TWO PARISIENNES

1.      Bonjour Tristesse

When I knew Mademoiselle Bonjour in the early 1970s she was at what the French discretely call ‘a certain age,’ meaning that period when it would be foolish to ask and dangerous to guess a woman’s years. But if she was no longer young, her hair carried only traces of grey and she was tall and slim and wore her clothes of classic chic with that air of nonchalance peculiar to ladies of bonne famille. She was definitely BCBG. I thought at first she was a widow as she almost always wore black, occasionally offset by a tasteful Hermes scarf but always relieved by her smile, even if it was a trifle sad. She seemed as if she had an interesting past, an acceptable present and no future.

Bonjour Tristesse, as I called her, always maintained an air of grace and patience. I imagined she had suffered some great misfortune, perhaps a lover who had died, for she had never married. Unlike some French ladies in similar circumstances who let it be known that they wished to be called Madame to hide the indignity of advanced spinsterhood and to escape any embarrassment on Saint Catherine’s Day, she accepted her title of Mademoiselle with equanimity.

Mademoiselle Bonjour was second in command of the typing pool in the Paris office of Ernst & Young, run by the formidable Madame Alprand, a horn-rimmed lady from Alsace. We would bring our work for typing to her, grinning at the improbability of the greeting preceding our request for her services – “Bonjour, Mademoiselle Bonjour”. Her soft brown eyes regarded us with infinite tolerance.

But what appealed most to our childish sense of humour was to hear her telephone the periodic order for fresh stationery supplies. The proprietor of the company providing the office materials had the unusual surname of Monsieur so that the initiation of the order began with the absurd “Bonjour Monsieur Monsieur, voici Mademoiselle Bonjour”.

These small pleasures came to an abrupt end. Mademoiselle, it seemed, was leaving to be married to an American that she had met during the liberation of Paris. We learned that his wife had died and he was returning to Europe to pick up the pieces of that long ago romance. I pictured the victorious armies descending the Champs Elysees, the American Captain, waving from his Jeep and later slipping into conversation with the young French woman that such times make easy. Or was it a chance encounter as both sheltered in some doorway to avoid the last desperate rounds of German sniper fire?

We never knew if the American took his new bride back to the US. Somehow I didn’t see her in some leafy, Wisconsin suburb, playing surrogate mother to a pair of overweight college boys, backing the Pontiac station wagon into the supermarket car park on a Friday afternoon. I hoped Brad or Dexter or whatever his name was, moved to Paris and that he and his new wife are enjoying a Lapin au Moutarde together at Le Petit Zinc, walking in the Jardins de Luxembourg on a Sunday morning and climbing the stairs to an apartment that looks over the city he helped liberate and where he rediscovered a love that had lain hibernating in some mid-western state for close on thirty years.

2. Une Infirmiere Extraordinaire

If you were very ill and very rich and you were living in Paris in the 1970s you went tout de suite straight to the Hartmann Clinic in Neuilly, the city’s most prestigious private hospital. If, in spite of the unparalleled care provided by the Hartmann, you still failed to make the cut, it is likely that the last face you saw in this world would be that of Monica Clothier, the Angel of Neuilly. It wasn’t just Monica’s professional competence and discretion that ensured she was the nurse de choix for the rich and famous but her role as a nurse of the old order, smartly starched, knowledgeable about her business, firm, exuding confidence, discreet and gentle, unfazed by power and authority.

You don’t have to be French to be a Parisian. Monica’s roots were in rural Australia, an unlikely qualification, but she was a life-long expatriate and her name, with its hint of Gallic ancestry, had a classy ring to it. Mon (names with more than a single syllable are anathema to Australians) suited Paris and Paris suited Mon, although it was in London that she established herself as a legend among the ailing aristocracy, for it was there that she nursed Lydia Lopokova, one of Diaghalev’s great Ballets Russes dancers and wife to John Maynard Keynes. And when Elizabeth Taylor was stricken with Maltese Fever on the set of ‘Cleopatra’ and the actress was shifted from the Dorchester to the London Clinic, Mon was there to make sure she survived to grapple on and off set with Mark Antony (Richard Burton). She turned down a request to nurse Maud Kerr Smiley, sister of Ernest Simpson (ex-husband of Wallis, Duchess of Windsor), on learning that her duties included potty training the resident pug; but these brushes with the famous in London had given Mon an education in and a taste for the better things in life as well as an ability to mix easily in high society.

Mon and her friends, Jude, Barb and Bill, a sheep farmer from the Riverina, were the first Australians I had come across. My idea of Australians had been formed watching the films of Chips Rafferty; Bill with his laid-back air and sardonic wit fitted my expectations exactly. Unlike most visitors who ooohed and aaaahed, Bill was unsmitten by the charms of Paris; an exquisite souffle was only grudgingly praised (‘not bad, but two farts and it’s all gone’) and he remained unimpressed by the chapel–like tombs in the cemetery of Montmatre (‘a bunch of dunnies’); a poetry recitation in the Lapin Agile failed to keep him awake. Imagine my disappointment on finding that my first four Australians were the exceptions not the rule.

Mon lived in a modest 6th floor apartment in the Rue de Saussure in the 17th, leaving her the wherewithal for the important things in life such as her Chanel shoes, Louis Phillippe blouses, Gucci classic handbags and a Courreges dress that the couturier seemed to have designed with Mon in mind. Her favourite shops were Petrossian (caviar and foie gras), Laduree (chocolate macaroons) and Fauchon for her hors d’oeuvres when entertaining at home. There, in Sausage Street, as she called it, she would relax with Point de Vue and listen to the BBC on her large black transistor radio, a gift from the Empress Catherine who had once recovered under Mon’s care from the trauma of marriage to Jean-Bedel Bokassa, reputed cannibal and self-proclaimed Emperor of the Central African  Empire.

Work came first in Mon’s life. Under her touch popular French comedian Coluche recovered from his ailments as did car manufacturer Monsieur Peugeot, film director Anatole Litvak and actor Gregory Peck. When the Duke of Windsor became terminally ill, it was Mon who was chosen to make his last months comfortable, moving into Le Bois, the Duke’s Paris residence (now leased by Mohamed al Fayed and destination of Princess Diana on the night of her death). Before he died the Duke allowed Mon to photograph him at his most informal and presented her with a mint set of never to be issued coins of the (British) realm bearing his likeness as well as a selection of his silk cravats with the monogrammed feathers of the Prince of Wales that he wore in the evenings. Years later Mon would stay again at Le Bois, this time to see off the Duchess.

Karl Lagerfeld chose Mon to look after his mother at the Chateau de Penhoet, his country home at Grand Champ in Brittany. She appears, discreet as usual, facing away from the artist, in one of Lagerfeld’s sketches for “A Fashion Journal” published in 1986.

Monica Lagerfeld

Mon, drawn by Lagerfeld in Penhoet’s kitchen – 15th August 1976

When Nelson Bunker Hunt, perhaps enfeebled after failing to corner the world silver market, suffered a heart attack, a private plane was equipped as an airborne clinic and with Mon as his ‘flying doctor’, he was flown back to Texas and turned his attention to horse racing. In 1975 she was at the bedside of Aristotle Onassis, nursing him until his death and providing his wife, Jackie, with the red rose she tossed onto the casket as it was lowered into the ground. Did he have Mon as well as Jackie in mind when he remarked that “If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning”?

monica

Jackie leaving the Hartmann Clinic with Mon and her bodyguard George Sinas           (The Telegraph March 17, 1975)

Mon was too self-sufficient and content with her life to ever contemplate marriage, choosing her lovers with the same deliberation as she did her Camembert. The last was an eccentric English Lord I introduced to her, who charmed her with gifts of monogrammed hand-towels stolen from the washrooms of the House of Lords.

 

 

Like many with the task of repairing the health and welfare of others, Mon disregarded her own, smoking with the elaborate flourishes of a 30s debutante, finishing her long days and the climb up the stairs with a glass of champagne. She died alone in her apartment in Sausage Street in April 2008. Her friend Nicole, Comtesse de Demandolx organized the memorial service. Her ashes are in the Pere Lachaise cemetery, surrounded by Chopin, Moliere, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde, leaving her, as always, in the very best of company.

Mon 2

Mon et moi, Paris, November 1980

 

 

4 thoughts on “TWO PARISIENNES

  1. Brilliant John – even better than the obit Mon too, would be smiling .

    I’m enjoying my last day in Sri Lanka & about to leave for The Old Dart & Bonny Scotland, hoping the Gyrfalcon is still on N Uist Enjoy Sicily – see

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  2. Great photo, John, of Mon et toi. You haven’t changed at all. PS what does BCBG stand for? Love, ignorant moi

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  3. How wonderful to read this! We were just sitting having dinner with my Dad, celebrating his 94th birthday, and reminiscing about things from long ago. Brampton Island in the Barrier Reef came up and funny stories with Monica Clothier were remembered. A good friendship happened as a result of this holiday and Monica used to come and visit us on days off from her midwifery training at Royal North Shore Hospital. My Dad who was a Qantas pilot, used to visit her on trips to Rome and we also caught up with her there too. Last we heard of her was some 40 years ago, when she breezed into Sydney from Paris , oozing French glamour, and paid us a flying visit. I think at that stage she was nursing the Duke of Windsor. We didn’t however hear from her again. Many a time we remembered her and wondered where she was. So thank you to Google tonight, for bringing us your blog and for putting an end to our wonderings. She certainly lived life to the fullest but sorry to hear she is gone. At least she now rests in good company.

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