Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Visit to Mai Z.'s Ghost

And now I've returned from Le Mazel, my cousin Kent's French villa in the Cevennes mountains where I spent my summer of love 2000. This time, I went with a purpose: to reacquaint myself with Mai Zetterling, the previous owner of Le Mazel. Kent and I and a group of friends formed an art colony at Le Mazel for that one brief season in 2000, and during that time we all thought about Mai Z. a lot because she died in 1994 and all her belongings remained virtually untouched for five years. She was a bit of a bad girl, and her children, ex-husbands and former lovers weren't interested in going through her affairs and settling her estate after her death.

In 1994, Mai traveled to Britain for treatment of the cancer she was battling, expecting to return a week later, but she never made it back home. In 1999, when Kent bought Le Mazel, he found a shopping list in the kitchen, a half-written letter in her cluttered office, a fur coat draped across a chair, dishes in the cabinet, a library full of books, a houseful of furniture--in short, she left behind her entire life in that house, and it remained there untouched for years, like some poor soul put under a witch's spell in a fairytale.

This is where the art colony lived for three months, among Mai's belongings, and we frequently invoked her spirit during that summer of love, making toasts to her at dinner on the terrace, speculating about her love life, and visiting her grave in a field below the house.

Mai Zetterling, born in 1925, was a famous Swedish actress who made a number of movies in Britain and just one in Hollywood (she hated the American film industry's phoniness and greed) before becoming a film director in the 1960s. She was a beautiful, passionate, headstrong woman who in her lifetime had two husbands, a string of lovers including the Hollywood star Tyrone Power, two children, and twelve abortions. It's easy to learn about Mai's secrets--all you have to do is read her autobiography, All Those Tomorrows.

I read Mai's autobiography at Le Mazel last week on a sentimental journey to my own past, the summer of love 2000 when I reinvented myself as a bad girls writer and hopeful free spirit, ready for adventure and a life full of art, happiness and satisfaction. It was three months of paradise, really, living in the mountains in France and waking up every day with a sense of peace and joy. These good feelings came close on the heels of the worst period of my life, when I had no home, no job, no money, no man, so my sense of wonder in arriving at a place like Le Mazel was especially strong.

Now, six years later, I have a life back--I returned to Le Mazel for a summer holiday with my new husband, having left behind only briefly my office job in Manhattan and my two-bedroom coop apartment in Brooklyn.

My own sense of stability gave me the space during this visit to study Mai as a subject for my book. I held meetings with Mai in her office as I read her books, went through her papers and looked at her pictures:

I communed with Mai's spirit as I bathed in her tub:

I read the original typed manuscript of All Those Tomorrows in Mai's fireplace:

I felt the spirit of Mai's ghost all around me at Le Mazel. Le Mazel is the sort of place that seeps into your skin. So much of what I remembered about it from six years ago is its physicality. The wind at night, the sound of my bare feet padding along the stone floors, the smell of the furniture. On this brief visit, I wrote feverishly in my journal every day. One morning, I wrote: "I slept poorly in paradise last night. Why can't I sleep in paradise? I left Dave [Note from Joyce: he's my husband, the man I haven't written about yet] to lie in my old bed in the corner studio where I used to sleep, next to my writing table. I lay there, reading Mai's memoir, feeling cozy with the mosquito netting pulled round the bed, and I read until I finally drifted off. An hour or two later I awoke suddenly from the cold and ran back to Dave's warmth in the faded light of dawn. Just like before, I half-feared, half-desired coming across Mai's ghost in the long hallway. So childish. And yet why not? If there is such a thing as ghosts, Mai would be here and I would meet her in the stone hallway late at night when I thought I was alone."

Mai, too, thought she might become a ghost. In a journal entry dated March 10th 1981, written at "Le Mazel, my home: a ramshackle castle, perched on an iron rock," Mai said: "Twilight all of a sudden. The sun has made streaky patterns everywhere. Soon the fog will whirl itself up the little hill and envelop me, and I shall become a ghost figure on my terrace."

At the end of her life, when her husbands, lovers and children had all left her, Mai lived all alone at Le Mazel. I can think of worse fates.

Next time, I'll talk about a slice of life in Brooklyn. Cheerio, Joyce Hanson


Tom said...

This is all so mythic! I find it full of mystery and redemption. I really love it!

Anonymous said...

Sister Barb here. I'm reading about the bad girls from the convent in Fundacion, Republica Dominicana, where I am staying with two nuns, sister Renee and sister Maurine. They're both bad girls in their own right (although celibate!). I love the contrast. I'm here to help out with the mission to the shanty town down the road, called "El cruce", where the nuns have been working with a women's group for the past 13 years. They used to meet under a tree to talk about the needs of the village -- no school, no nothing. Those "bad girls" elected their own leaders to initiate a school, and a small clinic. The first woman they elected was dragged by the hair by her Evangelico husband through the village. He didn't want her in a leadership position. She has since left him.

Joyce Hanson said...

Hi, Barb. You're in the Dominican Republic, and here I sit in Brooklyn. I'm jealous. Surprisingly, convent life is very much in keeping with the bad girl spirit. Ninon de Lenclos, for example, spent a few years in convents, though not always voluntarily. The Queen of France imprisoned Ninon in a convent when she became too stroppy about her religious skepticism. Apparently, a guest at one of Ninon's dinner parties threw a steak bone out the window on a Friday night, and the bone landed on a priest's head--proof that Ninon served meat on Fridays. Le scandale! Though in reality, Ninon was a better student of religion than the Queen of France. In fact, all of the bad girls I studied had a strong religious streak--sexuality and spirituality are closely linked. So hooray for your nuns!

Sally Braley said...

I enjoyed reading about your time in France. I never knew your sojourn there was in such a fabulous spot! I could imagine retreating to the end of my days in such a place... But I can see you there more easily.
Hugs and kisses,


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