That night at Maxim’s

A restaurant is an expression of its time and place. Except for fast food franchises which are based on an industrial mode of mass production detached from local particularity. So when a replica of an art nouveau turn-of-the-century culinary haunt of demimonde Paris shows up in the basement of a hotel on Lake Michigan’s gold coast in the mid-20th century – well, it’s a little strange.

In short, was the Paris-based Maxim’s franchise that arrived in Chicago in 1963, with its undulating woodwork, fleur-de-lis lights, red velvet banquettes, Soles Albert, and Poires Helene

, the real thing?

I’ve been pondering this question as I’ve pored over the fascinating photograph above, which was taken by prize-winning photographer Gary Settle, probably for The Chicago Daily News.

What was the occasion? It’s not a casual shot. At least two floodlights are in evidence and there is something stagey about the scene. I suspect the couples were asked to leave their coffee and smokes and get up and dance. Unfortunately, in the process two napkins were flung aside in an unsightly manner. Elegance is so hard to achieve.

The Brylcreemed man leaning over the table must be Chef Pierre Orsi who had very recently arrived from Paris to take command of the kitchen. The man seated to the right of him looks as though he could be French, but the other men in the picture, apart from the musicians, appear to be of German ancestry. I wonder if they might be two sets of twins.

Which of the women owns the sable coat and elbow-length black gloves? I believe it is the blissful dancer on the left. She will carry home leftovers in a foil purse-shaped doggie bag — perhaps she is dieting or didn’t love her Calves Liver with Raisin and Grape Sauce so much.

The table has a center lamp with pink silk shades and coffee cups bearing Maxim’s curlicue M logo. A cigarillo rests in one of the souvenir ashtrays, while others have been used by the table’s two Winston smokers who prefer a fliptop box to a soft pack. Did these eight people really polish off four bottles of champagne? Did anyone use the replica antique telephone to check in with their babysitter?

I invite readers to create a scenario. Who are these people and what were they thinking at this moment in September, 1967?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

17 Comments

Filed under elite restaurants, miscellaneous, patrons

17 responses to “That night at Maxim’s

  1. Anonymous

    Those aren’t floodlights. Those are strobes up on lightstands. Thank you for liking the photograph. I like it too, but I don’t remember the reason for the assignment. Gary Settle

  2. Tom Byg

    Speculation has produced some great scenarios but you’re the closest to reality — come on, Jan, whats the real “skinny”?

    • I wish I knew. I tried to contact the photographer but have failed so far. I’m hoping someone who knows will magically appear.

      • Anonymous

        How hard did you try to contact the photographer? You didn’t leave a message. I’m glad you like the photograph. I like it too, but I’d forgotten all about it and don’t remember the reason for the assignment. It’s not staged. Those couples were really dancing, the men really talking. I’ve never been that good a director. Those aren’t floodlights; they’re strobes up on lightstands. It was dark in there. Until the flash. And when it works, the results are always a pleasant surprise. –Gary Settle

  3. I can’t match the dazzling fictions above, but this scene does have a strange mixture of nostalgia and expectation. The hefty couples look older from today’s perspective than they surely were — they could even be in their 30s! But older and younger still danced to the same music back then — some of the time, at least. But what kind of music is the trio playing, after all? Could the place tip toward jazz at any moment? Or are they playing the WWII pop songs that endured so long?
    In a way, the image suggests the 1960s that are about to begin. The young woman at the left, with two full cups of coffee and an empty seat opposite: she is fragmented by the mirror, Audrey-Hepburn hairdo in one place, modern hemline and knees together in another. Will she soon be tearing bourgeois society apart like the women in Věra Chytilová’s film Daisies a few years later? Is that why we can’t see the drummer?

  4. Amber Weidenhamer

    The night started out with gentile talk and words of condolence for poor Marie. Her Demont had been gone almost two months now. How long had it been since they had gathered last? Five years? Six? Now to gather again under a veil of such sadness…

    It was Claude (and wasn’t it always Claude) who reminded them how lucky they were to have had this chance to become middle aged. How many of their compatriots had been denied that chance? They had been partisans, damn it! And Demont had been the bravest among them, There was never a chance he didn’t take. That bravery had gotten him to the ripe old age of fifty one. An excellent age for any partisan to achieve!

    In a display highly unlike her, Capucine grabbed the nearest waiter and demanded that the best bottle of champagne in the house be brought to the table. NOW. She would toast her Captain with the very best or nothing at all! When the flustered man arrived at the table with ice bucket and glasses in tow, she flung the napkin off her lap and stood.

    With tears in her eyes, she took the first glass of champagne from the confused waiter and held it high. With a smile Claude joined her, and then the others.

    “To our Captain, and brother in arms! To his bravery! To his cunning! Viva la France!”

    It was hard to tell who began to sing…it might have been Claude, it might have been Alaire or Marie, but sing they did. ‘Le Chant des Partisans’ filled the air and somehow suspended the sadness for a moment. And it was not just their voices…several of the older patrons joined in and an eldery waiter with a quavering baritone. The violinist took up the song. Then the rest of the band. The young drummer and bass player launched immediately into a jazzy version of ‘La Marseillaise’ as the last strains of the song were being played. The old partisans sang it.

    The band played old songs for them for the rest of the night. Marie actually smiled as Alaire took her hand and danced with her. He had been Demont’s best man in that little cellar wedding so many years ago.

    She chuckled.

    Alaire smiled. “I can’t be THAT bad of a dancer, non?”

    “No, no. I was thinking back to my wedding day. Not many brides can say they wore Army boots and a loaded pistol.”

    • Amber Weidenhamer

      For those interested, here’s ‘La Chant des Partisans’ with English subtitles.

      It was my pleasure to meet a member of the French resistance a few years ago.

    • Interesting spin, Amber. I wasn’t thinking of the possibility they could all be French. Maybe Pierre’s family came along to celebrate his new job?

      • Amber Weidenhamer

        I was thinking that someone in the group had moved to Chicago after the war, and heard about Pierre and Maxim’s…maybe become a regular. A few of the old comrades had stayed in France, the others leaving for a new life in America and Quebec. Hence they rarely see each other. The woman I knew first went to Quebec, then Staten Island, finally ending up here in Pennsylvania.

    • Tom Byg

      Very well done!…

  5. Jim

    End of special night. Last song. The two table gentleman are settling the bill while their dedicated department heads and wives take in the last fleeting moments of a dream evening out.
    They are working class. Enjoying a night at Maxim’s that puts them on the same plateau, if for only one night, as their bill paying hosts. Perhaps the last time the couples danced like this was at a wedding. Maybe one of their kids. Now, as they have become older, put their time in, climbed the corporate ladder….they can, maybe for the first time, take in a deep breath…..and relish a life fulfilled.

  6. Tom Byg

    Where do you find your great original material?…continuously…
    regarding the Maxim’s piece…the thing most disturbing me is…four, full cups of coffee…yes the song choice might have “struck a cord” but…

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