Here’s the thing. In the end, reading and writing saved me. That and going back to France, and in 1970 I met a man there who changed my life. I was twenty-four, Philippe a few years younger. A self confessed prodigy, he had co-written an erotic book at sixteen called "Les Violons, Encore les Violons," and for a while became a minor celebrity in Paris. However, he hadn’t done much since and was tortured by the fact, albeit in his own superior way. A flamboyant dresser, he liked to stroll Boulevard St Germain in a long black jacket and a cream shirt with a ruffled jabot. His hair was carefully groomed to a dark sheen and fell loosely to his shoulders ( a masterpiece compared to mine), and he often walked with a silver topped cane. It was Byron without the club foot.
Philippe couldn’t believe I had these poetic leanings but had read absolutely nothing. So he introduced me to books. It was a revelation. Life would never be the same. Lying across his unmade bed in the Rue du Bac, he taught me to read Nietzsche, Faulkner, Camus and Celine. We went to W. H. Smith on the Rue de Rivoli to buy the paperbacks in English.
Celine! The genius! I remember the thrill I felt when I saw the words, "Once one’s in it, one’s in it up to the neck" –– who’d ever imagined writing like that? So I forgave the drugs and the mess in his flat, the awful reek of cigarettes, the empty wine bottles and dirty bed sheets. He had two claustrophobic rooms in the eaves of an old hotel particulier, what had once been the maids’ quarters. There was no kitchen and no real bathroom, just a sink and a toilet inside a cupboard with a portable bidet, a little tin thing you pulled out on wheels.
It was the genuine artist’s lair, everything faded and worn from years of sitting around and thinking. But there wasn’t much writing. Occasionally, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and find him at his desk, bent over a notebook, its pages covered with his minute, indecipherable scrawl. The next day they’d be torn out and thrown away. “I wanted to read them,” I’d say. “I know,” he’d reply, gazing at me with his huge brown eyes. “That’s why.”
I had just done a film with Tom Courtenay ("Otley"), but I wasn't that happy being an actress. I was more impressed by Philippe, living the bohemian life and learning about literature. I was amazed to discover that fictional characters had similar feelings to mine––more eloquently defined, of course, but there they were, put into words. Attracted to writers (dying to be one myself), I was still wrapped up in the idea of LOVE, the agony and the drama, convinced that happiness could only come from being loved by a man... and, in Philippe’s case, a supreme egotist.
“The perfect woman is a higher type of human that the perfect man, and also something much more rare,” he’d say, in his Parisian drawl, quoting from his tattered copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra.
“Am I the perfect woman?”
“We’ll see, ” he'd say Then he'd sling me across the bed – a rectangle of wood, topped with a creaky two inches of hard springs.
Most mornings we got up late and walked to Café Flore. Phillipe’s favorite booth was at the back, the one Simone de Beauvoir had occupied, he assured me, while penning her notes to Sartre. Breakfast consisted of cafes serres, buttered tartines and often a cognac to deal with the hangovers. We sat for hours, Philippe bent over Le Monde, one elbow propped on the table, his pale nicotine-tipped fingers waving a cigarette, and me next to him holding a well-thumbed copy of Journey To The End Of the Night, many of its pages heavily underlined. It was all very self consciously artistic.
Other writers and artists would come in. Paul Geoguff, who wrote screenplays for Chabrol, Daniel Pommerol, the sculptor; Dennis Berry, an American director who was then married to actress Jean Seberg, and Maria Shneider (before her Brando debut). Stoned, she would traipse in, overtly sexual in last night’s dress and throw herself exhausted across the banquette. Then, raising her big panda eyes (complete with dark circles), she’d make a big show of trying to seduce us both. Of course, Philippe encouraged her.
PHILIPPE had no money. I think he got a small amount from his parents and I never had much, either. I couldn’t save a penny. But he didn’t believe it. He always thought I was holding out on him.
We went out every night. To La Coupole, still authentic then. Or we went to Lipp, where the waiters knew him and as a writer he was treated with the reverence he thought he deserved. I remember one particularly bad evening. I'd ordered the raie aux buerre noir and a rhum baba, as I always did, and we were both quite drunk. When the bill came, Philippe wanted me to get out my wallet. “I’ve only got a hundred franc note left,” I said, “My last,” which was true.
“Oh, merde, tu est radin, ” he said, adjusting his silk scarf, looking aloof and pouty. “What?” I didn’t know what radin meant. “Cheap. You are being so cheap!” (in his bad English, he pronounced it sheep.) He kept nudging me to slide the money under the table, so as not to look radin himself in front of the waiters. “Give it to me,“ he demanded. “No,” I shouted back. He made a big fuss. Eventually, the maître d’ came over and we had to leave.
Out in the street, arguments like this could go on forever. Walking ahead, he’d glare back at me with his huge distrustful eyes. “Don’t you know that it’s customary in France to support the artist?” “What artist?” I’d say. Why don’t you do something instead of lying around the apartment all day, staring at the ceiling.”
“You don’t understand how difficult it is.”
“Well, how could I? You make doing nothing look so easy….”
“Salope!” ( Bitch)
At this point, I would back down because he looked so hurt. Which merely encouraged him to berate me for my insensitivity and cheapness all the way down Boulevard St. Germain to the Rue du Bac.
It was all too exhausting. On the pretext of skipping out for a pack of Gitanes, I’d walk to the Musee Rodin on the Rue Varenne. To stand in those airy rooms with the creaking parquet floors, the afternoon light slanting across the exquisite sculptures was a huge relief. Or I would wander up the Rue du Bac to Deyrolle’s to gaze at the stuffed lions and zebras.
Walking around Paris, was a big part of the romance. I wanted to belong to the city. In the Luxembourg Gardens, I’d sit on one of the little back-breaking metal chairs, watching the pigeons while I tried to digest Gide. Or I’d traipse around Galleries Lafayette for hours just to buy a pair of fishnet stockings.
I loved France. I loved the language. With my former boyfriend, Michel, I’d learned a few rudimentary sentences, but with Philippe, I really learned French. First of all, he wanted to teach me every vulgar sexual expression he knew. Things that to this day I can’t repeat in public. It turned him on. “Oh, cheri, encore!” he’d shout, laughing, waving his cigarette, the ash raining over the sheets. I had no idea what I was saying. But eventually, when we progressed to more normal topics, it sunk in –– and after about eight months, I was speaking French fluently. It was shockingly liberating.
During those long drug-induced nights, when I’d listen to him quote from Les Lumieres, or Huysmans, or expound on the romantic tragedy of Rimbaud (whose untimely death his premier disciple, Philippe, would no doubt soon be emulating), or when we argued, I suddenly didn’t felt the need to be defensive, or polite. I could say things without betraying my nice English self because French words didn’t resonate in the same way.
If I admitted that I was confused or jealous or that I loved him ( je t’adore – always easier to say than the sober British version), or that I didn’t love him anymore, that I was sick of it all, it was as if I were talking about someone else. And in a way, I was. My fear of giving offense was behind me. Suddenly I could throw up my hands and shout, “Tu m’emmerde! Va te faire enculer! “ Go fuck yourself! I’d say, feeling utterly released. It was a powerful thing.
One night we were invited to dinner at Paul Geoguff’s. He lived in a large country house outside Paris with his charming wife, Daniel. We sat at a round table with five or six other guests and at some point there was talk of a friend’s bad love affair. One of the men asked me what I thought about Love. Ah, well, "Chacqu’un a son cauchemar," I replied –– to each his own nightmare–– which was greeted with peals of laughter. Then Geoguff remarked: "Ah, la petite Anglaise. Tres drole! Tres intelligente!"
Naturally, I was happy to be thought of as droll or intelligent in any language. And being able to speak good French felt like a great leap forward. Though you might say it allowed me to remove myself even farther from reality…
Read more about Philippe –– Marrakesh: dangerous, and a disaster –– in "Mistakes Were Made (some in French)" Order now from Amazon!
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