A WIFE'S VERSION OF events, interspersed with a husband's interruptions, is a device full of promise, and the Buchwalds bring some extra dimensions to the genre. Ann, who does most of the talking, has a sharp eye and an incisive style. Art, who gets some telling words in edgewise -- in bold type, to offset his meager turf -- is one of our few practicing satirists and a classified national asset. The deal was that Art could not see what Ann had written until the book was in galleys; and he vowed not to interrupt except when he thought Ann got the facts wrong, or maligned him, or he thought his contribution could "clear the air." He goes at this work with practiced restraint. You feel from the start that you're in safe hands.
And the ground they cover is Paris during the 13 years from 1949 to 1962, in which they met, fell in love and lived together in wedded bliss (after being married in London because of bureaucratic hassles with the French Catholic Church). This was the Paris where a student could live like a prince for $100 a month; where a good meal could be had for 95 cents, and where a new postwar generation of Americans had begun to congregate for what would turn out to be the best years of their lives. Many were writers and artists, and Paris was the glorious base camp from which they would start their climb to the top.
By the obtaining standards, the Buchwalds were a mismatched pair. Ann McGarry was a devout Roman Catholic, the oldest in a family of nine girls and two boys. "I had my mother's and father's undivided attention for a full sixteen months before anyone else was born," as she puts it.
Art was a Jew, brought up in foster homes around New York. He came to Paris on the G.I. Bill, to write the Great American Novel, and because a friend had assured him that the streets were paved with mattresses. He arrived with $100 in his pocket, a big box of chocolate bars and some soap and toilet paper given to him by his sisters. He enrolled in the French language classes at the Alliance Francaise on the Boulevard Raspail, bribed someone to mark him present in class and went forth into the Great school without walls that Paris has offered to generations of young Americans who wander its old gray streets looking for themselves. He lived in a room eight feet square in the Hotel des Etats-Unis, a place with elevators that only went up, paper-thin walls and a bathroom down the hall.
By the time Ann got there he had already risen from being leg man for the Varity correspondent to a post as nightclub reporter and restaurant and movie critic for the Paris Herald Tribune. He was an accomplished boulevardier, and had turned the fateful corner onto the road that would lead to fame and fortune.
Ann had quit her fashion job with Nieman-Marcus in Dallas and had gone to Paris to find a new life and a new career where the pay would rise to $10,000 a year, "the highest figure I dared shoot for since I spent ten years reaching what seemed an impenetrable ceiling of $7,500."
Her assets were about standard for the day: $1,000 in traveler's checks and the return half of a New York to Paris round-trip airplane ticket, good for a year. She also had a letter of introduction from Stanley marcus to Pierre Balmain; and fate guided her into that establishment on the only day in his life that Balmain was still sitting at his desk during lunch hour, his head in his hands. He had fired his publicity director minutes before. Ann spoke no French, and had never done public realtions; but she knew "the girls at Vogue and Harper's Bazaar" and Balmain was desperate, so she got the job.
She met Art in the hotel room of the girl he was dating at the time. He was snoozing in a wing chair, a sporty brown hat pulled down over his glasses, his feet half out of his loafers. When they were introduced, he lifted his hat so he could see and said, "Hi." ("I'm certain," Art adds here, "that if I had any inkling that someday we would be married I would have stood up when she walked in the room.")
Gradually, the classic battle lines were taking shape. On their third chance encounter, he invited her to a nightclub, where she told him he had funny ideas in his column, but lousy grammar. In the row that ensued he missed the opening he was supposed to cover, but he kissed her in the taxi when he took her home, "with such sweet and surprising fervor that I didn't say a word." (I was making a pass -- a simple straightforward pass," says the bold type, "and to her it was some sort of commitment. Good grief.")
Their courtship was on a heady plane -- the concerts, galas and openings Art had to cover; dinner with Bogie and Betty Bacall at a window table at the Tour d'Argent, as they gave visiting Americans a taste of the "real" Paris.
They drifted into a vague arrangement whereby "Art would remain the free spirit he had always been. Although we would not date other people, we would not take each other seriously, either." Marriage was out. "Catholic daughters don't marry Jewish sons, and vice versa." ("I really didn't know what I was getting into," Art writes, "but I certainly did not mean that I wanted to go steady. . . . How can someone write the Great American Novel if he has to worry about meeting the same girl every night for dinner?") In those quaint times, people didn't live together. "In later years, to save face with our children, we said we had lived together," Ann writes, "but we never actually did so."
So the tussle escalated. Art threw up at the idea of marriage; Ann felt lost without it. She threatened to go home; he changed his mind, but to arrange a Catholic wedding they had to go to London.
Many more adventures lay ahead. They moved in exalted circles through Art's career, but even though she had a career of her own, Ann never felt at ease among the swells. When Alfred Lunt was coming to their apartment to cook them a 10-course dinner, she put an entire new linoleum floor on the kitchen. She often left elegant parties in tears.
Life took on a strange and wonderful urgency for them when they found they could not have children of their own. By surmounting incredible tangles of red tape, they managed to adopt a boy in Ireland, a girl in Spain and another in Paris. Their joy, as each small bundle joined their household, puts ordinary parenthood in the shade. "What if we had not found our children or wrose yet, having found them not been allowed to take them home where we knew they belonged?" Ann writes. "That we did bring them safely home seems just as miraculous as their birth itself." They went to desperate lengths to see that they were all naturalized as Americans.
Despite the celebrated company they kept and the high plane of their adventures, Ann and Art Buchwald somehow never lost sight of the fact that they were just a couple of Americans in Paris, who would eventually go home where they belonged. The book succeeds on many levels and this quality is only one of them.