Adrienne Knows You Gotta Have a 'Gimmick,' and Hers Has Earned a Lotta French Bread

To a French writer, this language tutor has ‘the allure of a fragile Amazon’

I’m not modest, thank you, because I’ve worked too hard,” says Adrienne. That being so, the 38-year-old language teacher and adoptive Parisienne says the instructional method she developed is “very brilliant.”

It started eight years ago as The Gimmick, her book which introduced a practical guide to English for the French, stressing the idiomatic and the vernacular for those with formal (and thus useless) schooling. “I don’t teach language,” she says. “I teach how to be angry, how to be polite, how to be vulgar, how to fall in love.”

From the beginning Adrienne’s paperback sold like des petits pains (hot cakes), and she was hired to coach French actors shooting international movies. Now she has five other editions of her manuals aimed at Americans, including French, German and Spanish primers titled, naturally, Le Gimmick, Der Gimmick and El Gimmick. “I kill myself with this work,” she complains half convincingly. “I hate it. Since my own success, I can understand what happens to a man when he loses his life in his work—you’re not available for human relationships.”

Adrienne may not have the time, but she has the vocabulary. In each book the chapter that inevitably attracts the most attention is one called “Words and expressions ‘not to say’ “—a handy compendium of sexual badinage as well as epithets unfit for polite palaver. “You can take the list or leave it,” she says. One of Adrienne’s favorite endorsements—”I wish I’d had such a book when I was living in France”—came from Henry Miller.

Her own single-name signature suggests a French origin, but her roots are in Brooklyn, where she was born Adrienne Penner. “I had a wonderful father who let me be what I had to be,” she says of her doctor-artist dad. “I’m like Topsy; my life just happened.” What happened when she was 20 was a summer as a tourist in Europe. She fell in love—”not with a Frenchman,” she emphasizes, “with France.” She stayed on, supporting herself by teaching English at Berlitz for 80 cents an hour, then went to East Berlin to give journalism a whirl. There she fell in love with a musician, but the affair caught the attention of some beefy state security types. She learned the German equivalent of “scat,” and did.

After odd jobs in West Germany and Sweden, she returned to Paris and teaching English. But when her first Gimmick book evolved, 17 publishing houses rebuffed her before the 18th said oui. The one who put it over was Françoise Giroud (then editor of L’Express and later minister of culture), who published excerpts of the book.

Lately, having just finished a “spoken American dictionary” (25,000 entries), Adrienne’s been too busy, she complains, “to have any serious relationship with men,” but does “fulfill her erotic being.” Which suggests that in matters of her own heart, her favorite language is an obscurist Esperanto. Her remaining “great ambition” is to write a film. “It will be a woman’s film, the story of a successful woman, not woman as the victim. Je suis bien dans ma peau [I’m comfortable with myself], as the French say. The time is right.”

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