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Paris in the Twenties
Irene Corbally Kuhn
The year was 1921. The month was May. The city was Paris. And I had just bought a new hat that I remember to this day: an exquisite, wide-brimmed straw hat trimmed with an enormous silk violet. I was about to start work as fashion editor, general reporter, and the only woman on the ten-member staff of the four-year-old Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.
The world had passed through the long darkness of the “war to end all wars” and was more than ready for the frenzied gaiety and brief brilliance of the roaring twenties. Paris was packed with Americans—and, for the most part, the French were happy to have us. Artists, writers, composers, dilettantes, bankers, businessmen, army officers, diplomats, and journalists, we had little in common beyond a passion for Paris and tended to travel in separate circles that only occasionally intersected. The journalists were a most clannish group. We did not mix with the literati, which is to say the Americans who came to Paris to write novels. We were, however, most gregarious and mixed with everyone else, because a story could come from anywhere. And frequently it did.
The Paris Chicago Tribune was one of the two principal English- language daily newspapers published there through the 1920s. The other was the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune. Although their names were similar they had little else in common. The Paris Chicago Tribune, known as “the Trib,” was a grubby gamin compared with that sober, prosperous burgher, the Paris Herald Tribune, known as “the Herald,” and whereas the competition between the two was friendly, it was often fierce. The Herald had been around a long time; the Trib was a brash newcomer, founded to keep the troops of the American Expeditionary Forces stationed in France during World War I in touch with news from home.
The Herald had editorial offices; the Trib was put out from a single, dingy room on the upper floor of a building on the rue Lamartine—an unremarkable street running off the rue Lafayette on the Right Bank. There were no desks, merely scarred, battered plank tables to support the decrepit typewriters, of which there were never enough to go around. Rickety chairs, a Telex machine, a few telephones, and a half dozen or so naked lightbulbs dangling from a painted-tin ceiling completed the décor. A few of the bulbs were covered with makeshift shades fashioned from newsprint, alarmingly charred. This inelegant space was rented from Le Petit Journal as were the presses and the services of its boisterous Montmartre compositors, who spoke a baffling patois that took months to master. More significant than any of these details, however, was the fact that the building housing the Trib’s editorial room backed onto the same courtyard as a cheerful, rowdy bistro. Arrangements had long since been made for buckets of cool, foaming beer to be conveyed by means of a rope from the courtyard to the editorial room to speed the flow of copy on a hot summer’s night.
One unique and irreplaceable advantage that the Trib enjoyed over the Herald, though, was the editorial and reportorial talents of Floyd Gibbons, who was the European manager for the Chicago Tribune Company. Gibbons was even then legendary, the quintessential foreign correspondent, a handsome man with a huge sense of adventure, unlimited daring, and great personal courage. He had become a legend for his colorful reporting from the Mexican border war of 1916 and later embellished the legend when he sailed to England in February 1917 aboard the Cunard passenger liner Laconia. The ship was torpedoed off the Irish coast and sank almost immediately. After a night spent in a lifeboat Gibbons and the other survivors were rescued, and half an hour after landing in Liverpool Gibbons was in a telegraph office cabling the dramatic story to his editor in Chicago. It is no wonder he was as much a hero to his fellow correspondents as he was to the public. Later he was to lose an eye while covering the battle of Belleau Wood in World War I, and the white eyepatch he wore from then on became his trademark.
Although Gibbons was off on assignment in Russia the day I showed up with a letter of introduction from my former editor in New York, we subsequently became lifelong friends. I was hired anyway by his deputy, who took me on to replace the Trib’s fashion editor, Rosemary Carr. She was leaving to return home to marry a promising young poet, Stephen Vincent Benét. My salary was fifteen hundred francs a month, or about ninety dollars at the then prevailing rate of exchange. It was scarcely a fortune, but Paris in those days was accommodating to the impecunious young.
Even though I had always loved clothes and followed fashion, haute couture was something I had to learn about in a hurry. But, as with many professions, I shortly found that familiarity bred assurance. Most of the great couture houses, eager for publicity among Americans, gave me ready access to their workrooms and showrooms, where, almost by osmosis, I learned the workings of the trade and its terminology. Some even lent me finery to wear on special assignments as when, turned out by Patou, I reported on the activities of the first week of “the season” in Deauville. Others, like Worth and Chanel, habitually gave generous discounts to fashion writers, a practice that worked no hardship on them as there were so few of us then.
My wardrobe was a matter of some moment in my general reporting as well, because one of my principal tasks was to keep track of arrivals at hotels like the Ritz, the Crillon, the George V, and the Meurice. Never mind that I lived in a garret room in a tiny Left Bank hotel myself; dressed in my designer best, I could command any of those opulent lobbies.
For sheer elegance and stylishness it’s hard to imagine what could ever equal that small segment of Paris that became my regular beat and daily delight. It included the honey-colored stone colonnades of the marvelously proportioned seventeenth-century Palais-Royal, where I’d sometimes steal a few minutes to wander through the tranquil inner gardens. Next came the imposing classical façade of the Church of the Madeleine, where I one day discovered, in a niche on an outer wall, a beheaded statue of Saint Luc, a victim of the Ger- man bombardment a few years earlier. Then there was the gorgeous nineteenth-century exuberance of the Opéra; and finally the peaceful, unpretentious pleasures of the Garden of the Tuileries.
My surveillance of the grand hotels was, more often than not, an unmomentous routine devised principally to fill a column headed “Americans in Paris.” But not infrequently the routine could become exciting, as when I was dispatched to interview Charlie Chaplin. Because the weather was glorious and his morning was free, we strolled the length of the Champs-Élysées together, and I caught glimpses of the shy, gentle spirit of the man who was known as the greatest comedian of his day.
It was another story when Peggy Hopkins Joyce took up residence at the Ritz while she selected her next season’s wardrobe. A striking, natural blonde, Peggy was famous for being famous. She had shot to celebrity as a show girl and shortly thereafter began to enjoy a long and successful career as a courtesan. Not only diamonds but sapphires, emeralds, and rubies were all her best friends. And furs. And clothes. And a shrewdly chosen investment portfolio. It was the mark of a successful man to be seen in her company, and her salon was the world of the wealthy. Had she lived in Louis XV’s day, she undoubtedly would have given Madame de Pompadour real competition as the royal favorite. Like Pompadour, she was intelligent, capable, discreet, and a wonderfully entertaining companion. Warm, generous, and naturally gracious, she was secure in her chosen calling and counted almost as many women as men among her friends. The French found her enchanting, as I discovered when she invited me to dine with her and her latest conquest—a French industrialist who was a regular patron of the Tour d’Argent. There, at a window table, we drank Champagne and watched the long blue twilight gently mantle the magnificent south front of Notre-Dame just opposite, a sight so achingly lovely I scarcely tasted the food.
And that was a pity because the likes of the Tour d’Argent, the Grand Véfour, and Lasserre, for example, were seldom accessible to newsmen and newswomen living from one undernourished salary check to the next. We were more likely to seek out the bistros frequented by taxi drivers (an estimably knowledgeable group about food as about much else) or the small, family-run restaurants where provincial food of every variety flourished and where one could often find a delicious locally produced wine available nowhere else. In memory, the food was sublimely and universally good, the coffee unvaryingly poisonous.
Then, of course, there were the cafés, some of which not only still exist but continue as centers for the same clientele. For Paris is a place where habit dominates perhaps more than in any other major metropolis. Montparnasse has been the haunt of artists forever. Now, as in my day, Le Sélect, La Coupole, and Le Dôme, all arrayed near one another along the boulevard du Montparnasse as it cuts through the short streets and hidden squares of the Left Bank, attract the young and struggling equally with the established and prosperous among artists.
The literary set favored Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and their cafés, then as now, were Le Flore and Les Deux Magots, with the brasserie Lipp a distant third. Here, if one cared to, one could find from time to time not only Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds but a range of young American literary talent one is less likely to associate with Paris in the twenties: the poets Archibald MacLeish, Hart Crane, and e. e. cummings; the novelists John Dos Passos and Glenway Westcott, to cite just a few. They, as well as the tens of dozens of others who came to Paris then “To Write” but never quite made it, belied the title “the Lost Generation.” They were anything but, if diligence and a zest for life are used as the measures.
Still, most of us who were engaged in the unceasing demands of meeting deadlines for a daily newspaper saw little of our literary countrymen and regarded them as rare birds given to strange habits and mysterious enthusiasms. Our interests, we believed, were those of the real world and reflected everyday reality. This meant, among other things, that the shadow of the war often filled our conscious- ness, as on Memorial Day in 1921, when ceremonies were held all over France to honor Americans who had lost their lives on the battlefields. As I traveled by train from Paris to Belleau Wood near Château-Thierry, with the American ambassador and other officials, American as well as French, it was impossible to prepare myself adequately for the sight that greeted our arrival. The day was soft and fine; May was merging into June, and the sky was an infinite blue. But the blackened ruins of abandoned villages, the charred skeletons of ancient trees, and the shell-pocked fields lying fallow stood in terrible contrast to the loveliness of the weather. Dominating everything was the endless expanse of white crosses, each grave marked by a small American flag, made even more moving by the nosegays of wildflowers set out before dawn by local farmers. As the scene impressed itself on my memory forever, I could only think of how many just my age must lie beneath those crosses.
But few of my assignments were so tinged with tragedy. Some, in fact, were marvelous fun. On one that was particularly entertaining, I was paired with a young Frenchwoman, Simone Heller, married to an American and working as a reviewer and critic for Le Matin. Following a carefully prepared route we spent a day shopping the rue de la Paix, the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and the rue de Castiglione for expensive gowns, hats, and blouses; and the specialty shops along the rue Saint-Honoré for handbags, scarves, and shoes. We queried prices on rooms in hotels near the Étoile. At a cabstand near the Opéra we dickered with cabbies over the cost of a round trip to Saint-Cloud, where the French national tennis championships were about to be held. Finally at day’s end we dined, ordering the same meal, wine and all, at a well-known restaurant near the Comédie-Française.
We did not travel as a team but separately, Simone speaking her lovely, liquid Parisian French, I professing no knowledge of anything but English. We took the whole day for this and kept careful notes of all prices we were quoted or, as in the case of our dinners, were charged. The point of the exercise was to discover just how outrageous was the constantly claimed overcharging of Americans by the “greedy French.” The joke was on the cynics and complainers, for in every case the prices asked were identical. Except for one. At a small, chic milliner’s I had been offered the same hat Simone had earlier tried on, but for me it was to be a few francs less. Both stories relating our adventures in comparison shopping ran in parallel columns under our bylines in the Trib in English and in Le Matin in French. The feeling of virtuousness among the shopkeepers we had visited must have been immense—and rightly so.