We'll Always Have Paris: American Tourists in France since 1930

We'll Always Have Paris: American Tourists in France since 1930

by Harvey Levenstein


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For much of the twentieth century, Americans had a love/hate relationship with France. While many admired its beauty, culture, refinement, and famed joie de vivre, others thought of it as a dilapidated country populated by foul-smelling, mean-spirited anti-Americans driven by a keen desire to part tourists from their money. We'll Always Have Paris explores how both images came to flourish in the United States, often in the minds of the same people.

Harvey Levenstein takes us back to the 1930s, when, despite the Great Depression, France continued to be the stomping ground of the social elite of the eastern seaboard. After World War II, wealthy and famous Americans returned to the country in droves, helping to revive its old image as a wellspring of sophisticated and sybaritic pleasures. At the same time, though, thanks in large part to Communist and Gaullist campaigns against U.S. power, a growing sensitivity to French anti-Americanism began to color tourists' experiences there, strengthening the negative images of the French that were already embedded in American culture. But as the century drew on, the traditional positive images were revived, as many Americans again developed an appreciation for France's cuisine, art, and urban and rustic charms.

Levenstein, in his colorful, anecdotal style, digs into personal correspondence, journalism, and popular culture to shape a story of one nation's relationship to another, giving vivid play to Americans' changing response to such things as France's reputation for sexual freedom, haute cuisine, high fashion, and racial tolerance. He puts this tumultuous coupling of France and the United States in historical perspective, arguing that while some in Congress say we may no longer have french fries, others, like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, know they will always have Paris, and France, to enjoy and remember.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226473789
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/28/2004
Edition description: 1
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Harvey Levenstein is professor emeritus of history at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of numerous books, including a two-volume history of American food, Revolution at the Table and Paradox of Plenty, and the first of his two-volume study of American tourists and France, Seductive Journey, which is also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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We'll Always Have Paris

American Tourists in France since 1930
By Harvey Levenstein

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-47378-3

Chapter One

Searching for Sartre, 1947-50

On July 27, 1949, the French Line's newly refitted Ile de France sailed into New York Harbor on its first postwar passenger crossing. Billed as "your gayest entrée to France" and hailed as "a symbol of the renaissance of France," her extra-large first-class section boasted "brilliant salons, exquisite decor, and superb meals created by masters of French cuisine." She was, the travel writer Horace Sutton recalled, "probably the best French restaurant in the world. Her dining salon sparkled with the old élan.... Crêpes suzettes broke out like brush fires in the first-class dining salon, and the caviar thumped onto chilled plates in huge pearl-gray globs." As the Movietone News cameras rolled, a female model in what was described as a "brief, French-style bathing suit" climbed the gangplank to be the first to greet the liner. The message seemed clear: not only was the French Line back in the luxury transatlantic trade; France itself was back as American tourists' favorite overseas destination, offering them its delightful mix of elegance, gaiety, and naughtiness.

A major devaluation of the franc at the end of January1948, which ultimately more than tripled the value of the dollar, had helped spur the comeback. Suddenly, Americans found that Paris's shops were again full of bargains. Susan Patten told a friend that for the Americans cashing traveler's checks at the bank the next day, it was "like Christmas morning, with strangers beaming at each other." The American press now reported that it was cheaper to travel in France than in America. Time magazine said that room and board in a luxury hotel in Biarritz was only eight dollars a day and that slightly less fashionable places were going for two to four dollars a day. Within a week of the devaluation, bookings on the De Grasse, the largest French transatlantic liner, doubled.

The Marshall Plan, which began that spring, spurred the revival. The multibillion-dollar five-year American aid program was aimed at rebuilding the Western European countries as a bulwark against Soviet Communism and as a market for American goods. France, whose powerful Communist Party lurked at the threshold of power, was to be the centerpiece of this effort. Paris was made the headquarters of the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA), which ran the plan, and some three thousand Americans were sent over in the spring of 1948 to run it. Many of them were graduates of elite eastern colleges and universities-from the same circles where traveling to France was much appreciated. The economic advisers included many business executives who were used to dining out on ample expense accounts. The chief of mission was David Bruce, the connoisseur of French food and wine who had accompanied Hemingway in the "liberation" of the Ritz hotel. Needless to say, many of the staff became appreciative patrons of the country's finer restaurants. "When it comes to food," said one of them, the French "wrote the original book."

Complementing them were operatives of the newly created Central Intelligence Agency, whose new recruits, also mainly from the Ivy League, were later described in an internal report as "young, enthusiastic fellows possessed of great funds" sent to meddle in other countries' affairs. There was also a host of embassy political officers, military intelligence operatives, and American trade unionists secretly subsidized by the CIA who enjoyed having reasons to wine and dine their way around town. Soon, the Herald Tribune had Art Buchwald stop covering nightclubs and devote himself wholly to writing about restaurants. Norman Mailer blamed the ensuing rising prices on "Marshall Plan imperialism." "All the fucking Americans are here," he wrote a friend.

Joining this influx of high-living Americans into Paris were the well-publicized international social set. Elsa Maxwell, a short, chubby, loquacious woman who wrote a society column for a New York paper, returned to Paris, which she had visited regularly during the 1930s, and began hosting celebrity-packed parties dressed as Napoléon, Sancho Panza, or in a children's sailor outfit that emphasized her turkeylike legs. At a party in which guests were asked to wear the costume "least or most becoming" to them, she wore a tight black lace "vamp" dress. (A rival party giver, the svelte Englishwoman Lady Diana Cooper, said bitterly that she "burst on the scene like a stink bomb ... with her appalling French and revolting appearance.") The renowned "playboy" Ali Khan and the beautiful movie actress Rita Hayworth shuttled through a sea of flashbulbs between the Paris fashion shows and the Riviera villa owned by his immensely wealthy father, the Aga Khan, who was famous for the annual ritual whereby he was given his weight in precious jewels by his Islamic sect's followers. Their wedding in Vallauris, a small town next to Cannes, attracted over a hundred reporters to the dingy town hall where French law said the ceremony had to take place. The guests included the artists Pablo Picasso and Maurice Utrillo, as well as the fearsome Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons. That the mayor who performed the ceremony was a Communist railway worker made for even better copy. The press then followed the happy couple north, to Deauville, where they were going to do the summer "season." The next day the Aga Khan and his wife, a former Miss France, made more headlines when they were held up at gunpoint on the road outside of Cannes and relieved of $850,000 worth of jewelry.

Louella Parsons moved on to Paris, where she attended a lavish dinner celebrating Maxim's "birthday." At the coastal resorts in Normandy and the Côte d'Azur, the glitterati's nightlife revolved around the casinos, which featured bars, dancing, theater, concerts, and movies along with the usual gaming tables. Formal evening dress was mandated in the inner gambling rooms and at the gala dinner dances, where two stylish orchestras would alternate, along with a tasteful floor show.

In the spring of 1949, however, the Monte Carlo casino was bleeding. British government currency restrictions were eating into its traditional British clientele. American high rollers were flocking to the more fashionable Palm-Beach Casino in nearby Cannes or the new gambling palaces in far-off Las Vegas. Desperate to recapture them, Monte Carlo sent croupiers over to America to learn how to run craps tables, which Europeans had hitherto disdained. When the tables opened that summer, some big shooters did come. The cigar-chomping Hollywood mogul Darryl Zanuck, surrounded by aspiring starlets, could be counted on to stay at the tables until 4:00 AM In July 1949, when he finally married his longtime mistress, the actress Jennifer Jones, in Genoa, they immediately sailed on a luxury yacht to the Riviera, so he could spend their honeymoon shooting craps.

The move into craps was a mixed blessing for Monte Carlo. Europeans at the other games, who gambled in dead silence, were put off by the whooping and hollering of the Americans as they rolled the dice. Many of them fled to the Palm-Beach Casino, where Americans such as Zanuck's stocky competitor, Jack Warner, who owned a villa in nearby Antibes, played the traditional European games in a less raucous fashion. Hollywood stars would shuttle between the two casinos, accompanying wealthy suitors such as the Greek ship owner Aristotle Onassis, who later tried to buy the Monte Carlo gaming operation. Soon the harbors of both Monaco and Cannes were studded with their luxurious monster yachts.

More sedate upper-class Americans also returned to France. In April 1949 ex-governor of New York Herbert Lehman, a major art collector who was the heir to a huge banking fortune, arrived with his wife at the Meurice. He told the press that he had been staying there off and on since 1894, when his family brought him to Paris at age sixteen. He planned to visit a number of private galleries before looking in on the Louvre and the exhibition of Impressionist pictures that had been moved from the Louvre to the Jeu de Paume, the historic indoor tennis court in the Tuileries Gardens. He brought with him a list of favorite restaurants and was looking forward to the race meeting at Auteuil, a traditional gathering ground for old wealth and titles. The socially prominent embassy attaché William Patten and his wife would entertain visiting American socialites such as the Vincent Astors and the William Paleys in their château in horsy Chantilly, outside of Paris, The Paleys would then move on to Paris, into "their" suite in the Paris Ritz, a stone's throw from the top couturiers patronized by "Babe" Paley, who later became famous for uttering the immortal words, "You can never be too rich, or too thin."

* * *

The Marshall Plan officials worked assiduously to promote tourism to France by publicizing these rich and famous people's visits to France. But they and the French officials saw them mainly as bait for the lesser orders. Indeed, soon after the war ended, the French decided that the major economic benefits of American tourism would accrue not from Americans swilling champagne at Maxim's or playing baccarat at the Palm-Beach Casino, but from what Commissioner of Tourism Henri Lagrand called "the great middle class from America, which has not hitherto traveled to foreign countries." In 1948 they saw statistics showing that the middle class was the main beneficiary of America's new prosperity as confirming the wisdom of this policy.

Marshall Plan officials enthusiastically supported the campaign for middle-class American tourism. France had initially been told that "thanks to the favorable light in which it is viewed by Americans," it would receive the lion's share of the funding. Yet Americans were frustrated by the seemingly antiquated French economy. A distressingly high proportion of the population were small farmers, and most of France's industries were too small scale and inefficient to compete in export markets. French businessmen seemed crippled by a resistance to innovation that was endemic in the entire country. There seemed to be little, aside from champagne and haute couture, that France could produce that could earn her the dollars to buy American products and repay the Marshall Plan loans. Even if there were, these imports would likely meet fierce opposition from domestic American producers of similar goods. Dollars earned from tourism, though, would face none of these obstacles and could be used to buy American-made goods. Developing tourism to France from the "dollar area" thus became "objective number one" of the Marshall Plan, which counted on its providing one-third of France's dollar receipts.

In 1948 the ECA set as a goal having half a million American tourists visit Europe annually by 1952. It adopted a plan to eliminate the shortage of steamships on the North Atlantic, encourage off-season tourism, organize low-cost tours, and cut the red tape that snarled border crossings. It financed an advertising campaign by the newly created European Travel Commission to lure American tourists to Europe. It paid the cost of the French refloating the Europa and refitting it as the Liberté, one of the largest and fastest liners on the North Atlantic run. It offered low-interest loans to rebuild and modernize hotels and other tourist facilities and guaranteed American companies who used them that they could repatriate their profits freely.

The French government joined in with other inducements for the American middle class. Despite continuing electricity shortages, the government arranged for the great sights of Paris such as Notre-Dame and the place de la Concorde to be floodlit at night. It tried to control the price gouging that middle-class tourists found so reprehensible. When the French minister responsible for tourism returned from a visit to the United States in April 1948, he said that there would be a "massive arrival of currency bearers" whose main problem was going to be prices. Hoteliers and restaurateurs should stick to their set prices, he warned, and there should be "no more 'menus surprises,' which surprise the customer so disagreeably." Nor should they try to extract higher prices by offering only fixed menus with a large number of courses. In America people ate only three courses: entrée, meat course, and dessert. Finally, he warned shopkeepers not to stock up on luxury goods. Middle-class Americans were "essentially democratic" and interested mainly in bargains.

Yet the path was still not smooth. Infuriating exchange controls and visa requirements remained on the books. Henri Lagrand said Americans still received a poor "welcome," especially from "the man on the street." Worse, though, was that although tourism picked up in the summer of 1948, most of the tourists were not the newly prosperous middle-aged ones that the French and American officials were counting on. Instead, they were astonished at the wave of young people that now arrived, squeezed into steamships' third-class (now called "tourist-class") cabins or on the two troopships that had been turned into "student ships." In mid-August they reported that "a mob of young men and women between 20 and 25 have rushed the travel agencies to get passage. It is absolutely impossible to get return space in that class." First-class accommodation, on the other hand, could be had for the asking.

There was good reason for their disappointment, for the young people hardly left much in the way of dollars in France. Soon after landing, many of them learned to exploit their right to buy gas coupons. A monthly supply sold on the black market could bring in about forty-five dollars, almost enough in itself to live modestly in the Latin Quarter, where one could find a perfectly adequate room for less than one dollar a night. By summer's end, the French press, disappointed at their penny-pinching ways, were mocking their checked "cowboy shirts," blue jeans, and moccasins, and deriding them as "tourists without banknotes." Nor were the numbers much to boast about. Although more Americans-120,000-visited France that year than in the previous postwar years, this was still nowhere the 300,000 who had visited in 1929. Indeed, despite the ECA's great push, only about 200,000 Americans traveled to all of the Marshall Plan nations in 1948, and many of them were immigrants visiting their homelands.

The next summer, however, brought a breakthrough. From everywhere came reports of packed ships and planes. In late August it was announced that to all intents and purposes there were no eastward passages available, by either mode, until early October. It was estimated that by September 1 the number of Americans visiting France had already passed the 200,000 mark, and the year's total might well approach 250,000. The number of Americans visiting the Riviera was double that of the previous year.


Excerpted from We'll Always Have Paris by Harvey Levenstein Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

1 - Great Depression Follies
One. It Sometimes Rains in Nice
Two. The Return of the Middle Classes
Three. "Beautiful Beyond Belief": Cultural Tourism Survives
Four. Watching the World Go By
2 - War and Revival
Five. Martial Visitors
Six. A Tattered Welcome Mat
Seven. Searching for Sartre, 1947-50
Eight. "Coca-Colonization" and Its Discontents
Nine. "What Country Has So Much to Offer?"
Ten. "Bandwagons Work like Magic in Tourism"
3 - Loving and Hating
Eleven. The Worms Turn: 1962-1972
Twelve. "This Space Ship Is Going to Paris"
Thirteen. Bouncing Back: The 1980s
Fourteen. Postmodern Tourism
Fifteen. Nobody's Perfect
Abbreviations for Frequently Cited Sources

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