Tu and Vous

I was living in Paris in 1978 and loving my life there as a vintage collectibles dealer. My regular cafe/office for meeting clients was La Palette, the famous bohemian cafe on the corner of the rue de Seine and Jacques Caillot in Saint Germain, 6em.

One day I was inside the cafe in the back room having a coffee with my vintage corkscrew client. Bernard Bosquet was looking through my new treasures while I was listening to his complicated love life with two mistresses, one married and the other expecting his child, when an unusual looking woman in her early 60s pounced on me explaining that her son was a wine wholesaler and he, too, had a corkscrew collection!

Thus the sophisticated Marie Claire Duisand entered my life. She excused herself for the spontaneous intrusion and, as she was a collector of German Grotesques, would like me to find her in London the missing object in her vast specialist collection - the dentist! She demanded my name and number. I presented her with one of my 52 limited edition signed JRB playing cards with my handwritten name and French phone number.

Although Marie Claire spoke fluent English she had the wisdom to know that I loved to speak to the French in French and so never spoke to me in English. She invited me to her home in the chic 16em district of La Muette that I knew so well as I had gone every day there to work before becoming a collectables dealer, stepping over dog shit, when I worked at the OECD for 10 months.

She lived in bliss with her distinguished husband Henri, a retired diamond dealer.  Marie Claire always wore elegant but discrete diamond earrings and a beautiful diamond eternity ring. I noticed, because Maria an Italian Portobello Road dealer in London allowed me to borrow and wear about 8 Victorian diamond, sapphire, ruby, pearl and emerald 18 Carat gold rings and take them to Paris on commission to sell to Helene, a jewellery dealer in Marche Paul Bert, who did not put the rings through her books nor have them 'poinsonee.' Henri had a pacemaker and his adoring doting devoted wife would always talk about how she would cope alone after his imminent death.

Their's was a gracious flat in the best of taste. The elegant salon was really a private museum with the walls lit up with bespoke show cabinets specially made for their large bisque Grotesque collection.  I was informed that the unglazed bisque ceramic was made in Germany pre-World War 1 and imported into England to be sold mainly at seaside destinations.  The objects were comic, exaggerated facial features. The couple had the best collection in France and were in touch with a German collector believed to be connected with the original factory, Schafer and Vater.  But they needed 'the dentist' to complete their life's work. The factory stopped importing these humorous objects when the war broke out in 1914.

There were Erte original ballet paintings gracing their living room wall which did not have showcases. The salon was an odd shape with steps down to the seating area so in fact the built in showcases were on a raised level. Their dining room housed a magnificent oil painting with touches of gold leaf paint of a Pierrot/clown/harlequin by a known Italian artist. 

I don't recall money changing hands but Marie Claire would phone me in London without fail just before the Foire Vieux Papiers at Port de Champeret to ask if I had found anything for her. She was obsessed with the collection. Her children had grown up so their collection was their 'baby.' Sadly both their children were not interested in the collection. I am sure that is why she gravitated towards me because I enthused and was a dealer of dreams into my clients' passions.

I was passing Boots one day and thought of Henri and his love for the sugar free Bonbons. That cemented our friendship!  Madame was so touched by my gift that I was invited for seafood lunches in restaurants quite often. She even taught me how to daintily eat moules. Somehow the topic of commercial Xmas came up and I told her I had never celebrated it because I was Jewish. She exclaimed she thought so from my personality and confessed she and Henri were too. That the name Duisand had been changed from the Dutch or Flemish name. That they had been hidden in the countryside during the WW2 but she didn't want to talk about that tragic dark period in their lives.

One day I was invited for lunch in their home. A formal event with their housekeeper serving a traditional lunch. I had always addressed Madame as vous and was getting fed up with the grammar. In the antique and collectibles world everyone was addressed as 'tu' and so I asked her if I could 'tutoi' her. I was horrified when she refused and so was Henri, coming to the rescue saying that I could 'tutoi' him!

After that episode I continued with the formal 'vous' address out of respect but I never felt the same about her after the 'insult.' She immediately began to address me as 'tu' but never gave me the permission I craved for. She came to London to visit old friends but always stayed in a nearby hotel. 'Friends were like fish, she would say, they go off after two or three days!' I photographed her in a Notting Hill cafe and realised, on exposure, that she looked a bit like a younger version of my mother.

The day before I was leaving Paris for London, she failed to turn up at her chosen restaurant. Marie Claire was a punctual lady so I sensed she was not well. We didn't have mobile phones in those days of course, so there was no way of communicating. The next day I called from an airport payphone only to find she had fallen in the street and hit her head on the pavement on her way to meeting me, was concussed and died in hospital days later never coming round from the coma she had fallen into.

Henri wrote to tell me how sad and devastated he was. They had been married about 50 years. How ironic she always thought of life when he was no more and here was the role reversal. I wrote on a lovely greetings card with a silhouetted man waving goodbye to a woman leaving on a train.  Henri wrote back that it was the nicest card he had received and asked me to think of him as his father and should I need anything he would always be there for me using 'tu.'  I offered to send him the photo I had taken of his wife because he said he only had early ones. It took me a long time to find it and get a print but I managed in the end. He was thrilled and placed it in an ornate silver frame gracing his dressing table in his bedroom so he could always see her first thing in the morning.

Some time later I was back in Paris as I was coming less and less due to work commitments with my archive/photo library 'Retrograph Archive' back in London and my husband, bien sur. I rang Henri who invited me to his home for lunch as he rarely left the house. It was a grey rainy day and I arrived 15 minutes too early as it was hard to judge the metro timings. He opened the door himself dressed in a dark red smoking jacket. The housekeeper had gone shopping and he had not yet taken his shower. He was inflexible, not pleased that I had come too early and actually asked me to go away and come back later at the given time. Not very fatherlike! I refused because of the rain and I had nowhere to go as his flat was in a residential part of the 16em. Begrudgingly he allowed me to wait, like I was at the doctor's, in the salon until he was ready for our meeting and lunch.

I politely got through the formal meal of grilled fish with vegetables, an excellent dry white wine and a good camembert accompanied by a heavy veloute red wine but it was not the same without Marie Claire. I took a photo of him next to the important harlequin painting but never saw Henri again who must, today, be reunited with the love of his life in the heavens above.

Written in Casa de los Bates, Motril, Spain on 12/2/17.


Wikipedia - OECD
 Google - Schafer and Vater bisque Grotesques
Google - Retrograph Archive
Google - La Palette, Paris
Google - French corkscrew club - Bernard Bosquet
Wikipedia - Erte
Google - Foire vieux papiers - Ephemera