OUR room in the Paris—New York Hotel overlooked a side street. It was always late in the morning when we got up, but we were never too late to see a little funeral procession, a quaint hearse and an equally quaint-hatted driver and a handful of black-clad mourners, following the hearse. Men passing on the street would always take off their hats. Loretto might be young and blooming, and I might be feeling pretty good myself, but death indeed was always there, just around the corner. I have said that Ernest, always keeping the thought of death in his work, reminded me of a medieval scholar who kept the skull on his desk to remind him of his last end. With my girl close to me I preferred to consider the lilies of the field. I was a great caster of bread on the waters. Does the dolphin or the rose flourish with an eye on eternity? Death for me was a painful, gloomy, inevitable experience. As for the Greek who said, “Better never to have been born,” I thought he was kidding. Our job, I used to say to Loretto, was to be concerned with living and it seemed to me it would be most agreeable to God if we tried to realize all our possibilities here on earth, and hope we would always be so interested, so willing to lose ourselves in the fullness of living, and so hopeful that we would never ask why we were on this earth. Therefore, it was pointless to have this little funeral procession with our breakfast. We decided to move, and quickly.
Our new friends, the two boys, Buffy and Graeme, helped us to find an apartment. They sat with us at the cafe, reading the advertisements in the newspaper. We found an apartment over a grocery store on the rue de la Sante, near the prison. Our landlady, a handsome, carrot-topped, buxom Russian in her rapidly fading forties, had only a few words of English and not much more French. Now that we were established we fell into a routine. We would get up around noon, walk slowly over to the Coupole, have a little lunch on the terrace, then go across the river to the American Express to inquire for mail. Sometimes we loafed around the Right Bank for two hours, having a drink at some cafe by the Opera, or the Madeleine, then making some purchase in the Galeries Lafayette, then on to the Champs Elysees where the sunlight was on the trees. In the daytime we never went to Montmartre, only at night when we went to Zelli’s or dropped into Bricktop’s. But Paris was always in our minds as a very satisfying and beautiful picture, the soft river valley, the gentle slopes, the two hills, and on the Right Bank sunlight on the white dome of Sacre Coeur.
Back at the apartment I would work for a couple of hours, then at six we could be seen coming down the street by the long prison wall, turning and passing the Observatoire, then the Lilas, and on to the Coupole for an aperitif and some conversation. My friendship with Hemingway seemed to give us an anchor beyond our own neighbourhoods At least once a week I would see him for boxing. Afterwards the two of us would walk up to the Select to meet Loretto and have a drink. How quick and interested would be his rebuke if we found her having a glass of Pernod. “Loretto, you shouldn’t be drinking that stuff. Don’t drink it,” he would complain. “I’m only taking the one drink,” she would protest.
. At that time he would never come wandering around the cafes by himself; he had given it up. And besides, Pauline had conveyed to us her belief that cafe sitting was a little beneath her. For our part we were not concerned with the impression we might be making, nor with the fact that French ladies of quality did not sit at the cafes. Often I would mention Fitzgerald to Ernest. Had he any word of Scott being in town? It was still in my mind that Perkins had said Scott and Ernest were the greatest of friends. Ernest would say he had had no word of Scott. I never told him how much I looked forward to meeting Scott, nor did I tell him of the picture I had had of the three of us being together and enjoying each other’s company. That day would soon come, I was sure.
By ten in the evening Loretto and I, established at our table at the Select, might remain there with friends for hours, or we might go to a party. There was always a party, someone leaving or someone returning. Many a night we spent with young unknown painters who would ask us to their studios to see their work. Now that I look back on it, those good times, good conversations with young painters, must have come about because neither Loretto nor I had the regular critical patter. We could only talk to them about what we saw and felt ourselves in a canvas. They seemed to love it; one canvas after another, the young painter watching us and listening with a little gleam in his eye.
In our neighbourhood many of the painters and writers were desperately poor. Yet at that time, in the world of that time, there was the certainty that loose money was close at hand, even if it was in someone else’s pocket. In New York the stock market always seemed to be going up. If you weren’t in on it, it was because you preferred the quest for new experience. That particular quest, the drive of the idler, the bum, the artist—the quest for some new experience! The morality of the experience was measured by its novelty; the charm, the virtue of novelty. Yet the Quarter was an aristocracy. A rich man had no distinction and no real power. I remember the night in a bar with McAlmon and a rich young American who was living a life of splendid idleness in the Quarter; when it came time to pay the bill after hours of drinking, McAlmon, indicating the young rich man, said ruthlessly. “No, let him pay. He’s along with us, isn’t he?” It was even more humiliating when the young businessman quickly and quietly paid for all the drinks.
Why had this young Chicago businessman settled in Paris? He happened to be “a lover of the arts”. Some years earlier Sherwood Anderson in Dark Laughter had told how a “wonderful and terrible thing had happened in Paris.” It was the wide-eyed Midwestern view of the city for those who had the money and the time for a holiday fling. For other Americans there had been the grand discovery of European culture, another way of living, a promise of some enlargement of inner freedom. A whisper had gone the rounds that Greenwich Village was washed up; Paris was the new frontier. In the early twenties living had been inexpensive, and if you wanted to be a publisher and have a little magazine the printing costs were cheap. Above all, Paris was the good address. It was the one grand display window for international talent, and if you were at all interested in the way the intellectual cloth of the time was being cut you had to be there, even if you couldn’t do more than press your nose against the window.
Looking back on it, what American writer of the twenties or thirties, or the fifties, from Gertrude Stein to Faulkner to Henry Miller or Tennessee Williams didn’t feel compelled to drop into the great style centre to look around. It is not quite the same today. New York has challenged the Paris influence, and Rome has come into the picture and so has London. But some of the magic still remains in the word from Paris. If you want to know what it was like in the late twenties you only have to recall what has gone on in the forties and fifties. How these French writers get blown up so the international public is persuaded to listen and believe something new is being said is probably a carefully guarded French national trade secret. Through the late forties and fifties; now is the time for the writer to be engaged with society; then later; now is the time for disengagement. And Existentialism ! Today in the North American universities thousands of students are worrying and wondering if there is any thing new in Existentialism, or perhaps deciding that they too ought to look at the world with Sartre’s “disgust and anguish.”
The word from Paris. It’s not the voice of the turtle today but it was in the twenties. It offered the climate, the ambience, the importance of the recognition of the new for the artist. In those days a writer coming to Paris could believe he would find contemporaries and it didn’t seem to matter to him that the French themselves paid no attention to him. In no time you learned that the oddly parochial French took it for granted you were absorbed in their culture. If not, what were you doing there in their style centre? Stealing a style or two? Why not? It was the international custom. The burglars of French literature and painting.
We are bom, we live a while, and we die, and along the way the artist keeps looking at the appearance of things, call it concrete reality, the stuff of experience, or simply “what is out there.” Now I think that for intellectuals, writers and artists, the Paris of those days had become like a giant crystal; like a crystal with many facets and the French had a genius for turning and ever turning the crystal so the light would fall on a new facet, and then from the cafes would come the announcement, “This is the way it is being looked at now.” Naturally the writer or painter in far-off cities is charmed and interested. And yet, when you think about it, the question arises, “Were any of those French writers of the time, aside from the intellectual gowns they were wearing, as good as the strangers in town? Cocteau, Breton, Aragon and Co.?” In a sense they were in the millinery business. And the great Gide? He was a moralist, he sounded the moral tone, or rather the tone of no morality at all beyond the aesthetic approach to life. His great strength was in his stylish comment on life, not in the creation of it But Joyce and Hemingway, the foreigners, were to have a world influence. And just as in the nineteenth century the world capital for the novelist turns out to have been Moscow, well, where was it in twenty-nine?
The capital did seem to be in Paris, sitting at the cafe with the young businessman. The marks of the quick and wonderful French intelligence seemed to be all around one in this city with its open beauty, it elegance, and that splendid indifference of the French citizen at the next table, to your private life. And above all in every corner of this lovely Babylonian capital was stuck the national symbol, the shrewd-eyed watchful madame at the cash register. I could see her there in black near the cafe door, reminding me of the eternal verities.
By ten in the evening the whole corner would take on the fullness of its own life with the terraces crowded and the well-known drunken poets or painters, celebrated for their stupor rather than their art, wandering across the road from cafe to cafe, making the taxis dodge them. A tourist bus would pass, the tourists gawking, and Flossie Martin, the ex-Follies girl, plump, but still golden-haired and pink-and-white complexioned, who refused to go home to the States, would stand up and yell out an obscenity at the staring tourists in their bus. Or a visiting movie star, like Adolph Menjou, would be sitting at the Coupole with his new wife. While people lined up and moved slowly by his table where he sat, incredibly impassive, we, watching him from across the road, would snicker patronizingly. In the neighbourhood was an American Jewish writer named Ludwig Lewisohn, who had written a successful book Upstream and had gone on to do novels. He looked like an important elderly professor. His friends, so I heard, had persuaded him to “show himself to the people,” so now he would come slowly ’along the street. The others? Hundreds of others! Lawrence Vail, so blond and so sunburned; Kay Boyle. Michael Arlen, then rich and famous, having written The Green Hat, would be there with his beautiful wife, the Grecian countess. I liked Arlen. A shrewd, cynical, dapper dark man, he knew exactly what he was doing. For him, D. H. Lawrence was the only writer in the world and not to be compared with other writers. “The man is willing to live in a mud hut so he can write,” he would say. Disdainful of this opinion, I argued with him. “You need a haircut,” he said, looking at me quizzically. “You’d better get it cut or you’ll think it’s a halo.”
We had got used to the night street cries, too. Cheerful little old women, selling newspapers, would cry out, “Ami du Peuple.” A male newspaper vendor hurrying by would be muttering in a deep hoarse voice, “Intransigent, Paris Soir, Paris Soir” Another vendor in a high falsetto voice, “Chocolat, fruits glaces, cacahouettes, messieurs, dairies.” Walking home at two in the morning we would pass that crowded little dance hall, The Jockey, with the jazz blowing from the open door. One night three little girls came skipping out, giggling and pushing each other. They were trying to sing the American popular song, “Constantinople.” On the street just ahead of us, they would shout out, “Constantinople” and as the song required, try to spell it out—“C-O-N-S-T-” and get no further. Shoving each other, they screamed with laughter.
On the way home we might pass Ford Madox Ford, the plump and portly president of a whole group of writers, who would be taking the night air all by himself, his hands linked behind his back. Old Ford, as Hemingway called him. Why did I always feel a little ashamed of my lack of sympathy for him; the friend of Henry James, the collaborator of Joseph Conrad? I had called him “Ford of many models.” I hadn’t felt drawn to him that time I had met him in New York; maybe it was his portly and heavy-moustached aloofness, his whispering voice. Yet I knew no man loved good contemporary writing more than he did. And one night at dinner I heard him make a remark I have never forgotten : “No writer can go on living in a vacuum.” It took me some years to discover how true this was; not just of writers, but of all men who would stay alone in their hearts. There must be someone somewhere you count on for approval, someone whose praise would be dear to you. When finally there is no one you might as well hand in your ticket.
My resistance to Ford, I think, came from seeing that he was a confessed literary man. On the theme of Ford and “the literary life,” I remember one night when Loretto and I went to Ford’s place for an evening with Allen Tate, his wife, Caroline Gordon, and the poet Leonie Adams. We were there, I imagined, for some talk and drinking. But to. my astonishment Ford brought out a cake with white icing. “Since we’re all literary people,” he whispered, “we’ll compete for this cake with sonnets. It goes to the one who writes the best sonnet.” Allen Tate and Leonie Adams, accomplished poets, could dash off an acceptable sonnet at the drop of a hat. But as I began my sonnet my eyes were not on the paper but on Ford, who was scribbling away busily. My ball-playing days were only five years away. What would those tough ballplayers think, seeing me here in a sonnet competition for a stale cake? What was there to do but clown? “With Ford beside me groping in the dark, Oh, would that I were strolling in the park,” I wrote with some malice. The sonnets having been finished, Ford read them aloud solemnly, including my ridiculous effort, which brought no smile to his face. We agreed that Leonie Adams had performed most elegantly.
But Ford was no fool. Those pale eyes of his were always on someone. And later, when we were out eating in a restaurant, he took a dig at me. “I’m sure Mr. Callaghan would have appreciated it more if we had had a story contest.” I snorted scornfully. We were all snobs, of course. But if he had proposed a story contest I would have fled. When I think of this man now, I hear voices. On the street, the voice of the pretty young woman from New York who had sat beside Ford at dinner, and she was half crying, “What’s the matter with being an interior decorator? Why should Ford be insulting to me about it?” And my own voice saying to Hemingway, “Being gassed in the war gave Ford a great advantage. We have to lean forward attentively when he whispers.” And Hemingway’s derisive voice, “Gassed in the war? Don’t let him kid you. He was never gassed in the war.” Yet Ford had his coterie. Someone was always saying he was one of the great modern masters of English prose. A scholarship student named Bandy said belligerently, “Will you argue this matter of Ford’s prose with a man I’ll name?”
“Sure,” I said. “Who’s your man?”
“Allen Tate,” he said. “I’ll show up with Tate at the Coupole tomorrow afternoon. Be there.”
I remember saying to my wife, “I. don’t know how I can train for this bout. This Tate is very scholarly and intelligent and no doubt very fast on his feet, and I don’t know whether I should keep moving around him or get in close and hang on.”
At the appointed hour at the cafe there was Tate, sitting with Bandy. In New York I had met the Southern poet with the great domed head and the tapering chin. When we had had a drink, we gingerly got to the question : was Ford a great prose writer? Rather mildly, and with a complete lack of passion, Tate suggested that The Good Soldier was a pretty good book. Now this book has for an opening sentence, “This is the saddest story I ever heard.” Was it the saddest story Tate had ever heard? I wondered aloud. No, it wasn’t, he said. Could we agree then on a writer who had a great prose style? Yes, Swift. We agreed on Swift. As I recall it, Ford was somehow quickly forgotten, and the promoter of the bout, Bandy, remained silent and crestfallen as if the light had gone out suddenly on his main event.
But at parties where Ford was, there was usually a crowd; people always meeting and parting. At one big party an Australian woman was either saying good-bye to Ford or meeting him once more, but I remember only that she was crying. At this party that important, middle-aged and humourless writer named Ludwig Lewisohn came over to me. It was time we knew each other, he said. We should have a talk. A great idea, I agreed. I would be sitting at the Coupole at two the following afternoon. And indeed, I was there.
Before Lewisohn’s arrival, the young American named Whidney, from Chicago, who lived with his wife in an opulent apartment a few blocks away from the cafe, came and sat down beside me. “Do you mind if I sit in on this?” he asked. “I heard you and Lewisohn talking last night. I’ve read his book Upstream. I’d like to listen in on your conversation, if you don’t mind. I promise I’ll just sit here and listen.’
Then Lewisohn came slowly along the street, looking very dignified, very professional, his hat severely straight on his head. When I waved to him, he came and sat down with us. The conversation went like this : “Well, now, how is your book doing, Mr. Callaghan?”
“All right, I think,” I said.
“How long has it been out?”
“Just a few months.”
“Don’t they let you know how it’s doing?”
“It’s had a good reception. But it’s a book of stories, you know. With some luck, I think it’ll reach five thousand.”
“Five thousand,” he said, looking distressed. “With all the publicity you’ve had? Five thousand?”
“It’s a book of stories. How’s your novel doing?”
“Why, it’s already done thirty thousand.”
“Splendid,” I said, feeling like a nobody.
“But I expect to do much better than thirty thousand,” he said importantly. We began an earnest discussion about sales promotion, and kept it up till my friend Whidney suddenly cut in. “Excuse me. Will you excuse me?” he asked firmly. “I have something to say.”
“I was present when you two met last night. Well, I was a businessman, myself. I wanted to be here when you great artists talked. I thought it would be intellectually stimulating. You know what you sound like? A couple of businessmen.”
Giving Whidney one long appraising glance, Mr. Lewisohn then finished his drink, left Whidney hanging there, reached out, patted me on the arm and said he had an appointment. As he walked away briskly, I, who had been told that he had always been of two minds about sitting at cafes, knew we wouldn’t see him on the terrace again.
The terrace. A whole life went on there, a life in the open, the talented and the useless, living in each other’s pockets, living on each other’s dreams, and living in comical backbiting rather than love. Men and women from all over Europe, mingled with the Americans, most of them splendidly unknown. A position of dignity and importance was held by “the greatest unknown writer.” And publishers and agents passing through would try to get word of the mysterious champion, whoever he was. But Joyce never came to the cafes. I used to wonder if Fitzgerald, on his return, would avoid the corner, too. As for Hemingway, as I said, all the summer he only came to the corner to have a drink with Loretto and me after boxing.