“If It Isn’t Fun.” – The American Hospital of Paris Yesteryear Pt. 4
March 22, 1950
The celebration of my 25th birthday, while I was resident at the American Hospital of Paris, began with a festive lunch.
Two months earlier, in late January, I was on duty in the outpatient clinic one afternoon when I was called to care for a young American, a Fulbright professor and psychiatrist, who was suffering from a persistent respiratory infection. I’ll call him Dr. Brady. Wan and worn, flabby from a long winter giving lectures, he complained to me of being “terribly run down, and sick and tired of coughing my fool head off!”
In his late thirties, serious and intelligent, Dr. Brady then looked right at me and said, to my surprise, “I’d like to feel as healthy as you look!” Indeed, I had just returned, lean, fit, and tanned, from my first ski trip of two weeks in the Austrian Tyrol.
After I had examined the professor and ordered a chest X-ray and laboratory work, I prescribed antibiotics. Then I suggested semi-seriously that he, too, consider taking a vacation in the Tyrol. It was the sort of traditional recommendation for “a change of climate” that few doctors made then or nowadays since the advent of the antibiotic era.
What I actually said was, “Well, I think if I had a chest infection that I couldn’t shake in these Parisian winter doldrums, I would catch a first-class train to the Tyrol and sign up for a week of ski lessons. Incidentally, Seefeld is a particularly pleasant and sunny place.”
We both laughed and parted, with the follow-up clinic visit left to his discretion.
Three weeks later I received a telephone call from a person whose voice I failed at first to recognize. As he recounted our earlier meeting, I remembered him at once. The singular thing about Dr. Brady that I recalled, other than his illness and mild despondency, was that when he pulled out his wallet to take notes about the Tyrol, I noticed at least a dozen green, uncashed U.S. Treasury checks, presumably his Fulbright fellowship stipend. Barely surviving as I was in Paris, with no savings and a $100-a-month wage from the American Hospital, I was bug-eyed over the affluence of this young doctor who was not all that senior to me.
He said, “Well, Dr. Blackburn, I took your advice to heart. I got on a train to the Tyrol and stayed at your Pension Sonnhof in Seefeld. The result is that I am now a new man! I want to buy you the best meal you will have in France.” We had another laugh together and agreed to meet for lunch in a few days, on my birthday, March 22.
“Pick you up at noon in front of the hospital,” he said.
I don’t know why I have never been particularly fond of the Boulevard Saint Germain. Maybe it’s because there is one nondescript Hausmann-era apartment house after another and such an eternity between Metro stops. There is no cozy neighborhood feeling to this broad, intensely commercial street. But the restaurant chosen by my colleague was special: bucolic in its decor, intimate and welcoming. I wish I could recall its name. After we were seated by the maitre d’, the owner-chef appeared immediately at our table.
The proprio, a mountain of a man, embraced my companion in a bear hug, remarking that he had never seen him looking so well. My host pointed to me and said, “Dr. Blackburn here is responsible for that. Today he deserves the best that we can do for him.”
The chef bowed, “Avec grand plaisir, mes amis. Bon appetit!” And off we went on the adventure of a magnificent seven-course French meal.
It is strange that as much as I enjoy both food and music, I have an extremely poor musical and gastronomical memory. I’ll save for later a story about a lunch at Galatoire’s with Mimi Sheridan, food critic for the New York Times. The most impressive thing about that meal was her total recall of every dish, even the order in which each had been presented, in that same restaurant, from 15 years earlier!
I, on the other hand, recall not a single course of my 1950 Paris birthday lunch, and rather than bore you, Gentle Reader, with a contrived menu, or lead you to salivate at the loving description of a fictitious meal, I will simply leave it at that. But I know that we had “the works,” starting with hors d’oeuvres variés, going on to soup, to fish, to meat, to salad, to dessert, to fruit and cheese, and to coffee and cognac. More relevant to this story is that there was a new bottle of wine for four of these courses. This meant that, over the course of three hours, we each consumed the equivalent of two bottles of wine, plus the obligatory aperitif at the beginning and snifter of cognac with the chef at the end of the repast.
I was amazed not only by the quality but by the quantity of food and drink that could be put away with the classic French presentation. In a marvelous series of complementary tastes and textures, based on centuries-old experience best told by Brillat-Savarin in La Physiologie du Gout, the order of presentation allows one to deal with obscene amounts of food in pleasure and relative comfort. I couldn’t guess now the number of kilocalories we consumed at that single sitting.
My host was more experienced than I, both in eating well and drinking. I was nearly comatose as we piled into his little Fiat after the meal and sped to the Place de la Concorde. There, en route back to the American Hospital, Dr. Brady made a quick visit to the U.S. Embassy. While waiting, I got out of the car and leaned on a fender, quite blinded and dazed by the bright light of early spring. It was an unusually warm day for March, and, stuporous as I was, I recognized how terrible was my condition at 3:30 in the afternoon. Worse still was the realization that I had an appointment for another birthday meal at 6:30 that evening in the home of the only French acquaintances of my parents. They were a quiet Protestant couple with a pleasant, phlegmatic daughter of approximately my age. I surmised that they would undergo terrible expense and effort to prepare my birthday meal. And here I was in mid-day, “destroyed,” stuffed, fit only for a long recuperation in bed, not for a bright social evening in my honor.
I was miserable by the time we reached the hospital, and went straight to my fifth-floor apartment. There I did everything I could think of to relieve myself of food and drink — unsuccessfully. I called the hospital barber, explained my plight, and asked if he could help. He put me in his chair, shampooed my hair, massaged my head and shoulders, gave me a shave, and applied various combinations of hot and cold towels, waking me at intervals with each shocking application. Afterward, with an hour or so to rest, I set two alarm clocks and slept fitfully.
Without the social maturity or good sense to call those kind people who had, duty bound, invited me, or to have someone call for me and beg off for illness, I arrived by taxi only a few minutes late and with a bouquet of flowers in hand.
Now, 50 years later, I am grateful for the psychological phenomenon of repression, so that the details of my pain and humiliation, and surely of their discomfort, are deeply buried. I recall only that during the occasion I had a sense of interminable hopelessness and that I ate with difficulty small servings of all that my hosts presented. But I didn’t carry it off as “the happy birthday boy.” Rather, I sat dumbly, a glazed “risus sardonicus” frozen on my face. I hadn’t the presence of mind to reassure them, then or later, that none of the misery of that evening was their fault, that I was a walking zombie due to my earlier debauched lunch.
Today, I have no idea of the name of that dear family, or of the daughter, or of their connection with my parents, nor of further communication there may have been among them. I only hope that the French family had felt some profound social obligation to my parents, and that afterward they considered it more than adequately repaid by their dealing with my birthday celebration that terrible evening, and with the wretched, ungracious dullard who was my parents’ son.