This week’s guest author is Ruth Harris. We met on the Eloop group and apparently she likes curmudgeons *grin* er…that would be me for anyone who has ANY doubts *snort*
The Last Romantics is set in New York and Paris during the years between the end of World War I and the fall of Paris to the Nazis at the beginning of World War II. Kim Hendricks, handsome and dashing, is a war hero, a journalist, a talented and ambitious young man who has just finished his first novel. When Kim’s newspaper sends him to Paris in the winter of 1922, he must leave his pregnant wife at home in New York.
As Kim reports on Paris, its low life and high life, its clochards and celebrities he cannot stop thinking about Nicole Redon, the beautiful young Parisian dress designer—she may remind readers of Coco Chanel—with whom he had a brief, bittersweet and profoundly romantic affair in the days right after the Armistice. He longs to see her again but, married now, does not permit himself to seek her out.
The scene opens just after Kim knocks out a publisher who owes him money and leaves him lying, bloodied, in a rain-swept gutter………….
The story spread rapidly through the cafés of Montmartre and Kim became something of a hero. It turned out, not unexpectedly, that Kim was not the only writer to whom Gus Leggett owed money, and there was no café into which Kim could go where fellow writers, gleeful at the thought of Gus Leggett lying bleeding in a gutter, did not buy Kim as many drinks as he wanted.
When Hemingway heard about it, he invited Kim to the Ritz. “I wish I’d beat you to it,” Hem said. “That bastard’s been running around saying that I’m living off my wife. Let’s go celebrate with a coup at the Ritz.”
Despite the fact that Ernie said he was having a rough time financially, unable to sell his fiction and having to depend on the stories he was sending back to his newspaper in Toronto, he was well-known at the Ritz. The barman knew him and they talked a little handicapping, and the waiter, a Berliner, asked after his wife and bemoaned the recent depreciation of the German mark before bringing them their fines.
“I learned more about writing from Cézanne than from any writer, dead or alive. I want to do with words what Cézanne does with paint—” Hem was saying when the couple who had just entered the room called a greeting.
“Ernie! Back for the second time today?” The man, almost unreally handsome, nodded at Kim and so did the beautiful woman with him. It was impossible not to notice them. They were extraordinarily good-looking. Both had dark-blondish wavy hair, sapphire-blue eyes and smooth, very rosy, very healthy skin. They resembled each other to an uncanny degree, a pair of almost-twins reflecting their golden gorgeousness back and forth, the reflection multiplying their physical beauty. The man wore a suit of fine dark wool, with a white, perfectly ironed shirt and a conservative navy-blue tie with a discreet dark-red figure. The woman wore a luxurious sable coat of a darker brownish-blond shade than her hair over a dress of black silk cut in a deep Vee. Three strands of pearls hung from her throat, luminescent against the naked skin exposed by the low-cut neckline.
“Scott, Zelda,” Ernie said, indicating chairs and introducing the couple to Kim.
“You had a tremendous influence on my life,” Kim said as they seated themselves. “This Side of Paradise is my favorite book.”
Scott smiled, accepting the compliment graciously. “Champagne, s’il vous plaît. Veuve Cliquot ‘92,” he told the waiter as his wife moved into her chair. She turned her body so that it was angled slightly toward Kim, and she held herself so that the tops of her breasts were exposed. With the fingers of her left hand she played with the ends of her lovely hair, and in her right she held a long black cigarette holder banded with gold.
“Anyway, I want to tell you how much I admire This Side of Paradise. No one who reads it will ever forget it.”
Scott smiled. “See?” he said, turning to Zelda. “My reputation is spreading!”
Zelda didn’t answer with words but sipped her champagne and smiled at her husband. The smile was seductive, and there was something strange in that smile, too. Scott responded to the seductiveness of it but, Kim thought, he did not seem to see the strangeness. There was something touching—and unsettling—about the way Scott paraded the compliment before his wife. Almost as if it would make him bigger in her eyes.
“I know who you are!” Scott said, turning to Kim in sudden recognition. “You wrote Western Front, didn’t you? Max Perkins wrote me about it. He’s not only the best editor. He’s the best press agent.”
“It’s coming out in the spring,” Kim said modestly. “Everyone expects it to be a big success. I hope they’re right.”
“I’m sure they are,” said Zelda, speaking for the first time. She had a slightly husky voice; it may have been from the Russian cigarettes she was smoking in her long holder.
“Are you writing a new book?” Kim asked Scott.
“I just finished one,” Scott said. “I’m going over the proofs right now. I’m calling it The Beautiful and the Damned.”
“I’m surprised Scribner’s will print such a naughty word. And in a title too!” Kim said. Everybody laughed.
“To Western Front!” Scott said graciously, and raised his glass. Kim noticed that Hem did not drink and it occurred to him that Hem was envious.
“I wonder if war books are going to sell,” Hemingway said. “It’s so soon after the war it’s hard to tell if people are sick of it or if they’re still interested in reading even more.”
“Hem’s planning a war book, in case you didn’t know,” said Scott. “It’s going to be a good one, too. Hem never sells out. That’s my fatal flaw, you know.”
Zelda said nothing; instead, she consulted a tiny diamond wristwatch. “Darling, we must go. You know how the French are about time.”
Scott stood and helped his wife up, touching her tenderly. They exchanged an intimate glance and just before Zelda turned to leave, she took the rosebud from the silver bud vase in the center of the marble-topped table and thrust it into the Vee neckline of her dress. As she did, a thorn pricked her skin near the pulse point at the base of her throat. It must have hurt but Zelda did not seem to notice. A drop of blood beaded on her skin and clung there like a tiny, mortal jewel.
“He’s very nice,” said Kim, watching them leave. “They seem very much in love.”
“He’s weak,” said Ernie, “and Zelda’s going to ruin him.”
Ernie had a date to meet Hadley and he left the Ritz on the rue Cambon side, the same way he and Kim had entered. It was Kim’s last night in Paris and he decided to stroll through the elegant lobby and out the main entrance on the place Vendôme. He stood there for a moment under the arcades of the famous hotel and enjoyed the cool, early-winter air after the warmth of the bar. He gazed absently across the place Vendôme and at first he couldn’t read the lettering on the awning of the shop just opposite. Then it came into focus: Nicole Redon.
Then, as if directed by the very hand of destiny itself, she came out of the front door of the shop. She stood on the sidewalk for a moment, looking for a taxi. Without thinking, without even knowing when or how he had begun to move, Kim found himself running across the broad square, dodging traffic, causing drivers to slam on their brakes and blare their horns in warning. He almost got himself killed and drivers leaned out their windows to curse him. He did not stop; he did not even slow down.
“Nicole! Nicole!” he shouted.
He was too far away and with the noise of traffic, the sound of horns and shouted curses, she did not hear him. She glanced up for a second to see what the commotion was, but just then a taxi pulled up and she got in, closing the door after her.
He was running, out of breath now, his heart pounding. He could see her clearly, illuminated by the soft interior light of the cab, leaning forward, giving an address to the driver. Her hair was shiny and alive, shot with gold. Her lips moved silently. He could remember their warmth and their texture and their taste. He lunged forward, trying to rap on the window to get her attention but he was just a millimeter short. The taxi, already moving, picked up speed, changed gear, and turned out of the place Vendôme and into the rue Castiglione. Kim stood alone in the traffic-choked square. Did he really smell a trace of her perfume or did he just imagine it?
All at once, the square seemed to empty. Everyone had already gone wherever they were going. Home. To a restaurant. To some warm, well-lit place, anticipating dinner and the evening ahead. Kim shivered suddenly, feeling the cold, and he could no longer battle down the feelings he had barricaded himself against from the moment he had returned to Paris. All the times he had imagined running into Nicole, what he would say, what she would say, how they would be with each other, how they would feel at the first moment they touched each other again. He was overcome with a piercing, forlorn sense of loss and longing, and the tears that ran down his face mingled with the Parisian mist which closed over him like a soft, gray cloak.
The next day, as planned, he returned to New York. He told himself it was just as well.
Kim had no way of knowing that in the years to come they would meet again and again and that their relationship with each other would transform their lives—and the world around them.
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