Toulouse-Lautrec is Dead: Bob Schulenberg in Paris

Bob Schulenberg
Photo by Toni Kochensparger

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Below is an excerpt from the writer’s coverage of the illustrator Bob Schulenberg, THIS IS WHAT IT ONCE WAS LIKE, a meditation on portraiture, reality, and time.]

Heath Ledger’s dead, now. Gone are the real-time wry in his smile and the charm of his slur -the glimmer, as he takes Charlotte Gainsbourg in, across the café table in I’m Not There, the is and is-not Bob Dylan film, and says, “you’re French?” and then tells her, “that’s perfect.”

Sometimes we go to Caffè Reggio in Greenwich Village to drink espresso where Dylan used to write. We stay late one night in the El Quijote, the restaurant under the Chelsea Hotel, to take photographs in booth number one, where Joplin and Hendrix used to sit in the 60s and, as the lights click off for the evening, all around us, a wild spell is born: the staff pack bottles and watch with us, as our friend performs -as she sings Black Coffee with the rare, chilling grace that few things besides a human voice in an empty room can produce: all of us, captured in the stillness of this space, for a few moments. Untouched by time.

This is what it once was like.

When Bob Schulenberg talks about Paris, it is with a certain singular astonishment, as if he can still see the light of the narrative fading, in the distance, like the last note of that acapella, which fades in the shadows, with her breath. He is correct in his quality of tone and later we talk about prayer, try to work out the details of how certain stories come to be, just how I am no longer sitting in a darkened Quijote, but am still dumbfounded by the mystery of the thing, happening.

Photo by Toni Kochensparger

We are seated now at a café out in Fresno, California, examining the highs and lows of his time as an illustrator -the retrospective at the Patrick Parrish Gallery in SOHO, the movie posters and the movies, the nineteen year-old Barbara Streisand he meets on the street, Vogue and the old Vanity Fair.

In the sixties, he leaves New York City. He sees Purple Noon.

“[That] was the original Mr. Ripley movie,” he tells me, starring Alain Delon and shot in the South of France, where two of his friends from university were headed for a summer.

“They said, ‘isn’t it beautiful?’ and I said ‘Oh wow, yes.’ And I had black hair and I thought, ‘I could be Alain Delon. I could be in that location.’”

Later we talk about prayer. Only what we say is: manifestation.

“When was the last time you were in Paris?”

“In ’66, actually. With The Secret Cinema…I’ve been afraid to go back because I don’t travel well. I tend to stay, you know?”

In 1962, Bob goes to France for a summer to role-play as Alain Delon and he stays for two years. A series of left turns land him a job, a place to live and the love of a woman, almost immediately -as in: with such speed it is difficult not to side-eye Bob’s white masculinity, a reflection of my own in a mirror made of persons, sitting.

I get the feeling he must be looking, too: the two of us are positioned in congruent distance to any hypothetical mid-career artist, meaning that each can investigate the paradox of the other’s placement in time with respect to our own. I want to know what it means to be alive. I meet Bob during my first photography gig in New York Town, which is his career retrospective. And, while our narratives are radically different, there’s a familiarity to Bob’s astonishment that begs me to check my own privilege.

Photo by Toni Kochensparger

There are, of course, schisms in the reflection. There’s an economic divide between us, Bob had a lot more connections, etc. And some of it’s entirely in the telling. The curation of the narrative.

For example, I’ve learned to omit romantic details in my own adventure recollection. Bob has kept his intact -facts he’s perfected with time, told with a wink in the language.

Paris is a story like that. Keep an eye out for it.

Some things are the same, but different. Bob maintains a similar sense, as I do, of Time’s correlation with Space. He knows who was where and when, w/r/t his own coordinates. But it’s less like my friends’ and my sense of pilgrimage:

Day Two in New York: go to the Chelsea Hotel I read about in JUST KIDS, the month before I moved here.

Patti Smith visits the grave of Arthur Rimbaud in France,

whose face was once worn as a mask by David Wojnarowicz in New York:

at the Hudson, we look for Pier 34, where Wojnarowicz and his friends broke in and built a colony where artists could be wild and free.

Bob speaks of these things, too, although it is never the impetus -it’s a colorful detail of the luxury.

“We were invited to a brunch at the Hotel du Cap,” he begins, “At the time it was the most expensive hotel in the world. It was pretty much popularized by Cole Porter and the Murphys -Gerald and Sara Murphy. Of Mark Cross…They pretty much invented the South of France in Summer. Picasso was their friend and everybody was there.”

Another way to describe the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc is that it’s the location Fitzgerald based the setting of Tender is the Night on, where he and Hemingway each drank, a book he wrote in the several years following Gatsby, during Zelda’s first breakdown and completed in 1933, the year Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, opened, when Kennedy was still a teenager.

“That’s where Eden-Roc really is,” Bob tells me. “The original Eden-Roc swimming pool.”

A schism in the mirror. I can only imagine this hotel, triangulated in history. Bob was there. Bob lived it.

And it was the sixties:

We went to this brunch…and my friends were talking about a movie they were trying to make with a French movie star…a big matinee idol in France. And he was represented by a woman…they were trying to…persuade her to let him do the movie. So at one point…the husband went to make a phone call. And he came back and he said, “oh, Lola -that was the agent- is down at the pool and she’s gonna come have coffee with us.

And I thought, ‘it’ll be interesting to meet a French agent. She’s probably gonna be this tough babe.’ You know: comments. So, as we were having coffee, suddenly this not-tall woman arrives, wrapped in a towel…who looks like Greta Garbo. And that was Lola. And so they sat and they were talking (it was all in French, of course) and I’m sitting, drawing. Drawing her picture.

And she was sitting like this, kind of hiding behind her cigarette and she’d look at me, kind of wondering: what am I doing? Taking notes? And she knew I didn’t speak French and finally asked them, ‘what is he doing?’

So I showed her my sketchbook, and she was like. I had sort-of seen who she really was in a way. I’d seen a vulnerability. That she thought she was hiding.

I was in my early twenties.

So [my friend] invited her to a party -I could make out the word party- at the villa and she said “will he be there?” Me.

…so the party went on and she stayed with me the whole evening. We were talking and I was trying to explain and doing pantomimes and charades, trying to express myself about being in France. This was my third day in France -third or fourth day: here I’m in the villa, Hotel du Cap, talking to a famous agent, really, whose husband was very famous. He was in one of the first New Wave movies as an actor.

And he was a painter and he was a writer and a poet and they hung out with all the people after the war when they were kids. Everybody who was of note. So she knew everybody. And she had been a movie actress, herself.

So, at the end of the party, we were the last to leave and she invited us…to go to this discotheque…there’s a hill town down the road between Cannes and Nice…high up…and she had a house there. And at the top of the hill was an old monastery that was a discotheque. In the basement.

It was by a famous 1930s character who was painted by all the painters and photographed by Man Ray.

So we got to the club, knocked on the door -you know, private club. They recognized her.

So we danced:

I was teaching Katya, my friend, the French friend, the Dirty Boogie. (Laughs) It was hot in New York. And Katya had been a ballerina. And she was trying to do the boom. The hip boom. And so I got back to the table and Lola said, “teach me the boom boom.” So I taught Lola the boom boom.

The next day, as we were leaving the discotheque, [my friends] were talking about how amazing Lola was and I said -they didn’t hear me- “I’m in love with her.” And I really meant it. (Laughs) In one ear and out the other.

[My friend] was writing a screenplay for Philip Yordan. It was -oh God, Peter O’Toole in Spain? One of those big movies. And so they had to go to Spain and I stayed one more day and I thought, “I wanna see Antibes, the town.” And so I went to the Plaza -the place- and had coffee, and this red Simca convertible drives up and it’s Lola.

She gives me a big wave.

Very unlike her.

Comes out, sits with me, and invites me to come to the beach.

Got to the beach…I guess I was still in jeans and a t-shirt…and there was her assistant from Paris…and there was a friend who did speak English who was an artist -I realized later that he was one of my favorite Art Deco illustrators who did Vogue covers in the Twenties. I had a big collection of Vogue magazines from the Twenties. And Vanity Fair. And he was one of them. And I didn’t realize it.

…a lot of things have occurred to me too-late.

Finally, it was decided that we’d go to Nice for dinner. We first went up to Lola’s house where the ladies changed…Lola came out wearing a little silk summer dress by Dior and armloads full of Moroccan jewelry. A big necklace. I’m wearing Levis and a T-shirt. She said something and her assistant translated and said that “Lola says that men are so attractive they don’t have to do anything.” Can you imagine an American woman saying that?

So we were off to Nice.

And then we went back to the discotheque.

And later that night, Lola and I boom-boomed. (Laughs)

So I used her office as a mailing address, which was just around the corner from the…Ritz Hotel, so it looked great. Never went to American Express to mix with those. People. Those. Tourists. I had been leant an apartment by friends of Katya, who was spending time in Sardinia. So I had a free apartment in the Arc de Triomphe. I had a relationship going. I had been in France for a week. And I decided -I’d brought my portfolio of illustrations- I was going to go to Conde Nast and show Conde Nast my portfolio, just to get a reaction.

At the end of our three-hour conversation, in Fresno, Bob and I will talk about prayer.

Everything is so lucky. The creator/director had lived in Los Angeles for like thirty years, spoke perfect English, was a friend [of a friend] and all the Europeans in LA. His wife has a gallery, still, in Los Angeles and he liked my work and he said, “I’m gonna call the Editor.”

And the Editor-in-Chief came in…and he saw my work and they talked about something in French and he said “well, what we’d like for you to do is we’d like for you to do a series on Nightlife in Paris.

And I thought, “I’m here for a month.”

(Laughs)

I’m a tourist. I don’t speak French. You know?

I’ve got a job with Conde Nast, a relationship, an apartment:

What am I going back to New York for?

 A few months before Bob gets to the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meet Brian Jones for the first time.

A month after I meet Bob Schulenberg, my friends and I gather to celebrate my birthday with a 27 Club party. Each of us dress as a rock star who has died.

Photo by Molly Hagan

There are the Jani. Amy Winehouse, Basquiat and Kurt Cobain. There’s Sid Vicious, who was twenty-nine but whose accent and costume’s really good, so we count him, anyway.

My friend Cameron comes as Brian Jones.

When Cameron is sixteen years-old, she paints Notre Dame after a trip to Paris. The day the Cathedral burns, she has her mother dig the painting up, back in Ohio. She remembers picking the color, sure of the orange, but confused by the mystery of why, until the day of the fire.

A few days later, Cameron sends me an email of a drawing she did of me at Easter, next to that photo of Rimbaud -you know? The one Wojnarowicz used for the mask. And the look on the face’s just the same.

It’s too much to ask for any of these details to mean anything. They don’t, really. Except that maybe, in some abstract way, they connect me to the past and help me better understand just where I am right now, in Time.

JOHN BERGER: Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky.

This is what it once was like:

October 12th, 2017. Two people get dressed for a party.

One gets into a suit and tie at Central Park West. He combs his white hair to the side, shaves his face, checks the mirror one more time, and then leaves.

The other is living on East 144th ST, putting on the only pair of jeans they own, full of holes. They are a month sober and learning what Time means, all over again, trying not to spend more than a few dollars a day on food so that they can -maybe- pay rent and terrified that, if it doesn’t go well at this gig, they’ll really have to leave: they didn’t make it in the City. They’re amazed, frankly, that they’ve managed to hang on this long, like: What Am I Doing Here?

“I had a great apartment in New York. I had the best apartment I’ve almost ever been in. I had a parlor-floor apartment on Gramercy Park with sixteen-foot ceilings, rent-c0ntrolled, thirteen-foot windows. Two bedrooms. A friend of mine from here had bought a nine-foot concert grand Steinway piano that was too-big for her apartment and asked if I could have it in my apartment…so I had this fabulous apartment, fabulous piano…I was living on unemployment and an occasional job. So I gave that up for a life in Paris and I stayed for two years. Two years and then I went back to New York. Well, actually, so much had changed in New York -I mean: ’62 – ’64 were tremendous years in New York. Bob Dylan was coming around. Barbara had become famous. A friend of mine in Paris working at Conde Nast in America was going to New York and I said, ‘my friend is opening in a show, a musical, Funny Girl, and if there’s any press could you bring it back?’ And she brought back TIME magazine and LIFE magazine and Barbara’s on the cover of both. I thought…what am I doing in Paris?”

“That’s interesting. Because there’s always this sense of being in New York where it feels like everybody in New York wishes they were in Paris and everybody who’s in Paris wishes they were in New York.”

“It’s like everybody wishing they were in the Hamptons on the weekend.”

“Yeah.”

“Pretty much for that. I don’t think they wish they were there for the theater.”

“Right.”

“I don’t think they wish they were there for the paintings.”

“Right.”

“They’ve forgotten,” Bob said, with a wry smile, “Toulouse-Lautrec has been dead for quite a while.”

Photo by Steven Turrill

Toni Kochensparger is a writer from Ohio who now lives in Harlem. They keep a rotating portfolio of writing, photography, and installation work at www.missuppity.com.