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MEMOIR

Those Were the Days, My Friend : I'LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS. By Art Buchwald (G.P. Putnam: $24.95, 236 pp.)

September 22, 1996|Dick Roraback | Dick Roraback is a frequent contributor to Book Review. He worked at the Paris Herald Tribune for 18 years

We carried hardly any luggage, but if we ever declared our dreams . . . they would have been worth thousands.

--Art Buchwald, on arriving in Paris in 1948

****

For a while there, we shared the same ancient telephone. I was the scruffy unfettered sports editor of the Paris Herald Tribune. He was . . . Buchwald.

At random, I would grab the telephone, on deadline, croak "Lana Turner? Sure, and I'm Eleanor Roosevelt"--and hang up.

Or he would grab the phone: "The Giants? The Giants? How the hell would I know? I hope they lost. Big!"

He was brash, natty, bombastic. We were all a little in awe. But not much. And then there was the night he swooped down on the phone, beating me by a fingernail, trumpeted "The Duke of Windsor" and stood uncharacteristically silent for two beats. Then, in a moment for the ages, he said, "It's for you."

In truth, the high-pitched, estimable Windsor only wanted the scores of the British Open golf tournament, but the call was indicative, both of the gloriously chaotic ambience of the newspaper Buchwald made his own and of the unfathomable rise in the columnist's fortunes--unfathomable even to him.

Six or seven years earlier, an ex-GI built like a duffel bag had come to Paris with the requisite dream, a bag of brisket and cream soda, and three pieces of advice from his sisters: Don't admit you're a Yank, don't drink the water and always use a condom.

He spoke no French--still doesn't--and he didn't know the toilet attendant at the Tuileries let alone the rich, raunchy and renowned. Now they were calling him. Lana and "Dukey," sure, and Audrey Hepburn and Somerset Maugham and Lena Horne and Pablo Picasso and Ed Murrow. I know; I answered the telephone. And before he left France, he wasn't just dropping their names, they were dropping his.

What he had were guts, drive, wanderlust, imagination, a skin thicker than Saddam's bunker and a generosity of spirit he won't admit to even to this day.

It's all there in this rollicking chronicle, a simply told tale of life in the social stratosphere, a book easier to read than the top line of an eye chart. And the more remarkable because it's true.

"I'll Always Have Paris" is the second of three memoirs. The first, "Leaving Home," treats Buchwald's childhood in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York, his three-year hitch as a World War II Marine in the Pacific and three years at USC. "I'll Always Have Paris" is the Europe years, a hilarious hegira from the grungy Polish hotel in Montparnasse to the yachts of the "Onassi," aboard one of which six bar stools are covered with the skin of the penis of a single whale.

From picking up girls in the Louvre (best line, in front of the Mona Lisa: "I know the guy who has the original") to squiring Gina Lolabrigida to a Monaco gala.

From peasant palate (the Tribune's Bob Yoakum, in "The Paper": "His idea of gourmet dining was to begin his meal with creme caramel") to fake but fervent gastronome (Tip: Just tell the sommelier, "Jean, could you perhaps dig up something from that filthy cellar of yours that can do justice to this steack au poivre?").

From GI Bill cheapster (he paid a really poor guy $2 a month to answer "present" at the Alliance Francaise) to bar-hopping in St. Moritz with Agnelli, Opel, Niarchos and Rossi ("Here we are with $4 billion between us and not one person at this table is going to get laid tonight").

From pissoir to palace. . . .

There's some personal stuff, too, told without guile or style but the more effective for it: the courtship of Ann McGarry, beloved wife, who died in 1994; the adoption of three children, in Ireland, Spain and France; long absences and serious marital bumps ("I couldn't have become famous if I stayed in the children's nursery," he told Ann); regrets at having missed too much of the children's childhood; anti-Semitism in the Austrian Alps.

In between, though, lunches in Naples with Lucky Luciano; a nocturnal bat hunt in Sussex; seeding clouds over Paris with American perfume; Ernest Hemingway, Lauren Bacall, Elvis Presley, the Duke of Windsor--"a dimwit who never said one word that was memorable."

Not to Buchwald, he didn't.

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