“I want to break readers’ hearts,” says French writer Frédéric Beigbeder of his novel Manhattan’s Babe, which was recently translated into English and released as an illustrated hardback by Assouline. “I hope this book is a sad, romantic tribute to the America I love. On Fifth Avenue, the Tiffany’s store is right next to Trump Tower, but I know where I prefer to have breakfast.”
Set in New York during the 1940s, Manhattan’s Babe recounts the love story between J.D. Salinger and Oona O’Neill, the future wife of Charlie Chaplin and the daughter of the famed playwright Eugene O’Neill. In the book’s introduction, Beigbeder deems it a work of “faction,” a word he borrows from Diana Vreeland. Oona and Salinger did indeed have a brief romance, and many real-life characters appear throughout their narrative, including as Truman Capote and Gloria Vanderbilt. The details, however—the conversations, the emotions—come from Beigbeder’s imagination.
“Once you start a story, you feel that everything around you is related,” Beigbeder explains. “In all of Salinger’s biographies, his love story with young Oona O’Neill takes one paragraph maximum. Usually it says: ‘Jerry fell in love with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter in 1941, then Jerry went to the army and Oona married Chaplin in 1942.’ But if you start studying you find a lot more information,” he continues. “He wrote many letters to Oona—I found them. She was best friends with Truman Capote and he talks about Oona and Salinger in Answered Prayers. Orson Welles talked about her in a famous TV interview. Chaplin wrote about her in his memoir… Suddenly I found a gold mine. The more I was digging, the more nuggets I was finding.”
Beigbeder, who is the executive editor of Lui, published his first novel, La table ronde, when he was still in his 20s. He then won the Prix Interallié in 2003 for the 9/11-set Windows on the World and the Prix Renaudot in 2009 for his book Un roman français, and also established his own literary prize, the Prix de Flore. Though the 51-year-old was born and raised in Neuilly-sur-Seine just outside of Paris, he has long had a relationship with Manhattan. “My father is half American, so he took my brother and I to visit our American cousins in New York when I was 12,” he recalls. “It was in 1977. Suddenly I was inside the TV programs we watched on French television. I remember very well our visit to the World Trade Center because I filmed it with a Super 8 camera … I also remember the good hot dogs in the streets. You couldn’t eat hot dogs in the streets of Paris. You still can’t.”
Manhattan’s Babe is Assouline’s first illustrated novel. “My publisher Martine Assouline is used to visual books,” Beigbeder says. “She found Rafael Alterio and I was very amazed by his drawings. He captured the atmosphere of this era, and his drawings add beauty to this story.”
As for what’s next, Beigbeder tells us he is currently writing about biology, DNA, and genetics. “After writing about the past, now I want to write about the future,” he notes.
A FEW INFLUENTIAL RECORDS: Once Upon a Time in America, Ennio Morricone.
“Rum and Coca Cola,” The Andrew Sisters.
“Scarborough Fair,” Simon & Garfunkel.
Mona Bone Jakon, Cat Stevens.
“Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” Pink Floyd. QUESTIONS I CAN’T ANSWER: Who will be the next French president?
What is the size of your penis?
What are the questions you can’t answer?
Do you really believe you’re the first to answer by repeating the question?
AUTHORS I’D READ ANYTHING BY: JD Salinger. I don’t understand why his family won’t authorize publication of all his work from the forties until the end (2010).
THREE PET PEEVES: “You’re Beautiful,” James Blunt.
Jared Kushner’s smile.
EVENTS I WISH I’D WITNESSED: The Liberation of Paris in 1944 (everybody was having sex), Woodstock (same reason with good music), a party at the Playboy Mansion (same reason with silk kimono jackets).
A THREESOME I’D LIKE TO PLAY GOLF WITH: Jean-Paul Sartre, Woody Allen, and Glenn O’Brien, because I might win.
A COUPLE OF ACTORS I’D LIKE TO PLAY ME IN MY LIFE STORY: Jean Dujardin did it in 99 francs (2007). He was so funny. The only Hollywood actor that has my pointed chin is Kyle MacLachlan. The other one is dead (Robin Williams).
ONE THING I’D LIKE TO IMPROVE ABOUT MYSELF: My Spanish.
SOME GREAT MINOR MASTERPIECE: “A Soapbox Opera,” Supertramp. Salt Water, Charles Simmons.
Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson.
A COUPLE OF PEOPLE I WOULDN’T MIND BEING FOR A MINUTE: Margot Robbie.
THE BEST CURE FOR THE BLUES: Roger Federer’s crossed one-handed backhand; Château Haut-Brion, 2005; my daughters.
SOME PLACES I WOULDN’T WANT TO GO BACK TO: Quebec in the winter.
My first wedding.
The Cannes Film Festival without being in the jury.
THINGS I’LL ALWAYS MISS: The amount of money I had 10 years ago, the Stork Club, my American grandmother.
SOME THINGS I’D RATHER FORGET: The amount of money I had 10 years ago, Las Vegas, my second wedding.
ONE THING I’D LIKE FOR VALENTINE’S DAY: A table at Harry Cipriani uptown.
TWO TRUTHS THAT AREN’T TRUE: Love lasts forever.
Cocaine makes you clever.
THE FURTHEST THING FROM MY MIND: Bloomberg TV.
GAMES I PLAY: Tequila shots, poetry, more tequila shots.
CLUBS I BELONG TO: Castel’s in Paris.
Air France’s “Flying Blue” frequent flyer program.
Guéthary Tennis Club.
MANHATTAN’S BABE (ASSOULINE) IS OUT NOW.