Wednesday’s Child: This Portside of Paradise

When a Negroni cocktail is properly made, it is just the thing to drink sitting in the shade on a sunny day.  But when the humble Negroni is made with Punt e Mes instead of ordinary red vermouth, it is more than the cocktail you drink in the shade on a sunny day, it is how you set sail for paradise.

And so to paradise we sailed last Saturday, when a German friend and his French wife came to Palermo and hired a boat for a day out on the sea.  Klaus had been negotiating to buy this sailboat, a hundred-foot schooner called Weatherbird, and it was logical to see just how well its otherwise beautiful deck would look at the cocktail hour – after all, Hemingway’s nickname for Jean Cocteau was “Cocktail,” and as a guest did I deserve less than Cocteau?  The boat’s design, I read later, had been inspired by the clipper ships of  early American seafaring lore, although the man who thought the American clipper ship the most elegant vessel ever conceived was named Vladimir Orloff.

Orloff, a naval architect in Russia before 1917, escaped to Paris and made a living by building stage sets for his fellow émigré Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  In Paris he met an American expatriate couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy, whom in the late 1920’s he followed to the Riviera, where they commissioned him to design a new yacht to be built by Chantelot & Lemaistre in Normandy.  And, as the gentle reader is by now probably beginning to realize, Murphys’ life in Antibes is central to the plotline of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.   “To Gerald and Sara – Many Fêtes” is the dedication on its flyleaf.  In fact, literary historians tell us that the novel’s hero, Dick Diver, who is based on Murphy in the first half of the book, morphs into the autobiographical persona of the author in the second, Ernest Hemingway being the first to have pointed out the discrepancy much to Fitzgerald’s chagrin. 

In short, they had all been here, aboard this winged marvel among the guests of her four seraglio-like cabins, certainly between the boat’s launch in 1931 and the publication of the novel in 1934: Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Picasso and Diaghilev and Dos Passos and Cocteau and Stravinsky and God only knows who else.  Fernand Léger, inspired by the beauty of the vessel, painted a series of watercolors known as the Weatherbird Portfolio.  Sealed in the keel is a recording of the Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines 1928 song “Weather Bird,” which gave the boat its name.  The other day I listened to the recording, made in New York almost exactly a year before the Black Tuesday of 1929, and it literally vibrated with the misplaced optimism of all that crowd.

The recovery, however, was in some respects worse than the illness.  “Gerald and Sara were lucky not to live to see the present Cote d’Azur, the sweaty overbuilt hellhole inhabited by crooked Russians and Gulf billionaire camel drivers,” wrote our friend Taki, who hired the Weatherbird for the summer a few years back.  Well, we ain’t got none of those in the Bay of Palermo, where I hope she stays.

Andrei Navrozov

Andrei Navrozov