Mad collectors #1

I had an introduction to the highly educated Marie-Claude Atger-Ravel via my colleague and client, the playing card collector Dudley Ollis in London. I was already selling tarot cards and cartomancy antique packs of cards both in London and Paris. Playing cards were of course connected with conjuring, one of my specialised subjects.  I always wrote my name and phone number on a playing card and, as an icebreaker, would ask the victim to pick a card, offering a choice. It always worked well and we would usually begin auspicious conversation.

Marie-Claude, although originally a client with an important museum quality collection of French packs, became a friend too. I saw quite a bit of her socially together with her estranged husband Philippe and her lover Francois. The 2 men were good friends and would often play chess together. By odd coincidence, Philippe lived on the floor exactly above the studio I would be allowed to use for 15 years in the 15em when I came back to Paris throughout the 80s to work.  Like me, Marie-Claude was a cat lover and had 2 Siamese Aristocats that had distinct throaty miaows. I met several distinguished playing card collectors via her including the artist Jean Verame, who had painted the famous Blue Desert and who was married to one of the Rothschilds. I was invited to see his collection in the posh 8em.  His Rothschild wife, who was mostly on a dialysis machine, did not wish to meet me and I recall being served a very formal tea by an African servant dressed all in black but wearing a white apron and headdress like a 'Nippy' waitress in a Lyons Cafe in London.

Marie-Claude lived in the infamous Rue Lauriston in the 16em and told me about the French Gestapo at number 99 working with the Nazis. The most famous and shameful address in Parisian history. She had a large cozy traditional apartment which was typically French, a long off white painted corridor with all the rooms running off it.

It was 1984 and I had moved back to London and married my magical husband Martin Breese the previous year. Suddenly I got a hysterical phone call from Marie-Claude in Paris. Her dear Philippe had dropped dead. It was summer and the funeral had to be done quickly because the body would decompose. She was depressed and desperately needed a complete change of scene. Could she come and stay with me in my lovely Hamston House in Kensington? I couldn't refuse her even though I did not have a guest room. Somehow we managed to put her up for a few days on the couch in the lounge. She was devastated by his death. Her lifelong companion even though it had been like living with her brother which is why she took a lover. So civilised are the French in their sexual relationships!

Naturally Madame insisted that I came to stay with her next time I came back to Paris on a buying trip. After I married in 1983, an American friend Michael Saklad offered me his office cum studio to use as a base for the next 15 years until he became the 'guest from hell' in my house in London. Despite having a bed at Michael's in the same block as Philippe, Marie Claude insisted that I come to stay. Presumably because she felt indebted to me.

What a disaster! I arrived and was shown the scullery with the backstairs winding up to a bleak minuscule chambre de bonne without a phone or communication with her lovely flat below! I complained, bien sur, and was moved down to the adjoining room to her delightful cluttered homely lounge. The room I was given was her office but she made me cozy by putting a single mattress on the floor. She seemed to treat me like a visiting student, not a guest.

She lay in state in her bedroom daily still depressed and refused to let me use her phone to call Martin even though I offered to pay. The phone was permanently on answering and she did not want me to touch the machine. Her behaviour had become detached and formal and I could not understand why she insisted I should stay. Francois had a key and was always affable and would come and go even though he was not living there. In fact he was friendlier than she was towards me. 

I didn't relate to The Right Bank. It was too formal and chic for me. I was definitely a Left Banker, spending my evenings with my close friend the American Outsider artist Arlene Hiquily in her flat in Pernety or hanging out at Le Select on the Boulevard Montparnasse in the 14em. I always had a late night Camomile tisane and on the pivotal night in question, had one with Arlene after dinner. My usual routine back in Rue Lauriston was to go to the small very old fashioned kitchen, boil some water in a saucepan as Marie Claude had no kettle, and make my tisane late at night. 

The following morning she came screaming into my room waking me from my slumber. 'Jilliana, que-ce que tu as fait?' Repeating the question hysterically 3 times, dragging me into the kitchen. Mon Dieu what a mess! The pressure cooker had blown up and soup or whatever was in it, was all over the walls and the floor. The pressure cooker was burnt out and I was accused of being careless and leaving the flame alight after making my tisane.  She accused me. I believed her. I was the culprit. She then announced that a workman would repaint the kitchen and  she would not stay because of the paint fumes and I must look after her cats.

I was crying and then sat down to think about the previous night. No, I was in the clear. Arlene had made my tisane. I had not gone into the kitchen after all. She or Francois were to blame. When I told her this in front of Francois, he confessed he was to blame but she never apologised to me. Then the phone rang. As usual it was on the answering machine. Francois took the call by simply pressing a button to switch the recording part off. So simple. It was my Romanian friend the artist and exiled poet Vera Lungu who knew what had happened and insisted I leave at once and stay with her.

I walked out there and then and never set eyes on Marie-Claude again. Today, after her death in 2015, I wonder what became of her well researched historical playing card collection. Probably Dudley Ollis knows. I must ask him one day.

References

Google - Rue Lauriston WW2 French Gestapo HQ
Google - Dudley Ollis
Arlene Colombe Hiquily - Google and You Tube with Martin Breese

Marie-Claude Atger-Ravel
Philippe Atger 
Wikipedia - Jean Verame 
Wikipedia - Nippy