So then I started in on him about existentialism because he’d mentioned Jean-Paul Sartre. I let him have it about how bogus its precepts were. Being drunk like I was, I probably wasn’t very articulate and certainly slurred some words but I got my message across. I thought sure I had him, that I’d made a cogent and compelling argument. But no, he gave me a sly smile, took a drag from his cigarette and in his cultured, superior voice drilled me right between the eyes about how sophomoric my argument was and how it betrayed my obvious ignorance on the topic, adding that I “should perhaps consider reading at least a little bit of Kierkegaard before spouting such nonsense.”
I tried to respond but the combination of not knowing half as much as he did on the topic and my advanced state of intoxication rendered me incapable of forming a coherent sentence. Damn it.
He was an African American poet, musician, art critic , he was a real dandy and a queer too. I mean he was a twig of a guy. I’m not so big but I could have snapped him in two, which I sometimes felt like doing. Yet he was surrounded by smart, beautiful women who doted on him and clung to his every word. For my part I hated his smug sophistication and his intellectual superiority. He’d read every novel and all the great poets and philosophers and knew art like I knew baseball and was an expert on wines and gourmet foods and had traveled the world. What this aesthete was doing in our little college town was a mystery, but for the two weeks he was in town it was all I could do to stay away from him
His name was Leonard Bertrand and he must have been about 30 years old. He wore nice clothes but nothing fancy and in neutral colors, except for this flimsy scarf he wore around his neck in what I thought was a pretentious manner. He smoked long thin cigarettes one after the other holding them effeminately. Leonard’s drink was a Dubonnet and he swallowed them with the same frequency as he lit a smoke. Yet he never showed any sign of intoxication.
I only got to know Leonard (he didn’t let anyone call him Len) because he hung out in the bar I frequented, Le Monde. At no point did I actually hate or even dislike him, butI was forever annoyed and frustrated by the ease with which he provoked me, often by making fun of sports or beer or TV. I think Leonard directed barbs my way because I could and would come right back and I was no dummy like some of the crowd that made the bar their home away from home. Sure when I got drunk I was no match for him, but at least I knew something about it when he mentioned Hesse or Proust or Matisse or Goya or goddamned Lord Byron, all among his favorites. Meanwhile he’d trash Whitman, Melville, Hemingway and especially Norman Rockwell, all among my favorites. Leonard mocked pretty much every American artist of any sort and I think it was just to put the needle in me. What ticked me off the most was when he trashed the Beat writers. Kerouac was my hero and of course Leonard would tear him up one side and down the other finishing by looking me square in the eyes and flashing that “I know best” grin.
Screw the bastard, I thought any number of times. It sometimes seemed to make more sense to stay the hell away from him and avoid the aggravation. But that was easier said than done. For one thing all the interesting women congregated around him. I could only talk sports for so long with the usual crowd before I got tired of hearing half-baked opinions and misquoted stats and endless renditions of previous games. The truth was I got something out of sparring with Leonard Bertrand, even if he did “best” me 99.9% of the time.
Leonard had this irritating way of getting my attention. “Well hello Robert,” he’d say, even though I exclusively went by Bob. Sometimes he even said Robert in French. (He would often sprinkle French words and phrases into his conversation — and with a perfect French accent.) So right away he’d get under my skin and I’d want to head in the other direction. But I was drawn to him like a fly who couldn’t resist a web. Truth be told Leonard was a charming guy and he’d always buy me a drink. “I suppose you’re having a beer,” he’d say, only he’d say the word beer in this low, slow voice to make it sound like something truly disgusting.
“What have you got against beer?” I asked him once.
“Oh nothing, nothing at all,” he replied matter of factly. But then he’d add, “its just not what I would choose to drink, it being so…” “Are you gonna say something like ‘vulgar’?”
“Why heavens no,” Leonard answered acting the picture of innocence. “It’s just not to my taste.”
“Oh and you’re taste is superior to mine.”
“If you say so,” he said and take another long drag off his skinny cigarette.
Usually Leonard would be sitting at one of the big tables to accommodate all the women sitting with him. I couldn’t figure out what they saw in him, maybe they thought they could convert him to heterosexuality, but I couldn’t see the point in that what with him not exactly being Sidney Poitier. He had these big bug eyes and a high forehead. His face showed the effects of all the damn smoking he did. I don’t remember seeing him eat, though he knew all about food. Being repelled by exercise, as he said he was, it didn’t seem that Leonard had prospects for a long and healthy life. Leonard usually held forth on literature, art and music but was not above discussing films and made occasional reference to politics but only to lament the sad state of American democracy.
It never got truly heated between Leonard and I though it almost did once. I forget exactly what we were talking about — I think it was related to political science — when I said: “being black you should understand —” He cut me off right there, which he’d never done before in such an abrupt manner. For the first time his voice was raised. “Dear Robert I do hope that you are not going to assume that you know anything about being black in American or anywhere else for that matter.”
“No ya see I just meant — ”
Holding up his right hand as if to say stop, Leonard continued, “please let me finish. You white people are forever trying to encapsulate the black experience in a few words, usually ill-chosen ones at that. Its especially troubling with you enlightened liberals who revere our Civli Rights Movement and the slain martyr Dr. King. You’ve co-opted Dr. King for your own purposes, primarily to assuage your guilt. You think yourselves superior because you extoll the principles of equality and abhor racism. All this is fine in its way but you continue to patronize and think that because you read Ellison or Baldwin or Soul on Ice and admire Dr. King’s speeches that you are an expert on the black experience and our are brothers. But you’ve no real clue what living in black skin means. The looks, the fear, the harassment and the legacy that we live with. So don’t ever say ‘being black you should understand’ or anything to that effect. Our experience as African Americans is something you cannot begin to understand.”
Leonard had never spoken with such passion before. There was anger but it was controlled, not causing him to lose any of his rhetorical powers. I was stunned, hurt, angry but deep down knew that he was 100% correct.
“I’m sorry Leonard, I — ”
“No, no” he said quickly and dismissively, “you don’t get off with a mere apology. Just never mind, all right?” Then he turned to two of the women sitting to his right and began an animated and laugh-filled conversation. I sat there like an idiot not knowing what I should or could do next. Finally I got up and joined the jocks by the TV where a baseball game was on. I then proceeded to get royally smashed.
When I came in the next evening, there was Leonard holding court as usual, I glanced in his direction not expecting him to so much as exchange a glance with me. But proving that Leonard was nothing if not unpredictable he cheerily greeted me and beckoned me to his table. “Waiter,” he called to a passing server,” please get my friend Robert a beeeeer,” once again demonstrating his contempt for my beverage of choice.
I’d wondered if Leonard would want to talk to me again but of course he did. He’d made his point and perhaps the better question was whether I’d want to talk to him. In fact when I walked into LeMonde I had no intention of approaching him or looking his way.
The truth being that I was flattered by his attention and in a curious way even turned on. Not sexually, of course, but excited that such an erudite man would show an interest in me. There was something exotic about Leonard what with him being an intellectual, African American and gay all wrapped into one. I meant many who fit into one or even two of those categories, but all three? Never.
We enjoyed a particularly pleasant evening. It seemed my adversary was taking pity on me as he indulged my opinions and perspectives. The truth was that I felt it quite a feather in my cap to be entertained and to entertain such a worldly man. I was a reporter on the local independent weekly having only a year before graduated from college. I served as both a sportswriter and a news reporter and my dream was to be a columnist and author. The experience of butting heads with Leonard seemed invaluable.
Our little town was collectively more interested in sports and parties then anything else. African Americans made up less than 10% of the population and most of those were college students and most of those students were here to play football, basketball or run track. There was a small Gay Student Union but it was likely that the vast majority of the town’s gay population was securely in the closet. The intellectual discourse in town mainly took place in classrooms or among faculty or the school’s few graduate students. Thus Leonard Bertrand was an anomaly in our town.
One evening Leonard practically ordered me to his table. I had no sooner sat down then he said, “Robert, I’ve taken it upon myself to do a little bit of reading, specifically of what you generously call your a newspaper and more specifically of your writing.” I did not like the fact that he said “writing” in much the same way he said “beer.”
“I’m all ears,” I said wondering whether I should vigorously defend myself or finally tell him to fuck off.
“Robert my friend, I find myself in an awkward situation.” Here he paused and took a long drag from his cigarette as I waited for the sword of Damocles to dispatch my beer-sotted head.
“It seems I’ve underestimated you, you’re a writer of some merit, clever at times, to the point and even provocative.”
I was stunned and delighted to hear praise from this man with whom I had a love/hate relationship, “Thanks, Leonard I — ”
As he so often did Leonard raised his right hand to silence me. “However,” he intoned dramatically, “there is much room for improvement. You litter your writing with cliches, you can be repetitive and show restraint when you should trust yourself to fully explore your own feelings. It is my opinion that you’d be best served by reading more of the classics and taking on more challenging assignments, these fluff pieces you so often write about don’t stimulate your voice.” And “voice” he said with great passion, drawing the end out sibilance.
Then Leonard turned his attention way from me in casual manner and went back to entertaining his entourage. I knew my time was up and I repaired to the other end of the bar and the TV. But I only had one more beer before I suddenly had the urge to dash home and review my recent writing, I was inspired. On the way out the door I caught a glance from Leonard. I smiled and he nodded. I never saw him again.
A few nights later I returned to Le Monde but Leonard Bertrand was conspicuous by his absence. No one had seen him for two days. I asked around and was told he’d been staying in a room at the Gloucester Hotel the town’s nicest such establishment. The next day I inquired at the Gloucester’s front desk and learned that Leonard had checked out and left no forwarding information.
I investigated the mysterious Leonard Bertrand as if I were doing an article about him and indeed it crossed my mind that, depending on what I learned, there may be an interesting story in Leonard. But I found nothing. There wasn’t much to go on because Leonard had only spoken in generalities. All I knew with any degree of certainty was that he grew up on the East Coast and had lived in Paris for a time, the rest was guesswork. Surely he had had an extensive university education but I’d know idea where, nor did I know for certain what professional opinions he had held.
No one even had any clue why he had visited our fair city. None of the professors I spoke to knew of him nor did anyone at the local daily paper. He was a mystery.
In the years that followed, Leonard Bertrand’s visit was almost completely forgotten. But to a few of us he became something of a legend. There was endless conjecture, speculation and wonder. There were occasional rumors about his whereabouts, but none were credible.
It’s been decades now and I still think about Leonard. He had a lasting influence on me as a writer but more importantly as a person. I still replay some of our discussions — although this time I offer clever ripostes and more profound insights. Yes, he was pretentious, arrogant and dismissive but he had a towering intellect and personal magnetism. I keep wondering if Leonard Bertrand was really his name and if perhaps he is today — and maybe was back then — a person of some notoriety, perhaps even famous. I wish I knew for sure.