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The Last Time I Saw Elliot Paul

ISSUE:  Winter 1979

I was standing in the doorway to the city room, looking inside as though I’d just discovered the kingdom of heaven on earth and was having my first sight of the Lord’s most favored creatures. There were a dozen of them in the tiny, crowded space, loud with talk and typewriters, and they were busy getting out the little eight-page daily that gave them their chance to live in Paris in the Nineteen Twenties. Nothing much was going on in the world that long-ago May evening. Nungesser and Coli, the French aviators, were still missing after their attempt to fly to America. Colonel House had praised Benito Mussolini’s labor bill. A horse named Whisky had won the English Derby. But to the enchanted young man in the doorway, these people could have been putting together the news story of the century.

Behind them, tall windows stood open to the facade of cheap hotels across the street, illumined by the circus colors of cafe lights, and over their heads a tobacco cloud coiled upward like the smoke over a prize ring. The copyreaders sat around the rim of a big table, with the rewrite men and reporters at desks packed in on either side. Several had their hats on. The thinnest sported a pair of cowboy boots, the fattest a loud jacket. Two wore beards. And one of them was Elliot Paul. At that moment he happened to look up, guessed me at once for the newspaperman I longed above all else to be, and gave me his gentle satyr’s smile of understanding and encouragement. It was the beginning of a 30-year relationship of master and student.

Even now, half a century afterward, the golden ambience of that place and time are fresh in my mind. I live again those afternoons of summer, hot but not too hot, with wayward showers and the humidity high, so that the weather combined with the effects of the wine at lunch made you feel slightly shaky in the legs as you emerged on the boulevard to watch the cafe sitters who were watching you, to catch the glances of the thinly dressed women you passed, to glimpse the headlines splashed over the kiosks, pausing to study a bookshop window or a theatrical billboard, breathing the scent of the blanching plane trees, the odor of urine from the vespasiennes, and listening to the human music of street cries, whistles, taxi horns, murmurs, laughter, all commingled under the soft sky. This was Elliot Paul’s town, He knew it like the back of his pudgy hand. More truly than anyone of his American generation, he had the eye and ear and nose for Paris. It was more to him than its exterior beauties, of course. For a few fast-living years here American writers shared in an international renascence of intellect, and Elliot Paul stood at the center of it.

Though he was New England bred and later would live and work in Ibiza, in Greenwich Village, in Hollywood, it was Paris and the French that Elliot knew and understood best. As one who worked beside him then and thereafter was with him at irregular intervals throughout the rest of his life, I remain grateful for the gift of his friendship and wisdom, and glad especially that I first knew him in the earlier phase of his career. With Eugene Jolas, he was launched upon the publication of transition magazine (woe to the ignorant who used a capital T), that daring and doughty little monthly whose chief distribution outlet was Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co., whose list of contributors included the rising stars of the new American realism, among them Hemingway, Kay Boyle, the poets Hart Crane and Archibald MacLeish, and in her own category Gertrude Stein, transition was in the process of publishing installments of James Joyce’s work in progress, later to be known as Finnegans Wake, side by side in its pages with the reigning French princes of Surrealism and the work of such artists as Stuart Davis and Man Ray.(The two editors devised a simple system of dealing with Joyce: each time they sent him the galley proof of his work in progress installment he returned it black with insertions; the new version was set up in type and again sent to him, and once more came back black; the third time, after the same exchange was completed, the editors decided enough was enough, even from the master, and that was the way it went into the magazine’s next issue.)

Like Gene Jolas, Elliot was himself a regular contributor to transition, and a writer of astonishing versatility, as much at home in his appreciation of Picasso as in the art of Wanda Landowska. I recall with much happiness an afternoon at Wanda’s sylvan studio at St. Leu-la-Foret when this high priestess of music, as Elliot called her, sat down at a tiny virginal and played for us William Byrd’s “The Bells.” She made it sound like Notre Dame on Easter Sunday. But life was not all such exquisite experiences. One had to eat and lodge, and transition couldn’t pay the bill. So the two small-town American newspapers in Paris were used as way stations and rest stops. The equivalent of 40 dollars a week was a handsome wage for their transient staffs.(With the temptations of food and drink and all-night cafe-sitting at every hand, we were still poor as church mice, but what a cathedral!) Elliot Paul from his Boston days onward was a highly professional journalist whose services were valued among the amateurs who grudgingly performed in Paris (Henry Miller was a proofreader for a time), but, like the others, Elliot lacked a record of reliability in attendance.(Surely the story has been told, and it is quite true, of his returning to the paper after a two-year absence without leave, and complaining bitterly because someone had stolen his hat from the office hat rack in the interim.) Even when dutifully employed, he was capable of inventing stories for the paper that had no basis whatever in fact, and were usually Rabelaisian in nature, like his lead sentence, famous in newspaper lore, on the day before Mustafa Kemal banished the fez, adopted the metric system, and embraced other Western ways: All things in Turkey will be measured in meters, or, if they are not long enough, in centimeters, beginning tonight at midnight.

Quite aside from his journalistic and literary activity, Elliot’s recreations were in the full fashion of the day—indeed he personified it. I have seen him consume a magnum of Bordeaux, single-mouthed, during a six-course luncheon, and perform Pantagruelian feats simply standing at an outdoor oyster bar, to the admiration of passing Parisians who gathered around him with the respectful attention shown painters along the banks of the Seine. In later years he paced himself at table with sudden catnaps between bites, while remaining unexpectedly aware of the conversation around him and capable of startling his companions with a witty interjection, eyes tightly closed. But he could also overdo his taste for vodka, as on one occasion even alarming a Russian waiter, who intoned sorrowfully, “When they drink it that way, they die.” However, Elliot survived to go on to new challenges. There is a legend, for which I can’t vouch from personal experience, that when he and fellow author Alien Updegraff jointly opened a cantina on the island of Ibiza, their enterprise presently went bankrupt because they drank up their own stock. But we owe The Life and Death of a Spanish Town to Ibiza, and The Last Time I Saw Paris to those lusty years in France.

Despite the wide success of these two books, and their lasting reputation, Elliot’s own favorite was a novel, Concert Pitch, remembered nowadays by few. It is a love story filled with Elliot’s love of music. He could be a drastic critic at times. Ravel, he once told me, “is for the fairies.” And he took delight in blasting the cult of César Franck, who was riding high at the time as superior to Sebastian Bach. Without taking himself seriously, Elliot years later had a fling at boogie-woogie music, performing in concert with its famous jazz exponents at Cafe Society in Greenwich Village. And he was at his endearing best in his own apartment, seated on a footstool, his accordion in his lap, rendering French and Spanish folk songs to a circle of friends. A characteristic incident occurred at Lu chow’s in New York, where Elliot had summoned me by telephone to join him in the men’s bar. I was intercepted by the head waiter on my way in, He looked worried, confiding that Mr. Paul had been at his favorite corner table “for several days,” passing the time placidly eating, drinking, sleeping, and sending out for the newspapers as they appeared. Elliot greeted me as if there were nothing unusual in this prolonged stay, and in fact I was not surprised and didn’t mention it. At about the time I sat down Luchow’s little orchestra began to play. Elliot asked the leader if he knew a certain Mozart minuet. As it happened, the leader did not. Elliot thereupon sent a page boy to the corner music shop for some lined paper, sketched in the melody in an arrangement for violin, cello, and piano, and listened happily as the trio performed from manuscript, quite well.

Not long before this occurrence, Elliot had returned from a sojourn in Hollywood, where, as with Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Aldous Huxley, his screen plays were more honored in the creation than in the production. Nonetheless, Elliot adapted pleasantly to the local ways and made many friends. At Christmas, one of them presented him with a live duckling to be eaten during the holidays, but Elliot became so fond of the creature that he made it a pet, and had his studio sound chief design a soundproof pen for the duckling, which had been keeping the neighbors awake at night. Somewhat to Elliot’s regret, the halcyon Hollywood existence ended with termination of his contract, along with his fat salary, and he resumed life in the unglamorous East with the aid of a monthly stipend from his publisher, drawn against future literary earnings. Elliot took up residence in Connecticut and, except for his occasional phone calls at odd hours, we were out of touch for long periods. When I saw him again, he looked bloated and tired, but cheerful as ever, writing busily from the adjustable hospital bed he had bought for the Connecticut house because he had found it ideal for the writer’s purposes. His basic literary method had not changed, however: the chief rule was never to rewrite a single word; everything must be put down as it flowed out, then left as it was. I disagreed with him there, believing there has rarely been a sentence written that couldn’t be improved, But his only rejoinder was the gentle smile and a shrug that concluded the issue.

I had come to understand over the years that nothing would change the idiosyncratic views of this enormously skillful, talented, and experienced man or his way of living his life, often to the despair of friends, employers, publishers, wives, or mistresses. Mildly, dexterously, he followed his own star and in the end eluded them all. It was his essence. You never could be sure what Elliot Paul would do next, never be sure when you needed him or he needed you that he would be there. He liked to disappear. Whether this practice of almost mischievous evasion was deliberate, for his general convenience, or something capricious in him that he couldn’t control, I have never decided. But it was hard to be genuinely angry with him for long; the seductive gaiety of that lightning-quick mind drew you back, and all was forgotten and forgiven. It was the way he was, and he expected the same of you. The last time I was with him he had called me in New York from his Boston hotel in his customary elusive and light-hearted fashion, suggesting that I drive up for the weekend. Something about the sound of his voice I hadn’t heard there before disturbed me, and when I met him a few hours later he looked more ill than I had ever seen him. Although we never spoke of each other’s health, this time I couldn’t forbear. He smiled it off, explaining casually that he had been drunk for two weeks and was in fact still drunk. As always, I didn’t know whether to believe him. It was never easy to tell whether Elliot was drunk or not drunk.

We had a somewhat subdued dinner at Lock-Ober’s, where Elliot’s appetite, at least, seemed none the worse. He apologized for not contributing his share of the check, noting that he must pay a sizable bill at the hotel, and for the same reason proposed that I drop him off next day at his brother’s house in Rhode Island on my way home. Elliot had reserved a room for me down the hall from his own, and before we retired he stopped in for a moment to say how much he had enjoyed dinner. It was his habit, he said, to take a very early morning walk. Tomorrow he planned to check out of the hotel at that time, and I could pick him up on the steps of the Boston Public Library at nine-thirty, after I had checked out and had a leisurely breakfast. He entrusted his briefcase to me—apparently his only luggage—so as not to be burdened with it during his walk and bade me a cheerful goodnight. Only when we were well on our way to Rhode Island together next morning did it occur to me that back at the hotel they were probably still expecting him to return from his walk, and that, unwittingly, I had been involved in the latest of Elliot Paul’s disappearances. Involuntarily, I began to laugh, and I didn’t have to explain why to the smiling, silent man at my side. In due course I let him off at his destination, received an affectionate adids, and went my way. I did not see him again. Not long afterward, he was dead.

Nowadays when I think of him, the image that comes first to mind is not the Elliot Paul of his early career, the brilliant bohemian figure set against the backdrop of Paris, nor yet the solidly established literary lion of his prime in New York, in Hollywood. Instead, I tend to remember him as he stood alone that chilly gray morning on the steps of the Boston Public Library, looking as if the best of his life were forever behind him and he knew it. But I sometimes wonder whether the briefcase he left with me for overnight safekeeping might not after all have contained his hope for one more book, for still another of his new beginnings.


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Gabrielle's picture
Gabrielle · 6 years ago

Thank you for this delicious and delightful histoire of Elliot Paul. I am about to journey to Paris and have all of Elliot's Paris books packed. I have the luck to secure an Air bnb on Rue Galande, just around the corner where Elliot wrote A Narrow Street.

Having only recently discovered Paul's writings, I have fallen in love yet again.

As with Elliot's personnage, your brilliant bio illustrates his rare talent...every word Elliot wrote oozes charm and wry wit...a rare commodity these days. Charm is the rarest and most difficult essence to convey in writing. Elliot's work deserves so much more recognition....but one must inhabit a world of charm in one's spirit to recognize charm as you did and have.



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