Letter From Paris

When the Party Was Over

Charles Glass captures some real Americans in Paris -- under Nazi occupation.

By From the November 2009 issue

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Living in Paris is one of our oldest traditions. It started in 1776 with Ben Franklin, who spent eight enjoyable years wrangling loans, military aid, and diplomatic recognition from France -- in the process becoming the homespun darling of many powdered and perfumed young ladies. Thomas Jefferson replaced him for five years in 1784, representing the U.S. at Versailles and indulging in the local art, wine, and food (while warning American tourists to stay away from Parisian luxury and sin). John Adams, Thomas Paine, and James Monroe spent important time in Paris, with Adams's wife Abigail vocally sad to leave. Even that quintessential American Walt Whitman imagined himself "a real Parisian."

The tradition continued throughout the 19th century as American financiers, socialites, artists, and mere adventurers made the city home. In the 1920s Gertrude Stein and her "lost generation" acolytes Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, et al. made Paris a must for American creative types of
all stripes. St. Louis-born Josephine Baker starred at the Folies Bergère with her scandalous danse sauvage and her song "J'ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris." The cliché, an-American-in-Paris, was born, later to be incarnated by Gene Kelly in the musical.

Many Americans who lived here between 1920 and 1940 made Paris one long party. As the journalist Eric Sevareid, who did time at the Paris Herald, recalled, "The permanent American colony in those days divided quite sharply between those who worked for a living like newspapermen, and those who kept country châteaux and moved between Paris and various spas." The level of implacable frivolity can be measured by the casual note in the Paris Herald as German troops closed in on the city in late May 1940: "Owing to unsettled conditions, the racing card scheduled for this afternoon at Long-champs has been called off."

Countless other things would be called off, as Charles Glass reminds us in his new book, Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation 1940-44, now out in Britain and to be published in the U.S. early next year by Penguin Books. Glass, a career foreign correspondent, portrays some of the more colorful Americans who stayed in the wartime city. As he puts it, "Americans in Paris under the occupation were among the most eccentric, original and disparate collections of their countrymen anywhere."

Ambassador William Bullitt advised Americans to leave when Britain and France declared war on Germany for invading Poland in September 1939. Many of the 30,000-odd American colony in Paris, the largest in Europe, hesitated for family or professional reasons. Others simply loved the place (the feeling was reciprocal, it then being acceptable for Frenchmen to openly like Americans) and were convinced that the Maginot Line would hold. The approximately 2,000 who remained after Wehrmacht jackboots hit the Champs Élysées on June 14, 1940, were protected by U.S. neutrality for another 18 months. But when Hitler unilaterally declared war on the U.S. four days after Pearl Harbor, Paris Americans suddenly became enemy aliens.

The White House and State Department urged Bullitt himself to get out. "No American ambassador in Paris has ever run away from anything," he cabled FDR, "and that I think is the best tradition we have in the American diplomatic service." After the French government turned tail and fled south, the embassy was one of the few governmental organs of any stature still functioning in the city; Bullitt became in effect provisional mayor. His haggling was key to convincing the Germans not to bombard Paris. In following months more than 1,700 U.S. citizens were rounded up and interned for varying periods at Frontstalag 122, 50 miles north. For Paris Americans, the party was over.

For the next four years they shared the hardships of other Parisians. They counted their ration coupons, scrounged for bread and other essentials, suffered malnutrition and anemia. They got around on bicycles if lucky enough to own, or steal, one. They shivered in darkened, unheated apartments due to electricity and coal shortages. During the few hours a day the Metro ran, its cars were so crowded that, as one wrote, "a sardine box is spacious and deliciously perfumed by comparison...passengers have their clothes torn off, children are trampled underfoot, fist fights common." Their French neighbors settled old accounts French style, by denouncing each other to the Gestapo.

The diverse group glass describes included the likes of Ohio-born Countess Clara Longworth de Chambrun, cousin of Franklin Roosevelt and wife of Count Aldebert de Chambrun, Washington-born and a direct descendant of Lafayette. An accomplished Shakespeare scholar and author of 16 books, eight each in English and French, the indomitable Clara brooked no insolence from the Nazis. As wartime head of the American Library, she managed, by dent of sheer gall and determination, to keep the library open as a unique beacon of American culture.

American books were also available from Sylvia Beach, originally of Baltimore, who ran the Shakespeare and Company bookshop. For 20 years her small Left Bank establishment had served as a club, mail drop, and forum for American writers in Paris. It was also a valued source for French writers like André Gide and Paul Valéry who there developed an appreciation of American literature. When an angry Wehrmacht officer threatened to confiscate the shop because she spunkily refused to sell him her last copy of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, she closed it permanently and hid all the books in a friend's apartment before he came back with troops. Rounded up and interned for several months, Beach was "liberated" in August 1944 by Ernest Hemingway en route to the Ritz Hotel bar.

Charles Bedaux was a special case. A naturalized American and self-made businessman married to the well-connected socialite Fern née Lombard of Grand Rapids, Bedaux was variously tagged "a Mephistophelean little Franco-American efficiency expert" (Time) and "The Mystery Man of international intrigue" (New York Times). Contacts like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were married at his Renaissance château, enabled him to wheel and deal with both French officials of the Vichy regime and Nazi rulers of the occupied zone. Curious about his dealings with the Germans, Washington put him under surveillance by Treasury, State, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the FBI. Arrested in 1942 after possibly being framed, he committed suicide before being tried in the U.S. for treason and trading with the enemy.

Dr. Sumner Jackson, an outstanding example of civilian American heroism in occupied France, was head surgeon at the American Hospital of Paris. When not treating hundreds of wounded Allied soldiers and American civilians, Jackson secretly worked with resistance networks to spirit downed British and U.S. airmen out of France. His French wife, Toquette, and 15-year-old son, Philip, also aided, the boy even infiltrating a German submarine base at Saint-Nazaire to photograph U-boat pens for later bombing. The Gestapo arrested all three just two weeks before D-Day and sent them to concentration camps. On May 3, 1945, the day after the Nazi surrender in Berlin, Jackson, his son, and thousands of other prisoners were herded onto prison ships in Lubeck harbor; an RAF squadron, assuming the ships were transporting German soldiers, attacked. Philip survived, as did Toquette in a separate camp. But Jackson died in a particularly tragic case of friendly fire.

Today's American community (estimates run as high as 50,000), is composed largely of itinerant businessmen, spouses of French nationals, students, retirees, and the usual diplomats. It is humdrum by comparison with those who lived through the occupation, as well as with the colorful entre deux guerres Yanks who made Paris synonymous with overseas adventure, eccentricity, and hijinks.

Many longtime American social and professional clubs now cut less of a swath. The quirky old Herald Tribune ("more weather forecasts on comics page"), scruffy home to many a fun-loving, hard-drinking journalistic lost cause and incubator of talents like Art Buchwald, used to have a local personality strong as a Livarot cheese. Now it's an insipid New York Times cut-and-paste job, with ever bigger photos and fancier layouts, and ever tinier news briefs. As for the American press corps itself, you can still tell recent arrivals by the new trench coat. Their swagger and ranks have diminished drastically, however, with the decline of foreign bureaus. Time, where I once toiled as part of a squad of correspondents supported by
a brigade of researchers, chauffeurs of Mercedes sedans, and factotums in the plush Time-Life Building near the Champs Élysées, now has one lonely reporter, the building sold off.

We who live here today as tolerated, twice-taxed (American and French) foreign residents tend to blend in discreetly. Some still seek what's left of the good life in the city that the writer Irwin Shaw, contemplating his own 1970s sojourn, deemed the urban ideal. But that party never really got going again.

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.