By: Alan Swyer
The first time Levinson went to a four-star restaurant in Paris, he was treated exactly like what he was: a twenty-year-old from an industrial town in New Jersey who looked and felt completely out of place. He was made to wait forty-five minutes, then led to a table adjacent to the men’s room, where he and the French girl he was trying to impress were ignored for what felt like three weeks. When a waiter deigned at last to acknowledge them, it was with a heavy dose of condescension, plus a barrage of brow-beating that caused them not merely to over-order, but also to accept a far too expensive, vinegary bottle of wine. Then came the ultimate indignity: a check that was inappropriately padded and incorrectly added.
When he mustered the courage to visit another pantheon of fine dining, instead of simply making a reservation, then arriving at the designated hour, Levinson popped in as lunch was ending and requested a moment with the manager. That evening, though there was a crowd waiting to be seated — among them Catherine Deneuve, a singing star named Gilbert Becaud, and a couple of on-the-rise politicians — his same date was dazzled when the two of them were embraced, then led immediately to a choice table.
The key to the turn-around? Levinson had displayed his credentials.
All it took was for the restaurant to know that despite being young, impoverished, and undeniably American, he was on assignment: writing the Paris section of a travel guide for a prominent New York publisher.
That Levinson was in Paris — and had that gig — was nothing short of a miracle. Having put the word out in New York that he was looking for something — anything! — that might help underwrite a stint in France, he was on the verge of giving up when someone mentioned an acquaintance who was launching a new guidebook for the youth market.
Granted an interview only after much pleading and pestering, Levinson headed to the appointment early, then waited… waited… and waited some more. Since iPhones were years from being invented, there was a limit to how long he could thumb through the same stack of out-of-date magazines. Bored and irritated, he finally asked the secretary, who was hardly oblivious to his frustration, if he could peek at whatever prospectus… or outline… or proposal was available.
Partially out of sympathy, but also because his fidgeting had increased from distraction to outright nuisance, she handed Levinson several pages. He was just finishing scanning them when the editor, a smugly disheveled aging preppy, stepped out of his office.
“Groundbreaking, huh?” the editor asked with a self-satisfied smirk when he saw what was in Levinson’s hands.
“Only if you just fell off the turnip truck,” Levinson replied, convinced that his already slim chance of getting the job had suddenly grown even slimmer.
“What’s that mean?”
“I’ve read Let’s Go,” he answered, referring to a guide book put out by Harvard.
“And I suppose you’re going to tell me what can make ours different.”
“Well, my ass! If you’re so smart, speak up.”
“How about a chapter for your rich aunt or uncle?”
“Give me that in English.”
“You’re a college kid in Paris, okay? Scraping by on as little as possible, you stop at American Express in the hope there’s money from home. But instead of bucks, there’s a note saying that Aunt Sue or Uncle Charlie is in town.”
“Go on –”
“When you call their hotel, they suggest you pick a place for dinner.”
“And all you know are self-service joints plus maybe some dive that serves couscous?”
“Bingo!” Levinson replied despite never even having heard of couscous.
“Not bad,” sad the editor to Levinson’s surprise. “Not bad at all.”
The fairy tale version of the story would have Levinson leaving the office with a signed contract and a check. Instead he departed with only a promise that the editor would get back to him. Day after day he waited for a call that never materialized. Indeed only when he was on the verge of conceding defeat did he receive a strange message. He was to meet the editor for lunch at a place even more exotic than couscous: the Yale Club in Midtown Manhattan.
Uncomfortable in a jacket and tie, and not just because of the oppressive August humidity, Levinson announced himself at the patrician spot, where he was made to wait for no apparent reason before being led to where the editor was seated with a finishing-school belle who was clearly unhappy to set eyes on him.
“When were you last in Paris?” Francesca, whose last name he never caught, asked in a patronizing way once the introductions were made.
“On my way back from Tokyo,” Levinson replied jauntily, despite never having been farther away than Washington, D.C. — and only on a class trip while in high school.
“Where do you usually stay?”
“On one of the boats in the river.”
Her questions, and his willfully absurd answers, were interrupted when a waiter came by to hand them menus and take drink orders. On a whim, Levinson requested something he’d only read about — a Pernod — which drew raised eyebrows from the waiter, plus a strange look from the editor. Undaunted, he suggested that his rival join him.
Unwilling to appear less sophisticated than an arriviste with a Jersey accent, she acquiesced.
The editor, who insisted that Levinson, like Francesca, call him Will, ordered a double Scotch, then tried to get them talking about their respective hopes, goals, and expectations — if, that is, one of them were to get what he termed the assignment. That attempt was instantly thwarted by Francesca, who instead steered the conversation to friends she and Will seemed to have in common, plus topics such as show horses, trips to Gstadt, and, for all Levinson knew, menstrual cramps, since he stopped listening and downed his entire Pernod, then another — insisting immediately that the waiter bring a refill not just for him, but for his blabbering adversary as well.
Recognizing that Francesca was trying to keep up with his alcohol consumption while doing all she could to make him invisible, Levinson downed a third Pernod while contemplating his next move. Since it seemed far too clear that his rival — not he — would get the gig, he flirted with making an exit so as not to prolong the agony. Then he decided instead to up the ante on foolishness.
“Let’s talk about Americans in Paris!” Levinson blurted, interrupting Miss Know-It-All, who was going on incessantly about chums whose names, if he’d heard correctly, were Muffy, Puffy, and either Snuffy, Stuffy, or Scruffy. “I assume that like me, your dream is to write not just travel guides.”
“And that you prefer Fitzgerald to Hemingway.”
“But is that despite — or because of — the blatant anti-Semitism?”
“I beg your pardon,” Francesca mumbled, her words a bit slurred due to the Pernod.
“Come now. Meyer Wolfsheim, the Arnold Rothstein character so loathsome he not only despoils the great American pastime, baseball, but even wears cufflinks made from human molars?”
“I-I don’t know that t-that’s –”
“Then what about Fitzgerald’s poetry? You’ve read it, I assume.”
“Yes, but –”
“But, nothing. The blatant racism in the one about the Paris zoo, where he likens the chimp stealing a banana to a black preacher?”
“Or the anti-Semitism in the one set at the track, where he refers to the people taking bets as Shylocks? That didn’t disturb you?”
“I-I’m not feeling all that well,” Francesca said to the editor, once again ignoring her competitor.
“Know what?” Levinson stated. “Neither am I.”
Without another word, he stood, then walked away from the table.
By the time Levinson climbed the stairs to the Tribeca loft he and a friend were subletting for the summer, after killing the rest of the afternoon and the better part of the evening with a double-feature of “Casablanca” and “The Big Sleep” at a revival house, then far too many beers at a dive bar, his dreams of Paris seemed like ancient history.
“Any luck at the meeting?” his temporary roommate asked, looking up from a “Munsters” rerun.
“Total wash-out. I got so pissed off, I got this Vassar girl talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s poetry.”
“Didn’t know he wrote any.”
“He didn’t,” Levinson said. “I’m going to jump in the shower, then pull the blanket over my head.”
“Before you do, there’s some guy who wants you to call.”
“He said no matter what time you get in.”
Taking a scrap of paper with a name and number on it, Levinson winced.
“Aggravation?” Freddy asked.
Levinson nodded, then grabbed the phone. Girding himself, he took a deep breath, then dialed.
“It’s the bad boy who may never get to Paris,” Levinson announced when a voice he recognized as Will’s answered.
“Not if I have anything to say.”
“You mean you’re not –”
“Pissed? Hell no! I loved the show you put on.”
“You thought she was a friend? More like the pain-in-the-ass sister of some windbag I knew at Choate. For want of a better word, it was a courtesy — one that was softened by having you there. So I hope your passport’s good to go.”
Seizing the opportunity to purchase an expiring ticket on the SS France for less than a flight on Icelandic Air, Levinson had visions of embarking on this new chapter in his life like a suave and experienced world traveler. That plan, however, was swiftly short-circuited by his family’s insistence on seeing him off. Surrounded by his mother, father, sister, brother, and grandmother, all of whom were oohing and aahing in the most conspicuous fashion, Levinson couldn’t help but be self-conscious, especially when each and every lifeboat was pointed out so that he’d be prepared should the journey be threatened by an iceberg or a sea monster.
Hustling his well-wishers off with the promise that he would write often, Levinson cringed at his mother’s parting advice — that he should request the first seating for dinner so as to get a good night’s sleep. Then he promptly bribed a steward in the hope of scoring the late seating in the company of single females.
Levinson’s prayers were answered in a way he never would have dared dream possible. Having grown up with girls bearing nicknames like Pat the Rat, the Jolly Green Giant, and Rosa the Mustache, his jaw dropped when he was led to a table with stunners from Germany, Denmark, England, and France.
Though all of them were open, friendly, and warm, it was the French woman — whose name he quickly learned was Nicole — who was most enchanting. Blessed with excellent English, with only the faintest cute accent, she was headed back to Paris after doing summer stock in Massachusetts.
Any preconceived notions about the French being cold or standoffish were dispelled in record time not merely by Nicole, but also, after his arrival in Paris, by the members of her family, each of whom made Levinson feel welcome and, miraculous though it seemed, important. Her mother, her stepfather, and her brother opened first their doors, then their hearts in ways that he would never forget.
Life seemed boundlessly exciting, yet relentlessly daunting. Knowing no one other than Nicole and her family, and told repeatedly that he spoke French comme une vache espanole, which he learned meant like a Spanish cow, Levinson made a check list of necessities. He had to find a place to live, enroll in school, and somehow manage to create a life, all the while learning to function in a tongue that, despite years of high school and college French, remained a challenge.
Housing being a priority, Levinson was relieved when he found a cheerful furnished room at the top of a six-floor walk-up on a quiet street in Montparnasse. But since his American sense of hygiene balked at a shared bathtub at the end of the hall, a trip to the Sorbonne moved up in importance. Armed, after waiting on what seemed like an endless line, with a student ID card, he hustled over to the complex known as the Student Athletic Center.
Thanks to youthful prowess in sports, Levinson figured that joining one of the university teams would create the possibility of a shower — and perhaps even a swim — on a regular, or at least semi-acceptable, basis. But baseball, he learned quickly, was not in the cards. Nor was basketball, since a quota on the number of foreigners made for little interest in anyone under six-foot-four. Fencing was unthinkable for someone who’d never set eyes on an epee, and so, too, were country club sports like tennis and golf. That explains how a guy who once fought in the Police Athletic League program in Elizabeth, New Jersey wound up a member of the French University Boxing Team.
Between pugilism, where failure to understand instructions could lead to serious injury, and pillow talk, due to Nicole’s insistence that they converse solely in French, Levinson’s fluency began to increase for a simple reason: need. That, in turn, made his professional mandate — to explore Paris in a new and distinctive way — far easier.
Very little seemed to be beyond Levinson’s interest or reach. Restaurants, cafes, joints, and dens of iniquity became part of his explorations, as did museums, galleries, wine bars, and the racetrack. There was a good deal of what he called upscale, and at least an equal amount of what could only be termed decadence. Plus a balance between what was trendy and what was perceived as declasse. In other words, everything, in Levinson’s ongoing quest, was fair game, except for the touristy things on which he procrastinated, such as taking a bateau mouche down the Seine, or climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
But he was pleased that every so often his quest produced unexpected benefits. While exploring clubs with live music, Levinson discovered a boite where the celebrated bluesman Memphis Slim held court, which led to a surprising and enduring friendship. And while investigating hangouts, he stumbled upon a bar beloved by Swedish models, which led to philandering that no one on his home turf would have believed.
School, not surprisingly, became little more than an afterthought. Having learned that each and every Sorbonne course had a stenographer who took diligent notes, which would then be bound and sold in May as policopies, Levinson bought the requisite books, but never bothered with classes.
Instead, Paris became his school. Whether it was logging hours at Notre Dame, around the corner from Nicole’s apartment on Quai Aux Fleurs; or countless afternoons at the Jeu de Paume; or reading Elie Faure’s glorious books on modern art while seated, weather permitting, at either the Jardin du Luxembourg or one of several favored cafes; or popping into one of the galleries he took to frequenting; Levinson was tirelessly, relentlessly on the go. And that doesn’t even include his weekly visits with Memphis Slim, who upon seeing him enter Aux Trois Mailletz would instantly segue into a double-entendre laden ditty called If You See Kay. Or his late evening visits to La Coupole. Or his failed attempts at being inconspicuous as he wandered past the working girls on Rue St. Denis. Or his exploration of couscous joints and Vietnamese restaurants. Or his once-in-a-while stops at a silly place called Jackie’s Far West Saloon.
And above and beyond his own explorations were the gatherings organized by Nicole’s mother and stepfather. There, Levinson found himself not with the night owls who frequented his Great Aunt’s dawn-to dusk-poker game, nor the shopkeepers and schmatta business types with whom his parents socialized. Instead he got to know a Who’s-Who of Parisian cultural life: painters, poets, critics, scholars, and assorted other characters who defied description.
It was a head-spinning, dazzling, non-stop run, during which Levinson would often feign ignorance of English when confronted by tourists from the Midwest, then moments later resort to the worst American accent imaginable when confronted by un flic or some other figure of authority.
Not surprisingly, there were milestones on his journey. One, which at first felt like a nervous breakdown, came when he developed a brain freeze in which his synapses refused to fire — signaling, he only later came to realize, that instead of having thoughts in English, he was actually thinking in French. That, he recognized, would have seemed farfetched, if not impossible, just a short time before.
Another was when he woke up in the middle of the night with the awareness that beyond having had a dream set in Paris, he’d actually been dreaming in French. Not a dream about scoring a winning basket or getting thrown out of school, but of walking on the beach with an adorable French actress name Haydee Politoff.
There were other ways in which the metamorphosis was neither easy nor smooth. Every so often — while riding on the Metro, or strolling through St. Germain des Pres, or watching the horses run at Longchamps — Levinson would be struck suddenly by a flash of anxiety. “What in hell am I doing here?” he would find himself wondering in his native tongue, fearing that he might, against his will, be transported back not just to Jersey, but behind the wheel of the delivery van he drove for three miserable summers.
Strangely, those moments triggered a bizarre sort of nostalgia, which drew him not to the fake American food at Le Drugstore, but to the only place in Paris where he could find the sustenance of his youth. Feigning passport trouble, Levinson would hasten to the American Embassy, where he would sneak into the cafeteria and wolf a real cheeseburger, fries drenched in real ketchup, plus a milkshake with whipped cream rather than crème chantilly.
Though the ups far exceeded the downs, life was never entirely peachy. When he arrived late for boxing practice one afternoon, Levinson, who weighed about 135 lbs soaking wet, was punished first by having to jump rope non-stop for fifteen minutes, then by being told to spar against a Cuban heavyweight known to have a distaste for Americans. Determined not to show fear, Levinson tried going toe-to-toe by trading blows with his huge opponent. That came to an abrupt end when, having attempted to block a left jab, Levinson nearly knocked himself out with the ricochet of his own glove. An instant later, an overhand right sent him flying.
Nor did Levinson’s outings with Swedish models go unnoticed. Spotted by Nicole as he sauntered down Boulevard St. Germain with a statuesque blonde, Levinson tried to forestall an explosion with humor.
“Who do you believe,” Levinson asked in his much-improved French, “your eyes or me?”
Nicole’s response was an icy glare, after which Levinson found himself persona non grata until, some weeks later, he finally managed to beg his way into a second chance.
Instead of Swedes, it was film that began to take up more and more of Levinson’s time: at the cinematheque, at revival houses, and at screening rooms in seemingly every part of Paris. It was during his period of movie binging that he first saw “Pierrot Le Fou,” “La Guerre Est Finie,” and “Grand Illusion,” plus films by Lubitsch, Bergman, and Preston Sturges. And it was under the influence of Les Cahiers du Cinema that he acquired a new appreciation of Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, and Sam Fuller.
But aside from not climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, what Levinson never quite managed to get around to, despite his longstanding intentions, was any writing other than for the travel guide. He may have been walking the same streets as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Henry Miller, perhaps even sharing their dreams, but when when it came to commitment and productivity, the gap was enormous.
Inevitably, after a trip with friends to Italy, then an unwanted bout of dysentery, even the stint on the travel guide came to an end.
With his manuscript shipped off to New York, Levinson had to face a new reality: no wages, no expense account, plus a series of oral exams covering a year’s worth of unaddressed course work at the Sorbonne.
Cramming desperately, Levinson somehow managed to make it through Twentieth Century History, then Modern French Literature, and finally even a political science class. Which left only Modern Art.
Having purchased enough bread, cheese, coffee, and fruit to sustain him through what promised to be a marathon study session, Levinson trudged glumly toward his apartment building, only to be intercepted by the concierge.
“Il y’a quelque chose d’urgent,” Mme Grillon said, handing him a message from Nicole.
Though by nature an early riser, Levinson was stunned, when he raised his head the next day, to discover that he had slept well into the afternoon. Panicked, he threw on some clothes, raced to the corner cafe for a double dose of caffeine, then phoned the Museum of Modern Art, where his art professor had the title of Directeur Executif.
Only after much beseeching, during which he repeatedly stressed that he was un idiot, un fait-neant, and above all un imbecile d’Americain, was Levinson reluctantly granted permission to come in the following morning to explain his irresponsibility.
Fearing, since he’d never set eyes on Professor Gaillard, that he might introduce himself to the wrong person, Levinson arrived at the museum, then did his best to appear contrite as he was led to the office of a rumpled man in a blue serge suit.
“Tell me,” the professor said in French from behind his desk as Levinson entered. “How did you manage to miss the exam?”
“And may I ask why?”
“You won’t believe me.”
“I was with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp,” Levinson said shyly.
“And how exactly did that happen?”
“There was a tribute to Man Ray.”
“Thanks to my girlfriend — or actually her mother and stepfather — we were invited to the reception before it.”
“When the event itself was over, we went with them to Les Halles.”
“With Man Ray and Duchamp?”
“And stayed there until?” The professor asked.
“8 in the morning. When I finally got back to my room, I stupidly thought I’d take nap for an hour or so. Obviously, that didn’t work.”
“And this tribute, it was where?”
“At the Centre Culturel.”
“In which language?”
“French, English, and sometimes a combination of both.”
“Tell me what was discussed?” asked the professor.
“Food. Chess. Women. At times even art.”
“What specifically about art?”
“Man Ray’s Ray-O-Grams. Duchamp’s LHOOQ. Plus a couple of other artists.”
“Picasso. Mattisse. Andre Derain.”
“What did they say about Picasso?”
“Well, Duchamp was complimentary.”
“And Man Ray?”
It was Professor Gaillard’s turn to nod.
“He called him ‘the self-styled genius’ –”
“Whose foremost talent was self-promotion.”
A smile appeared on the museum director’s face. “Nothing more?”
“And that Braque was the true founder of Cubism.”
Gaillard took a moment to digest that. “And Duchamp, what else did he say?”
“Anything at all.”
“Where he was most emphatic –”
“Was that Kiki –”
“Man Ray’s model and mistress –”
“Was the sexiest woman of all time.”
While Professor Gaillard laughed heartily, a female assistant appeared at the office door.
“On vous attend pour le dejeuner,” she stated sheepishly.
“Forgive me,” Gaillard said to Levinson. “I must go now.”
“But what about my exam?”
“Ne vous inquietez pas,” the professor said with a smile as he stepped out from behind his desk. “Or as I believe you Americans say, ‘Don’t sweat it.’”
Vowing that he would return to Paris as soon as possible, Levinson bade farewell to Nicole and her family a few days later, then headed home with an assignment to do the New York City chapter for a travel guide covering the United States. Bumped when nepotism reared its head, he was then given a consolation prize of two states: New Jersey plus Delaware.
Having been bit seriously by the movie bug, Levinson, after finishing the assignments, decided to relinquish his niche in publishing and head west rather than to France. While his goal was to direct films, that dream was not realized until years later, after too much time toiling as a screenwriter.
Though he did make several trips to France, even at one point teaching a seminar on writing and directing, it was a country that would never again feel like home. With each passing year, the streets of Paris, like his youthful self, felt more and more unfamiliar, more and more distant, more and more part of a faintly remembered dream.
Though he was largely satisfied with his life, and even proud of much of his work, there were moments of sadness in which he allowed himself to reflect not just on what was, but also on what might have been.
When at last Levinson did climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, it was not as a Parisian, but rather as a tourist, thanks to a family trip in which he huffed and puffed his way to the top together with his son.
In contrast to what might once have been, the boy did not bear a name like Jean-Paul, Gerard, or Jacques. He was simply known as Ben.