Monday, July 18, 2011

{review} paris in july: americans in paris

This is a post for Paris in July, hosted by BookBath and Thyme for Tea.



This book is doubly relevant to Paris for me, since I bought it in 2010 in the W.H. Smith bookshop on Rue de Rivoli as I was on my way to Angelina for a(nother) Mont Blanc and a hot chocolate. It was pouring with rain that day, so I ducked inside W.H. Smith to check out the books before continuing to Paradise Angelina.

Too greedy to take a before shot. Angelina's Mont Blanc
Strictly speaking this may not have been the one consumed on the visit above, 
since I am a bit of a Mont Blanc slut.

Now I'm going to find it impossible to find a sensitive segue from my stuffing my face with cream cakes to the plight of the citizens of Paris during the Second World War.

Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation 1940-44

In Americans in Paris, Charles Glass provides a very readable account of what happened to the American citizens who were in Paris during the fall of France and her subsequent occupation. Book-loving Francophiles will know one of these Americans very well, I imagine - Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Co. - but many of the other figures in this book were quite unknown to this reader. As France fell, some were fortunate enough to escape the country; others were not so lucky; and there were also the courageous (or foolhardy) who were determined to stay regardless of the consequences. This was doubly problematical if they were Jewish or black Americans. Until America entered the war, those who remained were not in any great danger unless they actively conspired against the occupiers, but they certainly shared the privations of their Parisian neighbours. After America became involved in the conflict, their situation was dire and they suffered internship or worse.

Glass has selected an interesting cross-section of people to recreate life in occupied Paris: a diplomat with intelligence connections (Robert Murphy), the bookseller Sylvia Beach, a doctor (Dr Sumner Jackson), a black veteran of the First World War American voluntary air squadron the Lafayette Escadrille (Eugene Bullard), a countess born in Ohio (Clara Longworth de Chambrun) and - certainly the most intriguing figure for Glass - the elusive millionaire Charles Bedaux.

America had a strong presence in Paris before the war, and two institutions in particular dominate Glass' narrative - the American Library in Paris and the American Hospital of Paris (at Neuilly). When America came into the war these institutions could have been taken over lock, stock and barrel by the Germans but both were saved by the extraordinary efforts of a small group of patriots. The Library was kept going by the Countess de Chambrun, who had been born plain (but rich) Clara Longworth in Ohio. The Hospital - by a strange twist of fate - fell to her French husband, General de Chambrun's care. The de Chambrun's war was a politically tricky one: their son René had married Josée Laval, the daughter of Pierre Laval who was twice head of the Vichy government

Dr Sumner Jackson with his son Philip (c1930): source

General de Chambrun oversaw the administrative survival of the American Hospital. It was Dr Sumner Jackson who attempted to maintain medical standards, something he managed while simultaneously actively assisting the French Resistance to smuggle downed Allied airmen out of occupied France with the assistance of his French wife and young son. 

Charles Bedaux occupies a very large part of Glass' narrative (indeed, I sometimes thought that this book may have originally been intended to be solely about his immensely complex war). Bedaux was born in Paris but emigrated to the US in his twenties, becoming an American citizen. He was a self-made millionaire thanks to his time management business which consulted with big industrial firms to improve worker productivity. Bedaux moved back to France and is best known in the 1930s for hosting the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at his French chateau. As Glass demonstrates, Bedaux is a very tricky figure to pin down. In the interests of business he may have made some dodgy deals with Vichy and the Germans, and his behaviour raised flags with the American intelligence community: when an opportunity presented he was arrested in North Africa and clandestinely transported back to America to face a treason charge.

The fates of Glass' subjects were not, in general, good: Sylvia Beach survived internment and privation but her already shaky health was broken by her ordeals. The de Chambrun's post-war life was clouded by their links with Pierre Laval. Bedaux committed suicide in Miami before there was a verdict on his case. The Jacksons were picked up by German intelligence: Mrs Jackson survived Ravensbrück concentration camp; her husband and son survived Neuengamme camp only to be bombed by the RAF on a German prison ship. Dr Jackson - an extraordinarily heroic figure - died in this raid, five days before Germany fell.

In sum? This most interesting book is a well-written, well-researched and eminently readable survey of a group of Americans who loved Paris and were prepared to pay whatever it cost to preserve her freedom.

Rating: 7/10.

If you liked this... Colette's Evening Star is a very different personal memoir of her life in Paris during this period. I have reviewed it here.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for participating in Paris in July - I wanted to let you know that you have been chosen as a winner for week 2 - Congratulations! Please email me at karen_barrett@aapt.net.au with your address so that I can post your prize to you.

    ReplyDelete

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