le Boeuf sur le Toit

Part 1

 

June, 1925, Paris, France

“That’s Jean Cocteau sitting over there,” Mania said, excitedly pointing to a booth at the back of the room.  “And that’s Darius Milhaud sitting with him.  I’m not sure who the other man is.”

I tried not to be obvious as I turned my head to get a peek at the three men who seemed to be in a very intense discussion, oblivious to their surroundings.

“My God, I think that’s Andre Gide,” Bob said with reverence in his voice.

“Who’s he?”  I asked, having never heard the name before.

“A brilliant writer.  I just finished reading a book he wrote about Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I hear he just published another book about homosexuality that is causing quite a stir, but it hasn’t been translated into English yet.  I can’t wait to get my hands on it.”

“Something you want to tell us, Bob?” Mania asked.

Mania, Prince Nadir and I looked at each other and started laughing. Bob blushed.

“I can assure you my man prefers a female’s touch and is quite adapt at pleasing a woman.” My attempt to rescue Bob from his faux pas only made him blush more, which made him even more adorable.

“Really?” Prince Nadir said with his strong, mixed accent. “I didn’t know you were such an accomplished lover.  Maybe you will give me a lesson. Yes?”

“No!” Bob said quickly, which only made us laugh harder.

The past month we have been having such a good time with Mania and her varied assortment of friends.  Most nights, after work she would take us out on the town to the best restaurants and cabarets. She has also showered us with expensive gifts and has a very generous heart.  Mania calls us her “babies”, which irritates Bob to no end.  She also can be a bit demanding occasionally, but mostly we just laugh and have a good time with her.

Mania’s major vice seems to be very handsome, significantly younger men. Mania looks like someone’s favorite, middle-aged aunt, but finding a man who looks like someone’s favorite uncle to love holds no interest for her.  I understand her attraction and admire her zest but, from what she tells me, her relationships with these young men always turn out badly.  I think she has the illusion that they care about her more than her money.

Prince Nadir seems no different and I fear for Mania, because I think she is falling madly in love with him.  An aspiring actor, he is quite handsome, dashing, charming and was born at least twenty years after she. I enjoy his company, but it is obvious to everyone but Mania that he is a bit of a scoundrel.  One moment he will tell you that he is Russian royalty, yet he doesn’t speak Russian very well.  Then he will claim that his family once ruled all of Persia, yet he is always broke and never picks up a check.  But again, when we are with Mania, neither do we.

My thoughts of Mania are interrupted by a waiter arriving with a tray full of drinks. Bob, Mania and Prince Nadir are still busy trying to spot the rich, famous and infamous that frequent the club. I sit back and take the opportunity to closely examine the beautiful room.  I have been hearing about this club since arriving in Paris and was excited to finally experience it. It was off the beaten path, and not a place tourists normally find, so maybe that’s why the locals prize it.

On the surface, it looks much the same as many of the other cabarets we visited, but there is something about it that makes it special in some way.  Something I can’t quite put my finger on.  It’s warm and quaint, yet the artwork and decor has an exquisite, futuristic craziness that sparks the imagination.  There’s a small stage at one end, a beautiful bar made from handcrafted oak and the tables and booths are organized in a very intimate way that makes the ambiance exclusive, yet inviting.

I was still trying to figure out what it was about this club that attracted so many artistic types, when I spot a very distinguished looking man standing by the bar smiling at me. He is tall, has lovely, blond hair and is quite good looking so, naturally, I smile back.

As if that was his cue, he started walking in our direction.

“Bienvenue au le Boeuf sur le Toit,” he said in a friendly tone as he reached our table. “Je suis votre hote, Louis Moyses.”

Mania attempted to respond in what was barely recognizable French when the man interrupted her, “Pardon, forgive me for being rude by not speaking English. Welcome to le Boeuf sur le Toit.  I am your host, Louis Moyses.”

“Thank you,” Mania said.  “I am Mania, this is Prince Nadir and these lovely people are the Johnstons.”

“Who in Paris does not know of the great entertainers, Muriel and Bob? I am honored to have you in my establishment.”

Bob and I looked at each other in disbelief.  Occasionally we would get recognized by someone who had seen our act at the Chateau Caucasian, but normally they were Russians or Americans, never the French.

“May I join you for a moment?”

“Please do,” Mania said, quite happy to be seen with the owner. “So what does le Boeuf sur le Toit mean?”

Louis smiled, “This is difficult to say exactly.  The correct English translation is Ox on the Roof, but somehow it always ends up being Bull on the Roof.  It was named by that man sitting over there, Darius Milhaud. The name comes from one of his best works.”

We all looked over at the famous composer with awe.  He was still in deep conversation with Gide and Cocteau.

“Would you like to meet him?”

Bob’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Yes, very much.”

“Excellent.  Afterwards, I will give you a tour of my little bar.”

My heart was racing as we approached the trio’s table. Jean Cocteau was one of the most famous painters in the world and I had studied Milhaud’s music compositions at Berkeley. I could tell Bob was about to bust a button at meeting Gide.

A first, the trio seemed irritated at being interrupted, but after Moyses introduced us, and said something else to Cocteau in French, they seemed willing to tolerate us for a moment.  Moyses translated back and forth. Bob told Gide he admired his work, which brought a look of surprise from the writer.  Gide said something in French that drew a chuckle from the three of them.

“What did he say?” Bob asked.

Louis seemed embarrassed. “He said he was not aware that Americans read books.”  He quickly added,  “He did not mean that as an insult to you, it was just an observation and a poor attempt at humor.”

Bob laughed.  “It okay. Please tell him I couldn’t agree with him more. Most Americans are still catching up to Europe’s dedication to all that is artistic.”

Louis did as instructed.  Gide smiled and nodded in Bob’s direction.

Cocteau said something else in French. “Jean has asked if you would be so kind as to honor us with a number later.  He has never seen you perform.”

A flutter of butterflies immediately started coming to life, not so much at being asked to perform, but from not knowing exactly what was going on. There was an agenda here that I didn’t understand, and the language barrier was making it even more difficult.

“And you have?” I asked.

“Twice,” Louis said, the humor in his demeanor obvious and a little more frustrating, yet exciting. “At the Chateau Caucasian. I think all of Paris would love your style of Jazz and humor. No?”

Had Louis Moyses just offered us a job at one of the most famous and exclusive nightclubs in Paris? I glanced over at Bob and could tell from the excitement in his eyes that he was wondering the same thing.

“Come,” Louis said warmly, “allow me to introduce you to the heart and soul of le Boeuf sur le Toit.”