In the fall of 1957, I applied to the Sorbonne, a move exclusively aimed at reassuring my father. I attended a few courses at the famous Paris University and quit after a couple of months. I had been told that I had what it took to become an actor. So, why pursue a BA in French literature? I wanted to go to drama school. Georges Leroy felt that I was what he called a ‘modern’ and that consequently, I should attend a school that suited my dramatic register. In France, more than in Great Britain, the distinction was categorical. You either were a ‘modern’, acting in contemporary plays or in movies, or you were an actor versed in the classics. Few succeeded at being both.
The best school in Paris for a ‘modern’ like me was Cours Simon. René Simon founded it in 1925.
During my first days there, I was asked to choose a scene from a play I would have to perform in front of the entire school. Once a week, Cours Simon organized an audition in its small theater to introduce the newcomers to its students and to directors in search of new talents. I asked a young Pied Noir from Algeria, Gérad Fabiani, whose girlfriend was Marie Dubois, the French actress François Truffaut cast in the part of Léna opposite Charles Aznavour, in Shoot the Piano Player, to play opposite me an excerpt from a melodrama which name escapes me.
On the afternoon Gérad and I performed, the place was packed with one of the toughest audience a young actor could ever confront. Think. These kids were competition!
We acted with all the conviction, heart, pathos we could muster. Yet, the end of our performance was met with deadly silence. Gérard and I were convinced that we had tanked. Then, a burst of loud and sustained applause shook the walls of this little theater. The students stood up, whistled and clapped with a vengeance, giving us the rock star treatment. We had touched their hearts. All eyes were wet. It was a triumph.
Following that performance, René Simon nourished high hopes for me. At age fifty-nine, he was a bundle of energy. This cheerful man was an astute pedagogue who used his experience as an actor and as a teacher to optimize the potential of the young performers who were in his care. He knew the business of acting intimately. He kept repeating that talent was not a warrant of success and that the more gifted you were the more assiduously you had to hone your skills. He bore no illusion. He was aware that only a tiny percentage of his students would reach the top or at the very least would make a living in the acting profession. He pushed hard the ones he thought had the greatest potential while discouraging the young men who either were not talented enough or who refused to take acting seriously.
It is not the lack of talent that precipitated my downfall at Cours Simon—I was blessed with plenty of it—but the way I dealt with my responsibilities as an artist. I lacked humility. I failed to understand that I had to work hard to acquire a technique that would allow me to become an accomplished actor. Georges Leroy tried to make me understand all this in a letter he sent me on May 6, 1957. “Do not cut corners,” he wrote. “An actor needs time to develop his personality. When art and life intermingle, nothing should be hastened.”
After all, Leroy had told me that I possessed the right stuff; my first efforts were met with great enthusiasm; I impressed René Simon, a man who was not easily impressed. So, why work so hard?
It did not take long for this intuitive teacher to realize that I wasn’t cutting the mustard. I was wasting his time and my talent, and, in his eyes, wasting talent was a capital sin. Simon lost interest in me. He assigned me to Madeleine Clervanne’s class. This older woman who had been a fairly successful stage and screen actress, displayed enormous patience with me, but the temptations at the school got the best of me. Instead of doing voice exercises, instead of exploring, searching, trying different parts, instead of familiarizing myself with the works of Sartre, Camus, Strindberg or Giraudoux, I philandered. Where else could I find the greatest concentration of gorgeous women per square foot other than in a drama school?
René Simon adored women too. Few men understood them as profoundly as he did. He was one of the rare drama teachers capable of transforming a masculine woman into a graceful one. He fashioned Edwige Feuillère, among many other stars, into one of the most elegant and feminine French actresses of the forties and fifties.
His passion for women boosted his reputation. My obsession with them prevented me from honing my skills. My laxness and my philandering ended up exasperating le Patron (the boss)—that’s how students and teachers called Simon. He turned antagonistic toward me at first. Then, he intentionally ignored me, which was the worst punishment for an actor.
He finally spewed out his frustration with me in the strangest of ways. On Monday evenings, he addressed the entire school, giving general advice about career building, telling anecdotes about actors, reading excerpts of classical masterpieces or poems—he nourished a passion for Charles Péguy.
On a particular Monday, le Patron started to delve into a long and angry tirade, accusing me of being lazy, telling the entire audience that I was wasting his time and that I would never be an actor. I was flabbergasted. My fellow students were flabbergasted. He repeated the performance Mondays in Mondays out. He must have been so terribly disappointed in me; he must have felt so betrayed to devote so much of his precious time to these harangues. To this date I wonder why such conviction, why so much rage. Why? To help me pull myself together or to make me abandon my vocation? I hope it was the former. Since I had nowhere else to go, I hung in there.
Most of us were more attracted to the screen than to the stage. Theater wasn’t as glamourous. When we were not studying at Cours Simon or drinking coffee at LeVillars, a bistro located just across the school, we were auditioning for small roles. The producer of Les Tricheurs, a movie directed by Marcel Carné, the man who had also directed Les Enfants du Paradis, gave me my first non-speaking part. Many of my contemporaries were cast in this movie including Jean-Paul Belmondo and my friend Jacques Charrier, the handsome young man who married Brigitte Bardot in 1959, to divorce her less than five years later after she had given him a son.
During that year, I landed several small parts that were mostly shot at Studio de Joinville, the largest sound stage outside of Paris. I was willing to take any job I could grab.
An actor friend of mine asked me to replace him for just one performance. That evening, he had a date with the woman of his dreams. I did not have the heart to turn him down. He was an extra in Amphitryon 38, a three-act comedy by Jean Giraudoux that was running at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées on Avenue Montaigne. It was starring Jean-Pierre Aumont. My friend explained to me the moves in great detail, as we were having a drink at the terrace of a bistro. I had to appear upstage during the last minutes of the performance as one of two Roman centurions. The two of us had to stand still, holding a lance in our hands until we heard a cue in the dialogue prompting us to cross the stage diagonally in unison and to position ourselves downstage opposite one another. It took a lot of chutzpah to accept doing this without rehearsal.
That evening, I got temporarily lost on my way to the dressing rooms. I had never been inside that theater. The woman who was in charge of costumes helped me slip my centurion garbs on, unaware that I was a replacement. Lucky that they fit. Uncomfortable and apprehensive, I then waited in the wings for the last scene of the last act. When it was time, a stagehand led me to my first position in total darkness. The curtain went up. I felt queasy; sweat made a mess of my makeup. I once heard Michael Jackson say, “When you know what you’re doing, you’re not scared on stage.” Well, that night, I surely didn’t know what I was doing and I was plenty scared! I almost missed the cue and crossed the stage a little late. I picked up the pace, trying to catch up with the other guard, reached my final position downstage and stayed there, motionless, dazzled by the spotlights. I realized that I was standing alone in front of Jean -Pierre Aumont, as he ended his final monologue. I should have been behind him, as was the other guard. The curtain fell behind me, leaving me standing at the edge of the stage, by myself, within touch of the spectators seated on the first row of the orchestra. The audience burst out laughing. I wished I could have disappeared instantly. What an embarrassment! I related the anecdote to Jean-Pierre Aumont as he was narrating one of my films, more than twenty years later. He had no memory of the mishap.
My father felt that I was wasting my time and his money at Cours Simon. He wanted me to enter the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique de Paris, the government-sponsored conservatory specialized in the training of actors destined to Comédie Française. Leroy and René Simon opposed the idea. They felt that I was a ‘modern.’ but my father stubbornly insisted. He trusted Georges Leroy, but he refused to take his advice. In his eyes, the Conservatoire bore more legitimacy than a private drama school. So Georges Leroy gave up reluctantly. He even volunteered to help me prepare the entrance exam and proposed to do it at his country house in Eygalières, a charming hamlet situated in the heart of the Alpilles, a couple of miles outside of Les Baux de Provence.
On my way to St Raphaël, a resort on the French Riviera where I had been invited to spend to few days by a schoolmate, I stopped at Eygalières. Georges Leroy handed me my homework.
“Daniel came to see me,” he wrote to my father in a letter dated August 20, 1956. “He agreed to study the classics I suggested. He will come back in a few days during which I will try to select the scenes that seem best suited for him.”
I returned to Eygalières on August 25.
The time I spent with the Leroys was blessed. Their thick-walled house made of local stones was magnificent in its austerity. It was an old twelfth century monastery, with thick stonewalls, cool and spacious rooms that transported you to the Middle Ages. It featured a rich and beautifully designed rose garden facing the lower Alps.
Georges Leroy preferred working with me in the morning. He made me try several characters from different plays and finally decided that Emperor Nero, the lead part of Racine’s Britannicus, would suit me best. Racine was a seventeenth century playwright as popular in France as Shakespeare was in England. In the scene Leroy picked for me, Nero confesses to Narcisse, Britannicus’ governor, that he has fallen in love with Junea, the fiancée of his competitor to the throne. This character’s mood swings—he shifts from unbridled anger to sentimentality, to jealousy, to sadism, in the span of a few minutes—is the ideal stuff for a bravura performance or can let the actor run the risk of making a fool of himself. To portray a histrionic madman without being melodramatic or even clownish is not an easy task, particularly when you have to do justice to Racine’s magnificent poetry, to the rhythm, pace and music of its twelve-syllable verses. Georges Leroy was a master at teaching this type of theater. He had a deep love and admiration for Racine, the greatest respect for the purity of his language, for the perfection of its form. He had once staged a play in which he had matched Bach’s music with Racine’s verses.
The four or five hours spent every day with this unique teacher were intense. He only suggested, but his suggestions were always on target. In a letter he sent my father on September 3, 1958 he writes,“Daniel left us yesterday at around noon. His friend drove him back to St Raphaël. I have tried to help him the best I could. We worked assiduously on two scenes (Britannicus and Fantasio). It is more and more obvious to me that his best qualities are those of a ‘modern.’”
Leroy was reminding my father one more time that the Conservatoire was a mistake.
I rejoined my friend Gérard in St. Raphaël and spent a few more days basking in the Mediterranean sun before heading back to Paris. I had a lot of work left to do and Gérard was starting his first year at the university. He hated being at the wheel. He asked me if I could drive, even though he knew I did not have a driver’s license. He owned a medium-size Renault that was popular then. We took the Route Nationale 7. The super highway linking the south to Paris had not been built yet. We started early in the morning. By midday, we crossed Mâcon, a provincial town located in the Burgundy region, north of Lyon.
I was driving in the right lane behind a Peugeot. The Peugeot was tailgating a truck. I veered to the left lane and accelerated with the intention of passing both vehicles. At that precise moment, the Peugeot swerved to the left as well and cut me off. I rammed it against the side of the truck, and then turned to the left to get away from it as another truck was heading toward me in the opposite direction. I slammed on the brakes and lost control of the car. The Dauphine flipped three times across the other side of the road and landed on its roof, missing the oncoming truck by a few inches.
Our backs leaning against the ceiling, our feet up in the air, Gérard and I stared at each other and had a laughing fit. “Are you OK?” I asked my friend. He suddenly looked at me horrified. “I don’t think you are. Or is it me? There’s blood all over,” he said.
I touched my face, my chest, my shoulders. I looked at my hands. They were covered in blood. “But I feel fine. I really do. Let’s get out of this thing,” I suggested.
Thankfully, both windows were shattered. We crawled out of the Dauphine. When I stood up, I realized that a piece of glass had punctured my upper arm and had caused all that bleeding. The wound was minor. We both had escaped death miraculously. Then, for the first time, we saw the Peugeot impaled on the back of the trailer. The truck had dragged it a few yards before coming to a halt.
Motorists stopped to see what was going on. Several witnesses said that the man and the woman in the Peugeot were kissing before the impact. These good citizens reversed their stories the moment they realized how young Gérard and I were. An ambulance pulled in. Two EMTs crossed to the Peugeot, extracted a woman from it and laid her on a stretcher. She was moaning. An officer asked us who was driving. Gérard told him that I was. He had a driver’s license. I didn’t. We should have had the reflex to state that he was the driver. We were taken to town in a police car.
To set an example, the DA sent us directly to jail.
I was thrown in a dark, narrow, stinking individual cell. Exhausted physically and mentally, I lay down on my bunk and felt things crawling up my legs. The filthy mattress was bug infested. I remained on my back, indifferent to the disgusting invasion, persuaded that my life as I knew it was over. What would happen to me if the injured woman would die? I stayed there in the darkness, paralyzed by anxiety. Then I heard a knock at the door and a voice whispering, “The woman in the car is OK. You hear? She’s OK.”
“And the guy?”
Then, total silence. I did not sleep much that night.
The following morning, they transferred Gérard and me to a common cell where several prisoners were remanded in custody. Some had been in prison without having been tried for months. This is how the justice system worked in France as opposed to the US, where you are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The week I spent in that jail proved to be quite edifying, a first-hand life experience I would never forget. Nor would I my cellmates: an 18-year-old boy who had knocked up his sister and who, if found guilty, would spend the rest of his natural life behind bars; an old peasant who had stabbed his wife multiple times. He too would never see the light of day again. A wine merchant accused of embezzlement. And finally there was a young man—he must have been in his mid to late thirties—who had been caught robbing a bank and who had already served seven years for armed robbery in another penitentiary. He was the one who had knocked on my door. The man was connected. He gave me regular updates of the young lady’s condition.
Our parents were notified. They sent us money. That money was put to good use. Food prepared by the institution was barely edible. Fortunately, we were told that we could buy steaks from the kitchen. So, we offered steaks and cigarettes to our co-inmates. Everybody had steak for lunch while we were there. We became quite popular. These shady characters would have killed for us. We became their pals, their benefactors, their heroes.
After seven long days, the DA decided to give us back our freedom. A civil trial ensued. The whole incident proved costly for my father. We tried to put that unfortunate incident behind us.
Back in Paris, I resumed honing the scene Georges Leroy had chosen for me.I asked a friend of mine from Cours Simon to play Narcisse opposite me. We rehearsed at home, in the Luxembourg Gardens and even on the banks of the Seine at night, near the Pont Napoleon with Notre-Dame in the background, a location so inspiring that I felt as if I owned Paris, just as my character had owned Rome.
The entrance exam took place October 13, 1958 at the Conservatoire on Rue du Conservatoire in the 9th arrondissement. Hundreds of kids were waiting for their turn. My name was called at two o’clock. Dazzled by the powerful projectors that lit the stage, I discerned the blurred contours of a few people in the audience. They were the members of the jury. René Simon was one of them. He would surely vote against my admission. I was petrified.
After my performance, I felt defeated. Chances to enter this venerable institution were as slim as they were for anyone trying to enter Julliard, the famous New York school for the performing arts. Each year, fifteen young men and fifteen young women are selected by the Conservatoire out of 1,200 contenders.
A few days later, I was notified that I had been accepted. I was dumbfounded to find myself in the lucky two point five percent. My father was ecstatic.
The school assigned me to Jean-Louis Barrault’s class. A blessing! Barrault was a modern, probably the only modern teacher in this venerable institution.
Still remembered for his brilliant portrayal of the nineteenth century mime Gaspard Dubreau in Marcel Carné’s masterpiece ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’, he started his career in 1940 at Comédie Française. That same year he married the actress Madeleine Renaud with whom he started the Renaud-Barrault Theater Company in 1946. She became its lead and Jean-Louis its actor/director/manager.
The company gained popularity throughout the years. Barrault had achieved what Todd Haimes had with his Roundabout Theater or David Mamet with his Atlantic Theater Company.
He was a mime, therefore didn’t feel that dialogue was necessary to express an emotion. Jean-Louis Barrault the teacher always emphasized the importance of physical expression. He taught us body language, how to walk, move, sit or simply stand up in ways that would fit the psychological/social/physical makeup of the characters we were playing or, as they simply say in Hollywood, how to be ‘in character.’
While he did not dismiss the value of drawing upon his own emotions and memories for his own portrayals, he was the opposite of a method actor. He had great stage presence but, in my opinion, acting was not his strongest asset. His greatest achievements were those of a man of the theater. He was a driving force, a coordinator of genius who allowed a great company to thrive and who introduced to the public esoteric playwrights such as Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Jean Giraudoux and Paul Claudel.
Two months after the beginning of the school year, he selected a handful of us to join the Renaud-Barrault Company.
In 1958, the Barraults settled at the Théâtre du Palais Royal where Jean-Louis produced two major shows, a five-hour version of Paul Claudel’s mystic drama, Le Soulier de Satin (The Satin Slipper) and Offenbach’s operetta, La Vie Parisienne (Parisian Life). He managed to cast all of us in both plays, giving us small parts and more importantly, an invaluable education in all things related to theater.
He could fly off the handle easily. His rehearsals were intense. Every actor called him Jean-Louis. He hated to be called ‘Maître’ or ‘Monsieur Barrault.’ He was an egalitarian and a boss at the same time. The actors in his company were his buddies, his brothers, his comrades-in-arms, but he still made sure they knew he was the man!
The rehearsals of Le Soulier de Satin were particularly demanding. For Jean-Louis, the production of a play by Claudel was tantamount to a calling. He produced Claudel’s four verse dramas throughout his career and directed Le Soulier de Satin five times. The Palais-Royal production was his second. Introducing to the public this arcane playwright was an act of courage. Barrault did not think that a play by the former French diplomat and Camille Claudel’s younger brother was literature or poetry, but in the author’s own words, “the obvious. It was all flesh. It was humanity.” Le Soulier de Satin, which featured many locations, including the ocean, whales and ships, had been partially inspired by the Kabuki Theater. It had been written while Claudel was France’s ambassador to Japan. It is the story of an impossible love and touches upon the respect and obligations carried by the wedding vows and particularly by a religious marriage ordained by a Catholic priest. Only Jean-Louis could tame such an epic, only he could faithfully stage Claudel’s “disorder and delirious state of the imagination”, to paraphrase the author himself.
The Palais-Royal was a cozy theater, beautifully situated at the far end of the elegant Palais-Royal gardens, a few yards from the oldest and one of the best Parisian eateries, Le Grand Véfour, which we could not afford with the meager salary we received from the company. Instead, we all flocked after the show to the Italian restaurant located opposite the theater to devour delicious pizzas and drink affordable wines.
The Théâtre du Palais-Royal didn’t change much since it opened in 1641, after Richelieu ordered its construction four years earlier. It looked old. It smelled old. It felt old. It possessed all the charms of an antique.
Jean-Louis liked me—he would not have hired me if he didn’t—but Madeleine Renaud, his wife, protected me, pampered me, encouraged me. She took me under her wings. She had been one of the most influential theater figures of the twentieth century. I was one of her favorites. She stayed in touch with me way after I left the company.
My courses at the Conservatoire during the day and my acting job at the Palais-Royal in the evening kept me busy. I was productive. The theater had allowed me to meet and often befriend fascinating people. The good life could not go on forever. It never does. In January 1959, I received the letter that most men of my age hoped they would never receive. The French army wanted me. I was drafted.
IX – The Army
(1959-1961) My mother helped me prepare my suitcase, as I was about to leave the cozy and safe world of Rue Joseph Bara. I was drafted in the infantry and bound for Germany. Would I be jettisoned to Algeria from there? Most probably.
De Gaulle had been elected president on September 21, 1958. Following the September 28, 1958 referendum, the French had ratified a new constitution and the creation of the Fifth Republic. In 1959, the ‘dirty war’ in Algeria was in its sixth year. It would take De Gaulle almost four years to end it. Meanwhile, it kept jeopardizing and destroying the lives of thousands of French young men. Few rejoiced when called to duty. I joined the rank of those who opposed the war. I did not care whether Algeria remained French or not. I was not alone. Quite a few young Frenchmen tried to avoid the draft; many came up with false medical certificates and often pretended to be stricken with phony mental illnesses that could have exempted them from military service. I chose not to play that game.
The alarm clock woke me up at four. My parents were already up, terribly worried and sad. I took a fast shower, dressed, gulped a cup of coffee, kissed them goodbye and left. I had to report by six-thirty. I took the subway to some barracks in the 12th arrondissement where the army registered me and ordered me to change into a military uniform. The one I was given was way too big for me. It made me look like a clown. That didn’t boost my morale.
The following day, they transported us to barracks north of Paris and on March 5, 1959, trucked us to Gare de l’Est. We were led to a platform at the far end of the railroad station and found ourselves walking in-between rows of soldiers in battle dress, armed with small machine guns. Our throats tightened. What a shock! We did not expect such a reception committee. The army had taken these precautions to avoid the slightest rebellion. There had been ominous antecedents. On September 11, 1955, soldiers at Gare de Lyon, another Paris railroad station, had refused to board the train that was going to take them to Marseilles, where they would be shipped to Algeria. They were entrained by force. As soon as they departed, they pulled the emergency brakes every 900 feet. They were disembarked and sent to Algeria by plane.
Discontent had spread since that incident. At the beginning, opposition to the war mainly came from the left. In 1959, it had divided the French deeply. A majority started to favor France’s withdrawal from Algeria. Several factors brought about that reversal. One, and not the least of them, was the disclosure that the French army tortured civilians. It dragged the country into a bitter national debate. A book published in 1958 entitled La Question, confirmed what many suspected. The practice of torture by the French army was routine. Its author, Henri Alleg, had himself been tortured in Algiers. It is from jail that he wrote what amounted to a damning condemnation of this violation of human rights and of the Geneva Convention. The Bush Administration would be strongly criticized for similar exactions in Iraq almost half a century later, triggering the same outrage many French citizens felt in the late fifties.
Most intellectuals and artists opposed the war. A manifesto entitled Manifeste des 121, named after the number of signatories, demanded that the government grant its citizens the right to insubordination against the war. It was signed by prominent personalities such as François Truffaut, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Signoret, Nathalie Sarraute, Françoise Sagan and Alain Resnais. The French were angry.
So were we. Wasn’t it odd for draftees who were about to do their duty and who ran the chance of being wounded or killed in action, to be escorted by armed guards, like criminals? They made us feel as if we were the enemy.
We left the station in the wee hours and crossed the German border by one in the morning the following day. The army had given priority to all civilian trains along the way. It had taken us sixteen hours to cover approximately two hundred miles!
When we arrived in Radolfzell-am-Bodensee in southern Germany, a town located at the western end of Lake Constance, we boarded trucks in the middle of the night. It was close to four in the morning when we reached our final destination.
The hard reality of the moment and of the harshness of the place hit us with unexpected brutality. Our faces slapped by the bitter wind of March, we stood in the middle of a gigantic tar-covered yard lit with powerful spotlights and flanked by small barracks. The sight was eerie, threatening. It felt as if we had been beamed into a WWII movie. Officers barked orders. We fell in and stood at attention. A deep depression overcame me.
The place had been the home to 1,000 Waffen-SS and in 1940 became a SS infantry battalion garrison. According to reliable sources, the SS soldiers who trained there received a bonus for being exposed to the dampness and the cold of the area, which was surrounded by marshlands. No bonus for us. The French army wasn’t that generous.
How ironic! Here I was, the Jewish boy who had escaped the Nazis and who now was about to receive basic military training where my old enemies had also received basic military training to eradicate me. Talk about divine justice!
I did not see myself leading men in combat in a war I opposed morally. During the two months I spent in Radolfzell, I faked pain whenever we exercised, complaining that an old fracture of my kneecap had not healed properly. I also made sure not to excel at the firing range even though I was a decent marksman. As a consequence, the army took me off the list of those who were eligible to attend officer school. I remained a private, thus enduring for a while longer the pettiness and the demeaning affronts most privates suffer from small ranking officers.
The news of my father’s failing health made matters worse. He had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His speech and his ability to walk had been seriously hampered. His hypertension was reaching dangerous levels.
Early June, the army transferred me to the Signal Corps in Freiburg, a quaint and prosperous city south of Germany, on the western edge of the Black Forest. Freiburg was renown for its old university and for its medieval cathedral. I was taught how to read and how to send messages in Morse code. I was a fast learner. It only took me two weeks to decipher speedy messages. My life had improved considerably.
My weekends in Freiburg were pleasant. On Sundays, I routinely had lunch by the cathedral, sipping German white wines and ordering the same dish, Russische Eiern, eggs Russian style, the only fare I found remotely edible. German cooking was atrocious.
Meanwhile, my father used his connections to get me a better posting. A general who was one of his patients intervened in high places. On a gorgeous spring afternoon, as I was busy sending and receiving messages during military exercises in a village that was miles away from Freiburg, I intercepted a communication addressed to my superiors. Private Daniel Dorian was to return to the barracks ASAP. A jeep and a chauffeur were immediately put at my disposal. I was driven back to Freiburg where I was told that I had been transferred to the Press Service of the army. I had to pack my gear and leave on the double. I took the train to Baden-Baden that same day.
X – Was It Luck?
(Trade #2 – A Learning Process} Control your fate or somebody else will.
~Heinrich von Pierer, former CEO of Siemens I had just escaped boredom and hardship and I was about to spend the next few months with the crème de la crème in Baden-Baden, the headquarters of the French Forces in Germany. Luxurious hotels and a magnificent casino—‘the most beautiful in the world,’ according to Marlene Dietrich—earned this spa town the reputation of being Germany’s Monte Carlo.
I reported to headquarters late in the afternoon in full uniform, carrying a heavy pack over my shoulder. The guards told me where to go. On my way, I saluted a few colonels and dozens of generals. I never saluted so many generals in such a short period of time. I might have saved a lot of arm lifting if my right hand had been affixed to my forehead all the way to my final destination.
The office had the feel of a newsroom. Several young men in civilian clothes were furiously beating the keys of their typewriters behind their individual desks. When I stepped in, they interrupted what they were doing and introduced themselves. Before being drafted, all of them had been working for major French media outfits such as Le Figaro, Le Monde, France-Soir or Radio Luxembourg. It was past five o’clock in the evening. The officer in charge had already left. My future colleagues were also about to call it a day, but before turning in, they made a point of giving me two major pieces of advice.
“Rule #1. Get rid of your uniform ASAP. Tomorrow, one of us will take you to town where you’ll buy civilian clothes.
“Rule #2. Never, we repeat, never ever report to the roll call. Tomorrow we will find you a room to rent.”
Wasn’t failing to report to the morning roll call a serious offense tantamount to desertion? And wasn’t desertion punishable by death in time of war? What if I was caught? My fears amused them. They had all done it and they had never been caught.
“And where will I sleep tonight?” I asked. “In the captain’s office,” they answered. “In the…? Are you sure?” “If you report to the corporal downstairs, we’re all fucked,” they retorted. “So please do as we say. For everyone’s sake!” They took me to the captain’s office, gave me a blanket and bid me goodnight. I was exhausted. I undressed, wrapped myself in the blanket, curled in a leather armchair and fell asleep.
The following morning, someone shook me hard. “Dorian, Dorian, wake up!” I opened an eye.
“The captain’s on his way. ”
I jumped out of the armchair, folded the blanket, put on my shirt, my pants and my shoes, slipped into my jacket as fast as I could and started buttoning it when the captain barged in. I stood at attention, saluted him, my jacket unbuttoned and my uncombed hair sticking out, straight up in the air. “Private Dorian à votre service,mon Capitaine.”
“At ease, Dorian, at ease. Welcome to the Press Service.”
The man was in his early forties, slim, elegant in his gabardine uniform. His was Captain Gérard de Castelnau, the grandson of General de Castelnau, the World War I hero who, as Commander of the Second Army, had been partly responsible for his aggressive French strategy at the start of La Grande Guerre.
My captain had been transferred to the Press Service of the army after having served in Algeria in intelligence (Deuxième Bureau). The Algerian National Front of Liberation had put a high price on his head. A grenade had exploded in his right hand. Instead of saluting me, he shook my hand with his left hand and smiled. He knew I had spent the night in his office.
The Press Service published a monthly magazine, 5/5 forces françaises. It was geared to the servicemen of the three branches of the army. It had advertising just like any regular magazine and could be bought for one franc twenty-five at newspaper stands. The main purpose of this sleek publication, which offered military reportages and a few features on various subjects ranging from architecture, cars, wines, culture or education, was to inform and motivate the men fighting in Algeria.
The morning following my arrival, someone took me to town where I bought a couple of trousers, shirts, socks, a tie, a jacket and a sweater. I’d wear my uniform while working within the compounds of the headquarters and change into my civilian cloths when in town.
Becoming a journalist overnight was not an easy task. I had to compete with guys who had graduated from schools of journalism and who had already some experience. For me journalism was a first. The captain understood it. He first assigned me to the entertainment section, because of my theater background. So I wrote film reviews and articles on French entertainment. The first movie I was asked to critique was Gunfight at OK Corral, starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.
A month later, de Castlenau asked me if I was interested in writing a piece on French police and particularly on the vice squad in Paris. He sent me there on a mission and requested the authorities to grant me full access to the famous Quai des Orfèvres, Paris’ famous police headquarters. I spent five nights accompanying a lieutenant in his rounds of shady bars and seedy nude shows in Pigalle. It beat deciphering Morse codes in a stinking truck or freezing at the bottom of a muddy ditch.
I would never have thought in my wildest imagination that I would turn crime reporter in the army. I wrote a ten-page piece on the subject à la Philip Marlowe.
We were about to finish our meal when the waiter crossed to my friend and whispered in his ear, “Monsieur Raymond. You’re wanted at the Boule Blanche.” (A cabaret in Pigalle) “It’s urgent.
Raymond L… was a Vice Squad detective. His welcome had been pretty cool, but once he got to know me, he thawed.
Midnight! We had already paid a visit to a couple of strip-tease joints. The owner of one of them had complained about his guitarist.
“He’s a pimp, Lieutenant. And he carries…I’m sure.”
“We’ll get him after we conduct an investigation,” Raymond later confided.
“Why not now?” I asked.
“First we need proof. Second, if we book him now, he’ll know his boss snitched on him and he’ll get back at him.”
As we were crossing Rue Balzac, the inspector wrote down the plate number of a Simca. “An Amazone,” he ventured.
“A prostitute working from her car.”
We had just left the Calvados, a restaurant on the Champs-Elysées, when we rushed into the lieutenant’s DS. “To the Boule Blanche,” he ordered. The chauffeur floored it. I felt as if I had morphed into Bob Mitchum or Jean Gabin.
When we reached the nightclub, a dead-eyed beanpole, his face flanked by two long and thick sideburns, was waiting for us. “Gotta talk to you, Lieutenant,”
The man gave me the eye. “Alone.” He was shaking. Raymond threw a quick look at me. I left them alone.
“He came back to me a few minutes later, a frown on his face “Bad news! His mistress was just murdered. He’s scared…”
The police apparatus was about to get into gear.”
Followed another reportage in Moenchengladbach, in northwestern Germany, home of the headquarters of the British Armed Forces. The purpose was to write an article on internal security. Top British generals were under constant surveillance, their phones randomly tapped, the wastebaskets in their offices searched, their mail read, their desks and cabinets broken into at night by spies disguised as maids, gardeners or janitors. Any irregularities or breach of intelligence were reported to internal security. Officers found guilty of carelessness were reprimanded, regardless of their ranks. These practices could have turned any sane person into a paranoid schizophrenic. Not the Brits. They loved it. They saw it as a challenge. It kept them on their toes.
I had caught the bug. These first reportages exacerbated my curiosity, my need to know, to probe, to search for the unknown, the hidden, the unpredictable, the unusual, the uncommon. I even developed a taste for danger. I cherished the exhilaration of living through experiences no one had gone through before and the satisfaction of informing the rest of the world about them. I also appreciated the preferential treatment given to me, being able to access situations, events or places that weren’t accessible to the public. It made me feel empowered.
During my brief stay in Baden-Baden, I traveled more than a dozen times to Paris and throughout Germany on assignment, covering stories that had very little to do with the military. My captain even asked me to report on the Paris opera première of ‘Carmen’ with Jane Rodes in the lead part. What a life!
De Castelnau acted towards me more like a father than a superior. He would sometimes come to me and ask, “Dorian, what are you doing tonight?”
“Huh…nothing, Mon Capitaine.”
“Could you take my wife out? I would appreciate it. I have to stay here to work.”
The woman was attractive, but she was my captain’s wife. I had to behave. We would have dinner at an upscale restaurant and then I would take her dancing in some high-class nightclub, at her husband’s expense. I was the only one the captain trusted for this not too unpleasant task. Somebody had to do it!
We spent Christmas—my first in the army—at the office. We decorated the newsroom with lights and tinsels; we dressed a nice pine tree that was freshly cut from the Black Forest. The magazine’s art director and his team designed sets that transformed the place into a Paris nightclub. The civilians working with us brought their wives. I danced with the captain’s secretary. She was cute, had great legs and a warm smile. Her name was Francine.
The following week, de Castelnau sent me on a mission to Paris. He allowed me to take Francine along. The both of us spent a lovely weekend at the Terrass Hotel, above the Montmartre cemetery, courtesy of the Press Service of the French Army. It is in that luxurious establishment that François Truffaut would meet Jean Genet, the playwright he admired so, twenty-four years later. From our balcony we had a bird’s eye view of the entire city. The set up could not have been more romantic. Francine would brighten the remaining days of my stay in Baden-Baden.
Military life had its perks! I was given the opportunity to learn a new trade. I was constantly on the go. I had a charming girlfriend and I had no responsibilities, no financial worries. Could I ask for anything more? But, as I said previously, good things never last. The army busted me. They found out that I had avoided the morning roll call and that I was living in town. They did not put me in front of a firing squad. They just threw me into the brig without further ado. I found myself behind bars one more time.
My stay in the military prison could have been worse. My jailers were draftees, like me. They tried to make me as comfortable as they could. They even asked me if I wanted the services of a prostitute to break the solitude of my cell. She was only a phone call and a few deutschmarks away, they said. I declined.
Eight days later, I was informed that I had been transferred to a combat unit near Miliana, a town located in a mountainous region south of Algiers. It was considered one of the most dangerous spots in Algeria. I had broken military rules. I had to pay the price. Gaby Othon-Friez, an old friend of mine who was the famous painter’s widow, asked a general to intervene in my favor. She had learned that the army had a theater company made of draftees. She felt that it would be an ideal posting for me. The request was categorically denied.
The following day, dressed in full uniform for the first time in months, I took the train for Trier, a German city close to Luxembourg. It was home to the first Armored Division. From there, I would be sent to Marseilles and then shipped to Algiers.
The barracks in Trier were spotless. Huge hangars featured wooden floorboards polished to such a high luster that they mirrored the tanks that were parked on them. A sight to behold!
I was taken to a dormitory that housed a dozen other draftees. We were told that we would leave Trier for Marseilles within forty-eight hours. The next morning, a mean corporal woke us up with the traditional bark, “Debout là d’dans!” (Move it! Let’s go!)The young man in the bunk next to me did not budge. The corporal grabbed his cover and his sheet and pulled them off harshly, exposing his body. It was covered with a nasty red rash. The poor fellow had the measles. The army quarantined the entire room. Algeria would have to wait.
Most kids in that dormitory were peasants. Their families were sending them packages that were filled with foie gras, saucisson, local prosciutto, preserved duck, cheese and delicious country bread. The boys were generous enough to share. We ate like kings.
There was absolutely nothing to do during this forced confinement. I asked my mother to send me books in which I lost myself fourteen hours a day. I literally devoured Steinbeck, Hemingway, Proust, Joyce, Camus and Cendrars of course. On a lighter side, I also enjoyed another favorite of mine. James Hadley Chase. He was one of the writers featured in Série Noire, a French publishing imprint that was founded in 1945 by Marcel Duhamel. It specialized in crime fiction and hardboiled detective thrillers penned by Anglo-American writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, William R. Burnett, Ed McBain, Chester Himes or James Hadley Chase.
Born Rene Lodge Brabazon Raymond, James Hadley Chase was the author of the famous No Orchids for Miss Blandish that he wrote, after having read about Ma Barker and her sons. He was British, but most of his books were based on events that took place in the United States, a country he had never been to, save for two brief stays in Miami and New Orleans. So he used maps and an American slang dictionary. Several of his stories featured a protagonist who was trying to get rich by committing insurance fraud or theft, and who always wound up in inextricable situations that grew more and more hopeless and nightmarish as the story progressed. His main characters were always up against bad dudes that displayed incredible sadistic violence.
The end of the quarantine that had lasted three short weeks brought me back to reality. On May 30, 1960, a handful of us were sent to Marseilles where we reported to the authorities. We were told that our ship was scheduled to leave for Algiers in four days and were asked to report six hours before departure. I decided to go to Cassis, a little fishing village near Marseilles known for its quaint streets, its old fountains and its fine bistros. I rented a room in an inexpensive hotel and spent three idyllic days sun bathing at the local beaches and gorging myself with bouillabaisse, the famous local fish stew.
On the fourth day, I boarded the El Djazair, an old ship that took me across the Mediterranean. I traveled with soldiers from the Foreign Legion and their mascot, a goat that stunk up the entire lower level where we were confined.
I had escaped death in a car accident and I had avoided the gruesome life of an infantryman. Could I finagle my way out of an ominous situation one more time or was I left to face an uncertain and dangerous destiny? Things didn’t look too good for me!
XI – Algeria, An Adventure If Moslems and Christians had paid attention to me, I would have stopped their quarrels. They would have become brothers, externally and internally.
~Sultan Abd El-Kader Seen from the sea, Algiers was dazzling. The white city was shining in the sunrise light of June 1, 1960. We berthed very early in the morning in front of a military transit base where I was assigned a bunker. I was told that a train would take me to Meliana the following morning.
The place looked dark, old and grim. It must have been a jail once. At seven, the officer on duty granted me a leave. I would have to report back by eighteen hundred hours. I left the compound dressed in my heavy winter uniform. My objective was to find a colonel by the name of Daviron. He was in charge of the personnel department that managed the military theater company. The officer who had signed my leave, advised me to check a military base in town where, he assured me, I could find my man. I was so bent on locating the colonel that I did not pay much attention to the sights and sounds of the bustling city, to its mixed crowd of Arabs and Europeans, to the men in their djellabas, to the women wearing hijabs, their faces hidden behind veils or to the cries of the muezzins.
Forty-five minutes later, I stood at the entrance of the military base I had been advised to check out. I flashed my ID to the guards and entered the first office I could find. A second lieutenant informed me that Colonel Daviron was not stationed there. He suggested that I try another base where the man had been sighted a couple of months ago. It was nine. The sun had risen. The temperature had already reached ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. Sweat was oozing through my shirt. When I reached that second base, I was told that the colonel had been recently transferred to another location.
I searched for this man all day, walking miles and miles, going from base to base. As the sun started to set down, I grew increasingly anxious, discouraged. Hot, thirsty, hungry and totally exhausted, I was about to throw in the towel but decided against all wisdom to give one more location a try. When I got to it, it was almost five o’clock. Some corporal confirmed that Colonel Daviron was working out of a villa in the back hills. It would take me forty-five minutes to reach it. I looked at my watch and realized that I would never get back to the transit base by six. To press on and to continue my hunt for the elusive colonel would make me a deserter. The alternative wasn’t much more appealing. No way was I going to be used as cannon fodder and get killed in some isolated outpost. I gathered the little strength and courage left in me and started to climb the hills of Algiers.
It was almost six o’clock when I reached a villa named Oued El Kilaï, home of a government service in charge of the training of the Algerian youth. The military theater company called GAC for Groupe d’Action Culturelle, Cultural Action Group, was part of its operation.
When Colonel Daviron’s secretary told her boss that I wanted to see him, he ordered her to let me in his office immediately. I stepped in and saluted. “Am I glad to see you, Dorian,” said the colonel. “We’re in desperate need of actors.”
I mentioned to him that my deadline had expired. He picked up the phone, called the transit base and asked to speak to its commanding officer. “Mon Commandant? Colonel Daviron to inform you that Headquarters has approved private Dorian’s transfer to the GAC.”
He hung up, wrote a brief letter and handed it to me. “It’s settled,” he said. Go back to the base. Give this to the officer on duty. I’ll send someone to pick you up tomorrow. Welcome to the GAC!”
The following morning, shortly after I woke up, I was told that two men were waiting for me. I grabbed my bag and headed toward the reception area. Two young Arabs in t-shirts and jeans were standing in the hallway. They welcomed me with a big smile. One of them simply said, “Coming?”
We exited the place and crossed to a small Renault pick-up truck. The two young men introduced themselves. The short and bulky one was Metref. He was bold and resembled a Mongolian. The other one was Messaoudi, tall, handsome, with dark hair. They were both Kabyles. We got into the pick-up and squeezed up front. Metref turned to me, “You gotta get rid of the uniform. Let’s go and buy you a pair of jeans.”
I wound up in jail the last time someone asked me to get rid of my uniform. Messaoudi was driving. He started the vehicle and floored it. I turned back for a last peek at the base. I sighed with relief as I saw it fade and finally disappear.
We arrived at the foot of the casbah—Arabic for citadel—a maze of dark and narrow lanes, dead-end alleys and gleaming white houses that earned the city the nickname La Blanche. This hillside quarter of Algiers that climbs in steps from the sea was built on the ruins of the Roman city of Icosium.
The moment we passed through one of its multiple arched entrance gates, we found ourselves immersed in a thick crowd of veiled women, rambunctious children and men of all ages dressed in their multi-colored djellabas, some leading overloaded donkeys by the bridle. No European could be found in this all-Arabic spot. Yet no one paid attention to the incongruous sight of this crazy French soldier in uniform. Overwhelmed by this ocean of humanity, I could have turned claustrophobic easily. Oddly enough, I felt ecstatic. The symphony of fragrances emanating from the spices and the olives displayed in wooden barrels, the abundance of food, clothes, pottery, rugs, silver, jewels, the incessant and chaotic movement of people, the energy and the very own dynamics of this esoteric corner of the world dazzled me. I loved the Casbah of Algiers, the first of many casbahs I would later visit in Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan cities.
My two companions never let me out of their sight. The excitement of it all had dulled my sense of reality. The year was 1960. We were in the heart of enemy territory. This huge labyrinth had played a central role during the conflict as the epicenter of the rebellion. It had been the FLN’s safe haven from which it planned and executed terrorist attacks against the French. The Battle of Algiers, the Italian movie released in 1966 and shot in the casbah, gives an accurate feel of the place, as I experienced it. It tells the story of the beginnings of the Algerian Revolution. It recounts the creation and organization of revolutionary cells, the door to door combat that opposed the French paratroopers led by General Massu to the FLN guerilla, the search and the hunt through the maze of narrow streets, for enemy combatants—a term not yet in usage then—the interrogations of Arabs by the paratroopers, the use of the gegène, the nickname given to the hand-operated generator that was connected to a prisoner’s balls.
The year was 1960 and there I was, teasing a potential enemy in my French army uniform, walking the most dangerous streets of Algeria, maybe of the entire world. Anybody could have stabbed me with impunity in that thick crowd. I could have disappeared without a trace. No wonder my newly found friends insisted that I shed my uniform.
I bought a pair of jeans and a light shirt in the first store we could find. Metref handed my uniform to the storeowner and asked him to burn it.
Very few Caucasians can brag to have been in the midst of the Casbah of Algiers at the height of the Franco-Algerian conflict.
We left the Algerian capital late morning and drove east along the coast. Our final destination was Dellys, the GAC’s small Mediterranean base. Messaoudi asked me if I was hungry. We stopped at the first village we encountered. We stepped out of the truck and entered a primitive butcher shop on the side of the road. Inside hung the carcasses of sheep that were hidden by clouds of black flies. Blood stains covered the cement floor. The shop was filthy. There were a couple of tables and a few chairs in the rear. Where the hell had they taken me? No way was I going to eat in that dive. We sat down. Metref and Messaoudi ordered in Arabic. A few minutes later the butcher brought a platter filled with lamb and chicken brochettes. I picked one up and took a cautious bite. The spicy meat was delicious. The combination of cumin and salt gave it an exotic taste. We ate everything the butcher threw at us.