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Paris Without Her

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Gregory Curtis and his wife, Tracy, loved Paris as they loved each other – fiercely, fully, flaws and all.

Tracy’s diagnosis of late-stage pancreatic cancer in 2010 and her death months later gutted Curtis. He found himself back in Paris as he healed, navigating both his new life as a widower and their favorite city.

Curtis chronicles that emotional journey in his affecting, heartfelt new memoir “Paris Without Her” (Knopf, $26.95). The former Texas Monthly editor launches the book Tuesday at BookPeople with fellow Austin writer Stephen Harrigan. 

It was Harrigan, in fact, who gave Curtis his title. 

“In September of 2018, I put myself in a corner,” Curtis recalled in a phone interview. Friends were leaving their Paris apartment for a semester to teach in the States, and offered him a short-term rental. “I didn't let myself think. I was afraid that if I thought about it, I’d think myself out of it.” 

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Over years of traveling to Paris for leisure, studying at the Sorbonne and writing two art-themed books rooted in France, he had occasionally mused on writing a more personal book about Paris.

“Now I had an apartment, I was going to be in Paris all that time, things are falling into place – I should write that book, whatever that book was. I was talking with Steve Harrigan and he said, ‘You know what your title is: “Paris Without Her.”’ Immediately, those three words just hit me very strongly, and that made the book coalesce in my mind.”

Meeting at the Texas Monthly
Curtis met his wife in 1974 in the offices of Texas Monthly, the magazine he would go on to edit from 1981 to 2000. Their connection was instant and electric. “I didn’t know then that I would marry her, but I did know that I loved her,” he writes. 

The two courted, married and settled in Austin with two daughters from Tracy’s previous marriage and, eventually, another daughter and a son. They’d been married for more than six years the first time they visited Paris for Curtis’ work. The attraction, like their own, was immediate.   

Curtis spotlights the pair’s tremendous meals, semi-comic traffic mixups and a memorable stag hunt, early trips that he recreated from Tracy’s detailed travel journals and the couple’s snapshots. He shows their bonds deepening as the years of their marriage accrued, along with their beloved visits abroad.  

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Notably, he doesn’t shy away from sharing rough patches, either.  

“I wanted it to be believable,” Curtis said. “I wanted it to be as true as I could make it. … Anyone who’s been married for 35 years knows that there are times when it’s rough.” 

Seeing Paris with the couple makes Curtis’ solo returns there far more poignant. He shares how after Tracy’s death, keeping occupied became paramount.    

 “Suddenly — and it was sudden — I was by myself,” he said. “I found that I needed things to do, and so each day, usually in bed at night, I would think, ‘OK, tomorrow I'm going to get up, and do this, and do that, and then at 2 I'll take a walk, and then I'll go get groceries.' I'd plan out my day, because otherwise I thought I might just get up and not do anything, and that seemed to be a really bad idea.”

Traveling to Paris for extended periods helped as he built new memories to add to his cherished ones. He studied French at the Sorbonne, where he was decades older than most of the students, and nurtured a new relationship with a teacher and artist he dubs Céleste in the book. Throughout, the city’s streets offered the ideal venue for long daily walks. 

“It was always new, always fresh — not always astonishing, but often astonishing,” he said. And it was what he needed. “That kept me alert and satisfied and happy enough.” 

If you go
Gregory Curtis at Bookpeople

Curtis will talk about “Paris Without Her: A Memoir” in a virtual BookPeople event at 6 p.m. Tuesday.   It's free to attend, but copies of the book are for sale. Information and registration:
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By Gregory Curtis.
(Knopf, 256 pages, $26.95).

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Gregory Curtis often is introduced as “the longtime editor of Texas Monthly,” but in fact, he has been gone for 21 years from the magazine he joined at its 1972 inception, and that he ran for 19 years beginning in 1981. He remembers precisely that “June 30, 2000, was my last day at Texas Monthly.”

Over nearly half a century, the magazine and its people have left a permanent imprint on his life. That was, after all, where Greg met his wife, Tracy, in 1974, in a classic case of thunderstruck love at first sight: “I didn’t know then that I would marry her, but I did know that I loved her.” They were married for 35 years and reared four children together.

They also discovered a mutual love for all things French. Together they would travel to France several times between 1983 and 2005, always staying as long as they could manage, “enthralled by Paris because we both believed in the romantic mythology about the city.”

Tracy, who’d been “a defiant smoker,” lost part of her right lung to cancer surgery in 1997, and in 2003 the cancer returned, requiring six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In 2007, declared cancer-free, Tracy returned to college and became a licensed interior designer.

In the summer of 2010, a diagnosis of late-stage pancreatic cancer sent her back to MD Anderson for more treatments. But these did not help, and eight weeks after returning to Austin, Tracy died in hospice care on Jan. 28, 2011.

As Greg sat holding her lifeless hand, “a vast emptiness opened before me,” he wrote. He endured months of intense grieving and recovery, a painful process that, at age 66, would teach him how to live alone for the first time in 35 years.

Now, for his third nonfiction book, he’s telling this very personal story. Paris Without Her: A Memoir is a tender and clear-eyed recollection of the best and worst of times. In it, Greg Curtis returns to the city that he and Tracy loved together and learns to embrace its bounteous life on his own.

This interview is excerpted from a recent telephone conversation with the 76-year-old author, speaking from his home in Austin.

What has widowhood taught you about being a single man again?

I think it’s good to have a plan of some kind — I mean, a plan for the afternoon, as well as for where I’m going in my life. You have to find ways to enjoy your solitude. There’s going to be plenty of time alone, and you have to be OK with that.

What impelled you to begin writing this memoir?

I’d been going to Paris for fairly long periods of time and had wondered what a book about Paris, by me, would be like. [Novelist and journalist] Stephen Harrigan gave me the title Paris Without Her, and that really helped me to see: “That’s what this book is about.”

I went back there a year before the pandemic, in January 2019, and if I’d waited at all to go, this book wouldn’t be happening. It would’ve been impossible to write this not being in Paris. I needed to revisit the places we’d seen, places we’d stayed.

Did you find it difficult to be as candid as a memoirist is expected to be?

No, because I knew there were things I wasn’t going to say. I knew where my open territory was, and I could go inhabit it.

Did you have old travel journals to draw upon?

I had photo albums from our trips, and Tracy had kept a journal on several of them. Then when I went there to study in 2014, I started taking long walks and taking a camera with me, and in the evenings, I’d write emails to family and friends and put photos in. I kept doing that each time I was in Paris, and that was my journal, basically.

You decided to study French at the Sorbonne when you were nearly 70. Did your family and friends think you were brave, or crazy?

Partly it was crazy, partly it was great, partly, “We’ll see how it works out.” But I found it perfectly natural to sit at a classroom desk with these kids in their 20s, or younger, all from different countries but all there to learn French. After class, we could all sit down in a café and, haltingly, speak French together.

I thought Part III was the most intriguing, unpredictable section of your narrative. Where was it for you, on the scale of being difficult to discuss?

This is the only book in which I’ve written chapters out of sequence and then pieced them together afterward. Tracy in the hospital was the hardest part of the book. Those scenes were indelible. The rest wasn’t as emotionally demanding.

I can only say I wanted to write about what happened in that third section, in part, to figure it out the best I could. It was a great adventure — although it didn’t end the way I’d hoped.

© 2021 The Dallas Morning News
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I read PARIS WITHOUT HER soon after leaving Paris, where I had lived for two years. It was interesting to see the city through Curtis's eyes. His was a very different Paris than the one I experienced during the years of Yellow Vest turmoil, transit strikes, and the pandemic. 

Curtis writers about a Paris that will be familiar to readers of books about the City of Light: the dreamed-of, sought-after Paris he experienced on repeat trips with his wife. Yet PARIS WITHOUT HER distinguishes itself from other Paris-as-a-tourist books because it is also seen through the lens of memory and loss. A poignant account of a marriage as seen against the backdrop of a place.
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An honest and thoughtful memoir in which the author describes his way of dealing with his beloved wife’s death. Using travel to their favorite city as a way to reinvent himself.
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