RENÉ DE CHAMBRUN BECAME CLOSER to Pierre Laval following his father-in-law’s expulsion from office on 13 December 1940. Laval was spending more time with his family, including the Chambruns, in Paris. He let them know of his dissatisfaction with his successor, Admiral Jean-François Darlan. In May 1941, Darlan had gone to Berchtesgaden, where he acquiesced to Hitler’s request for the use of French air bases in Syria against the British in Iraq. The British responded by occupying, with the Free French, Syria and Lebanon. Laval asked René to help him publicize his disapproval of Darlan’s concessions to Hitler. René obliged enthusiastically. With the Paris press unlikely to publish criticism of Darlan, René called his friend, the American correspondent Ralph Heinzen of the United Press. ‘I traveled to Vichy to get him,’ René wrote. In his exclusive interview in Paris with Heinzen on 25 May, Laval ‘stressed how greatly the policy of collaboration, as he understood it, differed from Darlan’s policy of surrender–though he did not name Darlan directly’. Clara exhibited no misgivings over her son becoming, in effect, Laval’s press secretary.
On 3 June 1941, Dr Jackson wrote to Edward B. Close in New York, ‘I have just received word stating that I have not enough money in my account with the Chase Bank to pay the premium on my War Risk Insurance ($417) due July 1st. ... Would you mind having the dollars due me from the Hospital deposited to my credit at the Chase Bank N.Y.? … apparently something has gone haywire with some of my holdings, so I shall rely on you to get this arranged for me.’ Close immediately ordered the transfer of the money, confirming it at the end of July by letter through the Morgan Bank at Le Puy in the Unoccupied Zone.
Keeping his War Risk Insurance up to date was characteristic of the canny Maine native. His salary was only $150 a month, plus room and board at the hospital. If the worst happened to him, only an insurance policy would rescue his wife and son from penury. There was not much war risk in Paris, where the fight had ended on 14 June 1940 before it began. But for those who abetted prisoner escapes, the risk of death never abated. Dr Jackson was, so far, lucky. None of his fugitives had been captured, and no one had implicated him in anything. The Germans were either unable to check which prisoners failed to return to their camps from the hospital or accepted Dr Jackson’s assurances they were dead. He kept his work secret even from his wife, Toquette, and his son, Phillip. In the meantime, he and Toquette enlisted in a separate Resistance operation from their flat in the avenue Foch. It assisted escapees, but its main objective was to convey military intelligence to London.
Communications between occupied France and the United States were censored and extremely difficult, but General de Chambrun kept the board in New York informed of important matters by censored transatlantic telegram. On 18 June, he cabled board president Nelson Dean Jay via RCA Radiogram in New York: ‘JAY MORGAN BANK WALL STREET NEWYORK HOSPITAL RUNNING SMOOTHLY MAY DEFICIT SIXTY THOUSAND INCLUDING TWENTYFIVE THOUSAND FOR PERMANENT IMPROVEMENTS INFORM EDDY–CHUMBRAN [sic].’ On 20 June, a letter from William Nelson Cromwell of New York’s Sullivan and Cromwell law partnership to Dean Jay noted that ‘practically all of the Board of Directors have, under existing conditions, departed from Paris and are temporarily residing in this city [New York] or elsewhere’. It was becoming impossible for governors in New York to administer a hospital in Paris, and all responsibility was devolving on General de Chambrun.
Via a Morgan & Cie internal cable on 9 July, de Chambrun told Dean Jay, ‘June deficit francs 20,000 owing legal salary increase. Clara grateful remittance for library. Arrangement with [French] Information Center gives complete assurance protection. Inform [Max] Shoop.’ The telegram arrived in Jay’s office the next day, 10 July, two days before Max Shoop was scheduled to take the Pan Am Clipper to Lisbon. Shoop, as chairman of the hospital’s legal committee, wrote to Jay on 10 July, ‘Since the hospital has a registered office here [New York], and since most of the governors and officers are here, the corporation can be considered as being in the United States.’ The US corporation would not be able to send financial support to the hospital if the United States and Germany went to war. That task would be assumed by René de Chambrun’s French Information Centre in Paris.
Max Shoop was heading back to Europe to work for the American Red Cross. Covertly, he was employed as an agent of America’s fledgling wartime intelligence bureau, the Coordinator for Information. Its London chief was Allen Dulles, one of Shoop’s law partners at Sullivan and Cromwell. Dulles hated the Nazis so much that he had persuaded the firm in 1935, over the objections of his brother and senior partner, John Foster Dulles, to close Sullivan and Cromwell’s Berlin office. America was not a belligerent, but gathering intelligence on German-occupied Europe seemed sensible for a country whose policies in Europe and the Far East were making its combat role in the Second World War all but inevitable.
On Wednesday, 27 August 1941, at seven in the evening, Clara and Aldebert were at home in the rue de Vaugirard when their telephone rang. It was an urgent call from the Versailles hospital. Their in-law, Pierre Laval, had been shot and was in a critical condition. A car came to the house a few minutes later to take the general and the countess to his bedside. ‘His breathing was very difficult and prevented him from speaking clearly,’ Aldebert remembered. ‘The bullet had penetrated very deeply between his lung and his heart.’ Clara had been fond of Laval since their first encounter before their children’s wedding in 1935. ‘He always paid me the courtesy of speaking in my presence as though I were a member of his family,’ she said, ‘and the very strong admiration I came to feel for him before my son married his daughter soon changed into respectfully sincere affection.’ Now, Laval might be dying. He had taken, not one bullet, but two, from a 6.35 mm pistol. One hit his shoulder, and the other came within an inch of his heart. The culprit was one of the résistants of whom Clara already disapproved. This trespass on her family’s safety made her even more critical of the violence that the Germans called ‘terrorism’.
René de Chambrun joined his mother and father at the hospital. His wife, Josée, was at home with her mother in Châteldon. At 10 p.m., passing through a throng of journalists and Laval supporters, René was admitted to his father-in-law’s room as the former prime minister asked his physician, Dr Barragué, for the telephone. ‘The car has left for Châteldon,’ he whispered to his wife, Jeanne. ‘See you tomorrow. Kiss Josée.’ To Aldebert, he said, ‘I don’t know how I’m getting on, but above all tell them that no harm must come to the man who shot me. He is young … He was certainly not the one responsible. ’
The young man who had attempted to assassinate Laval a few hours earlier was Paul Colette, a militiaman in the collaborationist Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism. Time magazine called him ‘a tough 21-year-old patriot from Calvados, the applejack section of Normandy’. On the eve of the Legion’s departure for the Russian front, Colette was one of many recruits at the Borgnies-Debordes barracks in Versailles. At about 5 p.m., Laval arrived to review the military parade. Time reported, ‘When Paul Colette’s rank swung past the reviewers, he simply stepped out of line, pulled out his German gun and let Laval have it over the heart and [pro-German journalist and politician Marcel] Déat have it in the arm and belly. The colonel of the barracks and another Legionnaire got hit too.’ The Germans captured Colette immediately and accused him of being a communist, until he admitted he was a Free French supporter of General Charles de Gaulle. Suspecting the loyalty of other volunteers, the Germans cancelled the Legion’s deployment to the Soviet Union.
Josée de Chambrun heard the news from Ralph Heinzen, the United Press correspondent and family friend in Vichy, at 8.30 p.m., an hour and a half before her father called. The car Laval sent drove her and her mother throughout the night. They reached 6-bis Place du Palais Bourbon, René and Josée’s magnificent house behind the Chambre des Députés, at ten the next morning. Aldebert, Clara and René took them immediately to the hospital, where Laval’s recovery was proceeding slowly. He had a high temperature, and the family worried he might not survive. By late Saturday night, though, Jeanne Laval decided that, as Josée wrote in her diary, ‘Papa is saved.’ His health improved rapidly, and René de Chambrun felt confident enough to spend Monday at the horse races. Josée stayed away. ‘I had taken a vow not to return there for a year.’ It may have been her trade with God for her father’s life. René, meanwhile, won a lot of money.
By the time Laval was well enough to leave Paris on 30 September and convalesce at home in Châteldon, the Laval and Chambrun families had become more intimate than ever. The association was costing Clara her reputation at home in America, but her first loyalties had always been to her family and to her obligations as she saw them. Her duty was to make life under occupation bearable for the readers at the American Library, the only public institution in German-occupied Europe where books in English circulated freely. She had helped to make the library ‘a haven for French historians, philosophers, journalists and students’. That, she believed, was a more meaningful defiance of dictatorship than assassinations and bombings. Others saw it, not as defiance, but as collaboration.
On Memorial Day, 30 May, Paris’s dwindling American community gathered in the American Cathedral on the rue George-V to remember their dead of the previous world war. Colonel Bentley Mott and the cathedral’s organist, Lawrence K. Whipp, led the service. Afterwards, they trudged through the rain to lay wreaths at the Chapel of American War Heroes in the Suresnes cemetery above the city. When the United States armed its merchant marine fleet and introduced a peacetime draft in September 1941 for the first time in its history, no Americans in Paris could doubt their country was preparing for war.
In French North Africa, Robert Murphy was installing a network of spies under cover as consular officers nominally monitoring US food shipments. The American consular service lacked personnel qualified in intelligence, so Murphy had turned to ‘General William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan, Medal of Honor winner hero of Rainbow Division of World War I fame’. Donovan was creating America’s first peacetime overseas intelligence agency independent of the army and navy, first called the Coordinator for Information (COI). Donovan hived off a part of the COI, called it the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and took the best agents with him. Murphy wrote, ‘We surely were glad to welcome his representatives, being ourselves rank amateurs in the Intelligence field.’ One of the twelve vice-consuls–or ‘twelve apostles’, as Murphy referred to them–dispatched to North Africa was Donald Coster, the ambulance driver whom Sumner Jackson had helped to escape from France in 1940.
The American Ambassador to France at Vichy, Admiral William Leahy, favoured the shipment of aid to North Africa of ‘staples primarily intended for the Arabs, who were susceptible to German propaganda’. He disapproved of some of the spying that went with it. ‘I did not know either Donovan or the O.S.S,’ he wrote. ‘Some of his agents were not entirely innocent of making trouble for the Embassy.’ He was surprised that a lawyer from Chicago, Thomas G. Cassidy, was appointed as assistant naval attaché: ‘I soon found he did not know which end of a boat went first and wondered what kind of officers the Navy was commissioning. Some time later I learned he was a secret O.S.S. agent planted in the American Embassy. Cassidy was a very good spy–capable and discreet.’
In November, Congress repealed the Neutrality Act of 1939 that most Americans had believed would keep them out of the war. The United States was, in President Roosevelt’s words, the ‘arsenal of democracy’ against the Axis dictatorships. Although their embassy in Paris had closed in May, more than two thousand American citizens remained in the City of Light to endure with the French the privations of occupation. Some hoped America would stay out of the war so that they would not be arrested as enemy aliens. The rest longed for the American army to liberate them from German rule.
United Press correspondent Ralph Heinzen came to Paris from Vichy in September 1941 to write about the American Library, where he ‘found both the reading and reference rooms crowded chiefly with French scholars. The files are intact, but since the armistice there has been a complete interruption of mails and no recent American books or magazines are available.’ Heinzen noted that Clara had taken over the library on Dorothy Reeder’s departure and enjoyed ‘an exceptional position in European letters’. Heinzen may have been encouraged to write the article by his friend René de Chambrun. ‘Gift books are distributed to prison camps and military hospitals,’ he wrote. ‘A special circulating library takes care of the reading needs of the British civilians interned in concentration camps at Besançon and Vittel.’
Heinzen also visited the American Hospital, writing that ‘General de Chambrun slept in the hospital to protect that property until its status under occupation was definitely established.’ He inspected one floor dedicated to military wounded. Of the civilian patients, there were equal numbers of Americans, French and British. He noted that Sumner Jackson had become chief of the medical staff following the departure of Dr Gros. ‘Since General de Chambrun has assumed the management of the hospital, there has not been a vacant bed,’ he wrote, discreetly avoiding the observation that the general and Dr Jackson kept the hospital full to deny the Germans a foothold they could use to assume complete control.
Aldebert and Clara de Chambrun directed the two leading American institutions in France, because the boards of both had fled to the United States. If Germany and the United States went to war, the Chambruns could not guarantee that their meticulous legal and financial planning would protect the hospital or the library. Rarely had the fate of an entire American community in wartime rested in the hands of two members of the same family. Clara and Aldebert waited to discover whether they could save the hospital, the library and the staffs of both on the day that American citizenship became anathema to the Nazi occupiers of Paris.
Many Americans had run out of money after more than a year under occupation, since the US Treasury had restricted the transfer of funds to German-occupied territory. A few turned for help to the American Hospital. On 6 November 1941, General de Chambrun sent a memorandum to Nelson Dean Jay and Edward B. Close that made it clear the hospital would live up to the purpose for which it had been founded in 1909: ‘We have already been obliged to accept in the Hospital five American destitutes and it is my intention to do all I can for this category which may increase and which may become a heavy burden if nothing is done to help the countrymen which will necessarily be left over here either on account of their age or family obligations.’
De Chambrun’s memo noted that shortages, which were affecting all of Paris, had become acute at the hospital. Everything from heating oil to bandages was in short supply. There were 250 patients, many still suffering the wounds of war, and the same number of staff, some of whom remained all night to work or to be on call for emergencies. While operating expenses were not in deficit, Aldebert noted the lack of ‘stocks of all kind, especially linen, decreasing and no possibility of replacement’. He counselled that ‘it seems advisable to stock in America linen which will be necessary in the Hospital in two or three years and which will be impossible to find in France after the war: linen for drawsheets, aprons, bath towels, face towels, kitchen towels, roller towels, cotton flannels for binders, Operating Room draping material (preferably blue), bed spreads, cotton tussor [silk] for beige curtains, kitchen aprons, blue gingham’. An order for American bedspreads that had been sent on the ship Georgios Patamianos in May did not arrive. General de Chambrun urged Jay and Close to send another shipment. By the time they could have done so, it was too late.