Summer 1949 … World War Two had ended four years earlier and Europe’s shell-shocked peoples were trying hard to put behind them the horrors with which they had to cope during five years of hostilities.
Nowhere was this more apparent than on the Cote d’Azure, the French Riviera. Bikini-clad holidaymakers, their bodies coated with delightfully smelling suntan lotion, its perfume wafting in the air everywhere, invaded the beaches in great numbers and partied at night with gay abandon.
In Cannes and Antibes and Saint Tropez such notables as the recently deposed King Farouk of Egypt, surrounded by his usual entourage of gorgeous starlets; Prince Ali Khan, entertaining friends at his sumptuous villa with the help of his wife, the famous Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth; and Gianni Agnelli, the FIAT heir and his mistress, Pamela Harriman, delighted the paparazzi by providing salacious headlines with their ostentatious behavior, while crowds, five rows deep on La Promenade des Anglais along Nice’s waterfront in front of the Casino du Palais’ band-shell, were listening to Ray Ventura’s Orchestra – the featured attraction every week-end night.
My father had somehow managed to rent a couple of rooms for the summer in a large villa not far from the Nice marina. It belonged to a Hungarian woman who lived with her boyfriend, an ex-American GI. (He had ‘stayed behind’ and was now acting as her factotum: gardener, chauffeur, valet, janitor and lover.) The place was a stone’s throw from Rocq Plage, a small, private beach, sheltered from the wind by a three-storey pension that included a terraced bar-restaurant popular with young local beauties. I was in heaven: I spent most of my holiday at that beach. (I was fifteen and my hormones were raging.)
Imagine how I felt when my father told me one day that the following Wednesday afternoon there would be no beach-time or flirting with girls for me: my parents would be visiting a friend and they absolutely insisted that I go with them. I objected strenuously, but to no avail: either compliance or no pocket money.
I sat in the back of our Peugeot and fumed while we drove into the hills north of Nice, bitterly lamenting my loss of beach-time and praying that our visiting would not last too long.
On the outskirts of a small village called Vance, a place I had never heard of before, we parked in front of a square, ochre house with brown wooden shutters and dark, dusty pink roof tiles typical of the homes in the area. My father rang the bell above the sign that said Le Reve at the gate and the three of us followed the elderly woman who had opened it. She led us into the house and up the stairs where we were greeted by an old gentleman, fully dressed, sitting up in bed and conversing with a man whom I recognized as being a colleague of my mother.
We were asked to sit down and I spent some time watching our host making cutouts from cardboard with an immense pair of scissors and creating strange-looking shapes most of which he then discarded on the floor.
After a while – it seemed an eternity to me – the maid rolled in tea and cookies on an elegant little trolley and we all had something to eat and drink. Then the old man asked if we would like to see his chapel and everybody said yes, so, to my great disappointment, we trooped out and went to a white building nearby instead of returning to our villa. On the way, I kept asking myself why I was being taken to church on a Wednesday afternoon rather than being allowed to go to the beach with my friends.
Inside the so-called chapel, its walls painted a glimmering white, there was nothing except for a few sticks in a corner that looked like long billiard cues with charcoal fastened to their tips. The old man picked up one of them and began to trace forms on the walls. My parents watched him with intense attention and respect that I had seldom seen them display.
While driving back to Paris at the end of our holiday in Nice I asked my mother why it had been so important for me to visit “that strange old man in Vance.”
She was shocked.
“Do you not know who that strange old man is,” she asked. “No,” I replied. “You never told me.”
toujours aussi intéressant.
Please do continue to entertain us.
you have always been an amazing man.
Thank you Pierre. I’ll do my best.Robert
Bravo Robert…Ciao Ronald Montcalm
Ah, Roberto! Another wonderful memory. For some reason, while reading it, another figure slipped into my mind – someone who is no longer here but who left pieces of her artistic self all over Montreal. She was a Hungarian from Transylvania, Alice Wynant. Did you by any chance, know her? Her husband was very well-known and popular – he died tragically of a heart attack following a fabulous, Russian-themed party to celebrate his birthday. Alice was a child during the Holocaust but made it out alive and was looked after by the Red Cross in Sweden. Coming to Montreal in the 1950s,, she often worked for my father, retouching black & white negatives, for which she had a talent. When she married Wynant, who was quite wealthy, she was able to turn her artistic talents to sculpture. Her bronze casts show up from time to time – one of her shtetl fiddles players adorned the lobby at Salle Wilfred Pelletier for years. Another was int he lobby of the Four Seasons. She was a beautiful woman, represented by your old friends at the Dominion Gallery. During my father’s shiva, she showed up, glamorous and ever – when someone noticed her pronounced Hungarian accent and inquired where as he was from, she raised herself up, squared her shoulders, arched her eyebrows and whispered in a throaty growl, “From Transylvania…”
We must discuss this.