Issue 167, Fall 2003
Last year I was invited to give a walking tour and lecture to UNC students in a summer abroad program. I was to take them to St. Germain, St. Sulpice, and the Luxembourg to show them where the writers of the 1950s had hung out. I hoped to make them feel how exciting it was to walk up any street near St. Sulpice and maybe see the now great poet Christopher Logue, even his hair raging, elaborating to Trocchi, or to turn the corner at the Luxembourg and run into the ever busy Robert Silvers maybe with Jack Fisher from Harper's in tow talking about writers waiting to be published. Or to start down the rue de Tournon and see, on the terrace of the cafe, Eugene Walters and Pati Hill, Blair Fuller, Alfred Chester, or even Evan Connell on one of his rare daytime visits there.
There was to be only one black student in my group of thirty and I thought it would be a lifetime event for him if we ended the walk by sitting at the Cafe Tournon (the constant coffee place of staff and writers of bothMerlin and The Paris Review) talking with Ellen Wright, the widow of Richard Wright.
When I called to invite her, I said, "Ellen, this is Max Steele.”
A faint voice said, "I don't know who that is.”
"Ellen!" I said. "You were my agent here, my best friend, you took good care of me in the fifties.”
The voice said, "I'm an old woman.”
Surely this could not be the little sparkling auburn-haired Jewish girl from Brooklyn who was always on the move, who knew both the American and French literary scenes intimately and who never let the two touch. If she was sitting in a cafe with Simone de Beauvoir, she never even saw or recognized an American writer who entered. De Beauvoit had dedicated America Day by Day to the Wrights but none of us ever met her.
"Ellen," I said, "you came to Chapel Hill to see Native Son at the dedication of the Paul Green theater. We sat together and had our pictures taken and . . . ”
"I remember going to Chapel Hill," she said. "But I haven't been outdoors in years. I'm very old . . . ”
And so the conversation went. It did no good to remember dinners at her house with Carson McCullers and Gisele Freund, the great photographer, or Moravia and Ralph Ellison. Ellen did not even remember one of the many important evenings in their life. Richard Wright had grown more and mote a disenchanted man. He seemed to belong nowhere. The French episode was failing him. He was estranged. His daughters spoke French and he spoke English. His youngest daughter would pound het fist on the breakfast table and say "II faut parler Français!" And so, reluctantly, he had enrolled in a beginner's course at the Sorbonne which was just around the corner from their apartment (once the home of Saint-Saens, his piano still there).
He had decided he would find his roots, the place where he belonged. He would go to Africa. And so I was invited to dinner the night the cultural attache from the British embassy came to brief him on a trip to the Gold Coast. He was happy, almost jovial. I had seen him pontificating less and less in the Monaco, his cafe, and becoming almost morose, talking mainly with Ollie Harrington and never at all to James Baldwin for they were at outs. Chester Himes would come later, and William Gardner Smith, the black journalist, was already recognized for what he was: an archenemy.