Remembering Carla Grissmann
An Incident in the Life of the Celebrated Humanitarian, Carla Grissmann
I belatedly learned of the death of Carla Grissmann, a good friend and an expatriate’s expatriate, a Mother Teresa without the religious overlay, the most trusted American in Afghanistan, a self-effacing person with an amazing ability to get those around her to drop pretense and do the humanly-right thing. She was my link to Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Walker Evans and others of that era. Sitting on a beach in southern Sri Lanka one afternoon, I pointed to a small island about 200 yards out in the bay. There was a single house on it; high arches with great open spaces let the seascape show through the rooms. “That must be an amazing place to live,” I said. “Oh,” Carla said. “That’s where Paul Bowles lived when he was out here. He didn’t like it at all.” She then told me that at low tide, the water got so shallow that villagers could wade out to the tiny island, which they did regularly to watch Bowles go about his daily writing and composing. That was how I found out she was a personal friend of Bowles, though I had known her for years by then, and the conversation flowed on to stories of life in Tangier with the existentialists after World War II.
More illustrative of Carla, perhaps, is an incident in a hotel lobby that same trip to southern Sri Lanka. We had just checked in and were sitting in the lobby waiting for our rooms to be ready. Some French tourists with poor English came in and began berating the staff, and in frustration, broke into vitriolic French. I saw Carla stiffen, and shortly, she could stand it no longer. In flowing French, she interrupted the Franco-tirade and explained the problem the hotel was having. It ended with the French tourists offering apologies all around to the hotel staff. That was Carla’s extraordinary gift – the ability to restore the human balance in the face of conflict and self-interest.