Spread out along the bay, Nice was an old fashioned city with a certain dilapidated look to it. It had become a kingdom of blue-haired grandmothers and deeply suntanned old men, all wandering the English promenade, pulled along by poodles toward the Great Beyond. Its times of glory now in the distant past, Nice at this time had been penetrated by thugs and thus there were only two paths to success: to be a gangster or to be a poodle.
Sitting on a bench on the promenade, while I was aspiring to enjoy the same human rights as a pet, I began to read the regional newspaper that featured the charming crimes of the province. Gaetano Zampa, King of the Marseillaise Mafia, was found “suicided” on the morning of that July day in 1984. From that moment on, the shooting had not stopped along the French Riviera. The ruffians were making their way up the ladder with a salad of lead.
It had been a long time since Francis Picabia, followed by a horde of artists of the avant-guarde—Jean Cocteau, Matisse, Picasso, ManRay, Paul Eluard, had made the Côte d’Azur fashionable. Pale muses from Montparnasse would come down from Paris, fill the bathtub with pink champagne, and cut their wrists.
In a tiny two room apartment that looked out over the Antibes port, the writer Graham Greene spent his final years in a large armchair facing the sea. There were 12 bottles of J&B lined up on his kitchen shelf. He had become a rosy old man, with watery blue eyes and a kindly smile, who would attend Sunday Mass every Sunday, well dressed and in the company of his mistress, Yvonne Cloetta, with whom he lived the last 30 years of his life.
Although Greene had converted to Catholicism in order to marry a Catholic girl, Vivien — his first wife, he quickly discovered that the most salacious quality of this religion was sin followed by absolution. And no one knew how to manipulate guilt and remorse with so much literary pleasure as Graham Greene, to the point where it gave meaning to his life as a novelist, a spy, an unfaithful husband, a passionate lover, and a traveler through the most turbulent places on the planet.
One summer, when I was 18 years old, while lying in a hammock, I read ‘The Power and the Glory,’ the story of a drunken, lecherous priest, who after escaping to safety across the border during the Mexican Revolution, recrosses the border in order to administer final rites to a dying man and is executed by a firing squad.
During summer vacations, when ‘The Third Man’ was playing in the movie theater next to our house, at night from my bed, I would hear the zither of Anton Karas that bore the memory of a Vienna that was in ruins and filled with spies, and of Orson Welles beneath the Ferris Wheel of Prater.
On that day, while I was reading about 21 bullet-riddled bodies found in the Riviera, I saw the writer crossing the promenade in the company, perhaps, of his mistress. I followed him with my gaze until he got lost among the other retired people pulled along by their dogs. At that time, Graham Greene had started a campaign against the gangsters, who, with the support of the politicians, had taken over Nice. His pamphlet, J’acuse (1982) was proof that the fire of a fighter still lingered in this old man, slightly stooped over his long legs, the author of ‘The Quiet American.’
Some time later, he abandoned his apartment in Antibes and went to Vevey, a village in Switzerland, to die near his daughter. The funeral was like a scene from one of his novels: On one side of the pews was his 86 year old wife Vivien, whom he had never divorced. On the other side was 60 year old Yvonne, who had never separated from her husband. Between them was Graham Greene inside a coffin, as always between heaven and hell.