Issue 92, Summer 1984
I was born in South Africa on 9 May 1927. Towards the end of January 1948, I left Cape Town for the last time to join my mother in Paris. As the boat sailed away. I stayed on deck, watching the land recede until all that remained looked like a small plum pudding swathed in mist on the ocean’s horizon. I knew I would never return.
In Paris I joined the Alliance Française to brush up my French. Although I had spent a long summer holiday in Normandy in 1938, I had never been to Paris before. When spring came I was infected with the euphoria one never feels with the end of winter in the southern hemisphere. I found a secretarial job at the film company, Warner Brothers. The work, contrary to expectation, turned out to be boring as it had to do merely with the distribution of films. I worked for two American executives who were of German origin and had to correct their rather bad English in the letters they dictated. Perhaps I would have not have been so scornful of this task if I had realized that they had probably been among the lucky ones who had escaped from Germany before the holocaust.
After a couple of months I saw an advertisement in the Herald Tribune which appealed to me. A writer was looking for an English secretary, and I eagerly applied for the job. I was a little disappointed when I found out that he was not in my naive view a “real writer” but a psychologist writing a book on Pavlovian theory. His name was Dr. Ishlondsky, he was a White Russian with an American passport, and he lived with his brother in the top-floor flat of a house in the Avenue Georges Mandel, overlooking a sea of chestnut trees which were then in flower. I worked for him every day for a month, typing his book and learning all about Pavlov and his dog-and-bell experiments.
After three weeks he gave me a week’s notice, explaining that he was leaving Paris for the South of France. This was a bolt out of the blue, as he had not told me that the job was a temporary one when he engaged me. After work I walked down to the Trocadero and bought a copy of the Herald Tribune. Turning immediately to the Jobs Vacant section, I found the following advertisement: “Author, Fontainebleau area, seeks part-time secretary. Write Box. . . .”
In an instant I was transported from a state of gloom to one of wild excitement. I hurried to the Rond Point where a Romanian friend of mine had a flat, so that I could borrow his typewriter to type out my application. For about an hour I struggled with the wretched machine, but it was an ancient one and, being continental, all the keys were in the wrong place. In the end I gave up and wrote my application by hand as clearly and neatly as I could. Name, date of birth, nationality, education, and jobs. I was quite proud of the long list of jobs: a firm of solicitors, an art gallery, Warner Brothers, and Dr. Ishlondsky. This curriculum vitae was enclosed with a short letter.
What I did not say in this summary of my life was that it had long been my amibition to work for a writer. As a child I was happiest when reading and my favorite people were the imaginary heroes of books rather than those living around me. At twelve. I decided to write a book, a historical romance rather like Georgette Heyer’s novels which we all were reading at school at the time. I got away from the other girls by shutting myself up in the loo with a pencil and notebook. The first paragraph would describe the hero—a dashing Regency buck —and the clothes he was wearing. I got as far as his “skyblue waistcoat,” but the words which I expected to flow from my pen never came and I had to give it up. At fifteen I was inspired to write a play: the characters galloped about on their fiery steeds, using expressions like “egad,” “methinks,” and “forsooth.” I tore it up. The closest I could get to writing would be to work for a writer.
About three weeks passed before I had a reply to my application. It was a letter asking me to come to an address in the 17ième arrondissement for an interview and was signed “Daphne Woodward.” For some reason which I cannot remember I arrived there half an hour late, much to my mortification. Mrs. Woodward told me that the name of the author was Arthur Koestler, that she was his secretary, but was going back to England. To test my shorthand she dictated a passage from Darkness at Noon, which I typed out. It was all right, except that I got one word wrong: I wrote ’effix’ for ’ethics’. She then said that Mr. Koestler was going to interview some of the applicants at the Hotel Montalembert in a few days’ time; I was to be there at 5 P.M.
After the interview with Daphne Woodward I went to see my Romanian friend to ask him about this author. “Ah, Arthur Koestler . . . ,” he said and I could tell from his expression that he was greatly impressed.
I wondered what he looked like. With a name like Arthur, he must be very tall, with a red face, I imagined his study, under the eaves of a house, lined with books and, beside the small window, his writing table with a lamp on it.
The most suitable clothes to wear for the interview would be clerical grey, so I put on my grey coat and skirt, a paler grey pullover and a grey beret. A bus took me from the Right to the Left Bank. As it crossed the Seine, I wondered what the outcome would be and was filled with excitement. I was determined to get the job. I got off the bus in the Boulevard St. Germain and walked to the HÔtel Montalembert. In an effort to make up for having been half an hour late for the first interview I was now half an hour early. I went to the reception desk at the hotel and explained that I had an appointment with Mr. Koestler but was early. I asked which of the two lounges he was in and the receptionist pointed towards a room which led off the entrance lounge. Relieved, I sat down at a table next to the entrance doors to wait.
The room was neatly empty at that hour of the afternoon.
I looked at a couple facing me on the far side of the room. The woman was dark and attractive; she looked intense and leaned towards the man, who looked bored. I began to wonder about them. They obviously did not know each other well; perhaps he was taking her out for the first time. I thought they were talking English, which made it even more interesting. The woman had an American accent. I became engrossed watching them. After a while one or two words floated across the room—“Melun,” “Fontainebleau,” “train” I realized with horror that I had been staring at Mr. Koestler while he was interviewing another applicant. In the same moment he became aware of me and called across the room to the reception desk: “Concierge”—his voice carried easily—“estce que quelqu’un m’attend?” The accent was very French.
I got up and went across. “I’m awfully sorry,” I said, “I’m early and I thought you were in the other room. I’ll go next door and wait.”
When the other woman had left it was my turn. I sat down at the table with Mr. Koestler, and saw a tired-looking man with red rings under his eyes. He did not say any polite, reassuring words. He explained that Mrs, Woodward was going to be away for the summer and he needed somebody to take her place. It would be a temporary job. The summer seemed an interminably long time, so I was quite content with this arrangement. His manner was unnervingly direct. All conventionalities were brushed aside; he only said what he meant.
“Do you think you’ll be able to do the job?” he asked. “You don’t seem to have much self-confidence.” I silently agreed with him. I blushed easily, an annoying trait that had afflicted me from the age of seventeen. He asked me if I would like a drink, but I said no. He urged me again, but I was adamant, so he ordered one for himself. He looked displeased. I had done the wrong thing, I could see, but it was too late to change my mind. I always refused hospitality when I was feeling shy. He seemed doubtful whether I would be the right person for the job and decided to try me out for a day. He was driving back to his house at Fontaine-le-Port, near Fontainebleau, the following morning. I was to meet him at the fiat of friends and we would drive there together. He would give me some letters to type and decide if I would do.
I went home to the solid, bourgeois Rue Copernic where I lived with my mother. I myself had no doubts about my suitability for the job. I had a high opinion of my secretarial abilities—in fact I thought I was the best secretary in the whole world.
I spent a sleepless night with a bout of hay fever, and whiled away the time trying to think of topics for conversation on the drive to Fontaine-Ie-Port. I was in the habit of carrying on endless imaginary dialogues with myself, but these never helped me in everyday life when I most needed them and I remained dumb. I struggled in vain to think of what I could talk about and dismissed every idea as banal.
In the morning, clutching my handkerchief and benzedrine inhaler to keep the hay fever at bay, I went to the flat near the Opéra. Mr. Koestler was there with his friends. Paul Winkler. the head of Opéra Mundi. and his wife. We started at once, but, before leaving Paris, Mr. Koestler had some shopping to do in the Galeries Lafayette, which was nearby. He strode through the shop at great speed, heading for the garden furniture department upstairs, where he asked for two rubber lilos in dark blue. These were produced and he bought them, We charged out of the shop in a matter of minutes and headed for the car.
The sun was shining and the countryside looked like those idyllic paintings I had seen in the Jeu de Paume. I could not think of a single word to say and he remained silent. He drove very fast along those straight, empty French roads, lined with trees sometimes forming a green tunnel. At last I said “This car goes well.” and he replied tersely. “It’s got good brakes.” I wondered vaguely, as one sometimes does, what he would be like in bed; but such a thought seemed beyond any stretch of the imagination.
Before we arrived he told me that he had unexpected guests for lunch —a former girlfriend. Daphne, and her husband. His house, Verte Rive, was set back a little from a narrow road. Trees shaded the gravel drive. As we walked round to the front, I wondered if he had any children. I knew that his wife was away at the time, in England. To my relief, there was no sound of childish voices, only the welcoming bark of his magnificent boxer dog, Sabby, in his outside kennel. The garden sloped down from the house to a landing stage on the Seine. The river looked wide and peaceful. On the opposite bank the forest stretched endlessly as far as one could see.
In the garden above the landing stage a Canadian canoe lay on the ground keel-side up. Made of wood, with long Rowing lines and graceful curves, it seemed to give out a gentle glow in the hot sun. Mr. Koestler frowned as he looked at it. He muttered something about that damn woman letting it lie out there in the sun. I gathered that his housekeeper had committed this offence. Surely, I thought, it would come to no harm in a little sun, not realizing that the wood might shrink, making the canoe leaky. He appeared to be quite enraged and hurried into the house.
Soon the guests came. Daphne had dark eyes with a slightly melancholy expression. Her manner was matter of fact, a little brusque, and she did not hesitate to speak her mind. She was a sculptress. Her husband, Henri Henrion, was an industrial designer, an attractive, likeable person with easy going ways. They had just returned from Italy and the conversation during lunch was all about an —Italian churches, painting and sculpture. The food was brought in by a grumpy old woman dressed in black, called Madame Grandin. We had black pudding, followed by a black stew and a salad of greasy, dark green lettuce leaves. The guests raved about the food, particularly the salad, and Madame Grandin was pronounced a treasure.
After lunch, we climbed into a large rowing boat and Mr. Koestler rowed us across the river to the Forest of Fontainebleau on the other side. We walked through the trees until a clearing was found, spread out rugs and sat down in the shade. Nobody said very much. After a few minutes, Mr. Koestler fell asleep. He lay on his back, his eyes tightly closed, breathing quietly. I did not feel sleepy at all and neither did the Henrions. They asked me questions about myself, where I came from and where I was living in Paris. As quickly as he fell asleep, Mr. Koestler was awake again. We returned to the house and the guests departed for Paris.
Mr. Koestler did not feel much like doing letters. He dug a few out of a file and dictated six short, one-sentence replies. His study was on the first floor, his desk by the window, looking onto the Seine. When I had typed them, he read them through and signed them. It had not been much of a test of my abilities. He said so too. and reluctantly decided to take me on. I was to come out by train for two days a week. The next date was arranged and he drove me to the nearby railway station of Fontaine-le-Port. I sat on a bench on the platform, waiting for the train. It was a tiny French country station, deserted, with a row of pollarded trees on each side of the line. From where I sat I could see the bend of the river. The hay-fever bout was worse than ever and frequent sniffing of the benzedrine inhaler did not help much. I felt uneasy about my new job. Mr. Koestler startled me. I did not know what he would say next. Every time he addressed a word to me I nearly jumped out of my skin. But it was only for two months after all. Nevertheless, I began to wish that it was over.
Twice a week I got up early, leaving at about seven o’clock. I travelled by Metro on the Neuilly-Vincennes line to the Gare de Lyons, where I got on a train for Melun. The depressing suburbs rolled by; they had picturesque names like Maisons Alfort (the grimmest) and Villeneuve St Georges. After Brunoy came Combe-la-Ville-Quincy and the landscape began to look like one of those heartbreaking country scenes painted by Pissarro. hazy in the sunlight. The train rattled on endlessly until at last it reached Melun. The wooden benches in the third-class compartments were very hard. At Melun I got into a little local train which criss-crossed the Seine, stopping at Uvry, Chartrettes and then Fontaine-le-Port.
Verte Rive was an ugly French villa, but it seemed quite harmless compared with the one next door which belonged to a dentist. Luckily it was not visible from Verte Rive itself, being screened by thick hedges and shrubs. But glimpses from certain vantage points in the garden revealed a monstrous little bright yellow cube which the French in those days would describe as “très coquette.” Arthur had bought Verte Rive, including its furniture, at the beginning of the year. What appealed to him about it was its proximity to the river with its landing stage, the Forest of Fontainebleau on the opposite shore, and his study on the first floor, overlooking the Seine. It was essential to him to have a good view from his desk while he worked and the flowing current had a soothing effect, he said. The sitting room, with its red matting, gave on to a verandah with tables and chairs, where one could have drinks in the evening, watching the sunset color the river. There was an archway in the sitting room leading into the dining room, in the corner of which was a bar with loops of heavy rope adorning the sides and bar stools trimmed with the same rope to give a nautical air. The bar was the source of much amusement to English friends, though some were too horrified by it to be amused. The main guest room was on the ground floor. Upstairs there was Arthur’s study, the study of his wife, Mamaine, their bedroom, and two spare bedrooms: I worked in one of them, which was called the Purgatory because of its bright pink walls.
There was plenty of work to be done when I arrived. In the morning I took down replies to letters —letters to publishers, to literary agents, to friends and to readers. In the afternoon I typed them and, when I left about 5 P.M., took them with me to post in Paris.
One day, to my surprise, Arthur asked me to stay on for dinner; he was expecting friends from England who were going to spend the night, and he needed “moral support.” I wondered how my presence could possibly give support of any kind. The friends were Hamish Hamilton, the publisher, and his wife, Yvonne, their son, Alastair, an enchanting little boy of eight, and a nanny or governess.
We sat down to an orgiastic meal at the candlelit dining table. Soup, followed by fish and entrée, were brought in by Madame Grandin —that old scarecrow, as Arthur called her. White and red wine were in abundance. The conversation was animated —it seemed like a dream to me, as if I were actually taking part in an exciting novel. The guests were enjoying the kind of food and wine which could not be had in England, where food rationing was even more severe than during the war. After the meat course they began to feel that they could take no more and apologetically explained to their host that they were no longer in training after living in puritan England. At this point Arthur said he would give them something which would miraculously dispel the feeling of overeating; it would burn a passage into their gullets and they would be able to enjoy the rest of the meal. He paused draatically. It was called, he said, a “trou Normand He then produced four little glasses and filled them up with calvados. He urged everybody to follow his example and swallow the drink in one gulp. The effect would be immediate. It was impossible to resist such gentle persuasion and the guests, no doubt in trepidation, did not try to do so. I am sorry to say that the trou Normand had the promised effect only on the host, who alone continued to eat and drink with relish. At the end of dinner (Fontainebleau ice cream and champagne) the Hamiltons quickly retired to bed.
The next morning I was entertained by young Alastair about the prep school he was going to in the autumn, and thereby missed a memorable sight which Arthur has often described:
After breakfast I asked Jamie Hamilton to try out ray single sculler as a hangover remedy, I was very proud of my proficiency as an oarsman and boasted to Jamie that by assiduous training I had brought down the time it took me from Verte Rive to the lock in Samois from thirteen to eleven minutes. He agreed to have a go, went upstairs to change and came down in rowing shorts. This should have made me suspicious—publishers do not usually travel with rowing dress in their luggage. We got into the sculler—I acting as cox—and to my utter mortification he did the stretch in nine minutes without visible effort. But I was somewhat comforted when he confessed that he had once won the Siver Medal for singles at the Olympic Games.
The summer of 1949 was a glorious one and it produced one of the great vintages of wine. In my memory it never seemed to rain; the pale, northern European sun shone, and the visitors to Verte Rive —English, American, Central European, and French —sat around on the landing stage, talking and drinking champagne, which was cooled in the river; they swam in the Seine or took Sabby for walks in the forest. I often heard Arthur speak, during political arguments over dinner, with a passionate clarity which, I fervently felt, could move mountains. My train journeys to Fontaine-le-Port were light-hearted ones, and the return trips to Paris sad. Arthur’s Canadian canoe had a sail and he taught himself to sail it with a book in one hand and the other on the rudder.
My Romanian friend asked me if he carried a gun and was surprised to hear that he did not. Surely, he said, there must be an electrified fence round the house. There was none and the front gates were always open. But I did notice that when I came into his study after lunch to wake him from his short siesta, he always woke with a start.
The reason for my friend’s concern was, of course, that Arthur Koestler had become a very controversial name in France. Darkness at Noon, which was first published in England in 1940, was only published by Calmann-Lévy in France, under the title of Le Zéro et I’lnfini, after the war. The Communists bought up all the copies they could find in bookshops and burned them. Bravely Calmann-Lévy decided to reprint. The result was that, between editions, the book sold at black market prices. It made a tremendous impression, and everybody in France knew about the book and the name of its author. That was why I had to post all the letters in Paris. Nothing was ever posted in the village of Fontaine-le-Port as the clerks at the little post office were said to be members of the Communist pany. Only letters to personal friends were typed on writing paper headed with the address. All other letters bore the address, “c/o A. D. Peters”, who was Arthur’s literary agent.
Arthur often used to play on the gramophone Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major. Sometimes he would sit alone at night when everybody had gone to bed, playing it over and over again. When I hear the C Major concerto now I feel I am back again in that magical midsummer: the Seine with its smell of la vase and Arthur’s three boats bobbing up and down on their moorings; hay fever (which is like breathing up water through your nose); the sensation of drinking Pernod for the first time; and knowing that, though this existence would soon be a thing of the past, I did not care and lived only for the moment.
Fontaine-le-Port was in the Brie country. Nearby were le Chatelet-en-Brie and Brie-Comte-Robert, a very pretty village. Alas, all the good Brie went to Paris and only shrivelled old stuff could be found in the region. Arthur was fond of cheese, particularly chèvre, and he was quick to notice that there was never any cheese on my plate.
“Have some,” he said, pushing the board towards me.
“I never eat cheese.” I said, feeling rather proud of my strange taste.
“Come on,” he urged impatiently. “Try it.”
“But I don’t like it.” I replied confidently.
It was a great mistake to say that, because he now became determined to convert me. How could anybody not like cheese? I must try it because he knew I would like it. In the end I had to give in and from then on I always ate cheese. I suffered from this disarming bullying when it came to sausages too, which I used to hate.
One evening in Paris my Romanian friend told me that friends of the poet, Supervielle. had talked about Arthur with him. “Koestler,” he said to me sternly, “has a very bad reputation.” I said nothing. Anyway, it was too late.
He did little writing that summer and I was occupied with typing letters and filing. But one afternoon he read me a couple of pages written on lined manuscript paper. He decided to try dictating them into a new machine called a wire recorder, precursor of the tape recorder, for me to type out. But as he dictated, he wanted to make corrections, which proved to be a fiddly job. upsetting his concentration. In the end he gave up and I took it all down in shorthand. He stuck to this method and another use was found for the wire recorder: it became a sort of guest book, with guests giving their names and making comments —silly, witty, or wise — into the machine.
The work Arthur had started on and which I began typing that afternoon was the beginning of his autobiography, Arrow in the Blue. Chapter 1, “The Horoscope,” and chapter three. “The Pitfalls of Autobiography,” which together amounted to twelve pages, were the only writing he did in July and August. “The Horoscope” describes a visit to The Times, where he looked up the issue which appeared on the day of his birth —5 September 1905 —in order to cast his “secular horoscope.”
During August, Arthur’s wife, Mamaine, returned from England. I did not see her in the morning when I arrived. Arthur dictated a mass of letters in his study. I met her for the first time when I came down to lunch, though I had seen a photograph of her so I knew what she looked like. I sensed in the first moment that Arthur had briefly studied my reaction and that he was proud of her looks. She had pale brown hair which hung down straight onto her shoulders. Her eyes were blue and her nose turned up a little. I could not decide whether I preferred her in profile or not; she had a small oval face and when it was serious she had a slight pout. I was overawed by her perfect French as she gave instructions to Madame Grandin.
She had been very il! in Verte Rive in June, and Arthur had taken her to London for treatment for her asthma. She and Arthur seemed so different. He had an energy which was almost superhuman; he was so quick —if you thought he was going to do something, you discovered that he had done it ten minutes before. She was thin, after her illness, and tired easily. But I saw her come wonderfully to life one Sunday when a crowd of her English friends descended for lunch at Verte Rive. She had a musical ear and was an unerring mimic. I once heard her taking off the Italian-born wife of a friend who was a great chatterbox. Mamaine kept up a flow of chatter, catching every nuance of accent and expression, until we all collapsed with giggles.
She often told me stories of her childhood. Her mother, who was a Paget, had married a Paget. They must have been distant cousins, but they met for the first time while on holiday in Switzerland. She never knew her mother, who died when the twin sisters were born, and her father died when they were only eleven. An uncle, whom she loathed, became their guardian.
On 5 September 1949, I came out to Verte Rive in the late afternoon. The house was in silence when I arrived. I went up the stairs and opened the door of Arthur’s study, where he sat at his desk. “Happy birthday,” I said. He looked surprised, dashed to the other door and shouted, “Darling, it’s my birthday.” Mamaine came out of her study and ran across the landing. “O-o-oh, sweetie,” she cried, giving him a hug, “it’s your birthday and I forgot all about it.” I was filled with admiration for such a nonchalant attitude to birthdays—the more so when I discovered that Mamaine’s was two days later; no doubt that would have been forgotten too.
Mamaine’s twin, Celia. came to stay at Verte Rive after a holiday in the Mediterranean. I looked from one twin’s face to the other, trying to find a feature which differed slightly, but could find none. Celia was high-spirited. Mamaine was more serious, though this is not to say that they did not change roles sometimes. Celia’s slender, sunburned arms looked quite plump compared to Mamaine’s. “Celia. you look positively Rubensian.” exclaimed Arthur.
The twins spent hours together walking in the Forest of Fontainebleau. I imagined them talking about birds, about music, about their friends (both were extremely loyal and prized friendship above all else), about past loves and about present loves too, for there were quite a few who were hopelessly in love with the twins.
Arthur and Mamaine had been living together for about five years. People who were married that long, I was sure, must be quite bored with each other. This was not the case with them. But in between the long, peaceful and happy times, there were occasional rows.
The first row I witnessed took place during lunch. I can only remember wanting to sink beneath the dining-room table. I could not bear to see them quarreling.
One morning I arrived at Verte Rive to find a blast being turned on me. An important letter had been wrongly addressed and returned to the sender. Arthur produced the envelope. I could see it had not been typed by me and said so. As Arthur went off to find Mamaine and vent his feelings on her. I realized what I had done. I should have taken the blame —how could I have been such an idiot? But Mamaine did not hold it against me.
After the sybaritic summer, Arthur went on a diet for the first time in his life. This made work all but impossible. The hours dragged by and he kept glancing at his watch with a woeful, halfguilty smile. I could not help laughing at him and he liked being mocked. On a beautiful sunny day he declared we should all have a treat and go on a picnic. We climbed into the boat and headed up river. On a grassy bank we unpacked the picnic. Mamaine and I had some terrine, chunks of bread and cantal—the son of French food which tastes so delicious when you eat it out of doors. Arthur’s lunch, according to the diet, consisted of radishes. There was not even any butter to go with them and he was particularly fond of that cheap, prix fixe hors d’oeuvre, radis au beurre. He looked at the radishes and frowned. Were they supposed to be for him? He turned to Mamaine and gazed at her accusingly. The countryside looked golden in the sunlight and the birds were singing to split their throats. “But how on earth can you expect one to eat nothing but a lot of tadishes!” he cried in exasperation. We ate our picnic and rowed back to Vene Rive in gloomy silence. The rows always seemed to be on trivial matters and my sympathies were always with Mamaine. Paradoxical as it may seem, this in no way changed my feelings toward Arthur.