Issue 166, Summer 2003
Over the last three decades of his life Erich Maria Remarque lived in the town of Ascona on Lago Maggiore. His house and the gardens below it were on a hillside between the lake and a narrow road cut into the mountain slope that runs southeast from Locarno. Inside the rather small building was a prodigious collection of Pisarro and Picasso, Monet and Manet, gold-leaf Venetian commodes and other seventeenth-century artifacts—so many objects, with so few available spaces left, that a Cézanne hung in the downstairs “powder room” and on the living-room floor were late medieval tapestries stacked like rugs. The first time I came to his house I was a four-pack-a-day smoker and, suddenly realizing what I was standing on, backed off with my lit cigarette cupped inside both hands. Remarque had acquired much of his treasure during the Depression years using royalties he gained from the 1929 publication of All Quiet on the Western Front. (It pleased him when I said that the first brand-new book I ever bought was The Road Back. It was published in 1936. Its cost, two dollars, used up all of my savings.)
Remarque’s first wife, from whom he was divorced, I met one day at the quay-side café in Locarno. She struck me as an elegant and melancholy woman. His current wife was the movie star Paulette Goddard. My wife and I knew her well both in New York and Locarno, both before and after Erich’s death.
Women were attracted to Erich most his life. Mary and Padraic Colum met him in a Paris bistro when he was accompanied by Marlene Dietrich. In her memoirs Dietrich said that when she was introduced to Remarque in Berlin he started talking; a year later, moving across several countries, he was still talking and she was still listening. My wife agrees with Helen Wolff that Erich was incapable of bad manners. Don’t ever believe that a great talker isn’t working hard. Bores are, among other things, lazy.