by Stephen J. Gertz
"All gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken," I said to Zelda. The novel was killing me. I didn't know where to begin, what it was about, nothing, and needed madness to fan my flaming youth and fuel the typewriter. So we went to the Artists and Models Ball. It was the Jazz Age. Laissez les bons temps rouler.
Kiki looked ravishing in a gown that Man Ray spent the entire evening underneath, ravishing Kiki from within what he called “my darkroom of delights,” where, he boasted, interesting things always developed. When the lights were low, you could see its red light faintly aglow; she was a walking brothel. Zelda and I were pleased that Kiki resisted his entreaties to wear the violin ensemble; he would have fiddled with her f-holes all night. Man is a shameless satyr. Would it kill him to engage the f-stop every now and then?
"How's the book going," he asked from within.
"Not so great."
I ran into Gertrude Stein. Her gown was a huge thing; you could have hidden a rhinoceros in it. But considering that a rhinoceros was already occupying the premises, it was a moot point. Yet it did have the slenderizing effect she was after; Gertrude was a svelte calf and cut quite a figure.
Gertrude was Gertrude was Gertrude, though she’d deck me if she knew I referred to her in the past tense; she’s got a right like Dempsey. She’s very much into the present, tense if she doesn’t like it and can’t return it for cash or credit. Alice was at home baking who knows what, and Stein was all by herself, doing a whole lot of nothing. “Gert, what gives?” I asked.
“It takes a lot of time to be a genius,” she said, “you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
“But, Gertrude,” I replied, “if you’re doing nothing by definition you’re doing something. Doing is action.”
“Don’t start up with me, Scotty. I’ll pop you this side of paradise to the other side of hell.”
She apologized immediately for the threat, asked how the book was going ("Lousy"), and offered me an Alice brownie.
"No, thanks," I said, "I prefer my snacks 90-proof."
Thus inspired, I stopped at the bar, had a few snacks, and then casually went looking for Ernest. Couldn't find him.
Saw Natalie Barney. She was in page boy drag, coming on to every woman in the room.
"I am a page of love, sent by Sappho," she said to each one. I've heard worse opening lines. She's been using this routine since 1899 when she threw herself at Liane de Pougy. It's getting old.
When Natalie pitched the line to Zelda, she replied "And I'm the King of Sparta, sent by Alcibiades."
Natalie was taken aback by Zelda's impertinence, which she found so charming that she was taken on her back, right there, by Renée Vivian, whose poetry Natalie knew by heart: the curve of her buttocks, the contour of her hips, the crease of her furrow. Natalie was always forthcoming about her sexuality but preferred coming first; so competitive.
Afterward, Renée said, "I do not belong here. Who will bring me hemlock with their own hands." The life of the party.
Zelda and I excused ourselves and went looking for Ernest in earnest. I searched all over but for the life of me could not find him. The problem was that Ernest was not Ernest. Or. rather, that Ernest was earnestly trying to find the real Ernest.
Apparently, he did. We finally caught up with him, as he, I guess, caught up with himself, and I never saw him so radiant. He really looked divine, the diaphanous top of his extraordinary gown highlighting his pecs. It did prove difficult, however, when he left to spar a few rounds on the balcony with an extremely reluctant Ezra Pound, whose stock demurral, “Canto, boy-o,” Ernest repeatedly ignored. His frock got the worst of it; organza wrinkles easily and chiffon is so delicate. It was sheer travesty. Particularly as Ernest had the weight advantage over Pound.
"I'm not going to get in the ring with Tolstoy," Ernest said.
Sure, Tolstoy was dead. Yet he still had an excellent chance against Ernest, who always overestimated his prowess as a boxer.
I asked him, What's with the hat?
Turns out, he'd been assiduously avoiding Gertrude, with whom he'd had a major falling out, and figured the hat would mask his identity, the gown, apparently, too subtle a charade. I'm probably the only one who knows the truth: He insisted that they spar and she kicked his ass; he couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag. Having a woman clean his clock was too much to bear, his clockworks got all bent out of shape, and he never gave her the time of day again.
"Any progress with the book?" he asked, already aware. I didn't bother answering; the schadenfreude was palpable.
"First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you," I thought to myself while Zelda was in the ladies room having a transient breakdown. The drink took me over to the bar; it was lonely and wanted companionship. I obliged.
Gerald and Sara Murphy paraded by. Sara, a statuesque beauty, led the way, with Gerry as her worshipful attendant. He was protecting her from the glare of dim light with a parasol from which hung, at first glance, sausages but on closer inspection were actually penises. G & S are the soul of decadent modernity, Paris' favorite fun couple. They have a flexible marriage; he bends to her will, she stretches his tolerance.
"Interesting umbrella," I said to Sara.
"And when there's a gentle breeze," she replied, "it's a heavenly wind chime."
O-kay... I mentally scratched her off my to-do list.
A moment later, a woman began a flamenco baile, danced right up to me, stopped, gave me the once-over, said, "The night is a skin pulled over the head of day that the day may be in torment," handed me a flower, and danced away. "Lighten up, Djuna," I called after her but she was already halfway across the ballroom. My troubled manuscript came to mind. I felt the night pull over my head. Time for another snack, a double double.
"How's the book coming along," someone behind me asked. I turned, and, my God, it was James Joyce, indescribable in an outfit more out there than his prose. "It is you, Scott, isn't it? Without my fookin' glasses I can't see a fookin' thing."
"Jimmy, all good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath," I said. "And I'm drowning."
"A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what's cheese? Corpse of milk," he said, obliquely, but I understood, acutely. What's a blocked novel? Corpse of writer.
"I'm ready to put a gun to my head," I lamented.
He leaned in, squinted at me, hard, and said, "I can help. I've got a gat. It's a hell of a gat, one big giant gat, it's a rich gat, a fat gat, an enigma gat, a gat in a hat and spats, a gat to end all gats. This gat's be great."
Suddenly, a green light beckoned from across the bay. Two giant blue eyes, faceless, behind a pair of yellowed glasses, winked at me from above a valley of ashes while in the west an egg set as the moon. The drinks had finally kicked in. I felt serene.
Yes, I can write this novel, I thought. I retrieved Zelda from the ladies room, we said our goodbyes, and staggered out into the night. It was tender.__________
Apologies to Georges Barbier and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
All images from Georges Barbier's Vingt-Cinq Costumes pour Le Theatre, Paris: Chez Camille Bloch & Jules Meynial, 1927, and are courtesy of Eric Chaim Kline, Bookseller.
If you enjoyed this bagatelle you may also be entertained by A Decadent Night in Paris With Georges Barbier.