Posts Tagged ‘French Rivera’

7 March

Exiled In Paris

Exiled In Paris

May, 1925, Paris, France

As the spotlight followed Bob around the stage, he looked truly happy.  His dancing, singing and funny lyrics were making the men laugh and the women swoon. In the two months we had been appearing at the Chateau Caucasian, he seemed to be warming to the idea of us being professional performers.  He still complained about not having time to work on his writing, but every week his objections seemed less intense.

The room was packed almost every night, many of the customers coming just to see us. Much to the delight of Mr. Varounis, rich Americans, who seemed to enjoy throwing around their money, started frequenting the club.  Even Admiral had become almost civil to us, as more business in the club meant more tips for him.  The very particular Parisian press, who tended to snub the Russian clubs, even began to publish an occasional, positive review about us, although it was usually in small print and hidden on a back page.

Mr. Varounis increased our salary to almost $300 a week, a fortune to us. But even with this huge salary, we always seemed to be broke.  Wearing beautiful clothes, devouring fine food and drinking the finest champange at the very best places always seemed like more fun than figuring out our finances.

What had taken us both by surprise was the number of avid fans we had. Between shows, we were invited to a dozen tables where strangers would buy us drinks, food or anything else we wanted, while they told us how wonderful we were.  This would often lead them to inviting us to join them after work at some of the finest cabarets in town.

As I played the last few notes, Bob danced his way back to me and slid onto the piano bench to give me a kiss, which is all part of the act. He tripped a bit, slid harder than normal and proceeded to knock me off the slick bench.  I landed on the stage floor with a loud thud and a very surprised look on my face.  The audience thought it was part of the act and went wild.  That was the last number of our first show, so Bob helped me up and we took a few bows.

“They loved it! We should keep that in as part of the act,” Bob said, as the spotlight turned off and we walked across the dark stage.

“My throbbing rear end disagrees,” I responded.

“How about we get you a pillow to land on?”

“How about I knock you off the bench?”

We both started laughing when the Admiral came over and pointed to a woman who was looking in our direction.  “Mrs. Barnwell would like the two of you to join her for a drink.”

She must have tipped him handsomely as the Admiral didn’t usually deliver messages, thinking it was below his station.  There were several people with her who looked interesting. A very nice looking man, much younger that she, was sitting at her side holding her hand.

“Who is she?”

“She comes in here from time to time, always with a large party and usually with a different man and always pays for everyone. The rumor is that her multi-millionaire husband hated the idea of a divorce almost as much as he hated her. He offered her a million dollars if she would leave the United States and never return.  She came to Paris a few years ago and owns a three-story mansion on the Champs Elysees.”

 “You seem to know a lot about her.”

“Everyone knows about fou Mania.

“Fou Mania?” I asked, not knowing the French term.

“Crazy Mary”

This sounded like just the kind of woman I wanted to meet. “Tell her we’ll join her in a few minutes.”

Bob and I headed to our dressing room to freshen up before returning to the restaurant fifteen minutes later.  As usual, there was a polite round of applause when we entered.  We were still ten feet from her table when Mary Barnwell leaped from her seat and came bounding towards us.

“My darlings, I simply adore the two of you. I just had to meet you!” she said, kissing both sides of our cheeks in the Parisian way.  “Come, there are people you just have to meet.”

After introductions, Mania, as she called herself, talked for a solid half hour never pausing.  She occasionally asked us a question but, before we could answer, she would jump to a new subject while giggling like a schoolgirl.  As we listened, we sipped on the Chateau Caucasian’s best champagne.  If Mania was suffering in any way from her exile in Paris, she was hiding it well.

Mania was a short, matronly woman whom I concluded was in love with the sound of her own voice and liked being in control of her surroundings, yet there was something about her I liked.  Maybe it was her zest for life, so when she invited us to be her guest at the Moulin Rouge after our last performance, I quickly accepted.

On our way back to the stage, Bob inquired, “You did hear that they call her Crazy Mary, probably for good reason – are you sure about this?”

“What’s wrong with a little crazy?” I asked with a straight face.

“A little crazy is great fun, but there is a reason her husband exiled her to another continent thousands of miles away.”

“Is that what you are going to do when you tire of me, darling?  Send me far, far away?”  I asked, trying to sound distressed.

“Minkling, your brand of crazy is something I’ll never tire of.”

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.

1 March

The Greek

The Greek

March 18, 1925, Paris, France

We entered his office slowly, having no idea what to expect. The room was dimly lit, which made it difficult to see the man seated behind the desk who held our future in his hands.  Mr. Varounis waited for the maître d’ to close the door and block some of the noise of the busy nightclub before speaking.

“Please, sit down,” he said in excellent English, with a noticeable Greek accent.

He attempted a smile as he spoke, but it was obvious that this was not something that came naturally to him.  Mr. Varounis adjusted the wire rim glasses resting on his substantial nose, which appeared even bigger due to a severely receding hairline.  For several moments he gazed long and hard at us.

“This jazz music you play – my audience seems to like it.”

I started to correct him and say that they loved it, not just liked it, but per Bob’s insistence, I kept my mouth shut for once.  It was not an easy task.

“Do you know a lot of this kind of music?”

“Yes,” Bob lied. “We have been playing it in America for several years.”

Actually, we only knew a handfull of actual jazz numbers, as most of our act was standards and parodies combined with stunts designed to draw a laugh.


Mr. Varounis seemed deep in thought and ignored us for a few moments before speaking again.  “Personally, I don’t care for it much, but many clubs in Paris are playing this music now and I think some of my customers tire of Russian music and acts.  Maybe you would like to play this music for me every night.  Yes?”

“Yes, we would like that very much,” Bob said without even attempting to act hesitant in order to drive a better bargain.

“So how much salary would you like?

“One hundred francs a night!” I said not being able to control myself any longer.  I figured I would open with an outlandishly high number and back off to something more reasonable, like twenty or twenty-five francs a night.

Mr. Varounis took his glasses off and proceeded to clean them while staring at his desk, appearing to be deep in thought. I tried to read his face, but it was expressionless.

He finally look up at us. “One hundred francs a night is not the number I had in mind.”

I was holding Bob’s hand and, upon hearing these words, squeezed it so hard he jumped in his chair. I had messed everything up demanding so much money. What was I thinking?  Why couldn’t I learn to keep my damn mouth shut?

I was about to suggest 10 francs a night when Mr. Varounis continued, “But you seem very determined in your request. I believe this salary can be arranged.”

Excitement and joy couldn’t begin to express what I was feeling. We were rich!  No more growling stomach and stale corn flakes! I wanted to jump out of my chair and give this man a big hug, but did my best to hide my exhilaration.

“And dinner. We also get dinner as part of our salary.  And not any of that borsht stuff – real food.”

I wanted to look around the room, searching for where the words came from.  It took a moment to realize I had said them. Bob and Mr. Varounis were both looking at me strangely.

He smiled again, “Of course – real food.  Starting tomorrow night you perform for one hour at 9 P.M. and one hour at midnight for 100 francs a night and dinner.  It is agreed then. Yes?”

We all shook hands and politely thanked our new boss, when I remembered. “Mr. Varounis, I am sure you don’t want your refined audience listening to our music on that old, out-of-tune piano we used tonight.  They certainly deserve nothing less than a fine, grand piano.  Don’t you agree?”

The shocked look on our new employer’s face made me fear I had gone too far and he was rethinking his decision to hire us.

“I will give this some thought.”

With that he ushered us out of his office closing the door behind us.

On the long walk back to our hotel, I barely felt the crunching snow under my feet and the bitter cold Paris wind.  We talked excitedly about how we were going to spend our unexpected fortune.  My mind was on gowns and shoes, while Bob was excited about finding an apartment and having a room with a big window that overlooked Paris where he could write.  Our tomorrow had finally come and the Johnston Grand Plan for seeing the world was alive and back on track.

I tossed and turned all night, my mind jumping back and forth from our good fortune, to replaying the applause and cheers for the thousandth time to fearing last night was a fluke and we really weren’t that good.

“Darling.”  I shook Bob’s shoulders a bit.

The sun hadn’t come up yet, but trying to sleep was useless.  Bob, however, was blissfully snoring like he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Darling,” I said again, and shook him lightly.

“What?” he growled.

“We need to talk.”

“Can’t it wait?”  He rolled away from me.

“No. This is important.”

Grudgingly rolling back over, “Okay, what is on that fertile mind of yours?”

“We need new sheet music.  We need to get your banjo out of hock.  We need to rehearse.  I need to get my hair and nails done.  All our evening clothes are wrinkled and need cleaned and I don’t have an iron – plus my gowns need altered as I have lost so much weight, with all the walking and not eating, they just hang on me like I have no figure at all.  I can’t take hiking back and forth to the club in the snow for another week until we get paid, and I can’t afford the postage to write Mother.”

“Is that all?”

“No, I think I am coming down with a cold or something and we haven’t made love in three days.”

Bob snuggled up against me, “I can’t do anything about the rest of it until the sun comes up, but that last thing I will get to work on immediately.”

29 February

Tomorrow Finally Comes

Tomorrow Finally Comes

March 18, 1925, Paris, France

The polite, unenthusiastic applause that accompanied our introduction had ended an eternity ago, leaving only embarrassing silence.  I didn’t dare look, but I could feel three hundred pairs of eyes bearing down on me.  Even the waiters, their hands still full of trays loaded with tall stacks of hot food and empty dishes, had stopped not wanting to miss the train wreck.

Still frozen in place, I tried unsuccessfully to get my feet to move towards the door that would mercifully take me out of this nightmare.  The exit was only twenty feet away, but Vetia was still standing in front of it frantically motioning with his arms towards the stage.  Given my adrenalin rush and being highly agitated, I had no doubt I could knock the Cossack Captain flat on his butt.  About to do just that, I felt Bob’s hand wrap around my arm from behind.

In my ear he whispered, “Your call, Darling.  I’m with you either way.”

As reassuring and loving as his voice was, I continued mentally debating if I was going to pop Vetia with a right hook when I got him alone or go directly for a hard kick right into his Russian family jewels. I was leaning towards the second option when a bright light from above suddenly blinded me.  The damn spotlight operator had found us in the crowd. A small, pathetic spattering of applause began again and, without thinking, I instinctively turned, waved and smiled at the audience.

The next thing I knew I was on stage and seated behind an old, up-right piano that had seen better days.  Bob had grabbed a banjo he found backstage.  Both were badly out of tune.

Still smiling, and without moving my lips, I growled loud enough for only Bob, “One number and were getting the hell out of here.”

He smiled at me and didn’t say a word.  Damn he’s a smart guy!  We sang “What Would I Do” – the same song we had done on the Kroonland.  Given our out of tune instruments and my rushing the song a bit, wanting to get off stage as soon as possible, I thought we were terrible and would get booed off stage– or best case, just ignored. I hit the last note and before it completely faded away, reached down under the piano stool for my purse.

The applause was immediate and thunderous.  It was hard to see because of the spotlight, but people in the audience were actually standing and yelling in different languages.

“What are they saying?” I whispered to Bob, who was sitting on the piano bench next to me.

“I think they are saying ‘more’.”

I did my best to act like this was expected – just another day at the office you know, but it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard, and it was I who wanted more.  We had been told by the Admiral to sing only two songs. After our third number the audience was still yelling for more.  At the side of the stage. the Admiral gave us the thumbs up to continue, much to the dismay of the violinist who was waiting impatiently to go on.

As we walked off stage after doing six songs, the audience was standing and applauding in a way that made me feel something I had never felt before. On the way back to our table, I saw Vetia standing there wearing that big, stupid grin of his.  I rushed over, gave him a big hug and a kiss on both cheeks – his Russian family jewels safe for the moment.

The next fifteen minutes were a blur as strangers came over to congratulate us.  They said their names, but I didn’t hear as my mind kept replaying the delicious applause.  I just kept repeating, “Thank you” and “You’re very kind” with what I believed to be the perfect combination of sincerity and aloofness.   Ever since I was a little girl on the Russian River, I had been practicing these words for this precise moment, never really believing I would actually get to use them.

Our moment of glory was interrupted as Admiral made his way through the crowd surrounding our table and said, “Pardon, but could you please follow me?  Mr. Varounis would like a word with the two of you.”

Excitedly, I turn to Bob, assuming he was behind me, but he wasn’t there.  In all the confusion, I hadn’t noticed he had never made it to the table.  I spotted him standing ten feet away surrounded by a crowd, mainly women, who were offering their congratulations.  Had he not been married, I bet they would have been offering something more intimate.  The poor darlings, Bob was so much in love with me they didn’t stand a chance. I grabbed Bob by the arm and separated him from the herd.

As we followed the Admiral toward Mr. Varounis’ office, I told Bob, “Now don’t be shy about asking for a lot of money and a long term contract.  He saw how the crowd loved us.  Plus, I want a grand piano, and we really have to do something about that spotlight – it’s too bright and the operator doesn’t have a clue how to properly operate it.”

Bob kept nodding and smiling as I went on listing my demands until Admiral maître d’ knocked on the Mr. Varounis’ office door.

Knowing that there was very little filter between my brain and mouth, Bob leaned over and whispered, “Let me do all the talking.”

I nodded in agreement, both of us knowing that me keeping silent was probably in our best interests – and also highly unlikely!

26 February

Chateau Caucasien

Chateau Caucasien

March 18, 1925, Paris, France 

Bob and I spent the morning rehashing last night’s events, debating if Vetia could really get us an audition. Or was he just acting more important than he was?  I tended to believe him, but maybe it was because my painful growls of hunger were back.

We wanted to rehearse just in case Vetia was telling the truth, but it was impossible, considering we had no piano and Bob had hocked his banjo a week ago. Vetia had told us that we would be meeting at a Russian café in Montmartre owned by a good friend of his, a Greek man named Varounis.

In his youth, Varounis had been a paperboy and learned how to make a dollar in the streets of New York. When he arrived in Paris, he discovered the large group of Russian emigrants living here, each professing to be a prince or princess. Vetia had assured us that a few of them were, but most were just normal people who fled Russia fearing for their lives.  Be it princess or peasant, for a bowl of borsht and a glass of vodka, they would perform colorful Russian dances and songs.  Evidently, it was quite a spectacle as sometimes there were over two hundred of them. Varounis saw an opportunity and opened a club designed for these emigrants and had made a great success of it.  To me, it sounded like he was in the mafia or something.  How exciting!

We certainly hoped to get paid more than borsht and vodka, but at the moment would settle for food and drink if that’s all that was offered.  It snowed all day and by the time we left the hotel for our long walk to the club, the snow was above our ankles.  I wasn’t worried about my feet freezing so much as ruining my shoes and the bottom of my long evening gown.  We must have made quite a sight, dressed in our fine evening cloths, me holding my gown up to my knees and us jumping around trying to avoid snowdrifts and puddles.

As we rounded the last corner of our marathon stroll, running quite late as usual, we saw the glittering lights of the Chateau Caucasien, an enormous building that took up most of the block.  To our relief, Vetia was standing outside as promised and came running up to welcome us.  Grabbing my hand, he quickly escorted us into the club and out of the cold.

He first led us downstairs to the basement called the Caverne or cave.  It was packed with rather plain looking people listening to folk songs played by gypsies on what we were told were balalaikas.   Every rustic table had several candles and bottles of vodka where the Russian exiles came to feel they were back home – if only for a little while.

After a few minutes we went back up the stairs to the ground floor which was the called the Chateau.  It was an enormous room with several large crystal chandeliers and where formal dress was “obligatoire.”  Dozens of waiters dressed in colorful Cossack uniforms were scurrying about bringing gourmet delicacies and wine to the reserved crowd.  At one end of the room was a bandstand, where a large orchestra was playing waltzes and fox trots for the dancers.  Now this was more like it, but still a little stiff for my taste.

We entered the top floor known as the “Cabaret.” The room was less formal and seated about three hundred people.  At one end was a small stage, where Vetia said several different kinds of acts performed.  Currently, there were some Russian dancers doing a folk number.  As the crowd applauded politely, the maître d’ hotel came and greeted Vetia warmly.

Vetia introduced us in his best English. “This is Bob and Muriel, famous singers from America.  They have come for an audition, because they would like to work in so charming a place as this.”

My empty stomach was now in my throat.  Vetia had led us to believe that the owner was a close friend of his and the audition had already been arranged through him – not some damn maître d’. I stole a look at Bob and could tell he was thinking the same thing.  Even so, we waited impatiently for his response.

The maître d’ seemed hesitant, staring long and hard at us for what seemed to be a lifetime.  Suddenly he turned to Vetia. “It will be impossible.” My heart started to sink down to my empty stomach, when all of a sudden I realized the maître d’ was still talking, “…for them to go on until the next show which is two hours from now.  Good?”

I was speechless and still trying to get my heart back where it belonged, so Vetia responded for us, “Perfect, my good friend.  Gives us time to eat your wonderful food and drink your vodka.”

The maître d’ led us to a small table near the stage.  After he left, Vetia informed us that the maître d’ had been one of the top Admirals in the Russian Navy and he had known him for many years. The Admiral’s entire family, including his wife, children, brothers and sisters and their families had been murdered by Trotsky.  The thought of this dampened the joy I was feeling.

Panic quickly replaced my fascination as I looked around the cabaret, which was packed to the rafters with a wide assortment of people.  Some wore tuxes and gowns, while others were dressed casually.  There were so many different languages being spoken, my head began spinning.

Vetia saw me examining the room. “You know, many famous people come here to eat, drink and watch the shows.  Just last week, the His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, sat right there,” he said pointing to a nearby table.

That did it. It was definitely time to rethink this.  We had assumed that if hired, we would quietly play in the background while customers ate and drank. We had never performed, much less sung, to an audience like this before.  Our college and vaudeville shows consisted of a few hit tunes and us acting like buffoons to get some cheap laughs.  At Milano’s, we played only instrumentals, as they wanted people drinking, not watching a show.  Even the numbers we did aboard the Kroonland couldn’t compare to performing in front of this crowd.  This was Paris, for heavens sake!  These people were used to the finest entertainment in the world. If that wasn’t bad enough, it suddenly dawned on me that most of these people don’t speak English. What the hell were we thinking?

Even a scrumptious dinner and several glasses of Vodka couldn’t calm my nerves.  I hadn’t said a word for an hour, and Bob sensed I had gone to a full stage panic and tried to calm me. “It’ll be alright, Darling. Let’s just be ourselves and have some fun.”

“Fun?” I said loud enough to get Vetia’s attention.  “You think this is going to be fun? It’s going to be a damn disaster.  I’m leaving!”

The tone in my voice and the look on my face must have taken Bob and Vetia by surprise.  Bob knew better than to argue or try to reason with me when I am like this.  Vetia suddenly stood up and disappeared into the crowd without saying goodbye.  I didn’t blame him as I hadn’t been very appreciative or good company, but guilt wasn’t going to make me stay for another second.  Grabbing my bag, I stood up and began making my way through the throngs of people towards the exit.  Bob was following close behind.

As we passed the stage, the singer was just finishing his number. The Admiral, who also served as master of ceremonies, jumped on stage and announced in English,  “Ladies and gentlemen, direct from New York City in America, please welcome for the first time at Chateau Caucasien the fine singers, Bob and Muriel.”

I froze in place unable to move.  New York City?  I had never even been to New York City and we weren’t supposed to go on for another hour. What the hell was going on?

Over by the door, I spotted Vetia with a stupid, silly grin on his face.  Had I been a few steps closer, I would have rung his neck……