Thursday, February 25, 2016

My Mother's Guests

My mother liked to entertain. After her discovery that the Washington, DC, area had a large French population, she set about winning the hearts and minds of her displaced countrymen and women. She threw exuberant dinner parties, hosted cocktail evening and afternoon bridge sessions, held rehearsals for the local French theater company (almost exclusively farces by Molière), and charity events for the French parish. Twice a year, there would be elaborate costumes ball with varying themes. The best was the one based on the French Revolution, when a particularly handy French diplomat brought a homemade guillotine to slice the baguettes. He operated the thing, which stood eight feet tall, with disturbing joy. As the evening wore on and wine and liqueurs took their toll, my father was obliged to jam the thing with a broom stick so inebriated guests wouldn’t be tempted to test its efficacy on each other.

Within the circle of friends were a few French women who had married Americans. The latter were invited to our home and treated kindly, though always with a hint of suspicion. One American husband married to a perky French Georgetown shop owner, claimed not to speak a word of French but always seemed overly interested in overhearing conversations in a language he could not understand.  It turned out he worked for the CIA; my father believed the man’s job was to monitor the French community to make sure no one was plotting a take-over of Louisiana.

Other guests included Camille Chautemps, an elderly man who had been Prime Minister of France three times and sided with the Vichy government that in 1940 handed France to Germany. Chautemps was sent to the US on an official mission and never returned to France. He was convicted in absentia of collaborating with the enemy and spent his last days in Washington with his wife and son and daughter. The children became, respectively, a not very good dentist, and a successful real-estate investors.

My parents’ relationship with the Chautemps was interesting.  Both my mother and father had served with the Free French during the war, and to them the former Prime Minister was the worst kind of traitor. But he was also a former Prime Minister coming to their house! This was a quandary best met by inviting the Chautemps family over for lunch, with no other guests present.

I remember him as an ancient, stooped man who told lamentable jokes. His wife, once a famed Parisian beauty, had become a wilted flower wearing far too-much make-up.

There were other guests: an artist of the Jackson Pollock school who offered to splatter our walls with paint for a fee; a woman who went nowhere without her boa constrictor (in my opinion, the coolest guest ever to grace our home), a couple in a hateful relationship who got progressively drunker as the evening wore on and muttered truly vile curses at each other; an alcoholic Catholic priest whose hands wandered good-naturedly to the derrieres of the younger women guests;  a handsome woman in her sixties of was rumored to have been the mistress of a European dictator, and her husband, whose card tricks never seemed to work.

In retrospect, the evenings hosted by my mother were greater theater than any show offered today.  One night’s performance could keep tongues wagging for weeks; it was entertainment at its best. Cocteau, Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter would have been jealous. We had theater of the absurd in our very own living room!

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