Searching for Sartre

by Harvey Levenstein

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

Chapter Seven
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.

Ad for French Line
A French Line ad promised that "your heart and spirits lighten the moment you cross a French Line gangplank" and "your mood is caught up and carried along with the vivacious, fun-loving spirit of the French." [Courtesy of Ad*Access, Rare Book, Manuscripts, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.]
A major devaluation of the franc at the end of January 1948, 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. All of this was despite the fact that inflation in France had rapidly undercut the previous year’s bargain prices.

French tourist officials now took ECA advice, and funding, to promote American visits in the off-season. They advertised “Fall Is Fine in France” that was later complemented by a European Travel Commission campaign, aimed at older tourists, for cultural tourism. In October 1949 Janet Flanner reported that tourists in Paris were not complaining about rising hotel rates. “The only outcry right now is of frustrated travelers who can’t squeeze in anywhere, regardless of what they are willing to pay.” It was difficult to believe, she wrote, that this was only one decade after the “war season of 1939.” The next year, when the final figures were tallied, the ECA tourism promoters proudly noted that the 235,000 Americans who visited France in 1949 had spent $65 million there, more than the value of all the goods France exported to the United States that year.

One of the most powerful attractions, especially for younger Americans, was Paris’s Left Bank, which had resumed its historic role as a center of bohemian life. This derived in large part from the flowering of existentialism. The ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, its major French exponent, either befuddled most Americans who tried to understand them or struck them as too pessimistic. After seeing Sartre’s play State of Siege, in Paris in January 1949, Martha Churchill, a Smith College junior, wrote home that it reflected “a war psychology of the absurdity of life which is very depressing, but which is nonetheless very prevalent over here.…It would have gone over like a lead balloon in the U.S.” However, Sartre did have a palpable impact on more bohemian Americans. A 1946 Broadway production of his play No Exit, directed by John Huston, had made some of his ideas familiar in New York City, as did a 1947 paperback by William Barrett called What Is Existentialism? Speaking tours in those years, mainly of American colleges, by him and his partner, Simone de Beauvoir, helped familiarize academics and students with some of their ideas.

The simplified version of existentialism circulating in America appealed mainly to young people who did not share the prevailing faith in bourgeois business culture and their country’s moral superiority in the cold war. Life was “absurd,” it said, and had no purpose in the conventional sense, but one had freedom, and one had to act—to make choices—to affirm this freedom and therefore one’s humanity. Exactly how one was to act—what choices one should make—was often unclear, but what was clear was that existentialists did not take their cues from business civilization and the values of the middle class. This was symbolized in their dress, which rejected bourgeois styles in favor of simple outfits of black turtleneck sweaters and trousers for men and women, and what de Beauvoir, who shunned such clothes, called “ballerina shoes” for women. By October 1948 there were so many American devotees in Paris that Edward Ratcliffe told a friend it was difficult to get tickets to Sartre’s latest play because “there are enough stupid Americans around here to continue the vogue, as the groups in New York play him up.”

In America the movement’s association with France and its emphasis on personal freedom meant that it was inevitably associated with sexual license—what was then called “free love.” That Sartre and his followers were headquartered in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, alongside the Latin Quarter, solidified this image. The historic student district had been a mecca for Americans searching for casual sex since the 1830s. The young Americans arriving in Paris in 1948 almost inevitably gravitated there, turning it, said Janet Flanner, into “a campus for the American collegiate set.” Martha Churchill’s first impression of the district in September 1948 was that “a lot of the men have long beards, berets, and a generally arty look. Everyone is shabbily dressed but very gay.” At the end of the next summer, Ollie Stewart reported in his column in the Baltimore and Philadelphia African American newspapers that young white Americans experienced an exhilarating sense of freedom on the Left Bank. They mixed freely with and slept with young colored people, he said.

They let their hair down in everything they do. The young men blossom out in beards and goatees six weeks after they get off the boat, and go around town in sandals without socks.…They live with girls openly, and when they get broke they lose all modesty and demand that the girls take care of them. A lot of girls deliberately refrain from combing their hair for days to acquire a sophisticated look. They go to cafes wearing a bra and blue denim pants, rolled up the knees. They drink pernod and call for absinthe—and get sick after a few sips. They will show you a vaccination mark on the hip, or an operation scar just any old place, at the drop of a hint. They’re free for the first time.

Many of them packed into the Café de Flore, where Jean-Paul Sartre and his partner, Simone de Beauvoir, the “High Priestess of Existentialism,” were said to spend much of their day, and filled the terrace of its neighboring café, Deux Magots, where de Beauvoir would spend her mornings. The Flore, said Flanner, became “a drugstore for pretty upstate girls in unbecoming blue denim pants and their Middle Western dates, most of whom are growing hasty Beaux-Arts beards.” The Herald Tribune said the Deux Magots was “filled with bearded, bereted Americans trying to look like Frenchmen and zooty, gum-chewing Frenchmen trying to look like Americans.” After visiting the cafés, an unimpressed Edward Ratcliffe described “Existentialist Man” as “terrifically long-haired, sloppily and dirtily clad, invariably with a beard and that look in the eye of vapid detachment.”

Much to the young people’s chagrin, the Left Bank cafés also became a regular stop for more conventionally dressed American tourists. In July 1949 Time ran a series of cartoons of American tourists in Paris including one of Sartre at the Flore with the caption: “Headquarters: the famed Flore, successor to the Dôme of the Hemingwayward &srquo;20’s, where customers drink and sometimes think. Center rear (raised hand): Jean-Paul Sartre himself.” A French journalist explained to his bemused countrymen that tourists could not return to America without having seen Sartre, the Eiffel Tower, and the Folies Bergère. A French wag said Saint-Germain-des-Prés was now “the Cathedral of Sartre.” Rather bizarrely, in early 1949 the Communists, who had recently turned on Sartre, warned American tourists that the English-language entertainment guide that told them they could see “the chief attraction of Paris, France—Jean Paul Sartre…the terrible rebel,” in the Flore was guilty of misleading advertising, for he had been “tame for a long time.”

The real misconception, though, was that Sartre was still at the Flore. By then, he and his cronies had long since fled to the basement bar of the Hôtel Pont-Royal, a rather elegant place not far away. Then, Flanner said, when “the tourist intelligentsia” finally caught on and followed them there, they found it “full only of themselves, often arguing about Existentialism.”

But Sartre was by no means the only Left Bank sight on the American tourist beat. In the evening they would search out what the diary of Louis Bishop, the forty-nine-year-old Long Island cardiologist, called “some left bank crazy existentialist places.” These caves (cellars) were usually dark basement cafés where the young black-clad French jitterbugged to bebop, the latest American jazz trend. The most popular of these, the Vieux Colombier, became a frequent stop for visiting Hollywood stars and claimed the distinction of having left the pampered tobacco fortune heiress Doris Duke cooling her heels, waiting for a table, for all of fifteen minutes.

However, most tourists were more than satisfied with the revived “Paris by Night” tours, which added Left Bank caves to their itineraries. A French journalist told of a couple from New York who thought one of the places they visited on such a tour must be one of the most fashionable places in the city. In fact, he said, it was one of those fake-historic caves, with “oubliettes” (deep holes into which medieval miscreants were supposedly tossed and forgotten), trapdoors, and false secret walls into which only foreigners and hicks from the provinces ventured. Nothing, he said, sounded more beautiful to the tourists than songs such as “Auprès de ma blonde” (the French counterpart to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”).

Some of the nightspots attracted boisterous crowds of homosexual Americans, reveling in their freedom from the constraints of their homeland. The favorite haunt of James Donahue, the flamboyantly gay Woolworth fortune heir who back in New York was a pillar of the Catholic Church, was Le Boeuf sur le Toit, which one regular called “the city’s number one chic queer nightclub.” One night, when Donahue was there in drag, he consulted with the lady fortune-teller who occupied a table in the rear. When she failed to recognize that he was a man, he got up on the table, pulled up his skirt, and displayed his private parts to her and the rest of the clientele.

Sometimes gay Americans became so rowdy, and so demonstrative in their public displays of affection for each other, that offended Parisians called for police intervention. Even though homosexuality was legal in France, the police would round them up, put them in paddy wagons, and take them to the station, where officers would ask whether they were “inverts,” duly record the answer, and then release them, in the usually vain hope that they henceforth would be more discreet in their behavior. With the Communist press delighting in denouncing what they called “The Scandal of the Latin Quarter,” an angry André Gide, the anti-Communist homosexual who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, presented a visiting American with a copy of one of his books advocating a more restrained kind of homosexuality. Waving a finger in the young man’s face, the old writer said, “Je ne suis pas tapette, Monsieur, je suis pédéraste.” (“I am not a fag, Sir, I am a homosexual.”) Americans were also embarrassed by the gay men’s behavior. Shortly after he arrived in Paris, Saul Bellow lamented to a friend that “America’s chief export to Europe has been its homosexuals.”

When it came to art, many of the new upper-middle-class tourists seemed satisfied with the usual quick tour of the Louvre, where one was led to the aforementioned Big Three: the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory and the Mona Lisa. This would be followed by a quick trot down the immense Long Gallery, whose huge array of historic paintings would usually confirm their prejudices concerning how tiresome old pictures could be, and a quick exit out the small door on the floor below to the waiting bus.

However, there were also tourists who were very impressed by it and the other public museums. “We went to the Louvre, we went to the Musée Moderne, we went to every museum in Paris,” said Herbert Gentry, who found the experience overwhelming. Minna Citron wrote home in July 1947 that a huge van Gogh show at the Orangerie and the Bibliothèque Nationale was “beautifully installed” and that the “pièce de résistance” was removing the Impressionist works from the Louvre and hanging them in the Jeu de Paume. Romare Bearden wrote of the “amazing job of presentation” at an exhibition of Yugoslav frescoes at the Museum of National Monuments, whose curators had fitted perfect copies of the frescoes into reconstructions of the Serbian monasteries. “I came out of the museum perspiring and shaking,” he wrote to a friend back home, “and had to take two cognacs in an effort to collect myself.…After this the Louvre, the Cluny, the Museum of Oriental Art, the Bibliothèque Nationale with Rembrandt drawings, the Museum of Man with African sculpture.” It all inspired his own creativity, he said. Cynthia Brants, the painter from Texas, was excited to see all the people in the Louvre. “The vista down the long gallery,” she wrote in her diary, “with its spectators, copyists, and guards looks like a 19th century engraving of the interior of the Louvre.…The atmosphere is busy, in contrast to our empty, quiet and rather lifeless museum galleries at home.”

Other artists were inspired by France’s creative past. Robert Gwathmey thought the stained-glass windows of Chartres were “the finest visual expression ever.” He saw the hand of great Impressionists and Post-Impressionists practically everywhere. At the old Circus Medrano, he told his dealer, “one sees Seurat, Degas, Lautrec, etc. Renoir and Manet at the Opéra; Courbet, Renoir, Manet, Seurat at the Bois, etc. One step into the countryside and there is a Sisley, a Monet, a Pissarro, after every blink. Even with the exotic references of Matisse and Picasso, the distilled work comes out of France. Their still lifes and those of Braque are seen in the raw in every local house one enters.” Bearden wrote that before setting to work, “I look out of my [hotel] window and see a convent founded in 1620—the building next to it where Victor Hugo wrote ‘Les Miserables’—next to it the little school which Pasteur attended in his youth. After this, a nice stroll in the Luxembourg Gardens and I’m ready.”

American art lovers also sought out the works of new artists, such as Bernard Buffet and Jean Dubuffet, who were said to be taking Paris by storm, and tried to track down the artistic old guard, some of whom were now congregating in the beautiful light of the Côte d’Azur. Marc Chagall returned to work in Nice after spending the war in the United States. Although increasingly crippled by arthritis, Henri Matisse managed to finish painting the lovely chapel in Vence in 1951. Pablo Picasso now spent much of his time in Villauris, reveling in what a visitor called “a riot of publicity.” He welcomed a steady stream of visitors to his studio and delighted in taking his children to the beach, where he pretended not to notice the tourists who surrounded him, taking photos of his doodles in the sand. Actually meeting the aging artist could be a riveting experience. The composer Ned Rorem wrote in his diary of Picasso tapping the shoulder of a companion while leaving a Riviera movie theater: “We turned: it was Picasso. Those jet bullet eyes both burned into my brain and absorbed me into his forever. I was so carbonized I forgot their glib exchange.” It is no wonder that when Romare Bearden visited Picasso in his Villauris studio in 1950, people stopped by to see the master all day long: “It was like going to see the Eiffel Tower.” One night at a party, as they were surrounded by a crowd of admirers, Picasso turned to the celebrated artist/writer Jean Cocteau, who was painting a chapel in Menton, and said, “You, me, and the Aga Khan could sure fill a room.”

One attraction that was not particularly high on the new upper-middle-class tourist agenda was French food. The Left Bank bohemians appreciated the boulangeries, cheese shops, and vendors of cheap wine, as well as the inexpensive student cafés, but many of the wealthier tourists were more apprehensive about French food. They might enjoy looking in on the little bistros with paper tablecloths and a pitcher of Beaujolais on the table but rarely ventured in themselves. The old fears of people raised on plain Anglo-American fare that French sauces camouflaged putrid ingredients persisted. These were reflected in a song in the 1949 Broadway show Miss Liberty, whose lyrics, by Irving Berlin, said that while the Frenchman’s food “was very plain, the fancy sauces with ptomaine are only for Americans.”

A number of new restaurants, such as Le Hamburger and the Pam-Pam, which specialized in Le Chicken Hash, tried catering to these fears. The only one that had any long-term legs was Leroy Haynes’s “soul food” restaurant in Montmartre. Haynes, an African American ex-GI with a master’s degree in sociology, opened it in 1949, serving southern-fried chicken, greens, and other “down home” favorites. Publicity about such celebrated customers as Louis Armstrong soon attracted a growing white clientele, including celebrities such as the sex-kitten actress Brigitte Bardot, who ate one forkful of chitterlings and lots of lemon meringue pie, and the Hollywood superstars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who celebrated her birthday in 1967 by washing down their fried chicken with quarts of Jack Daniel’s sour mash whiskey.

Some hotels, such as the Plaza Athénée, realized that their American guests could not handle leisurely multicourse French lunches and installed American-style snack bars. The Café de la Paix turned its back on café tradition, which demands that breakfast consist only of coffee and bread or croissants, and began serving American-style bacon-and-eggs breakfasts—albeit not until 10:00 AM. But the vast majority of French restaurateurs refused to adjust to American tastes. Demands to be served ice water during meals, something many French thought bad for the digestion, were flatly refused. “They say,” reported Ollie Stewart in 1950, “that if Americans don’t know better than to drink water with meals, it’s just too bad. The restaurant has a reputation to maintain.” Predictably, the Café de la Paix was the only major restaurant to give in and began plunking down a pitcher of ice-cold water on American diners’ tables as soon as their orders were taken.

Americans were much less demanding when it came to the food that accompanied the water. Stanley Karnow, a Time magazine correspondent in Paris, was severely disappointed when what looked like a juicy opportunity for top-notch expense account dining melted away. The Joint Distribution Committee, which helped Jewish refugees settle in Israel, regularly assigned him to take wealthy Jewish donors around Paris during their stopovers on the way to and from the new state. He would take them to super-luxe restaurants such as Maxim’s, the Tour d’Argent, and Ledoyen, expecting that he could dine on fine haute cuisine. “Regrettably to me,” he later wrote, “their tastes tended to be modest. They would shun the spécialités de la maison and instead order a prosaic filet de sole or côte de veau and, if any, one glass of wine. Under the circumstances, I could not decently savor a marvelous pièce de résistance and had to choose something just as banal.” Other wealthy visitors had even more modest tastes. The travel writer Horace Sutton told of an American man who sat down in the elegant dining room of an ultra-fashionable Paris hotel, looked through the gigantic menu, shook his head, and asked for ham and eggs. “Presently,” he said,

after the French custom, there appeared in the doorway leading from the kitchen a procession of waiters and assistants pushing before them a great silver tureen mounted on wheels. Blue flames from a mobile fire played on the underside. The busboy drew back the sliding cover of the tureen with a flourish, a waiter extracted a plate, which was taken by the headwaiter and placed before our man. He looked down at the eggs, which were shirred [lightly scrambled], also after the French fashion, took a forkful in his mouth, and turned to a compatriot sitting nearby. “These people can’t make a fried egg worth a ‘goddam,’” he said.

The gap between such well-heeled first-time tourists’ suspicions of dining in France and the enthusiasm with which well-traveled upper-class bec fins such as David Bruce and Herbert Lehman tucked into their foie gras and canard pressé at the Tour d’Argent could be immense. Indeed, when he became ambassador, poor Bruce had to field many complaints from the former kind of tourists, who were outraged at seeing the French, who were thought to be living off American taxpayers’ handouts, eating expensive meals at outposts of la grande cuisine.

Between these poles lay well-off people, like the Long Island cardiologist Louis Bishop, who could afford the fine dining but were constricted by relatively conservative tastes. Although, like Lehman, he, too, had visited Paris more than once before the war, he did not arrive with a list of old favorite restaurants in mind. Instead, his diary says, he and his wife “did not know any restaurants so we had no idea where to eat.” They went to the old American hangout, Harry’s Bar, where the bartender recommended “an excellent little restaurant” around the corner called L’Opéra. There they had “a delicious Steak Chateaubriand,” a grilled fillet of beef with sautéed potatoes, and a bit of sauce on the side that was a common item in expensive American restaurants. They liked the steak so much that they returned again, for more, a week later. Otherwise, when left to their own devices, they favored the snack bar at the Plaza Athénée for lunch, the Ritz for tea, and the Café de la Paix, then renowned for tailoring its food to American tastes, for dinner.

Despite the heartening revival, by the end of 1949, the great age of mass middle-class tourism still showed few signs of arriving. French and American officials had grounded their hopes in the fact that the number of American families defined as middle class had risen from 16 percent of the total in 1941 to 50 percent in 1947. But it only took an annual income of between $3,000 and $5,000 for a family to be defined as middle class, while it cost about $900 just for a tourist-class ticket on a transatlantic liner. Since the average cost of the basic one-and-a-half-month visit to Europe was $1,400, only those living on well over $5,000 could even conceive of taking a trip to Europe. Moreover, although by 1950 the number of families living on over $5,000 did number 9 million, where would they find the time? The average middle-class annual holiday lasted only two to three weeks, not much more time than it took to get to Europe and back by sea. Clearly, for the most part, those with the time and money to travel to Europe would have to be at the upper reaches of what Americans called the upper-middle class. In 1951, when the New York ad man in charge of the British Travel Service account in America tried to decide who to target, he concluded, “Aim for the near-upper market.…Let’s be sure our prospects can meet the tariff.” Their advertising campaigns thus relied on Life magazine, because it had a high proportion of readers with a college education, and the New Yorker, because of its high-income readership.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 114-130 of We'll Always Have Paris: American Tourists in France since 1930 by Harvey Levenstein, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Harvey Levenstein
We'll Always Have Paris: American Tourists in France since 1930
©2004, 386 pages, 25 halftones
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 0-226-47378-3

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