Dec 2008 Journal

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Uncle Max

I have been trimming the family tree as a leaving present for my sons. It brings home to me that there is now no one left to ask who was who. My father, who had an orderly mind and an interest in genealogy, left me a sketch of the trunk and main branches. What the tree does not reveal is where the skeletons are buried (we maintained a regular ossuary), but it shows how the family has shrunk with the passage of time. The tree stands upside down, with the branches getting shorter as we approach the present. And another thing: we are losing distinction. Each generation appears a little drabber than the one preceding it. If you wanted to read about my grandfathers, you’d look in the great newspapers of New York, Berlin and Vienna. If you wanted to read about my mother, you’d be safe with any biography of Sigmund Freud. If you want to know about me, you need to google back issues of the AJR Journal - a steepish downward slope for which emigration and decimation cannot be held solely responsible. We’ve run out of personalities. The generation of my mother’s parents was stuffed with characters, worthies and rogues.

One of the most colourful was my mother’s uncle Max, born in Iasi in 1862. He had studied chemistry and throughout his life was known as Dr Schiller although, as far as I know, he never practised any profession. His forte was the conquest of languages and women. When the Schillers moved to Berlin he was sufficiently fluent in German to review the occasional play in the popular press. The entree was provided by my grandfather, whose brother-in-law he had become. My grandfather was a showman with interests in the theatre and music hall and always in need of puffs and good reviews. A member of the family - particularly one adept at producing copy in German, English, French, Italian and Yiddish - would be a useful resource. At that time, my grandfather had the two most stellar performers of the day under contract: Eleanora Duse the actress and Yvette Guilbert the chanteuse. A modern equivalent would be to have Garbo and Dietrich in one’s team at the same time, with Marilyn Monroe on the bench.

How Uncle Max got close to Duse, competing for her favours against crowned heads, millionaires, political superstars (D’Annunzio among them), is just the sort of question I would like to ask, but of whom? Maybe mythical creatures need a good press like lesser mortals. But there is no doubt that Uncle Max was one of her many lovers, scoring a notable double when, while touring America with Duse as her minder, the command came ‘Join me in New York at once.’ My grandfather had made elaborate preparations for Yvette Guilbert’s New York debut when the blow fell: the most important critic of the day, probably the man from The New York Times, fell ill and my grandfather was warned that a stringer would be taking his place – one who had no French, no interest in foreign singers, and had not undergone the softening up that my grandfather had invested in his illustrious colleague. Grandfather, ever helpful, told the editor that he happened to know of a journalist, recently arrived in America, possessed of perfect French and English, who would be only too happy to supply a review for the editor’s consideration. This saviour was, of course, Uncle Max. He duly wrote the review, dictated by grandfather before the performance, had the American idiom checked, and submitted it long before the stringer had a chance to hand in his copy, having been detained by grandfather in the bar. The editor must have liked what he read; Yvette was enchanted by the understanding and appreciation shown by Max, who notched up another conquest. He transferred his allegiance from la Duse, but this time it was for good because lover became adoring husband, set to live happily ever after.

I did not get to know Max and Yvette properly until they were an old couple, and I was a schoolboy in Paris, a regular visitor to their flat in the Rue de Courcelles. They had no children of their own and regarded me with critical interest, telling my mother that whereas my French was impeccable, my table manners were not. By that time - the early Thirties - Yvette’s star had begun to wane, but they still toured, still had their court of admirers. My grandfather was long dead and Uncle Max became his wife’s manager, dresser, agent. I had, of course, never seen Yvette in her heyday but I did attend her last concert at the Wigmore Hall; by then she had become a fat old woman, wheezing her way from dressing room to concert platform on the arm of the ever-faithful Max, but, once on stage, she floated two inches above the boards; she danced, she sang, she enchanted, seduced, made us laugh or cry, played a soldier, an innocent milkmaid, a whore, a heartbroken seamstress, whatever the song demanded, with only one prop - a green silk scarf. Yvette once asked Freud, an admirer long before she met him through my mother, whether her gift lay in being an empty vessel into which she was able to pour different characters plucked from her imagination. Freud replied that far from being an empty vessel, her appearance on stage allowed her to release the multi-varied drives and personae deeply layered in her unconscious. Her art consisted of summoning them at will and giving them irresistible form.

Although their glory was fading, their grandeur remained. When in London, Max and Yvette stayed at the Carlton, now a cinema in the Haymarket. When I was invited to dine with them (my table manners having improved), I would be bidden up to their suite, kiss Yvette’s hand. Max would ring for a man to summon the lift and hold open the door so that Yvette would not have to stand while buttons were being pressed. Uncle Max would then take his hat from a stand and carry it in his hand while we descended to the restaurant on the ground floor. He would hand the hat to a flunkey and we would proceed to our table. At the end of dinner, the process was reversed, the hat collected against a tip of half-a-crown, we would go up in the lift, and Uncle Max would put away his hat without it having touched his head once. In my youthful eyes, that was the acme of style, and half-a-crown was a week’s pocket money. Max’s grand notions were not always helpful. When I wanted to become a journalist, he gave me an introduction to the editor of The Times, when I wanted to go into films, Korda was pressed into service and, when it came to advice about acting only Conrad Veidt would do. More humble contacts might have brought more success, but those were the people he knew.

When war broke out, their illusions were successively dismantled. First, they believed that Paris would be safe, France secure behind the Maginot line; then that the Nazis would be benign occupiers, the rumours of brutality just fear-mongering. Next they counted on the protection of the French government. When its members turned out to be eager collaborators, they had to move south to escape from Vichy. They found refuge in a hotel in Aix-en-Provence. When this was requisitioned, they had to move into an attic room in a small pension, cold and sometimes hungry. One or two friends still supported them, and indomitable Yvette earned a crust with broadcasts from the local station. In 1944 her strength gave out and she died, with Max at her side, as he had been for 50 years.

After the war, Max returned to Paris, once again to live in a hotel. Friends called and sent food parcels from America; my mother, ever conscientious, visited him regularly, catching the night ferry after a day’s work, spending the day in his poky hotel room to provide love, care, laundry, and catching the night ferry back to London to see her first patient at eight next morning. Uncle Max kept up his modest routine of lunch in a restaurant near the Madeleine and dinner in the hotel, no doubt taking his hat to go downstairs, putting it in safe-keeping for the duration of the meal, and redeeming it against a tip he could ill afford before returning to his room. He died there in 1952, aged 90, in his bed, holding a faded photograph of a young Yvette.

Victor Ross

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