As I ring the bell, a single line rings in my head, “I am not a recluse, I am a private person; I’m not avoiding life, I’m just avoiding you.” Famously private, she never allows journalists into her home, but due to a sprained ankle she’s making an exception. I approach the apartment on the rue Bonaparte, the same street where Edouard Manet was born and where Henry Miller lived along with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, with no idea what to expect from the woman who is one of my few childhood heroes—add to that list Eleanor Roosevelt and Babe Ruth.
“What makes you think she’ll talk?” I asked the editor when he called three days ago with this rush assignment. “Because she has something to say,” he said. “And apparently she’s a fan of your work—she specifically said it had to be you and not Jonathan Franzen.”
Just before I arrive, the editor called to say that having originally agreed to be photographed, she’s now reneged. “ ‘It’s not possible,’ is the only explanation she’ll give,” the editor said. “Do I dare ask if the two of us might share a selfie?” I suggested. “No,” he said. “Before she hung up on me she told me, ‘I prefer to be remembered as I was, not as I am now.’ ”
Passing through the tall wooden doors into the courtyard I am reminded of the famous photograph of her with an elephant’s trunk nudging into the frame—a play on how protective the author was of her privacy and also on the elephant, which had been brought to her house for the photo shoot, didn’t approve of the courtyard, and wouldn’t come in off the street.
Who is she? Natalie Rapport—if the name is not familiar then in fact you should be embarrassed. It’s like not ever having heard of milk. She wrote her first book, A Life Not Yet Lived, when she was 10, and then by the time she was 12, the first of the infamous Mrs. Profiterole books had arrived. There were six of those adventures, followed by a series of infamous philosophical/erotic novels, written under the pen name Katherine Adaire—namely, Dangerous Flowers, which won the top French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.
Rarely is the creator of great work so great in real life, and I almost don’t want to burst my bubble. I ring the bell again—“Merde,” I hear loudly from a second-floor window—and then her face appears, elfin, wise, and as ever demanding. “The buzzer is broken, here is my key.” She drops a key down; it narrowly misses a toddler playing in the courtyard. “It’s the second floor.” I let myself in and walk up. The door is open, I knock. “Merde,” I hear again, followed by “Come in.” She is in the kitchen making coffee.
“I said I would talk with you because I wanted to talk writer to writer—not celebrity, not journalism, not who did I sleep with and what was their junk like. So unromantic, it sounds like a pile of lost parts, nuts and bolts.” She looks at me for the first time. Her eyes are particularly piercing, her glance enters your body, I blush without knowing why and hand her a small bag from Debauve & Gallais, chocolate covered orange and ginger. “Are you trying to seduce me?” she asks with authority. “No,” I say, completely caught off-guard. She laughs. “You are not like your work,” she says. “Nor are you,” I say.
“Come,” she says, leading me into the living room. The apartment is carefully curated, my eyes land on the lamps. “Giacometti made them for my mother. He was in love with her, everyone was in love with her. It’s interesting because when I think of my Mrs. Profiterole, when she’s on a diet I see Giacometti’s version of her—he used to draw with me sometimes when I was a child. We’d sit on the floor and sketch with charcoal. It’s amazing what artists will do with a child. I think they very much desire to rediscover that part of themselves.”
She places a tray of coffee on a small table and sits on a small low chair facing the sofa. I sit and take out my tape recorders—two, in case one fails, and a notebook. “Am I really that terrifying?” she asks. I say nothing. Her frame is small, at once thin and fragile, simultaneously strong like steel. She sits sharply erect, on alert. Equally interesting is what’s around her neck, a collar made of medals. “I wear medals to remind me of history, of sacrifice, of heroism, and the war,” she says. “They are my tribal talismans, they keep me going.” She taps the one at the center, “Croix de Guerre—the cross of war. There was a famous military prison not far from here—solitary confinement for 200. Among the many who spent time there were Henri Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves, one of the -heroes of the French Resistance, and Agnès Humbert—another important figure. I carry this weight so as not to forget.”
“Perhaps that is a good place to begin,” I say, making sure both tapes are rolling. “The importance of history—in storytelling?” She nods. “In your forthcoming memoir you write about your parents for the first time. Earlier on in your career you made no mention of your family and, when asked, seemed to embrace the idea that you had no parents. When I first read your work, I was convinced you were an orphan—a child in the world alone.”
“I wanted to establish an identity of my own, not as the child of, but as an individual,” she says. “You were 10 at the time,” I say. She shrugs, picks up the galley of her memoir and reads aloud, her voice hesitant, as though she’s reading in translation: “My father was a sculptor, a man of metal, I saw him the way one sees a superhero; the public side was strong, virile, heroic, and the private was full of self-doubt, questioning.”
She departs from the text: “He made his work using techniques they mastered during the war, and on occasion I was the welder’s assistant.” She stops and pulls up a pant leg and shows me a long scar on her leg. “You should have seen my father…”
And then, returning to the pages, “My mother was a philosopher and a pushpin heiress who grew up in Washington, D.C. Her family was in the government.” She leans forward. “They were spies,” she whispers. “Often dismissed as a lightweight by those who didn’t know better, my mother was in fact the ballast. But she played along; she was elegant, a little distant, people thought she was cold, but she wasn’t, she just wasn’t interested in nonsense. She was a philosopher living a life of the mind in the middle of a cocktail party that never ended. We used to tease her and say that she kept a party in her purse; a scarf, a brush, a lipstick—she could make herself quite glamorous in two minutes or less. As a couple, my parents were passionate and charming. I was often alone at the center of a movable feast: it was there that I wrote the second volume of my memoir, Sketchbook in Lost Time.”
She pauses. “I am at a point in life where one lives in memories, knowing that all of it—past, present, future—is fast fleeting. This,” she says, “is the short version, condensed, like sweet milk. For the true tale, the unexpurgated, you’ll have to read the book…” Do I tell her that I already have? She looks off into the distance. The light comes in, catching her eyes, the most beautiful blue, like Grecian waters, echoing the rich purples and reds of the sofa pillows, the soft gray walls 20 feet tall.
“There was always a party; in the summer it would be spilling out of a house onto the lawn, under a tent, sometimes a gathering in a forest, a picnic under the evergreens. My strongest memories are of twilight, the blue hour, always a moment of calm, of reverence making the transition from day to night, public to private, the time secrets are tucked away. There was privacy, nothing was photographed, tweeted, Instagrammed, meals were eaten, not sent as messages, and there was always music, the warm and uneven spin of records on a turntable, the click of the needle skipping a scratch.
“It was always about places—a beautiful field, lemon trees, olive trees, rolled hay, rolling hills, animals underfoot. If it wasn’t a field, then it was an ocean or a pond, and if it wasn’t outdoors, then it was inside, an apartment high above the city iridescent.
“It was always about ice—in Europe there was never ice—and endless bottles of wine, people pretending to both behave and not behave.
“She’s a drunk, he pretends to be drunk, she doesn’t drink, he never did, he’s a smoker, cigarettes—that’s the least of it. He takes pills and never eats, she takes pills and never eats. We should introduce the two of them.
“It was a singular childhood, of a time and place, of extreme exhilaration and a depth of darkness not spoken of and things overheard. It was a life of falling asleep on coats—fur, silk, cloth, and the exotic smells of perfume, sweat, cigar smoke, and other people’s beds. The sometimes brittle twittering of laughter in another room, a glass shattering. More than once somewhere between sleep and wakefulness I witnessed the urgent fumbling of adults stepping out of bounds. There would be a kiss, a grope, sometimes more, heated, rushed, charged with the threat of getting caught.”
My parents loved hotels: Le Meurice, Baur au Lac, Hotel de Russie. They would tip the housekeepers to keep an eye on me and go out for the night. If I got scared or lonely, I would call for things, cups of tea, needles and thread, extra washcloths that I’d cut into clothing for dolls. I liked it, I was alone but not really. I imagined it like being a family in a big house but not intruded upon. And the hotels were always trying to entertain me.”
“Is it true, that once at the Meurice they left a puppy on your bed?” I ask. It is the stuff of legend—like Dalí and his ocelots at the St. Regis—but is it true? “Yes,” she says. “That was Pistache.”
She takes a deep breath. “My parents were Americans who left America behind—they wanted something different, it was just after the war and many Americans came; there was a strong community of artists and writers. You have to keep things in context. When we came to Paris, international travel was still glamorous. When you went to Europe, you stayed, and Europe was recovering from the war and a serious state of depravation.
“On Sunday mornings sometimes my father and the young painter Ellsworth Kelly would take me to visit the bird market Marché aux Fleurs et aux Oiseaux. Ellsworth had grown up in New Jersey and knew everything about birds. We would sit in a cafe and make watercolors together. Ellsworth would order a coffee but drink my hot chocolate, and I would have his coffee. It was like a game between us: I could be big and he could be small.
“We came back to America once or twice a year, and every time people thought I was French, and of course in France they knew I was American. Wherever we went, I didn’t fit in. We would come back to the States and I’d covet children’s toys: cash registers, Silly Putty, Raggedy Ann. I thought that was what America was about—more toys.
“And so I wrote—I suppose to get their attention. It was the blindness of adults that inspired me; they didn’t see children, they didn’t think children saw them, and so they said and did whatever they wanted, oblivious to the fact that I was there, like a dog or cat. I found it both horrifying and boring. Everyone wanted to know how did I know so much. Some of my characters were thinly veiled versions of celebrated figures. The funny thing was they weren’t angry but, rather, titillated—everyone wanted to be in the books.” When I ask if she might reveal who the work was based on, she shrugs. “Some people are eccentric because they can afford to be—other people are simply eccentric.
“I grew up watching men and women locked in a deep dance, and writing was a way of finding language for the nuances of adult life—on the one hand, I knew too much, and on the other, I knew nothing at all. In the end, it’s all about love, isn’t it really? The romance, wanting to be accepted for who one is—validated, we say now. But the bottom line is love, enduring love, and safety. We are nothing all alone.”
“Tell me about Mrs. Profiterole,” I ask. “Where did she come from?” She lights up—after all these years, perhaps it is true that like Flaubert and Madame Bovary, Mrs. P. C’est Moi? I consider the elegant elongated nose, long ears, gigantic eyes. “Mrs. Profiterole was born in my imagination,” she says. “The lines between man and animal are like a thin membrane, but we are so arrogant as to claim top billing, and they are so generous and forgiving that they humor us. We must acknowledge that there are many different kinds of intelligences.
“Mrs. Profiterole was born Agnes Rossi in Washington, D.C. Her mother was a gift from the government of Africa, a member of the royal elephant family, and her father, a famous explorer’s son. It was bit of a scandal, as you can imagine, but as my parents used to say, how can a child be a scandal? After Agnes was born, a little girl with big ears, they couldn’t very well keep her mother in a cage, so they gave her a job taking tickets at the zoo. And in time the little girl grew up and went off to boarding school and came home engaged to Pierre A. Profiterole, a prominent Frenchman’s son. And so began The True and Further Adventures of Mrs. Pierre A. Profiterole. In 1962, young Agnes married Pierre, and they went to France because the young man had a job there and that was where they felt most comfortable. Her mother remained at the zoo, and when the couple came to visit her, they’d go for walks in Rock Creek Park and around the various monuments in Washington.
“Pierre Profiterole was a very old-fashioned man who didn’t find love in conventional ways or places and found it thrilling to be in the company of Mrs. P. ‘She fills our home with joy and enthusiasm,’ he said. ‘I never know what to expect, every day is a surprise, life is always exciting.’ How do they have sex? That’s what everyone wants to know. Well, that’s what adults want to know; children don’t think about that and so neither do I. And besides, it’s private.
“As the wife of an ambassador, Mrs. P. is often called upon to give advice. She so loves to give advice that she volunteers at the Travelers Aid desk at Charles de Gaulle—she speaks 16 languages, including a few she’s invented herself.
“Mrs. P. grows her hair out. It is long, like enormous threads of wire, steel wool. Rather than brushing, she bends her hair into sculptural creations, statues on her head. When Mrs. P. is dressing up, she can make an Eiffel Tower, a Roman Colosseum.
“She doesn’t wear high heels, she has very wide feet, inherited from her mother, and Mr. Profiterole is quite short—imagine the two of them dancing at the French president’s ball. However, Mrs. P. does wear high-heeled gloves as heels are a must in the City of Light.
“Every day she goes for a long walk through the Tuileries—instead of using a stick to push the sailboats she uses her trunk.
“When Mrs. P. gets dressed up she does her ears in different ways. All the designers send her special little things: ear bangs, brooches, ear clips. So incredibly beautiful.
Her car is a stretch limousine, meaning it stretches to accommodate whatever Mrs. P. collects along the way. People love to give her gifts. One time a very wealthy man gave her an island of her own; she gave it to an animal sanctuary to run as an old-age home.
“She goes on adventures with her good friend Mrs. Framboise—when I thought of that, it seemed hysterically funny. Mrs. Creampuff and Mrs. Raspberry. Together they like to go for a bath at the hammam near the zoo: a steam, grommage—rough brushing/scrubbing with black soap—and then they have mint tea and honey pastries.
“Do you know that Limoges made a pillbox that was modeled after her?
“The critics read the books as being about race, gender, ethnicity. For me, it had nothing to do with that. In fact I abhor the political and take pleasure in being politically incorrect, not just because I can be, but because I firmly believe that progress does not come from being correct—that any true innovation or progress comes from the edges, not the center.
“She was a great beauty, with long thick ears and odd wiry hairs coming up all over the place. Now that I am older, it is safe to admit that her hair was a nod to my own coming of age. I was fascinated and horrified by hair erupting on my body.
“She had legs that some days were long and thin and other days quite thick like her mother’s, but she was narrow waisted. And the most beautiful, enormous eyes. An early suitor reportedly drowned in them. Her eyelashes were so long that she had to wear custom-made glasses. People said she was funny looking—we are all funny, either on the inside or outside.”
She pauses, vulnerable for a moment. I move to ask a difficult question: “Joseph Beuys, the German artist, more than 40 years your senior…”
“We were very close,” she says. “As serious as he was, Beuys also could be very silly; he played the piano, loved to tell wild Nordic myths, and he worked in the circus! I was charmed by him; he was a soldier who had been in the war, a complex and romantic figure, simultaneously warm and very distant. And he was German and that seemed dangerous—he kept a gun, a Luger.”
“Was he your lover—I can’t help but ask?”
She pretends not to hear me.
Through a doorway, I notice her bedroom. There is a narrow bed—at the foot of the bed, a thick folded gray wool blanket and then on an old wooden luggage stand, an ancient suitcase, leather with thick wide straps, as much a sculpture as anything else. She sees me peering past her at the suitcase. “It was his,” she says. His initials are on the bag. J.B. “Suffice it to say I adored him; he was complex and playful and together we would go to the zoo. The zoo was a place of refuge for me. In every city, I would always go to the zoo. It was the thing that organized me, that let me get my bearings. Did you know that during the war, many zoos were badly damaged, and that some put down the larger animals for fear they would escape? Sheila, the elephant at the Belfast zoo, was walked nightly to a home in the suburbs and there’s the famous horribly true story of the wartime slaughter of animals at the Ueno Zoo in Japan.”
Our conversation takes a slightly darker turn. “There are other stories,” she says. “I went to Amsterdam with my parents, and we visited Anne Frank’s house. It wasn’t yet open to the public, and I found it terrifying—somehow I got it in my head that this is what happens to children. That was the backdrop for The Night Mr. Profiterole Fell Into the Canal.
“It was a difficult time in my parents’ marriage; we were traveling through Europe, seeing much of the destruction from the war. An American friend took us to one of the concentration camps. It was a living hell, and when we returned to Amsterdam, my parents left me alone and went off to smoke pot and hire a prostitute—I don’t know how I knew that, I wasn’t supposed to. Anyway, I went out for a walk and managed to get lost and was terrified and somehow I met a policewoman—the first policewoman I’d ever met, very striking, she actually looked like a man, and she walked me back to the hotel. As we walked I told her I was a writer and asked if she had any stories; she told me that whenever they found a dead man in one of the canals, the first thing they did was check the zipper of his pants, because apparently there was a very high rate of drunken men stopping to urinate into the canal and then losing their balance, falling in, and drowning. Before assuming they were murdered, they checked their flies.
“Later I did wonder if perhaps I shouldn’t have written that one for children, although it’s told in a very humorous way—Mr. P., getting silly, has a bit too much champagne and falls into the canal, and Mrs. P. has to use her trunk to fish him out. In many ways, this was the end of a very safe period in children’s literature. I think about American classics like Blueberries for Sal—1948, a time of innocence—and then am reminded of the story behind Curious George. I don’t know if many people know that it was written and drawn by Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Rey, German Jews who fled the Nazis on homemade bicycles, carrying the manuscript for Curious George with them. These days, when one says ‘after the war,’ no one knows what you’re talking about. But the war changed everything, an enormous amount was lost.
“And then in the 1960s Mrs. P. had become a kind of celebrity, and I got invited everywhere: Mrs. P. goes round the world, Mrs. P. in the Galápagos, Mrs. P. and the cats of Capri, Mrs. P. swims the Blue Grotto, Mrs. P. eats gelato, Mrs. P. studies at Le Cordon Bleu and learns to make eggs 36 ways. My contract specifies that Mrs. P. does not luge, paraglide, bungee jump, or skydive; however, she did once try to water ski behind the QE2. And then, finally, Mrs. P. took a bad trip.
“I was invited to go on safari in Africa—paid a fortune by a travel magazine. I envisioned it like Roots, traveling back to the ancestral homeland and doing a kind of meet and greet, but it was part of a big-game hunt and I was profoundly sickened, felt my innocence was taken. I’d seen a new kind of war, man against an animal, for no real reason other than to dominate. It was there that I realized how deeply emotionally connected I was to Mrs. P. and her pachyderm background—it was like watching a family member be murdered. And that was the end of the books about Mrs. P. I felt defeated, undone, left without words.”
She stops, wipes her eyes. “I suppose there is a very peculiar blend of fact and fiction that makes for one’s life as a storyteller. We have our own lives, and fictional characters have lives of their own—they carry on after the story ends. A literary birth or life is no more or less than any other. I never thought of my work as written for children—it was written for anyone who takes pleasure in imagining the possibilities, for anyone who has referred to an animal as their friend.”
“You never allowed there to be a movie about Mrs. P.?”
“I prefer to keep her to myself in my imagination. Like how a song can get stuck in your head—I worry that someone else’s version of her would get stuck in mine, and I’d lose my vision. They all want to play Mrs. P., that part of it has never stopped. They come begging: Meryl Streep, Uma Thurman…Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt moved to France to try to convince me, even Madonna had her moment. I have to say I like Natalie Portman, if ever there was someone who could step into the role, I think she has the qualities of humor and good manners, but for now we wait.”
Speaking of waiting, I mention the rumor that she’s working on a new novel. “I am always working,” she says, nodding toward a small desk piled high with notebooks. “I have been writing for 60 years, but I am always just beginning.” Suddenly, she checks her watch, a tiny ancient clock face wrapped around her wrist with a thin silk band. “We must go,” she says. “We’re late.” Quickly we are out of the house and on the street. “It’s Saturday,” she says. “Every Saturday at 4:30 p.m., we meet. I have known him since I was 7 years old, can you imagine? And then later, he was married and I was not and so it could not be. Now his wife is dead and here we are. Then he was twice my age, now it is not so much.” I nod, pleased that she feels free to tell me such things. “It’s nice,” she says with a sparkle in her eye. “We walk around Paris, we have tea, and sometimes we even go to the zoo.”
As we approach the bridge, she bids me a fond adieu and I watch as she walks off. On the other side, I see an elegant older man, wearing a cap and carrying a cane, take her arm and together they walk toward the Tuileries and I notice the color of the sky deepening, Paris is glowing—the blue hour.