Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 1: SOUND
Chapter 17. The Sense of a Sacrifice
Sometimes I’m invited places to kind of brighten up a dinner table like a musician who’ll play the piano after dinner, and I know you’re not really invited for yourself. You’re just an ornament.
Have you ever heard,” asked my sister-in-law, Caroline, “of a woman named Kitty Carlisle Hart?”
As Caroline headed the Paris campus of a major stateside university, we occasionally found ourselves discussing obscure aspects of American culture. Few of them, however, related to such minor show business personalities as the longtime panelist of the TV game show To Tell the Truth and widow of My Fair Lady producer Moss Hart.
“What can I tell you?”
“Ah, so you know who she is?”
Murder at the Vanities. Paramount Pictures/Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
Kitty Carlisle Hart wearing fronds—but little else in Murder at the Vanities.
“Better than that. I’ve seen her naked. Well, near enough, anyway.”
Caroline sounded startled. “I’m not sure I need to know that much,” she said. “She’s on our board of regents. She’ll be here next week, with a group of alumni. I’ve been planning their itinerary. We need to make a good impression.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Well, I thought a guided tour of the usual sights—Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomphe … that sort of thing.”
“The others might enjoy that, but not Madame Hart. As I remember, she graduated from the Sorbonne.”
“Began her show business career in opera. Even sang Carmen—in French, I presume.”
“That changes things. What would she enjoy?”
“In my experience,” I said, “a good dinner seldom disappoints.”
We think of the French as preferring simple food, carefully prepared and eaten in discreet surroundings. Let tourists patronize the chic bistros with their brass fittings and windows of colored glass, their white-aproned waiters and multiple-choice menus. The locals, we assume, are happiest dining on a few simple dishes prepared with care and craft, using ingredients harvested within sight of the kitchen’s back door.
While this is generally true, the French, given the chance, will eat hugely, and with a gusto seldom seen in Anglo-Saxon cultures. The tradition of the festin, or feast, is enshrined in the culture. Such stories as Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, about a nineteenth-century Parisian refugee chef who shows her appreciation to the pious Norwegian community that sheltered her by preparing them a gourmet dinner, celebrate the transcendental pleasures of a massive meal enjoyed with friends. Uniquely, the practice even has its own word, or at least a suffix. Adding -ade to some delicacy—sardinade, langoustinade—signifies a public gathering to consume it in quantity. Excess is the most savory of sauces. As the writer Colette said of her favorite culinary indulgence, “If I can’t have too many truffles, I don’t want any.”
Such feasts almost always take place in the countryside, in communities one would not think of as prosperous. The less wealthy the culture, the greater the effort it makes to produce a respectable feast. Jews went hungry but saved the fatted calf and the paschal lamb for roasting on a holy day. In that first bitter winter in the New World, the Pilgrims ate as lavishly as they could. At a Hawaiian luau, an entire pig, slow-roasted with yams and plantains, fed the tribe. In France, entire villages gather to roast an ox, gorge on the basil-flavored vegetable soup called pistou, or share an aioli—steamed fish and vegetables eaten with fiery garlic mayonnaise.
In each case, there is the sense of a sacrifice: of eating to celebrate the possibility of doing so. Such cheap foodstuffs as rice, potatoes, and pasta lend themselves to being consumed in quantity and shared with the entire family, even the community. It’s prosperity that brings the arrogance of small portions. As incomes rise, grease and starch disappear, replaced by fatless protein, a few spoonfuls of green vegetables, a delicately sculpted potato—food prepared with an eye more to appearance than gratification. In one of the most telling details in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, his portrait of the Sicilian aristocracy on the eve of the Risorgimento, the bourgeoisie invited to dine with the Prince of Salina relax visibly when the meal they’re served is not, as they fear, delicate dishes in the French style but deep pies filled with macaroni, liver, kidney, and sausages, all slippery with fat: the diet of the peasantry to which they still, in their guts, belong.
The continental tradition of the “good feed” also flourished in Australia, even in the country town where I was brought up. No matter how tough the times, organizers of a barn dance or “social” always found a way to provide supper for fifty or sixty people. They simply added to the announcement in the local paper the simple phrase “Ladies a Plate”; in other words, “We supply the premises and the band. You supply the food.” Each woman brought a plate of sandwiches, cakes, sausage rolls; all, that is, except the occasional newcomer who took the request literally and arrived with just a naked plate.
After debating the options for feeding twenty wealthy New Yorkers, all fussy about their diets, Caroline booked a private room at La Pérouse. It was a shrewd choice. Since 1766, this restaurant overlooking the Seine on the Quai des Grands Augustins has purveyed a style of food and service most of us never dream of. When vegans and vegetarians wish to terrify their children, they take them on their knee and read from its menu. Before they’ve even reached the crawfish ravioli in Chantilly cream flavored with Hennessy cognac, let alone the chicken breast with hazelnut crust in a foie gras sauce, the most recalcitrant delinquent is begging for broccoli.
Even more impressively, we had been given one of the most richly decorated and gilded rooms in the restaurant. In calling it La Boussole—the compass—the restaurant paid tribute to Jean-François de La Pérouse, sent off in 1788 by Louis XVI in two ships, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, to circumnavigate the globe. He never returned. Louis’s last question as he stood in the shadow of the guillotine in 1793 was, “Is there any news of Monsieur de La Pérouse?” He died without knowing that both ships had perished five years before on the reefs of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands.
Given the public relations significance of the event, I was flattered when Caroline invited me to the dinner but not deluded that I wouldn’t be expected to sing for my supper. The food might be important, but so was the ambiance and, above all, the conversation. “Everything connected with dinner-giving has an almost sacramental importance in France,” wrote American novelist Edith Wharton. “The quality of the cooking comes first; but, once this is assured, the hostess’s chief concern is that the quality of the talk shall match it.”
It seemed the conversation would be my responsibility—something confirmed as we waited at the top of the stairs for Madame Hart and her guests.
“Is there anything in particular you’d like me to do?” I asked.
“Just talk to Madame Hart,” Caroline replied. “None of us would know what to say.”
I felt a momentary qualm, since there wasn’t much to say. As celebrities go, Kitty Carlisle was barely second string. Following some minor success in opera, she drifted to Hollywood, where her career peaked in 1935 as love interest to the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera. In 1946, she married Moss Hart, to become a Broadway hostess, game show personality, socialite, and fundraiser for worthy causes in the arts.
Would it be wise, I wondered, to confess that I admired her almost entirely on account of her first film, an obscure 1934 mystery called Murder at the Vanities?
Watching the frail woman mounting the stairs toward us, surrounded by men and women only slightly less venerable, I marveled at her vitality. Though a trifle unsteady on her feet, she looked spry for ninety-three. I knew she still toured in her one-woman show—not for the money, since Moss Hart died rich, but, as she confessed to me later that evening, to feel for just a few more hours the warmth of the limelight.
The evening didn’t begin well. As she offered her fragile hand and the polite but weary smile of the public woman, I sensed the fatigue of a week—indeed a lifetime—expended on politesse. Been here, she seemed to say, done that. The rest of the party appeared less like friends than a supporting cast, chosen for their colorlessness, the better to show her off. They wandered into the dining room, silently studying the decor or impassively peering out the front windows at the gun-metal waters of the Seine: extras awaiting their cue. Most looked as if they’d be happier at home in front of the TV with their slippers and a cup of hot chocolate. Extreme measures were called for.
“What do you think we should do?” Caroline murmured.
“I could say something.”
“Why don’t you do that.”
Taking a deep breath, I tapped on a wineglass with a fork to quiet the conversation, introduced myself, then went on. “Tonight, I’ve achieved a lifelong ambition …”
I was barely out of my teens when I saw Murder at the Vanities. Television was new to Australia, and entirely in black and white. Even to possess a set was exceptional. A significant proportion of the population, fanatically loyal to radio, believed that the set, even when dark, acted as an eye, recording everything they did and transmitting it to Security Central. People preferred sets with wooden doors that closed over the screen. Others kept it draped with a sheet.
Hungry for content, broadcasters bought the libraries of Hollywood studios and structured their schedules mostly around old movies. Care might go into choosing the films for prime time, but after midnight an assistant simply took the next can of film from the shelf and put it into the telecine. As prints tended to be grouped alphabetically by filmmaker, one might, in the course of a week, see five or six consecutive films by the same director—an ad hoc course in film appreciation that ignited my lifelong enthusiasm for Hollywood in the 1930s.
Even among the miscellany of gangster films, westerns, and musicals, however, Murder at the Vanities stood out. As phony as a celluloid hibiscus, it washed up in the early hours and seized my attention instantly. Set backstage at Earl Carroll’s Vanities, a Broadway revue famous for lightly dressed showgirls, it was a message in a bottle from a world as remote from my experience as Egypt of the pharaohs.
Every scene, like cheap perfume, carried a whiff of those few gaudy years before Hollywood imposed a code of self-censorship that forbade everything from navels to knuckle-dusters. Nude girls, pale as lilies, coyly cupped their breasts and reclined in poses straight from the art deco pattern book. A boyish Duke Ellington, black hair and pearly teeth gleaming, conducted “Ebony Rhapsody” in white tie and tails while a chorus line of girls from the Cotton Club School of the Dance trucked and jived. Gertrude Michael, a specialist in bitches, crooned a hymn to “sweet marijuana,” at the end of which she was mown down by a machine gun wielded by Charles Middleton, later famous as Ming the Merciless, emperor of the universe, in the Flash Gordon serials. In another number, half-naked showgirls waved ostrich fans in a surprisingly effective imitation of surf while Kitty Carlisle, wearing a net body stocking with a few strategically placed fronds, “swam” to a desert island and a clinch with her German costar, Carl Brisson, whose plodding performance reflected his former career as a boxer.
For my audience at La Pérouse, I described only edited highlights of this experience, but it was enough to seize their attention. I used it to point out the features of the room where we were dining. Was it possible, I suggested, that the lithe, near-naked Kitty of 1934, frolicking in a Hollywood surf of ostrich plumes, came close to the kind of creature that La Pérouse expected to discover in the South Seas—the seductive siren who lured sailors to their doom?
“In Murder at the Vanities,” I concluded, “the showgirls enter the theater through a stage door above which is the sign ‘Through These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Women in the World.’” Raising my glass, I went on, “All these years, I’ve wondered if this claim was true—and now, looking at our guest of honor, I see that it was.”
As always with show business, nothing succeeded like excess. The group applauded. Kitty beamed. Patting the chair beside her, she said, “My dear, you must come and sit by me.”
For the rest of the dinner, we exchanged showbiz gossip, of which she had an inexhaustible stock.
“The ‘Sweet Marijuana’ number in Vanities,” I said. “You’d never get away with it now.”
She leaned toward me conspiratorially. “Darling, you can’t imagine how green I was. I’d never heard of the stuff, let alone smoked it. And those lyrics about ‘put me to sleep, sweet marijuana’? Well, ‘marijuana’ sounded a little like ‘marimba,’ so I thought it was a Mexican musical instrument!”
As we broke up three hours later, she gave me a business card. “Next time you’re in New York, please visit.” She squeezed my arm. “Promise, now.”
A year later, I did call on her in the vast apartment on Manhattan’s East Side. She’d just returned from another performance of her one-woman show and looked tired, but still found the energy to lead me along her gallery of paintings by famous songwriters: canvases of varying skill, executed by Jerome Kern, Noel Coward, and George Gershwin. I’m not sure she remembered much of that night at La Pérouse. Even my recollection was clouded. But a dinner had been the correct way to celebrate what would become her last visit to Paris: she died the following year, aged ninety-six. The ritual, the ceremony, the sense of a sacrifice were all as should have been. As Arthur Miller said in Death of a Salesman, to such a person, attention must finally be paid.