Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

Dedication

For Howie

Epigraph

Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between.

 

—VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Contents

Dedication

Epigraph

 

Part One

    
Paris - May 14, 1924

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
Dispatch to the
Magyar Gazette

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
From
Make Yourself New

    
Special to the
Magyar Gazette

    
From
Make Yourself New

    
From the (Unpublished) Memoirs of Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
Yvonne

    
Paris - July 15, 1928

    
From
Make Yourself New

    
From the (Unpublished) Memoirs of Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
Paris - January 1, 1932

    
January 30, 1932

    
From
Make Yourself New

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
From
A Baroness by Night

    
From
Make Yourself New

    
Yvonne

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
From the (Unpublished) Memoirs of Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi

    
February 8, 1934

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
From
Paris in My Rearview Mirror

    
Yvonne

Part Two

    
From
A Baroness by Night

    
Paris - June 1934

    
From
Paris in My Rearview Mirror

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
From the (Unpublished) Memoirs of Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
Paris - November 1934

    
From
A Baroness by Night

    
From
Paris in My Rearview Mirror

    
September 16, 1935

    
From
A Baroness by Night

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
Paris - April 1937

    
From
Paris in my Rearview Mirror

    
From
A Baroness by Night

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
From
Paris in My Rearview Mirror

    
From
A Baroness by Night

Part Three

    
From the (Unpublished) Memoirs of Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi

    
From
A Baroness by Night

    
Back in Paris! - December 1, 1940

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
Picasso and Me

    
From the (Unpublished) Memoirs of Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
From
A Baroness by Night

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
From the Gabor Tsenyi Archive

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
Yvonne

    
From the (Unpublished) Memoirs of Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
From
A Baroness by Night

    
From
The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars

    
Paris - July 12, 2011

Postscript to the Sixtieth Anniversary Edition of Lionel Maine's
Make Yourself New

 

About the Author

Also by Francine Prose

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

Paris

May 14, 1924

Dear parents,

Last night I visited a club in Montparnasse where the men dress as women and the women as men. Papa would have loved it. And Mama's face would have crinkled in that special smile she has for Papa's passion for everything French.

The place is called the Chameleon Club. It's a few steps down from the street. You need a password to get in. The password is:
Police! Open up!
The customers find it amusing.

A bar, a stage, a dance floor, leather banquettes, tables around the edges. A typical Paris nightclub, except for the clientele. But here's the most surprising thing: the owner is Hungarian. She calls herself Yvonne. She's tall and blond and dresses in red and has a weakness for sailors. She sings in that husky voice Papa adores, subdued and choked with tears. When she sang I heard Papa's phonograph, muffled and locked in his study.

Yvonne's song was about a woman whose sailor boyfriend has drowned at sea. I'd never heard a sadder song, not even from the gypsies. Yvonne sang with her eyes closed, one hand raking her hair. In her other hand, pressed to her forehead, she held an unlit cigarette.

She sang, I will never see him again. Never. Never again. A mournful arpeggio rippled from the out-of-tune piano while the tenor saxophone looped circles around the voice. The other musicians put down their instruments and sat back, watching Yvonne. It's over, she sang. All over.

I felt clammy and chilled to the bone, though the club was smoky and hot. I reached for my camera the way, as a boy, I used to reach for your hands. But I'd left it in my room. I was hoping to make a few friends before I asked to take pictures of bankers and diplomats whose wives might not know that their husbands go out dancing in high heels and dresses.

Even after a year in Paris, it took some getting used to. The hardest part was not staring. Or was I supposed to stare? Photographing these birds of paradise will be a challenge, don't you think?

I was trying to communicate—with nothing so obvious as a smile, but let's say a smile of the eyes—my admiration for the chic of women in tuxedos escorting women in evening gowns. As if these glorious peacocks cared what a penniless Hungarian artist thought of their fashion choices! Even Papa admits that the French have always had mixed feelings about anyone who hasn't lived in France since the Neanderthal Era, though here in Montparnasse they like anything exotic.

By the time Yvonne finished the second verse, everyone was in love with her. I completely forgot myself and wept along with the rest. The ocean knew where her sailor was. We have seen him, said the waves. He is sleeping with us. You will never kiss his lips or feel the weight of his body again.

Uncoiling from the knot into which the song had tied her, Yvonne stood and opened her arms. The audience exploded. She lit her cigarette, blew a long plume of smoke, and welcomed the crowd to her home, which she told them to think of as their home, a place where they could feel free to take off their trousers and spread their legs and relax. She said some other things in this vein, including some jokes that might have embarrassed Mama, though Papa would have taken them in the French good humor intended.

I felt that Yvonne was laughing at us for having been so sad, even though she'd made us sad with her song about the sailor. The crowd was mostly regulars. I could tell they knew what was coming.

The Chameleon's famous all-girl band struck up a jazzy fanfare, and a dozen men and women trotted onstage in skimpy sailor suits. What bizarre human pretzels they made, doing flips and backbends until their faces were staring forward from between their knees. Slithering over and under each other like a nest of snakes, they threw in plenty of crisp salutes and precision marching. A giantess in a navy officer's uniform lifted a tiny Asian girl in an orange kimono who sat cross-legged, like the Buddha, cupped in the giant's hands, and sang a lilting melody about first love and cherry blossoms.

When the show ended, the dancers strolled among us, their sailor hats upturned. I thought a million times about the sacrifices you are making. But didn't you raise me to believe that everyone should be paid for their labor? I dropped a few coins into the cap of a sailorette who gave me a saucy smile. When she turned and winked over her shoulder, I wondered if the sailorette might be a sailor.

The band was playing swing tunes. A few couples starting dancing. Men with men, women with women in monocles and mustaches. But if you're picturing something lewd, you couldn't be more wrong. They were as stiff as children at a grade-school dance. Leaning against the wall, Yvonne watched, smoking a cigarette.

Yvonne caught the eye of the headwaiter, a woman in black trousers and a butcher's apron: Fat Bernard, who also sings. Without a word being spoken, waiters swarmed the room. Soon they were practically sprinting with rattling trays of bottles and glasses. The sailors and sailorettes pitched in. The music got louder, the customers shouted to be heard.

Dancers drifted onto the floor. One couple did the tango, though the band was playing a foxtrot. Sweeter than sweet
,
crooned Fat Bernard in a syrupy tenor. Lovers kissed. An argument broke out when a dancer grabbed a brandy from a tray headed for someone's table.

I took advantage of the chaos to approach Yvonne. It was too noisy to talk. I pantomimed taking a picture. I shouted, I want to take your picture! At first she couldn't hear me, but her expression changed when she realized that I was speaking Hungarian.

You know how we love our language, how those Asiatic vowels whisk us back to the powdered heaven where our mama sang us to sleep. Ask us anything, in our mother tongue, and we will say yes. Yvonne stared, then told me to do something to myself that Mama shouldn't imagine.

Her refusal was doubly surprising. From my letters, you must have concluded that Parisians like having their pictures taken, especially French girls.

“Why not?” I yelled over the music. My voice squeaked like a boy's. Yvonne grabbed my elbow and dragged me over to a door she unlocked with a key that clanked from her spangled belt.

Don't worry. You can read on. I swear my only desire was to photograph Yvonne and her clientele. It was entirely about my art: the basis of your faith in me and your generous stipend, the tuition you are paying to what Papa calls the art school of life, which will soon decide if I have what it takes to be an artist.

Yvonne was right to say no. I would never have had the nerve to order a woman like that around for as long as it took to set up a shot in an “office” more like a courtesan's nest in Papa's Balzac novels. The cushions, the lacy garments tossed on the couch, the tangles of stockings and sandals exuded a flowery perfume, Yvonne's trademark gardenia.

She pointed at a table on which there was a terrarium. Its glass walls were beaded with moisture. Inside a miniature garden bloomed, complete with tiny topiary and classical Greek statues.

“Versailles!” I said. “What a coincidence! I photographed there last week.”

Yvonne said, “Are you blind?”

Mama, Papa, you know better than anyone what a visual person I am, how I learned my colors before any child in our town, how I could always find the potato bugs in Mama's garden and was the first to spot Papa trudging home after a hard day of teaching. So you will understand how embarrassed I was by how long it took me to see the green chameleon standing perfectly still behind a thimble-size statue of Cupid shooting his bow and arrow.

This is why I have fallen so madly in love with this city! Despite the worries, despite my guilt for delaying Papa's retirement, despite the soul-destroying jobs, it still makes me dizzy with joy to see the word
Paris
in my handwriting at the top of this letter! Where else can one go to a cross-dressers' nightclub and meet a Hungarian chanteuse who keeps a lizard in the style of Marie Antoinette?

Yvonne scooped up the reptile and pressed it to her breast. The quivering chameleon gradually turned the scarlet of her dress.

She said, “Look how little Louis matches my heart.”

Was this why Yvonne wore red? Was her club named after a lizard? I'd assumed it was a metaphor for her clients' changing skins. Could I write about this for the
Magyar Gazette
?

Yvonne said, “Louis is not my first. That was my Darius-the-Prince, my lizard killed by a jealous sailor. For Darius I created a tiny Persian garden.” She sighed with what I hoped was grief for her departed pet and not impatience with a fool she wouldn't be bothering with, except for the chance to speak Hungarian.

She said, “One night I was working out front. My friend, a German admiral whose name you would know, let himself into my office and put my darling Darius on my paisley shawl. He died, exhausted by the strain of turning all those colors.”

I looked at the shawl that Yvonne was careful to keep from touching her pet. There
are
no German admirals whose names I would know. Forgive my ignorance. How often has Papa said that a smart man never loses sight of what the military is doing?

Yvonne said, “My customers don't come here to get their pictures taken.”

“I understand completely,” I said. “Thank you and good night.”

Our conversation had given me so much to think about, and I was so eager to start thinking about it that, on my way out, I barely saw the dancing couples. I noticed a man in a judge's wig dancing with a shirtless fellow with a striped necktie hanging down his back. I passed several bellhops of indeterminate gender and two men with corkscrew curls and bee-stung lips.

Don't worry, I thought. I'll be back. My camera will immortalize you in that delicious foxtrot. I grabbed a handful of business cards with the club's address and a sketch of a lizard.

I know your blood must run cold at the thought of supporting a son whose ambition is to photograph transvestites. How did he get that way? Where did he learn this? Certainly not in our town, where
art
means silhouettes of a peasant girl and boy kissing, in wooden clogs.

It had stopped raining, and I walked to save money and in the hope that exercise might help me sleep. The streets were strangely empty for such a beautiful spring night. The French have odd superstitions, like those tribes that lock up their daughters so the moon won't get them pregnant. The worn-thin soles of my shoes slapped against the cobblestones. There were more cats than one normally sees, except in the cemeteries. A huge black tom cat crossed my path. Don't bother knocking on wood. If
I
weren't superstitious, I would say I felt lucky.

Do you recall that Papa used to read me a story about a boy who wakes up to find that the Martians have kidnapped everyone but him? Were you aware that, night after night, I'd tiptoe to your door and stand there until I was sure you hadn't been stolen by spacemen? Did my insomnia start then, or had it already begun?

Entering the rue Delambre, I saw a guy flicking his cigarette lighter to help two friends picking a front-door lock. I considered turning around, but it seemed safer to keep walking. As I passed, one yelled at me, “My cousin forgot his key!”

If only I'd had my camera! Another joke. Ha-ha. Actually, I was wondering which of my friends I could pay to dress up like thieves and reenact the scene. I worked out the composition. I thought about locations. It was a welcome distraction from replaying my chat with Yvonne.

Eventually I spotted the sign outside my hotel, a milky flickering meant to discourage guests because every mouse hole is occupied by an artist who can't pay the rent, a situation in which I would be if not for your kindness. The night clerk was snoring in that alarming way of dying and snorting back to life. I woke him. There was a package for me. What a thrill to see my name in Mama's precious hand!

I tore open the parcel as I trudged up the stairs. Along with Papa's letter about the peasant woman dragging her sick pig into Uncle Ferenc's surgery until they explained that he only treats humans, I found a vial of yet another insomnia cure that Mama (against my advice) purchased from the chemist. Did I not write that I needed
socks
? Or did clairvoyant Mama know what I
really
needed?

Remember how you'd promise that my insomnia would disappear? That I would grow out of it, that everyone slept, sooner or later. That hasn't happened. The only difference is that I am no longer in my childhood room, lying in the dark, hating sleepers everywhere who take sleep for granted.

Paris is an insomniac's heaven. There is always something to photograph, something hidden in the shadows. One can see so much more in the darkness than in the light of day. How fortunate that my problem should have turned out to be a blessing, sending me out to take pictures in the velvet night. I know what you are thinking: if I'd stayed home, my insomnia would have gone away on its own.

Back in my room I turned on the “light” and crushed a gigantic water bug that rose to fight me on its hind legs. I opened the vial from Mama and, as directed, dripped four drops into a glass. Red roses bloomed in the water. I drank the potion, lay down, and tried not to think about my embarrassing chat with Yvonne. You can imagine how easy that was for your hypersensitive boy whose throat has been sore for a week.

I recalled Dr. Drumas, or was it Dr. Fiksor—anyway, one of those “experts” to whom you took me—advising me to calm my racing thoughts by giving myself a task. I decided to translate Yvonne's song from French into Hungarian. The vowels soothed me, and soon enough I imagined the scent of talcum, and it seemed to me I heard Mama singing me to sleep.

That's when I made the fatal mistake of trying to remember the tune. Not Mama's tune. Yvonne's. My eyes shot open, and I realized what my talk with Yvonne had meant. I'd failed to notice her lizard because I have no talent and will spend the rest of my life taking wedding and graduation portraits in our dusty, provincial town.