BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
WITHOUT GURDJIEFF, THE Prieure was a different place; but it was not only his absence that made it so. The very winter changed the tempo and the routine. We all settled into what seemed, in comparison with the busy active summer, a kind of hibernation. There was little or no work at all on outside "projects" and most of our duties were confined to such things as working our turns in the kitchen -- much more frequent because there were so many fewer people there -- in the concierge, chopping wood and transporting it to our rooms, keeping the house clean, and, in my case, finally some studies in the usual sense of the word. One of the students who had remained for the winter was an American recently graduated from college. Almost every evening, sometimes for several hours at a time, I studied the English language with him and also mathematics. I read voraciously, as if I had been starving for that kind of learning, and we went through all of Shake speare as well as such books as the Oxford books of English Verse and English Ballads. On my own, I read Dumas, Balzac, and great many of the other French writers.
The outstanding experiences of the winter, however, were all due to Gertrude Stein and, in a lesser way, to Alice Toklas.
Our first visit to Paris to see Gertrude was a memorable one. While we were happy enough to be at the Prieure, there was still no question but that Tom and I both missed many things that were essentially American. That first visit was on Thanksgiving Day, a holiday that, of course, meant nothing to the French or to the students at the Prieure. We arrived at Gertrude's apartment on the rue de Fleurus at about ten o'clock in the morning. We rang the bell, but there was no answer. Alice, apparently, had gone somewhere, and Gertrude, we learned shortly, was in the bath on the second floor. When I rang the second time, Gertrude's head appeared above me, and she tossed a bunch of keys out of the window. We were to make ourselves at home in the salon until she had had her bath. As this occurred every time we went to Paris, it was obvious that Gertrude took a bath every day at just that hour, or at least every other Thursday.
A large part of the day was spent in a thoroughly enjoyable, long talk with Gertrude. I realized, later, that it was really a cross-examination. She asked us about our entire lives, our family history, our relationship with Jane and with Gurdjieff. We answered in full detail and Gertrude, patiently and without comment, never interrupted except to ask another question. We talked until late in the afternoon when Alice suddenly appeared to announce dinner -- I had by that time forgotten that it was Thanksgiving -- and Gertrude put us to work setting the table.
I have never known such a Thanksgiving feast in my life. It must, I suppose, have been enhanced by the fact that it was completely unexpected, but the amount and quality of the food amounted to a spectacle. I was very moved when I learned that most of the traditional, American foods -- including sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, marshmallows, cranberries, all unheard of in Paris -- had been specially ordered from America for this dinner and for us.
In her usual direct, positive way, Gertrude said that she felt that American children needed to have an American Thanksgiving. She also voiced some rather positive doubts about tile way we were living. She was suspicious of both Jane and Gurdjieff as "foster parents" or "guardians" of any children, and told us forcefully that she was going to take a hand in our upbringing and education, beginning with our next visit. She added that life with "mystics" and "artists" might be all very well, but that it amounted to nonsense as a steady diet for two young American boys. She said that she would work out a plan for our future visits with her that would, at least in her mind, make more sense. We left Paris that evening, late, to return to Fontainebleau and I can still recall the warmth and happiness I felt in the experience of the day, and particularly my strong feelings of affection for both Gertrude and Alice.
Gertrude's plan, as she outlined it to us on our next visit, was an exciting one. She said that I was doing enough studying and reading and that while there might be some vague rewards for us in meeting intellectuals and artists, she felt very strongly that we had one opportunity that we must not neglect; the chance to get to know, intimately, the City of Paris. She made it clear that she thought this was important for many reasons, among them that exploring and getting to know a city was a comprehensible activity for children of our age, and something that would leave its mark on us forever, also that it had been neglected shamefully. She felt that there would be time enough for us in the future, when we were at least more grown up, to delve into more nebulous pursuits, such as the arts.
We began on a series of expeditions which continued throughout the whole winter -- barring days when weather prevented, which were few. We piled into Gertrude's Model-T Ford -- Gertrude at the wheel and Alice and Tom squeezed into the front seat with her, while I sat next to Gertrude on the tool box on the left running board of the car. My job on these expeditions was to blow the horn at Gertrude's command. This required my full attention because Gertrude drove her little, old car majestically, approaching intersections and corners unhesitatingly and with repeated announcements (by me) on the horn.
Little by little, we did Paris. The monuments came first: Notre-Dame, Sacre-Coeur, the Invalides, the Tour Eiffel, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre (from the outside at first -- we had seen enough paintings for a while in Gertrude's opinion), the Conciergerie, the Sainte Chapelle.
When we visited any monument or building that did, or could, involve climbing, Gertrude invariably handed me a red silk scarf. I was instructed to climb (in the case of the Eiffel Tower I was allowed to take the elevator) to the top of the given monument of the day and then wave to Gertrude from its summit with the red scarf. There was no question of lack of trust. She said, unequivocally, that children were all lazy. She would be able to prove to her own conscience that I had actually made the climb when she saw the red scarf fluttering from some tower or other. During these climbs, she and Alice remained seated in the Ford in some conspicuous place below us.
From buildings, we graduated to parks, squares, boulevards, important streets and on special occasions longer excursions to Versailles and Chantilly -- any place that could be fitted into a comfortable one-day journey. Our days were always climaxed by a fabulous meal which had always been prepared by Alice. Generally, she managed to prepare something for us in advance, but there were times when her dedication to culinary art was such that she felt that she was unable to accompany us. In her way, Alice was giving us a gastronomic education.
From these excursions I have retained a feeling about, and a flavour of, Paris that I would never have experienced otherwise. Gertrude would lecture us about each place we visited, giving us the highlights of its history, bringing to life the famous people of the past who had created, or lived in, the places we visited. Her lectures were never over-long, never boring; she had a particular talent for re-creating the feeling of a place as she talked -- she could bring buildings to life. She taught me to look for history as I lived, and urged me to explore Fontainebleau on my free days from the Prieure. She told me much of its history before I went there, and, sensibly, said that there was no reason for her to accompany me there since it was in our backyard.
I have never forgotten that winter. The long evenings of reading and study in our warm rooms, the more or less casual day-to-day living at the Prieure, the continual looking forward to my visits to Paris with Gertrude and Alice. The one sombre, harsh note during the winter was the occasional reminder, by Miss Madison, of the fact that I was, somehow, shirking at least some of my duties. She warned me that I was again heading the list in the black book she still kept relentlessly, but I was heedless of her warnings. Thanks primarily to Gertrude, and secondarily to my reading, I was living in the past -- walking with history and Kings and Queens.