Home > Lilac Girls(4)

Lilac Girls(4)
Martha Hall Kelly

“True, I cannot talk to you about politics,” M. Rodierre continued.

“Thank God!” someone shouted from a back table. The crowd laughed again, louder this time.

“But I can talk to you about the America I know, a place that surprises me every day. A place where open-minded people embrace not only French theater and books and cinema and fashion but French people as well, despite our faults.”

“Shit,” said the reporter next to me to his broken pencil. I handed him mine.

“Every day I see people help others. Americans inspired by Mrs. Roosevelt, who reaches her hand across the Atlantic to help French children. Americans like Miss Caroline Ferriday, who works every day to help French families here in America and keeps French orphans clothed.”

Roger and Mrs. Vanderbilt looked my way. The spotlight found me, standing at the wall, and the familiar light blinded me. Her Grace clapped, and the crowd followed. I waved until the light, mercifully quickly, whipped back to the stage, leaving me in cool darkness. I didn’t miss the Broadway stage really, but it was good to feel the warmth of the spotlight on my skin again.

“This is an America not afraid to sell planes to the people who stood beside them in the trenches of the Great War. An America not afraid to help keep Hitler from the streets of Paris. An America not afraid of standing shoulder to shoulder again with us if that terrible time does come…”

I watched, only able to look away for a few peeks at the crowd. They were engrossed and certainly not focused on his shoes. Half an hour passed in an instant, and I held my breath as M. Rodierre took his bow. The applause started small but rose in waves like a tremendous rainstorm pelting the roof. A teary-eyed Elsa Maxwell used a hotel napkin to dry her eyes, and by the time the audience rose to their feet and belted out “La Marseillaise,” I was glad Bonnet didn’t have to follow that performance. Even the staff sang, hands over their hearts.

As the lights came up, Roger looked relieved and greeted the crush of well-wishers that lingered near the head table. When the evening wound down, he left for the Rainbow Room with a gaggle of our best donors and a few Rockettes, the only women in New York who made me look short.

M. Rodierre touched my shoulder as we left the dining room. “I know a place over on the Hudson with great wine.”

“I need to get home,” I said, though I hadn’t eaten a thing. Warm bread and buttery escargot came to mind, but it was never smart to be seen out alone with a married man. “Not tonight, Monsieur, but thank you.” I could be home in minutes, to a cold apartment and the leftover Waldorf salad.

“You’ll make me eat alone after our triumph?” M. Rodierre said.

Why not go? My set ate at only certain restaurants, which you could count on one hand, all within a four-block radius of the Waldorf, nowhere near the Hudson. What harm could one dinner do?

We took a cab to Le Grenier, a lovely bistro on the West Side. The French ocean liners sailed up the Hudson River and docked at Fifty-first Street, so some of New York’s best little places popped up near there, like chanterelles after a good rain. Le Grenier lived in the shadow of the SS Normandie, in the attic of a former harbormaster’s building. When we exited the cab, the great ship rose high above us, deck bright with spotlights, four floors of portholes aglow. A welder at her bow sent apricot sparks into the night sky as deckhands lowered a spotlight down her side to painters on a scaffold. She made me feel small standing there, below that great, black prow, her three red smokestacks, each bigger than any of the warehouse buildings that extended down the pier. Salt hung in the end-of-summer air as Atlantic seawater met Hudson River fresh.

The tables at Le Grenier were packed with a nice enough looking crowd, mostly middle-class types, including a reporter from the gala and what looked like ocean-liner passengers happy to be on terra firma. We chose a tight, shellacked wooden booth, built like something from the inside of a ship, where every inch counts. Le Grenier’s maître d’, M. Bernard, fawned over M. Rodierre, told him he’d seen The Streets of Paris three times, and shared in great detail the specifics of his own Hoboken Community Theater career.

M. Bernard turned to me. “And you, Mademoiselle. Haven’t I seen you on the stage with Miss Helen Hayes?”

“An actress?” M. Rodierre said with a smile.

At close range, that smile was unsafe. I had to keep my wits about me, since Frenchmen were my Achilles’ heel. In fact, if Achilles had been French, I probably would have carried him around until his tendon healed.

M. Bernard continued. “I thought the reviews were unfair—”

“We’ll order,” I said.

“One used the word ‘stiffish,’ I believe—”

“We’ll have the escargot, Monsieur. Light on the cream, please—”

“And what was it the Times said about Twelfth Night? ‘Miss Ferriday sufficed as Olivia’? Harsh, I thought—”

“—And no garlic. Undercook them, please, so they are not too tough.”

“Would you like them to crawl to the table, Mademoiselle?” M. Bernard scratched down our order and headed for the kitchen.

M. Rodierre studied the champagne list, lingering over the details. “An actress, eh? I’d never have guessed.” There was something appealing about his unkempt look, like a potager in need of weeding.

“The consulate suits me better. Mother’s known Roger for years, and when he suggested I help him, I couldn’t resist.”

M. Bernard placed a basket of bread on our table, lingering a moment to gaze at M. Rodierre, as if memorizing him.

“Hope I’m not running off a boyfriend tonight,” Paul said. He reached for the breadbasket as I did, and my hand brushed his, warm and soft. I darted my hand back to my lap.

“I’m too busy for all that. You know New York—parties and all. Exhausting, really.”

“Never see you at Sardi’s.” He pulled apart the loaf, steam rising to the light.

“Oh, I work a lot.”

“I have a feeling you don’t work for the money.”

“It’s an unsalaried position, if that’s what you mean, but that’s not a question asked in polite society, Monsieur.”

“Can we dispense with the ‘Monsieur’? Makes me feel ancient.”

“First names? We’ve only just met.”

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