7. Southern France
In 1950, my father embarked on what I would later come to recognize in AA as a "geographic." He rented a villa just outside the village of St. Maxime on the French Riviera and moved there with his second wife, Pinky. A geographic is an AA term for a change of address undertaken by an alcoholic who is following a predictable and flawed chain of logic: 1) He knows there is something seriously wrong with his life, but 2) he knows it could not be his drinking which is his only solace and is in fact the only thing keeping him together, so 3) therefore, it must be the place he is living and the culture he is living in which are causing the intolerable pressures he feels.
My father formed an idea of the Cote D'Azure as a warm and sensuous and forgiving place, much as described in Norman Douglas's South Wind, one of his favorite books, wherein pleasure-seeking Pagan values gain ascendancy over Christian hypocrisy. Although my grandfather's Catholicism was of a decidedly loose variety, my grandmother's was not, and I am certain my father was, in part, fleeing the strictures of a Catholic boyhood. But there was also the question of his drinking, which had become an issue back home. It must have seemed to him that the French had mastered the art of drinking: slowly, steadily, reasonably, starting with the workmen lining up for their wine or beer and the pensioners for their Calvados as the cafés opened in the morning, and continuing throughout the day, wine with lunch, aperitifs in the afternoon, more wine with dinner. The French, he believed, enjoyed life, and alcohol was as much an integral and valued part of their lives as the superb cuisine that seemed effortlessly available everywhere.
Den and I spent the summer of 1950 in southern France with my father and Pinky and her son and daughter from a previous marriage. We sailed to meet him on the S.S. De Grasse, loosely tended by a family friend, arriving some six days later at Le Harve. While on board, Den and I quickly discovered the magic button in our shared stateroom which, when pressed, summoned a polite young man who would bring you anything you wanted — ice cream, chocolate, sausages — anything anytime, day or night. I think we must have worn out several stewards.
Even at the age of 10, I was drawn into my father's fantasy. Everything around me seemed charged with sensuality, vivid and intense: the hot sun and cool tile floors of the villa, exotic and delicious Provencale meals accompanied by sips of watered wine, light sexual teasing with Louisette, the maid, and Maria, the cook. Down the hill, through fig trees and cactus and palms, lay the clear, pristine Mediterranean. I swam for hours among coral formations ablaze with life and color while languid women, naked but for a caché sexe, lay casually on the beach — heady stuff for a boy my age. And in the evening, before bed, my father would read aloud to us from The White Company, A. Conan Doyle's novel of Medieval England and France, or from a Hornblower novel by C.S. Forester.
My father was thirty-eight years old at the time, and ostensibly in charge of legal affairs for Shea Theatrical Enterprises. He had no real business in France. He was in flight from a career going nowhere and in search of an enjoyable life, a cultured life of ease and pleasure where a man's desire to drink could be accommodated without crisis or blame. But his source of funds, the family business, was a wasting resource that could not be ignored indefinitely. And the good life of southern France could neither mask the cumulative toxic effects of his drinking nor mitigate the growing tensions in his second marriage.
Pinky pressured him. The money wouldn't last. What was he going to do? In response, he drank more. They fought, occasionally at first, then more frequently, and we children could not help overhearing or witnessing these battles. As their fighting escalated, she singled me out for abuse. I believe this was because I never fully accepted her as a surrogate mother, unlike Den, who was immediately and fully emotionally available to anyone who would pay attention to him. Pinky sporadically lashed out, slapping me hard with no warning for violating rules that didn't exist before the offenses were committed — failure to put the napkin back in the napkin ring after lunch, for example, or failure to join the other children in an activity of her choosing. I don't believe my father, preoccupied as he was with his own problems, was aware of this. I hope he wasn't, because he didn't intervene on my behalf.
The same Mistral wind that filled the characters in South Wind with erotic and drunken fervor blew through southern France in the autumn of 1950, causing the worst forest fires in 30 years. The dry hills above and behind our villa ignited, and then started to explode. Munitions, buried by the Germans years before in their retreat across France, were detonating as the ground heated. It sounded like war in the hills above; we could see the red tongues of flame advancing down toward us.
It was unsafe to stay where we were. We packed in a hurry and loaded up our Citroen and my father drove us around the bay to St. Tropez, then a sleepy fishing village, where we spent the next two nights in a hotel while the fire raged on. When we returned, we walked the black, smoldering hills and saw the trenches the munitions had blown in the ground.
The summer was over. It was time for Den and me to return to school in America. My father would tour Europe for a few more months, till his sister and brothers compelled him to return to the family business and make some contribution or risk losing his last source of income.