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Lilac Girls(2)
Martha Hall Kelly

“It’s not easy being the French foreign minister right now,” he called over his shoulder as he went back inside.

I stepped into my office and flipped through the Wheeldex on my desk. Was Mother’s Buddhist-monk friend Ajahn Chah free that night?

“Caroline—” Roger called. I grabbed my Wheeldex and hurried to his office, avoiding the couple with the dachshunds, who were trying their best to look tragic.

“Why were you late this morning?” Roger asked. “Pia’s been here for two hours already.”

As consul general, Roger Fortier ruled from the corner suite with its commanding view of Rockefeller Plaza and the Promenade Cafe. Normally the famous skating rink occupied that sunken spot, but the rink was closed for the summer, the space now filled with café tables and tuxedoed waiters rushing about with aprons to their ankles. Beyond, Paul Manship’s massive golden Prometheus fell to earth, holding his stolen fire aloft. Behind it, the RCA Building shot up seventy floors into the sapphire sky. Roger had a lot in common with the imposing male figure of Wisdom chiseled above the building’s entrance. The furrowed brow. The beard. The angry eyes.

“I stopped for Bonnet’s boutonnière—”

“Oh, that’s worth keeping half of France waiting.” Roger bit into a doughnut, and powdered sugar cascaded down his beard. Despite what might kindly be called a husky figure, he was never at a loss for female companions.

His desk was heaped with folders, security documents, and dossiers on missing French citizens. According to the French Consulate Handbook, his job was “to assist French nationals in New York, in the event of theft, serious illness, or arrest and with issues related to birth certificates, adoption, and lost or stolen documents; to plan visits of French officials and fellow diplomats; and to assist with political difficulties and natural disasters.” The troubles in Europe provided plenty of work for us in all those categories, if you counted Hitler as a natural disaster.

“I have cases to get back to, Roger—”

He sent a manila folder skidding across the polished conference table. “Not only do we have no speaker; I was up half the night rewriting Bonnet’s speech. Had to sidestep Roosevelt letting France buy American planes.”

“France should be able to buy all the planes they want.”

“We’re raising money here, Caroline. It’s not the time to annoy the isolationists. Especially the rich ones.”

“They don’t support France anyway.”

“We don’t need any more bad press. Is the U.S. too cozy with France? Will that push Germany and Russia closer? I can barely finish a third course without being interrupted by a reporter. And we can’t mention the Rockefellers…Don’t want another call from Junior. Guess that’ll happen anyway now that Bonnet canceled.”

“It’s a disaster, Roger.”

“May need to scrap the whole thing.” Roger raked his long fingers through his hair, digging fresh trenches through the Brylcreem.

“Refund forty thousand dollars? What about the French Families Fund? I’m already operating on fumes. Plus, we’ve paid for ten pounds of Waldorf salad—”

“They call that salad?” Roger flipped through his contact cards, half of them illegible and littered with cross-outs. “It’s pathétique…just chopped apples and celery. And those soggy walnuts…”

I scoured my Wheeldex in search of celebrity candidates. Mother and I knew Julia Marlowe, the famous actress, but she was touring Europe. “How about Peter Patout? Mother’s people have used him.”

“The architect?”

“Of the whole World’s Fair. They have that seven-foot robot.”

“Boring,” he said, slapping his silver letter opener against his palm.

I flipped to the L’s. “How about Captain Lehude?”

“Of the Normandie? Are you serious? He’s paid to be dull.”

“You can’t just discount every suggestion out of hand, Roger. How about Paul Rodierre? Betty says everyone’s talking about him.”

Roger pursed his lips, always a good sign. “The actor? I saw his show. He’s good. Tall and attractive, if you go for that look. Fast metabolism, of course.”

“At least we know he can memorize a script.”

“He’s a bit of a loose cannon. And married too, so don’t get any ideas.”

“I’m through with men, Roger,” I said. At thirty-seven, I’d resigned myself to singledom.

“Not sure Rodierre’ll do it. See who you can get, but make sure they stick to the script. No Roosevelt—”

“No Rockefellers,” I finished.

Between cases, I called around to various last-minute possibilities, ending up with one option, Paul Rodierre. He was in New York appearing in an American musical revue at the Broadhurst Theatre, The Streets of Paris, Carmen Miranda’s cyclonic Broadway debut.

I phoned the William Morris Agency and was told they’d check and call me back. Ten minutes later, M. Rodierre’s agent told me the theater was dark that night and that, though his client did not own evening clothes, he was deeply honored by our request to host the gala that evening. He’d meet me at the Waldorf to discuss details. Our apartment on East Fiftieth Street was a stone’s throw from the Waldorf, so I rushed there to change into Mother’s black Chanel dress.

I found M. Rodierre seated at a café table in the Waldorf’s Peacock Alley bar adjacent to the lobby as the two-ton bronze clock sounded its lovely Westminster Cathedral chime on the half hour. Gala guests in their finest filtered in, headed for the Grand Ballroom upstairs.

“M. Rodierre?” I said.

Roger was right about the attractive part. The first thing a person noticed about Paul Rodierre, after the initial jolt of his physical beauty, was the remarkable smile.

“How can I thank you for doing this so last minute, Monsieur?”

He unfolded himself from his chair, presenting a build better suited to rowing crew on the Charles than playing Broadway. He attempted to kiss my cheek, but I extended my hand to him, and he shook it. It was nice to meet a man my height.

“My pleasure,” he said.

His attire was the issue: green trousers, an aubergine velvet sports jacket, brown suede shoes, and worst of all, a black shirt. Only priests and fascists wore black shirts. And gangsters, of course.

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