by James Killough
The French victory at the Oscars last Sunday was marred by the fact it was the dullest, gimpiest show in memory. Despite the fact their own film awards ceremonies are even more lackluster—actually downright provincial by comparison—you would expect better for the citizens of the cradle of glamour and chic. When Marion Cotillard won Best Actress for La Vie en Rose in 2008, she at least had the benefit of an elegantly designed ceremony hosted by Jon Stewart.
As I mentioned in Monday’s post, the most poignant moment for me, and probably for many Frenchmen in the audience, was seeing Annie Girardot’s image as part of the In Memoriam montage. To most of The Artist cast and crew she was a well-loved cultural icon on a par with Catherine Deneuve, in many ways perhaps even greater because she was more of the true French everywoman than Deneuve, a working-class hero. Had she been born two generations later, it would have been Annie who played Edith Piaf, not Cotillard. To me, Annie was for a critical period of my youth something of a surrogate mother, the person who finally got me to speak French properly and taught me how to roast a chicken with garlic and rosemary.
I’ve blogged before about the remarkable high school I attended in Rome, Italy for my freshman and sophomore years, St. Stephens. It was an intimate place, about a hundred and twenty students, located in a converted monastery not far from the Coliseum. There was a small café on the ground floor, where you grabbed a cornetto pastry and a cappuccino and smoked a cigarette with your teacher openly before heading to class. It was a living fantasy for a teen to be given such trust and freedom, to be treated like a peer by adults.
The experience of St. Stephens was more valuable than any book-taught education. On warm days, Classical History classes took place in the ruins of the Roman Forum nearby. School trips were week-long hiking expeditions into the ancient, esoteric regions of the Italian hinterlands, if you didn’t opt for the fancier excursion to a place like Tunisia.
We spoke a mixture of Italian and English, with a distinctive soft, rounded lilt to our English that allowed us to switch easily into Italian mid-sentence without grinding gears on hard vowels and disparate consonant groupings. Those among us who were Americans were really what has come to be called ‘Ameropeans’ (rather than Eurotrash). The culture of our homeland was only an imagined one that we affected to be cool, just like other Italians, the difference being we could speak American English with some degree of authenticity, even if our vernacular was parroted by importing it from the smattering of real Americans who boarded at the school because their parents worked in the oil business in the Arab world.
My best friend in my sophomore year was a golden boy named Oliver Stewart, grandson of Donald Ogden Stewart, a member of the Algonquin Roundtable and winner of the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for The Philadelphia Story. Oliver’s father, also named Donald, had married an Italian model, Luisa, and was the editor of various European versions of Playboy. A year older than me, Oliver was a little bit taller, blond, extremely good-looking, becoming all the more good-looking as I started to fall in love with him, which was a complete shock. It had never happened to me before and the sensation was heady, overwhelming, nauseating, but ultimately unpleasant because it was an outcast’s love that both of us had to keep repressed.
Sometime toward the beginning of the school year, Oliver started dating a new girl, Giulia Salvatori, daughter of Renato Salvatori and Annie Girardot, who had themselves met and fallen in love on the set of Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers. Annie played a role she inhabited in a number of films, the hapless hooker, and Renato played his own type, the misunderstood Marlon Brando-ish thug.
Giulia was instantly cool, a status often accorded to children of celebrities in the private schools they attend. The fact she had what amounted to her own apartment in a building Renato owned, complete with an opium den-like living room where we sat around smoking hash and spacing out to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, certainly didn’t hurt.
I was the third wheel, a couple’s mascot, a role I often played happily until I started to form my own romantic attachments in my mid-twenties; it allowed some vicarious emotional fulfillment without my having to deal with the socially awkward realities of living openly in a gay relationship. Giulia tolerated me, and we loved each other to a certain degree, even as my bonds with Oliver grew deeper and more homoerotic, and her jealousy increased exponentially. Although we never fully consummated our repressed Merchant-Ivory-ish romance, Oliver and I still slept in the same bed whenever we could, spooning and cuddling, always almost doing it, to my great physical and emotional discomfort; part of Oliver’s charm was his relentless teasing.
The first time I met Annie is when Giulia brought Oliver and me with her to Paris. Like their parents, the children of celebrities often travel with their own entourages. Even more spectacularly than her digs in Rome—because Annie was far more successful and wealthier than ex-husband Renato—Giulia had her own duplex apartment attached to her mother’s literally palatial apartment in the Queen’s Pavilion of the ultra-exclusive Place des Vosges, the former royal residence of French monarchs, pre-Versailles. For a fifteen-year-old, it was like I had fallen into a dream of Paris co-directed by Louis Malle and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Annie was both super cool and completely alien. If I take myself now back to those initial impressions of her over that heady first week in Paris, I see her at the dinner table in a restaurant, laughing with that croaky resonant Gitanes-shattered timber, hands clasped together, elbows on the table, puffing on a Gitanes trapped between her fingertips, the way the French did after a meal, slurring sentences in a Parisian argot that was utterly incomprehensible to me then despite three years of French classes and tutors, which made her even more super cool and glamorous and in desperate need of understanding; but, in retrospect, once I had learned to understand her years later, she was probably just slurring a long litany of complaints—la grande plainte, as the French call it—punctuated by croaky Gitanes-shattered laughter, because misery and being miserable when you are a queen of the most beautiful city on earth is rather laughable.
A few months later, the most catastrophic and life-changing event so far happened to me: my parents told me we were moving back to New York City. That sentence sounds like a brat’s complaint because it is; after all, I was going to live on Gracie Square with people like Anderson Cooper and his mother for neighbors, and would attend Trinity, the oldest school in the New World and currently the number one prep school in America. But for a morose, ultra-sensitive gay teen who had finally found happiness in a Garden of Eden among a group of inseparable friends in a converted monastery where you could smoke and drink cappuccinos in the morning with the hippest teachers in the world, who was so deeply in love with his Apollonian best friend he could barely breathe, it was next to a death sentence.
Even though I was already boarding at St. Stephens—when I say I needed to get out of the house, I mean I really needed to get out of the house; my relationship with my ultra-conservative father was at an all-time low—my parents didn’t feel comfortable with me living at school when they weren’t just on the other side of town, an annoying Roman traffic jam away. At first, Oliver and his mother, Luisa, suggested I live with them, but there was a problem: like all of our circle of friends, he was a year older than me and would graduate the next year, and go to college in the States. Then what was I supposed to do?
He and I decided I that it was better if I went to America with my family. “It’s New York!” he said, excited more than daunted by the future, as I was; we all dreamed of being in New York, then more than now the Capital of Everything. “You go on ahead, find the cool places for us to hang out. A year will pass quickly.”
So I went, first to my family’s country house in upstate New York for the summer after school got out. At the end of August, Oliver, Giulia and Annie came to New York, I think for the release of a film of hers, I don’t remember. After Giulia and Annie left, Oliver stayed behind to spend a four-day weekend with me before our yearlong separation.
I joined him New York, and we tried to reenact the routine that we had in Rome: hanging around in our underwear, sleeping in the same bed, getting stoned. Added to this were nightly visits to Xenon and Studio 54—we were tall, handsome, looked older that sixteen and seventeen respectively, and, most importantly to the bouncers, we were European. We were staying alone in a sprawling apartment on West End Avenue belonging to a friend of Oliver’s parents. “He’s this cartoonist named Jules Feiffer,” Oliver explained. I’d never heard of him.
But I was maudlin the whole time, couldn’t enjoy myself. Not even Oliver’s teasing could make me laugh; I took it all personally. My mood was dragging Oliver down, but at least he wasn’t seeing me when locked myself in the bathroom to sob without restraint.
“What’s wrong with you, man?” he kept asking me. But I couldn’t risk seeming like a complete Nelly drama queen and tell him the truth: I have this terrible feeling I’m never going to see you again, and I’m mourning.
Nine months later, Oliver died in a freak accident at his family’s country house near Porto Ercole, from carbon monoxide poisoning. I don’t believe that what I went through in those four days of pre-mourning in Jules Feiffer’s apartment and at Studio was some prophetic vision of the future. I think it was simply that I had never loved anyone so intensely and I was fearful of losing him, and coincidence simply upped and devastated my life.