Jan 032017

April 13, 1946: Closing the Sphinx

The Army maintained our hotel-cum-brothel as a military post. The required Charge-of-Quarters (CQ), a non-commissioned officer, was on duty during regular hours. The former pleasure palace had a built in security system: a button and a two-way speaker from the street to the registration desk where the CQ sat. The doorbell or sonnette would ring at almost any time. A former customer would announce:

“Marie, Je arrive pour Marie.”

“Speak English!”

“Marie! Marie, S’appele Marie.

“Marie NEPAL AH, goddammit!”

The young chickens (poulettes, or old hens, poules) that had used the hotel now had to make other arrangements. They hung out below. In time one approached me.

“Come with me, Cheri.”

“I don’t have any money.”

It was a cold night.

A pause. “Pas pour l’argent. Pour le chauffage central.” (Not for money, for central heating.)

The CQs often knew when the leave trains arrived at the central stations, and we’d pass on schedules of new arrivals. The chicks and hens clucked gratefully.

One of the great American Army tourist attractions (for officers only, but we knew the guides) was Edward VII’s Paris whorehouse, The Sphinx. The King of England spoke French well and had a large potbelly. To hide his paunch the tailors invented the double-breasted suit. Hung from the ceiling of a bedroom in The Sphinx was a leather harness with a belt to uplift the Royal Roundness in spirited times. I was told the brothel was temporarily closed to tourists to avoid embarrassing the English.

Ten months after Paris was liberated the cheering had stopped and a sullen tolerance was noticeable. Yet there were exceptions.

I dined with an elderly gentleman who spoke some English and who had a delightful sense of humor. His daughter, a translator for our group, had become engaged to a soldier.

She was to live in New York State. He had heard only the name of the city.

He asked how to spell Poughkeepsie and I wrote out the letters.

“P-O-U-G-H pronounced Poe, like your poet.”

“Yes. “

But there is also a O-U-G-H in the word ‘enough’, n’est ce pas?” Or is it pronounced “enow?”

“Well, no. It’s enough.”

“And then there’s thrO-U-G-H” Pronounced throw, like a baseball is thrown?”

“Well no.”

He smiled. “To get to Puffkeepsee take a threw train early enow. And you Americans think our language is difficult.”

He became my favorite Frenchman.

I’d never get the language. I’d be at best an observer, a long-term tourist.

French society is always difficult to penetrate, and only a privileged few enlisted Yanks were able to infiltrate the surface.

One was Sergeant Carl Hollander whose French family had invented a method of preserving furs. I walked with him to his dinner on the Avenue Foch. The building was what the French call grand standing, and it means in French money terms exactly what it means in American sports. Hollander went upstairs to meet them and left me on the curb. I decided to enter France without the language passport. I didn’t need verbs and nouns to go to the ballet, the concerts, and the art museums.  I had the francs.

The little French music I knew came from 78rpm records, but here symphony concerts were heard live. No flop-flop between discs. American Jews admired Gershwin, but Ravel had taught him orchestration. So I searched out Ravel, and found him and Debussy and Gounod and Chabrier and Saint Saëns — French music that would stay with me the rest of my life.

The French Ballet taught me to look at more than the ballerina’s crotch and breasts. The athleticism of the males was apparent, but what grew slowly on me was the technique of the ballerinas. Much later, when I married a dancer, I learned the syntax of the formal ballet, and that has made me a balletomaniac, as my son calls us.



The Sphinx, 13 avril 1946 : fermeture définitive des maisons closes