Rugged Individualists

CHARLES BEDAUX REVEALED COMPLEX, contradictory facets of character from the moment the occupation began. Having no political loyalties, he openly conducted business with and for the German occupier. ‘The Germans were the only ones left in Paris to do business with,’ Bedaux explained. Janet Flanner later wrote, ‘This is probably the best and briefest definition of collaborationism yet put on record.’ Yet Bedaux endangered his wealth and his life to protect Jewish friends, employees and clients. He convinced the Germans that his Jewish secretary in France was a Christian. She worked for him throughout the occupation. He did the same for Alexandra Ter Hart, the manager of his Amsterdam international headquarters, who had helped Friedrich von Ledebur to escape via Rotterdam in 1939. Married to a Dutch decorator, the former Alexandra Lubowski was both Polish and Jewish. Bedaux also helped to save three textile firms that belonged to Jewish friends, Vogel, Schraft and Blin et Blin, from Nazi confiscation by putting the companies in his name. Their share certificates were hidden at Candé to be returned to their original owners when the occupation ended. To most Americans and others in France, German occupation was a source of shame, irritation and anguish. To Bedaux, it was an opportunity.

In October 1940, German Ambassador Otto Abetz provided Bedaux with an Ausweis, or pass, to cross the demarcation line between France’s Occupied Zone and the Free Zone. Bedaux’s mission was to consult Maréchal Henri-Philippe Pétain about reviving his scheme to increase coal production at Algeria’s Kenadsa coal mines– no longer for Spanish mills to produce steel for France to fight Germany, but to fuel trains in North Africa. The old Maréchal received Bedaux at his Hôtel du Parc headquarters in Vichy. They discussed various Bedaux projects, and Pétain granted his request to study the Kenadsa mines’ operation and evaluate the quality of the coal. Bedaux left Vichy to inspect mineshafts in the northern Sahara.

On 21 October, Clara and Aldebert de Chambrun had lunch in Paris with Pierre Laval. Laval, already Pétain’s vice-premier, had just been named foreign minister as well. Their children, René de Chambrun and Josée Laval, were in Boston seeking American aid for children and refugees in the Free Zone. Laval told Clara and Aldebert that Abetz had just invited him to meet a senior German official: ‘He must be speaking of [Foreign Minister Joachim] von Ribbentrop, I believe. He is somewhere in the offing, and, it seems, has more influence with Hitler than anyone else.’ The next day, Abetz told Laval he was taking him to meet, as he had suspected, Ribbentrop. A German car drove the two men out of Paris, past Rambouillet, to the Loire Valley. It was then that Abetz admitted to Laval that he would see, in addition to Ribbentrop, Hitler himself. Laval blurted out, ‘Sans blague?’ ‘No joke?’ They went to a nondescript village, Montoire-sur-Loire, chosen for its proximity to a tunnel in which the Führer’s private train, the Amerika, could hide in the event of RAF bombing. Hitler and Ribbentrop, who received Laval in the train’s dining car, invited him to return in two days with Maréchal Pétain for the first post-defeat summit between the German and French leaders.

In the meantime, Hitler had a rendezvous with the Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco, at Hendaye in French Basque country beside the Spanish frontier. Franco, who had taken power with German military assistance in the Spanish Civil War only the year before, resisted Hitler’s demand that he repay the debt by joining the war against Britain. The Spaniard’s prevarication scuttled German plans to send troops through Spain to conquer the British Mediterranean fortress at Gibraltar. Hitler responded by denying Franco, who had occupied Tangier on the day the Germans entered Paris, permission to occupy other parts of French Morocco. Franco left Hitler in a bad mood to receive Pétain and Pierre Laval on 24 October back in Montoire.

On the Amerika, Hitler asked Pétain, stung by the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in July, to declare war on Britain. Pétain said he was not yet in a position to go that far in cooperating with Germany, but he asked for a peace treaty so that ‘the two million French prisoners of war may return to their families as soon as possible’. Like Franco, Pétain would not commit his country to war against Britain. But he would not resume the fight against Germany either. His goal was to keep France’s fleet and colonies out of both Allied and Axis control, while cooperating with the Germans to obtain a gentler occupation. After the meeting, Pétain broadcast a speech that introduced the notion of ‘collaboration’: ‘This collaboration must be sincere. It must exclude all idea of aggression. It must carry with it a patient and confident effort … Follow me. Trust in eternal France.’ At the same time, he sent a message to Winston Churchill, via the Portuguese Ambassador in order to conceal its contents from Pierre Laval, that Vichy’s collaboration with Germany would not be military.

Charles Bedaux returned from North Africa a few days later to hear first-hand from Laval what had transpired at Montoire. Gaston Bedaux, who attended dinner in Paris with his brother and Laval, wrote, ‘I was placed to the right of the President [Laval retained the title ‘President’, having been President of the Council of Ministers, or prime minister, several times before 1936], my brother was at his left.’ Laval recounted at length that evening details of his meeting at Montoire. Laval, who had kept ‘careful notes’ of the meetings on 22 and 24 October, told the Bedaux brothers of ‘his differences with the Maréchal and the efforts he made to save the French in explaining to the Germans what one meant by collaboration. He also told us particularly how he succeeded in taking out of German hands some Frenchmen who, in the course of a football match, had mistreated their German neighbours after a conversation purely about sports.’

Laval did not seem to understand that, whether or not he cajoled Germany into minor concessions, much of French, as well as American, public opinion perceived him as a German puppet. ‘Laval was happy with the success that he achieved in this affair in declaring that collaboration was not subordination,’ Gaston Bedaux recalled, adding Laval’s view ‘that it was necessary to live together and it was not necessary for one blindly to obey the other. The partner had to understand that to collaborate did not mean to exclude contradiction, discussion and even dispute.’ Laval, who was proud of his skill as an orator, assured the Bedauxs, ‘So long as I have my vocal cords, I’ll get out of trouble.’ Charles Bedaux was bored by Laval’s exposition of the politics of collaboration. When Laval criticized Vichy’s recent decision to reduce civil servants’ salaries, Charles the efficiency engineer came to life. He argued that only increased productivity would achieve both higher salaries and a reduction in the cost of living. Gaston took from the dinner the impression of Laval as ‘a lively intelligence and a man who sought to perform a difficult task’. He was also a valuable ally for Bedaux in the Vichy administration.

Charles Bedaux left Paris again, with German permission, for The Hague to apply for a Dutch patent on a new method of analysing industrial productivity. At this time, according to Bedaux’s biographer Jim Christy, a Bedaux engineer named Gartner colluded with the Germans and Albert Ramond, who had replaced Bedaux as director of his American companies in 1937, to deprive Bedaux of his Netherlands interests. The Germans seized the Bedaux companies’ global headquarters in Amsterdam as ‘enemy’ property. When Bedaux heard of the confiscation a few days later in Paris, he informed the Nazis that, as an American, he was not an enemy of the Reich but a neutral. The Germans kept the headquarters anyway, declaring it ‘alien’ property, also subject to confiscation.

Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier had a few compensations for the hardships of life under the Germans. One was a reading by Paul Valéry of his unfinished masterpiece, ‘Mon Faust (Ebauches)’, ‘My Faust (Sketches)’ in the rue de l’Odéon. ‘With unconcealed pride,’ Adrienne Monnier wrote, ‘I shall say here that the poet gave a reading of it to us–to Sylvia, my sister Marie, and myself, in September 1940; I shall even say our own ears were the first to hear it’. Valéry’s words and voice captivated the women. Adrienne observed that Lust, ‘the feminine character of the play’, was ‘an ingenuous intellectual. She is a spirited, a lively spirited girl, very free with her master … There are many girls and women like Lust, there are many of them in France. This capacity for being smitten with genius and loving to serve it is certainly a trait of the women of our country, even if the genius inhabits an ugly or aged being’. She may have meant herself in relation to Valéry or, equally, Sylvia to James Joyce.

Sylvia was increasingly distraught for the Joyce family, who had been delayed for months without visas on the Swiss border in Haute Savoie. Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, was mentally disturbed, and he placed her in a French asylum. Sylvia had dedicated much of her adult life to Joyce as his publisher, secretary and factotum, but she could not help him now. Nor could she do anything for her aged father in California. She relayed assistance from her old friend, Carlotta Welles Briggs, to people in Paris. Carlotta sent her a cheque for 2,000 francs in October 1940: 600 for Sylvia to give to ‘old Rose’, whose pension had not been paid; and another six hundred for ‘Rigollet’, an old man who lived in the alley behind Carlotta’s flat in Paris. (She told Sylvia to keep the remaining 800 francs for herself, one instance among many in which Carlotta aided her impoverished childhood friend.) Carlotta wrote to Sylvia from California on 2 November asking her to visit an Armenian woman named Mme Barseghian at 22 avenue Paul Appell near Montparnasse. Mme Barseghian was losing her eyesight, and her only son was in the army. ‘In case she is still there a little call from you would cheer her up no end. Give her my love in case you find her.’

On 13 November, Holly Beach Dennis wrote to Sylvia, who was then taking a break at Carlotta’s house, La Salle du Roc, near Bourré. Because she had not received any reply to her recent letters, she wondered whether Sylvia was receiving her mail. Postal services between the United States and France were slow and unreliable. All letters were subject to German censorship in France and to British censorship en route through Bermuda. ‘I told you,’ Holly wrote, ‘that Father’s mind being somewhat bewildered, due to age, Cyprian has put him in an attractive “Rest Home” on Rosemead Boulevard, near Pasadena, where he is well taken care of … Father is such a wonderful person and I believe he is as happy now in his imaginings as he was when his mind was quite clear.’ Holly, meanwhile, had moved with her husband, Frederic Dennis, and their adopted son, Freddie, back to Princeton. Sylvester, blind, deaf and senile, received visits from Carlotta Welles Briggs and his daughter Cyprian, both of whom lived nearby. Cyprian wrote to her sister in Paris, ‘The greatest blessing is that he has forgotten there is a war in Europe, and thinks of you only as you were before.’ By the time Sylvia read the letters that told her of Sylvester’s confinement, he was dead. Cyprian wrote again, just after their father died on 16 November, to assure Sylvia that he lived ‘happily till the very end, and that end couldn’t have been more merciful’.

The injured French soldier André Guillon had been in the American Hospital for two months, when a new patient moved into his room. Captain A., an Alsatian prisoner of war with two wounds in his leg, had been a German language instructor at the French military academy, Saint-Cyr. To pass the time, Guillon studied German under his tutelage.

He told me between lessons that he had had permission in 1938 to spend a year as a ‘businessman’ in Munich. I didn’t understand immediately what he was alluding to. He then gave me some information about lodgings he had in the centre of Paris … lodgings where we could meet if I liked when he left the American Hospital. His legs, practically smashed to pieces at the beginning of October, were completely healed by the 25th. And on the 30th, he disappeared. Miracle of the Intelligence Services …

During the winter, Guillon had little chance of taking sun therapy, but he walked along the corridors and outside to the terrace to strengthen his legs. At five o’clock one evening, ‘I found myself on the terrace admiring the dome of Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre, twinkling in the rays of the setting sun, and I dreamed of mosques in African lands.’ He encountered a new arrival at the hospital, a Royal Air Force pilot whose plane had been shot down over France. The British officer had lost the sight in both eyes. ‘Blind, he wandered slowly in his blue, slate-grey uniform along the paths of the hospital without saying a word.’ Soon, the officer was gone.

How the Americans succeeded in getting him to England, I cannot say. I believe there were two stages, of which one was Vichy. But the thing I am sure of is that during eighty days, everyone in the hospital spoke only of this question and the way in which the American ambulance had tricked the Germans at the Line of Demarcation, of his arrival at Vichy and, two or three days later, not more, the completion of his trip in England. How the Germans knew nothing of this story astounded me. The blind man, isn’t he perhaps someone who does not want to see?

The officer’s escape in an American ambulance revealed the extent to which other hospital employees were aiding Sumner Jackson in the Resistance. They did this despite the ever-present prospect of torture and the firing squad.

Another gravely wounded French soldier told Guillon that, in addition to his war injuries, he had gonorrhoea. ‘The American doctor who took care of him with sulfa drugs at a very high dosage, trying the lot on everything, accomplished an exploit in healing. We learned that three weeks after he left the hospital, he was in London.’ The American doctor was undoubtedly the hospital’s genito-urinary specialist, Sumner Jackson.

On Friday, 11 October, General of the Army Charles Huntziger, who had signed the Armistice for France in June and was now minister of war at Vichy, presented the hospital with the Order of Merit and the Croix de Guerre for services to the wounded during the Battle of France. Sumner Jackson, Elisabeth Comte and Edward Close were cited by name. ‘Operating by day and by night,’ the citation read, ‘the hospital took care of an almost interminable number of wounded and undoubtedly saved a great number of lives. In direct contact with the enemy, and working in an enemy-occupied zone, the hospital continued with unflagging dedication not only to care for the wounded but also to bring aid to the prisoners.’ General Huntziger and his wife stayed for lunch, and the patients were given champagne for the occasion.

Lunch, dinner and walks broke up André Guillon’s otherwise tedious days. After six o’clock, there was nothing to do. He read books, including three that the hospital’s American staff recommended for him to understand their country: Gone with the Wind, Babbittand a treatise on the American economy by French academic and now head of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Bernard Fay. ‘I read them,’ Guillon wrote. ‘I don’t know if I know the United States any better.’ He played chess and poker with the other soldiers. Occasionally, there was entertainment. An actor named Victor Boucher and the singer Marianne Oswald, who reminded him of Edith Piaf, came to the hospital. Miss Thierry, a nurse of French ancestry from Boston, gave them a violin concert in the library. ‘She had the grace to visit every room afterwards to play a little for those who were too injured to get up and join the rest of us at the concert. Neutral? The Americans? Oh, no. “Miss Thierry’s gesture shows us better”.’

At the end of November, the French patients celebrated the birthday of one of their comrades: ‘He was alone. He had lost his wife in the bombardment, and he was in bed with two broken legs. We obtained from outside a cake and a bottle of champagne. And we met in his room at seven o’clock.’ As they began the party, they were joined by a young Russian nurse whom Guillon referred to as Mademoiselle S. (She was probably a surgical nurse named Mlle Svetchine.) After finishing the cake and champagne, they played poker. By midnight, Mlle S. had lost all her money. One of the wounded soldiers suggested a way for her to win it back. ‘You undress,’ he said. ‘With each article of clothing you take off, we’ll place a bet for you.’ She lost hand after hand. By twelve-thirty, she had no clothes left. Guillon thought the girl was perhaps not as used to champagne as the Frenchmen were, because she accepted their suggestion to go back to her room nude as she was. ‘There was obviously a “black-out”, and Mademoiselle S. lived only two hundred metres from the hospital and at that hour she wouldn’t come across anyone.’ She ran home through the dark without a stitch or a mishap.

The hospital attracted medical staff with no obvious medical expertise. One of these was Mademoiselle D. ‘A very beautiful girl,’ Guillon thought, ‘she nonetheless did not win our sympathy because we were wounded and she certainly knew absolutely nothing about the nursing profession.’ Three weeks later, Guillon read in the German-sponsored Paris press a communiqué from the Feldkommandatur of Grossparis that a young American woman, who turned out to be Mademoiselle D., had been expelled for abusing her privileges on ‘neutral territory’. Guillon took this to mean she was ‘conducting anti-German activities’. Mademoiselle D. was probably Elizabeth Deegan, a clerk in the American Embassy who was arrested by the Germans on 1 December. Because the US Consulate was representing British interests in France, Elizabeth Deegan had visited British prisoners at the German prison in the rue du Cherche Midi and at the American Hospital. The Nazis held and questioned her at Cherche Midi. Before the Germans finally allowed her to be deported under pressure from the State Department, the Paris press alleged that her crime was ‘conniving at the escape of British officers’.

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