My youthful error in Paris with Marlene

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The Independent Online

It was disconcerting to read that, according to her recently discovered letters, Marlene Dietrich spent her final years lonely and depressed. I find myself feeling partially responsible.

It was disconcerting to read that, according to her recently discovered letters, Marlene Dietrich spent her final years lonely and depressed. I find myself feeling partially responsible.

Marlene and I met only once, it is true, and our conversation was minimal, but then she never had much of reputation as a chatterbox. "I cannot feel comfortable with strangers," she wrote to one correspondent, and that certainly bears out my own impression of her. When she entered Galignani, the bookshop in Paris where I worked, she seemed such a tense, ethereal and generally lifted figure that it was as if her feet hardly touched the ground.

"I am totally alone, as always," she wrote in another letter, but on this occasion she was accompanied by three exquisite youths who followed her silently through the shop like a fairy train, showing not the slightest interest in any of the books and speaking neither to her nor to each other.

Galignani was, and probably still is, a bookshop of such social grandeur as to make Hatchards seem like a station bookstall. There was something forbiddingly discreet about its low lighting and solemn wooden shelves; its cool, hushed atmosphere was more like that of a gentleman's tailor than any bookshop. Sometimes members of the ordinary populace - sweaty American tourists with their loud, sticky-fingered brood - would blunder in from the arcaded pavement of the rue de Rivoli, take one look at the dark interior and retreat, sensing that they were not welcome, that they were hopelessly out of their depth.

It was the early 1970s. In a state of traditional post-university despair and confusion, I had run away to Paris. For a while, I stayed among the cockroaches and first editions of George Whitman's Shakespeare & Co, where a would-be writercould sleep in one of the beds dotted around the bookshop in return for a few hours' work.

Then I moved upmarket, across the river, to become an assistant in Galignani's English books department, gaining employment perhaps because I was nicely brought up, spoke with the right accent and knew how to behave when serving the élite, the celebrated and the aristocratic.

How I regret my tight-buttocked deference in the presence of the famous, my determination not to be too impressed or interested by them. When Marlene handed me the three volumes that she had decided to buy, I might have engaged her in easy conversation, rather than walking ahead of her to the till like Mr Humphreys in Are You Being Served? We might have agreed to meet for tea at WH Smith's teashop down the road; it could have been lovely.

Now, too late, I discover what opportunities that accursed English respect for privacy denied me. It was probably not an option to chat to a client like Orson Welles who, every few months, would strut around the shop with massive, bullying self-importance, plucking volumes and placing them on a great tower of hardbacks which rested against his vast stomach.

But, when I delivered some books to Graham Greene in his flat, he seemed an approachable old man in a melancholic, watery-eyed way, as if he could sense that I longed to talk to him, to get him to sign the copy of The Heart of the Matter I had brought with me but had not dared produce. Perhaps, like Marlene, he was lonely and depressed. We could have talked about writing. He might have encouraged me, as he was later revealed to have encouraged other young writers. What a difference a warm-hearted endorsement from the sage of Antibes would have made to my first novel.

Damn. It occurs to me now that the errors of our youth are caused not by recklessness but by its opposite - fear, over-respect of others, the need to fit in.