mardi 26 mai 2009

Marcel Proust and the boys from the Ritz

By the middle of 1918, the last summer of World War I, Proust had a compelling reason for wanting to remain in Paris [...]. He met at the Ritz Hotel a young waiter named Henri Rochat, who had captivated him. We know about his attraction to young waiters, and how he recruited them to serve him, from an interview given many years after Proust's death by Camille Wixler, who had been a waiter at the Ritz during the War.
Swiss, like Rochat, Wixler who was only nineteen when he met Proust, had learned at the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne and come to Paris as an apprentice under Olivier Dabescat. One day Dabescat told Wixler that Proust had noticed him and wondered whether he woud willing to wait his table. The young man gladly accepted, having heard about the enormous tips that the writer gave.
The personnel at the Ritz were expected, of course, to cater to the whims of tardy diners. [...] That first evening with Wixler as his waiter, the novelist had an unusually hearty appetite.[...] During the meal, and afterward in the small salon, where he consumed a dozen or so demitasses of coffee and then asked for more, Proust chatted and asked questions about the personnel. He was especially curious about Wixler's compatriot Henri Rochat. Could Wixler ask whether Rochat would be willing to serve his table? Wixler "agreed to this, naturally, and instructed Rochat" on what Proust liked. Not long afterward, when Wixler asked whether Rochat was proving satisfactory, Proust answered in the affirmative, adding that he had offered the young man an occupation better suited to his abilities, an apparent reference to the position of secretary.
Sometime in late 1918 or early 1919, Rochat accepted the position as Proust's secretary, although he [...] had no qualifications for such work. Rochat was taciturn and uneducated, at least in writing and speaking french ; his pronunciation and spelling of his adopted language were poor, although he wrote in a fine hand. Perhaps his ability to trace beautiful letters convinced him that he had a talent for painting.
We have no photographs and only vague physical descriptions of Rochat. Wixler said that he was handsome, and he certainly must have been, at least according to the writer's standards. We know that he had a fair complexion and brown hair because, as we shall see, Proust contrasted Rochat's darker mane with Ernest Forsgren's blond good looks in a gossipy letter to the duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre about sexual practices generally considered perverse.

After Proust's death, an unsent note to Dabescat was found among his papers. It reads like the kind of excuse a parent writes for a child who has to miss school. Proust began by telling "cher Olivier" that he was "embarrassed" to ask him yet again for a favor on Rochat's behalf : the young man was not well and needed to see a doctor and therefore asked "permission not to come to work today". Proust enclosed two hundred francs for all the trouble he was causing the maître d'hôtel. "I believe that this will be the last time I torment you in this regard. Your devoted and grateful Marcel Proust".
Wixler had recently noticed that when he and Rochat changed from street clothes into their uniforms at the Ritz, Rochat now wore handsome suits and underclothes of the finest quality. Aware that his colleague's Salary at the Ritz did not permit such indulgences, Wixler asked how he could afford such expensive garments. Rochat "answered frankly and even with pride that he did so with the aid of M. Proust."
When Proust began catering to Rochat's wishes, [...] Rochat attached himself to Proust with all the tenacity of a barnacle on a rock. He stayed in the writer's service for approximately to and a half years, during which time he cost his protector a lot of money - money that Proust was forced to borrow or raise by selling off his few remaining investments. Céleste agrees that Proust recruited Rochat at the Ritz but, being naïve or perhaps overly protective, insists that her employer took the young man as an act of charity and because he was touched by Rochat’s ambition to become a painter. Proust used to say to her, somewhat disdainfully, whenever the young man was busy at his easel: "He thinks he’s painting." Her description of Rochat as "surly and silent" is close, as we shall see, to Proust’s own characterization of him.

It finally dawned on Wixler that Proust was using him to procure young waiters, apparently for sexual Trusts at boulevard Haussmann. The moment of illumination occurred on the first evening that Wixler delivered a takeout dinner from the Ritz to Proust's apartment. Proust asked him whether he thought that a new, very young waiter by the name of Vanelli would come to see him. Suddenly suspicious of the writer's motives, Wixler replied that Vanelli was not the type to accept such a proposition, no matter how large the tips. Proust had a different opinion, however, and instructed Wixler to put it to the young man bluntly. Wixler was astounded when Vanelli asked to be introduced to Proust, even before he had the chance to broach the subject. He reported Vanelli's eagerness to Proust, who said that he would come to the Ritz that night. While Wixler served the novelist diner, he left the important task of serving the coffee to Vanelli. Vanelli went home with Proust and in no time became his favorite. According to Wixler, this was shortly before Rochat sailed for South America in June 1921.

Wixler's information about Rochat seems accurate : Proust did hire him as his secretary, rapidly grew weary of him as a companion, and eventually found him a post in faraway Buenos Aires. Regarding Vanelli, the situation is less clear. If the waiter of such tender years did succeed Rochat as Proust's "favorite", he did so without leaving any traces in the documents and memoires that we have.

Around the time that Proust met Rochat, he described for Lucien Daudet an evening at the Ritz when the openly gay Count Antoine Sala and his friends, who usually occupied a table in the dining room were absent ; this made the service exceptionally good, "since the waiters did not have to flee towards the kitchen except to serve the dishes" or "run outside to the Place Vendôme". Proust apparently excluded himself from those who interfered with the smooth service at the Ritz, since his own courting of the waiters usually took place at such a late hour that the other customers were not inconvenienced by his interrogations and discreet flirtations.
[...] Henri Bardac [...] told Morand about Proust's favorite stratagem for enticing bellhops. Proust would ring for the bellboy and then begin washing his hands. When the boy entered the room, Proust who was leaning over the sink, would say to him, "My friend, I have a tip for you, but I can't give it to you because my hands are wet ; please get it out of my pants pockets."

Maurice Duplay once caught Proust in a compromising position with a handsome young actor when he arrived in the novelist's apartment unannounced. "I had visibly disturbed them. The young stranger jumped up awkwardly, causing some papers to slide off the desk, his face crimson." Duplay noted the youth's regular features and thick black hair parted in the middle. "Marcel, who had made a quick recovery" from Duplay's surprise entrance, "made the introductions". Unfortunatly, this is all the informations that Duplay gives ; there is no hint of the approximate date of his intrusion.

(from William C. Carter, Proust in love, 2007)

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