Posts Tagged ‘Bohemian Club’

16 March

Cousin Sheldon

Cousin Sheldon

August, 1925, Paris, France

I started to laugh, but the rigid expression on Mr. Sheldon’s face made it clear he was being very serious.  He’s an older, occasionally charming, American businessman with a lot more money than hair. During the past few weeks, he’s made frequent appearances at the Boeuf, usually alone, and always wanting to chat with us. Well, really just me. Like so many of the men with more money than hair, I think he is quite taken with me, which is always fun regardless of the source.

When we first met, I asked him if we might be related as he and my mother share the Sheldon surname.  It didn’t take long to discover we were, as our ancestors trace back to John Alden and the Mayflower. His line of the Sheldon family remained in Boston, while mine chose to seek out adventure and fortune in 1850’s California. I really hadn’t given him, or our family connection, much thought until this moment.

“I’m sorry?” I said, sure I had misunderstood him. “Did you say you want to loan us the money to buy le Boeuf sur le Toit?”

“Not the entire Boeuf, just this side of it.  Louis Moyses would retain ownership of the formal dining room and kitchen, and you and Bob would own and manage the bar.”

Evidently, the Boston Sheldons suffer from delusions as well as receding hairlines.  He talked like he was buying a used car.  It was all quite unsettling.       

“Louis wouldn’t part with any of it.  This place is like his child,” I insisted.

“I hope you don’t mind, but Louis and I have already discussed it and agreed to terms.”

Shocked, I took a closer look at this Mr. Sheldon wanting to believe him and wishing I could remember his first name.    

“Look, Moyses has some financial problems and I made him an offer that makes those go away. All that is missing is for you and Bob to agree.”

Breaking eye contact with Mr. Sheldon, I glanced around the room hoping to buy time to allow my head to clear.  The notion of owning our own nightclub, especially the Boeuf, instantly generated a thousand conflicting thoughts that got jumbled into a tangled mess that made my head hurt.  I spotted Bob at a table across the room having a discussion with Sinclair Louis – about writing, no doubt. I glanced around for Moyses, but he was nowhere to be seen. 

Turning my attention back to Mr. Sheldon, “Why would you do this?  You hardly know us.”

“After all, we are family.” He smiled for the first time.  “Muriel, over the years I have made a lot of money recognizing good investments.  You and Bob are a very attractive and talented young couple who have, in a very short period of time, built up an impressive and loyal group of adoring fans.  The Boeuf has a reputation as the place to be in Paris.  Put the two together and I see money waiting to be made.”

“And what’s in it for us?”

“If it is managed and marketed correctly, more money than the two of you can spend.”

“I think you underestimate my ability when it comes to shopping.”

 Mr. Sheldon was all business and ignored my joke. “Do you think Bob will like the idea?”

 “He will love it!”  I lied. “I’ll discuss it with him tonight and let you know tomorrow, if that’s okay.”

“Till tomorrow then.”

The rest of the night on stage passed in a conflicting fog, one second thinking about the excitement of owning part of the Boeuf and the next dreading Bob’s reaction. He had been talking a lot more lately about how the demands of performing didn’t give him a lot of time to write. Hanging out with all the writers that came around the club had reignited his desire to tell stories and get a book published.

After our last number, I came up behind him and planted a kiss on his neck. “How about you and I go to Mitchell’s for breakfast.  Just the two of us.”

“But Scott and Zelda have invited us to a party.”

“I know, but let’s skip it tonight.  We go to parties with them all the time.”  I reached around his waist and gave him a hug.

“Okay,” Bob said, turning around and giving me the look he always does when he gets suspicious.  “What are you up to?”

“Why must I be up to anything?  Maybe I just want to spend time alone with my husband.”

“I know something is on your mind as you forgot your lyrics twice tonight and during our last tune, you added a few notes that weren’t there the last twenty times we’ve performed it.”

I thought I had done an excellent job covering my mistakes, but Bob knows my tricks well – much too well. I shall have to invent new ones.

Frustrated, I blurted out, “Never mind then.  Let’s just go to the stupid party!  Who gives a damn about what I want?”

When I saw Bob’s shoulders drop like a scolded schoolboy, I knew I had said too much, too harshly.  He does try so hard to please me and I feel awful that I hurt him.

“Let me tell Scott to go ahead without us and I’ll meet you out front.”   

“Darling no,” I said in as tender a voice as I could muster.  “I’m sorry. It’s been a difficult evening.  Let’s go to the party and have a grand time.”

“No,” Bob insisted. “Tonight I am all yours.”

As the bright lights of Paris flashed by the taxi’s windows, I explained Mr. Sheldon’s offer to my husband.  I tried to sound neutral on the matter, but felt like I was failing miserably.  Bob’s response was not what I expected.

“How wonderful!  How much are we going to make?”

“I have no idea.  I guess that depends on how much business we do,” I said, completely shocked.  “But what about our dream to travel the world and your writing?”

“We are young and there will be plenty of time for travel.  I will write when we are not at the club and where better to gather inspiration and characters than Paris and le Boeuf sur le Toit?”

“But Bob, we don’t know a damn thing about managing a nightclub.” 

I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth.  My husband had stolen the words I’d been rehearsing all night, and here I was uttering what I expected to be his arguments.

“How hard can it be?  You make sure there is plenty of booze behind the bar and great entertainment on the stage.  And you, my darling, are the greatest entertainment in the world.”

As we exited the taxi, I felt as if I was in the midst of an emotional whirlpool, being sucked lower and lower. I had just gotten what I wanted, but in a way that left me strangely unsettled.  I thought I knew every aspect of my husband’s mind – that I could anticipate what he would think, long before he thought about thinking it.

Before entering Mitchell’s, Bob pulled me close.  “Minkling, this will be a great adventure, a lark like no other.  We’ll save enough money to explore the world in grand style.  Then, when we tire of the grind, we’ll sell our interest and move on to the next chapter. Let’s do this!”

“If you insist, darling.”

We sat in Mitchell’s sipping coffee till dawn, happily chatting about our grand plans for the Boeuf. Our future seemed so bright and gay, it’s hard to believe that less than six months ago we were roaming the streets of Paris broke and hungry.

Thank God those days are over forever!

13 March



July, 1925, le Boeuf sur le Toit, Paris, France

The audience was laughing hysterically. The lyrics to the number were quite clever and Bob and I added the appropriate shocked, loving and, sometimes, lustful facial expressions, which drove the crowd wild. In the middle of the tune, I glanced up and saw the lovesick, puppy expression on Bob’s face that made me laugh so much I forgot my next line, which made everyone else laugh even harder.

I love singing a heart-felt ballad and a snappy jazz number is always fun to perform.  People always compliment my deep, soulful voice, and how Bob and I harmonize so well. But I think I enjoy doing comedy numbers the most. Sometimes, the song was written by the composer to be funny but, most of the time, we take a standard everyone knows and change the lyrics to words that have double meanings, one very innocent and the other very naughty – and our Parisian audience always loves naughty.

I guess being a clown is in my nature as even when I was a little girl, I was always trying to get a laugh. In some ways, le Boeuf sur le Toit reminds me of my grandpa James Taylor’s house in California, always full of wonderful music and interesting, creative and passionate people with ideas they weren’t shy about sharing. I guess there are Bohemians in every corner of the globe, but their leaders reside at the Boeuf and tonight, they adore us.

In the month we have been appearing here, the club has become home and my personal slice of heaven.  It was hard leaving Mr. Varounis and the Chateau Caucasian.  He had been so kind to us and given us our first break, but the moment we informed him of the job offer, he said he understood completely and wished us much success. He even sent me roses opening night which made me cry.

Bob also cried on opening night, but with joy.  One of his literary heroes, Somerset Maugham, came in to catch our act and Bob spent every break happily chatting with him. Bob had read every thing he could get his hands on by Maugham and, even in college, raved about his talent and forward thinking ideas.  Bob got me to read his novel, Of Human Bondage, which, although a bit depressing, I thoroughly enjoyed. I adore his strong, English accent and very dry sense of humor.  His occasional, slight stammer only adds to his charm.

Maugham seemed to enjoy our company as well, as he always asked how Bob’s writing was coming and never seem to tire of listening about where we grew up and our plans to see the world.

After one long conversation with Maugham, Louis pulled us aside and said, “Don’t tell him anything you don’t want the world to know.  His friends seem to end up as the characters in one of his stories, sometimes in an unflattering way.”

We looked over at the distinguished Englishman who was sitting by himself, busily making notes.  I immediately started recalling every word I had ever said to him.

I can’t wait to write Mother about him and all the other interesting people we have been meeting. Celebrities from around the world drop by the Boeuf in droves.  Most ask to meet us and, during our breaks, we join them for a brief chat.  It we hit it off, they often invite us to another club or breakfast after work.

It is all rather wild, as we never know if we are going to sit down and have a conversation about writing, art, music, politics, acting, philosophy, history, social issues – or just gossip about who else is in the club.  Whatever the subject, we are usually discussing it with very passionate, intelligent people who define their field of expertise.  Bob couldn’t be more thrilled but, lately, he seems to resent us having to return to the stage.

I, too, am very pleased, but bewildered a bit as to why they have embraced us. It’s thrilling that they treat us as one of their own, full partners in this exciting and exclusive club that gathers at the Boeuf.  Many profess a determination to change the world, yet all they seem to do is complain about it, drink and howl at the moon at every opportunity.

But I still feel like an outsider. This has nothing to do with lack of self-confidence or the fear we aren’t good enough to join the pack. I am finding that most of these “”stars of the world” are pretty insecure and have their own demons to battle. It just doesn’t seem real – like it is all an illusion that will vanish as quickly and mysteriously as it appeared.  But, on the other hand, I am having the time of my life.

As we finish the number, some of the audience is almost rolling on the floor in laughter. After a great deal of applause, a couple bows and the spotlight shut off, we head off the dark stage, our last session for the night done.

“Bob, how about tonight we go directly home?”

My husband looked at me curiously, as he was usually the one making that suggestion to my objections.

“Great. Maybe we can…..”

Before he could finish, an attractive young French woman grabbed Bob’s hand.  I had seen her around the club before, but couldn’t recall her name or who the hell she was.  “Come, you two,” she said, giggling in a very unattractive way.  “There’s some people here you just have to meet!”

I started to decline for us, but she was already pulling Bob through the throngs of people in the packed club.  Before she disappeared completely with my husband, I followed along. It took a while, as people stopped our progress every five feet to shower us with compliments and invite us for a drink. We finally came to a booth where an attractive couple sat chatting with one of the most gorgeous men I had ever seen. Their discussion stopped mid-sentence and all eyes were on us.

Still giggling for no apparent reason, the girl said,  “Bob and Muriel, this is Scott and Zelda… and I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

“Ernest,” Scott said, loudly, and with a dramatic flare. “His name is Ernest Hemingway. Remember that name for one day soon, the whole world will repeat it often and always with reverence and awe.”

Everybody laughed but Ernest. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald I had heard of before. I think Bob mentioned he was a writer of some sort, but Paris society constantly gossiped about their crazy antics as if they were its unofficial, yet revered Prince and Princess, of all that is fun.

Ernest I hadn’t heard of, but I instantly wanted to learn everything about him.  His obvious, chiseled, good looks were certainly alluring, but it was the unsettling intensity in his dark eyes that made him mysterious and irresistible.  The giggling girl and Bob slid in the booth next to Scott, while I grabbed a seat next to Ernest. It looked like it was going to be another late night

10 March

The Jazz Age In America

The Jazz Age In America




It’s almost impossible to look back on the Jazz age and see it for what it was. One had to experience it, be a part of cultural, political and emotional upheaval of the times. Even for the participants of that era, it would be years before even they understood the events and ramifications of what F. Scott Fitzgerald described as “…the most expensive orgy in history.”

Until I met Muriel, my impressions of the Jazz Age centered on music, the Charleston, flappers, bobbed hair, bathtub gin, and flaming youth gone wild.  While all of these elements were present during the 1920’s, there was also a sense of frustration, anger and cynicism sweeping the country because of the Victorian, heavy handed political and cultural structure which many felt were stifling and oppressive.

While writing Muriel’s bio, I delved more deeply into the background and events of the era that gave birth to that crazy, frenetic decade that Scott Fitzgerald coined “The Jazz Age.”  As a result of Muriel’s stories and hundreds of hours of research in libraries (oh, what I would have given for computer back then), I began to understand how the amazing Roaring 20’s blazed upon the cultural scene with all of the dignity and finesse of a lightning strike on a munitions dump—everything went up in flames, and it took ten years for the ashes to sift back down to earth!

It was the perfect storm. Several historic and far-reaching events in America overlapped and led up to the unrest and disillusionment that fueled the Jazz Age rebellion.  I have space for just a few of the major political and cultural challenges citizens were facing at the time.

World War I had just ended and left America still reeling from not only the tragic loss of thousands of lives, but with the thousands of wounded, especially those who had been gassed and would never fully recover.  What had they gained that compensated for the terrible loss?

During the war, the controversial 18th Amendment was passed. This law banned the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcohol, giving birth to speakeasies and gangsters who managed the market for booze throughout the 1920’s until the law was repealed in 1933.  It is said that Al Capone’s earnings stood at $60 million a year, plus millions more made by other gangsters and speakeasy owners.  People continued to drink liquor, they just had to pay more for it and risk getting caught.

Speaking of getting caught, I can’t help grinning as I remember Uncle Charlie’s story of my Grandma Russell taking an axe to Grandpa’s stash of blackberry wine in the smokehouse.  The pigs and chickens lapped it up and staggered out the door to sleep it off. Satisfied with her mission, Grandma relaxed in her rocker with her afternoon tonic…Lydia Pinkham’s Lady’s Tonic, which she ordered from Sears and was about 80% alcohol!  Unbowed, Grandpa hid his next batch in the loft of the barn!

The next big event was the 19th Amendment in 1920—finally giving women the right to vote after 72 years of struggle!  It is hard to imagine women not being able to vote, isn’t it?  I’ve voted in every election since I came of age—never missed a one. I can imagine how anxious those women were to cast their first vote. And what domestic discord it must have caused if they voted differently than their husbands. Hot on the heels of gaining a voice, female voters all over the country began to unite to clean up politics, improve society and end discrimination, surely a powerful force to be reckoned with. H. L. Mencken penned thousands of words about well meaning, but naïve “lady do-gooders.”

The younger generation was fighting to escape the Victorian Age mentality still prevalent in America with its harsh, judgmental edicts about social morals and artistic freedom.  Writers, artists, dancers and musicians were especially angered and outspoken, with many of them leaving the United States and becoming expatriates in Paris, where artistic freedom was nourished. American authors wrote scathing indictments on what they saw as the shallowness and narrow-mindedness in American life.

T.S.Elliott wrote that we were a nation awash in materialism and devoid of spiritual vitality. Sinclair Lewis added fuel to the fire when he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 for his “Main Street” (1920) and “Babbitt” (1922), both satires on smugness and narrow minded complacency in small town America, causing a firestorm of angry protest from small towns throughout America!

Then there was H. L. Mencken, the acerbic editor of “Mercury Magazine” who wrote hundreds of essays mocking many aspects of American life.  He pounded away at reformers, whom he blamed for the bloodshed of WW I and the gangsters of the 1920’s prohibition era.  He insisted that, “Doing good is in bad taste!”  And when asked why he was such a keen observer of people when he complained about them so much, he replied, “Why do people go to zoos?”  Not surprisingly, his Mercury Magazine was quite popular with the younger generation. Their elders? Not so much!

To add to these monumental events, there was great political unrest especially in the south where the African Americans were becoming restless and vocal about mistreatment and discrimination.  They were also threatened by the growth and brutality of the Ku Klux Klan, but continued demanding their rightful place in society. The situation was becoming volatile and the government was slow to respond.

Something else was coming out of the south—a very different sound, especially to white Americans, that would forever change our musical history. We didn’t know what to call it at first—it was a unique sound, a mixture of blues, ragtime, gospel and a joyful syncopation of style and improvisation. Early on, it was sometimes referred to as “Jas music,” then “Razz,” and finally “Jazz”, a musical style that originated in the early 1900’s in southern African American communities. The popular Jazz bands made recordings that were played on radios across the country. They performed in Chicago, New York and San Francisco clubs and speakeasies.

Jazz music quickly became the rage, especially among the young people.  The Black Bottom, Charleston and Foxtrot followed hot on its heels.  It was as if the younger generation had been desperately seeking an outlet to release the tension, anger and discontent that had been building up and found it in Jazz and wild, uninhibited dances.  It’s not surprising that many of their Victorian parents were scandalized and strongly objected to Jazz and the dances. They condemned the unfamiliar saxophone (the sultry sax sounded too much like sex) that promoted close, intimate dancing as well as wild, hysterical gyrations that looked like the dancers were possessed.

A 1921 edition of “Ladies’ Home Journal” published an article called, “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?”  The author claims that the outrageous dances were destroying the morals of today’s youth.  Jazz was blamed for everything from drunkenness, to deafness, to madness and a huge increase of unwed mothers! Despite such opinions (or because of them) Jazz remains to this day immensely popular. It gave birth to Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, Reggae, bebop, vocal jazz and scat, Bluegrass and today’s popular music played all over the world.

Musician, J. J. Johnson, put it best when he said, “Jazz is restless.  It won’t stay put and it never will!” I think this also defines every new, restless generation. They won’t stay put either, and never will!

My parents didn’t do the Charleston (or did they?) but they were the best foxtrotters in the county.  However, they strongly disapproved of the “jitterbug” the new dance craze when I was in high school.  I loved dancing the “bug” to the swing music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. But I remember being appalled the first time I saw the dances kids are doing today, which seems to consist mostly of pelvic thrusts. God knows what the next generation of dances will be!  Anyway, I can understand the 1920’s parents shock at the music and dances.

In addition to all the above events, the turmoil in the United States was heightened by the contentious, long Scopes Trial, which pitted friend against friend, and the disturbingly large exodus of writers, musicians, and artists who fled to Paris, along with numerous African American musicians and entertainers who found the longed for freedom and acceptance they couldn’t find here. They all became part of the large, growing American expatriate community in Paris.

Among them was F. Scott Fitzgerald who coined so many words and phrases defining the 1920’s through his books and essays.  In 1922, he described the 1920’s as “The Jazz Age.” The phrase became the iconic title of an era so difficult to define. Gertrude Stein called it “The Lost Generation,” and Ernest Hemingway insisted that “…they were battered, but were not lost.”

So, the younger generation had made their statement through fashion, style, music, dance and thought. Gradually, their freedom of dress (no more corsets, hooray!) and life style entered mainstream America. They embraced the philosophy of the popular Broadway musical, “Anything Goes.”

The Jazz Age bubble burst and plummeted to earth with a resounding crash when Wall Street collapsed in 1929. Scott Fitzgerald recalled events in his famous 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.”  He said the era was an age of miracles, art, excess and satire. The Jazz age had had a wild youth and a heady middle age, but it was only borrowed time. Eventually, “Somebody blundered, and the most expensive orgy in history was over.”

He ended the essay with, “It all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings again.”

I don’t perceive the Jazz Age in the same way I did before I wrote Muriel’s story. It’s easier to see why Paris became a beacon of artistic freedom that drew her, Bob and hundreds of other artists to its promising light.  Next week, we’ll explore the Jazz Age in Paris, which was a much different story from what Muriel experienced in her own country. We’ll talk about the Dada movement, famous artists, the opulent life style and…All That Jazz!

8 March

le Boeuf sur le Toit – Part 1

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.”

4 March

A Quickly Forgotten Lesson

A Quickly Forgotten Lesson

March 19, 1925, Paris, France

Carrying a suitcase containing our evening clothes, Bob and I made the long trek to the Chateau Caucasian, arriving just after noon and hoping someone would be there.  We were going to tell them that we wanted to rehearse, but the real reason we arrived early was we hoped to get a cash advance from Mr. Varounis, so we could get Bob’s banjo out of hock and have some money for food and other essentials.  We brought our evening clothes along in case we were unsuccessful and couldn’t afford cab fare, as I refused to walk between the club and our hotel twice in one day.

After banging on the front door several times with no answer, we headed around the block to the back of the club.  Delivery trucks were lined up offloading cases of food and booze. In the kitchen, a small army of chefs were busy cutting, dicing, frying and stirring.  The delicious smells reminded me that I hadn’t eaten today.  After getting lost a couple times, we finally found the stairs leading up to the Cabaret.

“You’re early,”  the Admiral said, as he walked up to us wearing a frown.  “If you’re looking for food, dinner service doesn’t start for another five hours.”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly eat a thing,” I lied.  “We had a huge, late breakfast and I’m so stuffed I might not eat again all day.”

“We came to rehearse,” Bob interjected, not wanting me to say any more.  “We would also like to have a quick word with Mr. Varounis.”

“Mr. Varounis is a very busy man and normally doesn’t deal with employees.  That’s my job.”

Employees! I hated the sound of the word and was becoming irate at the Admiral’s rudeness.  Maybe everyone else around here jumped at his commands, but I refused to be one of them.   

“Still,” Bob said quickly, seeing I was angry and might lose it at any moment, “If you would be so kind as to let him know we would like to see him.”

“He’s not here, but when he arrives I will tell him.  Until then, rehearse all you want.”

I uttered a sarcastic response under my breath as we walked past him onto the stage, when I spotted a beautiful, black grand piano waiting for me. My hunger and anger were quickly forgotten as rushed over and began caressing the keys. It was perfectly tuned. The room had surprisingly good acoustics and, in a short time, Bob and I were once again happily playing and singing our hearts out.  Some of the kitchen staff and workmen had gathered to listen and even applauded after one of our numbers, until Admiral jackass came by and told them to get back to work.

“I understand you would like to see me.”  We were so wrapped up in our music we hadn’t seen Mr. Varounis walk up on the stage.

Bob explained we needed to buy some new music, clothes we could perform in and other items for the show, carefully avoiding letting him know how broke we really were.  “So, if you would be so kind as to give us an advance on our salary …”

“I see.  How much of an advance are you requesting?” he asked without showing any emotion.

We had already decided that one night’s salary would get us everything we needed till payday, and then some.

“We were thinking 100 francs.”

“Hmmm.”  Mr. Varounis went deep into thought again, looking down at the stage.  “A long time ago, I decided it was best to never give people money for work they have not done.  It is bad business and can only cause problems.” 

He paused and my heart sank.

“But in your case, I will make an exception this one time.  I don’t have any francs on me.  Will American dollars do?”

We nodded as we hadn’t converted any dollars to francs yet and American dollars were easier for us.  My mind started racing, wondering if I had time to get my hair done and do some shopping before the first show.

He reached in his pocket and brought out a large roll of bills.  He stripped four of them off and laid them on the baby grand.  Returning the wad of bills to his pocket, he reached in his other pocket and carefully counted out several coins putting them on top of the two bills.

“Will there be anything else?” he asked.

Bob and I starred at the $4.54 laying on the piano – our mouths hanging open in disbelief. 

“What is this?” I asked.

“Based on the exchange rate today, exactly one hundred francs.

“Let this be a lesson to you both,” Mr. Varounis said more like a father than an employer.  “Now, I suggest we go back to my office and discuss a salary that is fair to everyone.”

For the next hour he lectured us on the value of money and how critical it was to save every penny we could.  He had written a book on money called Dollars that he had penned for the youth of America and gave us an autographed copy.  I didn’t listen too much of what he said, as I was angry at myself for not knowing that 100 francs was only $4.54.  He offered a salary, which was lower than I thought we were worth, but enough that we could get an small apartment, eat and have some left over for shopping.  He also gave us a week’s advance that he would take out of our salary over the next month. 

When the meeting was over, we had no interest in rehearsing any more.  While Bob took a cab to get his banjo out of hock, I rushed down the street to a beauty salon to see if they could do my hair fast enough so I still had time to drop by the boutique next door.  They had this white dress in the window that would look fabulous on me.