THE Quarter was like a small town. It had little points of protocol, little indignities not to be suffered. There was a general awareness of what was going on in everyone else’s life, a routine to be followed if the cafe was to be the centre of your social life. For the Joyces or Gertrude Stein, the cafe was not the place where one entertained one’s friends, or the place where wives showed up to meet their husbands. Nor did the Fitzgerald’s, as we were to discover, belong to the Left Bank cafe set But for us, not having the family responsibilities of the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds, the late hours at the cafe were a happy time—unless a neighbourhood indignity was being endured by a friend.
We had a friend, a middle-aged man named Edward Titus, who was the husband of Helena Rubenstein, the rich beautician. He lived by himself in a comfortable apartment just around the comer at 4 rue Delambre. He was a famous book collector and the publisher of the Black Maniken Press. An agreeable quiet man, with greying hair combed straight back, he had grown tired of the opulent display, the chauffeurs, and all the business details that took up his tune in the great cosmetic firm of Helena Rubenstein. He had chucked it all. He was living his own life. When the editor of the magazine This Quarter had died, Titus, not wanting the magazine to die too, had taken it over.
At nine thirty in the evening, Loretto and I would come along the boulevard to the Select. Within half an hour Titus would join us. Sometimes Helena Rubenstein would come over to the Quarter from the Right Bank. She came to the parties with a tall dark opera singer named d’Alvarez, who wore evening dresses showing a broad and fascinating expanse of bare back. Sometimes Madame Rubenstein would come to the cafe with Titus, and he would have her sit with us. In those days she was a very busy woman, growing stout, but still dark, handsome and full of energy. Too much energy, I suppose, for sometimes she gave the impression of wanting to take a little nap. When she was with us there was always an amusing interplay about paying for the saucers. Titus was an old resident of the Quarter; no one treated him as a visiting businessman who was expected to pay the shot and he seemed to know that if he ever gave in and picked up the tab just because he was rich, he would lose all caste with the people whose respect he wanted. Quite properly he paid for his own saucers as I for mine.
At the end of an evening Helena Rubenstein would watch, aloof and impatient, while the waiter busily counted up our separate piles of saucers. “Pay for them, Edward,” she would say imperiously. Did she ever understand his reluctance? I wonder. Maybe she didn’t care. As a grand dame, a figure of opulence, she could hardly sit there listening to the public bookkeeping. One way or another, only a couple of dollars was involved. Whenever she intervened. Titus understood that protocol was being broken; he was being made to look like an alien in the Quarter, and he didn’t like it.
Though he was established in the neighbourhood, and a publisher in his own right, Titus did not know Joyce, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Hemingway, Fitzgerald or McAlmon. It was hard to explain why he didn’t know any of these people. I used to wonder if there was a lot of anti-Semitism in the Quarter.
McAlmon having returned to Paris, had quickly looked us up. I liked McAlmon. No matter what they say about him, his judgement of other writers was respected by some of the best people on earth. His destructive malice didn’t bother me at all. If a man of talent was in any kind of trouble, McAlmon would help him if he could.
When he met my wife, he showed he was pleased with her; then he had to jab his little needle into me, or her, and sow the seeds of discord. “You had me fooled,” he said to her some hours after meeting us. “I thought you were Spanish. You’re Irish.” And then he added with a touch of weary disdain, “You ought to be always dressed well, be seen in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. It’s too bad. Morley won’t bother. You might as well know it now.” When he saw we were laughing at him, he didn’t mind; he laughed too.
I had asked Titus if he would like to meet McAlmon. Indeed he would, he said. That night McAlmon came to the Select.
Alone with me, or even when my wife was along, McAlmon never behaved badly, or got outrageously drunk. Maybe he felt ill at ease with Titus, or wasn’t sure how he felt about him, therefore he had to drink a lot very quickly. I had asked if he had heard whether Fitzgerald was in Paris. It set him off. He told of a meeting with the Fitzgeralds when Zelda had cast a lustful eye at him. Titus, who had said little, and no wonder, pricked up his ears. I laughed cynically and shook my head at Titus. When Bob McAlmon had had a drink or two he seemed to believe every good-looking citizen, man or woman, postman or countess, wanted to make a pass at him.
Along the street came those two willowy graceful young men from Montreal whom McAlmon called affectionately “the clever little devils.” Sauntering into the cafe with their bland and distinguished air, they saw us and bowed. My lighthearted wave of the hand piqued McAlmon. “Oh, you don’t understand those two at all,” he jeered. But I did understand that the two boys shared his snickering wit. Friends of his they might be, but it didn’t stop them from laughing at him. Just before his return, his Contact Press had printed one of his own poems. One boy would look at the other solemnly, quote a line from the poem, “Is this the Aztec heart that writhes upon the temple floor,” then they would both kill themselves laughing.
His view of the boys amused me and I said so. We kept jibing and jeering at each other, offering contrasting views of the boys. Titus, brightening and becoming an alert editor, suggested we should both write stories; he would publish the two stories side by side in the next issue of This Quarter. Imrnediately I agreed to do it. So did McAlmon.
By the way, I did write the story, “Now That April’s Here,” and Titus did publish it. Ezra Pound wrote me a letter from Rapallo expressing his admiration of the story and suggesting that I go to Washington and write about the politicians in the same manner.
By now McAlmon, exhilarated by our debate, and getting tight, had become truly expansive. He ordered another champagne cocktail and a Welsh rarebit. When the waiter brought the rarebit McAlmon tasted it, and dropped his fork. “Tell Madame Select,” he said in a disgusted tone, “that this rarebit, did not come from the kitchen. It came from the toilet.” The waiter hurried to Madame Select.
She was a plump, dark, determined-looking woman with a round high-coloured face, who watched over the cash register and the waiters. Indeed she was the cafe boss. Approaching our table, quivering with rage, she told McAlmon she, herself, had made the rarebit. In that case, said McAlmon waving his hand disdainfully, she ought to know where it came from. Aghast, she snatched the plate off the table and fled to the kitchen. In a little while she came out and stood back from the terrace at the door, watching us balefully, muttering, throwing glances of hatred at McAlmon, who had kept on laughing.
McAlmon’s real target, and I couldn’t put it past him if he was in one of his contemptuous moods, may have been Titus. Half drunk as he was, did he feel compelled to show some disrespect to this other publisher whose aims were so different from his own? In the meantime I had turned to watch a group of young homosexuals two tables away. The expression on my face must have irritated McAlmon. Maybe I did look too concerned. Four of the young homosexuals were commiserating with a sad-looking fellow, whose story we knew. His wife, now on her way from the States to join him, did not know that in the months he had been without her, he had been corrupted by these boys. Now he had no desire to see her. McAlmon evidently resenting my expression of concern or pity, wanted to offend me. Knowing I had kept all my good feeling for Hemingway, he struck very deftly at him. In The Sun Also Rises, why had Hemingway treated these homosexuals in such a vulgar orthodox manner? he asked. The answer was simple: he had been catering to all the virile men of the Middle West. All he had been really doing was strutting and flexing his own big powerful muscles, asserting his own virility—something, said McAlmon, looking down his nose, that was open to question. “So, Morley, old boy, don’t you start turning up your nose at homosexuals,” he said, “or I’ll suspect you too.”
“It’s the one boy there Bob. I feel sorry for him.”
“You’re ridiculous,” he said, and he began a funny, mocking, eloquence, but often loud defence of homosexuals. As Titus showed his embarrassment, McAlmon went on talking grandly about Plato and Michelangelo. Our objections only aroused his chuckling disdain. He was happily drunk. Suddenly he cried exuberantly, “I’m bisexual myself, like Michelangelo, and I don’t give a damn who knows it.” He hurled his glass out to the sidewalk where it splintered in front of an elderly man who stopped, rattled, waving his hand as if he were calling the police.
Madame Select, who had been standing at her post, watching and scowling at McAlmon and brooding over the insult to her rarebit, now came rushing over to the table. McAlmon would pay for the glass, she cried. Not only would he pay, she added grimly, he would leave the cafe at once. With a patient, tolerant smile, McAlmon rose, tried to bow, then had to sit down quickly—he couldn’t move. While he sat there staring earnestly at the table top, his face chalk white, I went for a taxi. When I returned, Titus told me Madame Select had said my friend was not welcome at her cafe any more.
Glancing at Madame Select, who waited, her arms folded, grim, solid and unyielding, Titus urged me to hurry and get McAlmon into a taxi. I did. But again for Titus, the protocol was broken; being treated as a businessman, he was left paying for McAlmon’s drinks, the Welsh rarebit, the broken glass, and our drinks too. Though McAlmon, in the taxi, was in a stupor, as I looked at him I wondered if he hadn’t actually wanted this to happen.
Now a matter of the greatest dignity began to concern our little neighbourhood. Next night at nine thirty when Loretto and I came along the boulevard, Titus, in his chair at the Select, stood up and beckoned. We bowed apologetically. We went to a new little cafe between the Rotonde and the Select. Each night we followed this procedure. From his chair at the Select, Titus could see us sitting at the new place. We hated this little cafe. No one we knew sat there. Sometimes one of our friends, feeling sympathy for the grandeur of our position—the support of a drunken friend—would come and sit with us.
Each night Titus watched us with a lonely and disgusted expression on his face. Sometimes we saw him arguing with Madame Select. They would grow vehement. One night, after they had had one of these cold grim arguments, we saw Madame Select and her headwaiter come out to the sidewalk, look along to the cafe where we sat, and contemplate us in silence.
It went on like this all week. On Saturday night as we were passing the Select at nine thirty, Titus came hurrying from his place on the terrace. “Madame Select would like a word with you,” he said coaxingly and he beckoned to her.
We waited, aloof, dignified, beyond reproach as she came towards us, all grace, smiles and kindly benevolence. Would we sit down and have a drink on her? she asked. Would we invite our friend McAlmon to come and have a drink on her? There was much handshaking all around and so we sat down at the Select again, confident that a great victory for something or other had been won.