Monday, August 16, 2010

a little story about writing a letter

Years ago in high school just before summer vacation, I pulled a book out from the library shelf and fell in love.
In love with the writing, the story, the book..the writers talent, his way with words, the way he evoked images and time. So I wrote him a fan letter. In those days, we used pen and paper, we addressed the envelope to the writer in care of the publishing house in New York and hoped. I doubted my gushing fan letter would ever get a response, especially since Romain Gary, the writer, lived in France but something felt right about trying to tell him he'd touched me and the book changed the way I looked at writing and words.
Towards the end of summer I found an envelope in our mailbox addressed to Mademoiselle Black with a French stamp. I jumped out of my skin and ran back to the house and slit the envelopee open carefully to preserve the return address

108 rue du Bac
Paris, 75007 France

Monsieur Romain Gary, who'd won the Prix Goncourt literary prize for Promise at Dawn, the book I'd read, had written thanking me for my letter. Big bold slanted handwriting in ink. Such kind words and so sweet to take the time to write a high school kid across the ocean. And he wrote to me as an adult, as if my letter mattered to him. It rocked my world.

A few years later, backpacking around Europe, sleeping under the Pont Neuf in Paris and munching baguettes and sharing wine with other travellers down on the Seine, I decided to visit Monsieur Gary. I had his address.

108 rue du Bac opened to a treelined courtyard, an imposing white stone building. I followed the red carpeted staircase winding upwards past a stained glass window and bold as brass knocked on the tall carved wood door.

A man answered. Wild black hair sticking up, thick mustache, blue-turquoise eyes with a severe stare who took one look at me and said.
"Do I know you?"
"Uhm..I wrote you a letter..." I fumbled, staring at the carpet wishing it would swallow me up "from California and you wrote me back..and.."
"Just a moment." He slammed the door.
I waited and felt stupid and awkward and realized I'd made a terrible faux pas. One doesn't just appear at the door of a famous and busy Prix Goncourt winning author and expect them to...
The door opened. "Shall we go for a coffee?"
I nodded dumbstruck.

We walked to the corner cafe, his local and the cafe man had a cigar and expresso waiting on the counter for Monsieur Gary. The cafe man looked at me, in jeans, flannel shirt etc and then at Monsieur Gary.
"What about her?" he asked.
"She'll have the same," Monsieur Gary said.

I don't remember everything we talked about because I was trying to puff on the cigar and not cough, drink this acid tasting coffee - my first ever expresso - and not choke and make some kind of intelligent conversation. I do remember Monsieur Gary being very upset over the FBI allegations that his soon to be ex-wife, the actress Jean Seberg, had a miscarriage but the child wasn't his but with a Black Panther. That he'd sued Newsweek for printing these lies about her and that he needed a new roof for his house in Mallorca.

I went back another day to bring him flowers and thank him. He was gracious, kind and showed me his incredible apartment and Jean Seberg's room, with a grimace of pain. In her room, which she'd left in a hurry following her miscarriage and nervous breakdown at the FBI's allegations - I saw her strewn clothes, old letters. She'd left a presence, a sadness and their young son, Diego. I can't remember how old Diego was but he was in a stroller and Monsieur Gary suggested I accompany Diego and Eugenie, his nanny to the park. I did and remember this warm Spanish nanny who Diego spoke Spanish and French with.

Jean Seberg tried to commit suicide on the baby's miscarriage anniversary many times. Nine years later, on a tree lined street in Paris, she succeeded. Though there are conflicts still over this. I saw a photo in the paper of Romain Gary, with Diego now a teenager at her funeral standing at her grave in Cimitiere Montparnasse.

One year later, to the day, Romain Gary put a gun to his head in his apartment on rue du Bac. Diego found him.

I'd never met Jean Seberg, but was affected by her through Romain Gary. Out of the blue a few years ago, after I wrote Murder in the Sentier, loosely fictionalizing what I thought could have happened to their son Diego, how the past had affected him. A woman, like Jean Seberg, who'd been involved with radicals in this case the Baader-Meinhof German gang and leading to my detective, Aimée's mother, Garry Macgee, a journalist called me and asked me about my experience for a book he was writing. I told him my little story.

Diego Gary stayed out of the limelight, gave one or two interviews about this parents and moved to Barcelona with Eugenia's family. For years, he fought to keep his mother's name out of the sensational press. Jean Seberg had become a film icon of the nouvelle vague in Goddard's film Breathless. Rumor had it he owned a cafe/bookstore in Barcelona. Until last year when his book S. a fictional account of a young man, orphaned by two famous persons who killed themselves, came out in Paris to critical acclaim. He was forty years old. He said it's taken him this long to be able to write about his demons.

This week, Gary Macgee called me from Marshalltown Iowa, Jean Seberg's birthplace, and told me he's finally filming the documentary of Jean Seberg's life that he's wanted to do for 18 years. He wants to interview me.

Cara - Tuesday


  1. What a powerful story. Thanks for sharing that with us.

  2. I wish more young people would risk rejection; they think all rejection is personal. You took the chance twice, courting a real blow when you showed up at his door. But, instead, you had an experience few others had and you amassed great memories.


  3. This is such a beautiful and tragic story at the same time. They say you should never meet people you don't know, but look up to, but your story proves that he was just a normal person behind it all, and was probably just as fascinated to hear your stories as you were his.

    It feels right that you and his son should now be in touch.

  4. Thank you, Lynn.
    Beth, call me young, dumb and not knowing better. I'm glad I met Romain Gary, but honestly, the bravado of youth pushed me to do it.
    GilesIG, I remember he was very human, very down to earth and at the time coping with Seberg's leaving. He pounded the counter in anger telling me about his suing Newsweek. He did win the suit, maybe the first person to win against Newsweek and for a token dollar or something.


  5. Hi Cara,

    That was a pretty gutsy thing to do. I wonder if when I was younger if I would have had the nerve to knock on an author's door, I'm pretty sure I couldn't do at my age now.

    That poor kid, it's bad enough if one parent commits suicide, but both?

  6. that was very nice i wodnt mind reading it serval times

  7. Good on you for writing him and for being gutsy enough to knock on his door. I'm glad he responded. Famous people are, underneath all we conjure up and imagine them to be, larger than life, just people. They have real problems just like other people, families they love, imperfections, weaknesses, and sadly, because of their fame, can become easy targets. So sad for all of them, especially a young man losing both parents to suicide. I've often wondered about Diego. Now, I will look for his book. I imagine all that damage, the pain, hers, both their agony at the loss of the child, being lied about from sea to shining sea on many continents, their names and character dragged through the mud, by our not so noble government. Now, I imagine it happening today with the millions of cyber-bullies. I shudder to think further.