Welcome to Lunch in 300 Words©!
The following are short profiles of six of the contributors to Paris Was Ours. Called Lunch in 300 Words©, these quick takes describe my encounters with these neat writers and what they had to say about themselves and their work. The most recent one in the series is about the novelist Lily Tuck, whom I met for lunch on New York's Upper East Side. (To read the earlier profiles, please scroll down the page.)
“Paris was such a shock,” Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni recalls over lunch at the kind of tiny, cozy restaurant -- called ‘Le Cosy,’ in fact (although the name actually means ‘divan’) -- that Paris does so well. A native Londoner, Natasha arrived in the French capital in her twenties after living in both L.A. and New York and found it an altogether tougher, if rewarding, environment. “If you say you’re sorry in France, you’re dead,” she points out while in Britain, of course, that phrase is repeated as often as breath.
Elegant and slender, Natasha orders fish for lunch, while passing on the wine. “I remember feeling really scared,” she says, describing her first job in town. And why not, given that her boss was Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel? Never mind, he turned out to be unexpectedly warm as Natasha discovered when she was sick with hepatitis and “yellow as a banana,” in her words, and the designer and his staff rallied around her, nursing her back to health.
Later, Natasha took up journalism, writing for another legend, Women’s Wear Daily’s John Fairchild (whom she calls teasingly “the Ayatollah of fashion”). Then it was on to a stint as European editor of Harper’s Bazaar, with time out to write Sam Spiegel, her well-regarded biography of “Hollywood’s most iconoclastic producer and miracle worker who went from penniless refuge to show biz legend,” as the book’s cover -- fast-talking, like its subject -- puts it.
Fraser-Cavassoni and her two daughters live deep within the Right Bank. “Like Coco Chanel, I believe that everything begins on the Rue Cambon,” she teases. No wonder she took on the daunting subject of “Understanding Chic” in her essay of the same name in Paris Was Ours.
“I’m a gun for hire,” she adds. “I love it, because I love the writing.” The world does, too, apparently: Assouline is publishing her book on Chanel fashion next year and she contributes to British Vogue and Architectural Digest, among many other publications...
Our choice of restaurants – A La Turka on New York's Upper East Side -- is surprising, given that Turkey is one of the rare places that doesn’t much interest Joe Queenan. Still, he adapts admirably, ordering an okra dish and sparkling water. What does interest him? Just about everywhere and everything else.
Having lunch with Joe is enough to send you home to take a nap -- he’s a jukebox of opinions, all amazingly informed, iconoclastic, funny. Raised in Philadelphia, his life was changed by a post-college scholarship to study in Paris. He sat through a class or two at the Sorbonne before dropping out in favor of inhaling French culture, which he did via the Cinemathèque, the Theâtre de Champs-Elysées, a 3-times-a-week Comédie-Française habit, and more (which he documents hilariously in “Friends of My Youth,” his essay in Paris Was Ours). “I devoured all that stuff,” he recalls. “I just went to play after play.”
The author of nine books, including his recent, harrowing memoir, Closing Time, Queenan started out writing fiction, then moved on to journalism after experiencing an epiphany at a party full of “loser poets and small press people.” The evening’s libations -- beer cans in an ice-filled bathtub – took him over the edge. “I wanted to be in a room where people drank Champagne, not Old Milwaukee.”
The title of his first published article -- “Ten Things I Hate About Public Relations” -- was Queenanesquely direct. He recoiled, particularly, from the word ‘unique,’ which seems to turn up in every press release. “The word ‘unique’ is a sign of a hapless, pathetic human being,” he states, before moving on to a couple of dozen other subjects, including: sportswriters, Oscar Wilde, WQXR, the hideousness of Paris’s Tour Montparnasse, ditto for Second Avenue, ditto for Brooklyn. And the National Magazine Awards? Don’t get him started.
Joe is married to an Englishwoman, lives in Westchester County, and has two children (both pursuing graduate degrees). Moving to Paris was “a complete life-changing experience,” he says, as I call for the check. “Unless you’re an idiot, it’s going to be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
As he hobbles off -- tall, handsome, and sporting a cane (bad knee) – into the raw ugliness of Second Avenue, one word comes, inescapably, to mind: Unique.
Julie Lacoste describes herself as “just an ordinary person,” and if you sat down with her for lunch, as I did, at a café near the Port Royal Métro station in Paris, you might at first think she was right. This pretty young woman, with startlingly green eyes and dangling earrings, is modest in demeanor and so soft spoken that it borders on self effacing.
The facts of Julie’s early life, too, might seem unremarkable. She grew up in a small village in Bordeaux -- “always around horses,” she says -- and her first job was as an unpaid trainee at a stable. “I’m just like other people,” she insists.
But like so many of Julie’s readers, in France and abroad, I disagree. It’s what happened after she moved to Paris, married, had two children, then separated from her husband, that sets her apart.
In 2008, when she was 31 and employed but poorly paid, she found herself unable to afford housing for herself and her two small sons, Jules and Orphée (then just a toddler). For a year and a half, the trio lived an improvised life, moving from one friend’s apartment or guest room to the next, a trajectory she described movingly in a blog (http://untempsderetard.blogspot.com). One of Julie’s posts is translated and reprinted as “It’s My Home, That’s All,” in Paris Was Ours.
“My blog did me a lot of good to write,” she recalls over a salad of chicken livers and greens. “It allowed me to relax.” But any calm vanished for a time after she was featured in Le Monde, the most respected newspaper in France.
Literally overnight, she became a public figure, and a polarizing one at that. “I had no idea the dimensions it would assume,” she says. “It was astonishing." She was instantly famous -- and “really scared” to be so, she adds. While many readers praised Julie’s courage in speaking out, others “attacked me personally, without knowing me. They criticized my life choices.”
The story of this reluctant heroine has a happy ending – she and her sons now live in a government-subsidized, three-room apartment in the eighteenth arrondissement. Julie has “no regrets” about going public with her situation, she adds, as she heads back to the library where she works as a clerk. “Now it seems so far away.”
Even so, the problem of homelessness is still very much on her mind. Which is why she’s chosen not to take her blog down, even though she hasn’t posted a comment on it in over a year. “I think it can help people.”
“I live in a triple universe,” explains Véronique Vienne, a Frenchwoman who returned to her native Paris several years ago after spending decades in the United States. “With my family, I live the French life. With my American and British friends, I live the expat life.”
So what’s the third one? “At 3 p.m., I live the New York life,” she says, referring to the moment that many Europe-based journalists come to dread –- when East Coast editors arrive at their desks, ready to make demands.
Véronique began her working life as a graphic designer, went on to become an art director, then metamorphosed into a writer. After beginning her journalistic career in English -- penning magazine articles as well as The Art of Doing Nothing, among other bestselling books -- she now also writes in her native language, a process she describes as “a totally different way of reasoning, of constructing an argument.”
Returning to France "was a culture shock," Véronique recalls over lunch at Café Gitane, a Moroccan-French restaurant in New York's West Village. “It was a very steep learning curve.” Still, it wasn’t as hard for her as it was for one of her friends, for whom -- as Véronique writes in “L’Argent is No Object,” her witty essay in Paris Was Ours -- returning to live in the French capital was “so grueling that she was exhibiting symptoms usually associated with road rage.”
There’s a sheen to Véronique’s appearance, as well as her prose. She’s alert looking, with shining black eyes and, today, a shimmery pearl necklace that offsets her silver hair. She’s perpetually animated – fun in two languages -- and heads out into the world each day as if on safari, returning with wry and wise stories to tell (and write). Today her talk meanders among: teaching (she’s on her way to give a class on design at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan); the differences between America and France (a perpetual topic); and a much-anticipated upcoming visit to see her grown daughter in Vermont.
Refreshingly, Véronique orders desert, a chocolate bread pudding that tastes shockingly good. We linger over espresso for a time before kissing goodbye, deux fois, of course. “This is my town, too,” she reminds me, with a smile, before heading down Jane Street and into the teeming city that's now her second home.
Lily Tuck arrives at our lunch directly from the past -- which is to say from Paris. She was born there, the daughter of German refugees, and has just returned from visiting family friends and basking in her first language. When she goes back, “I feel a little bit like I’m going back to roots,” she says.
In truth, this writer’s roots extend in many directions, from Peru, where she lived as a small child, to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she moved with her mother after the divorce of her parents and where she still lives today. Hers was a dislocated childhood, with summer holidays spent between her father in Rome and her mother in New England. “I’d go back to Maine and feel very schizophrenic,” Lily recalls. Occasionally the two worlds collided, perhaps most dramatically when, as a teenager, she turned up in the haute-WASP enclave of Dark Harbor in a bikini, then a novelty (and a shockingly daring one).
In “My Literary Paris,” Lily’s subtle, amusing essay in Paris Was Ours, she describes her experiences as a graduate student at the Sorbonne, studying American literature under French structuralists(!). It was, at times, a surreal experience; the teachers were “often rudely dismissive or cruel,” she writes. Even so, it was there that she resolved to become a writer. Lily is the author of five novels, including The News from Paraguay, which won the National Book Award in 2004.
We meet at Island, a Manhattan restaurant that is, in the way of Russian nesting dolls, an island of sophistication in the larger island that is the Upper East Side. We order Cobb salads, and they are almost incredibly light.
Lily has a smooth, understated elegance – the best kind. She’s thin with glossy gray hair and always seems impeccably dressed, today in a delicate-looking linen blouse with chunky purple beads at her throat. She exudes a quiet luxury. Still, when she refers to the life she shared with her late husband, a lawyer named Edward Tuck, as a “luxurious” one, it seems clear that she’s referring to an emotional wellbeing, as much as the economic kind. Her most recent novel I Married You for Happiness, called "A triumph" by Publisher’s Weekly, which named it Book of the Month, describes just such an alliance.
Like all of Tuck’s books, this one is understated and carefully wrought. It has a placid demeanor, rather like the novelist herself, who, finishing her iced coffee, unfurls a green umbrella and heads out into the afternoon rain.
Funny and fast talking -- a quintessential New Yorker –– Mark Gaito became an unexpected European after he moved from Manhattan to Paris twenty years ago or so. Since then, he’s been a keen, amusing observer of so much, from the adulterous tendencies of the Gallic male to the rustic mores of la France profonde. “You have no idea...,” he says, using a catch-all phrase that sums up his incredulity at the world around him.
A producer, writer, salesman (“I can sell ice to Eskimos”), and businessman, Mark began his career in advertising and television in New York. He’s worked all over Europe since his arrival in the French capital, a picaresque experience that he describes in amusing, culture-shocked detail in “Chantal’s Gift,” his essay in Paris Was Ours.
We meet for lunch at Alcazar, a brasserie near the Odéon that's favored by the publishing industry and buzzes with excitement and literary intrigue. Balding and animated, Mark seems like the Bronx distilled. Even so, his European side has a way of asserting itself, from his relatively elegant dress (today he’s wearing an open-necked blue Oxford cloth shirt) to his appreciation of a good pâté de foie gras, which we share at the start of our meal.
“I’m full of all kinds of stories,” he says, before launching into one about a Neapolitan gangster who instructed him -- “seriously!” – in the best way to kill an octopus. Mark’s descriptions of the pick-up action in the Luxembourg Gardens are eye opening (suffice it to say that few of the people who read on its benches ever actually turn a page). And then there’s Correzze, his wife’s home region and the butt of many of Mark’s jokes, a place he describes as being “inaccessible by car, train, or plane” and so rural that there are still outhouses in use.
For his part, he favors city life. “My idea of the country is you go to the Luxembourg Gardens, look at the trees, then head to the Dôme,” he teases, referring to the famous Montparnasse bistro. As for returning to Manhattan, it doesn’t figure into his plans, not even for his next vacation. “I’ve had two offers, New York in August or Capri. Is there a possible choice?”
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