Once upon a time — or as the French say, il était une fois — I spent a summer in Paris as the guest of a friend of my father’s. I had just finished up a stint as an intern at the Spoleto Festival in Italy and took advantage of an offer from Anne-Marie to crash on the sofa at her place. Her flat was near the Maison de la Radio and had a private garden, a rarity in Paris it seemed to me. The on dit was that she had once been Dad’s girlfriend, but I think that was just idle gossip. This woman admired my father, but only as a friend. The apartment was well-situated in the posh 16th arrondissement near Passy. The Métro stop there would become famous later on in the movie Last Tango in Paris.
I used to go out often at night when I was there, take the Métro across the Seine, and back again, to party in all the hot spots of Paris. Perhaps the most sizzling spot in those days was Club Sept, founded by Fabrice Emaer. Not quite a gay bar, Club Sept attracted an exotic, diverse crowd of celebrities, beauties, rock stars, dance divas and some of the international Warhol Factory set. It was the heyday of the disco era, with a hint of the punk revolution waiting in the wings. We listened to Grace Jones, Donna Summer and Patrick Juvet.
My memory of those late, late nights is a bit hazy. And not entirely reliable. I was a heavy drinker then and often stumbled back to Anne-Marie’s in a drunken stupor, or worse a blackout. Very often I did not have enough money to pay for a cab and the Métro closed in the wee hours of the morning. It was not unusual for me to walk home, a distance of many, many miles. Sometimes if I got lucky, I’d hitch a ride. They say that God loves drunks and fools, and I was both in those days. I never had any problems on the streets of Paris. I was 20 and it was 1977.
Anne-Marie knew little of my nightly escapades. She worked in the airline business and was often away for several days. I confined my worst excesses to those times. One night I slipped out to Club Sept and tied one on. In between dancing ecstatically to Donna Summer’s latest hit and cruising the lounge, I hooked up with a handsome gadabout named Joel LeBon, a fixture of the Warhol fringe. My memory here is full of holes, but I seem to remember him introducing me to one of his friends, Tan Giudicelli, an Asian fashion designer who later made a name for himself in perfume.
I had stumbled into a stylish and très branché crowd of nouveaux incroyables and merveilleuses, the demi-gods and goddesses of the demi-monde. With them were Edwige, a stunning blonde beauty with a reputation for always being at the right place at the right time. No party was complete without her. And Paquita Paquin, a piquant meneuse de jeu with enough energy to light up all of Paris.
Sitting against the wall on a banquette, nearly lost amidst the Gauloises and Gitanes smoke, was a shy young man named Philippe Morillon. Smiling like the Cheshire Cat, he offered me a drink and a cigarette. I used to smoke in those days, sometimes as much as three packs a day. But it was just an affectation. I rarely inhaled. It was merely a way to meet people and to achieve instant camaraderie. The whiskeys and Coke helped a lot too. I can’t recall if Philippe and I danced together. I seem to remember him always sitting on that banquette, soaking up the atmosphere. Although he did cover the city’s backstreets with unique flair.
These were heady times. I was in awe of all the famous people popping in and out. I recall that same night seeing Michael York there with some glamorous woman. Was it Catherine Deneuve? Or Anita Ekberg? And a singer named Thierry LeLuron, who was all the rage at the time.
I mention all this because I had unwittingly stumbled upon a small cadre of hip trendsetters who would come to define the nightlife of Paris in the 70s and 80s. They were the Zazous of the moment. My only ticket in was my youth and my ego, and the energy to keep up with them. And perhaps my clumsy American naiveté, which some of them thought was cute.
Philippe and I soon became intimate friends. A talented photographer and artist, he had a large, rambling apartment on the Boulevard Sébastopol in an old Belle Epoque building with one of those typically Parisian staircases and a rickety old elevator. To me it was the essence of la vie de bohème, everything I had dreamed Paris would be. It was a far cry from the rather humdrum bourgeois ordinariness of Anne-Marie’s neighborhood near Passy.
I’d visit Philippe as often as possible to watch him paint, sketch or develop his startling photographs. I seem to recall that he had his own darkroom, but it might have just been the bathroom. He took a lot of photographs of me, only one of which I still have. No matter what time of day or night it was, the flat was a hub of activity. Models, actresses, designers and fellow artists would come in and out. My head was constantly spinning from the excitement of it all, and the pulsating rhythm of a vibrant disco song which he played constantly, “Simon Peter.” I vainly began to envision myself as part of the Warhol crowd. I was 20 and it was 1977.
One night Anne-Marie overheard me talking to Philippe on the telephone and suggested that I invite him over for dinner. She was a great cook, so I didn’t hesitate. Philippe showed up and the scene soon resembled one of those interrogations a father might impose on the date who’d come to pick up his daughter for the prom. Anne-Marie grilled Philippe about all aspects of his life. I could tell instantly that she did not approve. Not because Philippe wasn’t attractive or charming, but because she sensed that he belonged to this other world of artists and bohemians. Perhaps she was just jealous since I had found a new mentor, one who didn’t mind if I smoked, drank to excess, or went out dancing until six in the morning.
A week or so later, Anne-Marie had to go visit friends in Dordogne. She said I could stay in the apartment alone as long as I promised not to have any visitors. I told her not to worry. But the minute she got in her car and drove off, I was on the phone to Philippe inviting him and his circle of friends over for a party. I wanted to show off the garden in back. A few hours later, as I was all alone, and busy preparing for the party, the doorbell rang. I opened it and was startled to find Joe Dallesandro standing there. He was by himself. I had never met him before and had not invited him. It was like a visit from an angel or one of those deus ex machinas you read about in ancient mythology.
I showed him in and we proceeded to talk for an hour or so on our own. It turned out that Philippe had invited him. You have to remember that at this time Joe Dallesandro was at the height of his fame. He had starred in several of Andy Warhol’s most infamous films and had recently headlined Paul Morrissey’s two horror remakes: Dracula and Frankenstein. To me sitting next to him was more exciting than meeting the Beatles or Queen Elizabeth. He showed me his tattoo, “Little Joe.” He was the perfect gentleman, making complimentary remarks about the apartment. I was so taken aback by his sophisticated, gracious manner that I fumbled to make conversation. For once, I was tongue-tied. All I could think of to do was to open a bottle of Anne-Marie’s prized Champagne.
Soon Philippe and his gang arrived. I’m not sure if Edwige and Paquita were there, it’s all pretty much a blur. I had opened Anne-Marie’s tins of caviar too. Someone commandeered the kitchen and cooked up a meal. We took full advantage of the garden and dined al fresco. Afterward there were countless dishes, glasses, demitasse coffee cups, wine bottles, and silverware strewn across the apartment. There wasn’t time to clean up after the meal since we all climbed into a cab and headed off to Regine’s where we continued to live it up and to drink and dance.
Somehow we ended up at La Main Bleue, one of the racier discos of the era, which was out in the banlieues and catered to a trendy black crowd. Unfortunately, Philippe ended up not feeling well that night, so I took him back to his apartment, tucked him into bed and then shamelessly went back to the Bronx, a leather bar up the block from Club Sept.
I picked up some very sexy guy who had a motorcycle and we raced back to Anne-Marie’s apartment. We stumbled through the debris of the earlier party, threw off our clothes, leaving half of them on the floor. I remember he placed his motorcycle helmet on one of the sculptures in the hall. Then we fell into bed in a Mistral of torrid sex. I was 20 and it was 1977.
Through the pounding in my head, a couple hours later, I heard the familiar click of a key in the front door. I jumped out of bed, trying not to wake my trick, and grabbed a towel to cover myself. I poked my head into the living room where an elderly Portuguese cleaning lady stood staring at the mess around her with her jaw just about hitting the floor. She turned to look at me and then screamed. She ran out the door, slamming it behind her. It was just like a scene out of a movie.
I had hell to pay when Anne-Marie returned from the country (a bit earlier than she had planned). And my late night excursions from then on were curtailed. I could have moved in with Philippe I guess. But I felt I owed Anne-Marie something for her hospitality. And I was worried what she might tell my father. I was still very much under my father’s thumb. I was 20 and it was 1977,
As for Philippe, we stayed friends. I never told him about the beau mec on the motorcycle. Although considering how small that clique was, I’m sure he heard about it soon enough. The following summer, I returned and he introduced me to Le Palace, which Fabrice had opened in March 1978 with a gala concert given by Grace Jones. Located in a lavish theatre, Le Palace was a rival to Studio 54, but even more glamorous and scandalous.
I went back to Le Palace on several more occasions and watched with awe, admiration and disbelief the parade of fabulous cockeyed creatures who roosted there. Eventually I returned home and to school. During my junior year at Yale, I was affecting the punk look, glimmers of which I had picked up at Le Palace. I wore a safety pin in my tie. I thought I was the next cover of Interview.
In time, Philippe and I fell out of touch. I visited him the following summer, but some of the magic was missing. He’d been busy making a name for himself in the worlds of fashion, design and photography. I was just a college student on summer vacation. Plus I had begun to be interested in other things besides dancing and the glitterati. I was studying music and had aspirations of becoming an opera singer. It didn’t serve me well to be out every night smoking and drinking. Or so I told myself. But the truth is that the voice lessons were my way of keeping myself in check. I was already in the throes of severe alcoholism and suffered many debilitating attacks of despair during that period. I nearly drowned myself one night in the sea at Deauville. I never told anyone.
Thinking back to those wild days, the past comes back to life. The exotic and erotic. The maddening and the madcap. The poseurs and the provocateurs. It all rushes back, like flashes of lightning illuminating a dark night sky. It’s as if the party never ended. As if AIDS had never reared its ugly head, quelling our lusts and louche behavior. Many of the people I met back then are no longer with us. Fabrice died in 1983; Thierry Le Luron in 1986. Joel LeBon as well. Some have become mere footnotes in the pantheon of fame. Others have gone on to bigger success. Edwige and Paquita continue to shine.
One thing is constant. The memories of Paris, the endless party, the joy of seeing and being seen, of dressing up and showing off. Sometimes when I am alone, I hear that sound… of a motorcycle roaring through the streets of Paris as dawn looms. I was 20 and it was 1977.