Flashing on Gid
Flashing on Gid
by Terry Southern
published by Jean Stein
The exquisitely urbane Monsieur Maurice Kahane, a.k.a. Gid Girodias, was introduced to me in Paris, about 1950, by Alex Trocchi, editor of Merlin, the elitist literary mag that was archrival of our own Paris Review. With his typical aristo presumption, Girodias had been trying to seduce the former Ludgate Scholar into joining his Olympia Press stable of pornographers-- "mes écrivains méchants," as he chose to call them.
"I gave him short shrift and no mistake," Trocchi said, in his grandest manner, and in what may have been the very first of the countless lies and exaggerations I was to hear about (and from) Gid Girodias over the next forty years.
"Short shrift" indeed. In less than a month after his lofty pronouncement, Trocchi had made his debut as the soon-to-benotorious Frances Lengle, author of Helen and Desire; within a year he was the brightest jewel in Olympia's crown, and indeed was giving instruction in the art of erotica to aspiring scribes.
Like everyone else, I found Girodias irresistible-boss charm and what at first appeared to be an extraordinary generosity. He seemed to fancy himself one of the last of the grands seigneurs and tried to act like one. Our first meeting was a casual happenstance. Gid was screening some porn footage that featured a dead ringer for the young Simone Signoret, whom, indeed, he claimed it to be (I was later assured by Roger Vadim that it was not she but a saucy dopplegänger), and insisted afterward on taking me to lunch "at an amusing little hole-inthe-wall I've just discovered."
The hole proved to be one of those bastions of bourgeois respectability, the absurd kind of French restaurant that has a prix-fixe lunch-a kind of boul' Mich mom-and-pop operation. It was certainly not a restaurant where you would send back the wine--or so I presumed until he did it, twice, each time with a show of annoyance charmingly tempered with a saintly forbearance. Noblesse oblige personified. "It is only when I have to deal with French waiters," he said, half closing his eyes with his eternal ultra-ennui, "that I begin to understand the phrase 'white man's burden.'" And, having said that, he ordered absinthe-somewhat to my surprise, since it had been outlawed in France for about two decades. "I like to keep a cache at different restaurants," he explained. "Our poets love it so.
In print his conversation appears absurdly supercilious, but as speech, delivered with the faintest quasi-lisp and eyes halfclosed, he managed to bring it off, and sounded not so much fruity as disarmingly effete. This tone was not merely in his manner but also in his attitudes. On that very first day of our acquaintance, for example, as we left the restaurant on the rue de la Harpe and started walking toward boulevard Saint-Michel, a friend of mine, H. L. "Doc" Humes, one of the founders of The Paris Review and a grand eccentric in his own right, pulled up alongside us, riding a Vespa. After a brief exchange he went on his way.
"Moi, je n'aime pas le vélo," said Gid in a tone of absolute disdain. "I would not wish to be seen on one. Your friend just now, is he a student?"
"No," I explained, "he's a grand eccentric."
Gid shook his head gravely. "He will not be taken seriously if he rides a vélo. " His own tastes ran more toward the Maserati and the Lamborghini-between which, he claimed, he could not decide, hinting that it was merely his ambivalence that prevented him from owning one or the other instead of his rather mainstream Citroen. "Francoise Sagan," he told me, "is trying desperately to decide between the two. I can't help her. We were on the phone for two hours this morning."
It was not always possible to know if he was exaggerating or lying outright. If money was concerned, you could be fairly sure it was the latter. His most severe critic in that regard appeared to be Samuel Beckett: "The man is a menace," he was fond of saying. "I have seen him take the pennies from a dead man's eyes," he would add with mock gravity, to which Trocchi would respond by crossing himself and murmuring something in Latin.
Trocchi was Beckett's number-one protégé, and sometimes we would have lunch with him in the kitchen of his walk-up off the boulevard Raspail. Beckett's great dish was a straightforward rognons sautés, with a splash of (if memory serves) Madeira at the finish. Trocchi and I would usually pick them up at Les Halles (after scoring smoke at the Soleil du Maroc) and take them along to Sam's. Also the occasional riz de veau or, again, something that Trocchi would prepare, the damnable "bangers and mash"--an infantile indulgence on both their parts, in my view.
Very early in our relationship, I detected in Girodias a marked disapproval of the style of dress of Alex and myself--a style that might best have been described as modest, if not indeed occasionally threadbare.
"In France," he said, "literary men dress correctly. Look at Camus and Sartre. You won't see them without a necktie or a proper shirt."
"Beckett and Genet don't wear ties," I reminded him. "And neither does the great Hank Miller."
He half closed his eyes and wearily tilted his head. "My dear boy," he lisped, "you have just named three of the most ne'erdo-well non-gratas, in all Paris."
Although he admired and envied people as famous as those three, it suited his curious vanity to pretend that they were scruffy wastrels.
Something in a similar vein occurred later on when he could not quite forgive or fathom my own slight acquaintance with Jean Cocteau. Girodias was a sort of arriviste extraordinaire, and Cocteau, that paragon of ancient grace and decadence, was not really aware of his existence, except perhaps in the most peripheral sense. One of my best friends at this time was a young man named Jean-Francois Bergery. He worked as a reporter for Paris-Match, and he was the son of a French diplomat and a Russian countess who was a niece of Diaghilev; he was also a godson of Jean Cocteau, and he would occasionally take Trocchi and myself to the latter's sumptuous Trocadero town house, where we would smoke opium and dream to the strains of the Cocteau faves, Bartok and Stravinsky (The Miraculous Mandarin and L'Histoire du Soldat, if memory serves).
Trocchi, with his storm-tossed leonine drop-dead good looks and his Nietzschean slant on things, was OK; but to Jean-Francois, one of the great snobs of the Western world, Gid was not acceptable. "Ça ne marche pas," Jean-Francois would say.
I didn't get around to asking him why not.
It was during the Cocteau/opium period that I wrote a short story called "Candy Christian," about a fabulous, blueeyed, pink-nippled, pert-derriéred darling who was compassion incarnate, living in the West Village, so filled with universal love that she gave herself-fully, joyfully--to Derek, a demented hunchback. Of course, that was merely the surface, the flimsy trappings, as it were; the meat and potatoes of the piece lay elsewhere. Suffice it to say I showed the story to Trocchi. He wanted to publish it in Merlin--for nil recompense. I told him no thanks; I had just had something published under a similar arrangement in an ultra-obscure mag called The Paris News Post, H. L. Humes editor in chief (before he met up with Plimpton, Peter Mathiessen, and The Paris Review).
"Well, in any case," said Trocchi, "this spunky heroine of yours should have more adventures! I would like very much," he went on, "to see her involved with the Roman Catholic Church."
I asked him if he would like to write such an episode himself, since he had an absolutely Joycean love/hate in that regard. And he might have done so, had not another great friend of mine, Mason Hoffenberg, poet and hemp-maven extraordinaire, surfaced at almost the same moment and been doubly keen for the opportunity. just as well, I decided, because Trocchi was now tokus-over-teakettle into the writing of The Wisdom of the Lash or some equally racy volume for Olympia's "Traveller's Companion" series.
"Alex tells me," said Gid slyly over our next aperitif at the Flore, "that you and your friend Mason have embarked on a rather picaresque saga. May I show a few pages to one of my senior editors?"
The book we were writing--an extension of Candy's West Village adventure--was humorous, which could hardly be said of any of Olympia's books, with the notable exception of Lolita.
"Not suitable for your list, I'm afraid," was my reply.
But he was determined to see it, and with characteristic gall and cunning he persuaded Trocchi to make a copy of our ms. and let him read it--or scan it. I don't think he was much into actual reading. In any case, he must have thought it suited his purpose, because he made us the grand-sounding offer of ten thousand francs a month, for four months or until we finished the book, whichever happened first. Grand-sounding, yes, unless one considered that the exchange rate then was one hundred francs to the dollar. I complained to Trocchi about it. But he was jubilant.
"That's four hundred dollars, man," he exclaimed. "Nabokov only got two-fifty. You're getting top dollar! Break out the bubbly! Light up the wog-hemp! Let's get it on with a right raveup!"
Our most frequented cafe in those days was the Café Saint-Germain des Pres opposite the Flore. It was there one winter's morn, while Mason and I were having our customary grande tasse, that a certain Greg E. Corso, author of the epic "Bomb" and "Gasoline" and the novel American Express, poems presented himself at the table. He plopped a manuscript down and said in his usual gross manner, "Now dig this. . . ."
It turned out that the ms. was, of all things, Naked Lunch. It seems that Burroughs had given it to Allen Ginsberg and he had given it to Gregory. Mason and I set out to convince Gid that it was worthy of his distinguished imprimatur.
His first response was to leaf through it impatiently. "There is no fucking in the book," he said. "No sex at all in the book."
We pointed out something on page seventeen.
"Ah, yes!" he said triumphantly. "All the way to page seventeen! And still it's only a blow job!"
He got up from his desk and turned to an old wooden filing cabinet. His offices had a Dickensian mustiness and clutter, which he seemed to believe lent his operation a degree of respectability. He took out a couple of letters.
"Let me show you what our readership requires," he said, bringing them over. If memory serves, they were from a couple of Indians in the British Army, and they pleaded for books that were "brutally frank" and "frankly explicit," phrases they had picked up from porn advertisements.
"Could we truly recommend such a work as this to these readers? And the title is no good. What does it mean, this 'Naked Lunch'?"
I told him that Jack Kerouac had suggested the title, hoping that might impress him. But Mason had the right idea: he said that it was American slang for sex in the afternoon.
Gid brightened somewhat. "Ah, comme notre cinq-å-sept!" he declared, referring to the cherished French tradition of having sex (with a mistress, of course) every day from five to seven P.M.
"'No, this is more like an orgy," he was told.
And eventually he came around.
I have read, God (certainly) knows, other accounts of how this great milestone book came into print, but the actual facts are those above. The scary thing about it is that Girodias could have as easily remained adamant, as indeed he did in another celebrated case, when a certain G. Ames Plimpton decided to break his dear mom's heart for good by writing a dirty book for the infamous Olympia Press, and to this end submitted a four- or five-page proposal outlining the work-a spin-off, I believe, of the grand old R. L. Stevenson classic, The Suicide Club. The outline seemed to me very promising indeed, but Girodias was livid. He simply could not believe that "anything worthwhile" could come from someone as upstanding as George Plimpton.
"He was born with a silver spoon," he said, "and he has put it in his mouth! His parents pay for that so-called magazine of his!
"Perhaps you think he's too grand for the rest of us," I suggested, "and that's why you're against his work. Am I right?" This set him off, and no mistake. "Grand?" he fairly shouted.
"Grand manqué! Grand manqué!"
He was still ranting when Mason and I headed down the steps and off to the Flore.
Perhaps my most outlandish experience with Gid Girodias occurred when he was trying to dupe J. P. Donleavy out of absolutely everything pertaining to The Ginger Man.
I had made the mistake of mentioning to Gid an experience I had shared with George Plimpton and The Paris Review's number-one patron, Sadruddin Khan, younger brother of Aly and son of the big Aga--namely, a visit to the fabulous Maison de la Langue, surely Paris's most exclusive and opulent whorehouse at that point in time. I had described to Gid how the patron was undressed and secured to a hospital gurney, whereupon three angelic preteenies carefully anointed him from head to toe with banana oil and then proceeded, with small darting pink tongues, assiduously to lick it off. Years later, in a published interview, Girodias insinuated that I had gone into "lascivious detail" regarding the procedure, but like so many of his utterances it was simply untrue--I had, in fact, merely alluded to the highlights of the episode.
"Donleavy is coming over from Dublin," he told me. "I'm hosting a grande soirée for him, and as part of his entertainment I'd like you to take him to that fancy bordello you and Plimpton go to. How much does it cost?" I told him I had no idea of the cost, since I had been a guest. "Perhaps he has an account there," I suggested. I was referring, of course, to Sadri Khan, but Girodias thought I meant Plimpton, and it set him hopping.
"Mais ça ne m'étonne pas du tout!" he shouted. "And do his parents know that all the money they give him for the magazine is going to a French whorehouse?"
The soirée itself proved to be quite a gala affair-thanks mainly to the attendance of one particular acquaintance of Mason's and mine, Mohammed Hadj (to whom, incidentally, Candy is dedicated), proprietor of the Café Soleil du Maroc and ofttimes purveyor of what Girodias rather affectedly called "the damnable wog-hemp."
On this occasion, however, Girodias's generally low opinion of Monsieur Hadj (and, indeed, of Arabs by any other name) seemed much ameliorated, perhaps because his M.O. for the evening, I soon began to discern, was to get Donleavy so totally blotto that he could have his way with him, in terms of contracts, royalties, or whatever else might relate to The Ginger Man. And in that regard it was apparent that a bit of hashish would be a welcome addition to his arsenal of derangements. "Baudelaire," I heard him confide to our hapless guest of honor, "used to have it in his confiture."
At one point in the evening I fell into consort with Trocchi and the English publisher John Calder--a deadly combo, derangement-wise--and so failed to follow the complete dismantling of J. P. Donleavy; suffice it to say I recall him being bundled out the door and into the Paris night by Gid and his brother Eric. I later heard that he returned to Dublin the very next day, back to the snug comfort of hearth and home.
Gid's great love, as is generally known, was the fabulous Iris Owens, brilliant junoesque authoress of the two excellent novels After Claude and Hope Diamond Refuses. Under the pen name "Harriet Daimler," she also wrote several of Olympia Press's top-of-the-line titles, including The Woman Thing, Innocence, and The Pleasure Thieves (with "Henry Crannach," who was, in fact, her best friend, the ultra-cutie-pie Marilyn Kanterman). Aside from her Junoesque beauty, Gid was smitten by her rapier wit and devastating logic. She was a pre-Sontag Sontag, and he was determined to get the best of her. He had a typical Frenchman's attitude toward women--i.e., that they were all bimbos--so Iris Owens, with a chess-playing poet's head on her, was an infuriating enigma and challenge. At first he was prepared (in self-defense, of course) to write her off as a "dyke mathematician," until he got a glimpse of her very endearing feminine charms. Then he was hooked. I got the impression that she was fond of him, but she certainly never reciprocated the total adulation he obviously had for her. Indeed, it was at those moments when he exhibited his vulnerability and his despondency over this great unrequited love that he was most sympathetic, and then I would begin to regret not having insisted that Gid share our pipe at the home of the great J. Cocteau.
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