“Finishing Touch,” a mystery story

Credit: Cover of "VU: The Story of a Magazine" by Frizot and De Veigy, published by Thames and HudsonEXCERPT

March 6, 1936 dawned cold on a quiet Paris. A brisk breeze churned the dark waters of the Seine as I hurried across the narrow Pont des Arts, hanging on to my fedora with one hand and buttoning my tweed coat with the other. Early mornings are not my café au lait  – but when your editor assigns a story, you do whatever it takes, right? A lady never complains.

But I’m no lady. I’m a newspaperwoman.

“I’m sick of these blasted puff pieces,” I’d said to Walter just the day before. I was perching on his desk, for chairs were in short supply in the crowded newsroom of the Paris Gazette. As the leading English-language newspaper for Americans in France, our rag was read by dewy-eyed tourists, absinthe-sipping expats, rich industrialists, and starving poets. The office was a small chaotic place on the third floor of a noisy street off the Champs-Elysées, filled with cigarette smoke, scattered papers, newspapermen pecking at their typewriters or talking on the phone with their feet on the desk or shooting the breeze as they waited for the cable machine to spit out the news.

“Give me a chance, Walter,” I said, as his red pencil dismembered a paragraph. “Europe’s on the brink of disaster, but you keep me writing twaddle about feathered hats and society scandals.”

“I’ve told you a thousand times, Eve. It’s what our readers want.” He circled a word with his red pencil. “Jeez, this guy can’t even spell.”

“Dear kind bald Walter, this isn’t what I left Brooklyn to do.”

“Plenty of other young journalists in Paris would kill for your job.”

“Come on, boss. Let me cover some real news.”

He peered at me over the top of his reading glasses. “So prove yourself. Do the stories you’re assigned, then we’ll see. Got it? Good girl.”

I could have grabbed him by his ink-stained tie and shouted, Woman, not girl! And a bad one at that, at least by your prudish standards. But I restrained myself. Enough jokes already about redheads with fiery tempers.

“Now,” he continued, not noticing my sour puss. “I want you to interview Antoine Sommer, the young star couturier. The wealthy American industrialist Gerald Hecker is launching Sommer’s new fashion house next month on the avenue Montaigne. Find out what Sommer eats and drinks. Who his clients are…”

I was already scribbling notes.

“…What next season’s gowns look like.”

“You’re kidding, right? That’s top secret.”

Shaking his head, he crossed out an entire page. Some poor wretch of a reporter was about to get the boot.

“If anyone can find out, Eve,” he said, “you can.”

#

Now I was racing down the Rue Saint-Honoré. Plenty of advantages to being a woman but high heels and skirts aren’t among them, at least not when you’re late. But a newspaperwoman has to look her best, no matter how little she earns. Antoine Sommer’s establishment lay at the respectable end of the street, surrounded by fancy tailors and dress shops. The first pale rays of sunshine glittered off the topmost windows behind their ironwork grilles, but most of the street lay in shadow. You could hear the sounds of Paris waking up: the whisk-whisk of a broom as a concierge swept the sidewalk, the scraping and clattering of a sleepy waiter dragging chairs to outdoor tables, a shuffling delivery boy lugging a basket of fresh-baked baguettes inside the café. The seductive smell of coffee nearly hooked me but I had no time even to gulp a quick espresso standing at the bar. If I arrived late, I could kiss Monsieur Antoine’s interview goodbye, along with the news assignments I so desperately wanted.

Of course I was glad just to have a job, though I’d never admit it to Walter. After all, I was nothing more than a junior reporter, newly arrived in Paris with one suitcase, decent French, and more moxie than experience. Back in America there was a depression on and a lot of people had no work at all. Here in Europe there was a depression too, though you’d never know it by the posh clothes, glamorous parties, and big shiny cars sweeping along the boulevards. The rich could not or would not see the danger signs around them: strikes, protests, hungry people who couldn’t feed their kids.

But plenty of other sleazy opportunists could and they’d been busy grabbing power. Next door in Germany that ugly little bully Mister Hitler had been ranting about needing more elbow room, setting off whispers in elegant Paris salons about his intentions in the Rhineland, the buffer zone the Allies established after the Great War to prevent Germany from trying once again to crush Europe. Surely, whispered the ruling asses over champagne and canapés, Mr. Hitler wouldn’t march into the Rhineland. That would be very naughty of him indeed.

If you opened your eyes, you could see the dark clouds of another war gathering on the horizon. But as usual, most people were keeping their peepers firmly shut…

[More to come!].

 

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