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Ursule Molinaro's Shoes
Barbara Foster

Gazing at Ursule Molinaro's shoes, now in a decrepit state from age and wear, memories come back to me of nights spent in her living room across from the cemetery on east Second Street, Ursule often expressed the desire to be buried there among the Protestant worthies resting in peace. They would have turned over multiple times if her rabidly leftist bohemian persona, nails painted black, had moved in to join them.

During the last years of her life, Ursule referred matter of factly to her death, welcoming it as a surcease from the physical pain she endured—and the disappointment. She never found a proper literary agent or mainstream publisher. I believe her disappointment at not achieving the public recognition she deserved for her outstanding body of work eroded her will to live.

Ursule fashioned herself as a "writer's writer." Craft came first, and actively promoting her work did not suit the intellectual image she wished to project; however, she read from her latest releases at public venues for her coterie of admirers, made up mostly of academics and literary types. Ursule's thirteen novels, several one act plays and hundreds of short stories demonstrate her inevitably correct choice of the bon mot, her immersion in the subtleties and ironies of English—a language she mastered in her native France.

Fluent in four languages, she translated and introduced unknown European writers to an American readership. She captioned films, including those by Jean-Luc Goddard and other New Wave directors. Visiting professorships at various universities brought her loyal students whose writing she took as seriously as her own. My favorite works by Ursule excavate historical or mythological figures, mostly women, who had received short shrift from contemporary chroniclers of their period. Ursule's novel, Cassandra, retold a dramatic episode at the start of the Trojan War—the sacrifice of the heroine—from her point of view. In her later years, Ursule wrote several works about the ancient Greeks, a civilization rife with material her fertile imagination could play with.

Another favorite of mine, A Full Moon of Women, contains vividly etched portraits of twenty-six notable women from different times and places. One of them, Alexandra David-Neel, the French explorer of Tibet, is the subject of a biography I published in 1998. Ursule's knowledge of the occult made travel back in time as natural to her as smoking Gauloises cigarettes. Her Life by the Numbers is a manual useful to both the amateur and the expert.

Ursule's affair with the love of her life, thirty years younger than herself, broke up as vibrantly as it had flourished; very sad, but extremely dramatic, as was everything else connected with her.

Ursule and Peter

I watched blood drip from
     two hearts
Once in tune like the rain
After a storm of tears
Clouds blocked the light
No rainbow in sight

Did Heloise and Abelard
Deny their kisses through
     angry lips
Make cupid cringe
Rewrite their past
     in acid?

If Ursule and Peter fail
Sun hates the moon
Babes suckle rancid milk
From every mothers' breast
Roses stink to heaven

I supposed their souls
Copulated in orgies of delight
While they painted, read
Art and love held hands

Now, all reason fled
Like a murderer from a
     crime scene
They scream about fault,
Curses buzz like wasps
Sweet romance tossed away
Dirty laundry.

If provoked, Ursule's tongue was a ferocious sword. Her family and lovers knew to walk on eggshells in her presence. Nor did she suffer fools gladly, regardless of their social status.

I met Ursule twenty years ago when a college friend, then living across the street from her on West Sixteenth, introduced us. That night commenced a relationship, not exactly a friendship, best described as a learning experience. This exquisitely spoken Frenchwoman dazzled me, a novice writer then, with her erudition on an amazing range of subjects.

Lounging with Ursule in her living room while she discoursed on literary themes or purveyed a trove of wicked gossip, I was transported to a Parisian salon presided over by Georges Sand or such like. Ursule was a throwback to the days when elegance and élan vital were prerequisites to gaining a place in the world of letters. On one subject she remained as silent as the cemetery across the street: her arrest by the Germans. She hid a Jewish family in her Parisian apartment during the war.

Living on a mysterious income in New York, Ursule prided herself on never cooking a meal and always eating in multi-star restaurants. Beauty parlors and cleaning ladies were necessities, not luxuries. Though no one was allowed to know her exact age, Ursule put great stock in birthdays. On these occasions, she would give me, as well as other friends, one of her whimsical paintings on wood. About ten years ago after such a party, she motioned me into her bedroom, an inner sanctum only a select few penetrated. She wanted to give me something. It wasn't my birthday, so I couldn't fathom what she had in mind.

Ursule flung open her ultra-neat closet to extract a pair of black-laced, 18th century style shoes she'd bought at Saks in the Fifties. Since she wasn't wearing high heels anymore, she passed them on to me. I was a logical heir: Shoes of every color, heel height and style are jammed into my closet, secreted under furniture, and stuffed into nooks throughout my small apartment. Her shoes gave me blisters, discomfort did not deter me from wearing them, especially to literary events. If I walked around with a totem of Ursule's, perhaps some of her genius would rub off.

In Summer 2000, a friend called me in Vermont to inform me of Ursule's death. This unhappy event brought back the twists and turns in our relationship, how early on she had criticized my writing harshly enough to make me consider weaving instead. Upon reflection, I agreed with her points. Like an eastern master training a devotee, Ursule subjected me to a strict discipline that taught me to weigh my words. And she left me a more tangible legacy: her shoes, by now truly falling apart. Nonetheless, I cannot bring myself to discard them.

Should I donate Ursule's shoes to the French Institute, build a Greek style altar in my living room and set them atop it, an incentive to toast her with champagne on her birthday; or, bury them with appropriate ceremony near a Parisian café on the Left Bank? Whatever, our disagreements, her departure has left a void in my life no material object can fill. As I take my own knocks in the literary game, I have a better understanding of the obstacles which gave Ursule's personality its sharp edges. Hats off—or should I say, shoes off?—to a unique talent whom I had the privilege to know.

(Barbara Foster ______.)