My mother and father met at a New Year’s Eve party in Paris 1945, at the end of World War II, at the Pierre Hotel in Paris. She, the 24-year-old eldest of three girls who had been working to help support her family for eight years already, was on leave from her duties with the U.S. Army in LeHavre (where French women had been recruited by the American army). He, a U.S. Army lieutenant, was brought to the very same party by one of my mother’s platonic American escorts, which were numerous, as she had not yet met the man of her dreams.
The encounter was some sort of extreme, war-born form of romantic thunderclap and lightning. She fell for his American good looks and blue eyes and “slow, devastating smile” — none of which would have succeeded without the requisite smooth moves on the dance floor. She speculated that he was probably swept off his feet by her loose and wavy dark hair, vivaciousness and lack of “war paint,” as she called it. She also attributed her conquest to a sprinkling of freckles, something she evidently considered essential to that wholesome brand of withering beauty she ascribed to.
Whatever the mysteries of timing and circumstance, chemistry and karma, after meeting only half a dozen times, there they stood on March 13, 1946, before the deputy mayor of Paris’s 16ème arrondissement, joining two 180-degree live wires together, touching and sparking themselves into the velvet dark of the quantum field, where the creation of stories — and of life itself — happens.
Under the laws of the last days of the Third Republic, they were united. They ran down the steps of the Hotel de Ville and into the open jeep my father had secured for the occasion and made their way to her parents’ house for the wedding dinner of leg of lamb, bombe glacée (an ice cream cannonball, popular back then) and champagne. Her family, impoverished like so many other families during the war, was stunned by the union, by the notion that their Jeannine would be leaving them; but the reality of the situation was plain to all: bowled over, in love and determined escape the reaches of poverty, there was no stopping her.
When she finally got her travel orders, however, she panicked. “I was passionately in love but I really did not know the man, and I intended to spend my whole life with him, come hell or high water. I took my luggage to the railroad station and did not sleep much that last night at home, believe me.” (This is all recorded in an unfinished 75-page memoir she was writing, the last sentence left original, half completed, and hanging by my oldest brother Gael, who published it for the family after mom died in 2002.)
On May 7, Jeannine Curry, née Moulignier, boarded the Zebulon Vance, a liberty ship, with 200 other French women she claimed to have had very little in common with (!), since many of these women were obviously pursuing hasty marriages of convenience. On a journey of 12 days, like many of the others, she spent five dry heaving. When the ship finally arrived in New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty gilded by the late afternoon light, the girls were kindly given an extra night on board to rest and recuperate. At 4 a.m. the next morning, they began making themselves presentable, and, after breakfast, each was called alphabetically from the deck of the ship, luggage in hand, to greet their men and begin another life.
According to my mother, her Jim, handsome and elegant in his blue suit, starched white shirt and “sedate necktie” drew numerous wolf whistles from the other girls. He wore, she said, a face as happy as hers and a “long, very affectionate greeting” ensued for two very modest people. They had three perfect days in New York — Empire State Building, the Radio City Music Hall, lots of walking hand in hand and Lord and Taylor for a few items of chic, American clothing.
This brief period of not even six months was the magic crucible from which the rest of my mother’s not-so-easy life was born. So when people ask if I believe in fairytales, I have to say that my very life — to some extent — was born of one. Well, the beginning of one, anyway.