At the Hotel Roquefort
October 10, 2011 | by James Jones
The Paris Review was founded in 1953, the year after my father won the National Book Award for his novel From Here to Eternity. James Jones was a newcomer on the literary scene, an outsider who had fought in the Pacific and had only completed two semesters of college. By the time my parents moved to Paris in 1958, The Paris Review was a hugely important literary magazine. And although my father never felt a part of the highly educated, ivory-tower crowd, he was extremely fond of William Styron, George Plimpton, and Peter Matthiessen, the magazine’s founders, and felt a deep kinship with them as people who were committed to the written word. My father was interviewed by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. for the Autumn/Winter 1958–59 issue of The Paris Review, just after the publication of his second novel, Some Came Running, which was savaged by the critics. The interview gave my father a chance to speak his mind and set the record straight, and it is one of the best interviews he ever gave. It seems only fitting that a section of his earliest, unpublished work should be printed in The Paris Review, whose three founders came to his defense and continued to stand by him and his work long after his death in 1977. —Kaylie Jones
In Evansville the Hotel Roquefort was the tops. It was a world within a world, completely self-sufficient except for one thing, its customers’ money. Without ever stepping outside its doors, a man could live for months, even years, and still have everything his heart desired, including fresh air. Within its walls, a man could buy anything and everything, from condoms to wedding rings. Sufficient unto the day is the money thereof.
And soldiers flipped the dice and sweated out the cards.
Those who won went gloriously to the Roquefort; those who didn’t went to a lesser hotel or to a tourist cabin, if lucky, and if not, stayed in camp till next payday. One month’s pay equaled approximately a week- end pass at the Roquefort. Two months’ pay, yours and one of the losers, equaled a weekend plus a three-day pass. And, so on up. Some of the very lucky were able to spend every weekend in the month plus a three- day within the bounteous walls of the Roquefort, forgetting the war, the army, the wife; everything a man in the army, navy, or marines needs to forget.
In the Hotel Roquefort was the Rendezvous, the bar of the century. Soft indirect lighting, soft deep cushions covered with soft maroon leather, sweetly soft piped music from invisible speakers—nothing as shockingly low class as a jukebox would be thought of here, beautiful murals of soft tropic scenes—such scenes that the men back from the Pacific commented upon them with a whistle of amazement, soft-voiced polite very friendly barmen, soft-voiced polite not quite so friendly waitresses. All the conveniences and graciousnesses of which civilization is capable. A loud rushing place, but loud and rushing in a soft pleasing way. The antithesis of PX 3.2 beer gardens, the antithesis of hard barren unadorned bunks and walls. Here, a man could be a soldier as the movies portrayed soldiers! Here, men from Breckenridge or Campbell, or any other camp within range of a weekend pass, could meet men they knew from Breckenridge or Campbell, or whatever camp, and they could form a closer comradeship because they were meeting old friends in a new rich world, so alien to their daily lives. And here, battle-weary men from convalescent hospitals could proceed with drinking their way back to health.
Through this world, Al and Johnny moved with a familiarity bred of practice. And as they moved from bar to grille to lobby to dining room to luxuriant latrine, their old friendship grew deeper and ripened with their understanding of each other and of the Hotel Roquefort.
“This is my hangout,” Al said, in the Rendezvous. “When home gets too much to stand, and Rose too much to lay, I retire to the Roquefort for some headcheese. About half my leave, every time I’m home. Home is strange, but the old Roquefort is familiar, and I can breathe easily here.”
Johnny grinned his understanding. It was a world that was familiar to him also, a world in which he, too, moved with the ease of long association. The particulars were different in Evansville, but it was the same wild festivity, every night a New Year’s Eve, that he had lived for ten months in Memphis.
“They say the Jew who opened this hotel picked Roquefort for a name because it was such a high-sounding French word. Later on, he found out it meant cheese. So now the joint specialized in all sorts of cheeses.”
The three of them at the table laughed. The third man, who had just recounted the familiar legend, was a well-built blond-headed youth, a staff sergeant in the Air Corps. He wore a nest of ribbons, many of them with Clusters. On his left sleeve the Air Corps patch and on his right the red white and blue shield with the five-pointed star and the many-pointed star of China. He was a former Flying Tiger and was now recuperating from malaria and a compound leg fracture in the local general hospital. He called himself the King of the Rendezvous Bar. His wide face was good looking until he smiled. Smiling, his eyes squinted up and nasty lines formed under them. He was possessed of a great bitterness, and his humour was peculiarly pungent.
“Come on,” he said jitterishly. “Let’s get out of this tropic beauty. I can’t stand it. Makes me homesick.”
“What’s the matter, Freedie?” Johnny asked. “You getting sober?” “Almost,” Freedie said. “Almost. It’s terrible. These Evansville broads are too educated. They should do a hitch in China. Every time I try to drink one of them groggy enough to lay, I pass out first.”
Johnny and Al laughed with enjoyment. More comical than what he said was his way of saying it with lugubrious sarcasm, a very thinly skinned hatred. Where he had come from, where he was going, they did not know; neither did they know who or what he was. Nothing, except that he was a staff sergeant in the Air Corps, at present in sickbay, and formerly a Flying Tiger. Their paths had crossed in the Roquefort lobby and they had joined forces for a while, no questions asked or expected.
“Come on,” Freedie said. “Come on. Let’s go. Let’s leave this den of depravity. It’s ruining my morals watching what I can’t get in on.”
“Where’ll we go?” said. “Too early to start another party.” “Go for a walk,” Freedie said. “Anywhere. But get out a here.” They finished their drinks. In the Rendezvous, people passed and repassed, people drank, laughed, made dates, broke dates, got drunk. For Johnny and Al, it was a break, a pleasant lull. For Freedie, it was merely a distasteful period to be endured until a new party started. Last night, Sunday night, had been a big party. Tonight would be another. Right now Johnny and Al were relaxing, but Freedie seemed incapable of it. He looked enviously and with hatred at each woman who passed the table. Last night, he had spent more time in the bathroom with more women than any of them, but now that was forgotten and he resented each woman he saw because he had not slept with her.
The big double room with two double beds Al had gotten through his acquaintance with the chief hotel detective had been a replica of the Grand Central Station. He and Johnny had invited people up, those invited others, and the others still others. Introductions were a time- wasting formality. The word got around that Room 507 on the fifth floor was going strong, and the room became a clearinghouse for everybody. The main party settled down to Al and Johnny, the chief detective who stopped in every ten or fifteen minutes for another drink, three unknown women, and Freedie, who had appeared from nowhere with two of the women.
Freedie had abandoned his own room for this one where there were more people, more noise, more liquor, and more love-making. He was just shortly back from China, and he had more money than he could throw away, although he still made the attempt, flinging it about with curses rather than smiles. He liked having lots of people around him, although he bitterly despised all of them individually.
The rest of the shifting crowd was considered as transient. Later, after midnight, the crowd overflowed the room into the hall, and the crowd in the hall brought other people. The bottles overflowed off of the two dressers into the corners of the floor and from the corners spread out to meet each other until the two double beds became one island in the sea of bottles. Everybody seemed to bring a new one. Bellboys brought bottles of chaser and stayed to drink. The beds became the combined coatracks and petting places. For more strenuous love-making the bath- room was pressed into service. When a man had a woman drunk enough or hot enough, he took her to the bathroom, if it wasn’t already locked and in use. It was uncomfortable but private, and most of the women had scruples about privacy with their copulation. In the haze of smoke and alcohol, the harsher lines on the faces were obscured, and every woman became beautiful. It was almost possible for the uniformed men to believe the women’s scruples were sincere.
At eight o’clock in the morning when the firing ceased, Al and Johnny found themselves alone in the sea of bottles and cigaret butts with only Freedie, the China staff sergeant, left. He was passed out on the coatrack after having practically monopolized the bathroom all night. They sent out for a pack of cards and played two-handed stud at a dollar ante until Freedie came to. Then they played three-handed and drank until they all fell asleep. In the afternoon they awoke, showered, and adjourned to the Roquefort Grille Room for breakfast. By that time, the arrangement had become permanent, and plans were made to use the big room as a sitting room and Freedie’s room (a secret among the three) up on the next floor was to be the “bed” room. A man’s finesse could be used to much better advantage in a bed than in a tile bathroom, no matter how expensive, with a poor choice between the commode, the bathtub, or standing up.
After the three of them finished their drinks, they sauntered out into the outside world that still existed, beyond the jurisdiction of the Hotel Roquefort. Freedie carried a full pint bottle in his hip pocket under his blouse. It was a bottle that had been refilled from other bottles many times.
“He’s a good soldier,” Freedie told them, patting the bottle, “He rates a dozen Purple Hearts. He’s been killed in action more times than any other soldier on earth!”
From To the End of the War by James Jones, published by Open Road Media, on sale October 11. Copyright 2011 the estate of James Jones.