Tuesday, August 28, 2018

How Little We Know- With The Film Adaptation Of Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have And Have Not” In Mind

How Little We Know- With The Film Adaptation Of Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have And Have Not” In Mind

By Henri “Frenchie” Gerard As Told To Jasper Jackson

[Henri “Frenchie” Gerard had owned the well-known pre-World War II Gerard’s Café in Fort-de-France, Martinique, the French colony in the Caribbean, first under the Third Republic and then when France felt to the Germans in 1940 to collaborationist Vichy-control. Frenchie ran the place all through the Occupation at some cost to himself as a local Resistance leader and after the war until 1960 when he retired to his native Nantes in France. That same year he had found out through some old Resistance contacts that his old American friend Captain Harry Morgan, a fishing boat owner whom he had given work to, had had more than his fair share of drinks with in the old times, had passed away in New York City after a long bout with cancer. According to his obituary Harry left a wife, Marie, nee Browning, and three children, all teenagers.          

I had heard through a different source that Captain Morgan had although an American been active in the French Resistance in Martinique and eventually other places in the Caribbean. I had also heard that Monsieur Gerard was the last link to knowledge about Captain Morgan’s exploits and more importantly about how Harry and Marie Browning known affectionately as “Slim” in those days met and got out of Fort-de-France by the skin of their teeth. I contacted Gerard in Nantes about twenty years ago and he agreed to tell me what he knew about the affair, about the “skin of their teeth” and about anything else he might know around that initial meeting since “Slim” had gone on to be an editor of a high-end fashion magazine after she married Harry. Harry had become an agent-ambassador for Cunard out of New York. Below is in his own words the way Frenchie described the meeting and match-up between Harry and Slim. He did stipulate that I was only to use most of the information he provided after Slim passed on. Although I did produce a short sketch at the time using the authorized information I left most of the material as it was in note form and stuffed in a back file cabinet drawer. Slim died a few months ago and so here for the first time after a couple of months of unscrambling those long ago yellow note pad notes is Frenchie’s long ago take on that torrid war-time romance which seemed the stuff of legends. This piece is dedicated to Frenchie who passed away in 2007. Jasper Jackson]

“I had seen Marie first, had seen her as she came off the plane from I think that day Cuba, don’t quote me on stuff before the match-up between Harry and Slim because it is all vague and doesn’t add or subtract from the story except that she was an American girl working her way across the waters by herself, by herself mostly except when she wanted company from her dagger-eyed look. Lovely, got my juices flowing, tall and thin making me think at first she was French, maybe from my hometown of Nantes where they are built like that almost exclusively since she fit that bill. Had big flashing eyes, if she was a man I would say bedroom eyes, yes, bedroom eyes no question and those soft lustrous lips, ruby red. Wore her long hair over one eye like was the fashioned then, not like Veronica Lake, no, more like Lauren Bacall maybe in one of her early movies.     

“She had been up against it lately though, had had some kind of difficulties because with her almost too good looks it was strange that she came off the plane with a sort of threadbare tailored suit a little out of fashion that year and a small bag which told me she was on, how you Americans say her ‘uppers.’  [The irony later would be that she was a much sought after fashion editor for a number of high style New York publications and became known for her great sense of where the new look would come from. I’ll bet any photographs from those Martinique days have gone since seen the incinerator-JJ]

“By the way that “Slim” moniker for Marie and she called him “Steve” although everybody knew it was Harry thing was some intimate bed-time talk thing that I don’t know how it started since I wasn’t there when they messed up the silky sheets that first time. She was sure slim, no question about that, model slim so she might have been working that racket at some point, maybe private showings if you know what I mean. So maybe that is where Harry got his pet name for her from. I was also an agent for Air Martinique then so I grabbed her bag and offered to put her up at my hotel where most of the tourists off the flight stayed and I gave the airline a kickback for the business in the days before they started having package tours. She accepted without a murmur but not without an unspoken gratitude. My idea was that after she had settled in and I had bought her few drinks I could coax her into helping me out as an exotic flower bar girl for the American tourists who were flooding Fort-de-France looking for women, kicks, dope, gambling, and some fine deep sea fishing. I had her all lined up on that job so I had not been wrong that she had been on her uppers or that she had been familiar with the trade. Along the way I had my own ideas about jumping under the satin sheets with her although I was married at the time. Or maybe because I was married. Yeah, she was that kind of looker, that kind of dame who guys would take great risks for, would go to the mat for if things went like that.       
“Then Harry entered the scene and my day dreams were over. He had been out on a fishing expedient with a client named Johnson, one of those Americans looking for dope and some deep sea fishing, and some kind of deep sea fishing of another kind if you get my drift. This Johnson guy had had a shot at grabbing a big swordfish according to Harry but all he did was lose Harry’s fishing tackle in the bargain. So Harry wasn’t in a good mood when I asked him to go to his room in order for me to inquire about using his boat for some Resistance work that was coming up-bringing in some agents to get the great freedom-fighter Renoir off of Devil’s Island where he was being held by the Vichy bastards. He turned me down cold. Wouldn’t touch the thing then, didn’t give a damn who was fighting for or against who but wanted to keep clear of any controversy, keep his boat, his livelihood for one thing. So whatever he did for us later which was a lot didn’t get a leg up until Marie came in view.

“I had known Harry ever since he had come to Martinique to get away from some nasty business in Key West where he was from, or said he was from, and I let that ride. Harry had definitely been around the block, knew the score but I was always mystified about why the dames went for him, especially the French girls that hung around my bar. Harry must have been about forty, maybe forty-five then and his face and slumped shoulders showed the wear and tear. The best you say for him was that he was a man, a straight up with rugged looks and always would be a twice a day shave guy. Didn’t dress particularly well then [he would later under Marie’s influence and insistence -JJ] but he lacked for female company before Marie. Maybe it was like one of your American writers mentioned to me one time when I met him in Nantes after I came back to France that some women, some young women who have been buffeted about, maybe had no father-figure around the house go for older guys for that reason. But ask Freud or one of his kind about that.

“Here is how they met. While we, Harry and I, were talking about doing that Resistance job a rap came on the door and when Harry opened up the door there was Marie all dolled up and showered asking if anybody had a match. Harry flipped her his box of matches. Then she asked if anybody had a cigarette and said it in such a come hither way in Harry’s direction that I knew I was sunk. Harry threw her his pack of Luckies (unfiltered in those days) which I got for him on the black market since American cigarettes were hard to come by after the Vichy thugs took over the black market trade. She left and after Harry asked me who the hell she was and where did she come from. I left the room knowing that I was out of luck making a play for Slim. The only benefit I got from that “introduction” was that she did do some very good work for a few days as a bar girl and I got many dollars as my cut of her action. I swear I could have been a millionaire if she had stayed on the island.

“As a cover against the snooping Vichy cops who only looked for dough every chance they got and did not like bar girls since even they had to pay the freight for the pleasure of the company I also had her singing at night with Cricket my junkie piano player whose habit was getting him off-track, getting so he could hardly remember the songs. I found out in passing through the lounge area one afternoon while she and Cricket were singing that she could sing and look good doing it so I gave her that job and a cut of the proceeds. Funny about memories. That Cricket was a story in himself since he was on the run from some dope-dealers in the States and laying low in cheap dope Martinique for a while. He had written that song that would be a hit after the war when all the G.I.s headed back to America, How Little We Know. By then I think Cricket was probably six feet under the ground but I always laughed when I thought about that song title and those gullible G.I.s believing their sweeties had been true blue when they were fighting the Nazi scum. Yeah, how little they knew. 

“But enough of Cricket. Slim went to work after that meeting with Harry. Like I said she was good, grabbed eight hundred bucks off of that stupid fisherman Johnson, and gave me my four hundred without a murmur. Harry sitting at the bar later saw her in action that first night as she worked the room and was sore from what he told me the next day. Was very sore when that night Marie had after Johnson grabbed some Vichy naval officer for half the liquor on the island. Called her a tramp, a young pretty smart tramp but a tramp nevertheless. Here’s how you can never figure dames though see she was, having seen him for about two minutes asking for that match and cigarette foreplay, trying to make him jealous. Had spotted him looking her way just as she had expected. And he was only trying to pretend to be sore. That interchange if you can understand this psychology solidified their relationship. That night without as much as a by your leave they snuck under Harry’s sheets (or was it Slim’s, yes, it must have been Slim’s because I had left her a set of silk sheets for her bed when I had my own ideas about what I would do with her.)               
“Of course that budding affair with Marie business played directly into Harry coming over to work with us. That Vichy naval officer Marie took for a ride bitched to Renard, a bastard who was an official in the Third Republic colonial administration on the island and the day Vichy took over without missing a beat went to work for them as their hatchet man. He had me, Harry and Slim down at police headquarters for a few hours. Took my money, my four hundred from the Johnson con, Slim’s cut and for good measure Harry’s who had nothing to do with it dough too. That pissed Harry off. Also helped me to rope in Harry to the deal for his boat since he had no other dough.     

“That job should have been a piece of cake. Meet the agents who were going to get Renoir off of Devil’s Island in a quiet spot about twenty miles from Fort-de-France, bring them to town and then transfer them to other agents who would work out the details of the tough Devil’s Island caper. Of course in those days you took whoever was not a secret Vichy agent, anybody who had the guts to stick their necks out for the glory of France but it turned out the guys, or rather the guy and his fucking wife, the Dubois, what was he thinking, that they recruited for the job had feet of clay, had too much trouble worrying about his fretful wife. So Harry had run into a Vichy patrol out in the harbor. That patrol shot up Harry’s boat, shot up this Dubois guy and made things tough for all of us. Harry, no doctor, had to patch up the guy while holding off his wife from jumping on his bones. And holding Slim back from scratching Madame’s eyes out.  

“Made Harry something like persona non grata with Vichy, with Renard too once he figured the previously “don’t give a damn” had part in the caper. Renard , the bastard, figured out a way to prove that Harry was involved in the Dubois caper. Harry had this old rummy, Eddie, whom must have been his father or something the way he protected him. Renard had picked Eddie up and was holding him in the drunk tank until he crumbled and told what Harry’s role in the caper had been. Harry flipped out at this once Renard told him about where the missing Eddie was. With Slim’s aid he took on Renard and a couple of his henchmen, shot one dead as a doornail and made Renard after pistol-whipping him order Eddie back to my hotel. That is when Harry handed over Renard to me and decided that since Martinique was too hot for him and Slim, and Eddie that he would take Dubois and his wife to Devil’s’ Island to get Renoir out. I’ll never forget, have never forgotten how Slim shimmied her way out the door with Harry and Eddie carrying their bags behind them after Slim said good-bye to Cricket (and got little stash of opium for the road).     

“You know that Harry did get Dubois to Devil’s Island and that he eventually got Renoir to Europe to work with Victor Lazlo coordinating the Resistance when it counted. Did lots of other jobs too with the resourceful Slim in tow before heading to New York after the war. 

“Here’s something Harry told me before he and Slim left town. That first night they hit the sheets Slim, with a few drinks in her, was being very sexually provocative, had mentioned that all Harry had to do to keep her in line was whistle. Then she said in an unmistakably salacious way that “he knew how to whistle, didn’t he. Just put lips together and blow.” Harry assumed that she was using a sexual double entendre. He found out that night just what she meant as she took him around the world. Damn, that lucky son of a bitch Harry.      

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