In the spring of 1919, I boxed Hemingway in Paris, laying him out with a one-two combination that would have done Dempsey proud. Two years later, I posed for Picasso with a mandolin in my hands, though I could play it no better than Isadora Duncan could dance. I hoisted more than a few with F. Scott Fitzgerald and danced the Charleston with Zelda. I was photographed by Man Ray with my pants down, and I traded insults with Dottie Parker with my shirt off. I prowled the whorehouses with Henry Miller, and shot the bull with Ezra Pound. I slept with Josephine Baker and swapped brownie recipes with Alice B. Toklas. And many’s the time I sat at the pudgy knee of Gertie Stein, as she expounded on her loony theories of language.
Ah, those with the golden years!
Paris. The “City of Lights,” that’s what they called it and if the town wasn’t lit, then we sure as hell were. Oh, we had fun all right, and the most fun we had was the time we spent working up all those ridiculous stories. The wilder, the better. But we sure as hell didn’t think they’d stick. No sir, it was just a silly game to pass the time and tweak the nose of the petit bourgeoisie. I think it was Duchamp, Crazy Marcel, we used to call him, who first thought up the idea, and we all followed his lead, for he was certainly a leader among men. Whenever things got dull, you could always count on Crazy Marcel to come up with a few nutty stunts to amuse us, from painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, just like the one sported by Alice B., to filming those godawful movies of his so-called life.
“Everybody loves the hero, Joey,” said Marcel.
“That’s for damn sure,” said I.
“Then let’s give them what they want,” said Crazy Marcel.
So that’s what we did.
The stories began and the legends stuck.
Just take a look at the Biography rack at your local bookstore and you’ll see a shitload of those tell-all tomes from Paris in the 20s and 30s. All of them lies. Lies. Lies. So I figure now’s the time to set the record straight and if Joseph M. Kelly don’t do it, who the hell will?
I may be old, old enough to burp out loud whenever the
feeling strikes without having to offer up a bunch of phony apologies,
but my memory’s sharp as a tack. And yes, my friends, I can remember
Paris like it was yesterday.
I arrived in gay Paree just after the War. I was 19 and regrettably, I had missed all the action because of a bum knee I got playing football in high schoolâ€“I’m talking real football, not that sissy European crap they play with a volley ball, kicking it up and down, back and forth, `till you get so dizzy you can’t wait to get yourself to the nearest saloon to hoist a few.
Anyway, having heard all those tales about Yanks living and working abroad, and what with me wanting to be a writer, I figured I’d get one helluvan education over there. So, I packed my bags and I was off to the races.
I carried with me one hundred and seven bucks, copies of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, Henry James’s The Europeans, W.H. Hudson’s The Purple Land, and the Holy Bible personally inscribed by our parish priest (which my sainted mother insisted I take with me as if the mere possession of it would ward off the trouble she knew I was bound for, since I was, I admit it, a troublemaker right from the start.)
Arriving in Parisâ€“my stomach still queasy from the rough crossingâ€“on a rainy Monday in the spring of 1919, a Paris still gay in celebration of the end of Mr. Wilson’s war to end all wars, I checked into a cheap pension and began hitting the bars and cafes in an attempt to pick up the education for which I’d come.
One of the first fellows I met was a mid-western blowhard named Hemingway. He was always trying to get me to call him Ernie or Hem or, god forbid, Papa, but I’d have none of that, for I never liked the overblown, phony, sonuvabitch. He was just a cheap, Illinois born and bred bully who could not, contrary to popular belief, hold his booze worth a damn. Why even poor old Scottie Fitzgerald could drink him under the table and believe me, Scottie was never one known for holding his liquor neither.
I met Hemingway in Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. I was there to meet literary lions and he was there to shoot off his mouth and impress the femmes. On that particular day, I was having a gay old time shootin’ the breeze with Tommy Eliot, Jimmy Boy Joyce and Ez Pound when in he strolls and right away starts talking about himself and his so-called adventures, which we all knew were just a load of merde. He fancied himself quite the athlete, but he was damn lucky if he could walk and chew gum at the same time. Boxing and bullfighting was all that was on his mind and as soon as you were introduced he’d ask you if you’d ever fought and if you said no, he’d invite you into the ring to go a few rounds with him. Of course, he’d tell you he was just a beginnerâ€“which was a damned lieâ€“and then he’d try to knock your block off. But that was Hemingway. Why the time Fitz supposedly let the round go too long with that Canadian writer fellow, Morley Callaghan, well that was just some cock and bull story they all cooked up just so’s Hemingway wouldn’t look like the damn fool that he was.
Anyway, he asked me to go a few rounds with him. I was only 20 and I’d never been in the ring before, though I’d certainly done my fair share of street fighting, for I have that streak of Black Irish temper. Having nothing better to do, I said yes, hoping I might land a lucky punch or two and, at the very least, knock the big, burly bear off his feet. Perhaps, noting my slight build and the fact that I wore spectacles thick as a bottle of Pernod, he thought I’d be a pushover, but he was wrong.
Now Hemingway outweighed me by fifty, maybe sixty pounds, but that didn’t bother him none. No sir. The smaller the better as far as he was concerned. Why once he tried giving boxing lessons to some poor, broken down puny poet just so’s he could get him in the ring and loosen a few teeth.
Well, we go over to some painter’s loft, a friend of Hemingway’s. I believe his name was Pincas, or some such sheenie name as thatâ€“he changed it later, I heard, to something French sounding, I think it was Pascinâ€“and we put the gloves on and started to go at it with Pincas tapped by his pal, Hemingway, to keep the time and hold onto my glasses without which, just like Jimmy Boy Joyce, I couldn’t see a whit. But Hemingway, being the size that he was, didn’t offer much of a problem for me. For the first minute or so we go easy, feeling each other out, and I’m dancing around using the ring the way that negro fellow with the A-rab name did a few years back, and I can see he’s even clumsier than I thought and so, seeing an opening, wham!, I hit him with a solid right and I can see his eyes glaze over. Well, he gets madder `n hell and he curses me and he comes at me trying to use that fifty pound advantage. But I’m too quick for the slow-footed, over-grown grizzly bear, and so I dance out of his way and he lands smack on his can.
Well, Pincas is still standing there holding the timepiece and my spectacles and watching, along with a couple of half-naked girls, his models, I suppose, and they start laughing, which only infuriates Hemingway even more and I can see if I ever let him land a punch they’re going to have to carry me out flat on my back. So, I decide I’d better get to him first and so, toute suite, I catch him by surprise and barrel into him, fists flying, head down, burrowing into his enormous gut (he always sucked it in for photographs) and, after connecting with three or four good ones to the mid-section, which was like punching into a marshmallow, I went for the head and two punches later the Great Man was sitting on his kiester, shaking his head to clear away the cobwebs and nursing a sore jaw, while I’m standing triumphantly over him.
So much for the hero. I told him he ought to stick to bullfighting and keep the bull-throwing to a minimum, and though he tried many times after that to be friends with me, I couldn’t stomach him nor his high opinion of himself, so I tried to steer clear of him whenever I could. Now and then we’d meet up in the American Bar and hoist a few and he’d try to suck up to me, but I wasn’t buying any of it. Some time later, I was told he put an unflattering portrait of me into one of his booksâ€“something about the sun setting, or maybe it was rising, but I never did cotton much to his style of writing, so I never read it. I don’t think I missed much, though, for he was probably as good with a typewriter as he was with his fists, which was not much.
Now Pablo Picasso, there was a real man. Mucho macho, as they say today. A master painter, but a real practical joker, that one was. A clown. A card. A man who’d do anything for a good joke, but he certainly had talent and, don’t believe what you hear, a nicer fellow you’d never want to meet. He couldn’t do enough for you and so once, when he asked me to pose for him, for he couldn’t afford a model, how could I refuse? I went up to his loft in the dead of winter, no heat for he had little money and what he did have went for wine, women and song, and so when we got cold we just burned some of his old canvases to keep warm. Who knows how many paintings we burned that day and the next while he painted and I sat. But Jesus, we did have some fine times.
We were drunk most of the time and when he completed his work and showed me what he’d done I looked no more like the mirror image of myself than a banana looks like an elephant. But we had a good laugh about it and later I found that he’d left it that way adding two more figure and calling it “The Three Musicians.”
I was flattered that he’d placed me in one of his paintings, despite the fact that it was such an obvious joke, for Pablo was a master, and so I made him promise to pose for me so I could put him down on paper. It took me a couple of hours to complete, but when he finally saw the fruits of my labor, his reaction surprised me for he suddenly became very serious, grabbed me around the waist, hugged me close to him, kissed me on both cheeks in the manner of some Europeans, called me his tres bon ami, said he would carry the picture with him always, and that we would remain friends forever, which was all right with me for I always had great fun with Pablo.
I will always remember Pablo with a warm spot in my heart. And now that he is gone, I will do what I can to protect his reputation by withholding the many paintings I have collected over the years so that I may save his memory the embarrassment. After all, it is the very least I can do for a man whose tres bon ami I was.
One day, I was sitting alone in a café in Montparnasse reading the French language newspaper when Scott Fitzgerald walked in. He was very agitated and also sober, which was unusual for him for it was already somewhat past one o’clock in the afternoon.
“Kelly, I have to speak to you,” he said, as he pulled up a chair. “May I sit down?”
“Suit yourself, Fitz,” I said, not minding the company in the least. “All right, Fitz, what seems to be the trouble?” I asked, always ready to help a pal and fellow Irishman besides.
“I just came from seeing Hem,” he said.
“Well then, that is trouble,” I said, with a twinkle in my eye, for I knew Scott idolized Hemingway, though no one could figure out why.
“He just met Zelda for the first time and he told me that she’s crazy. Kelly, do you think Zelda’s crazy?”
“Of course not, Fitz,” I said, for certainly Zelda was no crazier than the rest of us and probably less than most. “She’s a bit headstrong, perhaps, but certainly not crazy.”
“But Hem saidâ€¦” Fitz stammered, his eyes welling up with tears.
“Oh, fuck Hemingway. He’s the one who’s crazy,” I said. “Don’t listen to what he says. He’s just jealous of you, Scott, and that’s why he says those things. Zelda is beautiful and he probably couldn’t get to first base with her, so naturally he calls her crazy. The next thing you know, he’ll be calling her a lesbo.
He seemed to brighten a bit with these words. “Do you really think so, Kell?” he whined, for Scott was a great whiner, one of the all-time best.
“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it, Scott,” said I.
And so we had a drink, and then he left.
I think I was able to dispel his doubts for a while, at least, though I know what Hemingway said always stayed with him and later he even began to believe it himself and he had Zelda put away in some nuthouse. But take it from me, Zelda was no crazier than you or I. A bit headstrong, perhaps, but not crazy. But then that was just the power Hemingway had over poor, old Scott. Perhaps, if he’d been a little stronger in the will department, he would’ve made something of himself instead of winding up out there in Hollywood trying to be the big time film star. After all, when you come right down to it, he had about as much charisma as my Aunt Tillie, about whom my uncle Ev once said, “Oh, look how she brightens a room when she leaves it.”
Fat Gertie was what we called her behind her back, but never, ever within earshot, for she would certainly have silenced the offender with a quick shot to the privates, for Fat Gertie always was a woman of action. She was a woman of action and the only person who could shut Hemingway up and stop poor old Scott from making a damn fool of himself with drink. She tried to teach Hemingway how to write and though he often scorned her behind her back we all knew he listened attentively, soaking up all her bon mots. But Gertie didn’t mind. She was interested only in converts. She always enjoyed playing the role of grande dame, Earth Mother, Guiding Light, or what have you. But she was lucky enough to have a brother with an eye for art. Of course, she liked you to think it was she who picked out all the paintings, but everyone knew it was her brother Leo (whom she later smoothly swindled out of everything), who had most of the taste in the family.
When you get right down to it, it was Alice B. who was the real brains behind that outfit. Gertie never made a move without her. One of the slickest moves Fat Gertie ever made, in fact, had to do with Alice and writing. Get this: A book was written entitled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and it was let on that she, Gertrude Stein, was really the one who’d written it. But the fact is it was actually poor, old Alice who did all the writing. A very slick move on Fat Gertie’s part.
Of course Alice, who was as loyal as a cocker spaniel puppy dog, would never admit it, so there’s no way to prove it, but you can take my word for it. Fat Gertie never wrote a word of that book. Not one single word did she write. She was much too busy meeting with her crowd in her living room to be bothered with doing any writing. But don’t get me wrong, I always liked Fat Gertie. She could sure tell one hell of a good story, even though she tended to repeat herself, and then get carried away with the sound of her own voice. But she did set a damn good table and was willing to feed any stranger that happened along.
And speaking of eating, boy could that woman pack it away! I have not seen the likes of Fat Gertie at the dinner table since. When she was hungry, which was often, she’d move us from her parlor to the dining room where a virtual feast was set. Then Gertie, sitting at the head of the table, a napkin tucked neatly under her chin, would start off with a large bowl of soup, followed by a whole chicken, an entire loaf of French bread, a large salad, a healthy helping of peas, a couple of baked, buttered potatoes, a few pieces of fruit, and then, for the piece de resistance, a couple of strawberry tarts, and a Napoleon or
two, washing it all down with a bottle or two of good, red wine. She never could get that straight. Red, white, it made no difference to Fat Gertie, for whatever was available, she’d drink. And for an after-dinner snack, she might demolish a whole plate of French pastries and a wedge of brie. What an eater that woman was! Why, if you didn’t eat fast enough she would, after cleaning her own plate, start on yours, which was why, if you were hungry, you made sure you sat as far away from Fat Gertie as possible.
Someone once said she looked like a Roman emperor, but take it from me, she didn’t. The Emperor’s horse, maybe, but certainly not the Emperor. Actually, she looked very much like the portrait my pal Pablo painted of her. He was even able to capture the fact that one of her eyes was out of line with the other. But Pablo was a real master, and when he put his mind to it, he could render a truly realistic scene, and with Fat Gertie, he did a damn good job. Gertie only hung the painting when she knew Pablo was coming, for she truly despised it. But at heart, she was a kind human being, in spite of her crooked eyes.
I first met Henry Miller in a café on the Champs Elysees. It was in 1930 and he’d just arrived from New York City, his Brooklyn accent still thick in his voice. A meeker, more mild mannered man you wouldn’t care to meet, though that’s certainly not his reputation today. We were forever having to say, “Speak up, Henry. We can’t hear you.”
As both of us hailed from Brooklyn, we hit it off right away. He was 38 at the time and, I think, scared to death of women. He told me he had a wife back in the States, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t believe him, for he was so shy that he was afraid even to order a meal. In fact, if you ask me, he was still a virgin. Among other things, I had to teach him some basic French so he wouldn’t starve. Contrary to what you may have been led to believe he had plenty of money and once he got friendly with you there was just no picking up the tab when Henry was around.
I’d known him a couple of months when he came over to me and said, “Joey, I’d like to ask you a favor.”
“Of course, Henry, what is it?”
“I want to be a writer, Joey, and I need some experiences to write about.”
“Doesn’t everyone,” I said. “What kind of experiences did you have in mind, Henry?” I asked.
“Women, Joey,” he said, blushing brightly. “I want experiences with women. So I can write about them.”
“Henry,” I said, “there are certainly plenty of women around Paris. Look around you and you’ll see them all over. They’re just waiting for you. They’re just waiting to fill you full of experiences and they’ll do all the pouring. You don’t need me for that, Henry.”
“Joey, please,” he begged, tears filling his eyes, “take me along with you to a couple of whorehouses tonight.” I could see he was desperateâ€¦and horny, so I agreed, and that night we visited two of the finest whorehouses in all of Paris. At first, he was so shy that all he could do was stand there and stare at his shoes, shuffling his foot back and forth across the floor, and say nothing. But, after introducing him to a couple of nice girls, they were able to loosen him up and he had a damn fine time. They were good girls and they made Henry comfortable and he enjoyed himself. He soon became a regular and
though he always insisted he was doing it all to gain experiences as a writer, we all knew it was because he liked the attention the girls paid him. Nevertheless, he did write about it, surprising us all by having his books banned back in the States. I once took a look at what he wrote and believe me, no matter how comfortable and how loose those girls might have made him, he was never that loose nor that comfortable.
I will say this for Henry Miller, though, he always picked up the check and he had one helluvan imagination.