Mel Birnkrant's
Mel Birnkrant's
EUNICE, PART ONE
 
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
                Some images are Copyright HAROLD CHAPMAN

           
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          And then, we spent the next six weeks in bed.  Every morning, we vowed to visit the Louvre that day, which was only a few blocks away.  But, inevitably, we never managed to get out of bed.  Although, we were not aware of it at the time, we were, in fact, enjoying what would have to suffice as our honeymoon, a six week orgy of discovery, destined to continue for the next half century.  Twice a day, we did manage to get dressed, and go out to eat at “le Petite Source,” a small cafe, right down the street.  We always sat outside under an awning, and had the same thing every morning, “oeuf frites,” a mound of fries with an egg on top.  At night, we ordered “steak frites,” another stack of fries, on which was balanced a skinny piece of meat, deep cooked in the same vat of boiling fat.  French cuisine gives a whole new meaning to the inquiry: “Do you want fries with that?”  Dinner was served with a large tumbler of wine.  Then, we went back to bed again. 

          One might wonder how, apart from the pleasure of each other’s company, we could spend six weeks that small chamber.  Let me try to paint the picture: The room was dominated by a huge French window that extended from the ceiling to the floor.  The ceiling was, at least, twelve feet high, maybe more.  The window itself was made up of many
          And then, we spent the next six weeks in bed.  Every morning, we vowed to visit the Louvre that day, which was only a few blocks away.  But, inevitably, we never managed to get out of bed.  Although, we were not aware of it at the time, we were, in fact, enjoying what would have to suffice as our honeymoon, a six week orgy of discovery, destined to continue for the next half century.  Twice a day, we reluctantly got dressed, and went out to eat at “le Petite Source,” a small cafe, right down the street.  We always sat outside, under an awning, and had the same thing every morning, “oeuf frites,” a mound of fries with an egg on top.  At night, we ordered “steak frites,” another stack of fries, on which was balanced a skinny piece of meat, deep cooked in the same vat of boiling fat.  French cuisine gives a whole new meaning to the inquiry: “Do you want fries with that?”  Dinner was served with a large tumbler of wine.  Then, we went back to bed again. 

         
One might wonder how, apart from the pleasure of each other’s company, we could spend six weeks that small chamber.  Let me try to paint the picture: The room was dominated by a huge French window that extended from the ceiling to the floor.  The ceiling was, at least, twelve feet high, maybe more.  The window itself was made up of many small panes of glass, and it opened in the center, like French doors.  A hundred years before, there might have been a balcony, extending out above Rue Mazarine.  Translucent, floor-length gauze curtains that had once been white, adorned the window.  They were sheer enough to let in all the light, but afforded little privacy.  We usually left them open, anyway. 

The double bed was ancient, consisting of nothing more than a simple metal frame with a network of interwoven springs, and a thin straw filled mattress.  But it was big, and long enough, so that, for once, my feet did not hang over the end.  There were also two huge pillows, filled with what felt like cement.  When I first occupied the room, the bed had been set into a sort of combination headboard and shelf, fastened along one wall.  I soon pulled the bed part out, and placed it sideways, in front of the window.  Thus, one could bask in the warm sunlight that often filled the room by day, and look up to behold the starlit sky at night.  On rare occasions, the entire bed was bathed in moonlight.

We could lie back and study the ancient architecture of the buildings across the street, or survey the hustle and bustle that took place, at all hours of the day and night, along Rue Mazarine.  With either sunlight, or moonlight, pouring through the open window, and the gossamer curtains billowing dramatically in the breeze, the scene was every bit as theatrical, as any in grand opera might be.  And so, this ancient mattress, this straw filled patch of Paris, seven feet long by six feet wide, although, it was only a fraction of God’s little Acre in size, became our entire Universe for six glorious weeks.  

        
I know it seems incredible, but in spite of all the fellows Eunice had dated, she did not appear to know a lot about "le plaisir d'amour," nor to put it mildly, did I.  We did a lot of exploring, playing, and napping, but, most of all, we did a lot of talking.  Or one might better say, I did a lot of listening.  Hour after hour, Eunice kept me spellbound, telling me the story of her life.  Not since Scheherazade enchanted the King of Persia with her tales of a thousand and one nights, had anyone been as mesmerized as was I by this amazing story teller, who destiny had decreed would become my future wife.   As anyone who knows Eunice can testify, she is a fabulous raconteur.  Hearing her relate an experience is often better than actually being there.  In later years, I came to prefer listening to her account of an event than attending it myself.   And now, in our Parisian Paradise, I wasn't merely hearing the adventures of her life, I was living them, as well.

        
Eunice's father, Alexander was as colorful a character as any in a Dickens novel.  He was a jolly good natured scoundrel, master of English music hall songs, jokes, rousing good times, and fabled nights and days in the many Pubs of Dover.  The only person I could compare him to might be the actor, Stanley Holloway.  What Stanley Holloway spent his life portraying, in roles like Eliza Doolittle’s dad in “My Fair  Lady,” Alexander Richards spent his life living.  He was the genuine article, a loveable rascal, and a hardy good-natured drinker, which was a trait that Eunice hated!

       
Eunice adored and respected her mother, Dorothy.  She was a typical English mum, who worked hard her entire life, doing any job that would help keep the family afloat.  She was quiet, perceptive and down to earth, a humble woman who signed her letters "Always Mum."  In all her life, there was never a cross word spoken, between Eunice and her mother.  Here is a fabulous photograph of Alex and Dolly's wedding.
        Eunice was not from wealthy parents, but by Dover's standards, the Richards family was no worse off than any other, and better off than many, especially, before the war.  They had a large house, called, the House of the Redeemer, portions of which they rented to a group of nuns.  Alex was in the trucking business.  He owned and drove a lorry.  When he purchased it in 1931, he also acquired a chrome plated Mickey Mouse mascot, which he attached to the bumper.  He later sold the lorry to his cohort, "Smudger Smith," mascot and all.  Thirty-four years after that, when Alex learned of my Mickey Mouse collection, he went down to the pub and asked Smudger about the Mickey mascot.  Yes, he still had it, and gladly gave it back.  Now, it proudly sits in a showcase, here in Mouse Heaven, a treasured family heirloom.

        
Here are three photographs, taken before the War, when Eunice was very small.  The first shows her and her dad, when she was a tiny baby.  In the second, she is older, and behind her is the House of the Redeemer.  And last of all, she is seen with “Bob.”  Alex had a big black dog, named, Bob.  He followed Eunice everywhere.  She and her dad, both, loved that dog.  On Alex's shoulder, were three tattoos, three hearts with a name in each: Dolly, Eunice, and BOB!  Eunice’s older sister, Renee was not included.
          When Eunice was three, she desperately wanted to go to school, so much so that she followed the older children there, each day, pretending she was a student too.  She sat outside on the front steps and waited, until the classes were over, then walked home with the others.  One day, the teacher discovered her there, and invited her to join the class.  Thus, Eunice began school, when she was three years old. 

         
The Second World War began when she was four.  The conflict brought hard times to Dover.  No place, in all of England was hit harder, or suffered more.  Dover was the closest town to France, and the most frequently bombed and bombarded by the enemy.  On a clear day, one could see France, 14 miles across the channel.  In the early days of World War II, children from all over England were evacuated.  They were offered a choice of several s countries, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, etc.  Eunice and her older sister, Renee, who was seven years her senior, along with most of the children in the town of Dover, were evacuated to Wales.

Eunice remembers the day well.  She was excited, thinking that she was just going on a train ride, and would be home again by evening.  She didn’t realize that she would be gone four years.  Dorothy pinned a note to her and Renee’s coats, asking that whoever chose to take them in, would have them both.  They lived with a coal miners family, throughout most of the war.  Wartime travel restrictions allowed Dorothy to visit them, only once a year.  To Eunice, her mother had become a stranger, a nice lady who she saw occasionally, and once, at Christmas time brought her a Shirley Temple cut out book.  She also gave one to the miner’s daughter, who promptly hid her own away. Thus, Eunice’s present was the one they both, cut out, played with, and destroyed. 

The miner, already, had five children.  Nevertheless, even large families would take in evacuees, because they got their ration books.  One story that Eunice recounted vividly was the ritual of the Saturday night bath.  Once a week, the entire family gathered in the living room.  A large tin bathtub was placed before the fire, and filled with buckets of hot water.  The Father, who was black with soot, from working in the mines all week, got the first bath.  Then, one after another, the children bathed, in the same dirty water.  Eunice was always last.  In the four years that she was an evacuee, she was abused, mistreated, and molested.  In spite of that, she managed to live what she saw as a happy life.  She viewed her trials and tribulations as all part of a grand adventure.  Charles Dickens could not have written a more exciting and eventful childhood.

          Compared to my own dull history, growing up safe and secure in the middle class mediocrity of the mundane Motor City, Eunice’s life story seemed like an epic odyssey to me.  As we lay there, naked in the April sunlight, I listened, like an adoring puppy, with ears pricked up, and tail, wagging in anticipation, eager to lap up any titbit of the delightful tale that Eunice, willingly spread out before me.

At one point in time, her sister, Renee went blind.  Young Eunice had to be her guide dog.  Eventually, Renee regained her sight.  Then, on her fifteenth birthday, Renee was required to go back to Dover, and leave Eunice behind.  This being Wartime, when girls reached fifteen, they were required to work in a munitions factory to aid the War effort. 

Soon after that, Eunice, too, returned to Dover, even though, the War was still raging.  By then, she was about eight years old.  Every night, Eunice, her Mum and sister, along with all the women and children in the town of Dover, went into gigantic caves in the chalk cliffs to sleep.  While her father, Alex, and all the able-bodied men, who were not soldiers, patrolled the town till dawn.  All night, the Germans launched “barrage balloons" across the channel.  These were blind dirigibles, designed to expire after an approximate distance traveled, then, drop their explosive load, haphazardly.  Every now and then, one of these would crash, without exploding, and the women of the town would rush to it to salvage the material it was made of to be used for sewing clothing.

         
One morning, when Eunice came out of the cave, her house was gone, bombed off the face of the earth.  Therefore, her family moved to a house that was slightly smaller, but, nonetheless, quite nice.  It was one of a row of tall interconnected buildings, very much like New York brownstones, nestled up against the base of the chalk cliffs, looking out onto the sea.  There was a tiny backyard with an out-house and a rabbit hutch, full of mysteriously disappearing bunnies.  Each time one of Eunice’s pets “ran away,”  she had hot rabbit stew for supper.  Often, great chunks of chalk fell from the cliffs behind the house.  One day, a chalk avalanche flattened the Richard's out-house.  The home, itself, was large with several floors.  The top floors were rented out to lodgers.

In 1956, when I was 18, I traveled through Europe by bicycle with three friends from Michigan.  We landed in London, bought used bikes, and pedaled 50 miles to Dover. That night, we stayed at The Dover Youth Hostel, and left the next morning on the channel boat to France.  Like “ships passing in the night,” the Hostel happened to be one of the buildings, identical to Eunice's home, and connected to it.  It was just two doorways down, in the same row.  Only one doorway separated the door of the hostile from Eunice's front door, which  she had painted yellow, when she was still a child.

A month after they were bombed out of their homes, Eunice and two other girls from Dover were so traumatized that they refused to leave the caves.  All three of them were sent on Holiday to recuperate.  An article and photo of them appeared in the paper.  I have seen it here somewhere, dark brown with age.  If I ever come across it, I will add it.
           Amazing!  I searched for the original article, in vain.  But I did succeed in finding this pair of articles, published years later. In a way, they are even more interesting.  Apparently, the original photo was reprinted in a book, “The BBC Year Book 1945” and the Dover paper picked it up, asking who these children were and what happened to them.  They found the answer, and even traced Eunice to New York.
          One night, after the war, Alex was apprehended for driving home from the pub drunk.  He crashed his lorry, drove over a policeman, and, therefore, lost his license.  This put an end to his trucking business.  So, he became a gardener, and from that day forward, he was a happy man.  He was a familiar sight in Dover, riding to work on his bicycle.  He worked several miles outside of town on the estate of a man named, Keith Dumford, who raised show horses.  When Eunice returned to England with our daughters, Samantha and Alexandra, years later, Keith and his family put them up.

There were so many stories, each one more enthralling than the last , especially to me, a fat pampered brat from Detroit, who had never missed a meal in his life, let alone, had an adventure.  All of Kent was Eunice's childhood playground.  She told me of the hidden city, secret tunnels beneath Dover castle, the beaches,  the boats, the countryside, hikes, picnics, swimming, strawberry and potato picking.  Every day was an adventure.  One story I remember was of the time she and her dog, Bob, on sudden impulse attempted to swim the English Channel.  And how a man in a rowboat, who happened along, by chance, managed to rescue them, just as they were about to breathe their last.  He let Bob get in the rowboat, but insisted that Eunice simply hang onto the side, as he rowed them to the shore.  His intention was to teach her a lesson for doing something so foolish.  Eunice swore she wouldn’t  swim the Channel any more,

         
Among the thousand and one tales that Eunice told me, there was one, a ghost story, that has haunted me, all these years.  It now comes creeping back to me.  When Eunice was quite small, and newly returned from Wales, there was a man she knew, only by name, Mr. Finn, who lived along the road, a few houses away.  One night, she woke from a sound sleep to see his disembodied head, perched on a small bamboo table, beside her bed.  Terrified, she ran to tell her mother.  The following morning, in his home along the road, Mr. Finn was discovered dead.  He had died during the night.

       
  One aspect of life in England that, ever since I learned of it, I have found troubling, is the fact that in the days when Eunice was growing up, English children were given a series of exams at the age of thirteen.  As far as I know, that may still be the case today.  Those who got the highest scores were sent to the best schools.  There, they learned the social graces, and prepared for university.  Most importantly, in a country where ones dialect often determined their destiny, they were taught to speak the Queen’s English, properly!  And thus, the more fortunate girls were transformed into My Fair Lady, and the brightest boys became Sir Laurence Olivier.  The vast majority, who didn’t "make the grade" (I would have been one of them.) were condemned to schools that were vocational, where they kept their native accents, and were taught a trade. 

Somehow, Eunice was allowed to take the exam at ten, and she turned out to be among the 10%, who achieved the highest grades.  As a result of this fortunate turn of events, she traveled by train, each Monday to spend the week at a stately Academy, for ladies only, in the English Public School tradition.  There she was tutored in perfect English, French, Etiquette, Art, and Literature.  On the first day of May, the students donned diaphanous robes and placed floral garlands in their hair. Then they ran barefoot  through the gardens, and danced around a May pole, like Grecian maidens of old.  Unlike here, very few English students went on to attend university.  The school Eunice attended offered her an education that was the equivalent of, at least, two years of college in the USA.  The curriculum continued for two years longer than the average English school.  Nonetheless, Eunice left school at 16, determined to get a job, instead.

         
Eunice worked from an early age.  She no sooner left school than she became the window dresser of a department store in Dover, called, Mackee’s Department Store.  Eventually, she did the books, trimmed and decorated the windows, waited on customers, and even did the alterations.  The whole town shopped at Mackee’s Department Store.  And the whole town knew Eunice Richards.

        
Another reason that they knew her was because she got more than her share of publicity.  Articles appeared in the papers, frequently.  They usually involved the fact that she was glamorous.   I have seen many of these fragile clippings, over the years.  Now, most of  them have disappeared.  Searching for them, I did manage to find a few that I have never seen before.
         Dover had a local photographer, Ray Warner, who Eunice frequently posed for, in the days before she knew Harold Chapman.  He was more professional than Harold, in a way, but also more conventional.  Ray was Dover’s resident commercial photographer, and he did many fashion and commercial shots.  Several of the photographs he took of Eunice won awards, and thus, were mentioned in the papers.
           To my eyes, these photos are a combination of glamourous and hilarious.  They are painstakingly set up and contrived. And in them, Eunice is so heavily made up and “done up,”  as she might say, ”like a dogs dinner,” that she is almost unrecognizable.  If the articles did not assure me they were really her, I might find it incredible.
          Eunice had many childhood boyfriends, a large litter of puppy lovers.  Europe always seemed to be a healthier place than the USA, in the 50s.  Young people of opposite genders could have friendships of a non-sexual nature.  Heidi and Peter relationships, just playing together and doing stuff that is innocent and fun.  Not role playing at dating, and acting like miniature grownups, as kids did here. 

Eunice’s first serious Boyfriend, and the love of her young life was a boy named, "Vic."  He was very handsome and popular.  He was tall and good looking, and generally considered to be a heartthrob.  They dated, on and off, for several years.  Then he cheated on her, and the relationship went through some upheavals, and in the end, they broke up. 
         After Vic, Eunice dated many others.  And thus, to while the days away, in our conjugal paradise, my very own Scheherazade, spellbinding teller of tales, introduced me to them all, sometimes, in graphic detail.  One was a fellow, named, Anthony Sweeting, the son of the owner of Barclays' Bank.  Eunice spent weekends at his parent's country estate.  It had a hidden maze behind it, which was no more amazing than what was hidden in his pants.  His parents sent him to manage a bank in Africa, to break up the romance. 

Although, they were no longer dating, Vic and Eunice got into an angry argument, after which, Vic ran off in a snit, and had a traffic accident.  He crashed his motor Bike, was hospitalized for a while, and died.  Eunice visited him every day, until he passed away.  She was badly shaken.  She left Dover and went to London, where she got an apartment with her friends.  One of them, Audrey, was the girl, with whom she later traveled to America.  They have remained good friends to this day, and phone each other frequently.  After going through an intensive course of training, Eunice worked as a telephone operator.  But she was abruptly fired, shortly after the job began, for listening to a call between Prince Philip and the Queen.

       
The photo below shows Eunice with her poodle Pepe.  The picture was taken in front of the registry office in South Kensington at the wedding of her roommate, Yvonne, who came from a wealthy family.  They made most of the faucets and bathroom fittings in England.  She was marrying Tony, who was reputed to be Johnny Ray’s lover and personal flogger.  Eunice and her friends enjoyed front row seats at Johnny's concerts, compliments of Johnny Ray.  Tony had gotten Yvonne pregnant, so they were getting married.  That is Tony’s father, holding Eunice’s arm.  Eunice had Pepe for seven years.  Eventually he went to live in Dover with her parents, where he tore down all the curtains.  Alex took Pepe to the pubs with him every day.  He became a regular, and learned to drink beer.

On the back of this photograph, there is a date, August 1954.  Eunice had been in London for some time by then, living a sophisticated life, earning her own living, and sharing a stylish flat in South Kensington.  Meanwhile, half a world away, a fat teen of not so sweet sixteen, too shy to ask a girl out on a date was just about to enter the eleventh grade.
       Then, one day, she sat on the back of a Vespa, which was a small motor scooter, driven by Rhodesian, who was Sir Lawrence Olivier’s Gardener.  He sped off recklessly, with Eunice riding side saddle, and thirty crazy seconds later, he crashed into Sir Lawrence’s car.  Eunice was pinned beneath the scooter, shattering her lower leg and ankle.  The spinning tire rubbed some areas to the bone, and the hot motor burned her.

And, so, it came to be that in the space of a few seconds, Eunice’s life was changed forever.  She spent over a year in hospital.  The wounds healed, but the bones refused to knit.  After several months in bed, they thought her leg was mended.  She stood on it for a few agonizing seconds, and it broke again.  Eventually, the top surgeon in England operated on her leg, in a last ditch effort to save it.  Under the National health plan, she worked her way up to the top doctor, as, one thing after another, did not succeed.  He put a metal plate in her leg, which is still there today.  The leg was badly scarred with stitches like the Frankenstein’s monster.  This is much less noticeable, today, but it still hurts in damp weather.  Nonetheless, her leg was saved in what was then a ground breaking operation. 

Here is an exceedingly sad picture, I doubt that Eunice knows I’ve seen it, let alone that I am posting it here. This scene was photographed on Christmas Day of 1957.  This is the ward that Eunice was in at Saint Marie Abbott’s Hospital, in London.  Another Christmas would come and go, before she could walk again.
          Thus, Eunice returned home to Dover, where she remained bedridden, while undergoing months of therapy.  She attributes her fear of driving today, to this traumatic experience, as well as to Vic's accident.  Prior to the two years, in which she was unable to walk, she had been fearless, even reckless.  She lived life in the fast lane, traveling at top speed.  I’ve always believed that if it were not for the accident slowing Eunice down, she never would have noticed me.
 
        After the phone company, Eunice got a job in a coffee bar, called “The Apron Strings.” While working there, she met and dated many men, including the son of an Arab Sheik.  Audrey dated his brother.  Another of her suitors was a wrestler, turned actor, who was pumped up to herculean proportions.  He played various roles in adventure movies.  One was "the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner."  He also starred in “Thor and the Amazon Women” and portrayed both Tarzan and Hercules in low budget Italian films.  His name was "Joe Robinson."  Apparently, the only part of his anatomy not exposed, on screen, was rumored to resemble a pinky finger.  Eunice assured me that she never saw it, personally.
         Speaking of small things, and large, she also dated a Polish Artist, "Stefan Knapp."  He did huge decorative enameld murals.  Years later, one graced the entire front of Alexander's  Shopping Center in Paramus New Jersey, where we used to shop!  Small World!  Or should I say, Mall World?  The mural, according to Wikipedia, was the largest ever made.  Stefan took Eunice many places, including several times to Paris.  He was thirteen years her senior, and kind of kinky.   Eunice maintains, he never made a pass at her.