Friday 23 March 1990

This morning in front of the Felix Potin grocery store, rue du Cherche-Midi, Mme D., my next-door neighbor, came along dragging her shopping cart, full of items bought en function de her chronic constipation. She said, "The concierge is catching it from the building manager! She's spent more than seven hundred thousand francs on cleaning products." (She meant in Old Francs, of course. Owing to a nationwide inability to move a decimal point, thirty-two years after New Francs were inaugurated Mme D. still cannot name the coins and banknotes in her handbag.) Apparently the concierge has sent a letter to the building manager naming the tenant who throws unwrapped cat litter followed by floods of liquid disinfectant down the garbage chute. "This is known as informing," says Mme D., who is friendly with the cat lady.

"Well, now it's her turn to catch it. Her, and her princessy manner. Believe it or not, at the last general meeting we sat discussing the concierge until eleven at night. She's got half the house against her." "Why?"

"The way she dresses. She takes herself for a lady. She behaves as if she owns the concierge's lodge. She even had me visit it to see how she's fixed it up. Why should I visit the lodge of a concierge?"

I know but do not say that the concierge uses my phone to call her relatives in Portugal, sometimes, if I'm out of town. Judging from the phone bill she doesn't say more than, I'm fine, how are you. When another tenant caught her doing the same thing the concierge wept and said, "Don't tell my husband." By her Brechtian rules we're fair game. She says this is the worst building she's ever worked in.

Now, she's in trouble over the anteroom outside her lodge, the space where mail is sorted and our extra sets of keys are kept in a locked cupboard. She had filled the room with pots and pots of plants, so that it looked like a flower shop, and hung bird prints on the walls and put up starched white curtains. There was deep resentment about her having decorated the room "as if it were part of her lodge." From now on she is to be allowed just one green plant. Selected, important tenants will each be given a key so they may wander in and out and prevent the concierge from imagining she owns this space. "Elle fait trop dame, " my upstairs neighbor explained when I remarked that all this was pretty silly. (This neighbor's grandfather founded a famous store near the Opera, where generations of Parisian brides bought their trousseau linens.) Thank God I don't have to attend meetings where they talk about the concierge until eleven at night; I rent my apartment and don't have a voice. I am content just to lobby my landlord, without changing the subject, on how I think he should vote. Owing to his respect for writers, though he never reads anything that looks like a book, it sometimes works.

 

Saturday 24 March 1990

On my way out to the Salon du Livre (the Paris book fair) this afternoon I ran into a nervous jostling crowd on the sidewalk. There were policemen and a TV crew and what I took to be reporters and people I think I recognized from the neighborhood, just staring at the front of the building or taking pictures of the door and windows. Someone shouted, "Don't you listen to the radio? Alice Sapritch is dead." I'd been working all morning and wouldn't have known if the Seine had risen and flooded half the city. Alice S.: We both moved in about forty years ago, when the building was new and seemed smart and postwar, the new Paris. We had the same address and took the same elevator and hardly ever said more than, "Bonjour, Madame." In the sixties, it must have been, we were both getting our mail from the concierge, and she said, "Are you the writer?" Then, kindly, "If you would like to interview me, you have to make an appointment with my representant." The error-as-to-person it implied was impossible to put right. I think I just said. Thank you. Parisians adored her for the actress she had been and the personage she had become. They liked her hats and her Simone de Beauvoir-style turbans, her aplomb on television shows where she was ragged by trashy comedians, as her notoriety as an actress thinned out. No one had heard of her except in France or the French-speaking enclaves—part of Belgium, part of Switzerland, Monaco, probably Quebec, I imagine she would have said. What more do I need? When I came back, late, there were still strangers hanging about in the street. Discovered from the concierge that the whole morning had been bedlam, with a larger and much more unruly crowd actually in the building. She can hardly believe I hadn't heard the news and didn't know a thing.

 

Sunday 25 March 1990

People I know who had no great use for Alice S. as an actress seem hungry for details. The house, and her shuttered windows, appear on TV like a celebrity. Strangers collect in the street as if visiting a shrine. She was an eccentric, a deliberate, a calculated oddity, with her wide-brimmed garden party hats and long cigarette holder, the butt of male comedians and imitators on chat shows. Once a few years ago when we were both standing in the street, waiting for taxis, I asked her why she put up with it—^just like that. She said in a normal, not an affected, voice that I didn't understand her career, that it was important to be recognized and talked about. When the car came for her it wasn't a taxi but an open car with two young men in it, one in the backseat. The driver leaned over to open the door from the inside but when he saw me staring changed his mind and got out and came round to usher her in. His face and manner were supremely insolent: he was playing it for the fellow in the backseat and for a total stranger.

Meanwhile she swept in, holding her hat. Did she have on long gloves? I mustn't add props to the scene. Impossible not to think of Gloria Swanson, and Sunset Boulevard, except that Alice S. was in a real world every minute, every second, playing the idea of an actress, a grande dame, a monstre sacree. I'd like to take it one further and say she knew it was a joke, but I can't be sure.

Mme B., the concierge, tells me what happened yesterday.

(Some of the friends who called me this morning kept asking if Alice S. had really died; there were contradictory stories going about.) Friends or relatives had arrived before the firemen, who were supposed to be giving first aid. The friends or relatives wouldn't let them in. They kept issuing statements, "A.S. is alive and under intensive care." Meanwhile the captain of the fire brigade—pronounced caption by Mme B.— sent for the police. That was how conflicting stories occurred.

The capitan told Mme B. that her loved ones would not accept the truth, and that she was "dead, dead, dead."

 

Monday 26 March 1990

Appointment with Monsieur Roche, the neighborhood kinesi (physical therapist.) I told him the fracture in my right shoulder, which he has been treating for nearly three months, is no better. It is not mending at all, and I have pain now in my arm and hand. But all he wants to talk or hear about is Alice S. and the controversy over whether she is dead or alive. It seems that Anny, who runs the Felix Potin grocery around the corner, has been intensely interviewed, along with her husband and young son. M. Roche saw Anny twice on Canal +, an independent channel, and again on one of the state-owned channels. But the real star, he says, is my concierge, who has had plenty to say on several different channels.

He must sit watching TV at all hours. When I came home there were more people in the street taking pictures by mistake of the concierge's windows, on the wrong side of the house and on the wrong floor. An old film of hers (of A.S.'s), Vipere au Poing, was on last night. Was she a good actress? She showed anger, she showed hauteur, but when her wicked character— ogress mother, oppressive wife—is suddenly meant to seem pathetic she appeared to me exactly the same. Some of my friends say they were moved, even tearful. The trashy talk show comedians who made her a laughingstock and a target for dumb jokes are brazenly sad and stricken now.

 

Tuesday 27 March 1990

Concierge has been ordered (by whom?) to stop giving interviews or any more information to the media. She's reproached for not having thrown all the reporters out of the lobby last Saturday. The cat lady on the fourth floor is particularly vociferous. Mme B. is in tears. I tell her I have a nice picture of Alice S. on a record sleeve and that if I can find the record—songs of Saint-Germain-des-Pres in the nineteen forties, Juliette Greco, Boris Vian, and so forth—I will give it to her. I am afraid this may make her weep more than ever but she cheers up at once.

 

Wednesday 28 March 1990

Today a few people cleared out odds and ends from Alice S.'s apartment. I don't know who they were, but I suppose they had permission to empty the refrigerator. Waiting for cars or cabs they sat on the low wall around the ugly shrubs in front of the building. In one basket there were half-empty bottles of wine and mineral water and plastic containers of, I imagine, leftover food. The concierge, later, puts it about that they've taken away the opened bottle of mineral water that was standing on the bedside table when Alice S. died.

An elderly woman, looking exhausted, sits all in a heap, while a younger man crams more stuff into a zippered bag. In the lodge a woman is giving Mme B. a stiff scolding about something— again, about talking too much, it turns out.

 

Friday 30 March 1990

I've found the record. In fact, I have two, one I bought and another someone gave me. Alice S. is standing with a young actor (I think) against a background of the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. She must be nineteen or twenty. She has long hair and a charming, singular, determined, defiant . face. The way she stands says. Try and stop me! I asked Mme B. if she had any way of playing the record, in case she wanted to hear what Paris used to sound like. She said no, but she would take it to Portugal, where her married daughter has everything.