• Emilio Cardini
  • Emilio Cardini

Emilio Cardini

Emilio could never quite fit in his native land. Too many rules and prohibitions for his free nature. But in French Indochina very little was illegal. - an excerpt

Of an Italian family. He claimed to be the second cousin of Caesar Cardini, creator of the Caesar Salad in 1924.

Emilio could never quite fit in his native land. Too many rules and prohibitions for his free nature. But in French Indochina very little was illegal. Native dissent topped the list, though Chinese trouble makers were plenty. And Chandra Bose had a few followers and a few more sympathizers among the Malabars, but his main focus was the British in India. All in all, if it didn’t diminish the state’s coffers, such as counterfeiting or tax evasion, it was allowed. If it enriched the state it was protected; the opium monopoly being the best example. Chattel slavery was strictly prohibited, but after chasing the dissenters and trouble makers, and busting the odd counterfeiter, the state’s resources were stretched thin. In such an environment men like Cardini throve. Laissez Faire was their sincere motto.

The man Cardini claimed to be his cousin had set out from his native Italy to America, where he found himself a home in San Diego, California. His business, though, was across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. It was Caesar’s hotel and restaurant. “My cousin, he wrote to me,” Emilio began, warming to the story he has told so many times. “He wrote to me about his creation. How the American aviators of the American navy came to his restaurant on the July 4th of 1924. But it’s late and he has no more food of the menu. But the aviators, they will have food. So my cousin Caesar goes to his kitchen and finds everything that one can eat, and makes of it a grand salad, which he prepares at the table with panache. And now my cousin is famous in America. He is famous because he did the best he could with what he had.”

Cardini’s wife, or maybe it was his mistress, laid a gentle hand on his and said, “Emilio, not again. You’ll tire yourself. Save your breath for sweet nothings.” The other woman giggled at the inside joke. One of them ran a shoeless toe up his pantleg.

“Not a bit of it, Ma Cheri. The Captain and his charming companion have asked for my story.” He fingered the knot on his blue silk tie, gathered his vocabulary and continued. “I was inspired by his letter. The lesson was simple. Take what you have and do the best you can. Perhaps you will not be the richest man, but you will be a happy man. For as long as the world allows."

“Miss Fowler, you will not guess what I was before I received my cousin’s inspiring report. The Captain knows, but let me tell you. I was a counterfeiter. Oh, and not a bad one. But when I arrived here in Saigon to practice my trade I found that Inspector Massoni, and his apprentice Sergeant Vigot, were too sharp-eyed to let a bad piaster slip by. They put me out of business. But not before helping themselves to my best work. Massoni, he had gambling debts. And Vigot, he wanted to buy enough books to fill a library. And to court that blond White Russian from Shanghai. They say she does both the French and the Greek for those she admires. And she admires the well-read gentleman. Let me see, what’s her name?” he asked his women.

“Vava,” said one.

“Milovskaya,” the other added.

“Ah, yes. Vava Milovskaya. She does prefer the literate man. And so Vigot began to read. But so much of the serious. All the Pascal and such. Vava is so much, how to say, funny girl. You remember she tried to seduce Charlie Chaplin when he was here in 1936? Ha! And Chaplin is on his honeymoon!”

“But back to my story. I have only one thing that I can do. But I take the lesson of my cousin and do the best I can with it. What is the one thing I can do? I can make beautiful. So now I paint the portrait. And I make the antique. And all are beautiful.”

In slight confusion, Tamara asked, “But isn’t making antiques simply more counterfeiting?”

“But I sign them! Or at least I offer to sign them. If the client doesn’t like my signature, he can say no to it. But I always offer. You would like me to paint your portrait, Miss Fowler?”

“Well I’m sure I would prefer that to being made an antique. But no thanks just the same.”

Cardini’s antique business was profitable. And he did offer to sign each piece. If the client declined, he still put a secret identifying mark on it in the event of legal action. But it was his portraiture that had him in demand throughout the region. Women, mostly, came from all the colonies to sit for him at his studio in the Catinat building, across the Rue Catinat from the U.S. Consulate.

He set his counterfeiter’s skill to making the real, with all its warts, look beautiful. If his subject really had warts, then the warts would seem more like beauty marks. No woman was plain or ugly. No family looked disreputable. No gangster looked evil. No family dog looked mangy or rabid or stupid. He did not hide the real. He embraced it. He used calipers, like a sculptor, to measure facial features. On his canvas Mme Gaillard’s Gallic nose was still a Gallic nose, but somehow a Gallic nose was noble. Scars added character, even to the 16 year old Bertini girl who sustained a slash across the face in a dispute with her cousins over inheritance. When the prosperous river pirate Phan Li Chan was condemned to the guillotine for the slaughter of ten of his associates his execution was delayed till Cardini could paint him for posterity. The portrait carried at the head of his funeral was certainly that of a mass murderer, but it was his good side.