The Six Day Race, Paris, 1938: Story by Erich von Neff

erich[Author/Poet Erich von Neff is a San Francisco Longshoreman.]

Les Six Jours au Vel D’Hiv
Paris 1938

Par Erich Von Neff

Table des Matieres


Day One

1. Fat Henry

2. The Hundred Dollar Prime
3. The Sprint
4. Triumph
5. Yeah Babe
6. The Jam Is On
7. The Lap
8. At the Cabaret du Chat

Day Two
9. The Hop Sing Tong
10. Willy the Whale
11. Madame Yang’s
12. Insight
13. The Gatto Brothers
14. The Right Price
15. The Tire
16. Against All Odds
17. Retribation

Day Three
18. Letourner and Guimbretiere
19. Up a Notch
20. The Gap
21. Their House
22. Over the Top

Day Four
23. A Big Prime
24. The Bets Are In
25. Let the Good Times Roll
26. Later Inside the Horch
27. Fini

Day Five
28. Not So Fast
29. Center Stage
30. The Prefect of Police
31. To the Morgue
32. The Scorpion
33. Awakened
34. Thunder
35. Fang Marks Were Left Behind
36. The Transient Hotel
37. A Floating Memory
38. The Silent Fan
39. We’ll Blow the Joint Apart

Day Six
40. The Morning After
41. Get Wise
42. A Damn Good Idea
43. Lights Out
44. At Knife Point
45. Then Flash
46. The Scene
47. This Bullshit
48. Scram
49. The Lament
50. Hey
51. Time is one with Wing
52. Rendezvous
53. Twilight of the Gods


Les Six Jours au Vel d’Hiv, 1938

Pearls around her neck
Champagne down her throat
A cheer for Letourner –Guimbretiere
And a wild fling with the American team*
Steps into her Delage
Roars down rud de Rivoli
Paints the town red
Pulls up to the Cabaret Chez Regine
A jazz band and a revue
Throw her head back
Champagne down her throat
Les six jours
Les six jours
A cheer
A cheer
Les six Jours
Au Vel d’Hiv
*Oscar Juner & Bobby Walthour

The Teams*
1. Australia: Reggie McNamara and Hubert Oppermann
2. Belgium: Rene Boogmans and Marcel Boogmans
3. England: Reggie Fielding and Syd Cozens
4. France: Alfred Letourner and Marcel Guimbretiere
5. Italy: Gus Gatto and Vince Gatto
6. Holland: Piet van Kempen and Ernst Muller
7. Germany: Hans Krause and Werner Miethe
8. Luxembourg: Nicolas Frantz and Marcel Ernzer
9. Norway: Knut Knudson and Edward Kasputis
10. San Francisco: Willy the Whale and Tony Chocolate**
11. Switzerland: Frieddie Zach and Ernst de Buhler
12. USA: Oscar Juner and Bobby Walthour, Jr.

*Some teams are fictitious; some teams have been re-teamed
for this race.
Reference: “Six Days of Madness,” 1993, Ted Harper.
**Based in the Afro-American six-day cyclist of the time, Harry Hollis.

Day One

Fat Henry

Fat Henry and the boys sat above the north banking of the Vel d’ Hiv
With him the blonde babe, Vivacious Veronica
Delages, Isotta-Fraschinis…and Hispano-Suiza* limousines
Pulled up to the Vel d’ hiv.
Beautiful women entered escorted by fat rich men.
The riders rolled around the track, lap after lap.
And sprinted for the primes
While Bunk Johnson’s Band played “Moose March”
“This I like. This is my style,” Fat Henry said
As he guzzled a beer
And with that he reached for his wallet

*Delage, Duesenberg, Isotta-Fraschini, Hispano-Suiza, Horch, Packard, and Pierce-Arrow were classic cars of the era.

The Hundred Dollar Prime

Fat Henry rolled up a hundred dollar bill
And handed it to the usherette
“Give it to the chief referee.”
“For the next prime,” Fat Henry said.
“Also tip off Letourner and Guimbretiere”
And with that he put ten dollar in her red garter belt
Bunk Johnson’s Band* played “Down by the Riverside”
While Vivacious Veronica jiggled her breasts and rolled her buttocks
Heavy set men turned their heads and puffed on their cigars
The laps whirred by at the Vel d’ hiv
Through the haze of cigar smoke, beer and jazz
Vivacious Veronica was very much in tune

*A New Orleans jazz band of the era, one of the best.

The Sprint

“A hundred dollars. A hundred dollars.”
“For the next prime,” the referee announced.
“Ten laps to go. Ten laps to go.”
The pack thundered around the track
With Willy the Whale* well tucked in
And Letourner in the lead
And Juner on the pole
The crowd shouted for their favorites
“Come on, Willy, Come on.”
“Hans, Hans, Hans.”
Hey, Hey Letourner. Pour it on.”
Throaty Annette yelled
While Fat Henry lit up a big cigar
Bunk Johnson’s band Band played “Panama”
Pour it on. Pour it on.” Throaty Annette yelled
The bell clanged. One lap to go. One lap to go.
Letourner around Hans, Willy and Juner
Letourner, Letourner. Yes, Letourner.

*Hazily based on an American Six Day Rider of the era.

Yeah Babe

“Let’s have some real action,” Fat Henry said.
And with that Fat Henry put up $1,000 for the next team to gain a lap
Vivacious Veronica gave him a kiss on his puffy cheeks
And pressed against him with her breasts
While fingering her pearls
“Yeah, babe, more pearls, but first I gotta make a deal
With One Eye Joe at the Cabaret du Chat.”

The Jam Is On

What would have passed simply
As lap stoled on a field tired from the sprint
Now became a jam in earnest
One would feel the electricity in the air
As Willy the Whale picked up his partner Tony Chocolate
His black legs whirling
In full pursuit the pack thundered around the boards

The Lap

“Tony Chocolate, Tony Chocolate”
The cry went up
Bunk Johnson’s band played the “Muskrat Ramble”
Josephine Baker* leaned over the banking
Rooting for the black and gold
Of Willy the Whale and Tony Chocolate
The San Francisco Team
The gap widened with each lap and exchange
“The “Bolden Medley,” Josephine Baker, the Black and Gold
Tony Chocolate, Willy the whale closing on the pack
Frenzy, a lap gained by Tony Chocolate and Willy the Whale
Josephine Baker dancing to the Muskrat Ramble
Other women dancing, men swilling beer
“My kind of action” Fat Henry said chomping on his cigar
“Because of you,” Vivacious Veronica replied.
“Because of a thousand bucks
Because of a thousand bucks.
It’s as simple as that.”

*Known in Paris as La Baker

At the Cabaret du Chat

The boxer Pig Iron sat with his latest.
The flaming redhead Throaty Annette.
Judith Piaf had just finished singing, “La Vie en Rose,”—and now
On stage the chorus girls kicked up their heels, revealing, revealing.
To the tune of a seedy jazz band.
In walked Louie the Weasel.
He had parked the Duesenberg outside.
“Gotta see One Eye Joe,” he said to the hat check girl.
She pointed with her breasts toward the back door.
Louie gave the knock. Two short one long. He was frisked as he walked in.
Joe and the boys were playing poker.
“Making a bet for Fat Henry,” the Weasel said pulling out a roll.
And a folded piece of paper.
One Eye Joe put his cigar on the table.
He took the cash and put it in the safe.
“I gotta phone a couple of guys,” One Eye said.
“I gotta make sure things happen. I gotta make sure things turn out right.”

Day Two

The Hop Sing Tong

Sitting above the south banking

Beneath dim lights

Sat the shadow figure of Chang Wo

The reputed head of San Francisco’s Hop Sing Tong*

Singsong girls and damsels in distress sat on either side of him

Behind Chang Wo were more shadowy figures

“I like the Black and Gold,” Chang Wo said solemnly

Shadowy figures nodded agreement

“It would be a disgrace if the San Francisco team lost”” lost”

“Indeed boss. Indeed.”


* Roughly, Chinese “mafia”

** A country, state, and city could have a team.

Willy the Whale

“Who is this Willy the Whale?” Chang Wo asked

Attentive ears listened

“Wong makes inquiries?”

A phone call to San Francisco was made

Money was passed at a certain waterfront bar

Shortly the answer was received at Madame Yang’s

And relayed to Chang Wo at the Vel d’ Itiv

“Willy the whale was once a whaler

Hence the name

Its origins here, however, been forgotten

People think it’s because he’s a little stout”

“And people are deceived,” Chang Wo reflected

“They therefore think he’s slow

And that as the race progresses he will not stand a chance

And bet on lesser riders which is to our advantage”

Nonetheless the Black and Gold team may need a break

The Black and Gold may need the Hop Sing Tong


Madame Yang’s

A cellar beneath Madame Yang’s in Pigallee

“What are the odds on the Black and Gold?” Chang Wo demanded

The click of the abacus* could be heard

“One in one hundred fourteen”

Chang Wo puffed on a long thin stemmed pipe

“Good money. Good money. And Black and Gold, hum.

And what does Madame Yang say?”

“Chang Wo has the tiger by the tail

Chang Wo has luck by the tail

Chang Wo has luck by the short hairs”

“Sometimes the tiger must be coaxed

“Sometimes the short hairs must be stroked”

Singsong girls laughed. Singsong girls giggled.

“Who do we bet with boss? Who do we bet with?”

Shadowy figures asked

Monte Carlo. We’ll break the bank.”


*Abacus: An instrument for making calculations by sliding counters along rods or grooves. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, U.S.A. 1994, page 19.



“The Black and Gold must win that we know

How do we arrange things? How do we go about it?”

Shadowy figures asked

“All men must have a little entertainment

Some more than others

Some more yet

Send for the singsong girl called : The Scorpion”

“Gladly boss. Very gladly.”

“Well, then, so much for truth

Meanwhile we’ll cast our fortune with the sprints”


The Gatto Brothers

Now the Gatto Brothers from Palermo Sicily

Had their own agenda

Money was to be made in the sprints

And they were sure to make it

Let other teams steal a lap, maybe two

While they rested, while they waited

For a sprint with a big prime

And either Gus or Vince Gatto whipped through the field

Then pounce, like their very name in Italian–cat

They nipped the leaders on the line


The Right Prime

“Can a tire be made to go flat?”

Chang Wo asked as if thinking out loud

“For a price many things can happen

For the right price many thing are certain”

A henchman’s voice responded

Words were whispered, but in any case, all mouths were stopped

Quiet footsteps walked away

Orders had been given


The Tire

Bunk Johnson’s band was playing “Ballin’ the Jack”

The cigars were lit, the beer was flowing

And money had been posted for the sprint

Now being contested

When boom a tire burst. It was Vince Gatto

In the middle of the sprinting field

Straining every muscle to keep upright

Pulling against his handlebars one way, then the other

The crowd caught its breath as he pressed on

To the next banking, exchanging with his brother Gus

Then the Pye tire peeled off the shellac and Vince was down


Against All Odds

Though five men high Gus came around

Packed with adrenaline from the roaring crowd

Leaning against riders and cutting through pockets

Nipping Hans on the line

The crowd went bezerk

Fat Henry held up his glass in a toast

Vivacious Veronica did the soft shoe

Anita Berber* bared her breasts

Josephine Baker danced in delight

Only Cheng Wo remained silent

The abacus clicked in his head

He had lost money on the spin of a wheel

The abacus clicked in his head


* Anita Berber: a fixture at the Berlin Six Day Races and Cabaret scene. Since deceased, but given mouth-to-mouth recitation, revived and transported to the 1938 Paris Six. Presently played by the German Actrice, Nina Hagen.



In the dark corridor underneath the south banking

A hatchet man stood unseen

Footsteps could be heard approaching

A knife was pulled from a long sleeve

Cat-like eyes aimed, then swish

The blade found its mark

Between the ribs and into the very heart

A barely audible groan and the figure thudded to the floor

Above could be heard the rumble of the riders on the track

The knife was pulled out, returned to the sleeve

The hatchet man withdrew,

And no one was the wiser.


Day Three

Letourner and Guimbretiere

The big jammers of the race

The ones who could lay the hammer down

When they wanted were Letourner and Guimbretiere

So while Willie the Whale and Tony Chocolate

Had surprised everyone on the first night

And stolen lap on the field

By the third day of the race

Letourner and Guimbretierre had turned up the heat

And scorched the boards

Soon they led by four laps


Up a Notch

By ten o’clock that night

Two thousand dollars had been posted

For the next team to gain a lap

At the prodding of Vivacious Veronica

It grew to two thousand five

The pace cranked up a notch, maybe two

Anita Berber leaned over the banking

Chomping on a big cigar and bobbing her breasts

“I don’t bite too hard boys. I don’t bite too hard,” she yelled

“Isn’t she a nice girl,” Fat Henry chuckled

“She such a nice girl.”

The Gap

Was it partly due to this distraction? Now more

Letourner and hia partner Guimbretiere

Made a magnificent exchange

Letourner cutting off the field as he swung up to the relief line

A gap was opened, and so began the chase

Their House

The crowd was on its feet

“France. France. France,” they yelled

On the north banking Fat Henry gulped his beer and yelled the same

And Vivacious Veronica could not be restrained

On the south banking Chang Wo ordered all to cheer and stamp their feet

After all the odds were being upped his way

Anita Berber in defiance yelled for the German team

“Deutschland. Deutschland. You’ll see.”

Bunk Johnson’s Band played the “Dippermouth Blues”

Josephine Baker yelled “Tony Chocolate. Come on Tony Chocolate.”

Still Letourner and Guimbretiere widened the gap

On the chasing pack, Hell this was their house

The hammer was down. One exchange then another

And almost before one knew it Letourner surged into the field

They had a lap

Pandemonium. Shouts.

“France, France.” then the “Dippermouth Blues”

Anita Berber thumbed her nose in disgust

Truth, reality: Two thousand five. Yes, two thousand five

Over the Top

As if limp after an orgasm that cries of the crowd abated

The band stopped playing

The field went slack

Riders swung up the banking, higher, higher

Until boom there was no room for Hans Krause

Over the fence he went almost landing in Fat Henry’s lap

He demolished his Durkopp

Though fortunately not himself

He had four hours to get back in the race

“He’ll need a good massage,” Anita Berber said

“He’ll need all the head he can get.”


Day Four

A Big Prime

A Dutchman, a shipper, and a big tycoon

With a diamond stickpen, cigar, and large bankroll

Peeled off five hundred dollars

“To honor the Port of Rotterdam,” he said.

Patting the usherette on the fanny

And also handling her an undisclosed sum

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said

Carl van Hoven has put up five hundred dollars

For the midnight sprint and to honor the Port of Rotterdam”

Anita Berber led the cheer

“Hooray, for the Port of Rotterdam,”

She shouted as she sat on Carl’s lap

“Hooray for Carl and his big cigar.”

The Bets Are In

The word was out

To those in the know

And those with the right bucks

The Dutch team of Piet van Kempen and Ernst Muller

Was out to beat the Gatto Brothers in the midnight sprint

And collect from their countryman

They planned to pull it off in collusion with the other teams

Who perhaps soured a bit on the Palermo boys

Would box the Gattos in and open up a hole for either Piet or Ernst

Let the Good Times Roll

The field was tightly packed

Like a swarm of bees

Oaths and shouts went up as riders jostled for position

Ernst well placed behind the American Oscar Juner

The Sicilian Gus well blocked

“Ha. ha.” Carl said. “The Dutchman cannot be beat.”

Clang. Clang. Bell lap. Bell lap.

Oscar swung up. Ernst going for it

Gus boring through. Boring through

“Ernst. Ernst.” the crowd roared

Then it happened in the beginning of the turn

Their handlebars locked

Around the turn they raced, into the straight, , and across the line

A dead heat. Gus and Ernst in a dead heat

The referee now neutralized the race

Until due to skillful riding the two unpried themselves

The crowd went wild. People slapping each other on the back

By God, had anyone ever seen the like

On top of that the referee announced

“Ladies and Gentlemen, you have just seen the fastest lap of the race

By God, had anyone ever seen te like

Let the good times roll

Let the good times roll on and on

Later Inside the Horch

“Whew,” Carl said wiping the perspiration off his face

“That was damn close

I have to get back to Rotterdam

A big shipment is coming in”

“I help you light up your cigar” Anita Berber cooed.

“I’ll accompany you to your car.”

“Yes,” Carl answered, “Later inside the Horch.”


Day Five


What is this thing called “Fini?”

Chang Wo asked

“A gentleman’s agreement boss

No laps are gained or lost between 4 a.m. and noon”

“Gentlemen?” I see none–only men”

“I read your thoughts boss

But no one is keeping score

And no one is watching”

“Hum,” Chang Wo said “Hum”

Not So Fast

It was 4 a.m. at the Vel d’hiv

The last sprint and jam of the night were finished

The riders were winding down

The members of Bunk Johnson’s band were packing up their instruments

The crowd was leaving

Only the track lights remained on

“Not so fast,” Chang Wo said. “Not so fast.”

“You, Tan, here’s the keys to the Pierce Arrow.

Take the women home.”

To his other henchmen, talking in a quiet voice

Chang Wo explained.

“Wong and Wei will throw the body on the track.

We’ll attend to the rest

Then rendezvous in Madame Yang’s cellar

Now you two walk up in the stands near the rafters

Where you’ll remain unseen

Center Stage

One rider from each team

Slowly circled the track

But after half a hour they turned in*

Two figures now made their way through the stands

Down the stairs and beneath the banking

Shortly the body that lay there

Was thrown in the center of the track

Their task completed

The two figures shook hands

And disappeared into the night

The velodrome remained silent

*During fini, technically one rider from each team was to remain on the track at all times, but often this did not happen

The Prefect of Police

Who but who was being entertained in the boudoir

At Madame Yang’s that was called  “The Palace of Mirrors”

But the prefect of police

A knock on the door

“The phone for you, sir.” Madame Yang said

“Not now. Not now.

I’m busy. Can’t it wait?”

“It may be important.”

A phone with a long extension.

Was passed through the door

An anonymous voice spoke

“A corpse is in the center of the Vel d’ hiv”

Just as he was about to slam the phone down

And say “In the morning.”

The voice added: “And the press is on the way.”

This put a different bend on the matter

After all he had his reputation to uphold

Bottoms were patted

And nipples quickly kissed

Shortly the prefect’s black Citroen

Roared down Pigallee toward the Vel d’hiv

To the Morgue

The reporters from Le Figaro, L’Auto, and Le Matin . . . had arrived

And also the prefect of police

“What do you make of it sir?”

“Not much, a knife through the chest

Done in by a member of the underworld no doubt

With these types of killings, who knows?

Summon an ambulance, then, it’s on to the morgue”

Who was the killer of this guy that died?

No one knew.

And if they did, they would not speak the truth

The Scorpion

A black chauffeured Isotta-Fraschini limousine

Drove silently down Pigallee

Behind drawn curtains in the back seat

Dressed in a dark green Cheong-Sam*

Was the singsong girl; The Scorpion

And a well paid friend

The Isotta-Fraschini rounded the corner

And headed toward the Vel d’hiv

*Cheong Sam: Chinese evening dress with a slit up the side and a mandarin collar


Willy the Whale and Tony Chocolate

Took a swing at their trainer, Red Mike

When he shook them awake

Red quickly whispered the truth of the matter


Willy the Whale and Tony Chocolate

Took a swing at their trainer, Red Mike

When he shook them awake

Red quickly whispered the truth of the matter

Which till now he had kept to himself

For even walls have ears

They dressed and were soon on the track

The other teams were slightly delayed

But not by much

The truth must not be too obvious


As if released from a canon

Willy the Whale thundered around the boards

Exchanging on the bankings with his partner Tony Chocolate

Red Mike their trainer kept a close watch on the referee and the press

They had rolled up almost seven laps

Before the other teams caught on

Fang Marks Were Left Behind

Now where oh where were our leaders

The tricolor team of blue, white and red?

Unfortunately or rather fortunately

The team of Letourner and Guimbretiere

The leaders of the race

Were being delightfully entertained in the rider’s massage room

By the singsong girl called the Scorpion and her well paid friend

Then on a prearranged signal at the door

The Scorpion and her accomplice 

Reluctantly released their fangs

And somewhat weakened in the legs and other body parts

Letourner and Guimbretiere were hustled

By their trainers on the track

The Transient Hotel

Now for a dollar, maybe less

A wino or a man on the bum

Could buy a general admission ticket

To the six day bike races

And stay in the auditorium for the entire race

In New York, in Chicago, in San Francisco . . . and in Paris too

And if he didn’t cause any trouble and get thrown out

We could eat leftovers and drink stale beer

For six days he had his bunk

A Floating Memory

Letourner and Guimbretiere viewed the whirling riders in disgust

A substantial lead was now wiped out

And what to show for it but fang marks and a floating memory

Laps were being gained even now

What was there to do, but try to gain them back?

They were clipped into the pedals and given a push

One into the jam and one on relief

We’ll Blow the Joint Apart

Fat Henry was on a roll

Before fini Letourner and Guimbretiere were several laps up

“It’s in the bag,” he said as he stood up to leave

“A done deal; and later the bucks

Let’s celebrate. Now on to the Cabaret du Chat

We’ll blow the joint apart.”


Day Six

The Morning After

Fat Henry was slumped on the floor, snoring

Next to him was a blonde of unknown origins

Her breasts heaving as she slept

Cigar butts and cigarette butts were in the ashtrays

And strewn about

Their stale odor permeating the Cabaret du Chat

Wine glasses, one with a rose on it.

And beer steins, mostly empty, but some laced with foam

Were on the tables, the piano, and even the floor

Garter belts, stockings and panties

Were draped over the backs of chairs

Across tables and on the stage

What a night. What a night.