In September, the film Vampyr finally came to Paris. It was the opening attraction of a new cinema on the Boulevard Raspail. Like old times the five of us—me, Justine, Desnos, Louis, and Artaud—went to see it. There were actually seven of us, since Artaud brought Sonia and Louis brought a friend of Artaud’s and Sonia’s, an attractive brunette named Anita Reynolds. And who did Desnos bring? No one—not even Youki. In another night of loveless nights he sat alone with his friends who were now all paired off.
I was nervous, for when the film opened in Vienna the audience had demanded its money back, and when people did not get it they had rioted. Police had to beat back the crowd with night sticks. Dreyer’s film was almost universally panned by the critics, and I wondered how people would react to it tonight.
The reception at the cinema at Raspail was not good. People yelled at the screen, threw things, and walked out. Artaud bristled in rage, shouting out that they were behaving more abominably than he and Desnos supposedly had at the premiere of The Seashell and the Clergyman. Frustrated, I finally yelled at the protestors to leave quietly if they didn’t like the film because I was trying to watch it. At the end of the showing, only the seven of us and a few others remained. The projectionist came downstairs and offered to screen the film again for us in peace. “Let’s see it again!” I urged, and we paid the man for his trouble. Two men and two women twisted around in their seats in front of us and I recognized Paul and Nusch Éluard and Benjamin Péret with a woman. Nusch beamed our way, her husband grinned noncommittally, but Artaud and Péret glared at each other. Breton’s right-hand cookie cruncher then left, dragging his wife with him, but the rest of us stayed and I got to enjoy this exquisite piece of dread without any more nonsense.
I thought it was Marvelous. The first half was almost completely silent and the figure of evil was not evoked so much by the vampire as by a pervading sense of menace built through the skillful combination of music, shadow, and pacing. Artaud looked impressed when I glanced at him. The bloodsucker, as he walked through a haunted house, came upon in each room a fantastic scene more eerie than the room-vignettes in The Blood of a Poet. The house was a metaphor for dreams, for night terrors. Shadows moved independently of their owners, the village doctor met a grisly death by suffocation in a flour mill, and the vampire, when finally impaled by the stake, decayed to bones and dried flesh before our eyes. There was also some humor, especially when an old man, frustrated by the carousing of the phantoms, banged his cane and shouted out, “Ruhe!” The ghosts fell silent and that made Desnos laugh. I definitely caught the tribute to Fritz Lang’s M, which opened with a group of children chanting a ghastly rhyme about being murdered by the Man in Black who was menacing the neighborhood. The children were yelled at by a mother to be quiet, only to wait until all adults were out of hearing to start chanting it again.
Afterwards we, now a group of nine including Éluard and Nusch, went to the Dôme. It was twenty-three hours—Artaud’s and Sonia’s regular suppertime. I was glad to see Nusch again, though to my disappointment Justine barely acknowledged her. At any rate we were all enthralled by Louis’s new companion, Anita. She had almond-shaped brown eyes and dark wavy hair and an oval face, with a jutting chin and a long straight nose rather like Artaud but she reminded me a bit of Lise Deharme, though Anita was prettier and more open and friendly, like Nusch. She was from the United States, and she worked as a writer and model and was training to be a nurse. Anita was a black woman and the cousin of the poet Langston Hughes, but she “passed,” as she put it, for white. She also knew Kiki, Ernest Hemingway, and was a very good friend of Man Ray. I could tell Louis was quite taken with her and I thought she was simply delightful. Like Artaud, christened Antoine Marie Joseph, she had a long full name, Anita Thompson Dickinson Reynolds and though she was not technically a Surrealist she played humorous games with her identity, sometimes using different surnames, and with her ethnicity, alternately “passing” herself off as Caucasian, Asian, East Indian, American Indian, “A Whole Lotta Mulatta,” a “jazz baby” and a “no-creed, half-breed Cherokee deportee.” This, she told us, garnered her more admiration in Paris than if she simply identified herself as American. She modeled for Coco Chanel and took home expensive dresses, since the famous designer discarded them after only one wearing. Anita rubbed shoulders with André Gide, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, though she warned us Pound was a fascist sympathizer. “I feel a bit guilty as a black woman having this much fun,” she told us, “because I can get away with it but my other relatives can’t. Although there was no resentment in our family between those who can ‘pass’ and those with darker skin.”
“The whole thing is ridiculous; grab for whatever you can, I say,” I replied. “When is society going to get over skin color? I don’t understand it.”
“Well, it gets complicated, Geoff,” Anita told us, “it goes the other way, too. My family is quite well-to-do and they wanted me to move in the right circles—the black bourgeoisie of L.A. and Chicago, et cetera. My relatives are spread out and I’ve lived from one end of the country to the other. One evening I went to a party that my parents wanted me to attend, and I brought along a friend named H.L. Menken—you might remember him from the Scopes Trial.” She and Artaud exchanged a sardonic glance while Desnos made a face at me. “And the hostess started in on me: ‘We don’t allow white people at our gatherings but if we must, they should at least be of our social class, not low-down journalists.” At this, she turned and smiled at Desnos who beamed proudly to be one of the filthy underclass. “Christ, here is the black middle class living in a goddamned bubble and not doing a thing about the lynchings, the Klan, the everyday indignities we endure as if they think our people bring this on themselves! And the reason my parents hosted so many black intellectuals in the first place was due to the hotels refusing to admit them! But people develop amnesia about what they don’t want to talk about. Do you know there is a travel guide called ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’ that literally tells black people where to stay and not to stay, and where to eat and not to eat, around America? But I was not supposed to rock the boat about these things—and good luck avoiding white friends when so many of our people are white too, but people don’t want to talk about that, either. I felt caught in the middle and finally I said, ‘Abyssinia!’ I took my tuition money—for Wellesley College, mind you—that’s not going to happen!—and caught the next ship to France.” Anita concluded with an infectious laugh that set the rest of us off. I explained to the non-English speakers at our table that Abyssinia was slang for “I’ll be seeing you.”
“Abyss-in-ya,” Louis joked, raising his glass of absinthe. I was overjoyed to see him so happy. “You went from being on the cover of the NAACP’s magazine to dancing on Broadway with ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.”
“Really?” Justine gasped in admiration. “That doesn’t sound like a downswing!”
“No, honey, it sure wasn’t. He trained me and he was great to work with, but my mother was horrified,” Anita replied, sounding downcast. “She didn’t want a chorus girl in the family. One of her friends called me a little Bolshevik and she said, ‘she’ll dance it out of her system.’ And there I was, taking classes during the day at a teacher’s college but that didn’t mollify my parents. So I danced right out of the States!”
Desnos, trying to break into songwriting in addition to producing radio plays, scribbled day and night now quite like Artaud, and he scribbled right at the table as we talked. He was living on the rue Lacretelle, still working as a real estate agent, and he was so poor he shared a pair of shoes with a friend who wore the same size. Now he was urging Artaud to collaborate with him on a radio play he was writing with his radio colleague Paul Deharme, La Grande complainte de Fantômas, and Artaud nodded in interest. “I need a director and someone to read the main role,” Desnos told him, “and you’re my man.”
While Desnos blatted, Sonia leaned close to us and confided that she had shoved half a dozen women at the poet but he refused to see anyone but Youki. Artaud merely flicked his eyes upward, obviously resigned. “Sonia, dear, is the man paying you to find muffins for him?” Anita chastised her friend. Sonia, grinning, shook her head. “Then let it sit. Des is dizzy with a gold-damer.”
I took that to mean the opposite of gold-digger. After Artaud bolted his food and wandered away with Sonia, I leaned toward Desnos and joked, “So that’s how to get Artaud to do something he does not like—offer him the title role, and artistic control!” I was trying to turn this into a segue into a more serious conversation, that of Desnos finally giving himself the title role in his own love-life.
Desnos gave me a head-circle for a nod and went on scribbling. Anita lifted her eyebrows at me. “Artaud never wrote anything about the book festival,” Louis said fondly, “and he wasn’t going to give an eyewitness report on the assassination, though Steele asked him for one.”
“Assassination! What?” trilled Anita. “Were you there?”
“Neither of us saw anything,” I replied, “being in the moment doesn’t make one an eyewitness. Who’s Steele?”
“Bernard Steele, Denoël’s partner. He’s an American, too. His tastes run pretty lurid even for Artaud. Steele wanted a blow-by-blow and—” Louis chuckled. “Artaud told him to blow his brains out and write about that.”
Desnos, still scribbling, let out his ridiculous giggle. “I do wish Artaud wouldn’t insult his publishers so much,” I said, “even though he’s right.” It had taken years for Jean Paulhan to get over his disgust at Artaud for denouncing God and country during that disastrous opening of A Dream Play.
Louis shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry. Steele thought it meant fellatio and found it hilarious, to Artaud’s horror! So now, Artaud is strictly formal with him.”
“Artaud really should work on his English,” remarked Desnos. “A man who cannot speak English, translating English literature.” He grinned stupidly in admiration then.
“Well, Steele twists people’s words and is rather crass. I didn’t like the man when I met him,” Louis said. “It’s beyond me how Denoël stands him.”
Because Anita asked about our experience at the Doumer assassination, my efforts to steer the conversation toward lonely Desnos perhaps tasting a few unloveless nights was derailed. It’s just as well, I thought, for Desnos did not listen to Artaud and now was not listening to Sonia, and I did not know what I could add that would make a difference. Éluard, suddenly talkative, started in about the five Nazi Party members who murdered a Communist in Germany having their death sentences commuted.