During World War II, in the US, I sat in an airport with my friend Keith waiting for his family to fly in from France. I met Keith at a soccer clinic several years ago and became friends with him. We were to meet his family and this was their first trip to the United States. As we were waiting Keith said that his family was active in the resistance and that his mom and dad had died in the fighting that followed the German occupation of France. His brother Stephan and sister Laura and Uncle George were famous as the leaders of the resistance after their parents died. As we talked a commotion was heard behind us and a convey arrived with a lot of reporters following Keith’s family came into the place we were waiting. Keith met them and brought them over to where I was standing and Keith said to me, “I would like to, introduce to you my brother Stephan, my sister Laura and my Uncle George, family this is my friend Jim.” The group of reporters were kept well back from us by the security officers and were out of photo range. Keith and I were staying at a near by camp ground so we left the airport, in a van and drove out to a nearby campground.
Stephan was a man in his early 20’s having brown hair and eyes while George was in his middle 30’s had blond hair and brown eyes. Both men were about my height, which was six feet. Laura was young and looked about 14 years of age. She had big brown eyes and long dark hair that would extend a ways down her back if it weren’t tied up in a bun. Keith had to have to leave to attend a business meeting that he could not be late to. I was left with the family and it was a strange experience. I wasn’t sure as what to do and I told that to Keith as he was leaving. He said just be yourself and everything would be okay. All of us felt out of place, the family felt threatened being alone with me in a strange country even if I was a friend of their brother. Laura felt this more than the other because her brown eyes kept getting larger and I could see the panic in those eyes as she looked around the campfire.
I called George and Stephan over and suggested that we get ready for the night and that we sleep together by clasping each other’s hands. We were in a huddle with me in the middle and we fell asleep like that. Apparently one enterprising young reporter followed us to the campground and took our picture, as we were asleep. The photo and story appeared in a Chicago Newspaper with the headline, ” America welcomes The Boivin Family to Chicago. I felt that the picture was incorrectly telling the story of their arrival. So I drew a gesture drawing showing a male protecting and offering shelter to a fearful family from Europe, signed it J. Curtis and sent it to the editor of the newspaper with the caption, “This is what America is all about.” In the accompanying letter I suggested that this might be a better way to tell this story. I heard nothing more from this situation and as time went by I forgot about it.
I got to know The Boivin Family very well over the next ten years. It was near the end of that time that Laura and Stephan wanted to go back home to France so Keith, George and I saw them off from O’Hare Field.
I need to mention here that I was married to Chief for 30 years when Laura, Stephan, and George entered our life. My kids were grown up and were on their own. So Laura and Stephan became like a second family to Chief and myself. When they left they asked to write to them, so over the years a wonderful correspondence was built up between us. I decided to retire from teaching and turned my attention to my art and photography. Chief and I decided to do some traveling, after all that was why I wanted to retire, and where better to begin than in France. So I called Laura and Stephan to ask if they could find us a place to stay and some studio space so I could paint, while we were in Paris and they were delighted to have us come. Laura said it was their turn to act as host and hostess and to show us their country. They found us a good hotel and arranged for studio space for me, in a near by gallery.
All of this was not in the tourist section of Paris but in an area that people live and work in. I needed to mix with the regular working people of France and it was these people that Laura and Stephan knew well.
We arrived at the airport and took a taxi to the Hotel where Laura and Stephan met us. We changed our clothes and were taken out for a night in Paris. We spent the next week doing the tourist thing. Everywhere we went I took my sketchbook along and spent a part of my day sketching anything that took my fancy. Most of my sketches were gesture drawings designed to show movement of my subjects. One sketch stood out and that was of a tall young man riding on a huge wheel monocycle. I wanted to make this sketch into a large panel colored pencil drawing. So it was about time I began using the studio space that was arranged for me. I went to the gallery where I was introduced to the family and was shown to my workspace. I spent half of each day in the studio and other half with Chief exploring all Paris had to offer. Sometimes we were with Laura and Stephan but most of the time not, after all they had families to take care of and jobs to go to. One day Chief mentioned to me that she thought that we were being treated differently by the locals then were other tourists. I thought that she was mistaken but said we would check it out. When we would go out for dinner we always had the best table and never had to wait when we went out of the hotel to eat. Even in the most crowded restaurants in Paris we never had to wait for a table. In the hotel we were getting special room service by the maids and other service personnel. Both Chief and I agreed that we were being treated differently than other tourists and wanted to find out when this special attention began, so we went back over the last month. This attention began the day or so after we had decided to have our evening meal in our room. After the waiter cleared away the dishes he handed over a check for me to sign so it could be put on our tab.
This was one of the few times we didn’t pay cash for our food. It was after this that the special treatment began. When we mentioned this to Laura she just shrugged and said it happened to other Americans so I dropped it.
I really liked working in the gallery space. A lot of artists came and went and I enjoyed talking to them about what they were doing. I spoke little French and they spoke little English but we managed to communicate. The more I learned French, the better the conversation began. I was having some problems with the monocycle so I asked some advice, so I asked the Master of the studio some questions and brought him over to see my work. Benard gave me some pointed suggestions as how to improve my wheel and he also said that my drawing style was very much like some one else but he couldn’t remember whom. Over the next few days he came over to see how I was progressing and we began to talk. We talked about the war and Paris. I told him about Laura and Stephan and he told me about their parents. It was great conversation and it meant that I was being accepted into their circle of friendship. I finally finished the drawing, signed and dated it, put a cloth over it and left the studio. On the way out I told Master Benard that I was done and he might like to see it in it’s finished stage.
Because I was done with my drawing I took the next day off and Chief and I went out to do a little shopping. We ended up purchasing some very expensive jewelry for Chief so when we got back to the hotel we found the manager to arrange to put the jewelry in the hotel safe. Mr. Jeffers gave me several pages of forms that I had to fill out and sign. I gave the paper back to him and he checked to see everything was in order. When he got to the end he gave a start as if he received a jolt of electricity. He quickly looked at me and asked for my full name, this seemed strange as this it is already on file, so to humor him I said James M. Curtis from the Chicago area. Mr. Jeffers asked if I always signed things with J. Curtis and I said yes. He was very agitated and excited and he took us into his back room. He opened the closet and took from it a scrapbook opened it up and showed me an old newspaper that he had from after the war. In this newspaper was my gesture drawing of the meeting of Laura, Stephan, George and I in our campground. Mr. Jeffers asked if this was my drawing and letter and I said that it was. I told him that I never knew that it had been printed. He said that I was a very famous in Paris due to the article and drawing but that no one knew who I was because they only had my signature to go on. I asked why I was so famous and he said that I gave my heart and friendship to three people I had never met and in Paris such a gesture is well expressed since Americans usually did not give from the heart but from the pocket book. The drawing and caption was published through out France as what America can do for the average person.
Mr. Jeffers said that the newspaper editor put the drawing in the Paris Art Museum and that I should contact the museum director as soon as possible.
I asked about the special treatment in the hotel and in Paris and he smiled and said usually the employees knew things before the management found out. Mr. Jeffers told Chief and I that he had changed our room to the Penthouse Suite and that he wouldn’t hear any argument. I asked why and he said due to my status I couldn’t stay where I was. I protested that I couldn’t afford this change and was countered by the statement that a man of my status could be in no other room. Chief and I looked at each other and followed our host to our new residence. What a place it was. The employees of the Hotel were pleased about our new residence and we were given a special dinner compliments of the chef.
At the studio the next day as I walked in and found a large group of artists around my work. They turned and gathered around me and Master Benard shook my hand. He said, “I knew your style but couldn’t place a handle on it until I saw your finished work. everyone in Paris knows of J. Curtis and it is a great pleasure to meet you.”
copyright © 2014 James M. Curtis