After the Deluge

During the most turbulent and difficult periods after the war, Parisians had deliberately kept life as normal as possible. The concierge would swab out the entrance hall in the same way at the same time; the grocer would chalk his prices, however astronomical, with the same circular precision on miniature blackboards; the waiter would produce a menu with his usual nonchalant flourish. Office workers and bureaucrats would greet each other each morning with the customary handshake, before any mention was made of outside events.

Paris remained a city of striking social contrasts, despite the political and intellectual longing for egalitarianism. This time, however, there was a difference. Parisians were divided not only by traditional class structure. Within their own social circles, there were the bien vus, credited with a jolie Résistance, and the mal vus, who had encountered quelques ennuis à la Libération (a few problems at the Liberation).

In September 1944, several days after his arrival, the British ambassador was invited to a lunch given in his honour by Charles de Polignac. Those with a good war record were in evidence. They included Comte Jean de Vogüé – ‘Vaillant’ in the Resistance – who was wearing his FFI armband, and the Duchesse d’Ayen, whose husband was a prisoner in Germany. She did not yet know that he had died in Belsen.

At the top of the pyramid, well-connected Resistance heroes and Gaullists had a simple choice. Either they cut themselves off in moral indignation from friends and relations who had been Pétainists or they had to adopt a more forgiving attitude. If Nancy Mitford’s fictional hero, Charles-Édouard de Valhubert, is to be believed, the most aggravating sin tended to be social rather than political. His family lawyer had been a collaborator: ‘You just don’t know what that means. Two hours of self-justification before one can get down to any business. There’s no bore like a collaborator.’

Those under a cloud often argued that the conflict between good manners and patriotism under the Occupation had been most difficult. There had been no guide to etiquette in such circumstances. Should a woman reject a seat offered by a German in the métro? Should one have refused to receive civilized, non-Nazi Germans whom one had known from before the war? Should one have turned one’s back on a German friend in a public place?

Much, of course, depended on the individual case, but the different accounts of how people had behaved varied widely. The most improbable men and women claimed to have been in the Resistance, while those who had behaved heroically said very little. ‘One rule here,’ wrote Susan Mary Patten, ‘is that those who suffered prefer not to talk about it, and it is next to impossible to worm Resistance stories out of them.’ Maître Max Fischer, who had played a prominent part in the Resistance in the Vaucluse, admitted that he felt uncomfortable talking about his time in the maquis with anyone but his anciens compagnons; in their company, one spoke of little else. Back in Paris after the Liberation, Fischer wanted to put the past behind him and get on with his career in the law. Yet he was obliged to wear his medals in court; and those of his older colleagues who had sworn the oath of allegiance to Pétain, thus certainly compromising their chances of a decoration, cast sour glances at this young blanc bec who had already earned the Légion d’Honneur and the Médaille de la Résistance.

Gaullists often found themselves in a curious position on encountering old friends who had supported Marshal Pétain. More often than not, the Pétainist turned abruptly away in a mixture of embarrassment and shame, or even ran off down the street. Many, on the other hand, remained unrepentant. Those whose sympathies lingered with the white cockade of the Bourbons and despised ‘the slut Marianne’ of the Republic showed once again that they had learned little and forgotten little. Comte Jean-Louis de Rougemont, who had served with great bravery in the Resistance, returned to his old regiment after the Liberation ‘expecting to be treated as something of a hero’, but the reception he received was worse than chilly. The wives of fellow officers avoided him ‘like a leper’, regarding him as no better than a Communist fellow-traveller.

Some never concealed their Pétainist sympathies, even from Allied diplomats. When Adrian Holman, the British minister, and his wife arrived to stay for a weekend in 1945 with an ancien régime family, they were told that a mass would be held for the imprisoned Marshal in their private chapel. The Holmans promptly left.

‘One asked nothing in Paris in those days,’ said one of Martha Gellhorn’s characters. ‘There was a terrible discretion between friends.’ Certain subjects were scrupulously avoided, unless you knew somebody very well and were alone. Nobody mentioned head-shaving, especially not the cases which had occurred in fashionable areas. There was also an unsavoury hypocrisy. The sales staff in smart shops who had served Germans without a tremor now patriotically refused to serve the wife of a collaborator.

Moral judgements at that time were thoroughly capricious. Somebody who had been merely imprudent, and no more selfish than most, could be whispered about as if they had denounced friends to the Gestapo; while others who might well have been executed if taken by the Resistance suffered little more than social ostracism. Baron Guy de Rothschild described an incident at one party. ‘A Free French officer suddenly recognized among the guests a man who was a notorious collaborator with the Gestapo. He was asked to leave, accompanied by his wife and by the icy silence of the other guests, who lined up in two long rows between which he had to pass in order to reach the door.’

In such uncharted waters, the British ambassador and his wife relied on their ‘pilot-fish’, Gaston Palewski, for advice as to who could be invited and who could not. But Palewski’s own behaviour was not exactly disinterested. Not long after Johnny de Faucigny-Lucinge had seen the Duchesse de Brissac arrested, he had encountered Palewski, the very man whose name he had used to threaten the fifis with so little effect. Faucigny-Lucinge urged Palewski to help her, but Palewski surprised himwith a rather frivolous reaction: ‘Oh! All that’s not very important. She can kick her heels a bit.’ Faucigny-Lucinge, presuming that there must be ‘some skeleton in the cupboard between them’, did not persist. Then he heard that the duchess had been released without charge.

Some four months after her arrest, however, she invited Faucigny-Lucinge for a weekend in the country. As their property was some way from Paris and travel was still almost impossible at that time, Faucigny-Lucinge felt obliged to raise the problemof transport. ‘There is somebody,’ she replied, ‘who could easily give you a lift, and that’s Gaston Palewski.’

Those who had spoken in favour of the Germans, rather than just consorted with them, found it almost impossible to re-enter society. The Marquis Melchior de Polignac, who had been openly in favour of a Franco-German alliance since before the war, was an obvious target for arrest. He was the president of Pommery and became known in Épernay as the ‘Führer of Champagne’. Members of the FFI hauled him out of his sickbed at the Château de Crayères and he was locked up in Fresnes prison. When his case finally came to court, Polignac was able to prove that, thanks to his contacts with the Germans, he had saved a number of people from arrest and deportation. Although freed, he was avoided afterwards by much of Parisian society, a punishment which was probably worse for him than a prison sentence.

Foreigners mixing in grand circles in Paris were bemused by the contrasts of luxury and dilapidation. The newly arrived American diplomat Bill Patten and his wife, Susan Mary, went to a sumptuous dinner, but ‘the house smelled of the black market, of corruption, of the greatcoats of the generals of the German Wehrmacht, who, we later learned, had been honoured guests during the Occupation’. The next evening could not have been more different. ‘Oh, the wonderful elegant shabbiness of the Mouchys,’ wrote Susan Mary. This dinner consisted only of ‘a very thin watery soup’ and a main course of canned peas. ‘There was no apology about the food, no hardship stories about the war. The china was museum quality and the oldest girl, nineteen, was very pleased with her dress, which was made from some old curtains.’

The inconveniences and discomforts of daily life seemed endless. Telephones were not the only service out of order. Candles were constantly needed, since the electricity failed at least twice a night. For many, the winter cold was a more terrible memory than the shortages of food. Susan Mary Patten, staying with friends at a château on the Loire, was asked by their little daughter if it was true that in America people could sit in a drawing room without an overcoat on. In the Louvre, a British officer, seeing a crowd packed close to a picture, marvelled at the French appetite for culture. But when he came closer he saw that they were all trying to stand close to a grille dispensing hot air. Visitors discovered the elderly Comtesse Greffulhe, an original of Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes, huddled over a stove in her salon wearing her fur coat, a feather boa and button boots of grey glacé leather.

In the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the window displays of leather goods were restricted to one pair of shoes in real leather, marked ‘model’ to emphasize that they were not for sale, and straw scattered around as a sort of window dressing. In cafés, there was only fake coffee or gazeux, a sickly carbonated drink with a chemical taste. The pâtisseries were empty and in the windows of teashops like Rumpelmayer’s there were cardboard cakes and dummy boxes of chocolates, again with a little sign saying ‘model’.

All this came as a great anticlimax to Comrade Popova, the leader of the delegation of Soviet women, when they arrived from Moscow in June 1945: ‘We were told that we would see some beautiful shops in France. But all the shops are either empty or shut. There is nothing to buy. The population as a whole walks on wooden-soled shoes… Nobody wears stockings. They wear very short dresses, not because it’s the fashion but because there’s no material. Yet on the hats one can see whole vegetable gardens and swallows’ nests.’

In spite of the widespread decay and hardship, there were still many who remained far from poor, despite their protestations. A woman trying to sell the very best satin sheets at £400 a pair ‘has more orders than she can put through,’ wrote an astonished Diana Cooper to a friend in England, ‘and all the orders are from the French – none from the US or UK – and not from nouveau-riche black-marketeers – just “nos vieilles clientes” – so you can see there’s pots of money around’.

The gratin, or very uppermost crust in France, was more complex than it appeared from the outside. The Duc de Mouchy – a distinguished member of the Noailles family – claimed that he did not qualify as true gratin because he had an American grandmother. He painted a truly depressing picture of his peers: ‘They crouch in their apartments discussing marriage settlements and degrees of consanguinity, they do not travel, their silver is dirty and their bronzes unshined, and their servants hate them for their meanness.’

Political views in such a milieu were perfect for a caricaturist’s pen. ‘Today,’ wrote Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh, ‘I heard an old count say to another old count about a third old count: “But my dear friend, very left wing, he’s an Orleanist.”’ But there were exceptions, especially among the younger generation after the Occupation. Margot de Gramont became partially estranged from her family because they were unenthusiastic about her heroic role in the Resistance. This also led to her marrying one of the great figures in the Dordogne maquis, Baron Philippe de Gunzbourg, a Jew of Russian origin. And the son of the Duchesse de La Rochefoucauld later volunteered to be the doorman of a subterranean nightclub in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

In the country, the traditional way of life had been much less affected. On 3 November 1945, the feast of Saint-Hubert, the Duc de Brissac insisted on celebrating the start of the hunting season in the old style. High mass took place in the church of Celle, with hunt servants in full dress blowing the large circular silver horns, and hounds brought up in front of the altar. A reception followed at the château. A vin rosé was served to the tenants, who came up afterwards to thank their landlord for restoring the old customs. ‘Monsieur le duc, at last we are reassured,’ they said.

French society after the Liberation, although firmly set in most of its ways, was much more welcoming to foreigners than before, particularly Americans and British. The Duc de Mouchy, however, warned Susan Mary Patten that she should not believe that his countrymen had suddenly changed. ‘The French,’ she wrote, passing on his explanation, ‘having been thrown in on themselves for four years during the German occupation, were bored, bored, bored and eager for new faces.’

Foreigners, newcomers and those returning after the Occupation were a welcome distraction from the cares of everyday life, and they themselves were equally eager to see their Parisian friends again. Daisy Fellowes, seeking to banish the embarrassment caused by her two elder daughters, resumed her entertaining. There was ‘not a frill out of place’, recorded one guest, ‘gleaming, rich – no bibelots missing, carpets, cushions on the chairs and all the candles lighted on the stairs’. Daisy Fellowes also organized smaller parties. Claus von Bülow, who described himself in those days as no more than ‘a Scandinavian student in wooden shoes’, felt like ‘a rabbit with a rattlesnake’ when he turned up for dinner and discovered that they were en tête-à-tête.

The person who most wanted to be received, above all in official circles, was the Duke of Windsor. The British ambassador wrote to Sir Alan Lascelles, King George VI’s private secretary, supporting the idea that the Windsors should live in the United States. ‘He can do no good in this country. Neither of them have ever liked the French or will ever begin to understand them; and here he can only find a place in that little cosmopolitan world, the existence of which in Paris will always continue, and which can never do anything but harm. The best French people, as you know, avoid it.’

Duff Cooper thought it rather sad that the Duke should attempt ‘to entertain official personages as though he himself were exercising some official function’. The Duchess was the first to sense that Duff Cooper no longer took the ex-king seriously, and that the policy of Buckingham Palace and the Foreign Office was to keep him out of public life. ‘Wally drew me aside,’ wrote Duff’s military attaché after one dinner, ‘and said that she thought the Ambassador had treated H.R.H. disgracefully. France was the only country where he had not been presented to the Head of State or invited to an official reception. Lord Halifax [the British ambassador in Washington] had at once taken him to meet President Truman.’

Brigadier Daly harboured a certain sympathy for her view. During a round of golf, Daly had mentioned that the franc was liable to be devalued. The Duke had been most indignant that nobody had let him know before. ‘I told him that I would keep him informed,’ Daly wrote in his diary. ‘After all he is still a Field Marshal and Admiral of the Fleet. People are apt to forget this.’

People were indeed apt to forget it, partly because nine years of exile had changed him so much. Lascelles, who had seen the Duke during a short visit to England, was particularly struck by the difference. ‘The famous charm had vanished and yet so had the old dictatorial attitude – “I want it so, therefore it must be so”.’

Perhaps one of the most unintentionally sad remarks the Duke ever made was when he said to Gaston Palewski, ‘You ought to marry, look at us.’ Nancy Mitford, who had just come to Paris in pursuit of Gaston Palewski, thought this uproariously funny, or at least pretended to. Secretly, there was nothing she yearned for more than to become Madame Gaston Palewski; though this was impossible since she was still Mrs Peter Rodd, and Rodd would not give her a divorce.

Palewski was intelligent, funny, ambitious and very vain, though he was no beauty and had terrible skin. He was also a notorious womanizer. Nine times out of ten, he probably had his face slapped; but his extraordinary persistence seems to have been rewarded often enough to have made it worthwhile. The best rebuff he received was from a woman to whomhe offered a lift home after a dinner party, in his official car: ‘No thank you, Gaston, I am too tired. I’d rather walk.’ Men found him excellent company, and a number of women adored him, in spite of his looks.

Palewski had never pretended to be in love with Nancy. He had been opposed to her moving to Paris, and tried to make her realize that her love was hopeless. He told her that de Gaulle’s views on morals were markedly conventional, and a liaison with a married Englishwoman would harm his career irreparably. This was no doubt true, especially with Yvonne de Gaulle’s abhorrence of adultery. But Nancy could never abandon hope while he remained unmarried. She referred to herself, with bright sadness, as La Palewska.

They continued to see each other regularly. Most of the time, Nancy accepted the very restricted part she played in his life; but occasionally her self-control would crack, and she would throw a scene which was almost immediately regretted. ‘Oh Colonel, I’m so ashamed of myself,’ she told him on the telephone after one such outburst. Gaston was sympathetic. He replied, ‘the rights of passion have been proclaimed by the French Revolution’.

Palewski, however, insisted on scrupulous discretion, which sometimes gave their meetings the air of a bedroom farce. ‘I end up by being shut up in a cupboard or hiding on the escalier de service and being found there by the concierge – so undignified I nearly die of it – apart from the fact that the whole of the time is taken up with these antics and I only get about five restless minutes of his company!’

Occasionally Gaston Palewski came to lunch at her house in the rue Monsieur, or she would accompany him to a party. At Princesse Sixte de Bourbon-Parme’s ball, he arrived with Nancy Mitford on his arm. According to Nancy in a letter to Evelyn Waugh, ‘we hadn’t been there two minutes before the Colonel said we couldn’t stay on account of the great cohorts of collaborators by whom we were surrounded; and firmly dumped me home’. She was mortified, having longed to show off her new dress, but made no objection.

Waugh tried to disabuse her in his next letter: ‘Does it not occur to you, poor innocent, that the continental Colonel went back to the aristocratic ball and that while you lay sleepless with your fountain pen, he was in the arms of some well-born gestapo moll?’

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