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Paris in the Fifties

Paris in the Fifties

5.0 2
by Stanley Karnow, Annette Karnow (Illustrator)

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In July 1947, fresh out of college and long before he would win the Pulitzer Prize and become known as one of America's finest historians, Stanley Karnow boarded a freighter bound for France, planning to stay for the summer. He stayed for ten years, first as a student and later as a correspondent for Time magazine. By the time he left, Karnow knew Paris so


In July 1947, fresh out of college and long before he would win the Pulitzer Prize and become known as one of America's finest historians, Stanley Karnow boarded a freighter bound for France, planning to stay for the summer. He stayed for ten years, first as a student and later as a correspondent for Time magazine. By the time he left, Karnow knew Paris so intimately that his French colleagues dubbed him "the most Parisian American." Now, Karnow returns to the France of his youth, perceptively and wittily illuminating a time and place like none other. Paris in the Fifties transports us to Latin Quarter cafés and basement jazz clubs, to unheated apartments and glorious ballrooms. We get to know illustrious intellectuals, among them Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. We meet Christian Dior, who taught Karnow the secrets of haute couture, and Prince Curnonsky, France's leading gourmet, who taught the young reporter to appreciate the complexities of haute cuisine. Karnow takes us to marathon murder trials in musty courtrooms, accompanies a group of tipsy wine connoisseurs on a tour of the Beaujolais vineyards, and recalls the famous automobile race at Le Mans when a catastrophic accident killed more than eighty spectators.

Editorial Reviews

Richard Bernstein
Mr. Karnow has now written 'Paris in the 50's, which is partly a personal memoir, partly an account of history observed, mostly an affectionate, at times picture-postcard portrait of France and the French during those interesting years. Mr. Karnow has some good stories to tell, and his writing is breezy and colorful. . . . At the same time, Paris in the 50's, is France on the quick, light and rather stereotypical side, a place that Mr. Karnow skims but rarely has deeply in his grasp. Good reporter that he is, he has great ability to collect and marshal facts, but he has surprisingly little knack for reflection. -- New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
Strong reporting and storytelling skills combine to make this remembrance of Paris past a fine read.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Karnow (Vietnam, A History, 1983, etc.) apprenticed as a writer in postwar Paris, working his way up through the local bureau of Henry Luce's magazine empire. His long dispatches were generally filed away or, if published, cut drastically. But Karnow kept his carbon copies; here he distills that 1,000 pages of reportage into a memoir that artfully blends carefully detailed immediacy with considered personal reflection. The first few chapters, in which Karnow describes struggling as a GI-Bill student in Paris and his subsequent initiation into the character-filled milieu of the Paris-based foreign press, seem somewhat insubstantial; but they are really only the set-up for the series of incisive reports that follow. Once past the requisite recounting of encounters with celebrities (Audrey Hepburn dazzles, Ernest Hemingway disappoints), Karnow uncorks a string of impressively realized chapters devoted to a wide variety of topics. They include le monde (a.k.a. the world of Parisian fashionables) and also the demimonde of striptease artists, prostitutes, and criminals; the intellectual circles of "the mandarins," and also the French passion for car racing; the gastronomic divinations of the gourmand Curnonsky, Christian Dior's reign over the fashion world, and the strange career of Jules-Henri Desfourneaux, known as Monsieur de Paris, the city's guillotine operator. All the while, Karnow travels much further into French cultural history than his title might suggest. He never fails to provide historical context; one of his best passages retraces HoChi Minh's sojourn in Paris in the late 'teens and early twenties, long before he bedeviled France as leader of the Vietminh.

Even the most jaded Francophile will find much stimulation here—indeed, so will any fan of punchy prose and intelligent observation and reflection.

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.79(w) x 8.59(h) x 1.33(d)

Read an Excerpt


Pourquoi Paris

Thousands of young Americans were flocking to Europe after World War II, and I joined the throng. Late in June 1947, fresh out of college, I went to Paris, planning to stay for the summer. I stayed for ten years.

Pourquoi Paris? Its name alone was magic. The city, the legendary Ville Lumiere, promised something for everyone-beauty, sophistication, culture, cuisine, sex, escape and that indefinable called ambience. "When good Americans die they go to Paris," ran Oscar Wilde's oft-quoted quip. That was certainly not my purpose in going there, but then, what was it? Perhaps, simply, Paris.

Modern European history and literature had been my major at Harvard, and my courses on France had acquainted me with the ancien regime and the Enlightenment, the Revolution, the Napoleonic era, the Third Republic and, most recently, the valiant Resistance during the German occupation. I had grappled with the works of Moliere, Racine, Descartes, Voltaire and les philosophes, Hugo, Flaubert, Stendhal, Balzac, Maupassant, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Zola, Gide, Proust and postwar intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. Dabbling in art had left me with some notions about Monet, Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Braque, and the Surrealists and Dadaists. I had been enchanted by such French film classics as La Grande Illusion, La Femme du Boulanger and Les Enfants du Paradis, and knew the songs of Maurice Chevalier and Charles Trenet by heart. Along with the rest of my generation, I had read Hemingway, Fitzgerald and smuggled copies of Henry Miller's salacious novels, and dreamed of retracing their footsteps through Montparnasse, Saint-Germain-des-Pres and the boulevard de Clichy. I was further gulled by the real or exaggerated recollections of GIs and their doughboy fathers of compliant French women--the eternal Mademoiselle from Armentieres.

Air travel was then expensive, and most of us crossed the Atlantic by ship, usually third class. My friend and fellow Harvard Crimson editor, Anthony Lewis, the future New York Times columnist, wangled us passage for fifty dollars each aboard a coal freighter bound for Le Havre. I stuffed some clothes and a supply of Camels into a rucksack and my old army duffel bag, and we sailed from Baltimore. We had been at sea for a week, idly reading and playing chess, when a radiogram advised the captain that a strike had paralyzed Le Havre and ordered the ship to Rotterdam. Both German and Allied bombing had leveled the city. I had served during the war in India and China, agricultural lands that were spared such destruction, and the scene as we docked stunned me. But it was only a prelude to the devastation I would witness elsewhere in Europe.

Tony and I proceeded by train to Paris and made our way to the Lutece, a Latin Quarter hotel that had been recommended to us. Situated near the Sorbonne, it was cheap, apparently clean--and primitive. My little room opened onto an air shaft and contained a narrow bed, a wobbly table, a tiny armoire and a feeble lightbulb. The toilet next door leaked, the smell of greasy cooking permeated the premises, and from somewhere upstairs came the mournful tones of someone practicing the saxophone. The two French students on the floor greeted me warmly, and, though my French was fractured, we managed to communicate. One of them, Hubert Doucet, was a dapper bon vivant with a silky goatee, whose affluent peasant parents deluged him with weekly parcels of butter, cheese, hams and pates, which in those days of acute food shortages made him irresistible to girls. The other, Jean-Yves Gory, attended the Ecole des Langues Orientales. The son of pieds-noirs, the label for French residents of Algeria, he would sit up into the wee hours of the morning, assiduously memorizing Chinese ideographs by inscribing them into a notebook with deft strokes of a brush pen. We kept in contact over the years ahead. Eventually he married a Chinese woman, entered the diplomatic corps and rose to the rank of ambassador.

Adjusting to the district, I found a black marketeer who exchanged my dollars for francs at twice the legal rate. Like other student hotels, the Lutece lacked bathrooms, and my new friends pointed out the public baths, which operated from Thursday afternoon through Sunday morning and charged a nominal fee. Entire families would file in, carrying their own soap and towels; some shared the same tub. For the rest of the week, they depended on eau de cologne. When my Camels ran out, I switched to Gauloises and soon developed a taste for their coarse black tobacco. I became a habitue of the congenial cafes, whose clients could bask on the terrace for hours, nursing a beer or a coffee and observing the passing parade of pedestrians without being disturbed by the waiter. Often I ate in one of the bargain restaurants in the web of streets off the boulevard Saint-Michel, where the otherwise palatable meals were marred by the hard, yellowish bread--the result of a semantic blunder. France had requested aid shipments of wheat from the United States, but the official translator had consulted a British rather than an American dictionary and interpreted the word ble as "corn."

With my time limited, I plunged into a feverish tour of the city. I rode the antiquated buses or, undaunted by the stench of stale cigarettes and rancid urine, used the Metro, the world's most efficient subway. Map in hand, I whipped through Notre-Dame, the Sainte-Chapelle, the Tuileries, the Palais-Royal, the Place de la Concorde, the Champs-Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe, and Napoleon's Tomb and ascended Montmartre to Sacre-Coeur, the wedding-cake basilica. Overcoming my vertigo, I took the elevator up the Eiffel Tower. I also ventured out to Versailles to marvel at the Hall of Mirrors, the Trianon and the geometrically patterned gardens.

Presently, realizing that I could not fully appreciate Paris unless I curbed my frenetic pace, I became flaneur--an aimless stroller in a town ideal for aimless strolling. I would meander along the Seine, pausing to browse for old prints and magazines in the quayside bouquinistes, outdoor bookstalls, or to watch the barges as they cruised up and down the river, their decks festooned with laundry, their sterns flying French, British, Dutch and other European flags. Perpetual vagabonds, les clochards, many of them alcoholics, camped under the bridges; fishermen hugged the banks, seemingly oblivious to whether they ever got a nibble.

Lovely squares dotted the city, such as the Place des Vosges, a square of brick houses designed in the seventeenth century, and the Place de Furstenberg, where Delacroix had his atelier. I was intrigued by capricious street names, like the rue du Chat-Qui-Peche off the quad Saint-Michel, which dated back to 1540, and a Left Bank impasse that, prior to becoming the site of a seminary in 1646, had been titled the Cul-de-Sac du Ha! Ha!

Unlike my native New York's monotonously numbered thoroughfares, Paris street names were a necrology of famous and forgotten French artists, authors, composers, scientists, politicians, diplomats, marshals, admirals, clergymen and a multitude of saints, male and female. The selection process baffled me. Monarchs, including the guillotined Louis XVI, had not been ignored nor, strangely, had Madame de Montespan and Madame de Maintenon, the titular mistresses of Louis XIV. But the honor was denied Robespierre, the architect of the Terror. Bonaparte the general was awarded a rue for defending France against a European coalition late in the eighteenth century, yet not even an alley hallowed Napoleon the emperor, who had transgressed the republican principles of the Revolution. I was proud to see the numbers of American icons immortalized: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, Edison, Wilson, Pershing, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Georges [sic] Gershwin, to cite a few.

The city, I noticed, had still not recovered from the war. Such essentials as milk, bread, butter, cheese and eggs were rationed, and even foreigners like me had to queue up with citizens at the mairie of their arrondissement to be issued coupons by functionaries--usually cranky old women, many of them war widows. Neglected for years, public and private buildings needed repainting and other repairs. But the French were debrouillards, or manipulators. They got around by bicycle, tricycle, horse carts, rickety trucks and cars, or whatever else moved, including ingenious Rube Goldberg contraptions propelled by kerosene or charcoal engines. Men in shabby suits sported boutonnieres, while women achieved a touch of chic by adding a certain je ne sais quoi to their threadbare dresses. Everything from coffee to penicillin was available on the ubiquitous black market--for a price.

One balmy evening I moseyed over to the Right Bank, where the cafes, restaurants, theaters and music halls along the grands boulevards were booming. The brothels had recently been shut down, but the municipal authorities had not banned prostitution, and I was astounded by the hordes of hookers, some of them in gaudy gowns, ornate hats and stiletto heels, others in casual summer frocks. They spanned the spectrum from pinups to hags and, I was told, catered to every purse and perversion. There seemed to be nothing furtive, vulgar or desperate about them; they were pursuing a metier like any other, and solicited their prospective johns courteously and cheerfully with the same hackneyed refrains, "Alors, cheri, tu viens?" and "Tu veux faire une conquete?" This was the permissive Paris of my imagination and, stereotyped though it may have been, I treasured it.

Soon my college roommate, Mitchell Goodman, caught up with me, and we set off into la France profonde--the provinces. We had expected to hitchhike--l'auto-stop, as the French termed it--but vehicles were scarce. Toting our heavy rucksacks, we trudged the blistering roads in one of the worst heat waves on record. The strenuous trek, however, enabled us to look closely at the countryside, which was slumbering in a time warp. We passed villages clustered around mossy stone churches; peasants in smocks and sabots tilling their fields behind teams of oxen; and barefoot boys herding cows, sheep and goats down dusty lanes. Towns along the route, obliterated during the war, were heaps of rubble. Our initial destination was Chartres, some fifty miles southwest of Paris. As we approached, we could discern on the horizon the misty silhouette of the cathedral emerging from the plains of Beauce, one of France's most fertile regions. It was an inspiring sight that made the ordeal of getting there worthwhile.

Completed in the thirteenth century, the great Gothic cathedral had been overwhelming visitors ever since. The little I could say about it had already been said before--and far better. I was awed by its vaulted ceiling, giant transept and resplendent stained-glass windows, through which rays of sunlight subtly illuminated the interior. The spires and flying buttresses testified to the genius of its architects; the sculpted seraphim and gargoyles on its outer facades to the fabulous craftsmanship of its anonymous artisans. Its magnificence also evoked the phenomenal power of faith and the stupendous wealth of the medieval merchants who had subsidized its construction. Contrary to the widespread assumption that the Catholic Church was moribund, pilgrims from around Europe jammed the cathedral.

I could have lingered there for weeks, but, after a day or two, we zigzagged north to Rouen and the Normandy coast. Concrete bunkers, barbed wire and rusty military equipment, macabre relics of the Allied landings in June 1944, still littered the beaches. We took in Dieppe and Honfleur, then pushed on to Deauville, Trouville and Cabourg, the swanky fin de siecle resorts where Proust had gathered material for A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, his monumental novel.

Hearing that a town in the vicinity was holding a fete champetre, we drifted over. It was vintage France. Food, drink and lottery stalls had been set up under a canopy of colored lanterns, and couples of all ages in their holiday best were whirling around to a bouncy accordion. I spotted a slender brunette, and we tried the paso doble, which was more of a march than a dance. During the intermission I bought her a syrupy grenadine and myself a tepid beer, and we made a stab at conversation--she in broken English, me in my atrocious French. Finally, clasping my hand, she escorted me to a house and up to a bedroom decorated with a crucifix, where she quickly disrobed. When we had finished, she indicated that un petit cadeau would be agreable, and I peeled off two hundred francs--about a dollar. She gently bussed me on the cheeks and I departed, wondering whether she was a prostitute or just a simple country girl in need of pocket money. My first fling in France, it also left me dubious about the purported boudoir talents of French women. For a while afterward I fretted that I might have contracted a nasty disease.

Mitch and I doubled back to Paris, then swung toward the south. Again we attempted to hitchhike, without much luck, and instead crammed into third-class railway carriages or tramped the scorching roads. After stops at Nimes, Arles and Aix-en-Provence, we descended the sunbaked, vine-covered slopes of the Midi to the Mediterranean and advanced along the Cote d'Azur from Marseille and Cassis to Saint-Tropez, a languid fishing village yet to be invaded by legions of bikinis and topless bathers. At Cannes and Nice, the playground of the rich, we gawked at the glitzy hotels, palatial villas and sleek yachts anchored in the harbor; looking like hobos in our scruffy GI boots, slovenly khaki trousers and sweaty T-shirts, we also peered into the Monte Carlo casino. Then we headed for Italy.

Despite the favorable exchange rate, we were obsessed with saving money and mooched shamelessly. One night in Genoa we slept on the deck of an American freighter. We wasted too much time in Pisa, only because the commander of an American army unit stationed there coveted company and housed us for nothing. In Florence an American artist we encountered at a trattoria let us sack out on sofas in his flat; in Rome we lodged at a seedy pensione that reeked of olive oil. Nevertheless, we packed in dozens of landmarks, from the Leaning Tower and the Palazzo Vecchio to the Vatican and the Colosseum. Later I would deride tourists who "did" Europe at breakneck speed--but we were doing exactly that.

At Geneva, our next target, we checked into a youth hostel. The war had impoverished most of Europe, but the Swiss had prospered from neutrality, and consumer goods of every kind were abundant. I glutted myself on the food--in particular, the chocolate. As befit its Calvinist heritage, however, Geneva was antiseptic, sedate and numbingly dull, and the idea of staying there repelled me. At the hostel, we met a spirited young Englishwoman called Denise Levertov, and Stephen Peet, a freelance filmmaker. Smitten by her, Mitch announced to me that he was remaining behind. He and Denny were ultimately married. She became one of America's foremost poets, and he abandoned a potential career as an economist to write and consecrate himself to such causes as nuclear disarmament and opposition to the Vietnam War.

I returned to Paris alone, and to the bleak Lutece. As the summer waned, I contemplated the idea of going home as I had planned. I could not conceive of living abroad for long or, even less, becoming an expatriate, but I had barely scratched the surface of France and felt that I ought to dig deeper. While I wrestled with my predicament, Peet abruptly appeared with a French girl by the name of Claude Sarraute. Though she was not conventionally pretty, her curly chestnut hair, radiant smile, twinkling eyes and particularly her vivacity appealed to me. Soon we were meeting frequently at cafes or secluded restaurants. Her English was fluent; as a child she had been tutored by one of her mother's acquaintances, an obscure and penniless Irish writer called Samuel Beckett, then chiefly known to the Paris literati as James Joyce's former secretary. Later, over drinks with him, I asked Beckett, "If you were marooned on a desert island and could only have one book, which one would it be?" He replied without hesitation, "Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson."

Now nineteen, Claude was studying law but aspired to become an actress. She was still troubled by her wartime experiences. The Germans had detained her father, and she had single-handedly won his release by pleading with the prison commander. Her mother, originally a Russian Jew, had dodged arrest by the pro-Nazi French militia by concealing herself in a village under a false name. As many French did, Claude admired the Communists for their part in the Resistance and, out of emotion rather than ideology, joined the party. She stirred me with dramatic yarns of the intrepid maquis, most of them--unbeknownst to her--sheer fiction. Following the war, virtually all the French boasted of having participated in the Underground, yet subsequent surveys divulged that, as late as January 1944, fewer than twenty thousand were actually involved. Six months afterward, on the eve of the liberation of Paris, they totaled only some three hundred thousand--a negligible percentage of the population. By comparison, the vast majority supported Marshal Philippe Petain's regime in Vichy, which collaborated with the Germans by deporting some seventy-five thousand Jews to concentration camps.

Claude and I were simply copains until, one rainy day in my hotel room, we ceased to be comrades and she became ma petite amie. It was just the impetus I needed to reach a decision: now I would remain in Paris, at least for the foreseeable future. As a veteran, I was entitled under the GI Bill to seventy-five dollars a month--on condition that I enroll in school. It was a decent sum in francs, and I promptly signed up for La Cours de civilisation francaise, a curriculum for foreigners at the Sorbonne. But I was to learn more about France from Claude than from attending classes.

We spoke English, but she set out to refine my abysmal French on the grounds that every educated person ought to be familiar with the language. Supposedly a model of clarity and precision, French had been the lingua franca of elites around the world for centuries. Yet it seemed to me, as I battled to master it, that compared to English it was a swamp of abstractions and ambiguities--and perhaps, like Latin, doomed. Dismayed by that prospect, crusaders were forever organizing conferences and drafting petitions demanding stiff legislation to protect the mother tongue--as though the glory of France hinged on its survival. They also lobbied for the creation of La Francophonie, a kind of commonwealth that would promote the preservation of French in France's dwindling overseas empire.

Particularly alarming to these linguistic chauvinists was the barbarous onslaught against the purity of French by "Anglo-Saxon" terms, notably Americanisms, which produced such pernicious Franglais as le briefing, le marketing and le packaging. A big brasserie in Saint-Germaindes-Pres, converted by an entrepreneur into Le Drug-Store, served les hamburgers and similar items at its fast food counter. The chic drink in the bars off the Champs-Elysees was un baby Scotch sur les rocks. Unable to withstand this assault, the Larousse dictionary not only added several Franglais words to its revised edition but used one to define another. Thus, le racket was "une association de malfaiteurs engages dans le blackmail par le chantage et la terreur."

I agonized over grammar, especially tenses--the past, the present, the future, the conditional, the subjunctive, the past imperfect, the more-than-perfect and the tortuous imperfect of the subjunctive. Equally puzzling were verbs--regular, irregular, active, passive, indicative, reflexive. Intractable rules prevented the transformation of nouns into adjectives and adverbs, so that a modifier's position determined its meaning: un brave homme was a good man and un homme brave a courageous man. Another hurdle was the meager French vocabulary. With only about thirty thousand words, fewer than half as many as in English, one had to do the duty of several and vice versa. Hence, encore signified "still," "again" and "yet"; end faire recurred hundreds of times, as in faire la cuisine for cooking and faire la cour for wooing. The French prided themselves on their logic, but genders defied all reason. Why was le vagin masculine but one of the many terms for a penis, la verge, feminine? Or, just as confusing, why was the province la Bourgogne and the wine le Bourgogne? I was often misled by les faux amis, apparent cognates that really aren't. For example, amateur was a connoisseur in French and a neophyte in English. French resonated with extravagant circumlocutions inherited from Versailles, where the king and his courtiers had competed against each other in demonstrations of elegant style. Elaborate phrases freighted banal official notices: a no-smoking sign--IL EST FORMELLEMENT INTERDIT DE FUMER--sounded like an injunction against homicide. As a matter of form, ordinary citizens emulated this highfalutin usage. Even the routine letter attached to a bill from the plumber or the carpenter would terminate with the salutation "Nous vous prions, mon cher monsieur, d'accepter l'expression de nos sentiments les plus respectueux."

By persevering, I picked up idioms, colloquialisms and a smattering of argot--a more vivid vernacular than English slang. Gradually my ear also became attuned to the cadence of words, whose syllables all carried the same weight. The French habit of stringing words together with machines-gun rapidity stymied me until, in the Metro one day, I happened to eavesdrop on a couple of prattling women and was able to separate one word from another. I was making progress.

But, as I became more proficient, I found conversations with the French to be frustrating. Reluctant to be pinned down, they had an irksome way of answering questions with "en principe"--in theory. So the headwaiter who said that he had a table en principe was implying that he reserved the right to give it to a more important guest. Happily, though, regulations also existed en principe, which meant that violations were negotiable. I was often exasperated by the propensity among highbrows to convolute the most simple explanation. Again and again they would interrupt their discussions to object: "Oui, mais c'est beaucoup plus complique que ca." Known as l'esprit de contradiction, this was part of their penchant for endless polemics.

Claude was devoted to Paris and, as we wandered around, she explained the city's human geography to me. It was less a cohesive community than a quilt of communities, each with its distinctive characteristics. The nouveaux riches resided in large, bourgeois apartments in the impersonal Sixteenth Arrondissment, the parallel of Manhattan's Upper East Side, while the nobility and old money clung to majestic, often decrepit mansions--hotels particuliers--tucked away in the shaded side streets of the Proustian Faubourg Saint-Germain. Fashionable, well-heeled professionals tended to congregate in nearby Saint-Germain-des-Pres, a district of modish art galleries, antique dealers, interior decorators, publishing houses, bookstores, restaurants, bars and cafes. The smart set also gravitated toward the exuberant atmosphere of the Latin Quarter, or the tranquil Ile-Saint-Louis and Ile-de-la-Cite, the cradle of the city, whose gentrified flats overlooked the Seine. Claude and I explored the ancient artifacts at the Cluny Museum; the former Jewish ghetto in the Marais; and the Place de la Contrescarpe behind the Pantheon. But not all of Paris was a picture postcard. The Fifteenth Arrondissement, for example, was a dreary district populated by small shopkeepers, office employees, minor functionaries and rentiers. In quartiers populaires like Belleville and Menilmontant, on the edge of town, factory workers dwelt in blocks of sleazy tenements with stand-up Turkish toilets.

Cozy cabarets known as chansonniers elated Claude, but my French was not yet up to their witty gigs. We tracked down quaint bistros, like one in the serpentine rue Mouffetard, whose patronne, reputedly a retired prostitute, chanted ribald ditties. Late at night we might go over to Les Halles, the bustling central market, for soupe a l'oignon, escargots and boudin. Now and again we would drop into Le Bal Negre, in the rue Blomet, where young Africans and white women gyrated to pulsating rhythms--a sight that initially startled me. One weekend we cycled through the Loire Valley, sampling its crisp white Vouvray and scouring its Renaissance chateaux--Amboise, Blois, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord and the exquisite Chenonceau.

We were addicted to movies and would see three, even four, a week. Not only did they help to improve my French, but many of them were perceptive social commentaries that provided me with insights into the complexities of France. Particularly absorbing were those produced during the 1930s, when the French, still reeling from their frightful losses in World War I and shattered by the Depression, had grown profoundly pessimistic and cynical. No director captured their mood as brilliantly as did Jean Renoir in La Grande Illusion and La Regle du Jeu. Among the exponents of the gloomy genre labeled "poetic fatalism" was Marcel Came, who made Hotel du Nord, Quai des Brumes, Le Jour Se Leve and his crowning achievement, Les Enfants du Paradis. I was also riveted by Marcel Pagnol's bittersweet trilogy of Provencal life, Cesar, Marius and Fanny, and by Rene Clair's satires, A Nous la Liberte, Quartorze Juillet, Le Million and Sous les Toits de Paris.

Crucial to the industry's success were such screenwriters as Jean Cocteau, Jacques Prevert, Charles Spaak and Henri Jeanson, men steeped in the theatrical tradition. The best films owed their luster as well to an array of dazzling actors, like Raimu, the poignant Marseille cafe proprietor in the Pagnol movies; Jean Gabin, the forlorn fugitive in Pepe le Moko; end Jean-Louis Barrault, the melancholy mime in Les Enfants du Paradis. Others included Fernandel, the toothy bumpkin; the feline Michele Morgan; and Gerard Philipe, the heartthrob who soared to fame in 1947 in Le Diable au Corps, the tragedy of an awkward adolescent in love with his married schoolteacher. One of the most versatile, Michel Simon, a burly, gravel-voiced former circus clown, excelled at portraying droll eccentrics and tormented souls. I saw Hotel du Nord so often that I could imitate Arletty's saucy retorts to Louis Jouvet, her sardonic costar. Jailed after the war for having had a liaison with a Luftwaffe officer, Arletty was barred from the screen until 1949.

The Paris intelligentsia revered films with a solemnity that was almost religious. Latin Quarter theaters featured lengthy audience debates following their seances, and the weekly literary journals ran lengthy articles analyzing le cinema in tedious detail. Artsy critics had a flair for finding esoteric traits in movies; one of them, for instance, described Hellzapoppin, a slapstick Hollywood production, as "un bel exemple du retro-surrealisme." Forbidden by the Germans during the war, American pictures were then just returning, to the delight of the French. They worshiped Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers and, above all, "Charlot," their sobriquet for Charlie Chaplin. Hugely popular in the provinces, Westerns were invariably dubbed into French: a cowboy strides into a saloon, slams his fist on the bar and barks, "Gimme a shot of red-eye"--and, lips flapping, his voice comes out, "Un Dubonnet, s'il vous plait."

By now Claude had added a new and serious dimension to our relationship by introducing me to her family. Raymond, her father, was a tall, bespectacled, graying lawyer in his late forties. Roughly the same age, her mother, Nathalie--a lean, severe-looking woman with a hawk nose, piercing black eyes and combed-back ebony hair--had studied at Oxford and spoke flawless English. They had two younger daughters--Anne, a quiet teenager, and an ebullient twelve-year-old, Dominique. Their spacious apartment in the Sixteenth Arrondissement was typically haut bourgeois, but little else about them seemed to fit that label. Impassioned by art, Raymond preferred prowling around museums and galleries to practicing law, while Nathalie, who had published a novel before the war, was immersed in another. They welcomed me cordially and--dispensing with Gallic decorum, which would have required me to address them as monsieur and madame--Nathalie encouraged me to call her Natasha, her Russian diminutive, and Raymond by his first name. They also urged me to use the intimate tu form with them, a further break with formality. Urbane and cultivated, they differed drastically from my lace-curtain parents back in Brooklyn, and I was instantly attracted to them.

To gratify my journalistic impulses, I started to send pieces to a Connecticut weekly, whose proprietor I had met through a friend. He gave me a boldface byline in lieu of payment. I wrote the usual stuff about France and, in November 1947, embarked on a journey to Prague. The city, one of the oldest in Europe, retained a medieval flavor, notably in the Jewish cemetery, with its tiered tombs. Czechoslovakia straddled the frontier between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union; and, with the Cold War then intensifying, I sought to determine whether the country could maintain that precarious position. Though a coalition of Socialists and Communists ruled the country, the Communists controlled the security police and much of the army, and they were obedient to Moscow. So the Russians had only to give the order for them to seize power. My sole sources were a few Czech students at Charles University, and they sounded optimistic yet uncertain. As one of them said, "We can cope with our problems if we're left alone, but will we be left alone?"

Meet the Author

Stanley Karnow is the author of, among other books, the bestselling Vietnam: A History and the Pulitzer Prize-winning In Our Image: America and the Philippines. He lives outside of Washington, D.C.

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Paris in the Fifties 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a lover of Paris and its beauty i thoroughly enjoyed reading about its history. Stanley Karnow lived an inspiring life both in Paris and the United States. He was gracious enough to share it with us in this beautifully written book, almost biography. I learned a great deal about Paris during the depression after the war, also about the lifestyle. If you are interested in Paris, it's history, and all that it has to offer, read and enjoy =)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written A great word picture of Paris before it became PARIS For this old guy who also was lucky enough to be young and there, a real treat You may not believe it was so low key and idyllic It was