The Café Margaux
[ fiction - march 04 ]
Johnny's sister Maria had called at 7.30 that morning, waking him up from a deep sleep, to tell him that she was going to have a baby and her boyfriend had cruelly deserted her and moved to Texas. Johnny, after a moment of thought, suggested an abortion. Alas, she would not consider it; for religious reasons, she said. Then Maria innocently reminded him, using her angelic voice, of the promise he made to their father on this deathbed. He would always take care of his sister. Johnny was the sort of person who could make a promise, keep it, flirt with the ensuing trouble, court confusion and later let then things work out by themselves, always expecting the best. So he said that he would call Maria later, turned over and went back to sleep.
By 8.30 on that same morning he was warned by phone that the backers of the restaurant he managed would be suing the general partner for stealing. He was no more surprised by this than the news of Maria's baby. Promoters routinely do this with other people's money. It was apparent, however, that if he got out immediately he could avoid a lot of trouble. Now, no only did Johnny have increased responsibilities to his sister, he had no job.
At 9.00 that same morning he received a routine call from another lady in trouble. It was Stella crying, as usual. In her imperial voice, she invited Johnny to tea on this very day. "Urgent," she said. "Come now!" The hired help and her brother were going to kill her. Since Stella's story was always the saddest, their ritual was that Johnny would listen and not complain to her about his life. So, he recalled his mother's advice when in trouble, help someone else, as he walked through Central Park, found a receptacle for his bubble gum and continued on his route to The Café Margaux to humor Stella, a person infinitely more fortunate than he.
It's good to see you see you, Stella. You look well."
Stella was an elegant lady of an uncertain age, tall with an appealing smoker's voice that oozed sophistication. Johnny used to call her Mrs Ashley, but now that they were almost on equal footing so he called her Stella. She was a Sicilian Princess. He was a handsome, well-built guy from the Bronx with black hair, blue eyes and an "interesting" small scar on his forehead. He now extended noblesse oblige to Stella as she once did to him. He saved what he had learned from her for those occasions when Stella wanted a favor as she did today. With gentle cruelty he dispensed his largesse to her. They kissed on both cheeks and went into the beautiful and comfortably over-furnished sitting room on the third floor.
"He left me last night. I called you at once. You have always come to my aid. I implore you again to help me. I hope that you will never know the plight of a deserted widow saddled to an alcoholic brother."
Stella spoke with the articulation that only a person who has studied English as a second language can. Her tutors were British. Her voice was cultured, resonant, dramatic and almost accentless, like that of a voice teacher from Juilliard.
"I know well your plight, Stella. I will, of course, try to help you," Johnny said kindly.
He, on the other hand, sometimes spoke with a vague accent, stronger than hers. She had taught him how to speak with a "continental" accent. It had served him well in hotels, restaurants and when he escorted older women to the opera followed by late suppers at Harry Cipriani's. Now, when he spoke to her "thees way", she had no choice other than to put up with it.
"How are you, Johnny?" she asked, not expecting much of an answer.
"My seester is pregnant. I promised to support her and probably will have to live with her. The son of a bitch boyfriend took off. I now weel have heavy responsibilities. You understand, Principessa." Turning to Stella, he asked politely about her. "Now tell me why did James just leave such a wonderful place and The Café Margaux?"
Stella, while tolerating his accent, sat together with him pouring tea and offering Johnny cranberry star anise petit fours covered with vanilla icing. They were his favorite. She remembered this. He knew, of course, that they were left over from yesterday, but they were delicious, nevertheless. He almost preferred them a bit on the dry side.
"Perhaps I wasn't rich enough. Perhaps I am not too old, or more to the point I am not old or sick enough for him. This building is my only good asset: cash is scarce. But you know this. Something has to be done. I can't carry on alone," she said. She possessed just the right amount of arrogance to make her condescension acceptable. In any case, he was used to it, like the old petit fours.
"You must come back. Run the business- it will be yours one day - and live here again," said Stella, exactly as she had encouraged Johnny in the past.
Stella was frugal. Cheap in that way that only someone who had been through two world wars could be. She claimed to know what it was like not to have food. Those shortages people carry till death becoming compulsive about storing away supplies like canned goods and money where no one could find them, not even themselves. She carried small snacks in her bag for emergencies. Occasionally she even took soaps and napkins from the Hotel Carlyle.
The irony of this was, of course, that she had not even been alive during WW One and during WW Two, she was at a fancy girls' school in England taking elocution lessons. Johnny knew this. Johnny never challenged her or discussed this history with others. He kept peace because he had been raised in a volatile home where burning opinions and accusations flew through the air day and night, often in loud tones and sorted language. He learned the quiet joys of diplomacy later in life. It made day-to-day living infinitely smoother. Here with Stella, exercising that tact calmed him. It gave him a sense of dignity that was in high contrast to the invasions of his privacy during childhood when "What are you doing in the bathroom so long?" was a daily question.
The phone at the other end of the room interrupted their conversation.
"Do be a sweetheart and get that for me, Johnny. My bones are a bit weak today."
"Café Margaux." And then, "How are you? No, I'm just here to have tea with Mrs Ashley. And the General, how ees he? Of course, I am most happy to give the message. So you'll be here at eight tomorrow. You're bringing two friends. Wonderful! I know that she'll be delighted to see you. Arrivederci!"
When he returned to the petit fours, Stella continued: "Everyone so misses you. It will be good for all of us to have you back."
He spoke to her quietly, firmly and plainly: "I am making a lot of money now, you know. I can't come back. As I told you, Maria is pregnant. You know that she is all that's left of my family. We have only each other. Maria and I and the baby will stay together and that is that." He was so convincing that he almost forgot that he was jobless and had an hour earlier thought that with all of his troubles he might be better off dead.
Stella's voice deepened as it wrapped around Johnny. Her hands fell on top of Johnny's, reassuring him, without hesitation, that "there is always room for Maria and the baby. I love her as if she were my daughter. We'll put her to work. Franco, my brother, will baby-sit. Imagine, you nephew will be like my own grandson. He will have my brother, the prince, for a baby sitter. Franco makes the best Martinis in America. He can pass this talent on to the child. Maria and that baby will have the front suite and you will have the petite suite all to yourself but on the fourth floor. Do you know the gender yet?"
"Yes, a boy."
"Perfect. Forgive me, I assumed so."
Stella poured him more tea, but he motioned her to stop.
"I need to be going and you probably want to take your nap. I expect that you still have late nights. I'll speak to Maria. We'll consider and then phone you. We can talk some more."
As they embraced to say goodbye, Johnny wondered if it was the lower heels that Stella was wearing, or age that made her seem just a bit shorter now. Age, for sure!
Maria, like her brother, was handsome, with similar features to his, but without the scar. Her figure was generous and shapely with an extra three pounds that added considerable warmth to her looks - sort of an Anna Mangnani type. She initially opposed considering their move to The Café Margaux. "It can't work. You will spend each underpaid day hoping that we'll be there when she dies. Franco's liver also has to give out before Stella is gone. Neither of them may die. It will be complicated and unpleasant for all of us. You're really a softie for considering this. We know that Stella has promised to leave the building and restaurant to five different maitre d's."
But what else could they do? Maria had no alternate plan so, in spite of what was termed in the restaurant world "Stella's Toilet Paper Will", they embraced the fantasy that they might own Margaux when Stella died and called her with the good news that Johnny was coming "home".
The townhouse possessed a quality of housing they would not have on their own. Furthermore, they nurtured the hope that Stella was going to love them out of self-interest. Johnny said she would become attached to the baby who, in turn, would make it easier for all of them to get along. Therefore, within a month, Johnny and Maria, who already had visions of herself, as "mistress of that house" sooner or later, cheerfully moved into the mansion housing the Café and went to work.
The Café Margaux - some background! The name Café Margaux was French even though Stella was Italian and her late husband English. She was, in fact, a real princess, unlike the phonies who hung out at The Russian Tea Room. There was a historical novel about the family and a movie to back this up. Stella, through luck and work, had fared better than most of her siblings in Italy. Her brother Franco, however, was truly unfortunate. He had never been prepared for work and had neither background nor inclination for economic matters. Therefore, upon arrival in New York for a "short", visit, about forty years ago, he had made himself completely dependant upon his sister. She had, by this time, married the very successful and entrepreneurial British playwright Sir Anthony Ashley.
It was Anthony who following his entrepreneurial vision purchased the vacant building on 64th Street, renovated it into a chic restaurant on the ground floor, second floor and garden. He and Stella occupied a luxurious duplex apartment on the third and fourth floors. The attic space was designed for his brother-in-law who, in emergencies, was drafted to mix drinks and charm guests. He also looked after small things, while his sister kept her eye on him and ran the restaurant. Anthony did his writing in his study upstairs.
Unfortunately Anthony, a wonderful husband in all respects, was killed in a plane crash while on the road with his new play, "Get it Whilst You Can", leaving sister and brother, once again, alone in the world with only money, future royalties and the restaurant to console them. It was a unique, elegant and expensive restaurant. The Prince, shortly after the mourning period, outfitted himself with a wardrobe matching these adjectives and announced that he was staying as long as Stella wanted him.
One entered The Café Margaux from the street into a small bar that had been a huge formal entrance/reception area with a few small marble tables and a serving station. It was a place for cocktails before dinner and only for clients. There was a very decorative marble staircase and a grand piano that was rarely used. A narrow corridor led to a spectacular dining room. It was huge square room with a twenty-foot ceiling, gleaming white walls, red carpeting and a round table with one of the largest arrangements of roses in New York. The flowers mirrored the ones in the garden, which could be seen through the very tall glass wall. The tables were small and discreet, and in spite of the size of the room, only forty people were accommodated, mostly in groups of twos or fours. Only one table, in the corner near the garden could seat six people. There was one rectangular table for eight but usually it was broken into two fours. To add spice, there was a table for two, near the fireplace, which always had a pretty young woman with an old man, a scene Stella sometimes planted. The gentleman ideally appeared to be either her father or uncle. They were richly dressed. The handsome waiters served in tails and had charming accents. The old prince remained mostly in the bar where he happily mixed drinks - one for the customer and two for himself.
The menu had a set price dinner that included unlimited wine. Tax and tip were not included, nor were cocktails or after dinner drinks. When Stella took a liking to guests, she bought them a nightcap in the bar. No one paid with cash or credit card. The bill was always sent to the diner's home or office. The clients paid at their convenience. For those who were temporarily impecunious (rich people without money), Stella had a special feeling because she had been in such a place herself. Here their credit was good - even when it was not at cheap restaurants. She never pressed them for money. The interest was simply built into the price of all of the dinners at Margaux.
This worked successfully for over 40 years affording the princess a profit, a good house, and a base for entertaining the "best" and most charming people. She declined reservations at whim to those she disliked and fed for free as many "bums on seats" as pleased her mood. But sadly, the regulars died out, the royalties vanished, and the wallpaper faded. Stella grew older and tired. She needed help to work and some random Euro trash to bolster the receipts.
The restaurant about this time cried out for redecoration and the menus rethought. The original atmosphere was to be preserved with the addition of photos of such people as Sir Lawrence Olivier, Oscar Wilde, Sophia Loren, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor - the usual candidates. Cracked dishes were replaced; new wine glasses were purchased. The Waterford was sold. The decorator ordered an extravagant seven-lawyer paint job. To produce this at low cost, the bus boys were trained to execute this special kind of painting. The decorator, a friend of Stella's was paid in meals over three years. The new menu was now to be spoken, not printed. This is why every maitre'd had to learn to say with a "continental accent". "Would you like to heer dee menu?" The handsome waiters, free-flowing wine, and the "no check" policy, the most important trademarks of The Café Margaux would stay in place as part of its distinguishing characteristics.
The most painful part of the transition for Stella was to find and pay a first-class Maitre'd. He would be expected to devote his life to Margaux and, by inference, Stella herself. New busboys were also needed. The unfortunate help who had been forced to paint the restaurant had inadvertently learned a fine craft, enabling them all quit and work at their new profession for high wages.
Stella decided to economize on her lifestyle and live on only the third floor. The fourth floor would now be an independent apartment which could be easily separated into two units. "Live-in" was to become a major component of the salary for the perspective maitre'd. In residence, he would then be available to run out in the middle of the night for items such as aspirins, cigarettes or magazines when Stella was restless.
"I'm not used to giving up control, but if this institution which I love so much is to continue, I must eventually step down. Sadly, I have no children. My husband died too soon after our marriage. This restaurant and building were his legacy to me. Its continuity is my tribute to him. The person I select for this place will eventually become like my own family. The Prince can't last very long. He drinks too much," she would whisper. "I take consolation, however, in knowing that cirrhosis of the liver is a relatively painless way to die. For myself, I don't care to live into decrepit old age. I'm sure that a bright young man - you're probably about 30 - can sense what opportunity exists here."
This was the Preamble to Stella's Toilet Paper Will. Although restaurant help is sometimes naïve, Stella's concept couldn't attract anyone who met her standards. Indentured servitude, she found, was not popular in the modern world. So when Johnny, at 23 years old, not 29 as he had said, looking like Montgomery Cliff, came in, Stella compromised. He was the only decent looking person to be intrigued by her terms. He thought Stella mean, but interesting and amusing. He could learn from her. The princess was wondering if a Valentino tuxedo or tails and some coaching could take off Johnny's rough edges. They thought alike, even then. She taught him lines and made sure that he said little beyond them to the clients. His good nature and looks took care of the rest therefore. Eight months after his arrival, a suave and polished Gianluigi quit (though Stella claimed that she threw him out) and got a better job downtown.
"He has neither gratitude nor loyalty," she ranted. "After all I've done for him."
As a result of this experience, Stella swore that she would never hire another maitre'd. She always did. In fact, during the ensuing years she hired Johnny back - twice. He had quit twice more, and she claimed again to have fired him twice more. They were both sad victims of habit.
No employee other than Johnny ever returned to work for Stella. Evidently, he was also a masochist who enjoyed the after-hour chats with Stella when they gossiped about the evening's clients, the calls in the middle of the night to run to the all-night pharmacy, the carrying of the stewed prince up to the attic, the laying out of money for deliveries and the subsequent scorn when asking for its return, the prohibitions on smoking dope in his room, and the appearance of Stella on the landing when his guests would be passing to his room on the fourth floor. Stella hated his women visitors and disapproved of the men. Nevertheless, she would insist that they stop into her pied à terre for a drink - a long one. Guests would invariably leave after these encounters. This was not a hospitable atmosphere for private entertaining. It had, in fact, almost become a den of celibacy. But now, Johnny was "home" again.
Upon Johnny and Maria's arrival, The Café, of course, remained in place on the first and second floors. The princess lived on the third, Johnny and Maria on the fourth, and the prince still held forth in the attic. Two sets of brothers and sisters were now in residence.
The regular customers enthusiastically welcomed Johnny's return. They came to eat more frequently. There were new customers. The staff became cooperative. The prix fixe was raised ten dollars per person. Surprisingly, Maria had a distinctly strong impact on the place. She had patience, good manners, classic beauty and a quiet strength. The Prince adored her. The customers, who had listened for years to Stella's opinions about society and politics as well as her complaints about "the help" and the plight of a widow now, had a pregnant mother to inquire about. It became harder than ever to get a table. Although Maria was busy with the books most of the day, she conscientiously put in an appearance at each meal. Stella embraced her. Stella praised her to the customers. When Maria made her exit to return to the books, Stella proclaimed, "I am so happy that I took her in. She deserves this. Poor Thing," evoking the response: "You're so good, Stella." "What else could I do? She looks like a Raphael's Madonna."
Work governed all of their lives. Johnny was busy with the kitchen help during off hours creating contemporary dishes. He took over the wine selection. The wines that flowed gratuitously with the meal had to taste expensive but be reasonably priced to insure a profit. Maria learned Margaux's style of bookkeeping with amazing speed. She knew which vendors were paid on time and which could wait. Conversely, she intuited which customers to bill punctually and which to accommodate. The Prince, whose job it was to select various varieties of olives for the martinis, often invited Maria to join him on his expeditions downtown to Balducci's. Stella was busy with decorator again. She and Johnny had a blow-up when Stella insisted that Johnny spend his Sundays painting his floor, her apartment floor and the restaurant; he refused, they stopped talking and sneered for days. Maria intervened, the matter was settled and peace restored. The prix fixe was raised another five dollars per person to accommodate the paint. The baby boy, Frank, named after the Franco the Prince, was born into the most profitable year ever for le Café Margaux.
Mother and child religiously made cameo appearances in the restaurant at lunch and dinner. This got a mention in a review of the restaurant, something about the Italians loving children - a "family environment in palatial surroundings". Baby Frank was good for business, as Johnny predicted. He smiled a lot, cooed and cried very little. He loved the attention of the diners.
Johnny, with some discontent and confidence in his indispensability, was convinced that Stella should make him a partner for the sake of her own stability. Then everything would be pleasant. He would never have to think, as he did sometimes: "Is this the day she might get run over by a bus?"
He was ready to explain how this would assure Margaux's continuity and give all a much-needed sense of security. Stella was getting used to a "family life". It behooved her to protect this. So, Johnny proposed the following. A value would be established for the building and the restaurant. Johnny would become a 50% partner. His "sweat" would be the down payment. His 50% would be paid off from the increased profits of the business over a five-year period. He was happy to retain a modest salary since his living expenses were minimal and he had no time to really spend money. Living, as they did, in the mansion had a confining but elegant style to which he, Maria and Franco had all become accustomed and would do well to retain.
There were silly nitty gritty questions, of course. What if Johnny wanted to marry? Where would Maria live? This seemed a moot point, as he had no time for a date, let alone to be married. Besides, other than sex, he had a married life, albeit with his sister and nephew. But what if Maria wanted to marry? But she was more content and secure than she had ever been. Now came a big fear and paranoia: competition. What if in the building for sale across the street another restaurant like The Café Margaux appeared? It might use Margaux's formula - prix fixe, endless wine, bills sent. They might even throw in a cognac. Of course, Margaux had the baby. Where would another restaurant get a baby?
Johnny conjured up these plans day and night while Stella, of course, has no idea of what was going on in his mind. There were some morbid considerations that people don't like to handle, but he finally put aside all of the negative conjectures and kept only positive thoughts. He would do it before lunch. Perhaps a special appointment would be better? The best time might be at night after closing the restaurant over a drink when Maria and Franco were in their rooms.
Then, as he was about to approach Stella, she whispered to him after lunch, "Why don't we have a drink and talk after we close tonight as we used to do? Just the two of us. It will be nice to have a tête à tête."
Stella had finally softened. But it was her health, however, not her heart that was weakening.
"I'm going to have an operation. I am so sorry but I have to depend on you more than ever. You know how hard it is for me to depend on anyone. I always want to do everything myself, even wash the floors. The nuns taught me when I was young. Of course, I'm too busy for that."
"Stella," he rarely interrupted her, "I want to talk to you about our business arrangements. I have a great plan."
"Plans, we don't need any, darling, I won't last long; even with this operation. You know, this place will be yours. I'm going for treatment to a clinic in Geneva for six weeks. How can I talk business now? The doctor says that I must leave next week. Everything is going wrong with me and I must have some things fixed up, if possible. I can't talk about it until I'm back. My heart is not too good and my hearing is fading by the day. I'm an old lady. Now, help me up the stairs. I feel faint. These late nights are not good as they used to be. Good night."
Everyone enjoyed Stella's absence and took advantage of small pleasures such as the hundred-year-old cognac and fresh pastries. Even so, as the time for her return neared, Johnny and Maria planned a warm homecoming for her. The hallway up to her apartment was redecorated, the house was cleaned thoroughly, windows, carpets shampooed, windows washed, new linens purchased, comfy pillows provided, and a high quality sound system installed in her bedroom so that she could listen to music while resting. She would need to rest. The cook prepared special broths that were stored in the freezer and could be sent up on a moment's notice. In order to encourage Stella to stop smoking, all cigarettes and ashtrays were removed.
Typical of Stella, she called to say that she would return three days later than expected. No one was to pick her up at the airport. She had arranged a limousine. When the stretch arrived, everyone was waiting for her in the bar. At exactly 4.00pm the car rolled up. Stella, helped by the chauffeur, alighted. She was heavily veiled.
She did not take off her coat or lift her veil for ten minutes. When she did, they gasped. She had had a complete makeover. Her face was tight. Her hair platinum, her tummy flat, her waist pinched. Her face above the neck looked forty years but her hands, looked ancient. The neck was wrinkled, looking circa eightyish. Her voice was disconcerting. An eighty-year-old voice housed in a young body. Her syntax and vocabulary were also old. Looking closely, one could see small patches on her face. These suggested that perhaps Stella had started to smoke too soon after the operation. In a photograph, however, Stella would look fine. Her brother would look like her father, and Johnny and Maria might be younger brother and sister. In plain day, though, she was a disaster. Her voice, which did not match her body, was the most unnerving.
"Darlings, you have good reason to be distraught. This will be an adjustment for all of us. But it was either that I die looking like the wreck of the Hesperus, or try to turn the whole thing around. I will die looking young and beautiful. I shall make this shock up to all of you. I promise."
Tea and cakes were served. Stella's tight face, once filled with character, was neither scornful nor approving. It stretched as it opened to admit the peppermint petit four, which she at first hesitated to eat. Her severely thin figure had the posture of an old lady. All that had been distinguished was now silly. She was simply a mannequin.
They went upstairs to show Stella the work they had done. Inconsistent with her nature, she expressed immediate approval. They left her to rest. As he was leaving, she said: "I have a special surprise for you next week, Johnny."
The surprise was not what Johnny had anticipated. It was not about the business. Instead it was about Anton, a handsome Croatian man who had been skiing in Switzerland. He had eaten with a friend, the Baroness von Echenbach, at Margaux when he lived in New York and when he had bumped into Stella at the airport in Geneva, they made a deal.
"You see, my darlings," Stella said, "I plan to get out in public during my last year or so. I want my renovated old carcass to be shown off about town. It would be a waste of money otherwise. I'll go to the theatre, the opera, restaurants other than our own, and charity benefits. I can go to museums again. I've been a slave to this restaurant for too long. Anton will escort me everywhere. He can have the spare bedroom in my suite. During the day, Maria, while you're working, he can watch the baby. You'll get more done this way. He can also help Franco at the bar. You'll love him. He arrives in two weeks." She then quickly left them to take her nap.
In fact, from the day Anton arrived, they all did like him. It was impossible to dislike his company. He was dashing and muscular with an unthreatening simplicity. He had aspirations to being an opera singer, a Wagnerian to be exact. He vocalized often and was eccentric. Without warning he burst into Tristan. Sometimes he would try female parts like Brünhilde in the bar. There was no telling when Siegfried, Wotan, Erde, Brangane or the The Flying Dutchman would be heard, but this strange habit did not detract form his overall success. He was, after all, in a place where personal indulgence was rampant.
Johnny knew Stella intended Anton to be his foil. This didn't bother him or ruin the friendly companionship he enjoyed with Anton. It was nice to have a contemporary male in the house.
The Prince also liked Anton. He really adored handsome men. Maria also loved handsome men, therefore she liked Anton. The baby loved anyone who would play with him, so he also liked Anton, who in turn sang to the child. Stella was actually the only one of them who didn't care much about him. He simply filled a need at the time she did for him. He needed comfortable shelter. What could be more congenial at this moment? He talked about these matters openly with Johnny and, in order to assure him that he was a true friend and no threat, he would, from time to time, burst into Cole Porter's song I'm just a gigolo.
Eight years later, however, Anton was still at The Café Margaux. During that time young Frank was the only person to change and grow. He could speak French and Italian. He helped the waiters with their accents. The bartender Prince remained stable. He was half deteriorated by gin and the half preserved by it, kind to everyone, especially Anton and Maria. Johnny and Stella, of course, were still unable to agree on any business arrangement. They started and stopped negotiations regularly. Johnny, as always, worked hard. He had little social life and became somewhat heavier, although his face was still strong.
Stella, sporting a few more wrinkles and still smoking, had now acquired a new friend, the arch feminist lesbian writer, Violet Burns, with whom she spent a lot of time lunching and shopping. Violet, a fountain of advice, favored Maria and put the case to Stella that she leave everything to Maria. Her circumstances had brought Johnny back to Margaux. She was generous and would, of course, take care of Johnny. Violet also conjectured that Maria was having sex with Anton in between lunch and dinner; but if not, then he was certainly having sex with Johnny. (Violet insisted that sex was always in the picture.) Stella considered Violet's advice about leaving it all to Maria but refused to editorialise on the sex. "I don't know about these personal things".
And so, The Café Margaux is open and thriving today - all of its characters enjoying and complaining about the comforts they need to continue living happily within the confinements and joys of their private frustrations.