By summer 1944 the Allies were powering through occupied France. The military commander of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, had orders to destroy the city if the Allies got close. Dynamite was packed under every monument.
Locals suspected of contacts with the resistance disappeared daily. The concierge would force the door to find an empty apartment with two chairs close together in the hallway and German cigarette butts on the tiled floor. Family and friends could do nothing but queue daily at the Gestapo headquarters on avenue Foch to beg for information.
A woman with green eyes, high-cheek bones, and a bun of dark hair spent a lot of time standing in line that summer. Marguerite Donnadieu was child-faced thirty-year-old born to French teachers working near Saigon. In early June 1944 her days were spent working as a Vichy civil servant, her evenings plotting with a hard-left resistance group led by fellow bureaucrat François Mitterrand. Any spare time went towards writing novels under the name Marguerite Duras.
He’s a foul-mouthed, crevice-faced Scotsman and one of the best chefs in the world. Back in 2004 Gordon Ramsay had three Michelin stars and a fistful of accolades. It was time to move into television.
Ramsay had been on the box a few times before. Two fly-on-the-wall documentaries, a judging role on a show about catering students, and bit of what passed for reality tv at the turn of the century. But it was Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares that made him a celebrity.
It was a simple formula. Ramsay goes to a failing restaurant, looks appalled, swears a lot, and helps the owner get the place back on its feet. There was some good advice and a few decent recipes but producers soon realised viewers mostly liked to watch Ramsay become foul-mouthingly furious at dirty kitchens, uncooked prawns, and chefs too obliviously incompetent to take his advice. A ratings hit.
In 2007 the programme went stateside as Kitchen Nightmares. American producers preferred sentimental stories of family heartbreak over business strategy discussions but the core of the show remained the same. Gordon Ramsay. Food. Swearing.
Turns out restaurant owners in America are a lot more interesting than their British counterparts. At least three had connections to some kind of organised crime.
The French resistance opened hunting season on collaborators in the spring. On 26 April 1944 they machine-gunned Violette Morris to death as she stepped out of her Citroën Traction Avant on a Normandy country road between Épaignes and Lieurey.
Morris was chauffeuring a local pork butcher called Bailleul, his wife, and their two young children. A carriage blocked the road. The Citroën stopped and Morris got out with a pistol in her hand.
Submachineguns opened fire from the treeline. Violette Morris and her four passengers died.
The attackers knew her as a cross-dressing traitor responsible for the deaths of their comrades. Morris’ friends remembered a bisexual race car driver, interwar celebrity, and champion weight-lifter who was friends with Jean Cocteau. It was complicated.
It was a beautiful right cross, straight to the jaw. The big Italian folded up in the middle of the ring. He got up and fell to his knees and got up again but he was swaying.
Yankee Stadium was full of 64,000 people tonight. A scrum of men in suits and ties and hats plus a few women who didn’t mind getting blood on their mink wraps, all roaring down from their seats at a boxing ring the size of a postage stamp. The Italian-Americans were telling Primo Carnera to stay on his feet and keep his guard up, their black hair glossy in the lights. African-Americans shouted at Joe Louis to finish him, Joe, finish him and shadow-boxed with whatever fist wasn’t holding a cigarette.
Commentators ringside talked fast into their microphones for the folks at home. Photographers popped off another bulb in cameras big as a box of groceries. Louis stalked a glassy Carnera around the ring.
When we take something apart, we understand it better but appreciate it less. Welcome to the world of books about the best post-punk band to come out of Manchester. Anyone who wants to keep their hero worship intact should look away.
Joy Division maintained their mystery for decades after the band imploded following the 1980 suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis. The band rarely gave interviews and let the music speak for itself, an approach that continued when the surviving members became New Order.
Anyone who wanted to find out more about the band had to forensically analyse music press reports or buy the few, thin cash-in biographies that appeared in the aftermath of Curtis’ death. That all changed in 1995 when the singer’s wife published her account of their marriage. Then the floodgates opened as band members and associates wrote their own books that spilled the inside story.
Here’s a look at the best of them.
Welcome all. We’re stuck deep into an autumn of golden leaves and woollen scarfs. Summer is dead and Winter is rising. The best time of the year.
I’m coming to the end of my book on the Bonny-Lafont gang of crooks who terrorised wartime Paris. That sound you can hear is the bone protruding from my fingertips clacking on keyboard. It’s been a long ride.
To celebrate Autumn, Halloween, and all things in between, here’s some links to good things on the internet. Some of it’s spooky. Some of it’s just plain disturbing.
Drink your drinks, click your links, and remember to visit the graves of your ancestors on All Saints Day. Enjoy.
A few years back I wrote about the death of Basil Murray during the Spanish Civil War. A weak-willed alcoholic, Murray is best remembered for providing a model for the character of Basil Seal in various books by Evelyn Waugh.
He died in a bizarre way, bitten to death by a Barbary Macaque while unconscious in a Valencia hotel room. Turns out Barbary apes are dangerous monkeys.
Very dangerous, in fact. One killed King Alexander of Greece in 1920 after a stroll in the royal gardens. The new King was twenty-seven-years-old and his country involved in a bitter war against the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.