Mel Birnkrant's
Mel Birnkrant's
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
                      Some images are Copyright HAROLD CHAPMAN
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         I arrived in Paris, sometime in the late summer, or early fall of 1958.  As soon as I got off the plane, I found a hotel room and slept for three days and three nights.  Then, I woke up to a whole new life.  The depression was gone, and the painful memories of my final summer in Detroit were left behind.  I had escaped alive, all in one piece, without a hangover, or fatigue. 

One of my mother’s friends had given me the name and address of a girl from Detroit, who was living in Paris.  Having nothing else on my agenda, I looked her up.  She was living with a Frenchman in a garret in Montparnasse.  I think he might have been the only Frenchman I met the entire year I was in France.  The French, at least, back then, were known to be notoriously unfriendly.  They disliked foreigners, Americans especially.  But there were legions of visitors from surrounding countries, who spoke fluent English, and from this group, I would make many friends.  The young lady from Montparnasse gave me the address of an American my age, who had been living in Europe for several years.  That is how I met Bob and Verta.  We instantly became Best Friends.

Robert Strawbridge Grosvenor was the son of wealthy Americans.  His mother was a member of the Strawbridge Clothier Family, who owned a big department store in Philadelphia.  They had three children, Bob and two sisters.  One sister, he explained, had done some things to shame the family.  Bob had a little of that rebellion in him too.  He was my age, blond, good looking, and very waspy.  His worn-out clothes had originally come from Brooks Brothers.  He had been living in Europe for several years, first, studying art in Italy, and later he attended l’Ecole des Arts Decoratifs, in Paris. 
          Bob was living with an American, Verta Mae Smart.  Verta was a tall gawky black girl from Philly.  Her wildly expressive body language reminded me of Olive Oyl.  Yet, there was something quite stunning about her, with her expressive eyes, heavily outlined in black mascara, she had a flair for the dramatic.  I found her both exotic and attractive.  Verta had an exceedingly active imagination, she liked to think of herself as a “Watusi.”  Certainly she was tall enough to pull off the illusion, and ironically, years later, she would play the role of one on Broadway, in a production called, "Mandingo."  I remember her cue, “Here comes one of my Mandingos now!”
They were living in an ancient ballroom that was absolutely huge.  It consisted of one enormous empty room, lavishly decorated in the Rococo style, with accents of gold filigree, and a double bed, right in the middle.  Its 25 feet high walls were covered, from floor to ceiling, with the abandoned paintings of an artist who had lived, and perhaps, died there, at the Turn of the Century.  I felt like I had suddenly stepped through a magic looking glass into a dream.  Alas, this spectacular environment was a sublet, and the lease was about to end.  So, like myself, Bob and Verta needed to find a place to live. 

The following morning, they unexpectedly arrived in my hotel room.  Destiny came walking through the door, without knocking.  I woke to find them sitting on my bed.  It staggers my imagination to contemplate what my life in France might have been like if I had not met them.  They graciously took me under their wing, and more or less, adopted me.  That very day, we found apartments, side by side, over an old carriage house, at one of the far gates of Paris. 

I became a dinner guest at their place, nearly every night.  Most of the time, Verta made spaghetti, which on alternate nights, I supplied.  Cooking, in later years, would become her career, and she’d author a book called, “Vibration Cooking.”  But for now, the only thing vibrating was spaghetti in a pot of boiling water!  She considered herself an actress and a singer, and, actually, she was pretty good.  But, most of all, Verta was a fascinating raconteur, and she kept us entertained with tales of her childhood, growing up in Philadelphia, and the antics of her colorful family.  The only downside of these soirees was the fact that Bob and I had to listen to Verta’s one and only LP record, over and over again, Harry Belafonte, singing “Danny Boy," incessantly. 

Living next door to Bob and Verta was frustrating; Verta screamed dramatically, whenever they made love.  My God, through the wall, I could hear everything, so could the whole neighborhood.  And, believe me, Verta screamed plenty, plenty LOUD, every day!  This place was literally the last stop on the subway, and a long way to travel to the Left Bank.  Therefore, after a month or two, we were all ready to move. 

Bob and Verta had been waiting, for nearly a year, to get a room at “Number 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur," a small, but notorious hotel that was known, by those in the know, as “The Beat Hotel.”  It was the legendary residence and center of the Beat Generation in Paris, which was in full flower in 1958.  When, at last, a room became available, they were the next in line.  It happened to be the nicest room in the hotel, one flight up with a large window, overlooking the narrow street below.  The writer, William Burroughs and his young  Indian boy lover occupied the tiny windowless room next door.  And on the top floor the poet Gregory Corso, whose poem “Bomb” was set in type arranged in the configuration of a mushroom cloud, held court.  It was said that adoring young ladies stood in line outside his door.  Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky first stayed there in 1957, and soon after, other leading luminaries of the Beat Generation followed.  And so, Bob and Verta moved back to the Left Bank. 

         I moved there too, and found a room in a small hotel, nearby, on Rue Mazarine.  The rent was $30 a month.  Throughout Paris, small hotels were everywhere. These were more like apartment buildings.  The term “hotel” is misleading.  They were intended as residences, and the rent was calculated by the month.  Usually, the rooms were occupied full time.  They were not designed for merely staying overnight.

I thought my small high-ceilinged room was Paradise!  It was just one floor up from the street, with a huge French window, taller than the room was wide, overlooking Rue Mazarine.  There was a sink and a bidet, sectioned off by a curtain in one corner, and a communal toilet with, thank God, a sit down seat, in a small chamber in the hall, just outside my door.  The concierge left me a set of heavy linen sheets, once a month.  And after that, no one entered my room again.  Her attitude was “Laissez-Faire.” which meant, “Do anything you want!”  She sat in an alcove, adjacent to the stairs, on the ground floor, and greeted me cheerfully, every day.  She didn’t mind when I had visitors, or how long they stayed.

Soon, my room became an artist’s studio. I acquired an easel and huge canvasses, each one larger than the last.  I was living La Vie Parisienne, and loving it! 

The $250 a month that my mother forwarded to me seemed like plenty, and it was.  I cashed the check at the American Express.  Then, I went to a money changer at a bar in Montmartre and converted the dollars to French Francs.  Now, I was on Cloud Neuf, living my dream: Poor at Last!  Poor at Last!

The first time I met Bob and Verta, I was struck and puzzled by the way they spoke.  They had an accent and inflection that I had never heard before.  It was Pure Affectation.  They called it “talking European.”  They explained to me how it was done: English with an upward lilt, like French.  And every phrase was engineered to sound like it had a question mark at the end.  Yes, we did not want to be recognized as Americans.  There was nothing more grotesque than the sight of Ugly Americans, circa 1950s, in Europe.  Anyone could spot them a mile away, by their clothes, their walk, their speech, and their loud obnoxious attitude...i.e. the almighty dollar speaks.
         I soon learned how to disguise my nationality, and I got the routine down pat, the speech and the correct clothes.  I had one pair of beat-up shoes, no socks, French trousers and shirt, no underwear, and a black leather jacket, which looked like a German SS uniform.  This had actually traveled with me from the USA, another kooky clothing choice, in the tradition of the pink elephant on silver lamé I used to wear in high school.  When winter came, I was freezing.  So, although, it killed me to spend money on clothes, I forced myself to buy a big black secondhand overcoat from a street vendor.  It could have been the very one that Colline pawned in the final act of "La Boheme".

Thus, I accomplished my goal, and I was often mistaken for anything but an American.  Even Americans didn't think I was American.  And, of course, I smoked Gauloise, the world's strongest French Cigarette.  Will the REAL Mel Birnkrant Please stand up?  At that moment in time, I felt like he was doing that, at last!

Meanwhile, I wrote my Mother religiously, always assuring her that I was having a terrible time and missed her.  Nothing could have been farther from the truth on both counts.  
         And then disaster struck!  I had been in France just a few months, when she forwarded to me, a notice from the draft board, requiring me to appear for a physical in two weeks time, one week of which was already used up!  I immediately went into panic mode.  And rushed to the Academy of Beaux Arts.  Oh Oh! That school turned out to be free, but it required a portfolio and French citizenship to qualify.

Therefore, by the end of the day, I managed to sign up as a full time student at l'Acadamie Julienne.  The cost was about $10 a month. It turned out to be fabulous!  l'Acadamie Julienne was a huge atelier, unchanged, ever since the impressionists drew and painted there at the Turn of the Century, and before.  The lighting was supplied by skylights in the lofty ceiling, and in winter, it was heated by several gigantic potbelly stoves. There were three models, two nude, one clothed, posing at all times! There were no formal classes, students could come and go as they pleased, and make full use of the facilities.  I quickly notified the draft board that I was enrolled in school, and for a while, I went there almost every day, and drew.
          I began to frequent the Monaco Café, a major meeting place of the Beat Generation in Paris.  Everyone was English, American, Scottish, Dutch, or German; and all of them spoke English.  A Scottish folk singer, the legendary, Alex Campbell held court there, every day.  I became a member of his inner circle, and one of his many close friends.  We would hang out there at the Monaco, drinking all evening, and then, in the early hours, go off to a tiny bistro.  In the depths of its atmospheric basement, which was referred to as a “cave,” Alex and his entourage of fans and fellow folk singers raised the roof with music and carousing, until the break of day.  Then, we would walk through the deserted streets of Paris, back to our hotel rooms to sleep, until late in the afternoon; and then, begin again.  Between celebrating late into the night, and attending art school, I was burning the candle at both ends.

Alex was incredibly charismatic, but he lived life on the edge.  To say that he appeared dissipated would be an understatement. Therefore, I was  somewhat amazed to discover from the Internet that he continued on for many years, and, in fact, became quite famous.  Here is a You Tube recording of Alex singing a song I heard him sing 100 times.  It was something of a signature tune.  His voice had a haunting quality that had been known to move many a listener to tears.
I occasionally took my oils to school, and tried sketching in paint.
Here is Alex Campbell in the Cafe Monaco.  Each stacked saucer represents a glass of wine or beer consumed.  That is how the bill was tallied.  The woman in the photo would have been one of Alex’s previous paramours, in the days before I knew him.  On his right, is an Englishman, named, "Guy."
         Alex had a way with the ladies, and always managed to acquire a companion who was both his lover and his benefactor.  All the while that I knew Alex, he was living with an abundantly voluptuous American girl, named, Dickey Dell Johnson.  Many American young women of that era, went slightly wild in Paris, leaving any evidence of their moral upbringing back home in the USA.  Dickey Dell was from Texas, and happened to be one of the heirs to the Johnson Wax estate.  Small world!  A cantankerous couple, the Johnson’s, who were on the guided tour of Europe with my parents and I, when I was 15, were her relatives.  Dickey Dell and I became good friends.  She posed for me in my hotel room.  One of the drawings is below.  
         Speaking of drawings; after attending l'Acadamie Julienne, religiously, for several months, I became disillusioned, because all the drawings that I stored there were stolen.  This was most discouraging.  And thus, I came to learn the hard way that such thefts were commonplace.  It seems that any art that was presentable, often disappeared from art schools.  Then, the thief’s accomplices, usually attractive young ladies, would make the rounds of open air cafes, and sell the art to tourists.   I was not sure if I should be flattered, or outraged, that my drawings had made the grade, but I never went back to l'Acadamie Julienne again, except to pay my monthly fee.  In my final days in France, I returned there, one last time, to obtain a letter, which they gladly gave me, testifying that I had attended school there, every day, which was worth a whole year of college credits, back in the USA.

Meanwhile, there was not a quaint and curious shop, on the left bank that I did nor frequent, frequently.  I haunted all the antique shops and Flea markets in Paris.  Thus, without realizing it, I was becoming a "Collector."  And my hotel room was slowly filling up with treasures.
        To meet the requirements of renewing my visa, I took three trips across the border.  The first was a visit to the Brussels World’s Fair.  The highlight of that journey was seeing the work of James Ensor and his monumental masterpiece, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels.”  It was absolutely awesome.  He instantly became my favorite painter.  
At the USA Pavilion, I also saw several of Ub Iwerks original animation drawings for the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy.  They absolutely stunned me with their direct and honest beauty.  Thank you, Uncle Norman!  If not for you, kicking me out of your house, I never would have seen these wonders! 

My second trip was to meet Marguerite Fawdry at Pollock’s Toy Museum in London.  This journey took place in mid-winter, and I was never so cold, in my entire life.  The temperature was not that low, but the air was damp, and the chill penetrated deep into one’s bones.  The hotel room was expensive, a pound a night, twice as much as my room in Paris, and it was freezing cold. There were two twin beds, and I ended up sleeping in my clothes, under the combined covers of both, and my overcoat, while reluctantly feeding shillings into the gas heater.  There was no heat on the four floors of Pollock’s Toy Museum, either. Nonetheless, I returned to Paris, happy, with hundreds of uncolored sheets for the Victorian toy theater.
          My third excursion was not so great.  Somehow, I ended up accompanying a third-rate Beat painter on a trip to Barcelona Spain.  That seemingly harsh assessment of his talent is actually being generous.  His name was William Morris Jr., and his daddy was "The" William Morris, owner of the William Morris Agency.  His “paintings” consisted of rolls of heavy white paper, across which he had rolled tires, dipped in paint! 

Both his art and his persona were totally fake.  To his credit, he openly admitted this. I will never forget, sitting in a cafe one day, with him and the poet Gregory Corso, who had been known to recite his poem, "BOMB" in the nude.  They were laughing their asses off over the fact that the whole “Beatnik” thing, at least, in their opinion, was a purposely premeditated put-on.  Like, Wow, Man; a total con!
William had to pick up his so-called artwork from a gallery in Barcelona, where he supposedly had a show.  But the real purpose of his journey was to purchase two kilos of marijuana, sealed in a large tomato can, and smuggle it back into France.  He was a rather puny little guy, and brought me along, largely, because of my size.  He figured the felons he was dealing with on the Barcelona waterfront would assume I was his body guard. 

While waiting, on the docks at night, for William’s clandestine contact to arrive, we had a meal in a waterfront dive.  The dish we ate, translated as “beef stew.”  When I was finishing the last bite, William said, “You realize that you just ate dog!”  When I expressed disbelief, he replied “I’ll prove it to you,” and called the waiter over.  I managed to follow the conversation, even though it was in Spanish.  At first, the waiter denied William’s assertion, but, eventually, he confessed, assuring us it was a very nice dog, one who had been raised in the kitchen.

I would have been better off, eating another dog than indulging in the next fine mess that William got me into.  Later that same evening, with the sealed tomato can, safely stashed in William’s backpack, we ended up getting drunk in some kind of cabaret, where we met a pair of senoritas, who, for a fee that William paid as a “gift” to me, came back to our hotel with us.  The concierge was on watch, and thus, to Williams anger, and my relief, he required him to rent a second room.  The fact that I was sleeping with a prostitute for the first, and only, time in my entire life was bad enough,  I didn’t need to do it in a group.

I’ll never forget that trip; it was the most dangerous thing I ever did.  I was lucky to escape from "Interpol," Scott-free, with nothing worse than a mild case of VD.  Thus, I returned to the American Hospital, where Americans were treated free.  The doctor there had "mal de Mel."  He was sick of me!  He remembered my previous visits well, especially, our encounter, on the day after Christmas, several months before. 

  By the time that Christmas arrived, I felt like I had lived in Paris all my life.  My two circles of friends were wide.  I still saw Bob and Verta frequently, along with the assorted residents of Number 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur.  And I also hung out, nearly every night, with the gang from the Monaco Cafe.  Christmas Eve in Paris is far more festive than Christmas Day.  Bob and Verta and I spent Christmas Eve together.  We exchanged presents, dined out, and then, attended Midnight Mass at Notre Dame. 

The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, was perhaps, my favorite place in all of France.  I had visited it often, beginning when I was fifteen.  And later, when I was bicycling through Europe, at eighteen, I left my fellow travelers for an evening to see “Le Grand Mystère de la Passion,” a medieval passion play, recreated on the steps of Notre Dame.  And the story of the hunchback, with whom I felt a certain affinity, due to my physiognomy, had always fascinated me. 
I loved to enter the cathedral on a sunny day, to see the breathtaking Rose Windows, ablaze in all their glory, illuminated by the brightness of the sky outside. When the position of the sun was right, ghostly beams of multicolored light became visible, revealed by the minute particles of the dust of many centuries, that forever hovered in the air inside.  And where the beams of colored sunlight collided with the cold gray stones of the interior, gardens of bright colored light appeared.  These slowly moved across the floor, until, as sunset neared, the colors changed from heavenly blues to flaming rose.  And then, those bouquets of brightly colored light climbed the massive columns that held aloft the vaulted ceiling, only to flicker out and fade, midway in their ascent, as the sun finally set.  Notre Dame was a place of great mystery, a miracle of faith and human ingenuity.  And hiding among the Christian imagery was an army of stone Gargoyles, demons, waiting to steal the souls of the unwary. 

Now, on Christmas Eve, the vast interior of Notre Dame was set ablaze, with what I remember as the light of a thousand candles.  Was this merely trickery, accomplished by electricity, or was the vast interior of the cathedral, actually, lit by candlelight?  In my mind’s eye I hold an image of the three massive front doors, open wide, with great waves of golden light, pouring out onto the throngs of Christmas revelers, welcoming them to enter.

The streets of the Left Bank were teeming with activity.  There were noisemakers, and firecrackers, and a joyous cacophony of music, intermingling with the sound of the crowd, laughing and babbling, in that melodic language that often reminded me of bubbles, bubbling in a stream.  For some mysterious reason, I had waded through those waters, with great difficulty, enduring four years of high school French.  What was it that compelled me to carry on, beyond the bare requirements to learn a language that, at the time, I had no idea I would ever need?  Now here I was, living out a dream, on this most glorious of Christmas Eves.  It felt more like the City of Paris was celebrating New Year’s Eve than “La Veille de Noël.  This was, indeed, the magic evening I had imagined it would be, ever since I saw the second act of La Bohème, two years before, at the Old Met. 

      The early afternoon of Christmas Day, found me at the post office, waiting in line to use the long distance telephone to call my mother in the USA, and wish her a Merry Christmas, and permit her to refresh my guilt trip.  It was there that I had the only conversation I can remember, conducted entirely "en francais."  For the most part, my mastery of the French language was “digital.”  It consisted of pointing a digit, usually an index finger  at items on display at the charcouterie, and saying “Combien pour ca?” or Je veux une de ca.” which means, “How much is that?” and “I want one of that.”  Now, on Christmas day I had a real conversation with a little girl of five, waiting in line, beside her mother.  To my amazement, we could understand each other.  She asked me if there were “étoiles” in America.  At the time, I took it to mean “stars” in the sky, and thought to myself, how sweet and poetic!  Now, all these years later, as a cynical old man, I am wondering if the precocious kid was referring to movie stars in Hollywood, instead. 

Later in the day, there was a rousing party in Alex and Dickey Dell’s hotel room.  Their hotel was located next to the Monaco Cafe.  I can remember, at one point, standing on the bed, intoxicated, towering above, and surrounded by a room full of my new friends, and feeling great waves of happiness wash over me.  That day turned out to be, not only festive, but also deeply moving: 

In the Monaco Cafe, the best table in the place, right by the window, was always occupied, reserved for an old man who everybody referred to as, “The Doctor.”  He had been sitting there, as long as anyone could remember.  Occasionally, someone would buy him a drink.  He remained there, night and day, staring out across the street, with eyes that could not see across the street, for The Doctor was slowly going blind.  He had been an MD in Germany, during Second World War, which, in 1958, was really not that far away.  And In the conflict, he had lost his daughter, lost her, in the sense that he had never found her, or discovered her true fate.  And so, he sat there always, in the window of the Monaco Cafe, waiting for her to pass by. 

On this festive Christmas day, the thought occurred to us to invite the Doctor to the party.  Stunned and moved, he came willingly, but with great difficulty, as he was neither young, nor sober, and it was not easy to help him up the several flights of stairs.  I swear, you can’t make this stuff up... There happened to be a young German girl at the party, of aproximately his daughter's age, who had lost her parents in the War.  And thus, an almost miracle took place, they ended up embracing, and sobbing in each other’s arms.  And, for a moment, fueled, perhaps by drink, and the magic spirit of Noel, this meeting became an emotional reunion, or, at least, the next best thing.

  Meanwhile, I had been having what one might call an intermittent romance, with a French girl, a few years older than myself, named Patricia, pronounced melodically,( Pa-treet-see-uh ).  She spoke alluring English, with a voice like Simone Signoret, and she had a 5 year old daughter, Sophie, who lived with a foster family.  I went with Patricia to visit her one day.  We frequently went out to eat, and occasionally, she would stay with me.  It was a casual affair, to say the least.  I’d run into her at the cafe, and after a night of celebration, with Alex and company, she would come home with me.  Then, just as unexpectedly, she might disappear for several days, or several weeks.

On this delightful Christmas day, it had been prearranged that she would be at Alex’s party.  I had a gift for her, and also one for Sophie.  Later that night, we continued the festivities in my room at Rue Mazarine.  Later, on the following day, I discovered what might have been her inadvertent gift to me.  My bed and body had been invaded by a miniature crustacean army.  So, I appeared at the American Hospital, and my adventure with flea powder, and the battle at the Douche Public, which I have chronicled elsewhere, took place.  Several days later, I ran into Patricia, and very discreetly suggested that she might need to do the same.  She flew into an indignant rage.  And from that moment forward, I never laid eyes on her again.