One evening about eight Warren dropped by our apartment unexpectedly. As he walked in he said, “No surprises here: how did I know you’d be listening to Mozart? You must be the only people in Calcutta listening to Mozart right now.” We offered him a chair and a drink. After we talked a minute, he said, “I would have called but you know these bloody Indian phones. So I dropped by to ask whether you guys have seen the latest Beatles movie, ‘A Hard Days Night’. It’s showing here in Calcutta—supposed to be great. Let’s go see it Friday night.”
“Great,” I said. “Mandy and I love the Beatles.” My wife nodded, pleased, too.
“Terrific. Come over to our place at seven and well have a drink, then head for the movies.”
On our way to Warren’s apartment, I thought about Warren and his wife Chloë. To me, they were magical creatures; they weren’t like real people—more like ethereal beings among mere humans. In their presence, I understood for the first time what charisma meant, what it felt like. They were larger than life, insanely exhilarating to be with; you never knew what to expect. I was looking forward to this evening.
When you were with them you were convinced that you were the most interesting person ever. Didn’t matter if it was true or not: you felt special. You believed it. Warren was in his late thirties, olive skin, bright blue eyes, and prematurely gray hair. He dressed with flair and seemed curious about everything. Chloë was an artist, a painter, with perpetually bemused look, and an odd disconnected way of delivering her thoughts, as though she was translating her speech from another language. She was younger and a bit taller than Warren, with very white skin, freckles, and auburn hair. Not a beauty, but her warm smile and mischievous facial expression let you know you were in the presence of someone special. If this is idolatry, so be it.
Mandy and I arrived at Warren and Chloë’s exactly at seven. When we walked in, they were standing there grinning while “A Hard Days Night” blared so loudly we had to mouth our “hellos” and wave. They immediately began jiving and shucking around their living room like a couple of lunatics, and grabbed onto us to join them. I am a rather inhibited person, not used to flamboyant antics, and my wife isn’t much better. But, there was nothing for it but to join in. We all gyrated around their living room for at least ten minutes, my wife and I really getting into the mood and loosening up.
Warren then turned down the volume and offered drinks all around, while Chloë put out some snacks. After a second drink, I checked my watch and said to our hosts, “What time does the movie start? Do we need to get on our way?”
“We’ll have to go to the late showing,” Warren said. “A few months back, I met a maharajah at a state function—from the princely state of Cooch Behar in West Bengal—who seemed to take an interest in our work here. I invited him to drop by for a drink this evening. Hope you don’t mind.” Without waiting for an answer, he added, “Chloë, let’s rustle up some cheese and stuff to tide us over.”
Thrilled to be included, I said, “We don’t mind at all. Don’t run into maharajahs every day where I come from.”
As expected, the Maharajah of Cooch Behar was late—really late. Finally, the door bell rang, and Warren ushered in the maharajah and the woman with him. After introductions all around, I got a good look at him and his companion. He was tall, at least six feet, dressed in a superb, but not flashy Indian outfit. He was probably fifty, trim, with gray hair, and movie star handsome. His speech and mannerisms were veddy veddy British; “pukka” as they say in India. It was his companion, Ginger, however, who compelled our attention. Ginger was a tall platinum blond Anglo Saxon, who looked a lot like Jean Harlow, but far more beautiful, and with an amazingly well endowed body. No more than twenty-five, if that, and cosmeticized to the “nth” degree. She was dressed in an all-white pants and blouse outfit that fit her like it was sprayed on. Little was left to the imagination. To complete the outfit she wore gold lamé stiletto heels, and carried a very large gold lamé bag to match. We were all momentarily speechless; even Warren; probably the only time that ever happened.
While Chloë was serving drinks to the new guests, Warren led off, saying he was pleased the maharajah could drop by. In his elegantly insouciant manner, with matching hand gestures, the maharajah began talking about himself. He seemed to know that we (and he) were far more interested in him than inane small talk. For an hour he kept us all mesmerized in his calm and cultivated voice. With an occasional flip of the hand to emphasize a point, he explained how he was the last of the maharajahs of Cooch Behar, having been pressured to merge the kingdom into the Dominion Government of India, where it eventually became part of the state of West Bengal. In return for making him a stateless king deprived of power, he received a privy purse from the government. He jumped from one bit of information, one anecdote, to another, gesturing with his elegant hands. He told us about his life-long passion for cricket and for polo, recounting several famous cricket and polo matches he had played in. The maharajah also reminisced about the “good old times” when the many powerful maharajas as well as high officials of Indian Government used to visit Cooch Behar in the winter season for hunting Royal Bengal Tiger, Rhinoceros, and other now rare or disappeared beasts. He didn’t drop names, though, which he could easily have done. Showing no signs of flagging, and with us in thrall, he asked if we had heard of the Maharani of Jaipur, wife of the famous Maharajah Man Singh. We nodded yes: Man Singh was after all the most well known maharajah in India, and she—the Maharani Gayatri Devi—was, if anything, more famous. For one thing, she was a celebrated beauty, declared by Vogue magazine to be one of the world’s most beautiful women, a favorite of society columnists and photographers. “You may be surprised to learn,” the maharajah went on, “that she is my younger sister, and will be the last queen of Jaipur, just as I am the last king of Cooch Behar. In my case, a four-hundred-fifty-four year old kingdom and royal house, established in 1510 A.D., is coming to an end. The royal sovereignty of Cooch Behar has been swept away by Democracy. As the French say, ‘Les temps changent, et nous changeons avec eux.’” He added with a sigh, “Ah well, I go over to Jaipur once or twice a year to play polo with my brother-in-law, Maharajah Man Singh, and to reminisce about our dying part of history. But, it’s getting late; Ginger and I have a dinner engagement and must be going.”
After they left, we just couldn’t stop talking about the performance we had just shared: the Maharajah’s elegant way of providing us with these glimpses of a fabled, now disappearing, piece of Indian history. We were star-struck about his famous sister; and of course there was Ginger. One of us noted that Ginger seemed tuned out the entire time the Maharajah was talking, and speculated that she may have heard these same stories many times before. And even though she didn’t utter more than five or six words, she managed to keep from looking bored. We wondered where Cooch Behar had met such a woman.
By now, it was close to nine o’clock, and I was feeling the effects of drink and a bit tired from all the excitement. Probably not a bad idea just to head home, I thought. Just then, Warren checked his watch and said, “Hey, let’s go: we’ve just got time to catch the nine-thirty show.” With that, we rushed out the door and drove to the movie theater. To get to our seats in the second balcony, we had to negotiate our way through masses of young Bengali men, as eager as we were to see the famous Beatles. Pirated versions of their records had been available in India for sometime already and had evidently been very popular. As we looked around, it seemed that no one in the all-male, all-Bengali audience was older than twenty.
Finally, the movie started and proceeded with the wacky but entertaining plot at a frantic pace, accompanied throughout by Beatles music—especially, of course, “A Hard Days Night”—at ear-splitting volume. During the rare quieter moments, we could hear the Bengali audience hooting and shrieking in their enthusiasm. The portions of the movie where the Beatles ran from one place to another in their helter-skelter way elicited especially loud reactions.
Finally, the movie was over and the theater lights came on. Warren bent forward in his seat, as though to comment on the movie. Instead, he yelled in a loud voice, “Hey, guys, let’s boogie,” then waved at us to get up and run. He then jumped up and headed for the exits. Without hesitation, Chloë jumped up and ran after him. It took Mandy and I a minute to grasp what Warren and Chloë were about, but my quicker-witted wife grabbed me by the arm and we ran towards the exits too, trying to catch up with our hosts. We dashed headlong down the many flights of stairs, wending our way through the throng of young people, trying not to crash into them, trying to catch up with Warren and Chloë. We could hear both of them singing snatches of “Hard Days Night” out loud as they hurtled down the stairs. Our fellow members of the audience just watched them rush by as they walked down the stairs. Maybe they were too surprised to react one way or the other.
When we got to the sidewalk, Warren and Chloë were standing there with big smiles on their faces, all of us puffing from the exertion. I said, “God, you guys are just completely insane. Do you do that very after every movie?” I was thinking, though, that this was the most fun I had had in my rather inhibited life. They just laughed: they knew we had really enjoyed it too.
A few years later, by a coincidence we two couples ended up living in upstate New York, where Warren had just been appointed Provost of the State University of New York at Buffalo. In summer 1970 they invited us up for the weekend. We had no sooner arrived when they began to tell us about how wonderful Buffalo was, how under-rated it was, about the art, the historic buildings, and architecture. I was skeptical, but their enthusiasm was as usual totally infectious. The magic was still there. Within a few minutes we were in their car and seeing the sights. First stop was one of the first Sullivan “steel high rises.” From there we drove by a number of Frank Lloyd Wright houses. We continued, one interesting place then another. Somehow I always felt a heightened metabolism when I went anywhere with Warren and Chloë. Their natural state was exhilaration, and there was nothing artificial or labored about it. They made me feel full of adrenalin and joy, like a teenager again, as I discovered new and unexpected things at every turn. The last stop was the Albright-Knox Gallery of Art. “Very famous,” Chloë said. “Ummm,” I replied, not wanting to reveal my ignorance.
Now almost dark, we headed back to the elegant Provost’s residence. First thing, Warren showed up with a bottle of insanely expensive vintage Dom Perignon Champagne, which we shared while reminiscing about the good times in India. Warren said, “Did you hear that a few years after our evening with Cooch Behar, he had a polo accident in Jaipur and got busted up pretty bad. They flew him to London for treatment, but he never fully recovered. I just learned that he died a few months ago in Calcutta from complications of the accident. His brother-in-law and several other powerful maharajahs escorted his body to his palace in Cooch Behar, where he was given a truly royal funeral. He was such a marvelous personality; they don’t make ‘em like that any more. Wonder what happened to Ginger?” We had a good chuckle over our collective memory of Ginger, then proceeded to toast Cooch Behar, his glamorous sister, his blond bombshell, the Beatles, India, the Bengalis, us, and everything else we could think of. We had a grand meal (steak tartare, of all things, and I ate it!), drank superb wine, listened to a new recording by some marvelous singer whose name escapes me, and talked until late.
My wife and I left the next morning for the two-hundred mile drive home, tired but feeling happy, confident, good about myself. I always left Warren and Chloë on an emotional high which lasted for days. As I thought back over the weekend, I recalled a statement by E.M. Forster about The Leopard, by Lampedusa: “Reading it and re-reading it, has made me realize how many ways there are of being alive, how many doors there are, close to one, which someone else’s touch may open.” I thought, That’s the alchemy of charisma—the ability of a few special people to open doors to your feelings, to give you access to a rare joy in being alive. Every time I think of them, that feeling comes back, if only for a moment now. I wonder what happened to them?