American Paris of the Montparnasse era had ceased to exist after the Wall Street crash of 1929, yet a certain pale renaissance occurred after February 1948, when the franc was devalued against the dollar. France once again became affordable for writers and anyone else with artistic pretensions. But the most conspicuous American presence in Paris at the end of the decade consisted of diplomats, soldiers and Marshall Plan executives.
For those cashing cheques at Morgan’s Bank in the Place Vendôme at the beginning of February, it was ‘like Christmas morning, strangers beaming at each other’. A hundred dollars bought over 30,000 francs. For those who cared about clothes, a Dior dress was within their grasp.
Arthur Miller, who reached Paris in the winter of 1947, formed a very different impression. He found a city which had been ‘finished’ by the war: ‘The sun never seemed to rise over Paris, the winter sky like a lid of iron graying the skin of one’s hands and making faces wan. A doomed and listless silence, few cars on the streets, occasional trucks running on wood-burning engines, old women on ancient bicycles.’
The Hotel Pont-Royal on the rue du Bac, where Miller stayed, was gloomy but cheap. The concierge wore a tail coat which was coming to pieces and ‘his chin always showed little nicks fromhaving shaved with cold water’. Once a day this prematurely aged man rushed home across Paris to feed his rabbits, the only source of meat for his family, as for much of the population. The ‘hungry-looking’ young prostitute who sat in the lobby all night watched passers-by ‘with a philosopher’s superior curiosity’.
Miller went off in search of Jean-Paul Sartre, having heard that he could be found in the Montana bar. Had he but asked, the frayed concierge and the philosophical prostitute could have told him that Sartre and his friends now met in the basement bar of the very hotel in which he was staying. Far more important to Miller’s work, however, was an evening watching Louis Jouvet in Giraudoux’s Ondine. The theatre was freezing, the audience wriggling their feet in their shoes and blowing on their hands. Jouvet himself was so ill that he sat throughout the play in an armchair, wrapped in sweater and muffler. Looking at the audience, Miller felt that ‘there really was such a thing as a defeated people’; Jouvet, however, managed to connect with them ‘in a personal way I had never experienced before, speaking to each of them individually in their beloved tongue. I was bored by the streams of talk and the inaction on-stage, but I could understand that it was the language that was saving their souls, hearing it together and being healed by it, the one unity left to them and thus their one hope. I was moved by the tenderness of the people towards him, I who came from a theatre of combat with audiences.’
Truman Capote also stayed in the Hotel Pont-Royal, in a tiny room on the top floor. ‘Despite the waterfall hangovers and constantly cascading nausea,’ he wrote, ‘I was under the strange impression that I was having a damn good time, the kind of educational experience necessary to an artist.’
Simone de Beauvoir was frequently seen in the hotel, since the famille Sartre had moved to its ‘leathery little basement bar’ after fleeing the tourists in the Café de Flore. Capote sensed that he was a figure of fun in their eyes; according to one friend, he felt ‘he was the victimof some intangible conspiracy of malediction’. Beauvoir had not liked Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, and had little respect for ‘fairies’. She compared the tiny American, in his over-large white jersey and pale-blue velvet trousers, to a ‘white mushroom’; and laughed with the barmen who pointed out that his first name was that of the President of the United States, while his surname was the French slang for condom.
Capote replied in kind with his description of the Sartre clan in the Pont-Royal bar: ‘Wall-eyed, pipe-sucking, pasty-hued Sartre and his spinsterish moll, Beauvoir, were usually propped in a corner like an abandoned pair of ventriloquist’s dolls.’
Camus was the only one who was always kind to the young American. Capote, however, later claimed that one night Camus, the great womanizer, had suddenly succumbed to his attraction and gone to bed with him– a story impossible to deny, but unlikely.
Capote also visited Colette, who received him from her bed ‘à la Louis Quatorze at his morning levée’. He described her ‘slanted eyes, lucent as the eyes of a Weimaraner dog, rimmed with kohl; a spare and clever face powdered clown-pale; her lips, for all her considerable years, were a slippery, shiny, exciting show-girl red; and her hair was red, or reddish, a rosy bush, a kinky spray’. She asked him what he expected from life. He told her that he did not know what he expected, but he knew what he wanted, which was to be a grown-up person. ‘Colette’s painted eyelids lifted and lowered like the slowly beating wings of a great blue eagle. “But that,” she said, “is the one thing none of us can ever be.”’
One of the first writers to migrate to France after the Liberation, as opposed to those who arrived in uniform, was the black writer Richard Wright, author of Black Boy and Native Son. Thanks to the combined efforts of Gertrude Stein and Claude Lévi-Strauss, then French cultural attaché in Washington, he arrived in Paris with his wife, Ellen (who was white), and their daughter, Julia, in May 1946.
The State Department had been very reluctant to give him a passport, but once in Paris – where he was an honoured guest – they could hardly ignore him. Nevertheless, Wright was seen as a distinct liability. At an official reception at the American Embassy given a few days after his arrival, he was told, ‘For God’s sake, don’t let these foreigners turn you into a brick to hurl through our windows!’
Wright could not get over the welcome accorded to him by the French. He was made an honorary citizen of Paris, and his French publisher, Gallimard, threw a party in his honour at which the guests included Roger Martin du Gard, Michel Leiris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Paulhan and Marcel Duhamel. His move to Paris had been made to gain a better perspective on the core of his fiction: the racial problems of America. He acted as a consultant for Présence africaine and Sartre’s Les Temps modernes, and in 1948 he became active in Sartre and Rousset’s Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire.
James Baldwin, another black writer living in Paris, was deeply indebted to Richard Wright, who did much to help him in the first stages of his career as a writer. Yet Baldwin’s feelings towards Wright were complex, almost Oedipal, and they spilled out in an essay for Zero magazine called ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’. Baldwin argued that the protest novel was flawed because its essential humanity was obscured by politics. Wright took this as a personal attack on Native Son and was bitterly hurt. The relationship between the two writers never recovered, even though Wright continued to bail the impoverished Baldwin out of debt from time to time. Baldwin managed to survive only by scrounging off friends and hustling in gay bars, yet Paris helped himgain confidence. He was treated as an American writer, not a black, and like many foreign writers he found that in France writing was respected as a profession.
The largest contingent of left-bank Americans in the late 1940s were young soldiers who had become students under the GI Bill of Rights. Once the franc was devalued, their twenty dollars a week provided just enough to live on. A number of them were in a belated state of rebellion against the stupider indignities of military discipline and became attracted to radical politics. The French Communist Party, through its Maison de la Pensée Française, made special attempts to win over foreign students in Paris, especially Americans. The American Embassy was concerned by this development and kept an eye open, but there was little it could do, except pass the matter on to the FBI and CIA.
From the spring of 1948, Paris saw a very different American influx with some 3,000 new residents, all of them under the umbrella of the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA), the executive arm of the Marshall Plan. When Paul Hoffman, the chairman of Studebaker, who had been appointed to oversee the Marshall Plan, outlined his staff needs to the Senate Appropriation Committee, he said: ‘We hope to hold our organization down to approximately 500 in the United States and approximately 1,000 in the eighteen nations in which we must be represented abroad’; but the task proved far greater and more complex than envisaged. There was also no shortage of applicants. Some 32,000 young Americans, imbued with idealism and the longing to live in Paris, came forward eagerly.
Averell Harriman, the Secretary of Commerce, had been at the forefront of persuading the American people, and especially the business community, that their self-interest and moral duty lay in helping Europe. The accompanying message was that Europe needed to learn American ways. ‘We have developed a system through which an American worker can produce many times more than a worker in any other country,’ said Harriman to the Pacific Northwest Trade Association in Seattle. ‘Less than half a million American miners produced last year 50 percent more coal than did two million miners in Europe.’ Yet the Marshall Plan proposal declared that it would be an ‘unwarranted interference with the internal affairs of friendly nations’ to demand that they adopt the American model of capitalism.
Harriman’s main objective was, in fact, strategic: he did not want to see a ruined Europe fall prey to Communism. Business leaders made it very clear through their lobbying offensive on Congress that the generosity of the Marshall Plan – up to 17 billion dollars to Europe over five years – should not be a one-way affair. American industry had to be allowed to profit, whether through the guarantee of increased export markets or the chance to dump excess stocks. This would lend some substance to the instinctive suspicion of many in Europe, mostly on the left but also on the right, that the Marshall Plan was America’s economic version of the Trojan Horse. (A public opinion poll in France showed that 47 per cent of the sample believed that the Marshall Plan was dictated by America’s need to extend its markets.) On the other hand, Jean Monnet, France’s greatest planner, defended it strongly, since to have continued with a ruined economy and severe social unrest would have allowed far less independence in the medium and long term.
Once the huge package of measures was sold to Congress, President Truman appointed Averell Harriman as the Special Representative of the Economic Cooperation Administration. His swearing-in took place just after the John H. Quick, the first American cargo ship full of Marshall Plan grain, had steamed out of Galveston, Texas. Within a few months, 150 vessels a day were crossing the Atlantic in a logistical operation that dwarfed any comparable movement during the Second World War.
Averell Harriman had already proved himself at almost everything he touched. As a rugged, good-looking and rich young man, he had rowed for Yale, skied superbly and excelled as an eight-goal polo player and member of the American team which defeated the Argentinians in 1928. He had been a highly competent chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad before Roosevelt had persuaded him to serve his country, most famously as United States ambassador in Moscow during the war. Now Harriman took over the Hotel Talleyrand on the corner of the Place de la Concorde as his headquarters in his battle to thwart Communism in Europe.
The announcement of the Marshall Plan may have been greeted by beleaguered European politicians like the distant trumpets of an army coming to its relief. But once the first tranche of 4.9 billion dollars was on the table to be divided between nations, Harriman needed all his experience of international dealings, all his toughness and all his self-control. He faced skirmishing and blocking actions in almost every direction: the British, who felt that they deserved special treatment after their wartime sacrifice, were trying to protect the status of sterling as a reserve currency; General Lucius Clay, ‘the Kaiser’, demanded that Germany be treated no differently from France; the French wanted no interference in the use to which they put the aid; and bureaucracy in Washington wrangled over every detail. * During interminable meetings, Harriman kept his temper by drawing vigorous doodles – then pushed hard at the crucial moment. His skin was thick enough to ignore the barrage of Communist attacks against ‘La 5e Colonne américaine en France’. Most important of all, his relations with Paul Hoffman in Washington were based on mutual trust, so no transatlantic dispute ever escalated into a civil war.
Harriman was fortunate in key members of staff. He managed to persuade Milton Katz, the Harvard law professor, and David Bruce, the lawyer and diplomat, to join him in Paris. He was also extremely lucky that France appointed Robert Marjolin, a brilliant financial civil servant, to be secretary-general of the Organization for European Economic Cooperation. Marjolin needed all his skills in dealing with the high-handed and eccentric Sir Edmund Hall-Patch, the British chairman of its executive committee.
The young American professionals arriving in Paris to staff the ECA were all eager to save Europe from famine and Communism and to have the time of their lives. ‘The boys had all been through the war,’ wrote a secretary at the United States Embassy, ‘and felt cheated of a knowledge of life. Before they settled down to an executive desk, they wanted to savor a taste of something they might never have again.’
In their enthusiasm, these young men felt that even out-of-order elevators and erratic telephones possessed a certain exotic charm. The envy of the French, however understandable, was the trickiest thing they had to come to terms with. Hard currency gave Americans the choice of the best apartments and pushed up prices for others; while they shipped over everything unobtainable in Europe, notably cars and shoes. ‘How will you recognize me?’ asked a young American, on the telephone to the French family who were to meet him at the railway station. ‘By your shoes,’ was the immediate reply.
The quality of American officials varied greatly. There were those who knew France well and spoke the language admirably, while others barely spoke French at all. Many could not pronounce the name of the French Prime Minister, Henri Queuille, and just referred to him as ‘Kelly’. This became a joke, and even French-speakers at the embassy picked it up.
Some members of the ECA responsible for direct contact with the French were incapable of reading a set speech and understanding the questions put to them afterwards. On 3 December 1948, a senior member of its information service gave a lecture on the philosophy of the Marshall Plan. The arguments were so incompetently put over that virtually everything he said was easily ridiculed by a French philosophy professor who was a member of the Association France-URSS and almost certainly a Communist. So embarrassing was this spectacle that the Minister of the Interior wrote to Robert Schuman, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, begging him to advise the American ambassador of ‘the need to send out only talented speakers, who know our language properly and are able to reply without difficulty to questions which might be put to them’.
The Communist campaign was relentless. ‘At times,’ remembered a member of the ECA’s public relations staff, ‘we could not show a film on the Marshall Plan without getting a brick through the screen.’
David Bruce, the ECA chief of mission, had no problems with the language after his experience of France before and during the war. He was appointed ambassador after the departure of Jefferson Caffery, but returned to the United States for discussions at the State Department before taking up the post. On 10 May 1949, a strategy meeting on France was held with Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State since Marshall’s retirement, Philip Jessup, George Kennan, Chip Bohlen and Bob Murphy. ‘The presentation of the United States’ viewpoint was thoroughly and exhaustively discussed,’ Bruce recorded drily in his diary. He was sceptical about any approach which smacked of American intervention.
On 14 May, David Bruce landed at Le Bourget to an official reception and was driven into Paris with a motorcycle escort. ‘The Embassy flag fluttered bravely atop a fender,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘and I think the bystanders were somewhat baffled by the lone funereal old Cadillac car, surrounded by helmeted police, speeding with unknown occupants to an unknown destination.’
David Bruce and his wife, Evangeline, were on their way to 2 Avenue d’Iéna, a house built by President Grévy in the 1880s and purchased by a previous American ambassador. ‘It is a large, typically French, rich, bourgeois dwelling of the later nineteenth century, with a small but attractive garden. On the ground floor, it is well disposed for large receptions and dinners. Upstairs, the bedrooms are rather appalling, and it is not nearly as attractive or as well furnished as those in most good Paris homes. However, it is a joy to be here.’ One of the joys turned out to be the chef, Robert. A ‘simple Sunday night dinner’ prepared by Robert consisted of onion soup, a timbale of lobster with thick wine sauce, followed by chicken and salad.
Bruce went over the mission’s domestic arrangements thoroughly. There had been trouble with the Marine guards, now quartered in the Hotel Continental. Bruce wanted them in civilian dress. This was not a time to allow America to be characterized as a proconsular power, whatever the realities of its economic hegemony.
He had little time to read himself into the job. Within a fortnight of his arrival, foreign statesmen began to assemble for the Conference of Foreign Ministers. This was to be held in the Palais Rose on the Avenue Foch – ‘Boni de Castellane’s ostentatious monstrosity’ – and followed the usual set pattern. The four delegations, headed by Dean Acheson, Vyshinsky, Robert Schuman and Ernest Bevin, were seated in an inward-facing square. Acheson’s aide, Lucius Battle, described Vyshinsky as ‘sinister, tight, gaunt, with the beadiest eyes I have ever seen’. Bruce was most impressed by Schuman: ‘What a fine man he is, sympathetic, direct, intelligent.’ Dean Acheson was rather fond of the ebullient Bevin. Years later, he told Lucius Battle that he infinitely preferred being called ‘My boy’ by Bevin than ‘Dean dear’ by Anthony Eden.
The proceedings at the Palais Rose were almost unbearably tedious. After Vyshinsky had talked for forty-five minutes in Russian, his speech had to be translated by a member of the Soviet delegation into English, and to make matters worse, this interpreter was utterly incompetent. At one point Lucius Battle turned to Chip Bohlen and asked: ‘Haven’t they got a better interpreter than this?’ Bohlen, a fluent Russian-speaker himself, replied: ‘Everyone in their delegation speaks better English! This is the water torture, designed to drive us all crazy!’ The Americans soon installed their own interpreter, who translated while Vyshinsky spoke. ‘The Russians went on with their English translation,’ remembered Battle, ‘but at least it gave us forty-five minutes to talk and plan, while the Russian interpreter droned on.’
Dean Acheson, ‘after a steady four and a half hours at the Council’, acknowledged that ‘his ass was tired’. As light relief, the Bruces took him and Luke Battle to the Monseigneur, with its ‘dozen violinists, a cellist, a pianist, a harpist and heaven knows what other players’. But although the choice of this White Russian establishment had never been intended as a political statement, it almost turned into one when Acheson became very exuberant on champagne and rose to his feet.
‘I want to drink a toast to the Berlin airlift,’ he announced.
‘Luke, make him sit down!’ ordered Bruce, afraid that matters might get out of hand. If a journalist was present and word got out, the Communist press would have a field day.
‘But how?’ asked Battle, looking up at his towering boss.
‘Pull him down by his pants.’
Battle heaved, as instructed, and the Secretary of State dropped back into his seat with surprise, but without a diplomatic incident.
Even if Bruce could play little effective part in the Conference of Foreign Ministers, he soon found that the power of the American ambassador in France was very great, almost embarrassingly so, now that the importance of economic aid was finally appreciated. In striking contrast to the aloofness which de Gaulle had shown his predecessor, French prime ministers came to consult him even over the composition of a new government. At the same time, Bruce did what he could to restrain Washington’s compulsion to direct affairs. On Friday, 10 June, exactly a month after the strategy meeting on France, he was against putting pressure on the French to grant Indo-China unrestricted independence. He felt it could only provoke them into a more obstinate frame of mind.
The reason for the ambassador’s power was very simple. After a late lunch at the Travellers’ the previous Monday, 6 June, Bruce had returned to his office to work on a speech for the next day. The telephone rang. It was Maurice Petsche, Queuille’s Minister of Finance, asking him to come round for an urgent meeting. Bruce agreed. The reason was not hard to guess. ‘As usual,’ he noted in his diary after seeing Petsche, ‘there is a financial crisis, and the government wants to borrow 80 billion francs.’
Bruce admired Petsche for his courage in the face ill-health – ‘his ankles are swollen, his face is purple’ – and for his refusal to give in to members of his own party who objected bitterly to his stand on taxes and agricultural prices. Petsche’s character, shamelessly original for a politician, appealed to Bruce. When Petsche remarked that his Prime Minister, Queuille, was ‘an adorable man’, Bruce observed in his diary: ‘that term would seem odd if one of our Cabinet officers were to apply it to a President’.
The Bruces were also amused by Petsche’s contempt for the dietary advice of doctors. Evangeline Bruce remembers a lunch where Petsche, explaining that he was on a special regime, was served an ungarnished truffle the size of a small fist as his entrée. His health was so bad that his friends expected his death at almost any moment, but with an inexplicable resilience (curiously reminiscent of France’s economy) his body somehow continued to function in defiance of all received wisdom.
Americans were struck by the way that food played such a ritualistic part in French political life. The day after Petsche asked for the American loan, President Auriol gave a magnificent lunch for Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Chip Bohlen, Bob Murphy and David Bruce at the Élysée Palace. ‘The chef is famous,’ noted Bruce, ‘and the lunch consisted of cold eggs Lucullus, suprême de sole Gallière, poulet grillé Béarnais, fonds d’artichauts Marigny and soufflé glacé Petit Duc.’ He also approved of the wines: Château Carbonnieux 1936, Mouton Rothschild 1940 and Mumm Cordon Rouge 1937.
As if to balance an indulgence reminiscent of the belle époque, members of the American Embassy, with the rest of the diplomatic corps, assembled in Notre-Dame the next day for Cardinal Suhard’s memorial mass: a ritual impregnated with the defiant spirit ofvieille France. General de Gaulle’s interdiction of nearly five years before – Suhard’s punishment for according Pétain’s Minister of Propaganda a mass after his assassination by the Resistance – was an unmentioned, looming memory.
Bruce, however, was soon preoccupied with the Coca-Cola War, which took a decisive turn just after the Bruces came back from a long weekend visit to Château Lafite with Élie and Liliane de Rothschild.
Two senior executives of the Coca-Cola Company, Farley and Makinsky, came to see the ambassador on his return. They told him that they were pushing ahead with their plans to sell Coca-Cola in France. The French government was continuing to resist because of protests from small wine producers, urged on by the Communist Party’s campaign against ‘la Coca-colonisation de la France’. So emotional had the whole issue become that many wine producers really believed the claim that soft-drink imports would destroy their livelihoods.
To bar Coca-Cola from the French market was a flagrant violation of the Marshall Plan agreement on free trade. Yet David Bruce, while angered by the dishonest antics of the Communists and the protectionist lobby, was almost as exasperated with his own countrymen. ‘It is a clear case of discrimination,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘and we have protested vigorously against it, although I think that the Company’s advertising proposals are psychologically extremely stupid.’ Coca-Cola apparently wanted to ‘engage in their usual advertising displays, including among other features a blazing sign on a 142-foot tower. They have relinquished, rather regretfully, the idea of using the Eiffel Tower.’
The Communist Party in France openly proclaimed that American culture was stifling the nation. Laurent Casanova announced that Henry Miller’s pornography and American crime stories were attacking the soul of France. He would have sounded like an arch-conservative if the target of his hatred had not been the United States and its influence. Yet, as one or two writers have pointed out, the Communists’ xenophobic conspiracy theory owed much to a right-wing, anti-masonic tradition.
To complete this curious reflection of right-wing prejudices, the magazine Action, run by Communist writers such as Pierre Courtade and Roger Vailland, attacked ‘the pederasts of the American intelligentsia in Saint-Germain-des-Prés’. In all seriousness it went on to recount: ‘The other day a cavalry colonel in civilian clothes was the recipient of undisguised propositions, even though he was accompanied by his charming wife.’ It was just what one would have expected from a reactionary monarchist publication.
For some time, the sale of Coca-Cola was portrayed in the Communist press as not far short of drug-peddling to infants: ‘Each evening, a Coca-Cola truck stops at the entrance to the Square des Innocents, in the 1st arrondissement, and the driver distributes bottles to unaccompanied children who drink it on the spot.’