Love, Loss and What She Wore
In second grade, that age at which one is compelled to declare a favorite in all things, my favorite TV show was Dallas. I loved it because my actress aunt, Taty (our version of the French tatie, or "auntie"), who did voice-overs in Paris, was the Gallic Linda Gray. The show's French version was a couple of seasons behind the American original that I watched with my parents on Friday nights, so on Saturday mornings, I'd listen to my mom sharing plot intel with her sister, consoling her with updates on Sue Ellen Ewing's alcoholism: "Non, ne t'inquiete pas. Elle se saoule toujours." ("Don't worry, she still gets drunk.") I learned to worry that Sue Ellen would get shot or, worse, go to rehab and discover sobriety and conjugal contentment. A well-pickled Sue Ellen meant a professionally thriving and prosperous Taty.
My aunt at the time seemed to me as dramatic and inordinately glamorous as the characters she played. Even her name, Evelyn (pronounced "Ehv-leen") Séléna, was exotic to me, because it was a stage name. Taty—so much more vivid than anyone I met growing up in Toronto—lived in Paris' Montparnasse district, in a small but soigné apartment adorned with sun-welcoming windows, a couch as white and fluffy as whipped cream, and an equally white and cottony poodle, Peluche, who had a penchant for jambon, saucisson, and a good Camembert. (In classic French fashion, Peluche never got fat.)
Taty and my mother grew up in Casablanca and moved to Paris in their teens. My mom was hardly conventional. She wore capes and sent me to school with socially damning, lunchbox-inappropriate foods such as steak tartare. But compared with Taty, she had taken a traditional path: a university degree at La Sorbonne, followed by marriage and children. Taty, on the other hand, dropped out of school in the eighth grade to make a living as an actress. Casting agents told her she was a cross between Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn. She had inky hair, catlike eyes, and a honeyed Mediterranean complexion. There's a cryptic French adage, "La beauté ne se mange pas en salade" ("You can't eat beauty in a salad"), that means, roughly, that beauty doesn't nourish or sustain. But Taty feasted on hers, fashioned a career and a life out of it, and used it—and her talent—to win coveted acceptance into the Comédie-Française, take to the Parisian footlights, and star in French television series, films, and theater productions.
When I first visited Taty in Paris as a child, she was in her late thirties and already rarely onstage anymore. But she always seemed accoutred for an encore: She wore sequins to the supermarket and could make a produce aisle her proscenium. Her nails were always tipped in ruby polish, she was perpetually swathed in Sonia Rykiel, and she'd never so much as visit the newspaper kiosk without lipstick and a spritz of Guerlain Chamade. The idea of her in my world, say, promenading the streets of Toronto, seemed absurdist and wrong, like running into Cleopatra at Duane Reade. Before I even reached school age, I had the sense that there were many possible versions of adulthood, but that the most covetable one unfolded in Paris—and required Emmanuelle Khanh sunglasses, a closet the size of Liechtenstein, and a Mugler handbag stocked with an emergency silver wand of Christian Dior mascara.
I can imagine now that being forced to trade on-camera work for dubbing must have come as a bitter pill to a woman who had so much of her self-worth tangled up with her looks. But, as a teenager, I found it all desperately exciting. Taty excelled (and, at 72, continues to excel) in portraying characters who are smart—often powerful, usually fearsome, and occasionally unhinged. Guileless ingenues and bubbly romantic leads have never been her thing. She lent her voice—a seductive, nicotine-sanded rasp, courtesy of a lifelong affection for American cigarettes—to Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Helen Mirren in The Queen, and Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal. On television, she voiced Kate Jackson's Sabrina Duncan in Charlie's Angels and Candice Bergen's Murphy Brown; today, she does Close's Patty Hewes on Damages. On my visits, she'd take me with her to the dubbing studios in Paris, where her colleagues—elegant white-haired men with suntans acquired on weekend jaunts to Corsica—spent most of their time double-kissing and passionately complaining (during smoke breaks and two-and-a-half-hour lunches) about the heinous stress of their workdays.
My family visited Taty annually; in between, I got by on secondhand stories of her life my mother told me. These served, for as long as I can remember, as a soundtrack to my own existence, lending it intrigue but also making it seem objectionably, unacceptably dull by comparison. They fostered in me an adolescent allergy to a life flattened by routine, including an early phobia of marriage and that other conventional adult pastime, child-rearing. Taty did marry once, a last-minute ceremony in French Guiana to a man called Jean-Jacques. But they never had children, and the relationship lasted only a couple of months, its soap-opera mystique striking me as wildly captivating, evidence that a checkered past was much more desirable than a stable, harmonious present. (Even Peluche had a checkered past: He'd once been abducted and sold for only 200 francs to Parisian prostitutes. Taty received a call at two in the morning from a burlesque dancer who claimed she had him and rushed to Peluche's rescue, only to find him in a brothel, staggering drunk, having feasted on a dinner of épaule d'agneau and champagne.)
I probably have such narratives to thank for my career in writing, in listening to and telling stories. But they also seeded in me the notion that a life glutted with stories, even sad ones, was the only worthwhile kind. In my teens and twenties, I was greedy for the theater of heartache, the romance of regret. Unlike that cliché Piaf warhorse "Non, je ne regrette rien," I longed to regret lots of things. Regret seemed to me the necessary companion to a high-stakes, well-savored life. By the age of 30, I had succeeded in achieving my share of romantic failures. Drawn to elusive types, and mistaking inaccessibility for mystery and depth, I experienced loss, and heartbreak, and despair—and became brilliant at regret. Good enough to regret ever having wanted it.
When I visited Taty last year, it had been 10 years since I'd seen her. She still lives alone in the lovely Montparnasse apartment, surrounded by framed photos of herself in various stages of youthful splendor. And she still looked fabulous, decked in her Sonia Rykiel. But she had gained weight and was angry with herself for it, as if she couldn't forgive herself for aging. We looked at old photos of her in theater productions, or with different preposterously handsome lovers, many of whom have since died. "This is when I was young and beautiful," she said, lingering over jaundiced newspaper clippings and magazine profiles of herself as if trying to literally reconnect with—or just recognize—that version of herself. "Now I'm old," she added, snuffing out her cigarette with particular vigor. Without lipstick, she looked fragile.
She took me to the studio where she was dubbing the series finale of Boston Legal, and she proved as punishing and unkind to her friends and colleagues as she was to herself. She greeted a couple of coworkers (the French William Shatner, the French James Spader) with the requisite pair of bonjour bisous but snubbed another woman. The actress, vexed, tapped her unkissed cheek with a manicured finger: "What about me? Don't I get one?" "No," Taty replied. "I don't like you." The actress rolled her eyes, and the studio director let out an exaggerated sigh; if Taty didn't care for many, the feeling was evidently mutual.
Taty has always seen herself as bound for a Big Life and, in that sense, as superior, different. In many ways, she is different: She and my mother, for instance, were the only Jewish children in a French Catholic school in Casablanca, and suffered for that distinction. Maybe, to make up for what she was made to see as a flaw, she has demanded perfection of herself and others, looking down on anyone who fails to meet her standards.
Whatever the reason, as Taty aged, so has my idealization of her. She has grown lonely and angry. Not because she's never had children, or hasn't found a life partner, but because what she has most counted on in life—her beauty—has, she thinks, deserted her. Contemptuous of her own appearance, she has retreated, spending most of her days at home, unseen and safe from judgment. That colorful, cinematic life has, like her, diminished and grown static. It turns out that her beauty and her flair for the fabulous didn't prevent her from living a small life—they somehow confined her to one.
From the Taty I idolized—the movie version that I still sometimes feel the need to protect—I learned a love of all things beautiful. But from the real woman, I also learned to fear the cost of overvaluing those things. Taty succeeded in instilling in me a snobbish scorn for convention, but in the end she also somehow taught me an appreciation for it. I still share her phobia of routine and only in rare emergencies leave the house without lipstick, but I now have a greater fear of loneliness and inertia than I do of commitment. At 35, nearly the same age Taty was when I first remember meeting her, I'm about to get married. I hope, of course, that the union outlasts Taty's to Jean-Jacques. (My aunt, to her credit, is very enthusiastic about my plans, though she has said she will only come to the wedding if she loses weight.)
On one of the afternoons we spent together last May, Taty and I watched Meet Me in St. Louis. She loves old movies, those dream worlds in which beauty and love are loyal and constant, where people never grow lonely or old. She knew all the words, and marveled at these happy-ending fairy tales the way I had always marveled at her: a star in a land more vivid. Glamour, it seems, always lives elsewhere. Even in Paris.