It’s September 1955 and George Platt Lynes is riding around Paris in a taxi. He is 48 years old. These facts are true.
The driver talks to George in a low voice, glancing at him through the rearview mirror. His name is Nadir, but in Paris he calls himself Nicholas. Nadir points out monuments they pass, explaining each with a heavy accent as he gestures with elegant olive-skinned hands. Algerian, George thinks. The hands intrigue him more than the city. Nadir tries a few words in English, smiling as he pronounces the word “America.” He would like to visit America, he says, and George smiles back realizing they are now flirting.
You probably don’t know the name George Platt Lynes. He is often just a footnote to the history of photography. But what is important now is the fact that George has returned to Paris after two decades. He calls this trip his “sentimental journey” in letters to friends. This other fact is important too: George doesn’t know he is dying. Or rather it’s not clear if he knows or if he is pretending not to know. His death is indeed a fact, but at this moment in the taxi it is also an uncertainty. All that really matters is that he is circling through Paris with an attractive taxi driver named Nadir who he may or may not have sex with.
George finally gets out of the taxi at Place des États Unis, a quiet square between the Arc de Triomphe and the Seine. He is staying in a borrowed apartment in one of those large Haussmannian buildings that the bourgeoisie built in the 19th century. Rooms opened on to other rooms that open on to still more rooms. There is always two or three ways out of a room.
Nadir takes George’s suitcases and puts them on the curb. He is shorter than George, stronger and younger. His movements are heavy with the scent of his leather jacket. I would like to photograph him, George thinks.
In the foyer George finds a spiraling wooden staircase, thin red carpeting and the odor of mildewing wood. There would be a concierge in such a place, and in fact there is one here. Her name is Madame Bouchard. She saw George from her window when his taxi arrived, and came to the foyer just as George entered.
Monsieur! Monsieur! Her voice has the dryness of age. Opening the door wider, she steps out into the hallway. She stands rigid and composed in a pale blue sweater with pearl buttons, and holds a cigarette in her right hand that she waves towards George.
Bonjour Madame, George says, turning and smiling. His French has the boredom of a young student with the laziness of an American accent. He tried to learn French. He had a tutor in Paris years ago, but it was a discipline he struggled with. When I was 23 and living in Paris, he would say to friends, I had a choice between French lessons or sex. I chose both. Unfortunately for him at this moment, he learned more about sex than French grammar.
You see, I have put George there entering an apartment building in the posh 16th arrondissement, and all I’m thinking about is his cock. But then it was his cock that his friend and lover the writer Glenway Wescott wrote about in his journals several years earlier. Wescott described it as having “lovely peculiar color” and went on with more details about its shape and size. That description was my first encounter with George, so of course I would imagine that Nadir is thinking about George’s cock. And maybe even Madame Bouchard. Just look at the way she eyes George as he walks toward her apartment door. But then you can’t trust my speculations because the facts of this scene get tangled with those sentences I first read in Wescott’s journal.
Madame Bouchard speaks with a slowness, her breath is filled with the scent of wine. George loves the sounds of French words, even if he can’t understand them that well. After a few sentences she reads his blank face and stops. You are English, no?
American. He stretches his hand toward her. She takes a long drag, exhales a small puff of smoke that George sniffs with a restrained delight. She stares more intensely at him as she shakes his hand.
I am the concierge here. You know this word concierge? Well, I want to say that this building is very quiet and it is important for all of the residents to respect the—how do you say—the rule. Yes, the rule. We have many rules here, and it is important to respect them. I do not like to have disorderly tenants, you understand, yes? She smiles in a way that had little to do with kindness, but her eyes linger on Nadir as he turns to leave. He does not look at Madame, but shakes George’s hand. George breathes in the scent that lingers after he leaves.
You have a daring face, Madame, George says. A true French beauty. Have you ever modeled before?
It was true. Madame Bouchard did have a striking face, thin and angular with an aquiline nose and large brown eyes and round red lips. It would have been just like George to diffuse such moments with charm. He had a talent for charm and he used it to keep strangers and friends at a distance while making them feel like they were close. It came from many years behind the camera, taking portraits of men and women who knew so little about themselves. They let George play with their exteriors as if that were all that mattered. He learned early on that each photo session had its own psychology.
Madame looks down, and smiles, her hardness deflating. She had modeled, years before the war, for art school students and American expats. They taught her English in exchange for her image. But that was so many lives ago, she thinks, and ignores George’s compliment. She takes another drag on her cigarette, the smoke catches George again, only this time he draws in the scent with complete abandon and feels the pleasure and burn in his chest. Would you like one, she offers?
No, he says. I shouldn’t.
Americans are so very curious, she says. You are filled with so many dreams but also so much restraint. We French have so few dreams left to enjoy. Restraint for us is like praying in the cathedral. It is useless until you are in trouble. Her eyes squint and her head tilts sideways. Are you in trouble, Monsieur?
At this moment all George really wants to do is find the apartment, unpack his luggage, and rest. But there he is entertaining the curiosities of a concierge, who are, of course, well known for their curiosity. But then I need Madame Bouchard to be curious, otherwise how will you or I ever learn what is really going on with George.
* * *
At the south end of the Place des États Unis there is a large memorial to the American soldiers who fought for France in World War I. Two life-sized figures stand in profile, embracing each other—one American, the other French. In between them is the figure of a bird, its wings stretching out in art-deco precision. Above them stands a bronze statue of an American soldier, his one arm raised, his hand holding a cap as if perpetually waving off into the distance. It is said that his face was based off a photograph of the American poet Alan Seeger. Seeger lived on the Left Bank in the summer of 1914. He had no idea how his life that summer was entangled with a royal couple vacationing in Sarajevo, and a disheveled anarchist named Gavrilo Princip, who, by pure luck, shot dead the Archduke and Duchess as they ambled along in their open carriage on a humid August afternoon. When European nations began to take sides like a feud at a family dinner, Seeger volunteered for the French Army. Two summers later, he died at the Battle of the Somme with a bullet in his head.
George sees this memorial from the window of his apartment on a gray Friday morning. He is not feeling well but decides to take a walk and get a better look at the sculptures. His cough was only a small bother in New York, but now it is getting worse. In attacks of intense pain, what he described as an elephant sitting on his chest, his coughs sounds like the moans of a wild animal. In such moments, he holds on to a chair, a doorknob, even the thickly carved door molding, to keep from falling. The guttural sounds run through the rooms and down the hallways. His fear is that Madame would hear him cutting through the quiet of the building. He doesn’t want her concern.
George was prone to nervous conditions and bad lungs. As a young man they thought he had TB but it turned out to be a bad case of bronchitis. In the early 1940s his doctor proscribed him benzendrine and phenobarbital to calm his nerves. He tried the benzendrine, inhaling it in each day. It gave him sweats and nightmares. He stopped taking it and only swallowed the phenobarbital when he felt he was about to jump out of his skin. That’s how he phrased it in a letter to Katherine Ann Porter —“jump out of my skin.”
These new drugs he takes in unmeasured handfuls. Little pink antibiotics and large white painkillers. He doesn’t think how unwise such a random dosage might be. He doesn’t care about such things. I came across a letter he wrote several years earlier when a lover left him for a woman. He was sad and depressed. He described how in a moment of panic, he went to his medicine cabinet and took nearly all the pills he had, without even noticing what they were. I was shocked by how careless George could be. But I realized that it was just my selfishness and my foresight. If only we had someone who understood the path our life would take, and warn us at such destructive moments. I wanted some different outcome for him than the one I knew would happen. There are so many moments when George seems to be walking a tightrope of his own making. The pills kept him balanced for a while. Then the rope started shaking again. But what choice did he really have? What choice do any of us have?
This Friday morning he is again walking a tightrope. George stands there admiring the monument to the war dead. He likes the shape of the soldier’s body, tall and muscled and dignified. He remembers men who came to his New York studio, their youthful beauty mixed with an uncertainty. They were proud of their bodies, proud of their starched uniforms. When George asked them to take off their shirts, then their pants, and finally to stand in the studio lights naked, they rarely said no. This always surprised him. How easy it was to get men to take off their clothes and stand in the sharp light of the camera’s gaze.
A pain in his chest pulls him down. He sits on a bench nearby, the nausea building. The air wet and heavy.
An image of George Tichenor flashes in George’s memory. Just so things don’t get confusing, I’ll call George Tichenor by his last name. Tichenor worked for George in his studio. He also was George’s lover in the years before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. George was rejected from the service because doctors deemed him a homosexual. Unfit for service. Tichenor volunteered for the Field Service as an ambulance driver. He had no desire to shoot a gun or to kill another man. In the photographs George took of him, he is boyish and handsome with a square jaw and deep brown eyes. He was sent to North Africa, but didn’t stay long. In June of 1942 he was shot in the head while treating the wounded. This is how the New York-World Telegram reported the event:
Quiet young George Tichenor was a little different from most of the Field Service men. He couldn’t kill anybody. But he was willing to take anything being dished out in order to help the men who did fight. He was a pacifist with guts.
The townspeople of Maplewood, NJ supplemented that. His minister said he was an unusual young man, honest and reliable. Another sponsor added the words sober and trustworthy. His employer, the fashionable photographer George Platt Lynes, said his services, character and personality were entirely satisfactory.
How could George have described Tichenor as “entirely satisfactory.”
What does that mean really? Perhaps he said something more loving and the newspaper refused to print it. Or perhaps George did use the word “satisfactory” to describe a man he was so fully in love with, and so devastated by his death. Maybe this was the only word that came to George’s mind when a reporter asked. At least George appears in an account of Tichenor’s obituary, alongside the residents of Maplewood, New Jersey and Tichenor’s pastor. That’s something, right?
It was just about the time of Tichenor’s death that George started inhaling the bennies and taking the barbiturates. It was also about this time when George starting feeling like he was jumping out of his skin. You could say Tichenor’s death was actually the start of how George got to Paris in 1955. It’s important to see how the autumn of 1955 really began in the summer of 1942. Those two events—the bullet that shot through the square-jawed Tichenor and George’s chest pain in Place des États Unis on a wet afternoon in September—are really connected.
This may sound strange to consider. It is also strange for George at this moment because Tichenor had nothing to do with Paris. But here Tichenor appeared. Memories of those events from the summer of 1942 come back to him, entangled in images from the months before Tichenor shipped off to North Africa.
George wants more painkillers. He gets off the bench and starts walking back to the apartment. He sees in the distance Madame Bouchard looking at him through her front window. She saw him leave earlier and was concerned by George’s pale face, and the barking echoes of his cough she heard in the morning hours as she inspected the hallways, listening to hints of conversations that seeped through the cracks of the apartment doors.
What happened next is unclear to both George and Madame Bouchard. George thought he saw people gathering in the park of Place des États Unis. There would be pigeons in the park, of course. There were always pigeons in such parks. But beside pigeons, George sees groups of soldiers sitting on the benches and in the grass. Remember he took a handful of painkillers, the large white pills, so his mental state is not that clear this morning. The soldiers all looked familiar to him. They were all faces and bodies he photographed years earlier. He longed to photograph them again. Did I tell you he hoped to open a new studio in Paris. This plan would never happen but it was something that excited him, so I don’t want to dwell on its failure right now. I’m more concerned by the fact that George begins to wave to the soldiers.
Madame Bouchard, who, if you remember is standing at the window watching George, doesn’t understand why he is waving to an empty park. She recalls as a child how her uncle would do the same from his window on certain spring mornings. She also recalls how her parents refused to talk about this uncle. He was only a name in the family bible, a branch of the tree. Little more than the dates of his birth and death. Out of fear Madame Bouchard closes the drapes, just at the moment she sees George fall. This is what she needed to do. Like George she is very unsettled by her memories. What gets buried there can easily be unearthed by a scent, a song, or an image of a man, alone on a grey afternoon, struggling in his skin.
* * *
George wakes in a blue room. Wallpaper and upholstery thick with velvet and satin, all stripped in patterns and tones of ultra marine and azure. He is wrapped in a wool blanket, and off in the distance he hears the sounds of jazz notes, trumpets and saxophones playing on an old phonograph.
Bonjour Monsieur. How do you feel? George turns and sees a long narrow man, his face half shadowed.
Have I died? he asks.
No, the man laughs. This is not heaven. But I am an angel. For today at least. You had a fall in the park. I went and picked you up and brought you here. I am Laurent. He knelt down to be closer to George. No, actually, Laurent is too shy, so he pulls a chair close to the sofa and sits down. Laurent is the son of Madame Bouchard. He is just 23 years old, and a new recruit for the French Foreign Legion. George doesn’t know these facts, but they will be important a bit later in his trip. For now, you should know that Laurent’s face, caught in the shards of afternoon light that cut through the curtains makes him look very much like Tichenor.
At that moment, the door opens, and Madame enters with a pot of tea.
You had a horrible fall Monsieur George. I was looking out the window and I saw you holding on to the fence, waving into the park. But, I said to myself, there is no one in the park. Why is he waving? I thought this is not good. Maybe you were waving to the pigeons. Sometimes people like to wave to the pigeons, no? Or, maybe it was a ghost you saw? Place des États Unis is filled with ghosts, they say. I have never seen one myself, but I don’t go looking for them. You don’t know what you will find if you going looking for such things.
She lights a cigarette, and then pours the tea.
And then you fell. And so I called to Laurent to go help you. You are not well are you Monsieur?
George sits up, his head throbbing a little less now. The tea is sweet and black. The sounds of trumpets and saxophones and the voice of Billie Holiday in song vibrate through the open door.
I am fine, Madame. His eyes fake sincerity. It was just something I ate I suppose. Or maybe it was a bad night of sleep. I’m still getting use to the apartment and the feel of the bed. Madame looks at him, eyebrow raised.
The music is nice, he says holding a cup of tea with both hands.
It is Laurent’s new love, Madame says. I have no understanding of it. But for Laurent it is, how do you say, magic.
Magical? George says.
Yes, that is right. It is magical.