JAMES BRADY;LITTLE GIRL AT THE RITZ BAR

By Published on .

Most Popular
They've gussied it up and now they call it "The Hemingway Bar" but when we were there in Paris it was just the small bar of the Ritz on the Cambon side.

We lived in that year in the rue de Boulainvilliers in Passy, a long winding street running uphill from the Seine to the metro station of La Muette, in a vast, drafty apartment that we rented from a countess whom I would meet once in a month and pay rent in cash so she could avoid the tax and I too would somehow not come to the attention of the revenue collectors.

I notice in reading in The New Yorker a "Paris Journal" piece by Adam Gopnick that things have not changed all that much when it comes to having a Paris apartment.

In any event we had inherited this apartment from Bill and Suzy Blair who had gone off to live in Tel Aviv. Bill was a correspondent for The New York Times and Suzy was a fashion mannequin for the couture house of Nina Ricci. We had two daughters by then and two silver-gray miniature poodles and a white Floride Renault convertible and a sometime nanny and an occasional maid and this apartment with three bedrooms and two baths and dining room, which cost us maybe $200 a month and I was making about $12,000 or $13,000 a year and evading French taxes (much as the countess) and it was a swell apartment except that the central heating was but a pleasant fiction.

Up at the Metro atop the hill at this time of year when it was dark early a man roasted and sold chestnuts as you came up the steps from the subway in the evening and I can smell them still.

I worked at 39 rue Cambon in offices on the top floor of a building which had the Chase Manhattan Bank on the ground floor and was just across the street from the Ministry of (I think) Finance and the Ritz Hotel. Down the street a way was the fashion establishment of Coco Chanel, who lived in a very small interior apartment in the Ritz and would go across the rue Cambon each day around one o'clock to work on her new collection. I used to have lunch with her a lot, usually in her grand apartment over the store but sometimes in the Ritz where in the Espadon Grill you might see the duchess of Windsor and the Luces and Bob Hope and people like that.

The small bar was where I went to drink.

The bartender was Bertin, a compact, neat, bespectacled Frenchman with a pointy nose and receding hairline and he was a great fellow indeed and once a year would gather up a group of his regulars and assess us a certain amount and we would meet on a Saturday at a three-star restaurant for lunch and then be driven out to the Stade Colombes to see one of the big rugby internationals, France against England or Wales or the Irish. Bertin loved rugby and fishing and later on I learned that he also followed the horses, though not very competently. This is from Ed Hotcher's "Papa Hemingway" published in 1966, about six years after I first met Bertin, about a racing syndicate Hemingway and Hotch got up during the season at the Auteuil race course:

"Our routine for Auteuil was to convene in the Little Bar of the Ritz every race day at noon, and while Bertin, the maestro of that boite, made us his nonpareil Bloody Marys, we would study the form sheets and make our selections. Sometimes Georges or Bertin or one of the other barmen in the big bar would put some money on our mounts and we would bet it for them. Bertin was an indefatigable student of the track, more occult than scientific, and on one occasion he handed Ernest a list of eight horses which he had brained out as winners of the eight races on the card that day..."

It turned out, Hotchner wrote, that the only race they didn't lose that day was one in which Bertin's choice was scratched.

But I still loved Bertin and was drinking martinis then and would sit in his bar watching Dali prance about or Elsa Maxwell receive or other legends smoke cigarettes and be famous. And by then, after a couple of years in Paris and of drinking at Bertin's bar, I felt sufficiently at home to suggest that for her second birthday I take our daughter Fiona there to lunch (her sister Susan was only about seven months old and not quite yet up to Bertin standards).

Bertin was delighted. I was to leave it all to him.

And so on the appointed January morning Fiona went to work with me at our offices on the rue Cambon. I showed her Coco Chanel's shop on the way and introduced her to everyone in the office (we had three countesses for starters!) and then about 11:30 or so went down across the street to the Ritz bar. Bertin thought that considering Fiona's relative youth and innocence, it might be prudent to do this early before the heavy drinkers came in.

We checked our coats and took one of the small tables and enjoyed a bit of Paris conversation and then Bertin brought in a grand chicken sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise and a tall glass of milk. And I forget what for me but I had something and then he produced a little cake with two candles.

People had come in by now and as the French do, they sort of bowed and made their way to their own favorite tables and Fiona didn't miss a bit of it and followed them with her eyes while simultaneously eating cake and it was probably then for the first time I could empathize with Marie Antoinette and her "Let them eat cake!" remark that, if it didn't start the Revolution, was not a very tactful thing to say.

I guess we were finished before one o'clock and I settled up with Bertin, who kissed Fiona's hand and wished her all good things for her birthday, and he sent a page to get our coats and then the concierge dispatched a boy to fetch a cab on the rue Cambon and we rode back to the rue de Boulainvilliers in considerable style.

And that was how a small child, an American born in Paris, celebrated a birthday in the little bar where Dali drank and Hemingway read the form sheet and Bertin, a great man but no handicapper, served not only martinis but, at least once, milk and cake and chicken sandwiches.

In this article: