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The World of Franyo, Part 24: Fate, Secrecy, and Lotte Berk

Nicole Jeffords 3 months ago

Fate had come knocking on my door but I didn’t know it. My plan was to spend the summer in London, where I had friends, and return to New York in the fall for the last semester of my senior year. My brother-in-law, Ralph, got me a bedsit in Earl’s Court, a make-do place: hotplate, desk, and toilet. Theoretically I was working in his London office, but when it became clear this wasn’t a real job, I got a shift as a waitress in a bistro around the corner. Mostly I hung around in an art gallery near Marble Arch owned by an elderly (to me at the time) German Jew named Herbert Rieser. This man was totally hip and I loved him. His gallery was like a club: you never knew who you’d run into or who was about to drop by. It was tiny – just a few vitrines stuffed with small African figures, beads, jewelry, the odd netsuke; larger sculptures stashed where there was room; a curtained off space in the back that served as an office. One time a young, beautiful duchess swooped in, crying: “Hallo, hallo Herbert, just gotta use your loo!” He knew tons of people. Every time the door opened, out would come a bottle of whiskey, or coffee and pastries from the bakery next door. He smoked big fat Gitanes, my favorites, and gave me part time work stamping and addressing envelopes in the back together with his gorgeous Nigerian assistant, Pat, who was my age. One morning the door opened and Herbert made a lot of fuss as a man in a black turtleneck and 1940s era suit walked in. There were hugs all around. It was the Czech photographer named Werner who’d visited our house in Manhattan two months before.


The first thing he said to me as we shook hands was, “How is your mother?” His English was terrible. That was about all he said. Pat whispered under her breath, “Wow, he’s handsome. But thin. He looks like a corpse.” Herbert announced we should all go out to lunch. Of course the two of them spoke German during the entire meal. But something mysterious happened between me and the Czech, a wave of emotion, a pull toward one another that made us blush and fumble as we lit cigarettes. After lunch he managed to ask if I’d meet him later for a drink (his English was good enough for that). With a galloping heart, I said yes. And that was the beginning of a connection that lasted eight years, or – looked at another way – a lifetime.


At first we were very secretive about it. Werner was forty-six to my twenty-one. He was a world-wide traveler who’d made dozens of art books, and was well-known in his field. Most of his publishers were in London, but he still lived in Prague. He was unmarried and had no children. He’d been in a concentration camp during the war. A few days after our lunch with Herbert, he bought me a plane ticket to meet him in Paris. I’d never been paid for by a man in that way and felt very nervous about it. African art sales were going on in Paris at the time. Lots of people who knew my parents were there, so we had to pretty much act as if we were unacquainted. This was dramatic, disturbing and a little creepy to me. I wasn’t used to that amount of subterfuge and everything about the relationship with Werner seemed so difficult and forbidden that I really had to think about it. Starting not only with our age difference but the fact that he lived behind the Iron Curtain.


Werner returned to Prague after our week in Paris and I to London. I badly needed advice from someone older and wiser who wasn’t my mother. And who should invite me to dinner at her flat just then but Herbert’s divorced wife, Lotte Berk, a chic, German-born, fifty-four-year-old dancer and exercise guru with strong opinions and a strong circle of influence. (See rare footage of Lotte demonstrating her technique here – skip to 1:40 for an immediate introduction.)

She was tiny with jet black hair, bright red lipstick and heavily made-up eyes that didn’t miss a trick. She knew my mother quite well, but swore up and down that everything discussed was confidential. She plied me with cigarettes, wine, good food, and in the middle of the meal asked in her raspy voice what was going on with me and Werner Forman. Oh such a relief to be able to talk about it! She was a skilled interrogator and, though I hesitated at first, it wasn’t long before I told her everything. And in the telling – because Lotte was so encouraging and kept stating how brilliant and handsome Werner was – I began in earnest to fall in love with him.



**An episode from this memoir is published every Thursday for those following!

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