Remembering Bernard Cahier

By Michael Keyser

I first came to know Bernard Cahier in the late fall of 1972 when I hired him as a consultant for a documentary film I was planning to make about a season of Formula 1 racing, tentatively entitled Grand Prix 73. Although we’d never met, I knew he was an influential automotive and motor racing photo-journalist who could open doors that otherwise might remain shut. I figured we could use someone of his stature on our team. After sending him a letter describing what we planned and outlining how I thought he might help we agreed on the financial terms and he was on board.

The first venue at which we wanted to film was at an event called the Grand Prix of the Snow which Bernard had organized since 1969. It wasn’t a motor race, but rather an informal gathering of top drivers at the Swiss mountain town of Villars-sur-Ollon where Bernard owned a vacation home, the Chalet Apres Ski.

The object of the gathering was to provide drivers an opportunity to relax and have fun before they got down to serious business on the circuits throughout the world. The event was far from serious, but rather a relaxed weekend filled with friendly competition on the slopes, a party every night and great meals during the day. I thought it would be the perfect way to kick off the film, and I wasn’t wrong. Not only was our entire crew given VIP treatment, but because of our association with Bernard we had unlimited access to the drivers in attendance.

Unfortunately, I was forced to pull the plug on the production after filming at Villars and the first five F1 races of the season for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that I was spending far more money than I’d anticipated. Hemorrhaging money might be a better term. There was also another crew, financed by Marlboro, that was filming the identical footage as us. Plus they were shooting in 35mm while we were filming in 16mm. Enough of that story.

Thankfully, this was not the end of my friendship with Bernard. I’d see him occasionally in this country or Europe when I was racing, in particular at Le Mans where I competed four times in the 70s. Bernard and his wife Joan ran the Goodyear hospitality operation located in the paddock during the 24 hour race, which was a welcome retreat for drivers and many others fortunate enough to receive an invitation. This was in the days before teams and sponsors pitched huge tents behind the pits and laid on gourmet meals for their VIP guests.

Each year I’d receive a Christmas card from Bernard, invariably in January, that was always a group shot of his family. First it was just Bernard, Joan and their son and daughter, Paul-Henri and Michele. Then, one by one, grandchildren appeared, until there were not four people in the photograph, but nine. Although Bernard had lived on the shores of Lake Geneva in Evian for many years, the postmark was usually stamped Le Garde Freinet, a small village just north of St. Tropez where Bernard had purchased a second home he called Mas de Miremer in 1985.

In January of 2003, instead of a Christmas card, I received a postcard from Bernard, telling me he was in Villars, staying in a hotel as he’d sold his chalet a few years before. It was filled with as much news as one could possibly fit on a postcard, and since he’d included the fax number, I wrote him back, telling him what I was up to, which included plans to start work on another book, my fourth.

The day after I sent off my letter I received a fax back from Bernard in which he got right to the point. “The book you’re proposing sounds interesting, but what about mine?” In my Christmas card to him each year I always made a point of asking when he was going to write a book, as I knew he not only had a wealth of stories to tell, but a massive collection of photographs with which to illustrate it. In 1993 I’d paid him a quick visit in Evian and had seen the massive stacks of boxes in his office, each filled to the brim with 8x10 black and white prints. It was a veritable gold mine!

Faxing Bernard back, I said I didn’t know he was working on a book. “I’ve started,” he replied, “But I haven’t gotten very far. I think I need some help.” Hearing this, it didn’t take me long to set aside the project I had in mind, grab the bull by the horns and volunteer my services. Bernard accepted, and thus the die was cast.

We got together for the first time in the south of France in early May 2003, my wife Beth and I were flying to Nice through London, which meant changing planes at Heathrow, always a trying experieIn Nice we rented a car and drove the hour and a half northwest to the hill town of Le Garde Freinet, through beautiful vineyard-filled countryside.

Mas de Miremar

Bernard’s 42-acre property, Mas de Miremer, was located a few kilometers beyond the village. Loosely translated it means “the farm from which you can see the sea.” Armed with instructions we had no problem finding the house, and the moment we arrived we knew we were in paradise. And yes, you could see the sea.

A panorama of the view at Mas de Miremer. On a clear day a sliver of the blue Mediterranean could be seen.

A panorama of the view at Mas de Miremer.
On a clear day a sliver of the blue Mediterranean could be seen.

We were greeted warmly by Bernard, his beautiful wife Joan and their handsome Labrador Retriever, Ouzo. Knowing Bernard was a caviar and cigar aficionado, we’d picked up an ounce of Malossol and a box of Partagas at duty free in Heathrow which brought a huge smile to his face. On subsequent visits I’d also bring a bag of pig’s ears for Ouzo who was equally appreciative.

We were ushered to our second-floor bedroom which looked out over rolling hills for miles to a sliver of blue Mediterranean. At the bottom of a hill below the house, surrounded by silver-blue olive trees and large, squat cactus was a large swimming pool.

We were each furnished with drinks, followed by a delicious lunch, something I’d learn to expect each time I visited. Little did I know that those visits would span a 4-year period, either to Miremer or Bernard’s home in Evian. He spent the winters overlooking Lake Geneva, and the late spring, summer and early fall, the Mediterranean. Not a bad life.

I quickly learned that Bernard insisted on two sit-down meals a day, either at home or a local restaurant. Regardless of where the meal was, it included all the bells and whistles. Several courses with wine, often red and white, dessert, then brandy and a cigar. Almost always melon at lunch. Bernard loved his melon. And his jar of soft butter. Apparently, in disgust, he’d once thrown a stick of hard butter across a restaurant.

We took a nap after our late lunch, then it seemed it was time for dinner. Another incredible feast. But, didn’t we just eat? This went on for a solid week, yet I never gained a pound. Neither did Bernard. He ate like a horse and was thin as a rail. I brought him shirts several times and he wore a small.

I learned that in the morning you could set your watch by Bernard’s routine. At 9:30 he’d appear in his silk Japanese bathrobe, a cheroot dangling from his mouth with an impossibly long ash at the end. I reminded him many times, “Bernard, watch your ash.” Breakfast was two halves of a grapefruit, prepared by Joan or their maid, along with several croissants dipped in coffee. Several papers had already arrived which he skimmed, offering sarcastic comments from time to time. Then it was upstairs to shower, shave and change.

By the time he returned downstairs, the mail had arrived, which never failed to be voluminous. In addition to letters, bills, catalogs and magazines, there were requests for photos and stacks of publicity material from a dozen car companies; incredible pamphlets and presentation folders touting one model or another. Bernard would sit on the couch and open everything, glancing through it quickly then throwing it in various piles on the floor, which Joan retrieved and piled in stacks, or added to other stacks. There were mountains of material everywhere. On tables, on the floor, in chairs. Piles and piles. Organized confusion.

After going through the mail Bernard would retire to his office to write letters or make phone calls. He never learned to type. He’d write his articles in longhand, then Joan would decipher and transcribe his Sanskrit, earlier with a typewriter, then using a computer. They’d worked as a team for many years, of which Bernard was definitely the captain.

If Bernard wasn’t making calls, he was fielding them, either on the land line or his cellular. Each time the phone rang, he’d bark, “Merde!” Often it was someone wanting something, or a niggling problem with the house, or a change to travel plans.

He had a bulging address book held together with rubber bands that would have choked a horse. It was like a bible to him. On blue paper were the names, addresses and phone numbers of the many, many contacts he’d made over the years, all written in pencil so he could erase and change them. If he ever lost it he’d have ended up in a mental institute. I suggested he make a copy, but it would have taken many hours and a lot of patience. More than he had.

When Bernard was finally able to break away, it was almost time for lunch, or he had to run into town to the bank. I was given free run of the house and took the time to shuffle through the piles of materials, trying to assimilate some of their content and get a handle on the situation.

In addition to the mounds of magazines and paperwork, there were boxes and boxes of 8 x 10 photographs, the majority black and white, sorted by name, car, track, etc. On the back of most was a hand-written description of the subject matter, which would prove to be a Godsend. Bernard’s main collection of images and negatives were kept in his office in Evian, but he always brought a massive number of prints with him to Miremer to fill requests or refer to for a story.

On my first trip to France I’d only brought a laptop computer, a tape recorder and a camera. I spent a lot of time propping photographs up on the dining room table and taking shots of them in high-resolution, but I knew this wouldn’t suffice for a book. On future trips I’d bring a large monitor, a scanner and a printer, in addition to many notebooks I continually added to with transcriptions and research material. Two bags turned into three, then four. I needed a pack mule to carry everything.

During the week we were at Miremer, I spent a good deal of time interviewing Bernard. He’d been born in 1927 and it was 2003, which made him 76. He began covering motorsports in 1953, so we had a lot of territory to cover.

The logical place to start was at the beginning, so we focused on what would eventually become the first chapter, Early Years; growing up with a French General as a father, in the south of France, Paris and Evian. Then there was World War II, during which Bernard first fought with the French resistance, then the 2nd Armored Division, winning several medals in the process.

He was extremely fluent in English, although laced with a strong French accent. He would misuse, or mispronounce words at times. The Russians were the Roosians. Memories were “souvenirs.” He’d always say, “Good idée.” I tried to correct him and tell him it was “idea,” with an “a” at the end, but he couldn’t break his habit.

Bernard was a great story teller, complete with sound effects, and had a tremendous laugh. “Heh, heh, heh,” he’d cackle slyly. I told him every joke I knew, which were many, just to hear him chuckle. He had an extremely lucid recall of events, people, cars and circuits. Although I tried to keep us on a chronological track, he invariably went off on tangents. No matter. The tape recorder was running and I transcribed every word, sorting it out later. That’s how it went all week. Breakfast, newspapers, mail, phone calls, lunch, more phone calls or reading, interviews, looking at photographs, dinner.

Bernard was a night owl, rarely retiring before midnight. His favorite films were the early ones, before the war or from the 50s. At the top of the list was Grand Prix, on which he’d not only worked but starred, playing what else—a photographer. When you watch it carefully, you’ll notice him popping up everywhere in the background of a scene.  

With respect to cars, Bernard had many, including the Bugatti pedal car from his youth and a 60s era Mini. He had two or three for everyday use loaned to him by car companies, mainly from Volkswagen and Audi. He was good friends with Ferdinand Piëch and spoke to him often, offering his opinions about the various models. During my four years, he always had the latest, hottest Audi station wagon, like the twin turbocharged RS6, and a Touareg. One time Joan was involved in an accident at Miremer in a Touareg and it was totaled. A brand new one arrived within two days.

Driving with Bernard was often terrifying. He was excellent behind the wheel, but the roads around Miremer were narrow and twisty. I was normally in the front passenger seat, or the “death seat,” as I called it in my youth. The most harrowing moments were when he made a suspect pass with a large truck hurtling towards us in the oncoming lane. How many times we just nipped in at the last moment I can’t count. Thank God for the Audi’s blinding power.

Over four years, I made twelve trips to France. If not to Miremer, to Evian, on the shores of Lake Geneva. One time we met up in L.A. The house in Evian was on the Avenue des Grottes, a short walk from the center of town. Bernard grew up in a large three-story house on the two-acre property in which his older brother Guy now lives. In the 50s Bernard and Joan built their own house in the large garden. Guy had been in the antique business and his house was crammed to the rafters with incredible period furniture and artwork.

While Bernard’s son, Paul-Henri, an accomplished motor racing photographer in his own right, lived in a house above Miremer, his daughter Michelle had an apartment in Evian. At one house or the other, they or their children were always dropping by. I stayed in a bedroom at Miremer, but in Evian I had the use of a small chalet/guest house that overlooked the main residence. It was nice to have my own place where I could retreat, except for the time I found my mattress infested with bed bugs.

The routine at Evian was much like Miremer, aside from the fact that Bernard’s entire collection was kept there in a two-story library in his office. There were stacks and stacks and stacks of boxes, each one labeled on the outside with a description of the contents. Being intimately familiar with the thousands of photographs, and where they were, Bernard would select ones he felt were significant and hand me a bulging folder full.

On my first trip to Evian I brought a scanner with me and spent a great deal of time transferring the images to my laptop. In later trips, my good friend Dave Davies would fly down from the U.K. with another scanner and help me. We spent a tremendous amount of time watching the white bar slowly sweep across the surface of the photograph and saving it to file. We’d give the photos back to Bernard and he’d return them to their assigned location.

After each trip, I’d return to Maryland, organize the photographs, transcribe the interviews and continue research. When I’d visit Bernard again, I’d go over everything with him, asking questions about photographs, scanning more and conducting interviews. After completing the early years, we proceeded, year by year, starting in 1953. As it turned out, each year would comprise a chapter, until we reached 1980. At that point, Formula 1 changed and became more structured. The International Racing Press Association (IRPA), of which Bernard had been president, was dissolved in the early 80s, and at the end of 1984 his job as a consultant to Goodyear came to an end.

Although no longer active on the Formula 1 and Sports Car circuit, Bernard never retired. He continued writing articles for multiple publications, supplied endless photos for books and magazines, and attended all the major auto shows and model presentations. He also wrote a bi-monthly newsletter called the European Report in which he gave an insider’s view on news in the automotive world. I volunteered to type it up for him several times and developed a real appreciation for what Joan had gone through for many years.  

In 2007 he arranged for me to attend the intro of the Audi R8 in Las Vegas which was a memorable experience. I’ll never forget the drive we took out through the desert with Bernard at the wheel. At age 80 he wanted see what the car would do. Cresting a rise in the middle of nowhere at 140mph he took his eyes off the road to light a cheroot. “Let me do that,” I demanded. “You watch where you’re going!” I just prayed I’d get back to the Ritz-Carlton on Lake Las Vegas in one piece.

Bernard was an occasional gambler, some of which we did in Las Vegas. We also made a point of going to the casino in Evian each time I was there. I’d never played roulette, which was his game of choice, and it drove him crazy when I won the first time, betting on red or black, while he carefully selected numbers on which to place his chips and lost.

Whether it was Miremer or Evian, I could count on interesting company stopping by for lunch or dinner. There was the famous Time-Life photographer, David Duncan Douglas, Jochen Mass, the late Teddy Yip’s wife Beverly Clark, and his old friend and fellow photographer, Yves Debraine, among them.

The one Grand Prix Bernard never failed to miss was Monaco. He’d attend practice on Friday and Saturday, then return to Miremer to watch the race on TV on Sunday. I happened to be there in 2006 and he invited me to go with him. “If you promise not to snore, you can stay in my room,” he told me. He’d been comped one at the Hotel de Paris. The staff still remembered him well, and when we arrived he was greeted like the prodigal son.

We had dinner at his favorite restaurant, le saint-benoît, overlooking the harbor, then staggered back to the hotel. There was only one bed in the room. Thank God it was a big one, as I’d never slept with another man. Curled on my side, I was awoken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a broken chain saw. “If I snore,” I said to myself. I tried ear plugs, but finally fled to the bathroom and slept on the floor!  

I eventually crawled back into bed and was awoken the next morning by a knock at the door. It was room service with Bernard’s breakfast. I pulled the covers up and hid underneath lest the waiter think he was in the presence of two aging queens. As he ate his grapefruit and croissants and we watched Formula 1 practice on TV, we could hear the scream of the cars racing past our window. Only in Monaco.

The next day, we attended a luncheon of the Ancien Pilotes at Mike Sparken’s beautiful home in Beaulieu, where, among others, Phil Hill, Paul Frere, Maria Teresa de Filippis, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, and Hans Stuck were in attendance.

During my time working on the book, we had a lot of laughs. One time we’d been out to dinner in Evian, and when we returned to the house Bernard went to the basement to check on the water pipes. Apparently there’d been a small leak. We suddenly heard a high-pitched howl like a wounded wolf from downstairs. When I arrived on the scene I found he’d unscrewed a wing nut too far and water was shooting out of a hole in a pipe like a garden house. By the time I managed to thread it back in place we were both soaked to the skin like drowned rats. We changed cloths, had a few stiff drinks and laughed about it.

Another time at Miremer, I came down to breakfast and discovered a ferret in the kitchen eating Ouzo’s dry food. It must have been someone’s pet that had wandered away, but we couldn’t locate the owner, so we took it in and I named it Bernadette, as it was a female. I became quite attached to the little animal which slept with me, and was dying to bring it back home, but doing so would have been complicated. Bernard took it with him to Evian when he returned there, where it used to sleep curled up in his cowboy hat in a corner of his closet. Sadly it eventually disappeared, never to be seen again.

In January of 2005, tragedy struck the Cahier family when Joan suffered a stroke which left her paralyzed on her left side. Suddenly the beautiful lady who’d looked after Bernard almost all his life and put up with his many demands, was severely disabled. I remember well the saying that was pinned to Joan’s bulletin board at Miremer. “Dear Lord, I pray for Wisdom to understand my man; Love to forgive him; And Patience for his moods. Because, Lord, if I pray for Strength, I’ll beat him to death!” In spite of extensive treatment, poor Joan was confined to a wheelchair and could no longer help Bernard in the many ways she had before.  

The last three years of Bernard’s life was difficult for both him and Joan. A somewhat coddled Frenchman who’d grown accustomed to being looked after, he had to do many things himself for the first time in years. Although he was sympathetic to Joan’s condition, he often became frustrated with the cards they’d been dealt, and it was very sad to see.

I finally finished editing and designing the book, we titled F-Stops, Pit Stops, Laughter and Tears, early in 2007, and my company, Autosports Marketing Associates, published the two volumes to excellent reviews. It would go on to win the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism, which was gratifying for both Bernard and me.

In November of 2007, Bernard made a special trip to pay us a visit at our home in Maryland. It was cold outside and he assumed the chore of tending the fire, something he did with great relish. While he was with us, we paid a weekend visit to an old friend of his in Virginia, retired Admiral James “Ace” Lyons, the former commander of the 6th Fleet, who he’d become friends with many years before when the Admiral was headquartered at Villefranche-sur-Mer. We had a relaxing time, filled with Admiral Lyon’s many fascinating stories of his time in the Navy.

Bernard Cahier

Although I spoke to Bernard at least once a month thereafter, it would be the last time I’d see him. In early July of 2008, he was felled by a stroke on the shores of Lake Geneva while going for a swim with his daughter Michelle and his faithful dog Ouzo. It took quite a while for the ambulance to arrive, after which he was taken to a hospital in Geneva in a coma. He remained in that condition until July 10, when he passed away.

When I heard the news, tears streamed down my face and I cried, “Merde!” mimicking my dear friend. While he’d lived a fascinating, fruitful and long life, he left us too early. He still had writing to do and stories to tell, while eating a dollop of caviar or smoking a Partagas cigar. His son Paul-Henri now manages Bernard’s archives, which thankfully still appear in many publications. I was very happy that Bernard asked me to help him with his book, and extremely pleased he had a year to enjoy the many accolades he received for it. Adieu, Bernardo.