One evening, while Catherine sat with Suzanne in the dining room planning a supper for our father’s birthday, Franz on the sofa sheepishly unfolded a few old newspaper articles he’d saved. “This should interest you,” he whispered. “Surrealism’s biggest public scandal.” We sat quietly together to read them. The event was an honorary banquet given for the poet Saint-Pol-Roux in 1925. Having been especially welcomed, Breton and his group, except for Artaud who did not attend, had left the dining hall a shambles by the evening’s end.
The trouble began with a proclamation made over dinner by a sixty-year-old arts patroness named Rachilde. She was a novelist and the erstwhile sponsor of the real-life Alfred Jarry, Artaud’s hero. Once a patroness of rebels, Rachilde had ripened into a self-styled Carrie Nation waging holy war against Dada which she called “that German plot to undermine French art” despite Dada having originated in Switzerland. With bad feelings already lurking around the table, Rachilde struck the match to the tinder by declaring that no self-respecting Frenchwoman could ever marry a German. “That’s what first got my attention,” Franz pointed out.
Breton and the Surrealists insulted Rachilde and her group, who shouted back. Then a woman in the room felt faint and asked Breton to open the window, and Breton obliged by pulling the windows (accidentally, according to him) right off their casements. Defending German-born Max Ernst against Rachilde’s abuse, Breton threw his napkin in her face. Fists began flying, Breton was nearly pushed out of that window by three men (according to the Surrealists), and Surrealism’s pope landed a few good punches (according to everybody).
By the time the police arrived Aragon and Rachilde were nose-to-nose, Desnos was dragging a man around by his hair, and Philippe Soupault was swinging from the chandelier and kicking the plates and wine glasses on the table. Poor bewildered guest of honor Saint-Pol-Roux shouted repeatedly into the din, “I’m captain of this ship!” while rookie Surrealist Michel Leiris, drunk on Pernod, leaned out of the broken casement and shouted to the people in the street “Death to France!” (“I shouldn’t laugh,” Franz sniggered, “but I admired his audacity.”) Challenged by an onlooker to repeat that phrase, Leiris ran downstairs to yell it again and was nearly lynched by the frenzied mob. The police carted the bloodied Leiris away, and at the police station poor Leiris was pummeled again before Desnos scraped together his bail. However, the evening ended with a triumph for Breton and company when Rachilde, having become so hysterical that the cops took her for the main instigator, was arrested too.
In an interview after her release Rachilde painstakingly detailed her many injuries, including a supposed kick to her stomach by “an enormous German.” She was unable to name or describe this Hun. As time went on and she kept telling her tale her injuries became progressively less serious until the Surrealists sneered to the press it seemed sitting in a German-made chair had wrinkled her gown.
Franz and I snickered in dismayed delight, he glancing over his shoulder to make sure Catherine could not hear us. Of course we didn’t wish the death of France but I for one was sick of patriotic Frenchmen deriding Germany and celebrating the death of Austrian-Hungarian empire. At any rate, nearly everything André Breton did horrified Catherine. “So, have you met him? And him?” Franz asked, pointing out names in the articles. “Soupault? Really? And Leiris? Oh, too bad. I shouldn’t say this, but I’d like to shake his hand.”