How To Steal A Million/Close Encounters Of The Parisian Kind
One November night in 1965 in an act of sheer madness I found myself, along with two of my girlfriends, on the seventh floor of the Hotel George V in Paris laying in wait for the actor Peter O’ Toole. My friend Yasmin, who was from Pakistan, was obsessed by the movies and by Hollywood. She scoured the Paris Match and French gossip tabloids to keep abreast of the comings and goings of movie stars in the city. She knew where Greta Garbo lived and would follow her around Paris though she never approached her or asked for an autograph. Instead she would drag us along to the movie theatres on Rue Champollion and off the Champs Élysées where there seemed to be a never-ending festival of Garbo films. We once sat through three showings in a row of “Ninotchka” and could recite most of the dialogue by the end: “Ninotchka, Ninotchka it is midnight and one half of Paris is making love to the other half,” murmured Melvyn Douglas, atop the Eiffel Tower to Garbo, in hopes of melting the heart of the steely Soviet commisar.
At the time, while waiting to be assigned student housing, Yasmin, Jharna who was from Calcutta, and I were sharing a hotel room on the Rue du Sommerard in the Quartier Latin. We were armed with the all important carte d’étudiant which got us into the art house movies for one Franc and into museums for free.
Yasmin announced to us one morning that Peter O’Toole was in town to make a movie and was putting up at the George V, better known as the ‘George Cinq.’ She was dying to get a glimpse of him and had somehow cajoled the hotel concierge into divulging his room number. To give her moral support and out of plain curiosity we tagged along and followed her into the five star bastion of Parisian luxury, utterly petrified. No one stopped us or took notice. But after waiting outside his hotel room for what seemed like a million hours we realized the concierge had given Yasmin a fictitious room number.
Undaunted, we returned the next evening to try our luck at the George Cinq bar instead. The tabloids mentioned the actor would sometimes stop by for a drink after shooting. We were non-drinkers and unsure of what kind of drink to order in a bar. Ads in the Paris metro tunnels urged: “Do have a Dubbonet.” We complied and ordered three Dubbonets on ice – but almost fled the bar before our overly priced drinks arrived when two men with American accents, presumably taking us for hookers, stopped by our table and handed us their business cards suggesting we get in touch with them if we were interested in auditioning for the movies. Despite the potential hazard of being approached by strange men we continued to nurse our Dubonnets for about an hour before our investment paid off. Peter O’Toole, looking terribly debonair, strode into the bar accompanied by a hefty body guard. Yasmin was ecstatic. She tugged at the body guard’s coat as he passed by and asked sweetly if the actor might sign an autograph. He shook her off and told her brusquely to not bother them.
At least we had achieved our goal and got a sighting of the movie star. We were about to ask for the bill when the actor sauntered over to our table with his whiskey in hand and asked if he could join us. Perhaps he figured three women in saris might be better company than the surly body guard. Whatever his motives he was suave, handsome in a rugged way, and a thorough gentleman genuinely interested to know what each of us was doing in Paris. Yasmin was studying French at the Sorbonne. Jharna was working towards her doctorate in some scientific field. When I told O’Toole I was studying painting at the Ecole des Beaux Arts his eyes lit up. “My dear,” he exclaimed, “you simply must visit the set of my movie, it’s all about art forgery. Tell me what you think of the paintings.” He promised to have a car pick us up outside the hotel at 3:00 pm the next afternoon.
Yasmin, Jharna and I spent the morning polishing ourselves up. We shampooed our hair, selected and ironed our best saris, even though we had little hope that an important, busy movie star would remember his promise and take the trouble to arrange a car for us. When we reached the George Cinq at the designated hour a sleek black limousine was parked out front. The chauffeur asked if we were friends of Monsiuer O’Toole. My heart was thumping fast as we were driven to the movie studios beyond the Bois d’Boulogne. O’Toole, whose face was now plastered in makeup that made him look boyish and bland, greeted us and escorted us to a gallery where the forged paintings were displayed. There were plenty of fake Cezannes, Matisses, Van Goghs, Gauguins, Picassos, Miros with little attempt at authenticity. The memory of those paintings are blurred by what happened next.
The actor had failed to inform us who his co-star was. I found myself being introduced to the one and only Audrey Hepburn. Standing before me was the world’s most exquisite woman, statuesque, elegant, exuding refinement, intelligence and warmth. She was cradling in her arms a silky yorkshire terrier that blended in with her cream colored Givenchy dress. The star of ‘Sabrina,’ ‘War and Peace,’ ‘My Fair Lady’ was chatting animatedly with the crew, grips, and the make-up people who hovered about touching up her face and hair. I practically collapsed into the ground and fainted when her enormous doe-like eyes opened even wider as she looked me up and down and oohed and aahed over me and my sari and then proceeded to introduce me to the director of the film William Wyler. He had first directed her in “Roman Holiday” which introduced Hepburn to the world and won her an Oscar. In this latest film, “How to Steal a Million” Hepburn was playing the daughter of a Parisian art forger and O’Toole was playing her romantic partner in crime. For hours we stood and watched the same scene being shot over and over again. The scene was set in a museum with visitors milling about admiring the artwork. A loud alarm would ring, the crowd would slowly disperse and Audrey and Peter would tip toe into a broom closet to hide.
We were still in a swoon when O’Toole drove back to the city with us in the limousine. His body guard sat in front with the chauffeur while we girls squeezed in the back with the actor. We declined his offer to accompany us home and asked to be dropped off by a metro station. Our escapade was beyond anything we had imagined. To recover from the past two days would take for ever. Amazingly it was not the end of my brazen capers.
A few days later for a birthday present I treated myself to my other grand passion besides painting and gazing at movie stars. Dance sensation Rudolf Nureyev, was performing with Margot Fonteyn in the ballet “Raymonda” at the Theatre des Champs Élysées. His recreation of Marius Petipa’s choreography for the Australian Ballet was having its Paris premier. Other than Nureyev’s electrifying performance my memories of the ballet are as blurred as viewing the fake artwork. Though I do have the most vivid memories of finding my way backstage after the performance to pay homage to the great dancer. I was standing by the wings waiting for Nureyev to emerge from his dressing room when I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Hello,” a vaguely familiar voice asked, “is Peter here with you?” It was Audrey Hepburn, looking very chic in a black suit and dangly earrings that emphasized her swan-like neck. She introduced me to the handsome bearded man standing beside her. It was her husband Mel Ferrer.
She was chattering on gaily and I was stupidly speechless as she took my arm and whisked me into Nureyev’s dressing room. Ratty, worn ballet slippers were strewn all over the dressing table. Press photographers were flashing away. There was an aroma of good dance sweat mingled with French perfume. Margot Fonteyn, calling for ‘Rudi,’ swept in dressed in a sequined yellow party gown. It was all too much to take in. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask the photographer who snapped me with Nureyev for his business card. I quietly slipped away and took the metro back to the Latin Quarter and reality.
Sukanya Rahman © first published July 2010