Le Millionnaire américain

‘WE WANDERED LIKE MANY OTHERS on out-of-the-way roads that we had to take to go from Paris towards Touraine,’ Gaston Bedaux recalled of his escape from Paris with his American older brother, Charles. Their destination was the Château de Candé, the fabulous estate that Charles had bought in 1927 and restored with some of the millions he made as an ‘efficiency engineer’ in America. The Renaissance castle was about 20 miles from Tours, capital of the Touraine region. Charles had been reluctant to leave Paris, until Gaston called from Beauvais, about 50 miles to the north, warning him to flee. Living and working as an engineer for the Department of Bridges and Highways nearer the front lines, Gaston knew that radio reports of French victories were false. But Charles, Gaston wrote, ‘didn’t want to believe me and called me a pessimist’. When Charles insisted that he had to remain in Paris for an important rendezvous with French Minister of Armaments Raoul Dautry, Gaston informed him that the French government, including Minister Dautry, had already left the capital. As the Germans deployed their forces around Paris, the two brothers, together with Gaston’s Beauvais staff, drove southwest to the Loire Valley in cars that Gaston had arranged for such an emergency.

Charles Bedaux’s exquisite country house, the Château de Candé, had been converted into the temporary quarters of the American Embassy. Ambassador Bullitt and Counsellor Murphy rented part of the Renaissance castle in September 1939, when the Anglo-French declaration of war on Germany raised the possibility of fighting in Paris. Bedaux, who granted a lease for the duration of the war to First Secretary Hugh Fullerton, charged the US Treasury only $30 for the initial year’s rent and did not cash the cheque. The lease benefited Bedaux as well as the embassy. Under American diplomatic protection, his chateau, unlike those of his French neighbours, could not be requisitioned legally as a billet for German troops and was less likely to be bombed. For the embassy, Candé was an ideal location if Paris became a battle zone: it lay in the southwest, far from Germany’s invasion routes of 1870 and 1914, in 1,200 hectares of woods, farm and gardens that could not be easily disturbed. Moreover, Bedaux had equipped the property with modern American conveniences unknown elsewhere in the French countryside: US plumbing fixtures in lavish art deco bathrooms, a $15,000 telephone system for twenty-four-hour international calls and a private golf course. Its vaulted stone cellars, one of which had a fully stocked bar while another stored 40,000 bottles of wine, doubled as air raid shelters. The dining table seated twenty-six, and the servants were managed by an English butler named James. The library, with a balustrade modelled on the choir loft at Chartres Cathedral, had been commissioned by Charles for his American-born wife, Fern. The centrepiece of Charles’s bedroom was a Chinese opium bed. A cupboard with fifteenth-century panels provided an elegant hiding place for his most important documents. Fern had a gymnasium boasting the latest exercise equipment. Her dressing room was large enough for the designers Molyneux, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli to model their latest fashions for the clothes-conscious Mme Bedaux. An underground passage led to the old hunting lodge, which Bedaux had converted into a billiard room. ‘The chateau has one disadvantage,’ a United Press report in the New York Times noted in 1939. ‘The big powder factory, a natural bombing objective, is situated in a wooded valley near the entrance to the estate.’

An embassy secretary, Carroll W. Holmes, was the first to move into Candé in October 1939, while other staff spent weekends. In January 1940, Vice-consul Worthington E. Hagerman joined Holmes. Hagerman, an amateur artist, painted scenes of Candé that he gave to Charles and Fern in gratitude for their hospitality. By early June 1940, with the French command vowing to defend Paris street by street, more diplomats and their families moved there full time.

When Charles and Gaston Bedaux reached the chateau, American Embassy First Secretary Hugh Fullerton, Third Secretary Ernest Mayer, commercial attaché Leigh Hunt and a large support staff were already installed. Charles Bedaux found himself host, not only to the diplomats, but to Americans escaping from Paris and other parts of France. Under Bedaux’s generous stewardship, Candé became an extended country house party for displaced American citizens. Champagne greeted the American réfugiés de luxe to the fairy-tale palace with its turrets, towers and tennis courts. The impeccably dressed and urbane Bedaux charmed them all, especially the women.

Fullerton found Bedaux, despite his geniality to the guests, ‘greatly depressed by France’s military defeat’. Bedaux blamed the collapse on the people of France, rather than its politicians and military officers, for being ‘slothful and unbridled and in need of discipline and organization’. Mental depression did not impede Bedaux’s characteristic passion to get things done. When German officers inspected the chateau, Bedaux persuaded them to grant exit permits for the Americans who wanted to leave the country. An American diplomat asked Bedaux why he did not obtain an exit visa for himself. Bedaux, who believed that Germany and the US had too much in common to fight each other, said, ‘I can be of more use here.’ While the Americans enjoyed the chateau’s luxury at one remove from the war, French cadets at the nearby Cavalry School in Saumur were bravely covering the French Army’s retreat over the River Loire.

Three American journalists–H. R. Knickerbocker of Hearst Newspapers, Ken Downs of the International News Service and Quentin Reynolds of Collier’s–pitched up at Candé late one night as the French government was leaving Tours. Ken Downs, who had been there in 1937, knew Bedaux’s housekeeper. When she came to the gate, he asked her for somewhere to sleep. ‘She grumbled that she’d have to get permission from the American Embassy, which occupied the house,’ Reynolds wrote. ‘She went away and didn’t return. We were in no mood to dicker. We’d all had a tough seven days and we wanted a night’s sleep. Knick and Downs climbed the iron picket fence and walked the mile and a half to the house. They roused a sleepy and very junior member of the Embassy staff. Reluctantly he came back with them and opened the gate.’ The diplomat led them to the stables and gave them some horse blankets. ‘We were a bit put out because our relations with the Embassy had been excellent. We had been accustomed to the effusive friendliness of Ambassador Bullitt, the genial companionship of Maynard Barnes, the press attaché, and of Colonel Fuller. Any of them would have said, “Here’s the house, boys. Come in, have a drink, and make yourselves at home.” But this very junior member was very sleepy and not at all interested.’ The journalists woke on the dewy grass at sunrise. Needing petrol for their car, they threw pebbles at the chateau’s windows to rouse the diplomats inside. The resourceful Reynolds wrote,

No one woke. There was of course only one thing to do. We went to the garage and siphoned off a few liters of juice from the Embassy cars which were standing there. We comforted ourselves with the excuse that had Bullitt been there he would have given us all the petrol we needed. Afterwards, in Bordeaux, we met some of the American Embassy lads who told us that the theft of petrol had made the junior members of the staff very angry … Junior members of an embassy are apt to take themselves more seriously than their bosses.

Candé offered better hospitality to Peter Muir, an American First World War ambulance driver who had recently returned to France as a medical officer with the American Field Service. When a German battalion at the front captured the Lawrenceville and University of Virginia graduate, he and another driver convinced the Germans they were physicians. Taken to Paris, they escaped, begged some civilian clothes and bought a car. On the drive west in search of their missing medical unit, they stopped at Candé.

There were quite a few people gathered in the magnificent salon for cocktails. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Bedaux, were there and could not have received us more graciously. The others were embassy attachés and their wives, and two or three refugees. It was a grand feeling to stand about, drinking cold Martinis and chatting in one’s own language among friends and seemingly far away from the war and the Huns. There was only one reminder of the war, and that could be seen through the window down in the valley to the southwest. It was a brown spot covering about five hundred acres of forest, and was an eye-sore. A gunpowder factory had been built there, well hidden by the trees, and the French had blown it up before the arrival of the enemy. Mr. Bedaux told me that he had thought the explosion would cause the Chateau to tumble in ruins, but though it had trembled slightly it had withstood the shock.

Bedaux neglected to add that the explosion from the Ripault factory had killed one of his horses, damaged the ceiling in an art deco bathroom and shattered several windows. The morning after Muir’s arrival at Candé, he was unable to start his car. An American diplomat drove him to the nearest highway to hitch a ride. Believing his ambulance team had gone to Bordeaux after his capture, the German-speaking Muir accepted lifts from Wehrmacht soldiers heading that way. He finally found his American comrades in Biarritz and escaped with them over the border to Spain.

Arriving in New York on 18 July aboard the SS Manhattan with about seven hundred other Americans, Peter Muir told the New York Times that he had seen both sides in the war and was convinced that ‘we had better start thinking about the German Army; it is terrific, marvelous, with perfect efficiency’. In War without Music, a memoir he wrote and published a few months later, he warned his countrymen, ‘It was then, and is now, my firm conviction that the Madman of Munich is out to dominate the world, and if England does not stop him, America must.’

The Manhattan had also carried a contingent of American First World War veterans of the French army. One of them, Eugene Bullard, was still recovering from the injuries he suffered at Le Mans and recalled his welcome home: ‘On our arrival we were met by Jack E. Specter, then a representative of American Legion Post No. 1, Paris, of which I was a member in good standing. Specter announced that he had arranged hotel reservations for our group of refugee legionnaires. To me, the only Negro, he added, “Bullard, I haven’t got any reservation for you. I didn’t know you were in the group.”’ After twenty-seven years in France, the first black combat pilot and veteran of two wars against Germany was reminded why he had not come home before. He reflected, ‘For me, that burst of brightness from Miss Liberty’s torch was quickly clouded.’

At Charles Bedaux’s luxurious Château de Candé, the American party went on. More than a quarter of a million refugees from Belgium, Holland and Paris sought shelter in the surrounding Loire provinces. The German Army was encircling and bombarding the city of Tours, which burned for three days before Wehrmacht troops conquered the gutted city. As the number of Americans at Candé increased to 500, Bedaux housed and fed them in considerable style. To deal with normal health problems, Bedaux requested assistance from the American Hospital at Neuilly. The hospital dispatched a medical team, headed by Dr Sumner Waldron Jackson.

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