Rasputin Last Seen In Paris
© Copyright 2020 by Hank Nadler
My first trip to Europe was greatly enhanced and enlivened when I ran into an old college chum, Gino Fortunato, who was not only charismatic but also sui genris.
While travel can be broadening, travelling alone can leave one feeling quite isolated. It was my first trip to Europe, and driving around the continent, the sights and cultural ambience lived up to expectations. However, except for the occasional hitchhikers, human contact was negligible. Having hitched a bit myself, I was open to young Americans thumbing rides. I welcomed their conversation, as well as the money they chipped in for gas, considering that gas at that time in Europe was more than two dollars a gallon (in the states it was under fifty cents). It certainly lessened the strain on my limited budget.
There were a couple of interludes that took the edge off of my solitude: a short stay in London with a friend who was living north of London, in Camden Town. His name was Sal; I had met him through another friend in New York City. He was very accommodating and insisted that I stay with him and his girlfriend. After three days in their company my wanderlust kicked in and I decided it was time to hit the road. Before I left I asked Sal if I could leave my car with him when I was ready to return to the states. He said he would be glad to accommodate me. He agreed it would be no trouble to sell it and send me the money. Well, as it happened, I left the car with him, and took it for granted he would sell it, as we discussed, and send me the money. However, back in the states, I never heard from Sal again, and never received the money he promised to send.
And in Copenhagen’s famous Tivoli Gardens, I accidentally ran into a woman I knew casually in NYC. She was engaged to a friend of my brother, and she was travelling with the actor Hugh O’Brien (Wyatt Earp on the TV series), supposedly scouting locations with him, she awkwardly explained. A likely story at best, since, as far as anyone knew, she knew nothing about film and had zero film experience. She urgently whispered to me on the sly, "Alex, you'll be a nice guy and not mention it, right?"
All in all, my first three weeks abroad I pretty much kept my own counsel. Things picked up considerably when I reached Paris and connected with the irrepressible wild man, Gino Fortunata, a friend from college. At school, he was a high-jinx kind of guy, always breaking rules, getting in trouble. He didn't so much break rules; they just didn't exist for him. Charismatic and unpredictable, Gino, was (in the parlance of the time) a "trip". Reputedly the king of Paris, he knew and was known by everyone, locals, as well as expats and especially the Paris narcs. Walking down the street with him, he would sneer at a seemingly innocuous passerby and mumble under his breathe, "a freaking, frog narc, man." Addicted to heroin, Gino was the most laidback, easygoing, junkie you could ever imagine. There was none of the surly, lost, shell of a person most junkies exhibited.
He lived, if you could call it that, in a Citroen Deux Chevaux truck parked on the walkway bordering the bank of the Seine that runs through the heart of Paris. Everything he owned was packed helter-skelter in the congested interior of that truck. He slept, ate, and god only knows what else in that truck. I'm sure if the history of that truck could be written it would tell a story to elicit nightmare fantasies, wild laughter and scare little children.
Walking the Paris streets with him was a treat, both theatrical and memorable. With his long black Rasputin beard and black Russian navy coat that came down to his ankles, he was a spectacle that even bedraggled, bummed out hippies looked upon with awe and respect. He'd stop into shops along the way to greet the owners. At bookstores he chatted with the owners and customers. He'd leaf through books, and encouraged by the shop owners, help himself to whatever he liked.
At college he'd been accused of some rule’s infraction, long since forgotten, but it was serious enough that he faced expulsion. At the student court, as the only witness to the incident, I played his advocate. My testimony and personal appraisal led to his being exonerated. He was inordinately grateful and with his usual hyperbole, dubbed me, "Alex Davis, friend extraordinaire for life."
Another time, on a visit to New York City, where I was then living, Gino, riding a Harley-Davidson, met me at a coffee shop in the Village. Afterwards he insisted on driving me across town to my apartment. A joyride it was not, rather, with the hog howling in the night, it was a hair-raising, madcap assault on the City That Never Sleeps. With me hanging on with the nails of both hands digging into the leather seat, he drove what seemed like a hundred miles an hour across narrow tenth street--not stopping for red lights or pedestrians. Fortunately there was almost nobody on the streets at that time of night. That was the last I saw of him till we reconnected in Paris.
After my sojourn in Paris, I headed off to Spain where a group of friends were working on a film. But the impact of Gino’s personality and the charged moments spent with him stayed with me. He was so vibrant and idiosyncratic that he remained vivid in my imagination long after I last saw him.
Sometime later, I heard from friends that Gino had repeatedly tried to go to England, where he had a large stash and many friends, including the Rolling Stones. But because he was a known junkie, they wouldn't let him into the country. Despite the heroin, or maybe because of it, he was conscientious about his health. He basically took good care of himself, so it came--more as a shock than a surprise--when the last I heard, he had died of an overdose.
I spent many years as a
filmmaker at CBS, ABC and National Geographic. In 2008 I became an
independent producer, writing, directing and producing documentaries
and children’s films. Since 2018 I’ve been writing
full-time, completing 8 children’s books, an adult literary
novel, a non-fiction novel and a short story collection. I've not
been published yet but I'm ready.