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Friday, Dec. 4, 2009

‘Americans in Paris’ During World War II

Charles Glass describes ‘Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation’

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Dr. Sumner Jackson was a hero in the traditional and most basic sense: a person who selflessly commits lifesaving acts for others with little regard for his own safety or well-being. He is one of a number of remarkable Americans highlighted in Charles Glass’ fascinating history, Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation (Penguin Press).

Nearly 30,000 Americans lived in or near Paris before World War II, including Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Josephine Baker. When war broke out in September 1939, at least 5,000 ignored U.S. Ambassador William Bullitt’s advice to leave, bound there by ties of family, employment or, in a great many instances, love for the city.

They remained even after Hitler’s forces marched into the city in June 1940; America was still neutral, after all. By the time the United States and Germany declared war on each other in December 1941, approximately 2,000 Americans—artists, intellectuals, black musicians, businessmen—were left.

Glass, author of several other books and a former journalist, has written a lively account of the moral and political quandaries—to cooperate, collaborate or resist?—and increasing privations of living under German occupation. He skillfully uses memoirs, diaries, letters, documents and official records to draw a picture of expatriates caught in a mesh of deceit, bravery, self-sacrifice and fear, and places them in the context of diplomacy and the wider war.

A surprising number of Americans remained un-interned for most of the occupation. The author concentrates on a handful of people and their associations, including Sylvia Beach, owner of the bookstore Shakespeare & Company, which she was determined to keep open while aiding Jewish friends and resistance fighters.

It would be hard to overstate the courage of Dr. Jackson, chief surgeon at the American Hospital, or that of his wife and teenage son. Besides keeping a vital medical facility operating, and out of German control for four long years, he and his family frequently risked execution in enabling the escape of scores of downed Allied airmen and the passing on of information about the enemy.

The American Hospital and the American Library figure prominently throughout the account. Count Aldebert de Chambrun, born in America of French parents and a direct descendant of Lafayette, labored mightily to keep the hospital functioning. His wife, Countess Clara Longworth de Chambrun, born in Cincinnati and sister to Theodore Roosevelt’s son-in-law Nicholas Longworth, administered the library. Neither was an easy task.

Charles Bedaux’s high-mindedness was more problematical. An extremely wealthy naturalized American of French birth, he had made his fortune initially as a kind of efficiency expert. Thereafter he branched out into varied business interests, all of which he diligently pursued during wartime regardless of nationalities or political ties.

Ambassador Bullitt, however, was a brave and resourceful individual, so highly regarded by French authorities that they asked him to negotiate the surrender of Paris as an open city, thus making him its unofficial “American mayor.” After the occupation he did not want to represent his country in the nominally independent Vichy-governed half of France, so he left. Turned down when he sought to join the U.S. Army at 53, Bullitt wangled a commission in Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces and fought with them until the liberation of Paris in August 1944.

Glass summarizes their post-liberation fates. Beach closed her shop when she was interned for several months and did not reopen it upon her release (though it was started up again much later by someone else). The wartime associations of the de Chambruns and Bedaux seriously tarnished their reputations. The Chambruns were seen as collaborators; their son René was married to the daughter of Pierre Laval, the Vichy France prime minister, and Clara never made a secret of her sympathy for Vichy and dislike of de Gaulle.

Bedaux was a victim of his own ambition. He seems to have been a genuine American patriot, yet he exploited his business contacts—whether Allied, Vichy or German—relentlessly, most notably for a trans-Saharan pipeline to transport peanut oil from West Africa to Europe. He ended up being brought to Miami in 1944 to face treason charges, which he avoided by committing suicide.

The Jacksons were arrested only weeks before the liberation of Paris; father and son were sent to slave labor camps. There is enough suspense in their stories that you should be left to discover their fates yourself, but they were not uniformly happy.

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