IN THE AUTUMN OF 1943, the war appeared to turn in the Allies’ favour. The British, American and Free French had secured North Africa and the Middle East. The Anglo-American invasion of Italy from Tunisia led to a new Italian government that switched sides and declared war on Germany on 13 October. Five days later, Countess Clara Longworth de Chambrun marked rather than celebrated her seventieth birthday. The matriarch remained vigorous, working daily at the library, helping its staff to endure occupation and completing her book on Shakespeare. Her son and his wife lived as if nothing had changed. In September, they had gone with Seymour Weller, the American manager of the Château Haut-Brion vineyards in Bordeaux, to watch the harvest and sample one of the world’s finest wines. René rarely missed a horse race at Longchamp, and Josée was a regular buyer of dresses from Elsa Schiaparelli. In Paris, the couple attended the premiere of Jean Delannoy’s film L’Éternel retour and, with the actress Arletty, opening night at the Comédie Française of Paul Claudel’s Soulier de satin.
Clara, struggling to keep the American Library open, bore her son’s vilification in the American press with characteristic stoicism. Friends in Cincinnati were reading that her family in France had somehow become traitors–a stain on a patriotic American family and on Lafayette’s descendants. Moreover, the Gaullists in London let it be known that there would be scores to settle with those who collaborated with the occupier. First on the list for retribution was Pierre Laval. His son-in-law was not far behind.
The American press campaign against René de Chambrun intensified in November and December 1943, when the New York Herald Tribune published three front-page ‘exposés’. ‘Count de Chambrun in His Role of U.S. Citizen,’ the first headline trumpeted on 28 November. The paper called his dual citizenship ‘nebulous’, although both his parents were American-born and he had demonstrated his right to American citizenship in court when the New York Bar Association admitted him in 1930. ‘At present he is attached to Fernand de Brinon, Vichy’s Ambassador to Paris, former public relations counsel of Nazi Germany in New York,’ journalist Paul Wohl wrote, without naming his source. René was an unofficial adviser to Laval, but he did not work for de Brinon. In the next article, ‘Laval’s Fortune Reported Safe in U.S.’, Paul Wohl claimed that Laval’s money was ‘brought to America in a diplomatic valise in September 1940, by his son-in-law and personal assistant, Count René de Chambrun, when he visited the United States for the second time after the French defeat with his wife, Countess José [sic] Laval de Chambrun’. No proof was offered that Laval had ever sent money to the United States. René admitted that he had taken cash the other way, from Americans like John Jay and Mrs Seton Porter, to friends in France.
Wohl’s articles accused René and Josée of engaging in ‘anti-British propaganda’ in the United States, although it was René who had campaigned for the United States to send weapons to Britain. The assault on his character extended to his family. Wohl wrote that Aldebert de Chambrun and his brother, Charles, were ‘shrewd opportunists’. He did not mention that the third brother, Pierre, had been the only senator to vote against capitulation in July 1940 and that Pierre’s daughter, Marthe de Chambrun Ruspoli, had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1941 for providing civilian clothes to escaping Allied soldiers. Clara was upbraided as well, because ‘she did not leave Paris in June, 1940’. The final proof of disloyalty was, ‘The Paris building of the National City Bank of New York, of which General Aldebert is the nominal head, now houses Marshal Goering’s staff. It was one of the first buildings turned over to the Nazis.’ Two floors of the building had been requisitioned, not by Marshal Goering, but by Joseph Goebbels’s Propagandastaffel. Its tenants, including the National City Bank and René’s law firm, were not consulted. (Goering’s Paris headquarters were in the Palais de Luxembourg opposite Clara and Aldebert’s house in the rue de Vaugirard.) The most likely source of the disinformation was British intelligence, which had clashed with René over food supplies to southern France. Although the charges against René de Chambrun and his family in Paris were for the most part fabrications, they were beginning to stick.
The FBI had heard in January that one of the Bedauxs, Charles or his son, had cabled relatives ‘giving his best wishes and so forth’. At the FBI’s request, the army sent a wire from Washington to Algiers ‘instructing that they be kept strictly incommunicado and also that the guards be carefully checked’. In October, Fern Bedaux wrote at least three letters to her husband. It is not clear from the FBI files whether he received them or how she sent them. There was no mail between occupied France and North Africa, but Fern may–as her husband had done in the past–have sent letters with friends to be mailed from neutral Portugal. The US army’s Adjutant General’s office intercepted them and translated them from French into English for the Department of Justice. The first, dated 4 October, said,
My own Charles darling, Now three or four weeks since I have news from you, but my heart tells me that all continues well. I long and live for the day I shall have a word direct.
… Do you remember my apprehension the day you left–nearly a year ago now. For days before it was like a black cloud. Something told me I must keep you or go along–We will pass through it–the cloud will lift one day. This test of strength and courage, strengthens and hardens character. Somehow I feel we didn’t need it–So it can only be preparing us for greater and better things after. My own darling sweetheart your last letter & photograph never leave me. Never forget for one instant day and night that you are my whole world. I long for you. Kiss Junior for me.
The second dwelt on business, which she appeared to be monitoring for her husband. Gaston was doing good work, and Candé had an ‘excellent new overseer’ named Guy. ‘I travel at will between Paris and Candé,’ she wrote. ‘My life is very simple–I always see the same persons–the real friends–Joseph [possibly Joseph von Ledebur] is traveling a lot.’ At the top of her third letter, dated 28 October, she wrote, ‘Sunday, your birthday was a sacred holy day for me. I feel your nearness.’ The letter began: ‘My own precious darling, I am told that you have had another letter. How I wish they could all arrive–and one day I will have a few words from you.’ It continued:
You may have heard (as all the Radios announced it) that Monday morning Oct. 18th there was a big explosion at the Ripault [gunpowder factory that the French had blown up in 1940]. The last engineers had left at 9.30. The accident was at 11.00. There is considerable damage at Candé but nothing that cannot be repaired with time. No one was hurt. I had a few cuts and bruises but only on the body. They are all finished and in order again–and I am ready to return to Paris …
My sweetheart darling–you are with me every minute. You must know and feel it. You were never more close–and I never loved more deeply and completely than now. With our strength and courage we have marvelous, beautiful days ahead. I live and always will live for you.
If Charles wrote back, using the same clandestine route Fern’s letters had taken, the letters did not survive.
The case against Bedaux was gaining momentum in Washington, mainly on the basis of the documents and statements he provided. On 30 November, after the FBI failed to unearth evidence against Charles Junior, he was allowed to leave detention at El Biar. He immediately enlisted in the US army. Because of his command of languages and knowledge of continental Europe, the army assigned him to its intelligence branch, G-2. He went back to El Biar to bid farewell to his father before he took up his first posting in Oran. The older man’s parting words were, ‘Goodbye, good luck, be kind.’ Separation had been a recurring motif in the relationship between father and son, but Charles Junior felt this would be the last. His father stayed on in the villa under the surveillance of the MPs. Two weeks later, just before Christmas, a US army colonel escorted him to the airport. With his Trans-Sahara Pipeline reduced to a dream, Charles Bedaux was going home.
The army delivered Bedaux to Miami on 23 December. At 6 a.m., an hour after his plane landed, he was released and given $2,300 in cash that had been taken from him at the time of his arrest. He went to a hotel, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service found him there and arrested him soon afterwards. INS patrolmen took him to the Immigration Detention Center at 525 North East 30th Street in what had been an opulent beach house near Biscayne Bay. Bedaux was lodged in the former chauffeur’s apartment above the garage, the latest of his many prisons. He had been in custody without charges for more than a year.
When he was first arrested on 5 December 1942, Bedaux had in his possession what Janet Flanner called ‘an invaluable, meticulous source of information on himself, for it had always been his custom to carry with him a small library of private papers and a whole gallery of photographs of his family and his interesting friends’. The FBI, after examining the files, gave the full list to Miss Flanner. She recorded that, in addition to the Vichy and German documents that Bedaux had copied for Robert Murphy, there were
code telegrams; business telegrams; tender love letters from his wife; carbon copies of letters from the Nazi High Command; carbons of inconsequential letters to Admiral Darlan; photostats of Bedaux’s family birth certificates for two generations back; photographs of Otto Abetz’s children in peasant costume; an envelope marked ‘Edward,’ containing the Candé snapshots of the Duchess of Windsor and the Duke mowing the lawn … notes about important luncheon appointments for the previous year; a bicycle license; a letter from the Snowflake Herald, of Snowflake, Arizona; clippings from the Journal-American; a red leather box containing pen points; a green leather folder containing nothing; and a package of Medinal sleeping tablets.
The French Brigade of Surveillance had returned his effects to him when they let him go on 29 December 1942. Bedaux apparently did not re-examine them before he gave them to the US army Judge Advocate’s office on 17 January 1943 for safekeeping. The three weeks the French held the papers would have been long enough for someone to remove–or to insert–documents without his knowledge. When he arrived in Miami on 23 December, the weapons that could destroy him were waiting.
At Christmas 1943, the usual festivities were held at the American Library and Hospital. Those who had been to the three previous Christmas celebrations recalled their resolutions of those years: ‘This time it really is the last; next Christmas we shall be free.’ At the library, Boris Netchaeff had recovered sufficiently from his wound to brew his traditional Christmas rum punch. The chef at the hospital once again slaughtered and roasted the pigs he had been hiding from the Germans. The celebration was melancholy, if only because the occupation, far from abating, was becoming more oppressive. Food, coal, soap, clothing and shoes were in short supply. The Germans, with Pierre Laval’s assistance, were drafting more French workers for labour details in Germany. They were also executing more hostages as Resistance attacks on their troops increased. Jews, already suffering brutal discrimination and the yellow star emblem, were sent with Vichy’s cooperation in greater numbers to the Nazi death camps in Poland. Clara and Aldebert, who kept the two main American institutions in occupied France functioning while their names were sullied in the American press, exhibited a brave front to the doctors, nurses and patients gathered for their fourth Christmas under occupation. When Christmas dinner ended, they left the hospital to reach the avenue de Vaugirard before curfew.
Coming home from the western suburb of Neuilly by public transportation was not an easy affair for the revelers. Having been tempted to linger, we almost broke our shins in feverish efforts to catch the last metro, terrified by the apprehension that if we lost it we must pass the night in the guardhouse … I remember that once we were almost at the corner of the rue Cassette, and only three short blocks from the house, when a uniform accosted us. The streets were quite empty. It was dreadfully cold and hard to see that a man was standing under the blued streetlamp. Were we in for arrest? Not that time. He thrust into my hand a paper with the address of one of the hotels reserved for German troops. He was lost and visibly frightened, but evidently thought that a lady might be less dangerous than a man. I could make out only the words bitte and wo ist, but responded,da, for the hotel was just around the corner. He must have been an old-fashioned German taken among the last conscriptions, for he murmured feelingly the worn-out formula, ‘I kiss your hands, highborn dame.’ This was the sole occasion when, moved by the Christmas spirit, I gave aid or comfort to one of our foes.
Clara’s closest friends and some of her family were giving more than directions to a lost soldier on Christmas Eve.
Charles Bedaux wrote a letter to his New York office on Monday, 27 December. Marked for the attention of US Bedaux Company chief Albert Ramond, lawyer Judge George Link, Jr, and his secretary, Mrs Isabella Cameron Waite, the letter was their first indication that Bedaux was in the United States. Bedaux wrote that he was a prisoner in Miami’s Immigration Detention Center, and he needed help. He asked for sleeping pills. He preferred the Medinal tablets that he took in France, but Luminal–though ‘somewhat injurious’–would do. Without the pills, he could not sleep. His other, perhaps more urgent, request was for a lawyer.