Au Revoir Mon Enfant

Le Nôtre's central axis of the Tuileries' part...
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“On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.”…. (We see well only with the heart)

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The first beams of le soleil d’été crawled up the Champs D’Elysses like an early morning tide rising along the beaches of the Cote d’Azur. The city streets were littered with debris and the fading accents of revelry that had only just melted away with the sunrise.

Our street, Rue de Berri was quiet and not yet stirring.  The morning light was only tapping at the highest windows festooned with potted geraniums and midnight blue wrought iron.  A burst of wind, having wandered off the main boulevard carried the stale smell of an urban summer and brushed back our hair.

I had come to Paris with my 16-year-old daughter to suspend, even for a moment, her rapid ascent into the higher elevations of adulthood.  We had planned the trip for over a year but in such difficult times, I was tempted to cancel our journey. Yet, instinctively, I understood she was slipping away.  In time, she would become a distant speck on my horizon line as she pursued her raison d’être.

Given her increasingly independent routine, we had become passing ships. Extemporaneous engagement had been supplanted by negotiated interaction.  Our world was changing – with her universe expanding and mine contracting to supply, support and finance her inevitable departure.  It seemed my initials were slowly changing from M-A-T to A-T-M.  Paris was perhaps now, or never.

We wandered out into a magnificent, cloudless summer morning. Cafes hissed happily with the steam of espresso machines and joie d’ vivre. Sleep-deprived baristas mumbled at patrons as they laid out baskets of chocolate croissants and pastries.

The day would lead us across the Place d’ Concorde through the Tuileries Gardens and across the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay.  After studying Pissarro in art, she was amazed to see the original subject for her semester report, “Vegetable Garden and Trees in Blossom”, painted in Pontoise in the spring of 1877.  The masterpiece         hung prosaically on a wall alongside Manets, Renoirs and Matisse plein air oils.

We immediately fell into Van Gogh’s 1887 ” Starry Night Over The Rhone” with its glowing celestial swirls of starlight and the warm lights of taverns spilling across a sequined midnight blue river.

I was eager for her to see the whimsical strokes of Toulouse-Lautrec who prowled the bordellos and dancehalls of the Montmartre neighborhoods.  It was here that Paris shed any sense of morality and laid bare a world of venal feelings, colors and characters.

We finally fell out into a warm afternoon following the Seine, blown by a strong breeze and the need for motion.  We rented bikes at Vélib – the ingenuous Parisian bicycle rental kiosks and service stations strategically situated throughout the city.  We biked along the river to the Tour Eiffel, Le Trocadero and along bike paths to the Latin Quarter to explore, shop and lose ourselves in the historic, bustling alleys.

We exchanged more smiles and glances than words during our exploration.   As she slipped her arm into mine, it was worth a thousand affections and I had to resist acknowledging the moment.  I can still recall enjoying an experience with my father until he would shatter the moment with innocent enthusiasm. “Isn’t this great?” – a rhetorical question that would be rebutted with a superficial smile.  To publically memorialize any moment to a teen is to kill it – transforming it from substance to a saccharine platitude.  Formal moments were now implicit, having been explicitly left behind long ago like a discarded beanie baby or blanket.

On this night, le grand fete de la Musique- the music festival marking the first day of summer was spreading across the city center.  Our Metro screeched to a halt at Châtelet as we climbed up to a late afternoon multitude surging and straining to feel the youth and music of the June evening. In a deep caffeine and crepe blackout, we coursed through the narrows arteries of the Left Bank moving from one animated coterie of partiers and street performers. There was a sudden blood trail that led to a recently broken fight and three arrests. A young bohemian sat bloodied on the ground as police officers attempted to reconstruct the crime scene.

Across the Seine on the the Île de la Cité, steps that fell down to the quays and embankments served as an amphitheatre for hundreds of people listening to an African guitarist.  The bateau-mouches ( fly boats ) coursed silently across the slate blue water reflecting a night sky of stars and a palette of colored festival lights, lanterns and lamps in their wake.   Notre Dame’s buttresses were bathed in soft pastel light while inside, prayer candles and the gentle chants of medieval baroque music reverently beckoned passersby to sit and reflect. There was magic everywhere.

The Parisian summer night fell slowly – hesitating, and lingering like the gangly silhouettes of teens with their tangerine glow of cigarettes and faces occasionally illuminated with the paparazzi burst of light from a passing car.  Three AM.  It was the realm of these young vampires – sinewy, sartorial and invincible.  They possess a élan for life and belief that tomorrow only happens to other people.  While they wait for life to happen at night, la vie is invisibly passing them by day.  Their restless migration along narrow cobbled streets and across abandoned gardens is occasionally punctuated with a wild yell or pitched outburst. With the dawn, they vanish –presumably undead in some tiny garret apartment awaiting another twilight.

The following day, we travelled to Versailles – my daughter not much older than the Austrian Princess, Marie Antoinette who would marry Louis, Dauphin of France.  He would ascend the throne in 1774 to become Louis XVI.  Marie would reside at Versailles and at the Palace of the Tuileries until 1791 when the reign of terror ushered in France’s First Republic.

As we entered Versailles halcyon gardens, the clouds moved across a brilliant aquamarine sky – great man-o-wars casting shadows across fields of rolled hay and poplar trees. Against a backdrop of shimmering fountains, we descended into the gilded age of opulence and patrician consumption. The gardens of Versailles cover over 800 acres.  A mathematician’s dream, the property was perfectly symmetrical dominated by manicured 30′ high boxwood bosquets that formed intricate passages and mazes.  Alabaster sentinels – statues of mythological heroes frozen in perpetual triumph and tragedy, guarded each path’s junction.

We followed La Croix – The Grand Canal, a crucifix shaped lake edged with footpaths that skirted in and out of the shade of massive horse chestnut trees.  Magnificent swans patrolled the shallows for snails and rudely turned their tails and bottoms at us as they scanned the emerald lake for breakfast.

We stopped and lay across the rough grass staring up at the sky. A middle aged French couple descended the mild sloping hill to our left and sat to picnic.  Within minutes they were rolling across their blankets like mating water buffalo, indifferent to the great risk to one another or their violent public display of affection. We assigned them names and circumstances that seemed to only heighten our amusement. When “Monique’s” blouse started to hike up her alabaster trunk, we agreed that our lunch would be spoiled if we persisted on spying on this amorous wild kingdom encounter.

We returned to Central Paris and retraced the footsteps of Hemmingway, Pound, Sartre, Camus, Picasso, Stein and Fitzgerald.  We tossed back espressos at Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area.  I imagined them to be the opaque green absinthe liquors that fueled the conversations of great writers in Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast.  We moved on to shadow artists in Montmartre and peruse the Quai booksellers that sat rigidly next to their long green coffins of artifacts.

On our last evening, we crawled up on to the roof of our hotel and watched the golden lights of the Tour Eiffel.  Off in the opposite direction, The Sacre Coeur shined like Camelot at Montmartre. We sat silent drinking in the history and elegance.

Just as suddenly as we had stumbled on to Rue d’ Berri, we were descending into a hazy east coast evening, falling back into old patterns – texting friends, emailing and checking the blackberry. As the car crunched across the gravel of our front driveway, my daughter turned to hug me.  “Daddy, that was the greatest trip.  I will remember it forever.” Just then, her phone rang and her face lit up recognizing a friend’s voice.  She ran upstairs as I lugged in our pregnant suitcases.

Tickets to De Gaulle? Expensive. Hotel Lancaster? Very expensive.  Sitting on the roof of a hotel looking across the City of Lights through the eyes of your own daughter?

Priceless….

The Man Who Invented Himself

Photographer Robert Capa during the Spanish ci...
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The Man Who Invented Himself

” I would say a war correspondent gets more drinks, more girls, better pay, and greater freedom to choose his spot and being allowed to be a coward and not be executed for it, is his torture.”

Robert Capa, Slightly Out Of Focus

He was, in many ways, killed by his own personae.  As he impatiently waited for the tanks to create a defilade from the sniper fire that threatened the French patrol’s advance, he leaped across a shaded embankment separating the broken road and an adjacent field of rice paddies.  Two veteran combat journalists, Time-Life’s John Mecklin and Jim Lucas looked on with admiration and bemusement, only to rapidly duck their heads, as the sporadic Vietminh attack became a furious steel fist of mortars and machine gun fire.

The photojournalist, Andre Freidman, was a Hungarian Jew, who had immigrated to Berlin in the early 1930s and fled to Paris in 1934 after the National Socialists and Adolph Hitler seized power and began a virulent movement of national hegemony.

Friedman had grown up in the Jewish quarter of Pest, the working class district that was connected by a series of bridges to its more affluent sibling, Buda that stretched across the southern side of the Danube. His father, an alcoholic and gambler, left young Andres’ education to the unsupervised streets where he graduated with a reputation for alacrity, charm and daring.  In 1918, the Fascists had an iron grip on a Hungary still traumatized by the suffocating constraints of the Treaty of Versailles. Not unlike Germany a decade later, Budapest’s Jews, socialists and communists were being vilified for societies ills and Friedman understood that he must flee to find freedom and a release for his adrenaline fueled appetites.

In Berlin and in Paris, he lived on the streets, begging and doing odd jobs, eventually moving in with Eva Besnyo, a friend from Budapest. Desperate for money and intrigued by journalism, Andres secured a job at the promotional studio, Dephot, where he learned the art of photography.  It was here that he purchased his first Leica, an engineering marvel of a camera that allowed the photographer to shoot at rapid speeds and operate in various conditions of light.  With Leica in hand, the bohemian artist began to understand how his lens could surpass a writer’s pen in offering the viewer a poignant and personal view of a world always teetering between hope and a darker destiny.  A picture could tell a deeper story.

His irresistible charm and magnetism quickly made him friends and ultimately, led to an artistic troika with Polish photographer David Chim and the fashionable Henri Cartier Bresson.  Years later, these three photojournalists would be acknowledged for providing rich pictorial footprints of the doomed, fading daylight of France’s 3rd Republic.

In 1930’s Paris, it was a grand fete of bohemians and sybarites – with patrons routinely greeting an early dawn along the Champs D’Elysses, Boulevard San Germain, Montmartre and Montparnasse.  Andres had many affairs and was a favorite among socialites and models. However, one particular woman, an acerbic, elegant German refugee, named Gerda Pohorylles, became his infatuation, soul mate and some say, his co-inventor.

Realizing that his photos could gather more attention if he was something other than another faceless European refugee, Gerda and Andres created the personae -Robert Capa. Gerda explained to international and French magazine editors that Capa was a wealthy American who felt compelled to sell his work ” as is ” and often at rates double those of ordinary photographers.  Where ever conflict broke out, it seemed Andres and Gerda were there to film it and market his brilliant journalism to the major periodicals under the “nom d’ photographe”, Capa.

In his book, Blood and Champagne, Alex Kershaw describes the perfect arrangement, ” Capa loved Gerda, Gerda loved Andre, Andre loved Capa, and Capa loved Capa.”  He was hired and sent to Spain – a country with whom he felt deep affinity – covering the smoldering Spanish Civil War. It was here that he and Gerda would meet and carouse with international journalists – Hemmingway and John Dos Passos who were attached to brigades of foreign soldiers eager to assist the Republicans against the Nazi backed Fascist armies of Generalissimo Franco.

It was in Spain that some say Andre Friedman died and Robert Capa was born.  On a small hill town outside of Cordoba, Robert Capa became synonymous with combat photography when he snapped a photo of a Loyalist soldier repulsed backward after apparently being hit in the head with a bullet. The “Falling Soldier” remains to this day, a subject of intense debate among historians who question its authenticity. One thing is certain, it cemented the public persona of Robert Capa.

Despite his newfound celebrity, the war was having a profound effect on Capa.  As he witnessed the carnage and horror of modern war and fascism crushing the idealistic and ill-equipped Loyalists, Capa urged Gerda to marry him.  It seemed as if everything might disappear in a flash of shrapnel and blood.  His mortality weighed on him. Gerda dismissed his overtures, suggesting their need to live in the moment and fight for the protection of the Republic.

Capa had returned just days before to Paris when he heard the news that Gerda had been killed. She was crushed between two tanks as they were trying to protect civilians fleeing from bullets spitting from dive-bombing German Heinkel planes.

Capa was devastated and emerged from his fortnight of alcohol fueled depression with a wild eye and self destructive resolve to use his Leica as a grand weapon against the tyrannies of imperial powers. His assignment took him back to Spain where he documented the bitter fall of the Republic and the slate gray morality of an ideological war where both sides committed horrendous atrocities.  His predisposition to socialism was shattered during this time and turned to bitter disillusionment when Stalin signed his non-aggression pact with Hitler – reinforcing a deeply cynical view that no government could be trusted.

Capa’s social exploits were the stuff of legends as he lived every second to its fullest – he drew people close, a generous supernova of consumption – gambling, womanizing, living as one person shared, ” with enough money to travel but not enough to settle down”. He was forever haunted by what he had seen as he photographed the portrait of war but never allowed his demons to reach through his veneer of devious charm. By now, he was recognized as the world’s greatest combat photographer. His celebrity and his penchant for front line assignments dropped him into high stakes company with the likes of Bogart, John Huston, George Stevens and John Steinbeck. He carried on a three-year affair with Ingrid Bergman while moving back and forth from the Italian and European fronts with beloved combat journalist Ernie Pyle (killed by a Japanese sniper) and cartoonist Bill Mauldin.

His most inspired act of courage was his decision to go forward with the first D Day wave of American soldiers on Omaha Beach.  Crowded in an LST with young soldiers from Company A, 116th of the 29th Division, many of whom would die on the Beach head, Easy Red, Capa watched and snapped four rolls of 35mm film over 90 minutes as brave soldiers drown and were scythed down like dry wheat by scores of machine gun nests, mortars, 88’s, rocket launchers, rear line artillery, fortified bunkers and pillboxes. Every inch of Omaha was a coordinated killing field.

Capa remained on the sloping beach wiggling in and out of the water, dodging machine gunners until all the film was shot.  He scrambled aboard an outbound LSI that was filled with wounded to send his photos back to London.  In the chaotic haste to meet a deadline and use the Capa combat shots, the London based dark room developer, over cooked the film and melted all but eight frames – grainy photos that were later published in Life magazine and won even greater acclaim.

Capa would rediscover his passion for Judaism as he chronicled the emigration of Europe’s surviving Jews to Palestine, the birth of Israel and the Six Day War. He started Magnum – a consortia for photographers to coalesce and market their photographs – independent of the controlling imperialism of the major periodicals. Yet, it was clear to all that while Capa was the charming raconteur, he was no businessman.

He was beginning to show signs of post-traumatic stress as he moved between terror and self-indulgent nihilism. Capa chose not to cover the Korean War believing that one could not film a war that one did not have an emotional stake in.  He instead took an assignment to Japan to film the country for Ladies Home Journal.  The trip recharged him and motivated him to get back in the game – accepting a particularly dangerous assignment covering the French Colonial Wars with Ho Chi Minh in Indochina.

On Tuesday May 25, 1954, Capa was accompanying the 2nd Amphibious Group of the Foreign Legion in the Red River Delta.  His partners, Mecklin and Lucas watched him move out of sight to film a platoon advancing toward tree line small arms fire.

An explosion suddenly sucked in the humid afternoon air and spit out an angry, searing concussion “Le Photographe est mort” shouted a young soldier.  They found him clutching his camera in his left hand, as if to shield it from the blast.  His last words were perhaps the phrase he glibly uttered most often when confronted with the possibility of death, “es una cosa muy seria” (This is a very serious business).

Perhaps a fitting epitaph to the dashing contradiction that the writer John Hershey eloquently described as  “the man who invented himself.”