On the French Riviera, the main drag that runs along the beachfront in Cannes is called La Croisette. It’s a grand, palm-fringed, divided boulevarde lined with very expensive real estate, mainly grand hotels such as the Carlton and the Miramar that we see in the background once a year on TV when the Film Festival is in full swing.
One block back from the waterfront is the much more modest Petite Croisette, a narrow street running more-or-less parallel to its big sister. Here you will find a guest house (or one did in 1969) called the Sweet Home Hotel – yes, and in English, too.
This guest house had been recommended to me by Brian Hawes, a Sydney friend, a dressmaker by calling. In those days, to me, Brian represented the height of sophistication. Probably then in his late 30s, an impeccable dresser, he drove a white Mercedes convertible.
He had a small shop called The Purple Parrot on Bayswater Rd, Rushcutters Bay. Here he designed, made and sold his creations to a wide-ranging clientele of graceful and grateful ladies. It was not unusual to walk into this small salon and find an Eastern Suburbs matron having a fitting whilst a local prostitute was instructing her young daughter to remove the fives and tens (maybe even some twenties and fifties, if it had been a good night) from an old paper bag, unfold them, smooth them out and arrange them in appropriate piles, by colour, before she made a purchase.
Across the road from The Purple Parrot was the very eccentric Belvedere Hotel, run by two equally eccentric elderly sisters. An old pile that had grown rather than been built, it was a rabbit warren of rooms furnished in a style that makes the word “eclectic” an understatement in the extreme.
Each year, when Brian staged his fashion show, he and his partner, Philip Morwich would stay at the Belvedere, rather than make the long journey home to Palm Beach, on the northern-most fringe of Sydney. They stayed in a top-floor suite where the bathroom had a high attic window with no glass. Each morning, the free standing bathtub with its alligator feet was full of autumn leaves. In another suite, the bathtub had two shower roses, one at each end.
But I digress.
At Palm Beach, Brian and Philip had a modest cottage on the hillside, but its crowning glory was a magnificent terrace, looking westward over Pittwater. This, as one wit remarked, was “the best room in the house”. The deck was paved in white marble. For years Brian had haunted second-hand shops and bought up, for a song, scores of marble-topped coffee tables and sewing machine tables – the sort with wrought iron bases. These marble tops now paved his terrace, surrounded by a very camp Cinderella balustrade.
It was his custom regularly to host Sunday lunch parties. The menu never varied: prawn cocktail, the prawns hanging over the edge of a martini glass stuffed with shredded lettuce and thousand-islands dressing; lamb casserole and bread-and-butter pudding, washed down with copious quantities of sparkling Burgundy.
I was fortunate to be a frequent guest at these lunches, thanks to John Heffernan, a mutual friend. John was a tenor with the Australian opera company and a member of the “Revue ‘62” show, where he sang and danced in the chorus of Digby Wolfe’s highly acclaimed Sunday night variety program on Channel 9. John drove a white Datsun Fair Lady convertible and was known as “Hilda Heffernan, the Whore of the Highways” for reasons I might explain one day.
But, again, I digress.
Another regular guest was Beryl Cheers. Beryl was a short woman of generous proportions. Unlike John, she was not a minor performer, she was a star in her own right. Appearing on TV and in cabaret all across the country, she could belt out a song and was a gifted comedienne.
Now, Brian’s terrace was furnished with a glass-topped dining table and wrought iron chairs. Along the edge of the terrace were two three-seater swinging lounges, suspended from A-frames under a canopy, all covered in very floral duck – the sort you saw in “Meet Me in St Louis” when Judy sang “The Boy Next Door”.
The custom, almost a necessity, after lunch was to doze off or fall asleep in these lounges, or wherever, before the long drive back to the city (except for the time I ended up in a foursome, but that’s another story).
Brian and Philip’s pride and joy was Missy, their beloved miniature dachshund. Eventually Missy fell pregnant and produced a litter of five beautiful little puppies. One Sunday evening, as we roused ourselves from our post-prandial slumber, Brian and Philip gathered together Missy and her precious babies. To their horror, they could only find four. As Beryl snored on in blissful ignorance, a frantic search was mounted for the missing puppy. Alas, to no avail. Amidst great concern, Beryl was wakened, informed of the tragic news and we all prepared to leave, as there seemed nothing else we could do. At this point, Beryl felt something soft and smooth crushed behind her back in the folds of the swinging lounge. She stealthily reached around and felt a still warm, but seemingly lifeless body. Being not too many brain cells removed from Sherlock Holmes, she apprehensively put two-and-two together. Surreptitiously, she grasped the offending item and stuffed it in her handbag. As she drove home through Frenchs Forest she reached into her handbag and flung the decidedly deceased doggy into the woodlands.
Of course, she told no one this story until many years later, after a very drunken dinner at the San Francisco Bar in Bulletin Place at Circular Quay (long since gone). I happened to be there.
However, yet again I digress.
This story started on the French Riviera, and there shall it end..
On the aforementioned Petite Croisette, not far from the Sweet Home Hotel, was a small bistro called, would you believe, Le Petit Carlton (not much imagination, those French). Here I decided to have a glass of wine, which meant testing my then appalling French. I asked the waiter for “un vin rouge, avec glace”, thinking – nay, hoping – “glace” meant “glass”. I didn’t want a whole bottle (how times have changed!). The waiter looked at me rather superciliously, (God, I love that word), but wandered dutifully off.
When he returned with, yes, a glass of red wine full of ice, I realised I had not the great mastery of French that I possess today (in-joke). But, determined to make the most of it, I murmured “merci” and toyed with my glass ever so nonchalantly, as if this were how I always took my wine.
I looked around the room at my fellow diners and my eyes lit upon a middle-aged woman of Beryl Cheers proportions. She was a type I immediately recognised. The assisted-blonde (as I think Dorothy Parker wrote) coiffure was stressed and sprayed into place, her creamy summer frock was a little too frilly for her age and she was covered in gold – earrings, necklace and bracelets.
“Bloody rich Jewish bitch,” I thought to myself.
I did not know any Jews at that time, but I knew all about them. They killed Jesus. (Although I had gratefully abandoned my Catholicism by then, doubts still lingered…) But, the thing is, I had seen them in Double Bay in their Mercedes and their BMWs. Why did they have all the money?
I looked at her again. That’s when I saw the numbers tattooed on her forearm.
My blood froze. The wine remained untouched. I fled.