By Tara Marsh
Photos by Michelle Schleich
Looking around the arid and dusty landscape, watching people come and go on the other side of a wire fence, four-year-old Paul asked his father, “Why are those people behind fences?”
“No, son, those people are not behind a fence, we are,” his father replied. That is one of the memories Paul Grayber holds on to from his early childhood spent in an American internment camp in Texas that housed Japanese, Germans, Italians, and South Americans during World War II.
Paul was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to German immigrant parents. The oldest of three boys, Paul and his family were picked up by the FBI in January 1943, leaving nearly all their belongings behind, and taken to Crystal City, Texas, where they lived in the internment camp for the next two years. “I used to crawl underneath the wire fence and steal grapefruits off a tree,” Paul remembers.
The Grayber family, along with hundreds of other detainees, were treated well, he said. But the feeling of restriction was real. “The freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of everything was curtailed because we were imprisoned, really,” he said.
By late 1944, Paul’s father was offered a deal. The family could either choose to be exchanged for captured American citizens being held in Germany or remain in the internment camp. Many years later, Paul still questions the irony of that offer. “Exchanging Americans for Americans.”
“My father decided he didn’t want to be behind barbed wire and took the deal. That was a big mistake,” Paul said. They boarded a Swedish ship in January 1945. After sailing for 11 days, the Grayber family disembarked in Marseille, France, and traveled by train to Switzerland to be processed into Germany. They moved in with Paul’s maternal grand parents in a tiny cabin in the mountainous region of the Black Forest.
Years of battle had devastated just about every corner of the country. There was very little food, no jobs, no
“For the next five years, there was nothing,” Paul said in a somber voice. “You have no idea what having nothing means. With three small boys, it was tough.” In the summer of 1945, just a few months after the war
in Europe ended, Paul’s father set off to Stuttgart to find employment, taking young Paul along. The pair hitched a ride in the back of a truck, but about 10 miles down the road they were stopped at a French checkpoint.
“After the war, Germany was divided into four different military zones,” explained Paul. The Black Forest was in the
French zone, the north was the English zone, east Germany was controlled by the Russians, and the south was in the hands of the Americans. Paul and his father were taken into a small chapel. Standing in front of the altar was a French major in full uniform. Speaking in broken German, the major asked who they were and where they were going.
Paul’s father handed over his identification papers and explained the situation. When the major asked who the boy
was, his father replied, “He’s an American citizen. He’s my son.” To that, the French major spat on the papers and tossed them to the floor. “Mah!” he shouted. “America! No good!”
“Here he was, wearing a uniform that the Americans gave him along with the Colt .45 on his hip,” Paul said, shaking his head. “Americans saved France and supplied them. I don’t know why he had that attitude.”
At that time, Paul explained, the French military would capture any males who were walking around loose and
send them off to the French Foreign Legion. Because Paul’s father was only a legal immigrant to the United States, not a full-edged citizen, he was vulnerable to the volatile political situation at that time.
“The major told my dad, ‘Thank your son. He’s an American. If it wasn’t for him, you’d be going into the French
Foreign Legion.’” Paul and his father were finally sent on their way. He spent the remainder of his childhood in Stuttgart, eventually returning to America when he was 18.
In 1947, not too far away from Stuttgart, Marie-Florence Gimel was born in the small village of Cruseilles, France, in Chateau de Pontverre. Her childhood surroundings were idyllic, just minutes from Annecy, also known as the Venice of France, and Talloires, a picturesque village on the shores of Lake Annecy.
“It is a beautiful, beautiful place,” she said. “Surrounded by the French Alps.”
She was the youngest child of renowned French expressionist painter Georges Gimel. “I came from a very interesting family, but I didn’t know it at the time,” said Marie-Florence. Her father was part of the French Resistance and compiled his art and writing about the horrors of war and the efforts of the Resistance in a book titled Le Calvaire de la Résistance (The Calvary of the Resistance).
When preparing to share her story, Marie-Florence dusted off her copy of the book and opened its pages, briey.
“I never looked at the book because it’s very sad. The war was such an atrocity. I’m too sensitive for that. I can’t read those things,” she said.
The next few years working and saving money to achieve her childhood dream: to travel the world. To kick off the adventure, she and two friends took advantage of Greyhound’s promotion at the time: 99 days for $99. With nothing but their backpacks, the group tra-
versed the United States and Canada. The year was 1968. Later, the three friends embarked on a trip around the globe, visiting just about every Asian country, the Middle
East, and Central and South America while meeting remarkable people along the way.
“It changed my life,” said Marie-Florence. “It changed my approach and attitude to life. My dream was always to travel. I was not book smart, but I was street smart. As a student, the only subject I was good at was geography!” she said, laughing.
But perhaps for her father, who was in his mid-40s during the war, putting together the images and words was healing. After the war, fellow artists in his circle, including Monet and Picasso, traveled to the south of France to focus on their art, explained Marie-Florence. “My dad would say to them, ‘While you guys went off to paint flowers, I was at war. After the war, there is no way I can paint flowers.’ That is why he made this book,” she related.
Her older brothers now own Chateau de Pontverre and their father’s original work and are renovating the chateau with the intention of creating a permanent museum of Gimel’s work. Her father died when Marie-Florence was 14, but before his death he made it a point to introduce his daughter to the wonder of art. “He took me to the Louvre, but he didn’t want me to tour the whole place. He said only take it in a little bit at a time so I wouldn’t forget anything,” she said.
After working as an au pair in England and Holland, Marie-Florence arrived in Los Angeles on her 20th birthday.
The journey wasn’t always postcard perfect. "The Middle East was particularly dicey and dangerous, she said, especially for women. Women had to be escorted by a male everywhere they went and not be seen alone.
“But it taught me how to handle just about any situation,” she said.
Around the time Marie-Florence was earning her stripes as a world traveler, Paul was immersed in the world of show business and modeling in New York. In 1966, Paul had a part onstage in an opera at the Metropolitan Opera House, standing next to Placido Domingo as the famous singer performed.
Paul spent many years modeling for renowned designers,including Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, and John Weitz. By the 1970s, he had made his way to Los Angeles, where his rugged good looks landed him spots in Western-themed commercials. He became pals with Tom Selleck and appeared in one of the last episodes of Magnum, P.I., titled “L.A.”
Marie-Florence returned to Los Angeles and was one of four managers of a restaurant near Universal Studios. Running into Hollywood celebrities was a regular occurrence, but Marie-Florence wasn’t too interested in the world of show business.
“I never recognized anybody,” she said. “All the waiters and waitresses were aspiring actors and couldn’t believe I didn’t know many of the celebrities who would frequent the restaurant. They would say to me, ‘You French people are really out of it!’”
Fate was starting to close in for Paul and Marie-Florence. Their paths, unique and colorful on their own, were about to cross. Marie-Florence, now a single mother of an 11-year-old son, had just ended a tumultuous relationship with a Hollywood screen-writer and was burning off steam at the YMCA.
Paul just happened to be exercising nearby and noticed the petite blonde and wondered why she wasn’t home watching the Academy Awards. Paul struck up a conversation, but Marie-Florence wasn’t interested. “I was so sick and tired of men. He asked me if I had someone and I said yes because I didn’t want it to go any further,” she said with a laugh.
Later, Marie-Florence was back at the YMCA and pointed Paul out to a friend. “What?!” the friend exclaimed, not under-standing why Marie-Florence wasn’t interested in the handsome gentleman.
“My friend said to me, ‘I wouldn’t mind waking up to a man like that!” she recalled.
Eventually Marie-Florence agreed to a date. But there was one very, very important catch—her son.
“Paul really connected with my son Philippe. That was very important to me. It was my priority. They bonded so well I told Paul, ‘You married me because of my son,’” she said. Paul and Marie-Florence were married in 1989, and it didn’t
take long for them to set out on an adventure together.
In the early 1990s, they accepted an offer to manage a hotel on the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean and off they went, along with young Philippe.
It was the idyllic island life for a few years, but as Philippe got older, Paul felt that the young man needed more structure than the lax island life could offer, so they returned to the States.
Paul and Marie-Florence traveled up the coastline from Los Angeles to Portland, exploring and contemplating their
next adventure. Paul had a friend who lived on a ranch in Wamic, Oregon, and he suggested they consider Bend.
The Graybers fell in love with Central Oregon and its snow-capped mountains and bright blue skies. In yet
another stroke of fate, or perhaps even luck, they were strolling around downtown Bend and saw that the Romantique Boutique was for sale. (Coincidentally, Marie-Florence’s maternal grandparents had been instrumental in starting the world’s first “department” store, a place where a myriad of wares could be purchased.) Making another leap of faith, they bought the business. The year was 1995. “I did not inherit my father’s gift of artistic ability, but I always found my creativity in other ways, mainly fashion,” said Marie-Florence.
Settling in Bend and owning an upscale women’s boutique was a perfect fit. “It’s not easy for visitors to come into a former lumber town and find high-end fashions for women,” said Paul. “But Marie-Florence was able to accommodate the fashion market here—half of our clientele are from out of town and make it a point to return.”
You never know who you might meet in Bend. On any given day, you may and Paul and Marie-Florence Grayber
are in Romantique, greeting visitors with an old-world charm and genuine warmth that hint at their rich story and the
winding path that brought them here, together.