Parisian of the Month: Mary Duncan

From I Prefer Paris by Richard Neham

I am happy to have my friend and organizer of the Paris Writers Group, which I have belonged to since inception in 2008, Mary Duncan, as Parisian of the Month. Enjoy this eye opening interview.

Neham: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Duncan: I was born and raised in San Diego, the land of sunshine, beaches, Margaritas and Dr. Seuss.

When and why did you move to Paris?
During the early 1980’s, I decided to live in Paris. In 2000, after many years of planning, I embarked on an early retirement program at San Diego State University where I was a professor, bought an apartment and now live between Paris and La Jolla, California.  Paris nourishes and energizes me. It’s intangible, but real.

When did you develop an interest in writing and literature?
Reading and writing have always been my favorite activities. I used to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and smuggle them into the neighborhood library.

My Ph.D. dissertation, “The Effects of Social Conflict on Leisure Patterns in Belfast, N. Ireland,” paved the way for world travel and numerous research adventures to Nicaragua,  Tehran,  Berlin, Russia, Mexico and even Paris.  Curiosity drives me and it never seems to be satisfied.

How and why did you start the Paris Writers Group?
Since 1988, I’ve been a member of the San Diego Writing Women. After I moved to Paris, I really missed our monthly meetings. In  2008, I created the Paris Writers Group.  We started in my living room with

You’ve lived many lives in many places. You were once a Playboy bunny. What was that experience like?
I laughed out loud when I read this question.  I was never a Bunny. I had the boobs but not the legs. For over twelve years, I was a fairly regular guest at the Playboy Mansion.  Max Lerner, the late Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist and writer, was a good friend of Hugh Hefner. I was a friend of Max.

Staying at the Mansion was like living in a five-star hotel where you never received a bill.  Twenty-four hour room service, valets, maids, gym, grotto and pool, tennis, a game room with a billiard table, three private bedrooms for assignations, a vast film collection, a masseuse, all surrounded by a multi-million dollar art collection.  Dali, Pollack, Matisseand others adorned the walls.

In my book, Henry Miller is Under My Bed: People and Places on the way to Paris (2011), the chapter, “Breakfast at Hef’s”, has a colorful description of life at the Mansion. Actors James Caan and Tony Curtiswere regulars. My favorites were the writers and directors like Shel Silverstein and Richard Brooks. Some of the most stimulating intellectual conversations I’ve ever had took place around Hef’s breakfast table.

In my first life, I was a minister’s wife. I made up for those traditional years at the Playboy Mansion.

Please tell us about the time you spent in Moscow and the bookshop you owned.
In 1988, I met my husband, Yuri Loskutov, while participating in a Human Rights conference in Moscow.  After we were married in 1989, I began living there when I wasn’t teaching. Contemporary English language books were scarce. George Whitman, the late owner of Shakespeare and Company Paris, encouraged me to open a bookstore in Moscow.  I found a Russian partner who already had a small literary bookstore. We opened on April Fool’s Day in 1996 because everyone said we were fools to do it.

In those days, Delta let me bring three large seventy pound bags, filled with books and never charged me for excess luggage.  When Russian customs tried to charge me fees, I smiled and told them to keep the books and drink them with their tea.  They always waved me through.

From the first day, Shakespeare and Company Moscow became the literary center for Expats and English speaking Russians.  Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky and Masha Gessen, who now writes for the New York Times, were featured guests. We rapidly earned a reputation for our well-stocked lounge, which featured Starbucks Coffee, vodka and red wine.  Some readers would get tipsy while browsing for books. Yes, it helped improve the sales.

In the 90’s, Moscow was like the Wild West and I thrive in these dynamic, fast-moving environments.  We closed in 2003 after Putin’s corrupt bureaucrats and mafia made life difficult for small businesses.

If you could invite one writer living or dead to dinner, whom  would you select and where would you take them.
There are two. Erica Jong and David McCullough.  I’d take her to Jean-Georges in NYC. David McCulloughand I would go to the newly renovated Ritz. It’s not too late. They are both still living. I’m ever hopeful.

Who are some of your favorite French writers and books?
Colette and Simone de Beauvoir were fearless nontraditional role models. Simone chose her intellect over her heart and paid a heavy price in personal happiness.  Colette managed to have both.

After reading The Second Sex, I realized why I often felt out-of-step with society’s expectations. Beauvoir’s concept of alterity, living your life through others, revolutionized my thinking. I decided to forge my own path and not worry about the consequences. Financial independence was an important key to that decision.  My first article in the Huffington Post was “How I Retired Early and Moved to Paris.”

What is the book you are currently writing?
The rue de la Bucherie is the focus of my current book.  It has a rich literary legacy intertwined with the history of the street.

You have a fascination with Henry Miller; you wrote the book Henry Miller is Under my Bed and have a large archive of original Henry Miller materials. What attracted you to Henry Miller’s work and your fascination with him?
Bradley Smith, a Time/Life photographer and writer, wrote two books with Henry Miller. As a result, he had an archive of Henry’s taped interviews, photographs and letters. I used to sit on the floor of Bradley’s home office in the hills of La Jolla, listening to Henry’s deep Brooklyn accent. Miller died in 1980, so I never met him. But I absolutely coveted those materials. After Bradley died in 1997, I purchased the archive from his estate as well as the rights to five of Bradley’s books.

Two years ago, Dorothy’s Gallery hosted an exhibit of the photographs.

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Mary Duncan

About Mary Duncan

Mary Duncan, a native San Diegan, grew up in National City, where Henry Miller said he found his identity. In searching for her identity, she has traveled to numerous countries and prefers to be where there is action, diversity and controversy. Her research specialty as a professor at San Diego State University was the “troubles” in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army. She focused on the conflict’s impact on children and the internal organization of the I.R.A. and its cell groups. In addition she has researched children and play patterns in Mexican squatter villages, Arab Tourism in London and international terrorism. In 1982, she moved to La Jolla, a seaside community in San Diego. She met people who introduced her to the worlds of Henry Miller, Simone de Beauvoir, Colette and other writers. And it is in these worlds that she found relief from the stress and uncertainty that emanated from her Belfast research. Paris and La Jolla entered her life almost simultaneously. In Paris she created a circle of friends and started building a foundation for a life in the City of Light. After her marriage to Yuri Loskutov, a Russian, she lived in Moscow several months of the year and founded Shakespeare and Company Bookstore Moscow. Since 2000, she has mainly lived in Paris. In 2005, she purchased an archive consisting of audio tapes, photographs and correspondence related to the life of Henry Miller. Some of these materials are described in her memoir, “Henry Miller is Under My Bed: People and Place on the Way to Paris.” (2008). She is a member of the Advisory Committee for the Henry Miller Memorial Library in BIg Sur, California and is is a patron of the Shakespeare and Company Literary Festival. In 2008, she founded the Paris Writers Group. In between her writing and travels, she continues to live in Paris.