Sidney de Paris.
At this stage in my life I find myself writing short pieces about events in my life, they’re not intended for publication, they’re just intended to keep my mind active. I’ve previously posted a couple of them here and they were well received, here’s another.
In the summer of 1963 we were in England after having spent the winter and spring traveling around the Mediterranean in our red VW Beatle but it was time to return to the US. I saw an ad in the Observer for a ‘student charter’ ship sailing from Southampton to New York within a week or so, the price was very reasonable. So we booked passage and on the scheduled day arrived at Southampton docks having already shipped the VW to NY. We were informed there that we wouldn’t be boarding the ship at the docks but would be transported in small boats out to where it was anchored, this was apparently for the charter organization to avoid docking fees. And so it went.
Finally we were all on the ship and were underway, standing at the rail for a goodbye look at old England I found myself next to a young chap doing similar, we chatted. Whatever the topic was he always had an outrageous response, at one point I mentioned Winston Churchill, he responded, ‘Oh yes, there’s a character, I remember when I once had him over for dinner he said….” On another occasion I mentioned that I was an avid jazz fan, he responded that he was a jazz musician and blues singer and performed regularly at all the London clubs; I’d never heard of him! He also told me that he also owned a very successful art galley on Bond street. This went on with every conversation, numerous examples, I decided the he was the ultimate bullshitter, we continued our ‘friendship’ but I was very wary of everything he said.
On the second day at sea there was an announcement on the ships Tannoy, “Tomorrow night at 7.30 pm there will be a talent contest in the ship’s ballroom, anyone who would like to participate please contact….” Of course we all went. About 30 minutes into the event he rose and said ‘Would you excuse me, I’m on next” We had no idea, not a word had been spoken about it. I wish I could remember his name but it’s long gone, but the MC announced him and he and a drummer took the stage. He was wonderful, amazing, he played the clarinet and sang several songs and was wildly applauded. OK, one down.
After 10 days at sea we were approaching NY harbor, everyone on board was at the rails as we sailed past the Statue of Liberty, standing next to me was a beautiful young woman, I spoke to her. It transpired that she was French, fluent in English, she worked at the Cinemateque Francaise, the French film archive, where she was responsible for hosting any visiting foreign film people. Consequently she had a little black book that she showed me that had the names, addresses and phone numbers of every film actor/director you could think of; they’d all said “If you’re ever in the US, give me a call” and that was definitely on her agenda, Her name was Catherine van Moppes.
I told her that we had a car arriving within a week and were planning to then drive to LA and she’d be welcome if she wanted to ride with us. She and our clarinetist friend plus my wife and I all decided that we’d stay at the Chelsea hotel so we checked in and once settled we all went for a walk around Greenwich Village. I’d been obsessively collecting jazz records for several years and there were two brothers I was very fond of, Sidney de Paris and Wilbur de Paris, both played New Orleans jazz.
As we walked along a street the clarinetist out of the blue said “There’s a club around here somewhere and the last time I was in New York I used to play there with the de Paris brothers band” More bullshit! We turned a corner and there was and old black guy emerging from a cellar and lighting a cigarette, “Sidney” whooped clarinet rushing forward and throwing his arms around the black guy, and of course it was Sidney de Paris and the steps he’d just emerged from were from a club that had a marquee over the door, “Direct from New Orleans, the de Paris brothers band”.
Well that deflated me totally but there was one more. About a year later I was in England again and I found myself in London. I’d checked the Observer’s art section in the classified and sure enough there was a galley on Bond street with the name that clarinet had given me, I decided I’d check it to out. I walked down Bond Street and there it was, very elegant, very exclusive, very expensive. I peered in through the window and of course, there he was.
A small p.s. to our stay in NY. Catherine told me that she wanted to visit Lilian Gish, one of the names in her book and I was welcome to come. At UCLA film school I’d been inundated with the history of early American film most of it featuring Lilian Gish, she starred in W.G.Griffiths Intolerance plus The Birth of a Nation, plus Night of the Hunter; she was the superstar of early films. Of course I wanted to come. We took a cab the her address where a maid told us that Miss Gish had left the day before for Paris and that she’d be gone for several weeks. Damn!
A couple of days ago whilst thinking about this event it occurred to me to check Google for Catherine and see if anything showed up. Sure enough, there she was. She’s not as beautiful as I remember but she’s done alright, married to a French far east ammbassador, she lives there and writes about Asian culture. She wrote a book about her visit to the US, I wonder if I’m in it. Sadly it’s only published in French.