The velvet hours, p.32
The Velvet Hours, p.32Alyson Richman
I treasured these moments with my children, their eyes wide, their imagination open. It was one thing to finally see my stories published, but my greatest pleasure was when I sat in the big cushioned chair in our Manhattan living room and entertained my children with my stable of tales. I was still young, barely in my thirties, but how I relished capturing their attention! It was hard in those moments not to think of Marthe, all those years ago, when I sat across from her in her parlor, clinging to her every word.
So the story of the Haggadah became a legend in our household. I went into great detail about how Solomon had labored for hours. How with the thinnest tip of his brush, he applied the gelatin, seed by seed, so the colorful pigment that created the red and blue feathers of the decorative bird was reattached to the ancient parchment. The children always breathed the sweetest sigh of relief when I described how the dealer took the Haggadah from Monsieur Armel and handed him enough money to pay the agency that was assisting with our tickets on the SS Angola, thus ensuring our passage across the ocean to safer shores. I peppered into the story how on the same ship we met the creators of the children’s book series Curious George, Monsieur and Madame Rey, who, like us, would eventually find their way to New York and became lifelong friends.
* * *
But there was a part of the story that I could never share with my children.
You see, shortly after our arrival in Marseille, and just before the Germans marched into Paris, Eva also came down with the measles, and her case was far worse than Leo’s. We waited for days in that dingy hotel hoping that she would recover quickly. But the child’s fever would not abate. Her face flushed scarlet. Her chest was covered with a terrible rash, tiny red circles that looked as though she had been stung by a thousand angry bees.
The appointment with the doctor who issued the health certificates, the last bit of paperwork necessary for our exit visas, could not be postponed. And we could not exchange our tickets on the ship for new ones. If we waited any longer, we’d never have enough time to get ourselves to Lisbon. Monsieur Armel tried to explain our situation with the organization that was arranging our travel and paperwork, and he was told nothing could be changed. There were too few boats, and our visas would have an expiration date.
“Aren’t there any other ships?” Rachel begged. And even if we had the time to find another ship, we wouldn’t have been able to afford the passage, as our current tickets could not be refunded.
“Eva will not pass the health examination,” Solomon said in a voice steeped in resignation. “And if we were to try to sneak her on board, we would risk infecting those on the ship. I could not live with myself if that happened.”
Rachel looked exhausted. She could barely manage her words through her fatigue.
“What are we going to do?”
Solomon spoke carefully. “You and Leo will go now with the Armels. If we’re lucky, Leo will pass his medical exam now that the fever has dissipated. I will stay behind with Eva until she gets better.”
“I’m not going without you,” Rachel said, pushing through her tears. “And I’m not leaving without Eva, either.”
“Yes, you will,” Solomon insisted. “I’ll find a way to eventually join you. You know how resourceful I am . . .”
She shook her head. “I will not risk separating our family.” Her voice had suddenly become stronger. Almost defiant. She stood up and looked at him with fierce eyes. “No, Solomon. No.”
* * *
The following afternoon we departed for our medical exams, leaving Rachel as she tried to cool Eva’s fever with an ice bath and cold compresses, with Leo still fast asleep.
The waiting room outside the doctor’s office was filled with immigrants. Some dressed in dirty pinafores, others in their Sunday best. The doctor examined me first, his stethoscope cold on my chest, his mallet striking my knee. He listened to my breathing and then felt my abdomen with a quick, brisk touch. With the same mechanical movements, he stamped my paperwork and the Armels’, clearing the way for the three of us to leave France. But none of us felt joy or the slightest pang of relief. We felt something far more terrible. When we returned later that afternoon and looked at Rachel with her tired eyes, her daughter resting on her lap and her fingers laced through Leo’s hands, we were flooded with a sense of guilt.
* * *
And so this chapter of my life story I hid away deep within the channels of my heart. I held my own children close, smelling the fragrance of their hair and the sweet scent of milk from their warm cheeks, and I created my own version of the story when we all arrived in South America and then, years later, made our way to New York. When my daughter asked about my pearl necklace, gently tugging on the emerald green clasp, I placed my hand over hers and told her how I inherited my affection for butterflies from my grandmother. That true love felt like the beating of wings.
* * *
It is a painful truth that every life has its own regret. With Marthe, I believe it was the fact that she never fully made peace with my father. That she died before receiving absolution from him, even though she had gifted all of her worldly possessions to both of us in the end.
But for me, it was the reality of having to leave Solomon and his family behind. That was the shadow not only I, but also Alex and his father, would take with us to our grave.
The day we left the Weckstein family in Marseille, we all felt that our hearts were ripped from our chests.
Monsieur Armel and the rest of us did not want to leave them. At the last minute, we all agreed we could try to find a way to book a later passage on a ship out of Lisbon. But Solomon knew more than anyone that the tickets could not be refunded, and that this was our only chance to leave.
“I have some money from my grandmother,” I insisted. But Solomon would not hear of it. “We have our children,” Solomon said, shaking his head no. “My family is together.” He looked at Monsieur Armel, who had taken him under his wing since he arrived in Paris five years before. “And you must now go with yours.”
To this day, I can still hear his words in my head like a requiem. At that point, we had no idea of places like Auschwitz or Treblinka. We left Marseille convincing ourselves that somehow Solomon and his family would find a way to get their visas before our ship departed from Lisbon. And should that not happen, they’d find a way to keep safe.
And so we loaded the car to make our way through the Pyrénées, a three-day journey to Lisbon with hardly a word uttered among us. Before leaving, we had peered into the room of the two children. Leo was still recovering; he appeared as thin as paper. But Eva was still in the throes of fever, and her face was flushed a painful red.
But it was the image of Solomon in his black suit, stained with salt rings, his delicate white hands clasped in front of him, that was almost too painful for words. For we all knew that it was he who had restored the damaged Haggadah. It was he who, in the end, had really saved us. His sacrifice, made so quietly and without drama, was lost on no one.
* * *
The novels that line my bookshelves now are the same ones that my mother once loved. The French classics, the fairy tales. We also have an extensive library with rare Jewish books, ones that Alex doesn’t like to keep in his shop on Madison Avenue. In the corner, there is a special section for my own novels that I’ve had published over the past decade, in twenty different languages, that Alex always chirps proudly about to our friends.
But this is the book I never published. The one that reveals the story of my father, my grandmother, and ultimately my guilt about Solomon and his family. The secret that I left behind an apartment in Paris, with its rightful owner forever presiding above the marble mantel. The key to its front door sits in the side of my desk drawer, where my children and grandchildren will someday find it when I’m no longer here.
Shortly after Alex and I arrived in South America, I discovered that my father had perished after being
Like everyone who looks back on their life, my hope is that my children will see me clearly and without judgment. As a woman not so unlike her grandmother. A woman partly of reinvention, a woman of shadow and of light.
PARIS (APF) Monday May 16, 2010 6:49 pm
By Special Correspondent Martin Fletcher
An apartment in the ninth arrondissement of Paris was opened today, revealing an opulent, art-laden home that appeared to be untouched for nearly seventy years.
Dominique Debos, an estate assessor, said, “It was like stumbling into the castle of Sleeping Beauty.”
Most interesting was a portrait discovered above the mantel of the original owner, Marthe de Florian, by the nineteenth-century portrait painter Giovanni Boldini. All that is known is that Madame de Florian’s granddaughter inherited the apartment in 1940 and appears to have paid from abroad the maintenance until her death this year. Her heirs had no idea that the apartment existed until notified by their grandmother’s attorney in Paris.
“It is a snapshot of a lost way of life,” Debos said. “On the shelves, we discovered rare Chinese porcelains covered in a veil of dust and an original Mickey Mouse doll. In one of Madame de Florian’s desk drawers, love letters—tied in satin ribbon—were found.”
A neighbor, forty-eight-year-old Alain Hommeriche, said, “I wondered why it was so quiet next door.”
The painting of Madame de Florian by Giovanni Boldini is expected to go up for auction later this year.
In 2014, my dear friend Kara Mendelsohn sent me an article that would become the inspiration for this novel. It described the recent discovery of a mysterious apartment in Paris that had been shut for nearly seventy years, ever since the start of World War II. The heirs to the apartment had no idea it even existed until it was first mentioned in the last will and testament of their recently deceased grandmother. When the apartment was finally opened after all that time, it served as a time capsule, as its sumptuous Belle Époque–era furniture, Chinese porcelains, and other fine works from the nineteenth century filled the rooms. But the most intriguing item was a painting of a beautiful woman set in a magnificent gilded frame. It was of the heirs’ great-grandmother, the original owner of the apartment, who was a courtesan by the name of Marthe de Florian.
The painting of a young Madame de Florian in her silk gown, its billowing, gauzy sleeves slipping off her bare shoulders, displayed a woman of obvious sensual charms. The auctioneer who was eventually called in to appraise the apartment’s antiques and valuable works of art, a Monsieur Choppin-Janvry, suggested the portrait was done by the nineteenth-century artist Giovanni Boldini, who was renowned for his portraits of famous socialites like Consuelo Vanderbilt and Marchesa Luisa Casati. The auctioneer later confirmed his suspicion that Boldini had painted the portrait after he found love letters from Boldini, tied in satin ribbon, in Marthe’s bedroom vanity. The painting of Marthe de Florian would later be sold at auction for 2.1 million euros, a record price for a Boldini painting.
As many of my readers already know, all my novels are inspired by questions to which I do not know the answers. Reading about this mysterious apartment, my mind was filled with them. Who was Marthe de Florian, and how did she come to be painted by the acclaimed painter Giovanni Boldini? How did a woman born Mathilde Beaugiron, the daughter of an impoverished laundress, become a “kept woman” of cultivated luxury and pleasure, living in such a wondrous apartment in the bustling ninth arrondissement? And most important, why did her granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron, who some historians believe was the writer Solange Beaugiron-Beldo, close up her grandmother’s apartment just as the Germans were approaching Paris, and never return to it again?
There were few published facts to go on at the time I began writing the novel. Little was known about Marthe de Florian except her original birth name, Mathilde Beaugiron. In 1888, a census listed “seamstress” as Mathilde Beaugiron’s occupation. Records also indicate that Mathilde gave birth to two boys, both of whom were named Henri. One died shortly after birth and the second, Henri Beaugiron, was said to have grown up to become a pharmacist. Henri’s paternity was not revealed on his birth certificate.
The exact date that Boldini painted the portrait of Marthe de Florian is also surrounded by conflicting reports. A 2010 newspaper article in the Independent, a UK newspaper, stated it was painted in 1898, but other sources suggest it was painted in 1888 when Marthe would have been around twenty-four. After studying Boldini’ s paintings, I believe the portrait to have been painted closer to 1898, when Marthe was thirty-four years of age, not twenty-four. I don’t believe the image depicted of the woman in the portrait is one of an ingénue, but rather, of a mature woman who was in full command of her beauty and charms. And so I have written the novel using that date. Neither I, nor my reseach associates in Europe, were able to locate an official death certificate in France for Madame de Florian. In recent months a letter has surfaced written in Henri Beaugiron’s hand, which states her death to be August 30, 1939. For the purposes of the novel, I have made her death eight months later in order to coincide with Solange’s departure from Paris just prior to the German Occupation.
Solange Beaugiron remains as equally mysterious as her grandmother. I was lucky enough to have my dear friend and art historian, Costanza Bertolotti, discover a 1938 article from the French newspaper L’Humanité that references a Solange Beaugiron. According to the article, Solange was the daughter of a pharmacist and by the age of seventeen had already become an aspiring playwright. Her first fully written play was entitled Miss Mary, and Solange sent it to the theater Danou in the hope it would be performed. The article further states that, unfortunately, the theater put on a play eerily similar to hers that was attributed to another writer, André Birabeau. Solange publicly accused the director of the theater of first sending her play to Birabeau. I have used this morsel of information by making Solange a budding writer in the novel.
But that is all I could determine about the true facts of Marthe’s and Solange’s life, and so I have had to largely imagine the rest. In the end, we will never know the exact reason that this beautiful apartment was sealed for seventy years, nor why Marthe’s granddaughter continued to pay the maintenance on it until her death but never actually returned there. Just like Marthe and Solange, the apartment maintains its secrets and seduces us to enter into a world that defies time and exalts art and beauty.
Many people helped me with the research for this novel. Costanza Bertolotti, who assisted with locating and translating the resource material and also provided a wonderful sounding board as I fleshed out what details and facts we could discover. Kathy Abbot, an amazing costume historian, who assisted me on the research for all of the underpinnings and other details of the clothes worn in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I was fortunate enough to visit her at Towson College and look at the costume archives there, to see up close the capes, gowns, and corsets worn during the nineteenth century, so I could accurately bring Marthe’s wardrobe to life.
To Lisa Leff, an author and professor at American University, I send a special thank-you for assisting me with the historical research of the novel and going over the manuscript with me. Your wealth of knowledge in French Jewish history proved invaluable. Thank you also to Gail Shirazi at the Library of Congress for sharing your wonderful contacts with me, and to Anne Brener for introducing me to the beautiful Zemirot Yisrael. And to Diane Afoum
Martin Fletcher, journalist and author extraordinaire, who generously agreed to write the newspaper “article” that appears at the end of the novel. Pieralvise Zorzi, who chivalrously escorted me to Caffè Florian in Venice as well as beautiful Ferrara, Italy. Charlotte Gordon, who showed me the images of the sumptuous Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC, that became the seeds for Marthe’s love of Asian ceramics. And of course, my cherished early readers, Nikki Koklanaris, Kathy Johnson, Victoria Leventhal, Robbin Siegel, Tina Spitz, and, my mother, Ellen Richman. A special thank-you for Gus Kasper for being a wonderful intern, Shauna D. Jones for helping verify my French inheritance laws, and Jardine Libare, my dear kimono sister, I’m lucky you’re only a phone call away.
To my wonderful and supportive agent, Sally Wofford-Girand, who has nurtured each of my six novels with great care and always keeps me reaching higher and higher with each book. To my editor, Kate Seaver, and publisher, Leslie Gelbman, at Berkley Books, thank you for providing my novels with a wonderful home and support as they are ushered into the world.
Lastly, the biggest thank-you of all to my husband, Stephen Gordon, who is always on hand to both solve a pesky plot issue or to provide legal expertise. You will forever be the dark-haired green-eyed boy in all of my novels.
The author references shadow and light in the novel. Discuss the aspects of shadow and light in Marthe de Florian’s life, as well as in Solange’s. Do you think both women come to terms with their pasts at the end of their lives? Or is there an element of regret?
The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes