The Unsuspecting Tour GuideSeventh Installment
VII. Le Boeuf sur le toit
Half-walking, half-jogging (quite a skill in high heels), I made my way to the Rue Boissy d’Anglas, where the bar Le Boeuf sur le toit was to be found.
It was a relatively recent establishment, perhaps three years old now. Other than that, all I really knew about it was that it had been named after a ballet by Darius Milhaud, the young upstart composer. Of him, I knew slightly more – the salons had buzzed at his informal group – Les Six, a loose gathering of other young composers under the “guidance” of Erik Satie and the poet Jean Cocteau. They aspired, in the manner of the avant-garde, to overturn all musical conventions and create compositions that were structurally brilliant – which was all very well on paper, but often not particularly listenable. It had been a rather short-lived group.
Before I entered the bar, I double-checked my purse – a mistrusting habit I have never been able to displace.
Admittedly, this was not such a poor establishment – I could see straightaway that the proprietor had good business, given the number of people already present before the dinner hour, when they should have been either with family or at proper restaurants. You could not exactly eat dinner at a bar, or what was also at times called a bal public. The crowd was on the younger side, not surprising for an avant-gardist locale. There were even a few daring couples dancing, for which it was really too early in the day. Yet here they were, swinging their arms and legs to the sound of brass and drum. Jazz was still a relatively new import to the Parisian club scene, but it seemed to be taking hold quite effectively. Before long, it would be more French than American1.
My eye was caught by the canvas hanging above the bar. It was a rather odd sort of collage, with lots of writing and doodling against a tan background. Near the bottom, on the right, an eye starred out menacingly, the only easily recognizable feature of the entire composition. Disturbed, I sought to move away from the bar, only to bump into someone behind me.
“Pardonnez-moi, monsieur,” I apologized, turning around and instinctively stepping backward – whereupon I bumped into someone else, coming in. “Oh! Excusez-moi!”
I found myself between two men, one of whom seemed vaguely familiar.
“Monsieur Picasso? C’est vous?” I asked the latter. He smiled politely but warily.
“You have the advantage of me, Madame…”
“Camille de Saint-Vincent. We were introduced at the premiere of “Parade,” a few years ago; I was the young woman with Madame la Princesse de Polignac.”
“Ah, but of course! I am sorry for not recognizing you, mademoiselle.” Looking past me at the other man I had bumped, the artist’s smile increased.
“Juan! Que pasa?”
Well, to shorten what was, for me, a rather embarrassing situation, it turned out that the other man was Juan Gris, another Spanish-born painter of the modernist persuasion. Once everyone had been introduced, apologized to, and duly pardoned, the two men invited me to have a drink. Generally, on principle, I would have demurred, but with the day I was having…The next thing I knew, we were sitting down over a bottle of Pinot Noir and hors d’oeuvres, joined by a few other artists, and chatting. I was already past feeling out of my zone of comfort – this was such uncharted territory for me that my nervous system had simply given up on trying to comprehend the bizarrity of the situation. The conversation switched rapidly between French and Spanish – I was glad to have spent the winter in Cadiz, so that I could keep pace with both sides of the conversation. One of the other interlocutors looked a little lost, his eyes glazing over whenever Picasso drifted back into his native tongue. So diverted was I from having to concentrate on the language that my purpose in coming into the bar slipped entirely from my mind.
That is, until the very object of my search strolled right past me on the arm of some young, rather less elegantly dressed stranger.
“Lizzie!” I exclaimed, forgetting all thoughts of decorum as I rushed up to her. “Finally! What were you thinking, leaving like that?”
“Mlle de Saint-Vincent! I didn’t expect to see you here. I hope I haven’t caused any trouble.”
“Trouble!” I snapped, my nails digging into my palms – had I not been wearing gloves, I might have drawn blood. “You nearly gave Praeker a heart attack – which is saying something, since Praeker is well nigh implacable. And who is this man?”
“Oh, you mean Luis? He’s very nice – Luis, meet Camille de Saint-Vincent. Camille de Saint-Vincent, may I present Luis Cabrera – he’s a painter.”
“Enchanté, mademoiselle,” said Luis, bowing gallantly over my hand.
No charmer was going to assuage my mood.
“Lizzie, we are leaving – right now!” I informed her, taking hold of her arm. But she slipped lithely away.
“Oh, no, the dancing is just starting. I have to dance at least once! Please…”
Where I should have put my foot down, up went my hands instead. I had found her, hadn’t I? How much worse could it get?”
“One,” I told her sternly, feeling more and more like my mother every minute. Off they capered, the young and highly mismatched couple.
As Luis and Lizzie danced, I rejoined the Spanish painters and their compatriots, just in time to meet a French addition.
“Ah, Mlle de Saint-Vincent,” said Picasso as I sat back down. “May I present Darius Milhaud – one of those bright young modern composers.”
“A pleasure, mademoiselle.”
“Likewise. I believe I heard an avant-première of some of your latest work for the Ballets Russes – “Le Train Bleu.'”
“Ah, yes, although it will not be shown for a few more weeks2. What was your impression?”
“I thought the score very fitting for M. Cocteau’s proposed scenario. It will be a great pleasure, I think.”
“Nothing revolutionary, I fear.”
“Not all compositions can or should be. Sometimes an audience must simply be amused, so that they will cling to the edges of their seats the next time.”
Milhaud regarded me with grudging admiration.
“You are very astute, mademoiselle,” he remarked, to which I shrugged gracefully (now I was really turning into my mother).
“I have grown up in the salons, M. Milhaud. Le Tout Paris was my nursery, my schoolroom, and my first pleine saison.”
“Indeed?” he perked up. “Then you know the Princesse de Polignac? Say, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to do me a favor…”
By the time we had finished discussing the tentative details of a tentative composition that needed some financial backing, it was much later than I had anticipated. The bar was filling up – but, amidst all the composers, painters, rich socialites getting ready for a night of fashionable slumming (a practice to which I have never ascribed, nor which I ever understood), there was one key face missing.
“Not again!” I cursed under my breath – ladies don’t curse, but I had picked up a few choice morsels from my cousin.
“What is it?” inquired Juan Gris, pausing in the act of bringing his cigarette to his lips.
“My American house-guest has run off – again. This is really getting old – do any of you know the man she was with, a Luis Cabrera?”
“The Navarrese? Doesn’t he usually hang around the Lapin Agile, this time of night?”
“What time is it?”
“How do I get there?” I asked, standing.
“Mademoiselle, that’s no place for a nice young lady such as yourself -”
“Just tell me, messieurs, s’il vous plait.”
In the end, the little group nominated one of their number to escort me, a semi-successful critic and newspaper correspondent just a little older than myself. It was a nice gesture – possibly more, since Milhaud doubtless wanted to protect his commission in the making.
Leaving the chic bar, I found myself on the way deeper into bohemian territory, accompanied only by a man I had met but hours before. Neither of my former companions – Praeker and Jean-François – knew where I was, and I still did not have my elusive house-guest in grip.
One might say that things were developing most interestingly.
1. Jackson, Jeffrey. Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2003. Print. 7.
2. La Semaine à Paris. Paris, 1922. May 23-30, 1924. 10 & 13.
Video: Francis Picabia. The Cacodylic Eye (L’Oeil cacodylate). 1921. MoMA Multimedia. Accessed July 17, 2015. http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/29/733