Friday, September 09, 2005

Getting a haircut

Despite my headline this is a story about Georges Simenon. I've had the same dentist and same hair cutter for 30 years. We're growing old together. I learned about both from fellow workers at CIS back in the mid 70's in Bethesda. I've stuck with them, happily, ever since. In the dentist's case, that's through three moves of office. In the hair cutter's, it's more like a dozen or half again more.

Think about it. Warren Beatty is a couple of years older than Pierre, the hair cutter, and five years older than me. He was in his mid-thirties when he played a roguish hair cutter in Shampoo and is 68 now.

Pierre, like the Beatty character in Shampoo, works in hair salons, not barber shops. Back in 1970 or so, Beth convinced me that hair dressers are much better than barbers and, in my experience, she's right.

Pierre is Swiss.

Today, waiting for my turn in his chair, he tells the guy behind the cash register that I look like Lance Armstrong. I say I wish I had a young celeb hanging on my arm as he does. I say it just to be companionable, I don't really mean it. Later, in the chair, I tell Pierre that he did well by the woman who was his previous customer. He says her hair is too thick; she should have let him cut it shorter, but he agrees that she looks good. He tells me she's in her mid-80's and has a new boy friend. A widow, she's buried four husbands. He also says she goes to Mass every day. I tell him my thoughts on high divorce rates: that people used to get out of marriages (good or bad) though the death of spouses, so that it used - at one time - to be pretty common for a woman to have had three or even four husbands. We also talk about the failed marriages that didn't dissolve in divorce, but in which both partners lived separate lives.

This reminds Pierre of a book, Simenon's The Cat (the link takes you to a NYT review. Click here to find the book in a library.) Pierre tells me the plot: an elderly couple's relationship has deteriorated into such hatred that they no longer speak to each other, but communicate using notes on little pieces of paper which they crumple and toss into each other's laps. They have split the kitchen into two functional areas because one fears the other will resort to poison. They each have pets - a cat and a bird - and one fingers the other as murderer when the bird dies. I checked for reviews and found one person who wrote of this tale: "The reader turns the pages in mounting horror, unable to do other than read on."

Pierre then tells me that he used to cut Simenon's hair. When he was young, 19 or so, he worked in a salon in the Palace Hotel in Lausanne.
A resident of Lausanne, Simenon would come for a cut every couple of weeks. Pierre says Simenon told him once that he had just finished a new book. He liked it so much, he said, that if all his other work disappeared, he would be satisfied to be the author of this one. The book is The Little Saint. A review article in the New York Times bears out what Pierre says. A review in the Saturday Review says: "THE LITTLE SAINT may be the most joyous novel Simenon has written...his story is lively, realistic, genial and magnetic."

I ask Pierre about the Maigret books because I've enjoyed them for years and own all the ones I could acquire in second-hand bookstores. He tells me Simenon told him how he wrote them: systematically, almost mechanically. He would find a subject, observing a man sitting on a bench in a park, he would imagine a life for him -- a wife who detests him for his drinking -- and would develop a plot around the marital conflict. The books are all almost exactly the same length. They all took almost exactly the same time to write. He would write the manuscripts and put them aside, finding publishers later, sometimes years later. Here's a list. (The author of this list gives a nice quote from T.S. Eliot: "I now prefer Claret to Burgundy and I prefer Inspector Maigret to Arsene Lupin". This was Eliot's response to the question "the two most important changes in his life?", in The Fiftieth Anniversary Report of the Harvard Class of 1910.) Lately, I've been watching Maigret in TV series as available on Netflix. (This link takes you to one of them.)>

Pierre also tells me how Simenon could embarrass him. Pierre came from a rural area and was, he says so unsophisticated that he was more like a 12 year old than a 19 year old. So when Simenon bragged about the many women he had, Pierre was thoroughly embarrassed. (Simenon liked to brag about his prowess with women; see here for example, where he's called a self-confessed sex-addict.)

(Simenon. Note nice haircut.) Pierre's story is that Simenon insisted that he have the right to approve two actors in any film or tv production made from his books. He didn't really want to select the actors, just wanted to have an excuse to rub shoulders with celebrities. Simenon once told Pierre about a trip to Brussels about the filming of a Maigret story. He told Pierre he insisted that he be able to smoke a pipe in the place where filming was done. Though this was strictly against the rules, they allowed him to smoke. He said he stayed in a first class hotel that had been built with money from the Vatican. And then he tells Pierre that he was having trouble getting to sleep in the Pope's hotel, as he called it, and about 11:30 or midnight, he made a call and two minutes later had a woman in his room Pierre says he and the nail girl turned bright red and hung their heads. It took him awhile before he could look straight at Simenon.

(This is The Palace Hotel) Pierre also told me what it was like when a Saudi Prince would descend on the Palace Hotel with his family and entourage. It's another story and I've done enough typing. In short, everything had to be arranged for the convenience of the Saudis, not at all an easy thing to accomplish, but at the end, he handed the hotel the equivalent of $300,000 to distribute among the staff as tips. The management shared it out as fairly as they could. Pierre doesn't remember how much he got.

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