It is evening at the Brasserie Lipp, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris.
The fall after-theater crowd shrugs off furs and foulards, as waiters take balletic strides in ankle-length black-and-whites, balancing plates of choucroute, andouille, and Bismarck herring. Signs warn against feeding les chiens at the table, or expecting to pay by check. Painted angels on the ceiling, yellowed from ancient smoke, watch over Art Deco ceramic panels of cockatoos frolicking in palms and prickly pears. Flouting the rules, a lapdog pants on the red moleskin banquette. Everything is multiplied in wall-sized mirrors, such that among the thin columns and glass dividers, there is almost nowhere to look chez Lipp without seeing some version of yourself.
Lipp’s regulars have included Chagall, Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. French Presidents de Gaulle, Pompidou, and Mitterand (and his extramarital daughter) were all regulars. The tables—in one of three sections, known (never out loud) as purgatory, the aquarium, and paradise—have hosted Bergman and Rossellini, Jagger, Madonna, the archbishop of Paris, and France’s most offensive pornographic filmmaker. Ex-President Bill Clinton was denied Coca-Cola on the terrace, because Lipp does not serve Coca-Cola. A Moroccan nationalist was lured here to be “disappeared.” Ernest Hemingway loved Lipp: “The beer was very cold,” he wrote, “and wonderful to drink.” Another habitué, French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, creator of The Little Prince, crashed his prop plane in the Egyptian desert attempting a Paris-to-Saigon speed record in 1935, but five days later, as the legend goes, thought lost forever, he walked through Lipp’s revolving wood-and-glass doors to astonished cheers. The owner poured free champagne until 3 a.m.
Or so they say. That’s the kind of place Lipp is—a place of a thousand stories—and has been for 135 years.
Monsieur Serge, as he was known, was for most of his adult life a waiter chez Lipp. In his late 30s, already bald save for a horseshoe-shaped tonsure, he wore an elegant mustache, pointed at each end, that echoed the faint trace of the Eurasian steppes sharpening the corners of his eyes. He was broad-shouldered, handsome, and a hard worker, capable of long stints of physical activity without rest. Polite and courtly, he delighted in the electric atmosphere of Lipp’s self-infatuated dinner theater—but with Gallic discretion, he never fawned. He engaged his clients with a lilting foreign accent that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Everyone loved Monsieur Serge. No one knew him.
That’s because Monsieur Serge kept his private life to himself. Some of his co-workers in 1960s Paris gathered he was a Hungarian Jew named Imré Kovács, born in 1926 in Makó, a small town not far from the Romanian border. The vague outlines of his past life circled as rumor: He was raised a peasant, along with his sisters Klari and Margit and his half-brother Laszlo. His father was a veteran of the Great War. His mother, Ilona, was a devoted housewife. They were not deeply religious, but they were Jews, and that, as much as anything, determined their fate. That much was known.
What his colleagues at Lipp didn’t know was that as a young man, Imré Kovács had escaped the Hungarian fascists. How he had done this was not something he seemed to be interested in boasting about at work. Unlike Lipp’s patrons, the staff there inhabit a great anonymous dignity. They are given numbers one to 25, which they wear pinned to their lapels. The career garçons come from demanding apprenticeships or Lipp lineage, or else they have bought their way in to what is a lucrative job for the field. They handle their clients with unobtrusive hustle, hauling trays up 23 cramped steps from the basement kitchen. Equal parts stagehand and Greek chorus, they spend their days and nights asking how everyone is doing, never to be asked it in return.
Had anyone broken through Monsieur Serge’s defenses, though, they would have heard an amazing tale about infiltrating the 26th Waffen-SS, the 2nd Hungarian Division of the German elite fighting force. He might have told them about surviving a brutal Soviet POW camp and spying there for an international Zionist intelligence ring. Or about joining the armed resistance in Palestine and seeing the birth of the State of Israel. Or he might have talked about tracking former Nazis in Indochina and Algeria after the war, meting out vengeance through assassination plots in the French Foreign Legion. But that was Imré Kovács. Monsieur Serge was a man with a wife and eight children in Paris, a waiter chez Lipp.
In some ways, each of these creations invented the other.