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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          It is difficult to know where to begin to tell the story of how, and when, I met my wife.  Did I first encounter her as a character I visualized in an illustration that fate compelled me to create, as an art student at Pratt?  Or did we meet for the first time, one evening on Rue Mazarine in Paris France, two years after that?  To this day, I can’t decide.  Part of me remains convinced that the fabric of our lives was being woven by the hand of destiny, long before that April night.

Meanwhile, as the new year began, I continued to make an attempt to paint, and although, the canvasses got bigger, I never felt that as a painter I had found the place I wanted to be.  At the Academy I had been working realistically, but as a would-be painter I was a prisoner of the flat decorative style that I had so much admired in others, Ben Shawn, specifically.  Here, for instance, is a canvas that started out as horses on a carousel, ridden Godiva-like by a lady who remained unfinished.  I decided I hated it, and turned the canvas upside down.  That was an immediate improvement.  Suddenly, the hooves in the air seemed interesting to me, and I let the suggestion of a figure lead me to imply the presence of a dwarf like entity, reminiscent of Pierrot, a character from the Commedia del Arte.
And here is the only photograph of an unfinished painting.  Clearly, it was the manifestation of wishful thinking.  A self-portrait with a highly abstract, yet voluptuous young lady.  She has two large feather fans, one red, one green.  Her face is yet a blank, waiting to be filled in by destiny.
Below, is a revealing doodle, a page ripped out of my sketch book.  I guess I liked it at the time, because I signed it and I dated it.  Clearly, this was a gal that I would like to date.  To my surprise, I can see from the year, 1958, that I drew this before I met my future wife, yet the resemblance is decidedly distinct.
           Meanwhile, Bob and Verta became good friends with a crazy man named, Harold Chapman. I knew him too.  Harold was quite mad, a mild-mannered wildman.  Although, he was born into a wealthy English family, he chose to live a Bohemian life, and spend most of the time as a photographer in residence, at Number 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur.  Thanks, in some degree, to Harold’s photography, this modest almost unnoticeable hotel on the Left Bank, unbeknownst to its proprietor, Madame Rachhou, was becoming famous.  Although, this residence home had no name, it became known as “The Beat Hotel.”  Harold, in turn, was becoming famous too.  He chronicled the Beat Generation in Paris in its heyday, the final years of the 1950s. And its center in Paris was Number 9, Rue Git-le-Coeur.  Harold’s room, there, has even been reproduced in a museum.  And when I met my future wife, she was staying in that room with him.

         The internet abounds with articles and videos about Harold Chapman.  They show him alive and well, as I am pleased to say he is today.  When I first searched for him, I encountered a page full of obituarys; wrong Harold!  Thank God!  If you CLICK HERE you will see a video made by the BBC, The image that remains on the screen, when it is over, is Eunice Richards, and a friend at George Whitman’s Paris bookstore, “Shakespeare and Company.”  Here, also, is one of the trailers for the recent documentary “The Beat Hotel” In it, you will meet Harold, and see images of Bob and Verta, and other tenants of the Beat Hotel.
Later, not in Paris, but in NYC, I got to meet Brion Gysin, the man who made that Dream Machine.  He was still trying to find a manufacturer to make the thing.  And, because it was, essentially, a zoetrope with a light bulb, hanging down inside it, rotating on a record player, he contacted me.  Boutique Fantastique was making zoetropes at the time.  Although, the concept was intriguing, try as I might, for me, the flashing light produced no more than a headache, and I found the fantastic animated images of the actual zoetrope strips to be far more hallucinatory and interesting.  So, I didn’t need to break a leg to pass up this opportunity.

Harold managed to eke out a living as a part time reporter by concocting stories and selling them to newspapers.  There was no telling what wild tale he would think up next.  And then he would illustrate the piece with his own photography.  A beautiful young English girl, Eunice Richards, who you are about to meet, was often the subject of these articles, and Harold’s willing accomplice.  Harold's relationship with Eunice was close, but brotherly and platonic, although I, at first, I didn’t realize that.  They really were the best of friends, and to some degree, kindred spirits. 

Early in 1959, Bob and Verta went to Dover with Harold and stayed at Harold’s friend, Ron Sheridan’s schoolhouse.  There, of course, they met Eunice.  Bob painted her portrait in meltdown plastic chips that Ron had invented.  I didn’t see this photo that Harold shot on that occasion, until many years later.
          While Bob and Verta were in England, Harold thought up a scheme, in which Verta pretended to be an African Princess, from a place called, "Tabinguila," a mythical country that they all made up together.  Articles soon appeared in the English papers, showing Verta in a Golden Crown that was actually a paper cake decoration.  The title read: “The Princess Likes It Jazz All The Way!”  The premise was that this Native Princess, living in the jungle had been given an old wind-up phonograph, with a handful of old jazz recordings, featuring Louis Armstrong.  And now, the King of Tabinguila’s daughter had come to England to hear Jazz.  Suddenly, Verta was pursued, wined, dined, and invited to attend jazz concerts.  She really got into it!  Being born a drama queen, this "Princess" thing was just her cup of tea.  And, Verta began to believe, and act, as if she really was African Royalty.  More articles appeared in more Papers, with Harold, taking and selling the photos.  He managed to include Eunice, as Princess Verta's personal attendant, in some of the shots, as well.

When Bob and Verta returned to France, they told me that they had met a girl that they thought I would like, Eunice!  And Bob gave me a copy of the article below, showing her with an Easter Island Mask.  This story was another one of Harold's schemes.
         Oh My God!  The picture resonated with me; I was instantly infatuated!  They also told me she was Harold's girlfriend, and she was coming to Paris to stay with him, any day.  Dammit, I didn't care if she was Harold's Girlfriend.  This was Paris, Ground Zero of the Beat Generation.  And if one can judge a person by their friends, I was “on the road” to becoming a Beatnik!  I had left the 1950s values of Detroit behind me.  Thus, I studied the photograph frequently, and asked, nearly every day, like a kid on a long auto trip:  Is Harold's Girlfriend there yet?
          I saw less of Bob and Verta, as they weren't into drinking late into the night, and had better things to do.  But I still saw them on occasion, and spent some time at number 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur.  Once, when Bob had to be away for a day, I took Verta on a date.  We went to eat and then to see Les Contes d’Hoffmann, at L’Opera Comique.  It was fantastique! 
         A week later, a front-page scandal appeared in the English Papers.  The Princess of Tabinguila was exposed as a HOAX!  She was really just an American girl, named Verta Smart, from Philly!  That's Harold for you.  Of course, he made some money, all over again, from selling the exclusive expose!

Soon after that, Bob mentioned to me that Harold's girlfriend had arrived.  In fact, she had been in France, for several days.  It had become common knowledge that I was looking forward to her coming.  Apparently, Eunice, too, had been told that there was an American named, Mel, who was "eager" to meet her.

That evening, I stepped out of my hotel, and was heading to the Petite Source, a small restaurant where I often ate.  After that, I planned, as usual, to go to the Monaco Café.  It was quite late, and getting dark.  I had traveled only a few feet, when, suddenly, I saw an apparition heading in my direction.  I was Awe Struck!  There she was, My Ideal Woman, a heavenly vision, with long blonde hair, flowing down over her shoulders, like the girl in the Illustration for Gods Little Acre.  Even though, my drawing of her was not that great, I knew exactly what she would look like in real life.  Were my eyes deceiving me?  Was this not she, walking down Rue Mazarine, in the flesh?  And, OH MY GOD!  SHE WAS WEARING THE LAVENDER DRESS!  In the photo of Eunice I'd seen in the newspaper, her hair was pinned up and tucked under.  Now, as this gorgeous creature walked towards me, at first, I didn't recognize her.  Nonetheless, my heart skipped a beat, and, I fell in LOVE, instantly!
          Time stood still; and it seemed like an eternity, until I realized that the man with her was Harold Chapman!  And thus, I knew that this was EUNICE!  Harold was saying to her, at that very moment,  “OH, there's Mel, the American bloke, who wants to meet you.”  He introduced us enthusiastically.  I was nearly speechless, but nonetheless, I managed to rise to the occasion.  Then, He said, "We're going to a party at Ken and Tove's.  Do you want to come with us?"  Yes, Oh YES!

Harold's demeanor puzzled me.  This just wasn’t the way a man acts about his girlfriend.  It was, as if, he was encouraging us to get together.  My interest was apparent, and I was coming on like gangbusters, which, for me, was totally out of character. 

So we headed to 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur, only a few blocks away.  After climbing to the highest floor, we entered the strange drugged out domain of Ken and Tove.  Ken was an American writer, who looked Swedish, and Tove was Swedish.
         Ken and Tove were extremely weird.  How weird were they?  Well, for one thing, they were always turned on.  For another thing, there was no light in their room, other than a single candle, inserted in a Chianti bottle that was covered in a multitude of multicolored drippings from the wax of countless candles, collected over many years.  The room was dominated by a massive armoire, a kind of freestanding closet, nearly eight feet tall.  Several empty wine bottles stood on the top of it.  Various objects were placed, here and there around the room, barely discernable in the dim light.  One aspect of their chamber was exceedingly strange.  Tove considered herself to be a painter.  This was manifested by the fact that she had carefully duplicated every shadow of every object in the room, exactly as it was cast by the light of that single candle on the wall behind it.  Thus, all the objects and the candle were intended to always remain in exactly the same place.  If anything was moved, Tove would quickly and carefully adjust it to make sure its real shadow lined up perfectly with its matching painted shadow, once again.

The party guests consisted of Ken, Tove, Harold, Eunice, myself, and two black men.  One of whom, I had never met before.  He was handsome, and spoke with a perfectly pretentious British accent, although, he was actually an American.  Suave and charismatic, his name was Bernard, and he claimed he was a dancer.  He immediately set his sights on Eunice, and moved in for the conquest.  This was proving to be a challenge.
The other black man was a huge hulking caricature, who I knew.  I had met him many times before, staggering around the cafes, always drunk.  He claimed to be a former Jazz musician, who "Had Put Down His Horn for Society!"  I recall, his name was Ray. 

At this point, Tove said, in her most musical Swedish accent, "Oh Ken, let’s smoke my Birthday Joint!"  Out it came; and the box it was hiding in was carefully replaced, so that, once again, its shadow lined up perfectly with the image on the wall.

Ray was already crazy drunk, and while Tove's Birthday joint was being passed around, he began to shout: "ISE GONNA DO MAH DANCE!"  Eunice and I and Bernard declined to take a puff.   Meanwhile, Ray continued to rave and rant in 1950s Ebonics.  It was clear that, although, he could hardly stand up, he was determined to do his dance, and was already unbuttoning his pants, this, in spite of the fact that there was no music or encouragement, forthcoming.

THE DANCE: I could see where this was heading, and sensed that any minute we were going to be seeing that “Horn” that Ray was always on about.  Still shouting his signature line, “I Put My Horn Down for Society,” he was about to show it to us, as he began to lumber around.  Eunice and I and Bernard were in the corner by the open window, with the rooftops of Paris, at their most romantic, extending out before us.  The views from the top floors of 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur were perfection. I had watched thunder storms, from this very window, on other memorable occasions.  But, tonight, the scene was bathed in moonlight.
We could only see Ray from the back.  And, in spite of the implication that Ray’s Dance would be a spectacle, I was not about to leave Eunice's side for anything, let alone, to get a better view.

Suddenly, without any music, rhythm, or further ado, Ray pulled down his pants!  They dropped around his ankles, at the same instant that he lost his balance.  For a split second in the dim light of the single candle, we saw his bare black ass, as it fell backwards into the freestanding armoire, with a deafening Crash, sending the bottles atop it flying.  He also knocked over the table with the candle, plunging the room into darkness and chaos, accompanied by the sound of shattering glass.  By match light, the candle was retrieved, and lit again.  Tove went into hysterics.  The wine bottles atop the cabinet had fallen to the floor, which was now covered in a thousand bits of candle wax and broken glass.  One of the bottles had shattered.  This left a shadow without a bottle, and Tove was inconsolable.

In the midst of all this chaos, I asked Eunice if she would like to go for a walk, and with the room still in an uproar, we left, wending our way down six dimly lit flights of rickety stairs, and out into the streets of Paris.
         We walked and talked all night.  The wee small hours found us, climbing the circular stone stairway that led to the parapets of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  And there, we talked for hours more, among the Gargoyles, standing on the very spot where the Charles Laughten as the Hunchback stood, as the film ended, leaning on the railing, high above the City of Light.  All night, we remained there, alone on the cathedral with all of Paris, stretching out before us, bathed in April Moonlight.  And I put my arm around my Ideal Woman to keep her warm, as the air turned chilly, and the sky grew gray with the cold light of morning. 

Then, we walked, hand in hand, back to 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur, just as the sun was rising.  We bid each other goodnight, with a kiss, and vowed to meet again at noon.

A few hours later, I was there, floating on air, with bread, and wine, and cheese, and the cover from my bed.  We spread the cover on the banks of the Seine, and ate, and drank, and talked, and talked, and talked some more, lying in the sunlight, beside the river, until sunset.  And then, we walked together, arm in arm, in twilight, this time to my hotel room on Rue Mazarine, and spread the cover on my bed.
I continued to spend considerable time at 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur, perhaps, hoping Eunice would appear.  There, I met Herbert Kohl, a rather brilliant American who was a Rhodes Scholar.  Herb was something of an authority on James Joyce.  I will never forget, one night, when he mesmerized us, reading Ulysses aloud, by the light of a single fuchsia street light that Bob and I had filched from a construction site.  I still have that light here.  It cast a mysterious magenta glow that was magical.  A year later, back in America, Herb Kohl became a close friend, and frequent visitor at our loft on 26th street.

You can catch a glimpse of him, on the lower left, as he appeared on the evening of that reading.  I was just out of camera range when Harold shot the photo.  Next to Herb, is Princess Verta, still wearing the foil covered paper crown that she wore in Tabinguila.  And, behind him, is Jonathan Kozol, an American author, who sold his first novel “The Fume of Poppies ” at the age of 20.  I recall that the girl, playing the guitar was known as, “Pug”, and in the upper right corner is Cyclops, so named, because he had one eye.
Meanwhile, life continued.  An American could not work in France, but I did manage to get one small paid assignment to draw a portrait of the author James Jones to accompany an interview in the “Paris Review.”  The experience was extraordinary.  Here was this amazing author who had chronicled the horrors of war in such books as “From Here To Eternity.”  Nonetheless, he literally appeared terrified, when I looked into his eyes.  His reaction was not unlike that of a deer in headlights.  I believe I captured that look in the drawing, which, If I can ever find it, I will eventually add here.

Now, several years later, believe it or not, I found it.  I was playing around with the computer on this, the Fourth of July 2017, and on  sudden impulse, I looked up “James Jones Paris Review” on Google, and to my astonishment, there it was.  If you click on the link, you’ll be able to read the interview, at least, for a while. The interview was actually taking place while I was doing this drawing.