Sergeant Gay's respect for Maurice's talent had been the critical factor in accepting him as a tenant in the room above the Cafe Belle Gabrielle. Additionally, it made Gay tolerant of the serious problems involved in having a pathological drunk on his hands day and night. The experience, from the beginning, had left a trail of debris--human and material wreckage--which stretched throughout the Montmartre.
|Sergeant Gay, to his credit, never complained, he provided genuine assistance, and, unlike other characters, he never tried any funny business in order to put extra francs in his pocket. He still dealt in Maurice's canvasses, taking them for rent, framing them, before displaying the pictures in the small annex in the basement of the Cafe Belle Gabrielle. It wasn't unusual to see an Utrillo painting of the Sacre-Coeur, hanging beside a cured ham, or some used bidets.|
Sergeant Gay was slightly more sensitive than most people, he enjoyed the role he was playing, and this was emphasized by his recognition of the vital connection between alcoholism and art when dealing with Maurice. The ex-policeman accepted the paradox of Maurice because he realized that what came out of the contradiction was historically important--not to mention that it offered a chance to make a few extra francs. The concept of a drunken painter bringing prestige to a retired officer seemed ludicrous on the face of things, but Sergeant Gay didn't see it that way at all. He was completely satisfied with what he was getting out of the situation, which, if you look at it closely, wasn't very much; a little money from the sale of canvasses; some guidance in the mysteries of painting from his tenant; and the prestige of representing a recognized artist. The deciding factor for Sergeant Gay, no doubt, was the latter, an experience that brought a little excitement into a hum-drum existence, raising him above the average retiree, and keeping him on his toes ....
Marie Vizier, who dealt with Sergeant Gay as her landlord, getting to know him pretty well, thought he was a saint because of what he took from Maurice. "He takes a lot of crap from your son," she told me, shaking her head in disbelief, and adding, "and him being an ex-cop, too." I told her how Sergeant Gay had gotten me out of a deep hole of trouble that was destroying me mentally and physically; an unending series of disasters all related to Maurice. "It's on his back now," I said, "and I pray God he doesn't change his mind!" The idea of Maurice coming back to the Rue Cortot sent shivers of fear up and down my back, I had no guts to face out what this implied, and the thoughts of Utter's reaction, if it happened, was something I didn't want to think about....
The small annex, next to the Belle Gabrielle, was Sergeant Gay's office, storage area, and salesplace. A prospective customer, after several drinks which were considered a solid investment for a sale, was then shown "Utrillos" and other commodities which were on display. The procedure, observed one day when I had accompanied the critic Mirbeau to the annex, was a funny routine. "Bizarre," Mirbeau had remarked, "I am astonished at good art being huckstered in such an atmosphere!" But Mirbeau wasn't astonished to the point where he hadn't enough sense to act when he found a real bargain. Hanging, in all its splendor directly above a cured ham from the provinces, was a splendid canvas of the Chartres Cathedral, its twin spires thrusting into a gray sky, a beauty, subtlety painted, with muted and brilliantly harmonized chroma, a prize, if I ever saw one. The critic immediately paid Sergeant Gay the forty francs he wanted for the picture and walked out of the annex with a superb Utrillo, a happy smile on his face.
Amazingly, a varied assortment of dealers, connoisseurs, critics, collectors, ordinary people, and sometimes, actors, vaudeville performers, showed up at the annex. Such well known figures as La Goulue, Grille d'Egout, Valentin le Desosse, Louis d'Orr, Jane Avril, and May Bryant, the English actress, would show up to give Sergeant Gay's merchandise the once over. And they spent their money, too; not always certainly, on the paintings, but on the wide assortment of other products. The ex-policeman was known, generally, as a fair bargainer; his products, such as fresh vegetables and preserved meats were always the best he could obtain, and most people, if they were dissatisfied, had no trouble getting their money back. It was obvious, to anyone who observed Sergeant Gay in action that the art meant the most to him; the sales pitch was a joy to behold, an example of a man fully convinced of what he was saying. "And," he would conclude, believing he had overcome all resistance on the part of the purchaser, "the well-known artist, praised by the critical press, who did this work, is just above us here, working to produce another important picture." At this stage of the sales pitch, Sergeant Gay would dramatically pause, point his finger at the ceiling, presumably just below where Maurice was diligently at his task, take on a religious look in his eyes like you see in the Italian painting of Madonnas, and say: "For a few francs you can own a work of art that will someday reside in the Louvre."
There is no doubt about Sergeant Gay getting a strong response in his annex, and that Maurice's painting was the star of the show, the attraction which kept him busy. It was natural for people who were interested in Maurice's work, to buy one or the other of the other products on display, so that, all in all, he came off with a very nice profit. The profit, without question, as Marie Vizier would say, was at the base of everything, but there is strong indication that Sergeant Gay felt that the prestige was the really important aspect of the operation for him; it raised him a level or two above some of the other retired professionals around him; it was an adventure into a world of culture and intellectuality which had been denied him as a policeman. And the same idea, only in reverse worked for Maurice, providing him with a place to put his head at night. If he hadn't been the legend, a recognized professional painter, he would have ended up with all the rest of the bums who were proliferating all over la Butte Pinson. It was another one of those convenient quid pro quos which came into Maurice's life, saving him from an almost certain fate as a permanent resident of a State asylum, or a resting place in one of the numerous graveyards around Paris.
Maurice wasn't hesitant about cashing in on his financial success. It was measured in drink, or by his physical ability to withstand abuse. Drinking, as it was from the start, was Maurice's only pleasure in life; everything else was subordinate, trivial to this supreme experience, something he tolerated. A splendid binge was a major objective, his raison d'etre, exemplifying his importance, and the fact that it was done against society's wishes, legally, ethically, morally, made it especially attractive. The game Maurice played was a dangerous one, complete with the agony and the ecstacy, but a fall was always around the corner; one that would end the game permanently. For the moment, he was a privileged person, with leverage in powerful places, a position which gave him a sense of power, of being above the law. The terrible angst of paranoia which had tortured him, had been replaced by an aura of invincibility. Maurice believed, I think, that he had won the battle to achieve the lifestyle he desired. He viewed the law, the public, his enemies around the hill, as defeated antagonists, forced to accept the terms he had negotiated through the power of his art ....
I warned Maurice that he was making a big mistake in believing this to be true, that he was not subject to the social code, that the attitude had very dangerous implications. Naturally, he ignored my warnings, increasing the vandalism, perversions, and drinking, and pushing the memory of Saint Anne and Sannois from his head. "This," I screamed at him, "is really asking for trouble--God knows you have enough already!" Then I added: "They have an eye on you, you're walking on eggs, and you'll end up in the clinker!" Maurice always disengaged himself from criticism of his choices in life, turning aside, or after pausing, taking a deep drag on a a cigarette, and giving me a disdainful look. As I continued to reprimand him, repeating what I had said, he held a wine bottle up to the sun, and seeing that it was empty, he threw it at my feet. It hit, the glass shattering on the sidewalk, slivers of light flashing in the sun. When I recovered from the shock of this, I saw his receding figure walking up the Rue Cortot toward the Sacre-Coeur, a disembodied shape, which disappeared in the traffic of wagons and workers moving on the street.
Those who operated on the periphery of my son's life: Libaude, Sergeant Gay, Soulier, and the preacher, Clovis Sagot, all profited from his painting. Libaude, the most agressive of the lot, grabbed the lion's share, while the others, depending on luck and circumstance, did their best to get in on the act. With Maurice intoxicated to the eyeballs most of the time, they worried about the durability of the art factory, a day to day proposition with a complete wipe-out possible at any moment. A meeting by these characters at the Cafe Belle Gabrielle never got off the ground because none of them had the slightest idea of what they could do to get the main protagonist to change his suicidal existence ....
For the motley group who fed off Maurice, including Utter and myself, it was a good deal with the income reasonably stable considering his drinking problems. For Maurice, it was rosy, rosy as long as he could use painting to fuel his insatiable thirst. Actually, it was an arrangement that worked fairly well, even though it was hardly smooth sailing, and we all fought with each other to gain position. I had absolutely no confidence in any of them if you exclude Sergeant Gay whom I considered too naive for big-time stealing, and besides, he was an ex-cop. His police department mentality kept him on the straight and narrow, but with the rest of them, it was necessary to keep checks and double checks, all the time. I was never confident, in dealing with these bummers, that Maurice ever got a fair shake, that he was getting what was his due as a recognized artist.
A cure for Maurice was seldom discussed now; those involved, except the police who were tired of dragging him into the jailhouse again and again, had decided to let the river run its course, believing that nothing outside heavenly intervention, could alter the inevitable climax which waited around the corner. People, for the most part, were expecting Maurice, with his suicidal drinking, to come to a dead end, to remove himself by attrition. They wanted him out of circulation permanently, completely blitzed, and they didn't care at all how it was done. I listened to this kind of talk, but it didn't have much effect on me anymore, because I had heard it all before, and I could not question their attitude toward a dangerous drunk. The death of Maurice, if it came, would be heavy baggage for me; my guilt had become more or less chronic; and I was not certain I'd be able to face the future with what this implied....
The path of Maurice's life molded the lives of the individuals around him, and this was true of others besides Libaude, Depaquit, Sagot, or Soulier, who represented types quite common on the La Butte Pinson. There were some more elevated characters looking for an Utrillo canvas, bummers even if they were dressed in fancy clothes, who came from the Montparness, the Batignolles, the area of the Dome, the Left Bank, the better sections of Paris. They left their superiority behind them when they saw fine art easily obtained for peanuts. Like the lesser satellites circling the star actor, their main worry was the drying out of Maurice, out of reach, presumably, rotting in a French prison. They fully understood that Maurice--a sober Maurice--was of no use to them without the prop of alcohol which made him function. This was shown during his periodic rest stages when he tried abstinence, usually for religious reasons, abstinence that converted him into a poor vegetable of a man, a person who had lost his reason for living. Like this, he was detached, physically broken, inept, to all intents and purposes, disasscociated with reality. This, of course, was unacceptable to the horde of parasites who followed Maurice on his daily itinerary. These bummers worried about losing the easy money which would emerge from the changing of his lifestyle, pooling their resources just to buy alcohol in order to perpetuate the existing situation. Maurice had moved from being exploited by a few lower-class con men, scrounging about for small change, to a point where he was the prime target of some really big-time operators. These manipulators, powerful individuals with a lot of money behind them, hired smaller underlings to do their dirty work, remaining behind the scenes, pulling strings. How long this would last, was anyone's guess, but I believed these forces would try to make direct contact with Maurice when they thought the business machinery could be handled properly.
Octave Mirbeau, whose interest in Maurice had intensified after series of short interviews, decided to write a monograph on him for L'Evenement, focusing on balance rather than sensationalism, something I believed was long overdue. Too much of the material printed had treated Maurice's problems superficially, concentrating mainly on the prurient and criminal aspects of his life, and ignoring the vital connection between alcoholism and painting. Jourdain, another critic, added his voice to Mirbeau's, saying that the annihilation of one of France's recognized artists is taking place through series of overlapping circumstances which involve some prominent names in the criminal system. "These prominent officials," Jourdain had written, "by their well-intended leniency, are facilitating the suicidal tendencies of a talented artist unable to care for himself." He had concluded, by saying: "They ignore a critical denouement by exercising a myopic viewpoint which is obviously wrong and they have stated it is their