Truth and Fiction: The Real Camille
I have decided to write about Camille.
After I published Home Again in Paris, I sincerely believed it would be best if her true identity remained unknown, mainly for reasons of discretion. I have changed my mind. I want to reveal Camille’s real name. She was too important in my life to remain anonymous.
Readers have asked me about Camille. I have received several notes and emails inquiring about her. Some wished to know if we were now happily together, even married. The other day I received a note on Twitter from someone who had just finished Home Again in Paris and asked for an update on Camille.
Everything in my book is true, it all happened, nothing was invented. The book is a memoir. I decided before I began writing it that my narrative must be an account of real events. The only liberties I took were with time sequences and small nuances that would be of no importance to the reader.
I also changed a few names out of respect for personal privacy. One was Camille, not her real name. The only hint as to her real identity could be found in the book’s dedication: “To Isabelle Obadia”.
That was Camille’s real name. Anyone who has read the book will know why I felt obliged to give her another name.
In the book I meet Camille while walking Oscar and Leo along the Seine. She is walking her big dog Mooky (in real life, called Balise). Camille, I discover as our relationship blossoms, is going through a wrenching divorce. She is a film producer who lives with her businessman husband and two teenage kids (one son, one daughter) not far from my place in Paris’ prosperous 7th arrondissement — or “Poodleland”. Her husband has just left her for another woman – in fact, a married blonde neighbour two doors up the road. In the book I refer to this woman as the Ice Queen.
My relationship with Camille takes an unexpected twist when, suddenly and mysteriously, she completely vanishes. I no longer see her walking her dog, she does not reply to my text messages. I am left baffled and bruised by her mysterious disappearance.
In the book’s latest chapter, Camille reappears in my life as suddenly as she had vanished. One day while walking Oscar on the Invalides esplanade, I hear a woman’s voice call my name. I turn to see an attractive woman I do not recognise. It is Camille – wearing a wig.
She had disappeared after falling gravely ill with ovarian cancer. She had spared me the ordeal of her illness because she knew I had been through the same experience with my wife Rebecca and didn’t want to be a burden on me.
In the final pages of the book, Camille is hopeful about life. She is determined to fight her cancer and start a new life – divorced, cured, and turned toward the future. The book ends on a note of hope.
That was the autumn of 2011 – the book ends there. What happened afterwards in the real world was both inspiring and tragic. I spent a great deal of time with Isabelle (the name I knew her by) in the following months. We met for drinks and dinner at nearby cafés and restaurants. When she was away on business, between chemotherapy treatments, we kept in touch via text message. She went skiing that winter and, in the spring, she was in Cannes at the film market.
I began writing my memoir at the same time. The narrative was largely focused on my life with Oscar and Leo in Paris. At that specific point in time, I had no plans to incorporate Isabelle into the story. For me, Isabelle was an on-going part of my life – not a chapter in a memoir.
In mid-May, Isabelle sent me a text message suggesting we get together in early June when she returned to Paris. She ended her text message affectionately: “bises, Isa”. By mid-June she had not contacted me. At first I thought nothing of it. But weeks went by, slowly, over the hot Parisian summer. Still no word from Isabelle. I sent her several text messages, but no reply. For the second time, Isabelle had vanished from my life without any explanation.
I completed a draft of my memoir by the early autumn, still with no word from Isabelle. Then one fateful day I saw her dog Balise (Mooky in the book) on the esplanade along the Seine. Balise was not with Isabelle, however. Balise was being walked by the Ice Queen – the “other woman”. I was flummoxed. It was inconceivable that Isabelle would allow this woman to walk Balise. Something was terribly wrong.
When I returned home, I went to my computer and, in a desperate gesture to find anything about Isabelle, I googled her name. When the search results came up, I looked at my computer screen with horror as I read the words: “Décès d’Isabelle Obadia”.
Isabelle had died in June, taken away by the cancer that she was determined to vanquish. As a well-known film producer, her death was reported in the industry papers. There was also a death notice in Screen Daily: “Europa Distribution’s Isabelle Obadia dies at age 47”. There was also an article in Variety: “Film executive Isabelle Obadia dies“.
My reaction was stunned disbelief. It couldn’t be true. All those months, the entire summer, when I had been wondering where she was, sending her text messages, she was already dead. I learned later that, when Isabelle returned to Paris in June she suddenly fell ill and was admitted to Villejuif hospital. She never came out. She died in hospital, unexpectedly, on June 17.
It took months for Isabelle’s death to sink in. Every day, I walked Oscar past her building just around the corner from mine, looking forlornly at the patch of pavement where she had stood the very last time we were together. And I always looked up to her windows on the third floor.
I returned to my memoir in early 2013 and re-wrote the book entirely, this time integrating Isabelle into my narrative. I decided to give her another name out of a concern for privacy and discretion.
Nearly two years after her death, and after several requests for an update on my relationship with “Camille”, I wish now to reveal her identity not out of careless disregard for discretion, but as a testimony to her life and how important she was to me, even though I knew her for only the last two years of her short life.
The text below is an extract from Chapter 5 recounting our meeting and relationship.
CHAPTER 5: Camille
I’d first seen Camille, a petite and pretty forty-something woman with shoulder-length copper hair, shortly after taking the flat on Quai d’Orsay. She was tossing a ball for a large Rottweiler to fetch on the esplanade along the Seine. I had been struck by the contrast of exquisite feminine beauty and terrifying canine ferocity.
My instinctive reaction was to stay clear to keep Oscar and Leo safe. If that huge Rottweiler ever clamped little Leo in its massive jaws, it would be a quick and shocking end. My Poodleland neighbours were still talking about a terrible incident on the same esplanade. An Irish Setter called Voyou had attacked a Chi-Poo, taking the tiny dog’s tiny head in its jaws and ripping an eye from the socket. Voyou had been appropriately named: in French voyou means “thug”. The poor little Chi-Poo lost the eye after an emergency operation but survived the attack. The Chi-Poo’s owner moved away shortly afterwards. Voyou meanwhile continued running up and down the esplanade barking at pigeons while his owner, a grim-faced Parisian, took refuge from rebuke in large headphones fastened on his bald head. I courteously despised him from a distance.
One bright morning I arrived on the esplanade with Oscar and Leo to discover the same beautiful copper-haired woman throwing a ball for her Rottweiler. I stopped and watched them, holding Oscar and Leo tightly on their leads. Then something unexpected happened. The Rottweiler clambered heavily in pursuit of the ball, snapped it up in its formidable jaws, and came charging straight at me. The ball dropped at my feet. Stunned, it took me a few seconds to realise that this massive Rottweiler was giving me the ball to throw.
I looked over at the woman who was smiling warmly and egged me on with a little nod. So I picked up the ball and flung it as far away as I could – mainly to get the Rottweiler away from Oscar and Leo. The beast bounded after it – and then came right back to me, dropping the ball at my feet again.
That’s how Camille and I met – brought together by a saliva-soaked rubber ball. It turned out that her dog, a mix between Rotweiller and Rhodesian Ridgeback, wasn’t ferocious at all. Quite the opposite. Mooky was not only friendly, she was a big softy.
I was immediately drawn into Camille’s aura of feminine charm and intelligence. She had large green eyes, high cheekbones, apple breasts, and a vaguely pouty expression. She could have been a French film actress. I knew vaguely that she lived just around the corner in a grand neo-Haussmannian building in the rue de Sully-Prudhomme. I soon discovered why I’d seen her only sporadically. She was a lawyer who negotiated film rights for a French television network and was frequently away on business, attending film and television festivals in Cannes and London and New York. I’d covered the Cannes film festival as a young newspaper journalist twenty years earlier and knew many of the people who worked in her industry. The fact that we had more than our Poodleland neighbourhood in common created an implicit familiarity that brought us closer. I had no idea whether Camille was married or single. After many walks along the Seine, she revealed little about her personal life. Though we began to bump into each other frequently on the esplanade, we talked mainly about dogs and our professional lives.
Then one day I asked Camille the wrong question. Or perhaps it was the right question. It was the question that changed everything between us.
It was a warm summer morning, sunlight was glinting off the glass dome of the Grand Palais. We were strolling along the Seine watching Mooky gallop after the same hard rubber ball while Oscar and Leo poked about the edge of the lawns. Camille made a remark about someone in her street – and that triggered my question.
I didn’t know the blonde woman’s name, but she was a regular dog-walker on the esplanade and we’d chatted thanks to the Small White Dog rule. It was hard not to notice her in tight white jeans that accentuated her slender ballerina figure. Her flaxen hair was always pulled back and tied in a ponytail. She usually had a cigarette poised delicately in one hand and walked with dainty splayfooted movements She was what the French describe as hitchcockienne. A Hitchcock blonde. An exquisite Ice Queen, like Janet Leigh in Psycho or Tippi Hedren in The Birds. I knew almost nothing about the Ice Queen. We’d never spoken beyond a few canine comments when Pierrot came running up to Oscar and Leo like a battery-powered toy. I knew however that she lived in the rue Sully-Prudhomme. In Paris you rarely know the names of your neighbours, but you always know where they live.
Hence my question to Camille – which, to my astonishment, provoked an unexpectedly emotional reaction.
“Don’t mention her to me,” she snapped.
I glanced at her sideways and saw her face tightening. She was pale and vexed.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realise that it was a sensitive subject. I don’t even know her in fact. I just see her here in the park with her little dog.”
“She stole my husband,” said Camille. “C’est une salope.”
Her remark stunned me. Now I knew that Camille was married – or had been married. I would have preferred to find out in a different way, but now I knew. Camille’s use of the word salope – or slut – was strong language. I felt guilty and embarrassed and didn’t know how to respond. And yet her alarming revelation somehow transformed our friendship. Camille had allowed me to enter a secret zone of intimacy. She had revealed something intimate and painful in her life. After that radiant summer morning and its turbulent confession, I felt strangely close to Camille.
I soon knew the whole story. Anguish and hatred had been dominating Camille’s emotions for months following the discovery of her husband’s betrayal. He was a self-made man from Montpellier who’d made a killing buying and selling Paris real estate during the boom. He’d recently sold his company to live comfortably off his fortune. He was, to use the French term, a rentier: independently wealthy. And bored too, despite the beauty and charm of his exquisite wife. Camille had her own career and was often away, while her husband roamed Poodleland wondering what to do with himself. The Ice Queen was also bored. Her financier husband was, like Camille, frequently out-of-town on business trips. The Ice Queen was a stay-at-home mother who spent much of her day walking Pierrot on the esplanade and shopping in the local boutiques. It seems that, one fateful day, Camille’s husband and the Ice Queen locked eyes, perhaps on the pavement in the rue Sully-Prudhomme, perhaps in a local shop. That was their secret. It was bound to happen. They were neighbours.
This torrid saga of passion, betrayal and deceit had played out discreetly in a respectable bourgeois street in Poodleland. When their affair was discovered, two married couples were torn apart, two families with children shattered. There were violent shouting matches behind closed doors, neighbours were wondering what was going on. Camille’s husband moved out of their apartment. The Ice Queen left her rich husband. Once lovers but now a couple, they took a rental flat somewhere near the Champ de Mars. Two separate divorce cases were grinding bitterly through the French courts.
“My husband is an idiot,” said Camille one afternoon. “I have lost all respect for him.”
I told Camille the story of my marriage, Rebecca’s death, my dark period of inconsolable grief, and my move to Paris with Oscar and Leo. Bonded by mutual understanding – perhaps by mutual attraction too – we were soon exchanging text messages to organise dog walks and meetings in Poodleland cafés. One day I heard myself inviting Camille to dinner. She immediately said yes – and suggested Saturday evening. It was at that instant that I realised she had indeed lost all respect for her husband. Her marriage was over.
I booked a table on the terrace of the Fontaine de Mars in the rue Saint-Dominique. The famous fountain facing the restaurant, named after the Roman god of war, was built in 1806 to celebrate Napoleon’s military victory at Austerlitz. Oscar and Leo, following a long canine tradition stretching back two centuries, have peed on the base of that fountain hundreds of times. And they peed on it again when we arrived that night for dinner. Camille had not arrived yet.
The waiter showed me to the same terrace table where I’d sat only a month earlier during a lovely dinner with my old friends Matthew Hamlyn and his wife Sallie visiting from London. We were enjoying a splendid bottle of Languedoc wine that night when I noticed a chap at a nearby table making funny faces at Oscar and Leo. At first I smiled appreciatively, then did a double take. It was French film director Jean-Jacques Beineix, famous for cult movies such as Diva. Beineix was dining with a long-limbed, doe-eyed gazelle. I’d interviewed him about twenty-five years earlier when I was young newspaper critic and he was promoting his latest film, Betty Blue. I looked over again at Beineix, who was still grimacing at Oscar and Leo. This time I leaned in his direction and mentioned that we’d met many years ago. He feigned recalling our meeting and we chatted briefly before I returned to my guests and our pungent Languedoc wine.
A week after that dinner, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle were in Paris on an official visit and dined privately at the Fontaine de Mars. I discovered this quite by accident. I’d taken Oscar and Leo out for a walk on the Quai d’Orsay and was immediately startled to see the street lined with police. I knew from watching the news that President Obama was in Paris, and so quickly made the connection. But why was Barack Obama coming here in Poodleland? Suddenly the presidential motorcade came into view in the distance, an intense glare of flashing lights near the Alexandre III bridge. It was coming our way in a whirling glow of light and sound. I watched almost mesmerised, not quite believing that the motorcade of the President of the United States was about to pass in front of my door. I held Oscar and Leo back tightly on their leads. Suddenly the motorcade was right before us, and whisked by in a flash. I wondered if Obama had looked out and waved at two small white dogs on the pavement. The next day I read in the papers that the presidential couple had dined discreetly at the Fontaine de Mars. It was hardly discreet. The entire neighbourhood had been cordoned off.
Camille arrived on the Fontaine de Mars terrace looking radiant, even slightly flirtatious in a light summer dress and sandals. Mooky was trailing behind her on a lead looking like a trained bear. Oscar and Leo were excited to rediscover their old friend. It was a gorgeous evening in Paris, the fountain facing the terrace was gold-burnished in a ghastly light coming off the street lamps in the rue Saint-Dominique.
The waiter appeared and asked with cordial efficiency: “Un apératif?”
We each ordered a kir royal. When the drinks came we toasted our first evening together. After ten minutes the sweet fizzy kir was numbly tickling my brain. I told Camille about my serendipitous encounter with Jean-Jacques Beineix at this very same table. As a film industry lawyer Camille knew everyone in French cinema. Name-dropping Beineix was not going to impress her.
She gazed at me with her large Brigitte Bardot eyes. “Do you meess the life you ’ad before, Matthieu?” she said in English. She liked to speak English because she often had to negotiate film contracts in that language.
“It depends on what you mean by ‘miss’,” I said. “I have no regrets about walking away from the media.”
“You were married, you ‘ad a life before Paris,” she said.
I knew everything about Camille’s marriage and she knew everything about mine. We had nothing to hide from each other, and that felt good.
“I have a life now,” I said.
There was a pause. Camille was holding my eye contact.
“You know,” I added, “you have something in common with my wife. You are Jewish and you are a lawyer.”
She paused, puffed gently on her cigarette, and said: “I am happy to say you have nothing in common with my husband.”
I considered how to reply.
“I can’t imagine what your husband could possibly have been thinking,” I said. “If I had to choose between you and that glacial blonde, it would be a very easy choice.”
“Merci, Matthieu,” she said.
I ordered a bottle of Haut Medoc with the food. Oscar and Leo were in a semi-somnolent state at my feet, hypnotised by the gentle trickling of water coming from the fountain glowing in the light. Mooky was off his lead, nosing about the base of the fountain, looking as fearsome as the beast of Gévaudin.
“Can I ask you something,” I said, awkwardly. “It’s a bit forward of me, I know…”
“Yes, ask me.”
“Your husband was unfaithful. But I was wondering, did you…?”
“Did I have lovers?” she interrupted. “Yes, I did. But I didn’t tell my husband. And I wasn’t going to destroy my marriage for them. My husband was weak. He couldn’t keep his secret. He revealed everything to me because he thought he was in love with her. That’s why I have no respect for him. In a marriage, there should be some secrets. You don’t always need to know the truth.”
Camille was telling me much more than I was expecting. Every marriage has its secrets. In French marriages, you don’t always need to know the truth. Camille’s husband had made a terrible mistake. He’d fallen in love – and left his wife for his mistress.
A few weeks later, I was sitting with Camille on the terrace of L’Esplanade, a posh café on the edge of the wide lawns stretching from the Seine to the Invalides. It was a gorgeous evening in Paris, the Invalides’ gold dome perched in the turquoise sky like an enormous Fabergé egg. A pleasant numbness from three glasses of claret added to my feeling of well-being. Oscar and Leo were under my chair, tranquil and yawning. Mooky was gazing up at Camille as she languorously smoked a cigarette.
“You look fabulous,” I said. I meant it.
“You know,” she replied, “I’ve actually been feeling fatigued lately. I think it’s the stress from the divorce. I went to the doctor last week to get tests. I feel like I’m losing my strength.”
“You don’t look tired,” I said. “You look like you’re ready to model Valentino’s fall collection.”
“I like Anglo-Saxon men,” she said. “So much better than French men.”
“Be careful,” I said. “We Anglo-Saxon men are hopeless at telling lies.”
“Shall we walk on the esplanade?” she said. “It’s such a lovely evening.”
We crossed the road and passed in front of the Prussian canons jutting out from the ridge of the Invalides dry moat. As we headed towards the river in the soft evening air we came upon a news kiosk at the Métro entrance. One side was plastered with an enormous magazine cover poster showing Nicolas Sarkozy holding his head in his hands, as if in defeat, under the words: “Sarkozy: le désamour”. The image was tragic. The French population no longer loved their hyper-active president. The honeymoon was over.
Oscar bounced up to the kiosk, lifted his leg, and peed on the French president’s image.
“Well, I didn’t know Oscar was a Socialist!” said Camille.
“Oh he is,” I remarked. “That’s why he approves of the Seine renovation plans. So does Leo. They want morning strolls along the river banks every morning – not just on Sundays.”
As we got closer to the Seine, an intense glare of light was coming off the Pont Alexandre III. I squinted to bring the scene into focus.
“It looks like they’re shooting a film,” I said.
“Yes, it’s a tournage,” said Camille.
We put the dogs on their leads and walked closer. Sure enough, the bridge was cordoned off and a movie crew were shooting a scene in the middle of the bridge. A small clutch of people stood nearby looking like they belonged to the film crew. I approached and asked what kind of film it was.
“Woody Allen,” a woman said. “It’s called Midnight in Paris.”
How intriguing. Woody Allen making a film just down the road. We stopped and watched the scene being shot on the bridge. There he was, Woody Allen in the flesh, giving directions to a couple of actors standing near one of the Art Nouveau lamps on the bridge.
“Well Camille,” I said. “You’re a cinema lawyer. Now is your big moment. It’s Woody Allen. Midnight in Paris.”
“We will go see this film together one day,” she said.
We continued walking along the Seine towards the Quai d’Orsay. In the distance the Eiffel Tower was sparkling brightly as it always does exactly on the hour. I picked up Oscar and Leo, one in each arm, holding them up to face the tower.
“Look,” I said. “You see?”
They looked up and gazed at the Eiffel Tower twinkling against the night sky. When I put them down they scampered ahead to keep up with Mooky in the soft evening darkness.
“Do you think they know?” said Camille. “I mean, do you think they can know that they are in a special place?”
“I ask myself that question all the time,” I said. “It’s a profound mystery.”
Camille clasped my arm and slid her hand down to reach mine.
“Yes, you are right,” she said. “It is much better like that – a mystery.”
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