We called it our Spending Year , a shopping spree of Europe that came about when my novel, "Von Ryan's Express," hit the best-seller list. (Earlier we'd been living on money borrowed on my life insurance. Now, bankrolled by the book's success, we took off on our dream trip.)
It was the first trek to Europe for my wife, Dody, and my fourth (transport for my first--during World War II--was provided by the U. S. Army Air Corps, and the amenities, such as they were, were provided by the Italian and German governments, I having been a prisoner of war).
Our journey began in France and wended its way to Switzerland, Italy and England. Along the way, our purchases included a luxury automobile, a fur coat, various watches, custom-tailored clothing and other incidentals for the two of us. Added to that were gifts for our sons plus remembrances for friends and other kin. As noted, this spending money came from my novel (my sixth but the first to hit the best-seller list).
For me, however, there would be more to the trip than scattering lire, pounds and francs. It was to be a sentimental journey tinged with bitter nostalgia. During World War II I had been a prisoner at PG 21, a camp near Chieti, Italy. When the Italians surrendered, I was transferred to German custody at Stalag Luft III, about 90 miles south of Berlin.
On this latter-day trip, there were places I wanted to revisit. The Crillon in Paris was our first stop. I'd been a guest at this remarkable hotel years earlier, just after having been liberated from a German prison camp. I told the clerk that the first time I'd stayed at the Crillon it had cost me 20 cents a night. That was in the spring of '45 when the hotel was the Independence Club, a residence for officers on combat leave. By then, combat was finished; I was on leave from a processing center for liberated prisoners. I had a forged three-day pass, having already used my issued pass. After three days at the Crillon, I was so impressed with the billet that I forged another pass for an additional three days. (I've never felt a twinge of guilt about it, either.)
Before we left Paris, I stopped by the Hotel du Louvre where I'd also stayed during the war. I stood in the lobby remembering the confused young man I'd been back then, bewildered at being in Paris after long months in Italian and German prison camps. I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried.
Paris was good to us on this postwar trip, but as a spending spree it was a washout. Perhaps it was our timing. On our first full day in town, a Monday, most of the shops were closed, and it was cold and rainy. My wife, who is seldom to be denied, found a shop that remained open to catch the Monday trade and shipped assorted perfumes to a long list of friends and kinfolk. On a less restricted shopping day she bought driving gloves and shoes at Galleries Lafayette, for use with a car later purchased in London.
Our happiest Paris find is hanging in the room where my wife walks her treadmill and I type: four first-day-of-issue postcards celebrating the 100th anniversary of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's birthday, each with a different full-color reproduction of a major Toulouse-Lautrec work.
So, you see, despite being nouveau riche, w e weren't totally crass. We spent as many days visiting museums, galleries and historical sites as we did hunting for places to squander a buck.
Now in Zurich as a civilian, I spotted a watch in a shop window on the Bahnhofstrasse. The open-work band was of wrought gold scattered with tiny diamonds, and diamonds were on the watch face itself. It was exactly the watch for my wife. She protested but relented after the jeweler declared that it was one of a kind, designed by an Omega craftsman especially for an exhibition. It was also in Zurich that we bought her fur coat--black Russian broadtail with a red-and-black silk print lining.
Zurich is where I got my watch, too. I wanted one just like my navigators hack watch: stainless steel, sweep second hand, black face, luminous dial. Rolex made exactly what I had in mind, and I still have it.
From Zurich we took the train to Milan, another shopper's paradise, with all the internationally-famous name brands and boutiques tucked in everywhere.
It was in Milan that we had our most expensive taxi ride, yard for yard. Outside the train station we asked a cabbie to take us to the Excelsior. He burst out laughing and tossed our bags into the trunk, installed us in the back seat and, still laughing--what a jolly fellow--made a U-turn and stopped in front of a stunning building.
"Hotel Excelsior," he said.