Autobiography & Memoir
Ode to Eden
I was devastated when I opened the envelope that often came from Paris with its distinctive creative handwriting addressed to Madame Jilliana Ranicar-Breese, 164 Kensington Park Road, London W11 2 ER. GB. I knew it was from my Parisian companion and lifelong friend Jean Eden. It would contain the inevitable clippings of British interest from French magazines as well as an arty letter in thick blue Sharpie ink, always in French, as Jean hardly spoke English despite being an Anglophile.
But tears cascaded down my cheeks when I read its contents that January. He wrote he never wanted to have contact with me by phone or letter when I came to Paris next time. Someday I may tell you why, he taunted me. The only regret he had was he would have no more contact with my magical husband Martin who he adored.
But why oh why? I had thought for quite a while that Jean, who was about 20 years older than myself, was going Gaga! He would constantly moan about all the circus collectors such as Dr. Borg in Rouen and Jean Villiers the puppeteer in Paris. 'I will never contact them again' he would tell me and then say 'it'll be you next' and I would laugh. Little did I know I, too, would get the chop. No doubt he wanted to become a recluse and be left in peace.
I first met Jean Eden via the circus collector actor Roland Deronzier in the early 80s. He collected circus memorabilia, especially Bertram Mills programmes. He had a huge Santa collection too. All his money went on acquiring more and more objects, memorabilia and ephemera. He was friends with all the important circus owners and collectors such as Pierre Levy who met his Russian wife in a concentration camp during the war. Most were wealthy like Levy who was a member of the famous Galeries Lafayette store family. We would be invited to see several circus collections. Soon I was collecting bronze three cornered hat clowns with a poodle which ended up on my mantelpiece back in London. First one, then two, then three. I was hooked and began to collect and hoard too which killed my buying and selling spirit! I was becoming like my clients. A passionate collector.
I tried not to mix business with pleasure. Hard with Jean because over the years I became fond of this complicated 'unattractive' man with a hairlip and an ingrained complex about being illegitimate as well as deformed. His father had been an Italian immigrant who had crossed over the border to Nice. He never spoke about his mother. Of course after many years I could no longer sell to him. I always brought him a clown object and a circus programme every time I came to Paris. That was my problem. I eventually became friends with some of my clients getting involved in their passions.
Jean was a successful glove designer in the 1950s working mainly for an Italian company in Hong Kong. He showed me some of old sketches and proudly told me The Paris Museum of Fashion wanted to buy his work. Then his client died and suddenly he was out of work and gloves were no more the fashion. However when I googled Eden nothing came up.
I was given a published book of his poems with a dedication to me as his dear friend. They were too intellectual for me to understand but I thanked him anyway never telling him I could not understand their meaning.
Jean walked everywhere so as to save on the metro fares so he could buy more and more. He also walked by night and experienced nocturnal activities in the bushes. Without fail every summer he would go to the same hotel on Kerkennah island, Tunisia. He bragged how he would be followed by handsome young men. I visualised him being stabbed as I knew most arabs carried knives and Jean liked to walk alone at night living, as in Paris, on the edge. He told me he had a beautiful naked body and had been a professional artist's model. I can't comment as I never saw him naked.
He would escort me to the gala performances of the Cirque Gruss in Paris at the Cirque d'hiver. After the show everyone would congregate in the famous 'Clown Bar' decorated with clown tiles. Everyone knew him there because he designed all the fabulous costumes for Alexi Gruss and also Marquis Pauwels from Belgium. That was why he was known from Paris, Monaco to Brussels for his exotic costume designs. I suppose I was his Muse. Jean was the person I would call last thing every night when I was at my Paris studio. I would come to work 4 or 5 times a year when the Vieux Papier fairs were on to buy for the archive I had founded in London - Retrograph.
An amusing story of Jean was in his flat. I have to describe it first. It was in an elegant building on Rue Troyon, 17e way up on the dark salubrious top floor beyond the floor with the lift. The salon was quite big with a cubbyhole of a kitchenette behind a curtain. Impossible to cook as he would have ignited the red velvet curtain! There was a mound of Christmas memorabilia with Santas piled high in front of an armoire with a bevelled mirror reflecting the collection. Jean confessed he had forgotten what lurked inside as he had not opened the wardrobe door for 10 years! There were tables galore with objects, books and ornate boxes. French Bouglione circus posters adorned his walls.
Somewhere amidst the chaos was a single bed beneath a shelf groaning with vintage games boxes. I had to give him one as I was an antique games and dexterity puzzles dealer between Paris and London and had several empty large puzzle boxes after I had removed the contents for easier transportation back to the UK to sell to the passionate late collector Edward Horden.
One night Jean was sleeping in solitary state in his little bed when he heard creaking coming from the shelf above containing the boxes. The noise grew louder. He instinctively jumped naked out of bed and crash wallop, the whole shelf crashed onto the bed. He could have been killed or ended up in a memorable memorabilia coma.
Another crazy story. Jean was given a few thousand pounds in a brown paper bag for the next time he came to England to buy a miniature circus accordion handmade by a craftsman in England. This money was to be the deposit. Somehow he managed to loose the paper bag in the chaos of his flat. He never found it and thinks it went out with the rubbish!
The bathroom was as big as the salon housing a bath tub. But Monsieur went to a public bath for his ablutions. Why? Well the bath was for storage! A plank across it's circumference which housed boxes, books, magazines and God only knows what else prevented Monsieur having a bath! The bathroom was full of bookcases and there was no room whatsoever for a naked body no matter how beautiful he said it was!
Not much happened in his single bed. He became fatherly to a circus groom called Patrick. They loved each other but I believe it was kisses and cuddles. I don't believe at his age in his 70s he was up too much physical activity. Patrick was a mere uneducated stable boy before entering the world of the circus with Jean's help. He would come home and find Patrick curled up on the doormat in the corridor like a child. Why the attraction? Who can work out their relationship? Jean couldn't either!
He loved Brighton and over many years had a few gay contacts he would hang out with even though he spoke no English. I had introduced him to my old friend Alice Sutton, the Countess of Belleroche in Paris. They became firm friends and she would allow him to stay in her Brighton abode in College Terrace, Kemp Town in return for looking after the plants in her Porte de Champeret flat in 17e. Little did neighbours know that the magnificent portrait of a lady that hung from floor to ceiling in that Brighton house, had been the mistress of the painter Albert de Belleroche, a close friend of Lautrec. Today it is proudly hanging in her daughter Nina's flat in Paris, a lifelong friend of mine.
One year he came to catsit. I made a large exotic copious salad. We sat around in our pink, silver and grey Art Deco Biba kitchen housing a black 1930s table and chairs. Jean served himself but instead of putting the salad in a dish, he put it on his black American floral placemat! When we got back two weeks later, it turned out he had set off the burglar alarm and couldn't explain his situation to the police. So the alarm was off for the duration of his stay. We only invited him once. We could not risk his eccentricities a second time.
His collections were worth a fortune but he had made his will out to an old friend he rarely saw who was an accountant in the outside non-creative world and who had no connection with circus life. Yet Eden lived like a pauper, looking fit probably because he walked all over Paris and watched his weight, fixated by being body beautiful.
Our routine would be, Jean would call for me at the studio in the 15e, collect and carry my luggage. I would take him out for lunch. We would go by metro to the Gare du Nord from Pasteur and he would give me a bise on both cheeks a la francaise, wave au revoir and then walk away abruptly.
The last frequent visit would be the final time I would see my dear old friend. I never found out why he broke off our 20 year friendship. I can only guess he sensed that I knew he was going senile. We had had an unusually long phone call at New Year when he had rung. He did not ask me to call him back which I always did. He spoke like an actor on stage for about 15 minutes moaning and criticising all and sundry. He must have sensed that I was bored. Hence the letter. But I will never know. He never wrote to explain his thoughts. Time heals all so they say. I forgot him and our good times together. The Augustes and white clowns playing their trumpets. My circus days were over. Adieu le Cirque. Adieu Eden.
Years later, Alice died. I found out by accident meeting an American jazz singer on a train from Brighton to London who was her next door neighbour in Kemp Town. I decided to write to Jean to tell him the sad news. I also said we had bought a large house in Brighton but never gave the phone or the address. That was my way of 'hurting' him knowing how he would have loved to stay. How he loved and felt at home in Brighton.
He must be dead now. If not then he would be in his 90s. The people who knew him are all gone. No one will replace Jean in my life. For me he was the epitome of a Frenchman. He was the Paris I loved. He was unique! I stopped going there when I lost the studio after 15 years in the 15e district. Arlene Hiquily, my close artist and poet friend in Paris, died 3 years ago. Most of the fascinating creative characters who inspired me are long gone. Paris was my education. We had a 25 year love affair. My husband became jealous of my secret 'lover'. This is not a marriage he would complain. And so I went less and less and less until no more.
Vive le cirque! Vive Les clowns! Vive Paris!
Written 1 November, 2016 in The Yellow Book Cafe and Bar, Brighton.
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