A Caper at the St. James Club
Originally constructed as the library for a Nineteenth Century boys’ boarding school, the bar / lounge at the St. James Club is a warm room that invites patrons to linger over one more drink. Two levels of books line one side of the room paneled in dark wood with a black cast iron spiral staircast leading to a second story grated catwalk running the length of the wall of books. Opposite, several two-story windows open onto the rear garden providing a sense of being in a chateau in the French countryside instead of being tucked away in the Port Dauphin section of central Paris. A rich wooden bar occupies the closed end of the room while oversized chairs and couches, arranged in groups, facilitate conversstions and flirtation.
Scattered about are framed photographs of celebrities who frequent the St. James Club. In our day, Joan Collins, Robin Leach and Madonna graced the crowd with their presence, silently observing the merriment and intrigues at the bar. Almost all these photos were posed on the St. James’ elegant and ornate wooden staircase that descends from the second floor to the center of the handsome lobby.
For a time, one photograph lining the room stood out as an exception from those of the beautiful and powerful people. It was a photograph of three middle-aged men, two in dark blue suits flanking one in a gray suit. Chests out, stomachs sucked in, eyes bright, smiling confidently; the photograph captured them standing on the first step of the hotel’s grand staircase.
Patrons and guests, drinks in hand, would meander about the lounge viewing the photographs commenting on the subjects. Invariably, the three men received a brief look followed by a shrug of minor curiosity or disdain.
I understood their reaction. These men were not celebrities, they were imposters. I know because I am in the photograph. Our customer, Dick Green, took the photo of Jack Camillo, Frank D’Ambrosio and me that we introduced into the bar using stealth while the bartender and waiters were otherwise intent in going about their tasks.
Originally intended as a souvenir of our successful business trip, I asked Dick to take our photograph using a disposable camera I bought for the occasion. A nearby one-hour photo store gave it a new purpose when I realized they sold frames closely matching the hotel’s in color and design. On seeing how professional Dick’s photo looked, I had the shop make a 5 by 7 enlargemant which I placed into the new frame in the security of my room. On Friday night, our last night in Paris, we made our move and placed it among other photos before retiring for the night.
The following morning, as we checked out, Frank was giddy letting us know he had something to tell us once we were in the taxi on our way to Orly Field. Safely on our way, I had to break the silence: “Frank, what is the scoop that you can’t wait to tell us?”
“Well, this morning, after breakfast, I went to see if the bar was open. It was and I observed the cleaning staff tidying up the room.”
“Was our photograph still there?”
“Yes,” Frank replied. “Not only was it still there, but the cleaning staff had also moved it to a new location. Do you know what that means? We are part of their collection.”
We laughed and carried on for the rest of our journey home.
Aftr we returned to the office, we alerted colleagues to look for our photograph whenever one was scheduled to stay in Paris. Several times, they confirmed with admiration, our continued co-existence with the famous and almost famous.
For more than six months our celebrity status endured until a renovation of the bar terminated our fifteen minutes of fame.
(An earlier version of this story appeared in my anthology: “What Ac You Do in New York and Other Stories.”)