I go to the Cévennes Mountains of France, where Kent has a little château in a mountaintop hamlet. Called Le Mazel, the house is an eerie and magical place, and its previous owner, a Swedish actress and film director named Mai Zetterling, still makes her presence known here even though she’s been dead for a few years.
Le Mazel is a house of many rooms built in the 1840s by a coal mine owner, but the mine shut down long ago, and the remote region of les Cévennes is now home to local montagnards, French hippies and a few passing Dutch and Parisian tourists. To get to the house, you have to travel up a winding, pine-needle-covered dirt road that seems to go on forever. It’s so beautiful and secluded that the first night I arrive at Le Mazel, when the warm wind is gently caressing the house’s stone walls and the interior is filled with candlelight, I can’t believe how lucky I am to be spending the whole summer here.
Most days at Le Mazel, it’s just me and two painters rattling around in our newly founded art colony, where we live in squalid splendor among the remains of Mai’s estate. Painter No. 1 is Bella, a longtime girlfriend of mine, and painter No. 2 is Erik, a friendly young Texan recently graduated from art school. Bella likes to travel and her boyfriend is French, so I invited her to join me here when Kent said he was looking for artists. Bella knows me so well—sometimes too well—but her presence at Le Mazel is tremendously comforting. Erik is the mystery card, but he’s young and fun and eager to learn French, so he adds life to our little party.
Mai left Le Mazel in a hurry in 1994, when she took what she thought would be a quick trip to London for treatment of cancer, but she never returned. Everything she owned—a pack of cheroots on the table, her fur coat on a chair, the table, the chair, everything—stayed in the house until Kent bought it in 1999. I’m sure her spirit resides at Le Mazel, especially since she’s buried beneath a tree in a field next to the house.
I spend the summer of 2000 cooking and eating in Mai’s kitchen, breaking more than a few of her wineglasses, writing on her desk, bathing in her enormous tub and sleeping in her bed. I can see from all the photos she left behind that Mai was a classically beautiful Scandinavian ice princess, and yet her autobiography and the short stories she wrote as well as the books in her library show that she was a classically feminist nonconformist.
She was a “wild child” as a girl, she says, eager to escape the numbing poverty and intellectual emptiness of her hometown in Sweden. Considering my own Scandinavian roots, Mai’s story fascinates me, and I feel like I have a personal connection to her thanks to our shared genetic history. I love to look at her face.
“Bella! Come here! Look at this picture of Mai I just found. Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Gorgeous. They just don’t make actresses like that anymore, do they?”
“I wish I could look so glamorous. Did I tell you about my theory that Mai and I are actually related, that she’s a long-lost member of my Swedish tribe, and that my grandmother and her mother were cousins?”
“Fascinating, Joycie. Your mind works in such mysterious ways.”
Early in her career, Mai showed great talent and starred in an Ingmar Bergman film, Music in the Dark, before moving on to a solid film career in Britain, where she acted in and directed a number of movies. Briefly in the 1950s she went to Hollywood, where she had a big love affair with Tyrone Power, but she made only one movie there because she couldn’t stomach the artificiality of the place. Her co-star, Danny Kaye, called her “refreshingly different from my usual leading ladies,” and it’s this refusal to fit in that adds to Mai’s appeal for me.
“Oh, that Mai,” I say, chuckling appreciatively, as I read select passages of her autobiography to Bella. “She really was the black sheep of the family.”
Also judging from the photos, Mai went from being a glamorous film star to a proud, independent woman who cared less and less about society and its expectations as she grew old in the Cévennes. And again, there’s that family connection—Mai looked a lot like my Swedish-born Aunt Helga in the later stages of her life. Spooky. “I have been a child, a girl, a party doll, a mistress, a wife, a mother, a professional woman, a virgin and a grandmother,” Mai wrote in 1985. “I have been a woman for more than fifty years and yet I have never been able to discover precisely what it is I am, how real I am.”
Despite Mai’s quest for authenticity, she never seemed to attain that goal because she dreamed so big. Having met her son, her ex-husband and her ex-lover, Kent has all kinds of stories about what Mai was actually like: hard on herself as well as the people around her. Mai herself admits as much in her autobiography, several copies of which are lying around Le Mazel, which Mai describes in a 1981 journal entry as “my home: a ramshackle castle, perched on an iron rock.”
Everybody who stays at the house enjoys gossiping about Mai as if she were still alive. And when we talk about my Bad Girls Project, people point out that Mai herself was a bad girl. During long, wine-drenched parties, we scare ourselves by summoning the spirit of Mai to join us at the dinner table. Erik is convinced that he’s seen Mai’s ghost, and he starts to wear her hat, robe and crystal amulet.
Mai’s presence here is strong. There’s no television, phone or computer at the house, and when I’m seeking a little entertainment, I paw through her office papers, steal the books off her shelves and snoop through her film stills and family snapshots. The more I see and read, the more I understand everybody’s point about Mai being a bad girl.
And yet I’m living under her roof and gazing at the same mountain views she saw when she lived at Le Mazel. For the first time since my studies began, I understand that bad girls were flesh-and-blood human beings whose joys and struggles were real. Maybe Mai was tough to be around, but she was so full of love that it overwhelmed her sometimes. I recognize her Scandinavian stoicism and craving for solitude, and there’s plenty of room for both here in this French villa, especially at night when all the guests have gone away.
And yet, daylight does follow. On summer mornings Le Mazel is filled with flowers. Like me, Mai had a feeling for flowers. “A large pink camellia is in flower in a bright terracotta pot; the red of the sun makes the petals shiver,” she wrote shortly after the end of her final marriage. “The first swallows have arrived and whiz past me with excited shrieks. I join them in their excitement and shout to the sky: ‘I have survived, survived, survived.’”