to his own business, or meddles less with that of others: where strangers are better received, more hospitably treated, & with a more sacred respect.

Head. True, you & I know this, but your friends do not know it.

Heart. But they are sensible people who think for themselves. They will ask of impartial foreigners who have been among us, whether they saw or heard on the spot any instances of anarchy. They will judge too that a people occupied as we are in opening rivers, digging navigable canals, making roads, building public schools, establishing academies, erecting busts & statues to our great men, protecting religious freedom, abolishing sanguinary punishments, reforming & improving our laws in general, they will judge I say for themselves whether these are not the occupations of a people at their ease, whether this is not better evidence of our true state than a London newspaper, hired to lie, & from which no truth can ever be extracted but by reversing everything it says.

Jefferson ☞ Cosway letter, page 1
Jefferson ☞ Cosway letter, page 1
Head. I did not begin this lecture my friend with a view to learn from you what America is doing. Let us return then to our point. I wished to make you sensible how imprudent it is to place your affections, without reserve, on objects you must so soon lose, & whose loss when it comes must cost you such severe pangs. Remember that last night. You knew your friends were to leave Paris to-day. This was enough to throw you into agonies. All night you tossed us from one side of the bed to the other. No sleep, no rest. The poor crippled wrist too, never left one moment in the same position, now up, now down, now here, now there; was it to be wondered at if its pains returned? The Surgeon then was to be called, & to be rated as an ignoramus because he could not divine the cause of this extraordinary change. In fine, my friend, you must mend your manners. This is not a world to live at random in as you do. To avoid those eternal distresses, to which you are forever exposing us, you must learn to look forward before you take a step which may interest our peace. Everything in this world is a matter of calculation. Advance then with caution, the balance in your hand. Put into one scale the pleasures which any object may offer; but put fairly into the other the pains which are to follow, & see which preponderates. The making an acquaintance is not a matter of indifference. When a new one is proposed to you, view it all round. Consider what advantages it presents, & to what inconveniences it may expose you. Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it. The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: & he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks & shoals with which he is beset. Pleasure is always before us; but misfortune is at our side: while running after that, this arrests us. The most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, & to suffice for our own happiness. Those, which depend on ourselves, are the only pleasures a wise man will count on: for nothing is ours which another may deprive us of. Hence the inestimable value of intellectual pleasures. Even in our power, always leading us to something new, never cloying, we ride serene & sublime above the concerns of this mortal world, contemplating truth & nature, matter & motion, the laws which bind up their existence, & that eternal being who made & bound them up by those laws. Let this be our employ. Leave the bustle & tumult of society to those who have not talents to occupy themselves without them. Friendship is but another name for an alliance with the follies & the misfortunes of others. Our own share of miseries is sufficient: why enter then as volunteers into those of another? Is there so little gall poured into our cup that we must needs help to drink that of our neighbor? A friend dies or leaves us: we feel as if a limb was cut off. He is sick: we must watch over him, & participate of his pains. His fortune is shipwrecked; ours must be laid under contribution. He loses a child, a parent, or a partner: we must mourn the loss as if it were our own.

Heart. And what more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven hath smitten! To watch over the bed of sickness, & to beguile its tedious & its painful moments! To share our bread with one to whom misfortune has left none! This world abounds indeed with misery: to lighten its burthen we must divide it with one another. But let us now try the virtues of your mathematical balance, & as you have put into one scale the burthen of friendship, let me put its comforts into the other. When languishing then under disease, how grateful is the solace of our friends! How are we penetrated with their assiduities & attentions! How much are we supported by their encouragements & kind offices! When heaven has taken from us some object of our love, how sweet is it to have a bosom whereon to recline our heads, & into which we may pour the torrent of our tears! Grief, with such a comfort, is almost a luxury! In a life where we are perpetually exposed to want & accident, yours is a wonderful proposition, to insulate ourselves, to retire from all aid, & to wrap ourselves in the mantle of self-sufficiency! For assuredly nobody will care for him who care for nobody. But friendship is precious, not only in the shade but in the sunshine of life; & thanks to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine. I will recur for proof to the days we have lately passed. On these indeed the sun shone brightly. How gay did the face of nature appear! Hills, valleys, chateaux, gardens, rivers, every object wore its liveliest hue! Whence did they borrow it? From the presence of our charming companion. They were pleasing, because she seemed pleased. Alone, the scene would have been dull & insipid: the participation of it with her gave it relish. Let the gloomy monk, sequestered from the world, seek unsocial pleasures in the bottom of his cell! Let the sublimated philosopher grasp visionary happiness while pursuing phantoms dressed in the garb of truth! Their supreme wisdom is supreme folly; & they mistake for happiness the mere absence of pain. Had they ever felt the solid pleasure of one generous spasm of the heart, they would exchange for it all the frigid speculations of their lives, which you have been vaunting in such elevated terms. Believe me then my friend, that that is a miserable arithmetic which, could estimate friendship at nothing, or at less than nothing. Respect for you has induced me to enter into this discussion, & to hear principles uttered which I detest & abjure. Respect for myself now obliges me to recall you into the proper limits of your office. When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals. When the circle is to be squared, or the orbit of a comet to be traced; when the arch of greatest strength, or the solid of least resistance is to be investigated, take up the problem; it is yours; nature has given me no cognisance of it. In like manner, in denying to you the feelings of sympathy, of benevolence, of gratitude, of justice, of love, of friendship, she has excluded you from their control. To these she has adapted the mechanism of the heart. Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the incertain combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science. That she gave to all, as necessary to all: this to a few only, as sufficing with a few. I know indeed that you pretend authority to the sovereign control of our conduct in all its parts: & a respect for your grave saws & maxims, a desire to do what is right, has sometimes induced me to conform to your counsels. A few facts however which I can readily recall to your memory, will suffice to prove to you that nature has not organised you for our moral direction. When the poor wearied soldier whom we overtook at Chickahomony with his pack on his back, begged us to let him get up behind our chariot, you began to calculate that the road was full of soldiers, & that if all should be taken up our horses would fail in their journey. We drove on therefore. But soon becoming sensible you had made me do wrong, that tho we cannot relieve all the distressed we should relieve as many as we can, I turned about to take up the soldier; but he had entered a by-path, & was no more to be found; & from that moment to this I could never find him out to ask his forgiveness. Again, when the poor woman came to ask a charity in Philadelphia, you whispered that she looked like a drunkard, & that half a dollar was enough to give her for the ale-house. Those who want the dispositions to give, easily find reasons why they ought not to give. When I sought her out afterwards, & did what I should have done at first, you know that she employed the money immediately towards placing her child at school. If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts, where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Hamans. You began to calculate & to compare wealth and numbers: we threw up a few pulsations of our warmest blood; we supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers; we put our existence to the hazard when the hazard seemed against us, and we saved our country: justifying at the same time the ways of Providence, whose precept is to do always what is right, and leave the issue to him. In short, my friend, as far as my recollection serves me, I do not know that I ever did a good thing on your suggestion, or a dirty one without it. I do forever then disclaim your interference in my province. Fill papers as you please with triangles & squares: try how many ways you can hang & combine them together. I shall never envy nor control your sublime delights. But leave me to decide when & where friendships are to be contracted. You say I contract them at random. So you said the woman at Philadelphia was a drunkard. I receive no one into my esteem till I know they are worthy of it. Wealth, title, office, are no recommendations to my friendship. On the contrary, great good qualities are requisite to make amends for their having wealth, title, & office. You confess that in the present case I could not have made a worthier choice. You only object that I was so soon to lose them. We are not immortal ourselves, my friend; how can we expect our enjoyments to be so? We have no rose without its thorn; no pleasure without alloy. It is the law of our existence; & we must acquiesce. It is the condition annexed to all our pleasures, not by us who receive, but by him who gives them. True, this condition is pressing cruelly on me at this moment. I feel more fit for death than life. But when I look back on the pleasures of which it is the consequence, I am conscious they were worth the price I am paying. Notwithstanding your endeavours too to damp my hopes, I comfort myself with expectations of their promised return. Hope is sweeter than despair, & they were too good to mean to deceive me. In the summer, said the gentleman; but in the spring, said the lady: & I should love her forever, were it only for that! Know then, my friend, that I have taken these good people into my bosom; that I have lodged them in the warmest cell I could find: that I love them, & will continue to love them through life: that if fortune should dispose them on one side the globe, & me on the other, my affections shall pervade its whole mass to reach them. Knowing then my determination, attempt not to disturb it. If you can at any time furnish matter for their amusement, it will be the office of a good neighbor to do it. I will in like manner seize any occasion which may offer to do the like good turn for you with Condorcet, Rittenhouse, Madison, La Cretelle, or any other of those worthy sons of science whom you so justly prize.



I thought this a favorable proposition whereon to rest the issue of the dialogue. So I put an end to it by calling for my night-cap. Methinks I hear you wish to heaven I had called a little sooner, & so spared you the ennui of such a sermon. I did not interrupt them sooner because I was in a mood for hearing sermons. You too were the subject; & on such a thesis I never think the theme long; not even if I am to write it, and that slowly & awkwardly, as now, with the left hand. But that you may not be discouraged from a correspondence which begins so formidably, I will promise you on my honour that my future letters shall be of a reasonable length. I will even agree to express but half my esteem for you, for fear of cloying you with too full a dose. But, on your part, no curtailing. If your letters are as long as the bible, they will appear short to me. Only let them be brimful of affection. I shall read them with the dispositions with which Arlequin, in Les deux billets spelt the words “je taime,” and wished that the whole alphabet had entered into their composition.

We have had incessant rains since your departure. These make me fear for your health, as well as that you had an uncomfortable journey. The same cause has prevented me from being able to give you any account of your friends here. This voyage to Fontainebleau will probably send the Count de Moustier & the Marquise de Brehan to America. Danquerville promised to visit me, but has not done it as yet. De la Tude comes sometimes to take family soup with me, & entertains me with anecdotes of his five & thirty years imprisonment. How fertile is the mind of man which can make the Bastile & Dungeon of Vincennes yield interesting anecdotes! You know this was for making four verses on Mme de Pompadour. But I think you told me you did not know the verses. They were these: “Sans esprit, sans sentiment, Sans etre belle, ni neuve, En France on peut avoir ie premier amant: Pontpadour en es l epreuve.” I have read the memoir of his three escapes.

Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826
Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826
As to myself my health is good, except my wrist which mends slowly, & my mind which mends not at all, but broods constantly over your departure. The lateness of the season obliges me to decline my journey into the south of France. Present me in the most friendly terms to Mr. Cosway, & receive me into your own recollection with a partiality & a warmth, proportioned, not to my own poor merit, but to the sentiments of sincere affection & esteem with which I have the honour to be, my dear Madam, your most obedient humble servant.
Thomas Jefferson signature
[Th÷Jefferson]

23 May 2019

Only the Dead Know Brooklyn




A friend who knows me well sent me the following article -  Weegee's New York City by Christopher Bonanos - in New York Magazine, chock-full of crime-scene photographs from the 1930s.  (Thank you, Betty!)


April 18, 1937: Spurned Suitor Clubs Violinist to Death!  (The trail of blood is where the body was dragged...)  

May 5, 1937: The corpse everyone is checking over is that of Stanley Mannex, a 47-year-old Turkish immigrant, found in the ivy behind the New York Public Library.  (I'd love to know that backstory.)





April 20, 1937: Tony Benedetti was a single father of four from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, underemployed in New York during the Depression. Under a newly passed New York law looking to reduce the number of public charges, his family became the first in the state to be deported — put on a train at Penn Station back to Fayette County, where they were received by local welfare officials.

Two points:  the kids are crying, but dad is smiling.  Is that to cheer them up or what?  And I'd love to know what the local welfare officials did with him and his kids when they got there...



Date unknown, person unknown, location unknown.  But it's New York.  Everyone's wearing hats, and no one looks surprised.  I'm still amazed at how the corpse's hat ended right side up and in apparently perfect condition...

These are a few of the photographs taken by Weegee, a/k/a Arthur Fellig, the legendary crime-and-mayhem photographer of mid-century New York. In 1938, he became the only New York freelance newspaper photographer with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio. Weegee worked mostly at night; he listened closely to broadcasts and often beat authorities to the scene. When other photographers asked him about his technique he supposedly answered, "f/8 and be there".  By the '40s he had pictures in the Museum of Modern Art and had been curated by Edward Steichen.  (Wikipedia)

Weegee's first book of photographs was Naked City. Film producer Mark Hellinger bought the rights to the title from Weegee and made the movie The Naked City in 1948 - which I have not seen - and the police drama of the same name - which I have seen.  I remember all the episodes ended with "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."  BTW, here's the opening of the episode "The Fault in Our Stars" starring a very young Roddy McDowall:


But back to Weegee's photographs - they're everywhere on the internet, from the above to this site where they have been colorized to add to their gruesomeness:  

Pre-Weegee, someone also took these photos from 1910s New York City, and if you continue to scroll down, more Weegee:  

And Paris has more than Murders in the Rue Morgue here:

Now, I'm not into gore, I admit it.  I don't watch autopsies, gory movies, or read torture porn.  But there's more than one way to look at a photograph.  Like the last photo above, the hat lying by itself, looking perfectly fine despite the fact that the dead guy's face was either bashed in or shot and there's blood everywhere.  The other thing that struck me about it, was how the uniformed cop and the detective (?) with the flash camera are leaning, trying to see what the other detective is showing them as he straddles the body.

Straddles:  "See?  Someone came up on him, and shot him, point-blank range, and he took a step or two before he fell."
Uniform:  "What're ya talking about?"
Straddles:  "Look at the trail of blood.  He moved after he was shot, ya blind bat!"
Flash:  "Want me to hit it with a little more light?"

Another aspect of all the dead body shots I've shared here is that there's a lot of bending over in police work.  None of this Sam Spade looking down at his partner's dead body and pointing around.  No, these guys are all getting their faces right in the action, talking with their hands and their mouths.  I'm sure that at least one of them has a flask in his hip or coat pocket, and that they're all smokers.  And I still can't get over how they all manage to keep their hats on.

There also aren't any women standing around.  Which makes sense, because back then, the only woman around at the scene of the crime would be the victim.  And there are a lot of those.  From the woman lying in bed, back to her beloved (?) who just blew her brains out before killing himself, to the girl who was found lying looking calm and drained as if a vampire had shown up moments before...

All of these snapshots are a trip back in time - except that the only thing that's changed is the clothes.  Murder stays the same.  The motivation stays the same (love, jealousy, greed... same old, same old).  The blood stays the same.  The fascination with the crime stays the same.  And that's why we're all here.

BTW, click here to read "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" by Thomas Wolfe, the New Yorker, June 7, 1935.  Maybe the big guy was Weegee.









24 April 2019

Notre Dame de Paris


David Edgerley Gates

I lived in Paris too short a while, but it's still vivid. It was a lucky time, for me, even if the ferment and fever of that unquiet age didn't give us much breathing room, the political furies, the war. That spring the French decided to shut their own country down, and late in the summer, the Warsaw Pact dropped a heavy hammer on Prague. The larger world intruded, and I certainly wasn't indifferent, but all the same, I was under a protective enchantment.

I know what Hemingway says. I think he works it too hard, but he's right. Paris is completely magical. We of course bring a great deal with us, all that excess baggage - the Lost Generation the least of it. Be that as it may, you can shed your skin there, you're not confined by previous incarnations. I imagine we all discover our own Paris. I know that isn't a terrifically original observation, but my Paris was my own discovery.

Paris at night is hugely different from Paris during the day, just as Paris in the rain is completely different from Paris in sunshine (think black-and-white as opposed to color, Rififi instead of Gene Kelly, the photographs of Brassai, the streetlights and dive bars). I used to take the Metro down to Notre Dame at two or three in the morning, it surely being the mark of a great capital - New York, Berlin, Paris - that the subways run all night. This is back when Les Halles were still in the middle of town, now it's Place Pompidou, and the wholesale markets are out in the sticks, Les Halles were two enormous metal buildings, like giant Quonset huts, with arched girders inside, forty or fifty feet high at the peak. One was for meats, poultry, fish, the other for produce, flowers, and fruit. The vendors had stalls, and there were cobbled alleys in between. Birds nested in the upper eaves, All the Paris restaurants shopped there. getting an early start. Close by were the bars for the working stiffs, in their blue coveralls, knocking back black coffee and an anisette. I took a lot of pictures, color transparencies but usually black-and-white, Tri-X at 400 ASA, which at the time was fastest film readily available.

Just as often I didn't take a camera at all. Another big difference, between documenting an event, self-consciously a witness, and simply absorbing it. I loved coming into the square below Notre Dame and looking up at it in the dark. I'd been during the day, and climbed it. At night, you felt something else altogether. The face wasn't lit, the rose window was in shadow, the stone was cold.

Time for a black coffee and a Ricard, un petit verre, standing at the zinc bar, scrubbing your hands together for warmth.


Here's a heartening thing. The bees on the roof outlasted the fire. Rooftop bee-keeping is big in Paris. Notre Dame, l'Opera, the d'Orsay, the Grand Palais. It's a small reward, but reassuring.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/19/bees-survive-notre-dame-fire

25 October 2017

Collaborators


French actress Danielle Darrieux died this past week. She was 100, her career beginning in 1931 and lasting until 2016. Her death notices all remark the fact that she stayed on in Paris after WWII broke out, and kept making pictures during the German occupation. Some of the obits go so far as to call her a Nazi collaborator. I'm guessing the story admits of rather a few more complications.



Let's begin with the fiction that French resistance to the Germans was fierce and widespread. Don't kid yourself. This was a wartime convenience, for Allied propaganda, and for French domestic political purposes after the war. De Gaulle insisted on it. It lifts us on angels' wings above the black market of hypocrisy, corruption, and grievance that characterized the Occupation. The pre-war climate in France echoed the America First movement in the States, a strong dose of appeasement and anti-Semitism, and there were more than a few French admirers of Hitler's scorched earth Jewish policies. And as for the Resistance, the Maquis itself was never organized into any unified chain of command, it was bitterly factionalized and fragmented, the Communists, the Free French, fugitives and draft dodgers and deserters. Lines of authority were disputed, one partisan group was as likely to rat out rival operations to the Vichy milice or the Wehrmacht military police as not.


How do you accommodate your occupier? Good question. We can look at Alan Furst's novels about wartime Paris and get a flavor of what it might be like, daily life in a captive capital. The World at Night, as it happens, is about the French movie biz, even, during the war, and how it was subject to German censorship. More accurately, pictures that didn't fit the bill simply weren't approved - were never greenlighted - so censorship, in that sense, before the fact. What do we make of the real-life example of Danielle Darrieux? When the Germans took Paris, in June of 1940, she'd just turned twenty-three, and her 30th film had been released, Battement de Coeur. I'm not making excuses for her, but twenty-three? In the movies since she was thirteen? Maybe she was a sheltered princess. We suspect, though, that she was a pretty savvy gal. She'd gone to Hollywood the year before, and made The Rage of Paris with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She was a bankable star, and the German movie industry understood both market value and how useful pictures were in the climate of opinion. Alfred Greven, the Nazi film czar in France, supposedly offered Darrieux a deal. She'd stay and make movies, they wouldn't send her brother to Germany as slave labor.

Blackmail puts a sifgnificantly different complexion on things. You give in the once, you're on the hook for more. The hole only gets deeper. Danielle divorces her husband Henri Decoin, who directed her in half a dozen pictures, and falls for the Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. (Army officer, diplomat, bag man, race car driver, and polo player, a favorite of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, he's usually characterized as the 'notorious' Porfirio Rubirosa - and the model for Dax Xenos, in Harold Robbins' novel The Adventurers. A whole other story, there.) Rubirosa fell foul of the Occupation authorities because he made no secret of his anti-Nazi sympathies, and they put him under house arrest in Germany. Danielle gets him sprung by agreeing to a publicity tour in Berlin. When next heard of, the two of them have managed to get to Switzerland, and they spend the rest of the war there.



In other words, we've definitely got some missing pieces along the way. Maybe it was all very ordinary, or maybe it was one hair's-breadth escape after another. Again, a nod to Alan Furst. I'm thinking Mission to Paris. But the story reminds me even more strongly of the Andre Cayyate movie Passage du Rhin - released in the U.S. in 1960 as Tomorrow Is My Turn, a truly cheesy title. (Cayatte directed Darrieux in 1942's La Fausse Maitresse, made under the German film industry's wartime sponsorship.)

Cayatte's picture is about two French soldiers, taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht at the beginning of the war and sent to work on a German farm. One of them (Georges Riviere) seduces the farmer's daughter and escapes to France. The other one (Charles Aznavour) stays at the farm. Back home, Georges takes up sabotage work with the Resistance, but he's eventually sold out to the Germans. A last-minute reprieve saves him from the firing squad, and then Paris is liberated. Charles is repatriated, and takes up where he left off, working as a baker, bullied by his wife. Charles goes to Georges and confesses he's miserable, Georges agrees to take Charles back to the German border. Charles crosses the bridge over the Rhine, stepping into an uncertain future, and meanwhile, the clouded past catches up with Georges. His girlfriend was sleeping with a high-ranking German officer during the Occupation, and he kept Georges from being shot. When the truth comes out, Georges' record as a war hero will be ridiculed, his girlfriend a German whore. She has to leave him. Fade-out on the two men at the Rhine bridge.

Okay, the summary makes it sound stupid, but it's not. It's about loyalties, and betrayals, and compromise, honor and shame, love and deceit, the whole nine yards, and the kind of thing French pictures are really good at. For our purposes, it's a late-breaking discussion (fifteen years after the fact) of questions the French preferred to turn a blind eye to, wartime derelictions. There's no denying some people showed incredible bravery, and some people were utterly contemptible, but a fair number were probably just trying to get by. It's a variation, or the obverse, of the Good German. 



I don't know what the moral is, or even if there is one. I suspect people play the hand they're dealt, and some of us rise to the occasion better than others. Darrieux didn't embarrass herself. Maurice Chevalier, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry? A little less honorable. Arletty, whose acting career flourished during the Occupation, most famously Les Enfants du Paradis, got jail time for sleeping with the enemy. ("My heart is French, but my ass is international," she later remarked.) Sartre, who wrote for the underground paper Combat, says, "Everything we did was equivocal." Not to put too fine a point on it, pretty much everything they did was self-serving.

David Bell, reviewing Alan Riding's book about Paris during the Occupation, And the Show Went On, reminds us that the French basically lucked out, compared to what was going on in, say, Poland. French artists and intellectuals suffered chaos, and scarcities, and many dangers. But more than a few prospered. And most of them survived to argue about it another day. [The New Republic, 03-03-2011]

It's instructive, I guess, that I'm still raking over the coals myself. We simply don't know how we'd react in a claustrophobic climate of fear, which makes it harder to judge what they did. When you hear the tumbrels passing in the street, you don't want them stopping at your door.

04 August 2017

Where do you get your inspiration?


How many times are writers asked, "Where do you get your inspiration for a book?"

Since you asked, I'll tell you about an inspiration.

I was an army brat who lived in a lot of places, went to a lot of schools. From 1960 through 1963, we lived in Italy and I attended the Verona American School on a via called Borgo Milano in Verona. The school had an excellent library where I discovered a series of young adult novels written and illustrated by Clayton Knight. It was a series of WE WERE THERE books, featuring kids who witnessed historcal events, like WERE WERE THERE AT PEARL HARBOR, WE WERE THERE AT THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN and WE WERE THERE WITH THE LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE.


I read them all, my favorite was WE WERE THERE AT THE NORMANDY INVASION because the kids were French and I'm French-American (half Sicilian-American but there was no WE WERE THERE AT THE LIBERATION OF SICILY probably because one would have to ask 'which liberation of Sicily?'). Also the soldiers in the book were paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and my father was in the 82nd before he became an army CID agent.

Loved that book. I was maybe eleven when I read it but it stuck with me as I grew up and earned a degree in European History, became a cop, became a writer. It floated in my mind, not the storyline, not even the characters, but the vision of France during World War II.

After I started writing mysteries, I began to daydream about writing an historical novel about France during the war and slowly characters formed in my mind. Not at all like Clayton Knight's kids caught up in battle around D-Day. And no paratroopers.

A few years ago, I watched the movie IS PARIS BURNING? (Paramount, 1966) and my imagination created a storyline. Le Maquis. The French Resistance. Eventually my characters took shape and I dropped them into France in 1943 where the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the French resistance wrecked havoc on the Nazi conquerors of occupied France.

My characters formed a special unit. A secret cell. A cadre of young operatives given the code names of archangels, including Samael, the angel of death. These agents called themselves Death Angels. And I let my mind wander with them from an opening scene blowing up a train to the assassinations of Nazi officers and French collaborators. Scene after scene played out in my brain until the Death Angels arrived in Paris to help liberate the City of Light.

Did a lot of research before I started writing. Then I let the character loose and ran after them and wrote down what the did.

Four characters: French resistance fighters Louis (code name Michael), Chico (code name Gabriel) and American assassin Jack (code name Samael) and the most lethal member, French courtesan Arianne (code name Jopiel).

My vision. My story. All triggered, prodded, inspired by thoughts of Normandy and le Maquis and Paris during the occupation.

cover art ©2016 Dana De Noux

Several of my mystery novels and short stories were also inspired by true events. I'll continue with another blog.

That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com



13 April 2017

"Afternoons in Paris" by Janice Law


You remember Francis Bacon:
  File:Pourbus Francis Bacon.jpg  No, not that one, this one:  

Francis Bacon, artist.  Francis Bacon, gambler.  Francis Bacon, bon vivant.  Francis Bacon, gay, asthmatic, Irish, autodidact, devoted to his Nan, louche, rough, crazy...

Well, HE'S BACK!!!!



Yes, my favorite gay artist adventurer is back in Janice Law's "Afternoons in Paris".  Francis is 18 and in the City of Lights, and very glad to be there after the craziness of Berlin (read Janice's "Nights in Berlin":  the book and David Edgerley Gates' review).  Now he's on his own, working for a decorator/designer by day (the somewhat susceptible Armand), visiting galleries with the motherly Madame Dumoulin, and cruising the city by night with the totally unreliable Pyotr, a Russian emigre who, like Francis, has a taste for quick hook-ups and rough trade.

Pyotr has two Russian friends, Igor, who's sinister, and Lev, who's quickly assassinated.  After getting robbed (by Pyotr), beaten up (by 'Cossacks') in Montparnasse, and finding two more waiting to do the same at his lodgings, Francis tries to avoid Russians by moving in with Madame Dumoulin and her brother, Jules, who needs a caretaker.  Well, it could be argued that Francis is the last person to be anyone's companion/caretaker, but our boy knows how to be appreciative.  And Jules, although a traumatized WW1 veteran, is an innocent (at least compared to Francis):  much like Mr. Dick in "David Copperfield", he builds complex machines and flies kites.  Francis can enjoy both.

And then Jules gets a chance to design machines for the theatre group Les Mortes Immortels, and it's back to Paris for all.  Jules' machines are the best part of a production about as audience-friendly as "Finnegan's Wake"; that and the character of Human Hope, played by Inessa, a Russian Helen of Troy who enraptures everyone around her.  Except for those who are using her.

Russians are everywhere, and they're all dangerous:  Pyotr; the NKVD assassin Alexi; the NKVD blackmailer Anoshkin; Inessa's missing brother, Pavel.  And, wouldn't you know it, who's up to his neck in all of this but Francis' Uncle Lastings?  Now known as Claude, art dealer and bon-vivant, but still up to his neck in intrigue, scams, sex, and spying.  Francis has a lot of fast talking, fast running, fast thinking, and fast acting to do to survive...

Soutine's Chemin de la Fontaine
des Tins at Ceret - Wikipedia
As always, it's fascinating to see the world through Francis' eyes, especially at 18, when he is still at the beginning of creating himself.  He has a knack for noticing details, from the "distinctive stink of French drains" to the "most brutal and vigorous thing I'd seen in France" - a dead rooster, painted by Chaim Soutine.  When he writes to Nan that "a glance at her makes me feel more hopeful", we know that Inessa is indeed a remarkable woman, someone to pay attention to.  And, when told that Pavel can't be wandering Paris without proper papers, Francis' reaction is "My own experience in Berlin led me to believe that Monsieur Chaput was exaggerating.  A teenage boy has a number of ways of eluding bureaucrats and busybodies."  And he would know.
Image result for jessie lightfoot
Nan

Emotionally, Francis is still developing, or is he?  At one point he says, regarding his commitment to Jules:  "I had promised Jules, and I believe in friendship.  It tends to be more stable than romance." Not to mention family. As he writes to Nan about his uncle, "I know this is a surprise, but He Who Must Not be Named has secured a job for me, and this time, I have asked to be paid half in advance. You can see I am getting wise to the ways of the world." In fact, the only person Francis trusts implicitly is Nan, in "Afternoons in Paris", "Nights in Berlin", "Fires of London", "The Prisoner of the Riviera", "Moon over Tangier" and in real life.  She will always be the most stable person in his life, not excepting himself.

But even at 18, Francis is already witty, sarcastic, honest, observant, hungry, lustful, reckless, and utterly sure that he will never be among the bourgeoisie. (And how right he is.) He always gives a master class in the art of survival.  Francis Bacon and Paris in the 20s - it's hard to ask for anything more.







15 March 2016

Resetting the Clock


Today, on the Ides of March, I’d like to welcome Janice Law, SleuthSayers emerita, mystery writer and painter, to guest blog. Janice was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1977 for The Big Payoff, her first Anna Peters novel. And in 2013, she was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Mystery for Fires of London, the first in her Francis Bacon series. She won that award the following year for its sequel, The Prisoner of the Riviera. She writes frequently for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and many others. So, take it away, Janice.

—Paul

*~*~*~*

Resetting the Clock

by Janice Law

(Many thanks to Paul D. Marks for kindly giving me his column space this week.)


My family always insists that I don’t take advice. This is only partially true. I rarely take advice immediately, but that’s not to say that I reject good ideas entirely. Case in point: my new Francis Bacon trilogy, which debuts April 5 with the opening volume, Nights in Berlin.

And what is this good advice that I’ve taken? To revise a character’s age downward. I did not do this with my former detective, Anna Peters, who retired with her bad back in her early 50’s. But I have now reset Francis’ age, from forty-something in Moon over Tangier, back to seventeen.

I had a couple reasons for doing this.

By the time he’d reached his early forties, the historical Bacon was on the verge of being both rich and famous, and some of his less pleasant, and more destructive, habits were going to become prominent. More important, he had lost Jessie Lightfoot (Nan in the books) and she, along with a knowledge of painting, was crucial to my understanding of his personality.

Characters one invents are almost by definition comprehensible. They may or may not be the fascinating, successful creations we all hope for, but the chances are good we’ll feel we understand them. If we don’t, if the character doesn’t in some way “make sense” to us, he or she will surely wind up in the out-take file or scooped up and eliminated by the handy delete button.

Historical figures are another matter. They are known, sometimes to the general public, sometimes only to specialists, but either way there certain irrefutable facts and circumstances about their lives that must be respected. To be honest, some of these facts are awkward. I personally love country living and all animals. Not so Francis. Music is important to me; Francis was tone deaf. And then there is his sexual preference – promiscuous gay sadomasochism – and his affection for the bottle.

Clearly, if one is going to write about a character this far from one’s own tastes, interests, and experience, a character, moreover, whose biography is known and available, one must find a way into his personality. My entrance to Francis’ psyche were via Nan (my mom had emigrated as a nanny and I grew up on a big estate that employed one) and his art (I’m a keen semi-pro painter).

With those two anchors, I’ve been able to navigate my fictional character’s taste for city life and rough trade, not to mention his reckless genius. Still, by the time I finished Moon over Tangier, I felt that the character I had been following for a dozen fictional years was complete, and I was ready to end the series.

But some interesting facets of the man’s life remained, especially his decision to close a reasonably successful design business (one capable of supporting both himself and Nan) and to embark on the precarious path of serious painting. That decision could, I saw, be the finale of a new trilogy.

What about the 600 or so pages needed before I could get to that point? Here, the real Francis’personal history came to my rescue. As a teenager and young adult, he lived in three different cities, each at a crucial and fascinating time: Weimar Berlin, where he was taken by a peculiar uncle – my character Uncle Lastings is, aside from his sexual habits and the circumstances of the German trip, a total invention; Paris at the end of the Roaring Twenties; and London in the Thirties after the party stopped.

Berlin and Paris were extremely important for the real painter’s later development. Bacon never went to art school and what little formal instruction he had in oil painting was picked up from one of his lovers. But in Berlin, he saw the cutting edge European art of the moment, Bauhaus design, Expressionism, Dada, and the New Objectivity as German artists struggled with the machine age and the devastation of the world war. For a young gay man, it also didn’t hurt that Berlin was liberated sexually in ways undreamt of in England.

Paris, like Berlin had galleries and new art, most importantly for Bacon, the works of Picasso, as well as the great public museums. Surrealism was in the air, and writers and artists from around the world had come to work – or to live the artistic life – in the metropolis. As for London, the art scene was tame compared to the excitements of the Continent, but London was, first and foremost, where his heart was. All his artistic life Bacon had trouble working anywhere but in the city along the Thames: he was a London man first and foremost.

Of course, three novels, even short ones, about the making of a painter are not going to set mystery lovers’ hearts a-flutter. Fortunately, history as well as biography now comes to the rescue. Berlin had gangs both fascist and Red; an enormous vice industry, fueled by the collapse of the post-war economy, plus public and private violence and misery of every sort.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-09249-0013, Berlin, alte Frau sammelt Abfälle
Paris had rich foreigners flinging money around and indulging their whims, while poor foreigners scraped for a living and struggled to recover from wars and revolutions further East. The underside of Parisian artistic creativity was imaginative larceny, including successful attempts to sell the Eiffel Tower. As for London, by the mid-Thirties, the city saw Hunger Marchers, waves of homeless, desperate immigrant Jews, British fascists like the Black Shirts, and ever-increasing fears of yet another war.

Who could let all this go to waste?

I declared Francis seventeen again and started Nights in Berlin.

10 April 2013

The Night of The Generals


Not that many movies begin with a guy hiding in a stairwell toilet, peeking through a crack in the door. Warsaw, 1942, the German occupation. A whore is murdered. A major in German intelligence is called in by the Polish police, because the case may have unhappy political considerations. The girl was a German informant. Oh, and the guy in the toilet? He saw somebody coming down the stairs, but he can't identify him, because all he saw was the lower half of a Wehrmacht uniform, with a red stripe down the leg. It happens only German generals wear the red stripe.


Three of the generals posted to Warsaw have no explanation for where they were on the night in question, and Major Grau of Intelligence takes it on himself to narrow the field of suspects. His immediate subordinate, a captain, asks him why it matters who killed the girl, a nobody. Grau asks him in return, Have you ever heard of the Eumenides? Grau's point is that even a whore's lonely death, unrevenged, will call down the Furies. One of the suspected officers, General Tanz, makes the explicit counterargument, later in the picture, when he says, Why should this woman's murder attract any attention at all?---our century has seen millions of deaths more horrible than hers. From this perspective, the moral question is one of degree.

NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is compelling not because of the mystery---it's pretty transparent from the get-go which of our guys is a nutjob---but because it's about a murder in wartime. Everything plays out against the worsening backdrop of Germany's coming collapse, from Warsaw in '42 to Paris in July of '44, after the Allied landings in Normandy, and everybody's got something to hide. One of the major plot strands is the conspiracy in the German high command to assassinate Hitler, for example. This raises the stakes considerably, and while you might not agree with General Tanz, and his moral relativism, you can see where he's coming from. With defeat looming, who seriously cares about dead whores? (There's more than one victim as the movie goes on. It turns out there's a serial killer on the loose.) And the dogged military cop, Grau, keeps getting the brush-off, swatted away by higher ranks, and reassigned because he's a nuisance. Not necessarily by the murderer, either. That's where the real mystery lies, not in the homicide investigation itself, but why all these people are so determined to throw Grau off the scent.

Donald Pleasance, Peter O'Toole, Charles Gray, Omar Sharif

The picture uses an effective structural device, which is basically a frame story, although that's not immediately apparent, since it begins in media res, but then it starts to shift back and forth in time, between the war and the present day---the present day being twenty years later. This allows people to comment on the events of the past, as you see them in flashback, or flash-forward, and often enough, they get it wrong. So there's an element of unreliable narrative mixed in. You don't know whether to trust the witnesses. Their memories may be corrupted by dubious loyalties, or simply self-serving, or they're still protecting old secrets.

Lastly, although this is perhaps parenthetical, when I first saw the movie, in late '67, I think it was, I'd been in Berlin almost two years, and one of the things I thought the picture got dead right was the German habit of mind. In particular, the way the Germans chose to to think about the war, or more to the point, the way they chose not to. In one scene, a veteran officer, now managing an automotive plant, laments that the Wehrmacht might have been able to stop the Allies, if the Army hadn't been stabbed in the back---as usual, he adds. This is willful disbelief, and a denial of history.  In another instance, an aging general is writing his memoirs, and he's gotten as far as the July 1944 plot against Hitler. He remarks that one has to be circumspect, so as not to re-open old wounds, particularly, he says, since so many of the convicted war criminals are now being released. This beggars imagination. Most people, on the other hand, can't be blamed for wanting to reinvent themselves, or be cast in a better light. For example, the French, everybody secretly in the Resistance, and nobody a willing collaborator. Or the Russians, or the Brits, or the Japanese, or us. Americans conveniently forget how strong the isolationist sentiment in this country was, before Pearl Harbor, and how many people thought Hitler was right about the Jews. In this sense, then, NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is subversive. It chooses both to forget, or to blur memory, and at the same time to serve as a sharp reminder, that only some of us are guilty, but none of us are innocent. No less than the Germans, we congratulate ourselves on learning the wrong lessons. No matter how this turns out, Rommel says, talking about the soon-to-fail July plot, history will judge us as patriots, or traitors.

At the end, though, NIGHT OF THE GENERALS does in fact turn on justice for those murdered whores, and there's some small satisfaction in that. In spite of its large canvas, and larger issues, the picture manages to keep a tight focus, and the Furies are held at bay. Or as Stalin is said to have remarked, one death is a tragedy, millions are a statistic.

IMDb movie website link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062038/

18 December 2011

Hugo and Shakespeare


A series of crushing deadlines dogged me for several weeks, so serious research and writing pushed creative authoring into a tiny corner. It didn't help that the short story I've been working on has been a recalcitrant bear. Even its title proved elusive, another little hurdle in a difficult terrain.
Cosette
not quite this young
The tale grew out of a 'what-if' scenario in my head. At 2900 words, if it were a play, it would be two acts with three speaking rôles. One protagonist is a fair-minded cop who can't be bought, bribed, bent, or browbeaten. The 'criminal' is a sullen twenty-year-old homeless woman. It should be simple, right?

Les Misérables

If not a miserable experience, it's been a challenging and sometimes frustrating one. This is what I learned.

I wrote the first draft in third person. Third person didn't work. It lay flat and lifeless on the page without emotion. I struggled, but it proved stubborn.

I rewrote it in first person from the cop's standpoint. The connection with the characters grew, but it still wasn't right. Disbelief remained unsuspended.

I rewrote it in first person from the woman's view. Just before that moment where I might hate the story, it began to flesh out emotionally.

The story line is less Dickens and more Victor Hugo. Our 'criminal' is sort of an angry female Jean Valjean, sleeping in her SUV with iced-over windows. Our detective, though incorruptible, is more, say, Bishop Myriel than Inspector Javert.

Death Takes a Holiday

Fueled by outside deadlines and pressures from the real world, the story continued to prove difficult, resisting every sentence. What started before Halloween passed Thanksgiving and approached Christmas.

But wait… Christmas? What if I set the story during Christmas season? Acquaintances have sent numerous eMails insisting the White House and the ACLU are banning Christmas, but I'm pretty sure that's not true. We've got time for one more holiday story, don't we?

Only recently have I tackled holiday stories and in each case, the holiday (Halloween, Hanukkah, and Christmas) was integral to the story. I don't believe in welding a seasonal setting onto an ordinary yarn, but with this intransigent new story, a Christmas setting felt right. I'd already cast the weather as cold, bleak, and dreary with a hint of snow in the air. Why not let the season provide the texture of believability for the tale?

Thus it came to pass in the little town of Orlando, the December temperature dropped sufficiently to turn off the air conditioner, wear T-shirts and shorts, throw open the doors, and mow the lawn. And, imagine a story in a snowy, icy city nearer the Canadian border than this close to the tropics.



A Death in the Family
Shakespearean
photo credit: Christine Selleck
Shakespeare & Company is a bookstore (the second of two) in… wait for it… the heart of Paris. Ninety-eight year-old owner George Whitman, who lived above the bookshop, died last week. He let writers, both published and unpublished, bunk in the bookstore in exchange for a couple of hours work each day. Originally from New Jersey, Whitman once called the shop "a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore."

I don't believe in socialist utopias, but I do believe in brilliant entrepreneurs who wink at the left and the right and lay down workable business models when other retailers collapse. Owning a bookstore is one of those dreams like owning a pub or restaurant– probably better dreamt than acted upon.

Both Shakespearean bookstores have their own important history. Watch this video about the store or read the fascinating history.

Next week, Louis Willis  will meet you here Christmas Day.