Sad Clown: the Backstory

Travel lets you broaden your horizons. And flaunt your ignorance.

It was an impulse buy, this package trip to Paris with a brand new friend. She was a colleague who loved travel; the planning type who would research the hell out of a destination. She knew where to buy cheap Louvre tickets in advance, which restaurants the New York Times loved, and the hot spots to shop. I'm more of a wing-it type, which means many of my trips end with, “Damn, I didn’t know I was right next to that.”
This time, with a little help, I would travel like a boss. I wouldn’t stroll ignorantly past those amazing experiences. 

So, one fine evening, on the advice of my researching friend, we sought out a tiny bistro on the Left Bank that The Times had glowingly reviewed. In print, it sounded terrific. But when we arrived, the restaurant was completely empty of people, save for the hostess looking out absently through the window. Were we just idiot Americans dining absurdly early? Or did we get the address wrong? The absence of customers was not promising. Too late; the hostess spotted us scrutinizing the vacant seats and waved us in. Okay, why not? 

We stepped into a cliché of white-laced windows, stripy wallpaper, and framed oil paintings, which happened to include a portrait of a Sad Clown. The hostess welcomed us warmly. She turned out to be the waitress, co-owner, and wife of the chef, as well, and we soon got along swimmingly, despite some language hurdles. We mentioned coming all the way from NYC for this private dining experience. The chef and his wife seemed pleased to hear of their overseas fame, turning on the full charm and walking us through the menu, assuming we knew far more French than we did. 

I don’t actually speak French. I studied Latin. And while cognates can be your friend on standardized testing, high school Latin is not useful for translating menus: it can turn France’s best dishes into close-but-no-cigar horrors. So, I shied away from “ducks in blood” and ordered steak frites. This choice was greeted with disappointment and mutterings. “You came all the way to France! Tut tut, you should try something else!” I tried to explain my misgivings about blood for supperwith the “help” of a pocket French dictionary. The wife gently shamed my translating ability and redirected me toward something else on the menu. 

Soon the wine was flowing along with the conversation, beautiful food arrived, and vanished quickly down the hatch. In no time, we were all expansive and red-cheeked joyeux compères (yes, I looked that up to impress you), finding any number of commonalities between nations. But after the fluffiest of Grand Marnier soufflés was dealt with, my attention wandered back to the oil painting that had faced me across the restaurant during that entire fantastic meal: the downer clown on the wall.

In this tidy little eaterie on the oh-so-French Left Bank, accented with bursts of floral arrangements, and brimming with luscious food and red winein the City of Art, no lessthere hung a ridiculously corny painting of a Sad Clown. I had to bring it up. 

“So, there’s that clown picture.”
“Do you like it?” asked the chef.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“It was painted by John Wayne!”                                     
“Sorry, what?”
“You know the cowboy, John Wayne?”
“Well, sure! I’ve seen John Wayne movies. Wow, I did not know he painted clowns! That’s weird.”
“Look, he signed it!”

The owner seemed delighted I knew of John Wayne, so I left my table for a closer look, and sure enough, there at the bottom of the painting was the signature, “John Wayne.”

“My American friend got it for me,” he said, proudly. I have no idea what Cowboy John Wayne’s signature looks like, but the owner was adamant it was authentic. The conversation was turning into one of those stories that was so outrageous it had to be true. I mean, who but The Duke would sign a painting ‘John Wayne’—it’s not like he was the go-to choice for forgers. Struck by the bizarreness, I asked my friend to take my picture with Sad Clown. What a curious tale this would make. 

I had no idea. 

When I got back to the States, I visited my dad and his second wife, a psychologist. I regaled them with stories of Paris, and whipped out the piece de résistance, my photo with the clown. 

“It’s by John Wayne,” I said, with no small amount of satisfaction, not unlike the chef, himself.
“John Wayne Gacy?” asked my stepmom. 
“Sorry, what?”
“The serial killer, John Wayne Gacy. He painted clowns. And he signed his paintings, ‘John Wayne.’” 

Oh, crap. I liked the other story ending, better: The Duke painted a clown and it’s in the French restaurant where I had dinner. The End.  

Will ask more questions, next time.
Now, apparently, I have a selfie with a serial killer’s painting. This new ending leaves many unanswered questions:
Was the painting really “a Gacy?” Did the seller know that? Did the buyer? (It seems the restaurateur did not.) Even if it were a "fake Gacy," of all things, who in that chain of painter—buyers—sellers knew it? Has the chef, since our visit, learned any more about John Wayne? And how was my researching friend not on top of all this?

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