The Countess from Ohio

THE NAZIS REQUISITIONED the best Parisian hotels–not only the Crillon, but the Ritz, Majestic, Raphael and George-V. The American Embassy beat them to the Hôtel Bristol, Ambassador Bullitt having already leased it from proprietor Hippolyte Jammet. The elegant hotel in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré was suitable as an American refuge, because its basement shelter was the only one in Paris with protection against poison gas. The hotel flew the American flag, which the Germans did not remove. One American expatriate, Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond, made the Bristol bar his second home. The Hellenophile Duncan was easy to recognize, invariably dressed in a toga and hand-made sandals. His Left Bank art gallery, the Akademia in rue de Seine, was close enough to the Bristol for him to walk there over the river. Representatives of the American Red Cross, the Rockefeller Foundation and the American ambulance units moved into the Bristol. Anne Morgan also took up residence there, hiding foreign and French Jews under quasi-diplomatic protection until she found ways for them to leave France. Dorothy Reeder, directress of the American Library in the rue de Téhéran, went to the Bristol on the occupation’s first day to work for the embassy verifying that the residents were American citizens.

Two days earlier, Miss Reeder had received an unexpected visit from the American Library’s first vice-president, Countess Clara Longworth de Chambrun. The two women conferred in the darkness of a library whose windows were obscured in brown paper as a precaution against bombing. The rest of the library’s board were preparing to leave France altogether, but Countess de Chambrun was going that afternoon to the country–imperiously informing Miss Reeder that she would return as usual in September. Miss Reeder, the countess recalled, ‘promised to remain on the spot and continue to wave the flag of neutrality. Meantime, she appeared to be getting what she termed “quite a kick” out of the position in which she was left as sole guardian of the premises, and with authority to negotiate the most delicate questions with the occupants, certain that the American Embassy would back her decisions.’ Miss Reeder herself wrote, ‘Was it really Paris whose streets I walked through the 11th, 12th and 13th of June 1940? I do not think so. It was a dead city. Everything was closed, locked and deserted. Even the fall of a pin could be heard.’

Clara Longworth de Chambrun was reluctant to abandon Paris. Her husband’s employers, the National City Bank of New York, had a ‘theory that, should the enemy enter Paris, certain French directors might be held as hostages and endanger the interests of the establishment’. So, Count Aldebert de Chambrun, the Marquis de Mun and six French employees were ordered to move the bank south of any imaginable German penetration to Le Puy. Clara told Aldebert that he could leave Paris without her. She refused to desert their house at 58 rue de Vaugirard, overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens and the Senate’s ornate Palais du Luxembourg, in the 6th Arrondissement. A few dozen yards away was the Théâtre de l’Odéon, where Clara staged plays. Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company was just around the corner. Clara was obstinate: ‘My temperamental dislike of retreating from danger when others less capable of facing it remained behind caused me to protest vigorously against this mandate [from the bank to leave].’

Her husband reminded her that she would be alone in Paris. Aldebert himself had to be in Le Puy with the bank. Their only son, René, was in Washington on a mission from the French government at the request of Ambassador Bullitt to persuade President Franklin Roosevelt, a distant cousin by marriage, to send emergency military aid to Britain. Her husband’s brothers had also left. Pierre, who as the eldest had inherited their father’s title of Marquis de Chambrun in 1891, had gone to his country seat, the Château l’Empery-Carrières, in Lozère. As representative of Lozère in the Senate, he was the only American citizen in the upper house. With him was his wife, Clara’s cousin, Margaret Rives Nichols. Aldebert’s younger brother, Count Charles, known as Charlie and formerly French Ambassador in Rome, took refuge with relatives in Brittany. ‘My husband argued that, if I remained in Paris and saw the hideous swastika replace the tricolor, I would be cut off from everyone and everything I loved except the house itself and a little grave [of her daughter] nearby. I gave in before the inevitable and busied myself with the practical arrangements for that hated flight.’

On 12 June, after her visit to Dorothy Reeder at the American Library, Clara met her husband for a last lunch at home. Their chauffeur having disappeared in the chaos, an American employee of the bank, Mr Hunt, drove the count, the countess with her Japanese dog, Tsouni, on her lap and the Chambruns’ house maid out of the city that afternoon. With a million other Parisians, they found themselves in a disorderly procession that disrupted military convoys heading to the front. Their car crawled southwards along National Route Seven to Juvisy. There, where the highway joined regional roads, the traffic halted.

There were trucks, delivery wagons, military lorries and the whole running equipment of certain factories and aviation centers. Men and women were standing entwined on flatcars, careless of the fact that they could not remain erect for ever–or even at all–when running at normal speed. No question of that now; all proceeded at a footpace, and were stopped completely every three minutes. A lad on a dark brown thoroughbred pushed past our car and, on extricating himself from the mass, galloped off across country.

Further along the road, Clara noticed people setting out picnics. One man and woman in particular caught her eye: ‘I recall the silhouettes of a distinguished-looking couple in well-cut clothes seated at a tiny folding-table which formed part of their Rolls-Royce equipment. She was dressed in printed crepe de Chine with silver fox boa; he, in impeccable grey jacket with decorations. His carefully trimmed beard recalled Leopard II.’

Mr Hunt drove them for twenty-five hours on a journey that normally took seven. They had to sleep overnight in the car. On the second night, they reached Vichy, where the Hôtel du Parc gave Aldebert and Clara a room. They were lucky. Most of the other displaced Parisians who survived Luftwaffe strafing on the highways were sleeping rough in barns, on roadsides and in cheaper hotels and inns, several families often crowded into the same room. The rambling, white-porticoed Hôtel du Parc was the best that the spa town had to offer. Its management knew the Chambruns, who had summered there to ‘take the waters’ since 1926. Their July reservations were simply pushed forward to June. The couple took baths and settled in for their first good sleep in three days.

At four o’clock in the morning, while the Germans were about to occupy Paris, the urgent banging of a gong woke them. The incessant racket worsened when ‘an excited servant thundered at our door, and commanded us to dress and pack without delay as all guests must be out of the hotel by five o’clock’. The military staff of General Maxime Weygand, France’s new minister of national defence, had requisitioned the hotel. ‘We argued, but to no avail,’ Countess de Chambrun recalled. The hotel servant ‘compromised by giving us a cup of coffee before the start’. Despite their age, their wealth and Aldebert’s status as a retired army general, they packed and left the hotel before dawn.

Clara Longworth de Chambrun, a stalwart American matron of 66 years, and her American-born husband did not complain. ‘I must say for our personal honor,’ she wrote, ‘all thought of self was totally forgotten in the magnitude of national disaster. Even my little dog seemed to understand that no attention could be paid to him. Instead of balancing himself on my knees to supervise the chauffeur or admire the landscape, he crept down on the floor of the car and lay between my feet.’ They left Vichy for Le Puy, where the National City Bank had arranged lodging for its Paris staff.

This was Clara’s third war since she left Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1901. She took it in her stride. Four years before the Battle of France, she had written, ‘By birth and education, my life–which began on October 18, 1873, was predestined to adventure, tragedy, romance and mirth.’ By the time her third war began in September 1939, she was an accomplished Shakespearean scholar and had written sixteen books, eight each in English and French. These included the memoir of her life to 1935, Shadows Like Myself, and The Making of Nicholas Longworth, a biography of her brother. Nicholas Longworth III had been a Republican congressman from Cincinnati and was twice Speaker of the House of Representatives. His marriage to President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, at the White House was the American social event of 1906. Born into a rich and respected Cincinnati pioneer family, Clara Eleanor Longworth was, by her own admission, no beauty. ‘Why should any man wish to marry a woman who is not extremely beautiful?’ she asked in her first memoir. Clara nonetheless had bountiful chestnut hair that she tied back to reveal a striking face that exuded patrician self-confidence. Her fiercely independent, intellectual temperament had probably made her unsuitable to the Ohio boys who congregated at her family’s mansion on Grandin Road. In 1895, her cousin, Margaret Rives Nichols, married a French aristocrat, Pierre de Chambrun. Clara met his younger brother, Count Aldebert, at the same time.

Although the Chambrun brothers had an impeccably French pedigree, they were American twice-over. Aldebert and Charles had been born in Washington, DC, where their father, Adolphe de Chambrun, served as legal counsel to the French Embassy during the administrations of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. The Marquis de Chambrun’s Washington memoir, Impressions of Lincoln and the Civil War, recounted his friendship with President and Mrs Lincoln, who invited him to join them at Ford’s Theatre on the night Lincoln would be assassinated. The Chambruns were direct descendants of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of American independence and loyal friend of George Washington. Under an April 1788 act of the Maryland legislature, all of Lafayette’s male heirs were automatically citizens of the state and, thus, of the United States. Aldebert’s favourite sport, dating to his Washington boyhood, was baseball. Clara said that Aldebert ‘never considered the United States, where he was born and passed his early school-boy days, as foreign soil’. She also thought that he looked at moral problems ‘from a more American point of view’ than she did. Their differences were many: ‘Like all his family, he upholds a woman’s right to vote; I am firmly and temperamentally against it … His ultrahumanitarian views condemn the practice of capital punishment while my baser and more practical mind considers that in our present imperfect state of civilization it is a necessary evil.’ They wed in 1901, a Cincinnati ceremony presided over by the Episcopal Archbishop of St Paul for the Longworths and the Catholic Archbishop of Ohio for the Chambruns. Aged 27, she was not a young bride for her generation. Aldebert, born in Washington on 23 July 1872, was a year older.

Clara moved with Aldebert to France and tackled French life with the determination that her late eighteenth-century forebears brought to settling the Ohio frontier. She perfected her French, took a doctorate at the Sorbonne and became a figure in the conservative world of the French aristocracy. The couple had a son, René, whose godfather was President William Howard Taft; and a daughter, Suzanne, who died of an accidental electrocution in Paris at the age of 19. In 1910, Aldebert was dispatched to Washington as French military attaché and became with Clara part of what the press called President Taft’s ‘golf cabinet’. Taft, a jovial and rotund Ohio Republican who had been governor of the Philippines and vice-president under Theodore Roosevelt, called Aldebert ‘Bertie’. The Longworth and Taft families had been friends in Cincinnati, where Taft had taught her brother Nicholas at law school. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt challenged Taft, his former protégé, for the presidency, splitting the Republican vote and handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The Longworths and Chambruns, almost alone in Washington, remained close to both the Roosevelt and the Taft families.

The Chambruns returned to France in time for the Great War in 1914. Aldebert, a career soldier who had worked his way through the ranks to become a colonel, commanded the French 40th Regiment. At Bar-le-Duc during the Battle of Verdun in 1916, his entire unit was cited in dispatches for bravery. The award was presented by Aldebert’s former military academy instructor, General Henri-Philippe Pétain. Clara used her privileged position to visit her husband near the front. When she was forced to return to Paris and feared she might never see him again, she wrote, ‘But there is an end to everything, even tears.’ Her family’s sense of noblesse oblige led her to work for French refugees from the Meuse Valley battle zone and her mother to come from Ohio and nurse the wounded at the American Hospital of Paris. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, Aldebert was made French adviser to the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John Pershing. Clara preserved three images of the war: ‘the appearance of General Pershing on the balcony of the Hotel Crillon, the arrival of the [American] First Division, and the salute to Lafayette at Picpus Cemetery’. It was said that an American officer arrived in Paris, went straight to Lafayette’s simple grave at Picpus in the east of the city and announced, ‘Nous revoilà, Lafayette!’ This was America’s answer to Lafayette’s famed ‘Nous voilà!’ on reaching the rebellious American colonies 140 years before.

After the war, the Sorbonne awarded Clara, then aged 48, a doctorate in literature. Her interests included staging plays at the Comédie Française and helping to manage the American Library. The library had been established to provide books to doughboys, as the American soldiers were affectionately known, and remained open after they went home. Its members were mainly American residents of Paris and French students studying English. Among Clara’s American friends on the library board were its only other female members, Edith Wharton and Anne Morgan. The American Library, like Clara herself, had little contact with the Left Bank ‘lost generation’ writers who congregated at Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company.

Aldebert was posted to Morocco in 1922, where Clara experienced her second war three years later. ‘In the spring of 1925,’ she wrote, ‘the storm that had been brewing over the Rif broke with full force against the French outposts.’ Her husband, promoted to general, helped Maréchal Pétain to crush a war for independence that she called the ‘onslaught of more than 50,000 warriors of the fiercest description’ and capture their leader, the legendary Abd el-Krim. The French exiled Abd el-Krim to Réunion in the Indian Ocean, and the Chambruns returned to France. The French Academy awarded her its Bordin Prize for her Shakespearean scholarship in 1926, and in 1928 she became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Aldebert retired from the army as a general in 1933.

Two years later, their son, René, returned from practising law in New York to marry Josée Laval. Her father, Pierre Laval, had served in several French cabinets and had recently been prime minister. At the Laval–Chambrun wedding in Paris on 19 August 1935, the best man was General Pershing. Among the witnesses was René’s Aunt Alice Roosevelt Longworth. ‘Bunny’, as family and friends called the 6-foot, dark-haired René, opened law offices at 52 avenue des Champs-Elysées, where his father’s National City Bank maintained its French headquarters. René was the first lawyer admitted to the bars of both New York and France.

Bunny’s father-in-law was not from a similar aristocratic background. The mercurial Pierre Laval was born poor in the village of Châteldon. He studied law and defended trade unionists. In 1914, he was elected as a socialist to the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. When the party split between socialists and communists in 1920, he became an independent. He eventually bought the chateau in his home village and a flat in the exclusive Villa Saïd off the avenue Foch in Paris. In 1927, he moved to the upper chamber, the Senate, and became Président du Conseil, prime minister, in 1931. Time magazine named him its 1931 ‘Man of the Year’. ‘Swarthy as a Greek, this compact little Auvergnat (son of a village butcher in Auvergne, south-central France) was a Senator of no party, an Independent,’ Time commented. ‘The public neither knew that he always wears a white wash tie (cheapest and unfading) nor cared to figure out that his name spells itself backward as well as forward. Addicted to scowling, didactic (he once taught school), possessed of a mellow but unexciting voice, identified with no conspicuous cause or movement, Senator Laval was also too young to be noticeable in France in January 1931.’ In October 1931, he became the first French prime minister to visit the United States. His government fell in February 1932, but he served in several more cabinets until the 1936 victory of the leftist Popular Front coalition. Friends said that René’s devotion to his father-in-law, who called him affectionately ‘lapin’ rather than the English ‘Bunny’, derived from his passionate love for his wife, Josée. After René and Josée married, the two families became close and socialized regularly in Paris and the countryside.

On the morning of 14 June 1940, when Clara and Aldebert were evicted from the Hôtel du Parc in Vichy, Mr Hunt drove the Chambruns to see the Lavals at the Château de Châteldon. It was only a short detour on their way from Vichy to Le Puy. Pierre Laval was at home with his wife, Jeanne, and their daughter, Josée. The former prime minister immediately gave his in-laws the latest news. Clara wrote, ‘There was too much of it, and all bad: the Government was at Tours. They were joined there on June the thirteenth by Winston Churchill, Lord Halifax, Lord Beaverbrook and General Spears–the latter some days later was to spirit away from Bordeaux the recently appointed Under-Secretary of War, Colonel Charles de Gaulle, elevated for the nonce to the rank of Brigadier Generalpro tem.’ Clara conceived at this time a hatred of de Gaulle. Her memoirs, while criticizing him as an upstart without compassion for French suffering, omitted his brilliant armoured offensive against the Germans–a rare French success during the debacle of 1940. Laval and the countess dismissed the proposal by de Gaulle and Premier Paul Reynaud to continue the struggle against Germany from the North African colonies as ‘a wild scheme of continued military resistance from across the Mediterranean’.

Although Clara favoured an early armistice to spare France the loss of more people, she insisted she was adamantly anti-German. Clara’s hostility to Germany dated to her Washington years, when the French and German embassies vied for influence over American opinion. She detested German behaviour during the Great War and believed Germany should have paid its full war reparations to France. She wrote that her son René ‘fully shared his parents’ anti-German feelings’. René founded the French Information Center in New York before the Second World War to counter ‘the scarcely concealed Teutonic propaganda’ in the United States. Yet the perceptive American journalist Vincent Sheean detected in Clara a certain sympathy for Nazi objectives in Europe. He met the countess in Paris during the Spanish Civil War and wrote that ‘she had referred to Franco’s forces as “our army”, and had said “we shall soon be in Madrid”, and had declared quite flatly that if any of Hitler’s officers needed help getting to Spain she would assist them’. Clara did not mention this conversation, or her views on Spain, in her memoirs.

General de Chambrun recalled the stopover at Châteldon: ‘There we found M. and Mme. Laval, ready to leave for Bordeaux, where M. Laval believed his presence to be necessary. He questioned me at great length regarding Maréchal Pétain and told me his desire that the Maréchal should be placed at the head of the country, believing that he would be able to keep the upper hand against the enemy.’ The Lavals drove to the government’s new rest stop at Bordeaux, and the Chambruns resumed their journey to Le Puy.

‘The sights on the road were worse than those between Montargis and Vichy,’ Clara wrote. ‘We caught up with the same groups of trucks from aviation and munition centers but the picnic spirit had quite died down. Youths and maidens were no longer thinking of embracing each other; scowls and curses were the best they had to bestow upon passers-by.’ The route via Thiers and La Chaise Dieu took them slowly through the mountains until they saw Le Puy, ‘seated apparently on several extinct volcanoes upon whose empty craters rose tall churches’. Lodgings had been arranged nearby at an old castle belonging to the Comtesse de Polignac. There, the household maid told them that

Madame de Polignac was away for the afternoon but that she had left orders that the accommodations offered should be shown us. Our hearts sank a bit when she told us that every individual connected with the bank had already inspected the château, and after one look had gone on to Le Puy. There was no choice left at present, for that very morning a messenger had come from Mr. Pearce, the manager of the bank, saying that there was not a single bed left vacant in town.

To Clara’s question about the castle’s gas and electricity, the maid answered, ‘No gas, Madame, and just enough electricity to light one bulb in each room. If the river rises there may be more.’ They went down two flights of stairs to a massive kitchen cut into solid stone. It was bare, apart from a large, ancient stove. Was there either coal or wood for the stove? ‘Unfortunately, no, Madame,’ the maid said. ‘There is none at all here, and none to be bought in the village either. We have hardly enough fuel for the bakers’ oven. We hope to have bread in three days’ time. They are grinding the first sacks of flour at the mill below the castle.’ To Clara’s statement that she had been told the bathroom had hot water, the maid answered, ‘There is, if you heat it.’

Mr Hunt soon demonstrated his Yankee ingenuity. ‘Having explored the wildest parts of India and Thibet, the Sierras and the Rockies were to him mere child’s play,’ Clara observed of her erstwhile chauffeur. Hunt drove to the village of Lavoûte-sur-Loire and returned with implements to make a success of the kitchen–pots, pans, kettle and cooking gas. He gathered firewood, turned his hand to preparing dinner and in the gatekeeper’s cottage located a radio for them to hear the news. Clara and Aldebert nicknamed him ‘Daniel Boone’, only to discover that ‘he was in fact a true and lineal descendant of our great Kentucky hunter and pioneer’.

On 17 June, the radio informed the Chambrun party that Paul Reynaud had resigned and the new prime minister was their old friend, 84-year-old Maréchal Philippe Pétain. They listened sympathetically to Pétain’s broadcast that day, in which he called for an early armistice and an end to the fighting. By then, more than a hundred thousand French soldiers were dead, almost two million had been taken prisoner and many of the others were in flight–hiding their uniforms to disguise themselves as civilians. A few heroic units fought on, while many others had been evacuated from Dunkirk to England. On 18 June, the Chambruns listened to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s French language service from London. General Charles de Gaulle, who had only just reached England, assured the few French who could hear him, ‘France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war.’

De Gaulle’s ‘Appeal of June 18th’ calling for resistance to the Nazis infuriated Clara de Chambrun, who denigrated the rebel general. At the same time, the countess promoted her son, 34-year-old René, as a more suitable national hero. It was Count René, after all, who had convinced Ambassador Bullitt at the end of May that Britain would stand fast against German bombardment and invasion. While leaving for England from Dunkirk in May on a mission for the French general staff, Captain René de Chambrun–who had been a reserve officer since studying at the military academy of Saint-Cyr in 1927–observed the superiority of the Royal Air Force over the Luftwaffe:

And then, just as we were leaving the shores of France, three squadrons of Heinkels, twenty-seven planes in all, converged upon the city [Dunkirk] from three different directions, and, as if they had had some secret rendezvous with the Germans, six small British planes appeared almost at the same moment, flying at very high altitude. The Germans began to pour their bombs just as the British fighters swooped down upon them. The sound of the British engines was unlike any plane I knew, and their guns sounded strange too, but they did the most deadly job of dogfighting I have seen. I counted within a few minutes nineteen trails of smoke as Heinkel after Heinkel dropped and the six little fighters took control of the sky.

Back in Paris, René de Chambrun had convinced Bullitt that the RAF would stop Germany from winning the war. At Bullitt’s request, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud dispatched René to Washington to intercede for Britain with his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt.

Clara wrote, ‘It is historically interesting to note that his [René’s] assurances that England would inevitably win the war were made in New York twenty-four hours before Charles de Gaulle launched his radio broadcast from London.’ In Clara’s eyes, de Gaulle, who had only just been promoted to one-star general, possessed neither breeding nor compassion:

That any man of military training should have attempted to make hay in the political sunshine of the colossal falsehood FRANCE HAS LOST ONLY A BATTLE NOT A WAR shows how far the speaker had already flown from the grim realities of total disaster in the midst of which we found ourselves. It must be supposed that an officer who seeks shelter far from the tragic situation that he himself has abandoned, who is clothed, fed and financed by a Government [Britain’s] which has seldom throughout history manifested affection toward his fatherland, is hardly in a position to judge the conditions from which he himself has escaped.

Clara applauded Pétain’s decision to give up a struggle that was bleeding France of its young men. Without the Armistice, she wrote, ‘nothing would have been left but capitulation and unconditional surrender. What would then have become of all those who had taken refuge in the ever-dwindling free zone, and of those who laboriously made their way to England, America, or North Africa, had the entire south, east and west been overrun?’ She admired her husband’s old commander, Maréchal Pétain, as ‘the very symbol of integrity and glory’ and compared Pierre Laval to Abraham Lincoln. ‘Both of them were sometimes called ugly,’ she wrote, ‘but in the President of the United States as in the great French statesman there was strength and beauty of soul which shone in their eyes and placed them above other mortals.’ Her in-law, Laval, had been instrumental in making Pétain premier, but had not himself been included in the cabinet of 17 June. Meanwhile, along with other citizens and expatriates, Clara and Aldebert waited for the Battle of France to end. The humiliating capitulation came on 22 June at Compiègne in the same railway car in which Germany submitted to France in November 1918. At that moment, in Washington, her son, René, was pleading with the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee for America to provide arms for Britain to resist the Nazis. In the forests and hills surrounding Mme de Polignac’s riverside castle, Mr Hunt foraged for firewood and food. ‘Our three weeks there,’ Clara wrote, ‘were one long effort merely to keep alive.’

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!