We’ll always have Paris: A eulogy

I first met Jacques Lehmann and Katou Fournier when they walked into my booth at the New York Stationary show in the early 1980s. At that time conventions in New York were held at the Coliseum, a multi-story building with escalators located at Columbus Circle, where the 55-story Time/Warner tower now rises.

I had a booth at the Stationary Show because I was part of the vanguard of young greeting card publishers jumping into the creative void left by Hallmark Cards and American Greetings, both of which had been cranking out the same sentimental crap for years. For those of us who grew up laughing at the irony in Mad Magazine and enthralled by trips to the Museum of Modern Art, creating an alternative to Hallmark’s standard “hearts and flowers” greeting cards’ sappy sentiments was creatively exciting. We were joined by companies like Paper Moon and California Dreamers, but my company’s specialty was blank notecards with either photographs or illustrations on the front.

Jacques and Katou also were publishers, and their Paris-based company Cartes d’Art produced one of the most successful lines of art postcards in Europe. In addition, they had a shop on Rue du Dragon on the left bank, off St. Germaine du Pres, called Cartes d’Art, and a shop they had opened in Greenwich Village in Manhattan; it was for this reason they happened into my booth.

At that time the cards I published included some licensed from Push Pin Studios in New York, the design studio that was home to Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, two of the world’s most acclaimed graphic designers. Cards featuring portraits of cats by Mimi Vang Olsen were also part of the offering, as well as sophisticated cartoons by artist Richard Stine. These found a ready audience with Katou, who sat quietly perusing cards and selecting those she wanted to order for her shops.

Jacques was the more loquacious of the two; in broken English he jumped in from time to time to exclaim, “I like ziss,” or “I don’t like.” He was jovial but businesslike, and after Katou had finished her selection, he quite matter-of-frankly ordered hundreds of each card, the largest order I had ever written at the Stationary Show. This was the beginning of relationship spanning business and friendship that lasted nearly 40 years.

We saw each other at trade shows; before long we came to learn more about each other and made plans to connect in other ways, including trips I’d take to Paris, sometimes by myself, and other times with my wife. I must confess that I’ve adored Paris since the first time I travelled there at the age of 27. The entire city is like a museum, and walking the streets of Paris is a visual and aesthetic treat.

I’ve been back many times, and most often visits with or staying with Jacques and Katou were part of those trips. At first, my wife and I stayed in an apartment they had over their shop on Rue du Dragon, a busy, commercial street lined with shops. Jacques and Katou had a small office across the street from the shop, and it was there I learned about Jacques’ childhood while talking together one day. Near his desk a small sign was displayed in a plain wooden frame; it read (in French): “This is an Aryan Business.”

After I asked about it, Jacques explained that when the Nazi’s conquered France they took over the businesses owned by Jewish families like Jacques’. His father owned a clothing company near Lyon, and the sign had been posted by the Nazis after he was forced to flee. At the age of eight, Jacques was sent to a Catholic Boys school where his Jewish identity was hidden, and he was protected from the Nazis until the war ended. His father spent the war in a sanitarium. He was emotional as he told me his story, and it was the one and only time the subject came up between us. Clearly, he preferred to forget what was a terrible episode in his life.

Jacques was fourteen years older than I, and soon he felt to me like an older brother. We’d kid around, and make each other laugh until our bellies hurt. He loved only the best, the best food, the best cheese, the best bread, the best champagne. He had little in the way of patience for crappy things, and in Katou he had found his soul-mate.

Katou, we learned, had grown up raised by her father in the National Maritime Museum in Paris. An officer in the Navy, he lived in the massive stone building, and it was there that Katou spent her childhood, roaming the vast marble-floored rooms and displays by herself. No wonder Katou was an introvert. With an interest in fashion, she found herself up against the rigid patriarchal system in France, and against all odds became a successful designer. Married and with children, she abandoned both her career and her family to move in with Jacques, and they remained steadfastly together from then on.

We stayed with Jacques and Katou in their chalet in Les Contamines, in the French Alps; Jacques had bought it for next to nothing when he was twenty-five. We cooked dinners over an open fire and visited local restaurants. Jacques pointed out the fields behind his chalet, clear of any structures, and explained that the open area is where the avalanches flowed in years past. We also stayed in their 400-year-old home located on the central plaza in the small village of St. Jean, in western Provence. The doorways were so low that I spent the first few days banging my forehead into the doorframes. Jacques would call out “a table” (ahh taab!) when it was time to eat, and the four of us would sit in the courtyard eating together and laughing and telling stories.

Once they moved from the apartment on Rue du Dragon, they bought a “doll house” off an alley called Passage LePic in Montmartre. Montmartre, Jacques explained, remained authentic Paris. Their doll house had a footprint of perhaps 25 feet by 25 feet, and to compensate, they constructed a wooden loft to sleep in. Filled with books and eccentric furniture, the tiny kitchen had room for a table and four chairs, and it was there we’d sit to eat. Eventually, they bought a small studio apartment in a building twenty feet from their doll house, and that space became their bedroom. When I’d visit on my own, I’d sleep in the loft.

Jacques would take a walk every day to buy fresh food – seafood, meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables, and bread. All these were available within one block, in small shops that had been in their locations for many years. One day Jacques bought a variety of goat cheeses, Chevres; I’d told him I did not like goat cheese and he was determined to challenge my taste. By the time we had tried them all I was converted; from then on Jacques would address his email to me as “Petit Billy.”

“C’mon,” he say to me, and off we’d go shopping. The shop owners all knew Jacques and his preferences. They would propose a purchase and Jacques would purse his lips and either tilt his head from side to side or say, “bon!” We’d move from store to store, and if I suggested this or that, he’d either say “c’mon” and begin walking or, dropping the “h,” exclaim “I ate zat!”

As the years progressed, the street-scape changed. The horse-meat shop became a cell phone store. Fewer and fewer cheeses were acceptable to Jacques as European Union food safety standards banned un-pasteurized cheese. As far as Jacques was concerned, French cheese “ees finish.” The France he loved, like the rest of the world, was irrevokably changing.

Jacques and Katou visited us in Sonoma, and stayed at our bed and breakfast inn during the mid-nineties. By that time I had retired from publishing, and had turned to website development; I’d created a website for their art sale business, Naifs et Primitifs. We went food shopping one day, and I remember his hysterical reaction to a sign at a local bakery, “Bread baked fresh daily.” In Jacques’ world, eating anything but freshly baked bread was inconceivable.

As Jacques aged, he developed the predictable set of health issues; Katou, on the other hand, always had weak lungs and was vulnerable to respiratory problems. They continued to travel, particularly to Kyoto, Japan, which they felt was one of the finest places on earth. On one such trip, Katou tripped on an airport escalator and fractured a neck vertebrae; their lives changed.

We kept in touch via email, and the occasional phone call; but well over a year ago, communication stopped from their end. My emails went unanswered, and when I tried to call, a man with a North African accent answered and yelled “Fuck You” at me when I explained who I was trying to reach. Something, I knew, was terribly wrong, but I kept trying to make contact for over a year. While sorting through my email contact list recently, I happened upon the email address of one of Jacques’ sons, and hopefully sent an inquiry. A few days later, I received an email from Jacques’ daughter.

Jacques and Katou, she sadly informed me, had both died two years ago. In their determined and unusual fashion, Jacques, with advancing Leukemia and Katou with severe pulmonary problems, had travelled to Switzerland where they jointly terminated their lives with medical assistance. I’m sorry I never had the chance to say goodbye, but now I can mourn properly, which I can do in part by writing this eulogy. Had we spoken before their trip to Switzerland, I’m quite sure what Jacques would have had to say, “Goodbye Petit Billy. Ees finish.”

3 thoughts on “We’ll always have Paris: A eulogy

  1. Larry;
    I almost have tears in my eyes as I finish reading your eulogy. What a nice tribute.
    Indeed, Jacques and Katou were the way you described them. Papy –that’s how I’ve always called Jacques– was really particular and always knew what he wanted. He was that curious blend of elegance and rudeness; irritable but tender with his beloved ones, and so considerate to us.
    Papy taught me art. You probably remember, Larry, that their fridges were always covered with art magnets. In the last years, me guessing which artist had painted each of them had become our new game.
    Papy had always encouraged me to follow my instinct, to do what and to go where I felt was right for me. And I will always remember that day, in mid-January, 2018, when we were in his flat in Paris, Papy, Katou, my Colombian best friend Roberth and I. It was Roberth’s first time in Paris and we took advantage of our visit to spend a few days with Papy and Katou. As we were all seated in the crazy pieces of furniture you described justly, Papy started to talk to me, in a quite solemn manner. I sat and listened. At that time, I was planning my first trip to America: I was about to travel to Colombia, alone. I had just turned eighteen and had waited my whole life for travelling by myself.
    Papy told me: feel free to travel the world; go anywhere you want; always keep your mind open –you’ll see, someday you’ll want to live in Paris, believe me!–; fall in love; travel the world; … In a nutshell, he was saying in his own words: I trust you. I love you. Farewell.
    We kissed them goodbye, and once the door closed behind us, as we were outside in the small courtyard, I burst into tears and fell into Roberth’s disconcerted arms.
    I had felt it.
    That was the last time I saw Papy and Katou. Papy already knew he was sick on that day; I did not. But I had felt it. That was it. “I love you too. Farewell.”
    So I went to Colombia; and fell in love there for the first time, with a Colombian person. I went back and then planned to move to Mexico, to study the last semesters of my undergraduate degree there.
    Mexico City, or Papy and Katou’s main source of decoration and inspiration, along with Japan. There, I discovered where all their colors came from. Everything suddenly made sense as if by magic. As I was strolling by the garden of the Frida Kahlo museum, I saw them, next to me. It smelled like Saint-Jean-de-Maruéjols. I was dazzled by so many colors. It felt like one part of them; I had discovered one missing piece of their infinite mosaic.
    And then –as expected–, after so many years of hatred towards the city of Paris, I suddenly had an epiphany: what about experiencing life there?
    So now, please don’t be surprised when I tell people my grandpa was a Prophet.
    Papy, Katou; my dearest. I love you so much! And I feel so proud of you…
    What a lifetime they had! They will always inspire me. I actually started to wear the same kind of loose and comfy pants they worn sometimes. I see their lives and I am amazed.
    After death, one emotion remains: love; along with three words: Merci pour tout.

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