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In the '50s

My Auvers


Strangely, when I first became aware of the mystery elements that would go into Exile in the Light, I was less fascinated by the evidence of a history-rocking murder in France of the 1890s than I was by the cover-up of that evidence which had occurred in France of the 1950s.


Even more specifically, this second half of the story -- the Gachet Collection Scandal, the testimony of surprise-witness Adeline Ravoux, the emergence of Letter T41b, the campaign to suppress it, and the filming of Lust for Life -- had all taken place in one year of that decade: 1955.


And I had lived in France that very year, fresh from the States, with my relatively blank-slate of a ten-year-old mind soaking up the sights and sounds of that alien and now lost world, and filling my memory banks with seminal experiences. It was a world I knew.


My family moved to France from Seattle in the spring of that year and our two-year stay was a tale of two cities: Paris, where we lived in an “American-in-Paris” world; and Bordeaux, where the nearest American lived miles away and we existed in an exclusively French milieu.


For a kid, with a kid’s ability to quickly pick up the language, an instant affinity for Gallic culture and parents who seemed to have remarkably few qualms about allowing their boy the freedom to wander these two great cities at will, it was a magical experience.


We left France two years later but I would always look back upon on those two years as the happiest of my childhood, a kind of Hardy Boys adventure in which everyone in my family seemed perfectly happy and I was perfectly free from the demands of an adolescence that was just around the corner.


Over the years, I would retain a fascination with this brief interlude of French history, 1955-56, to endlessly see its movies and read its books and interview its veterans; and that interest gradually broadened out to encompass the time just before and after the two years.


This period, the half-decade between mid-1953 and mid-1958 stands in my mind as something unique and special: a period in which France was finally beginning to free itself from its Napoleonic mindset and the ravages of WWII, but was suddenly facing all the new challenges of its future. 


                THE CHAMPS ÉLYSÉES 1955:



It was a pre-television, pre-globalization, pre-inundation by American culture, café-sitting, nose-thumbing, fist-waving, wine-drinking (even the kids), chain-smoking France. It was a France that was still very much the France of the cliché but would soon not be.


In my mind, it is a black & white world. Both in spirit, with the heaviness of the nation’s humiliating fall from the world-stage weighing the air; and visually, with its soot-covered buildings that hadn’t been cleaned since they were constructed and wouldn’t be until the ’60s.


It’s fitting that the term “Film Noir” was coined in 1955 by two French authors in their book about the bleak, moody, cynically expressionistic, relentlessly downbeat, black & white Hollywood films of the postwar era. Because, in 1955, France was a film noir.


But that world also exists in glorious Technicolor. Both in the occasional relief of an April-in-Paris day; and in France’s sudden discovery of its Impressionist past. In the mid-1950s, reproductions of Monet, Manet, Renoir & Co. seemed to brighten every shop stall, café and garage.


For me, the overwhelming fact of my boyhood in France was the Cold War. This was why I was there: my father, a U.S. Army colonel, was an advisor to the French Army. America had military bases all over France and its Sixth Fleet at Villefranche in the Mediterranean  -- all to contain Communism.


But the Communists were all around us: Ten thousand of them marched in the Paris May Day celebration of 1955. They scrawled “U.S. Go Home” graffiti in every available space. One of our neighbors was a Communist, and he seemed to me quite a nice fellow.


This was confusing, and it was also confusing that the French themselves did not seem to notice there was a Cold War. They were obviously not one bit afraid of the Russians. Even to a kid, it was obvious they patronized our fear in exchange for U.S. aid and the Marshall Plan.


To the French, the overwhelming fact of life in the 1950s was their crumbling overseas empire: first Indochina, then Algeria and the Suez Crisis. The trauma was palpable, and Americans had absolutely no sympathy for it. We were allies fighting two different wars.


Domestically, it was also a time of political instability and social unrest. In the decade following the war, more than ten governments of the Fourth Republic had fallen. Riots and demonstrations and worker strikes were so common the newspapers no longer bothered to report them.


At least one book I’ve read about France in the ’50s claims it was that nation’s most anti-American era, and it may be true. I was well aware as a kid that a sea of angry demonstrators had almost stormed the U.S. Embassy in Paris after the Rosenberg decision in 1954.


It went the other way too. Whenever Americans gathered the talk inevitably got around to the outrageousness of the “frogs.” In retrospect, I’m pretty sure the intense, irrational American animosity toward the French that exploded after 9/11 had its genesis in this era.   


But none of this -- the politics or the prejudice -- really touched me. It was just a dramatic background. And while I occasionally witnessed some of that legendary French snootiness, to me and to my family they were nothing but warm and outgoing and helpful.


This was especially true in Bordeaux. In my nostalgic memory of that city so blissfully free of other Americans, everyone was just incredibly kind to us and delighted in our Americanness. Much more so than anywhere else we would later live in Europe or Asia.


If I was asked to name the single most golden moment of my childhood, it would be the months we lived in the Royal Gascogne Hotel on the edge of Bordeaux’s Esplanade des Quinconces. Most of the staff there had never seen an American before in person and they seemed to love us. 



It was an “Eloise at the Plaza” existence and it left me with a fetish for French hotels that would never again be so exquisitely satisfied. (They never seemed to think I was all that special at the Scribe, the Ritz or the Grand Hotel in Paris, or the Carlton in Cannes.)


The world outside that hotel seemed a wonderland of leaded toy soldiers in the shop windows and puppet shows in the park and vast flea markets filled with unimaginable bargains. I still have a 


Roman coin I bought for fifty cents and a Napoleon III ceremonial sword, dated 1848, for three dollars.


Later, we moved into a townhouse only a few blocks away from Bordeaux’ Roman amphitheater, which, in those days, was open and unguarded. For a kid whose favorite movie was Demetrius and the Gladiators, the chance to play in that spectacular ruin every day after school was a gift to the imagination he would never get over.


As everyone knows, the French can be standoffish. But once a bond is made, they are the world’s most loyal friends, and my life in France was full of them. I cannot remember a single instance of being bullied, which, given my vulnerability in their country, seems remarkable.


The France of my memory is a world of women. Suzanne, the friendly waitress in Bordeaux’s Le Snack Bar, on whom I had a fierce crush. Our maid, Germaine, who kissed me on both cheeks every day I knew her. The little girl down the street who taught me how to jouer a faire le docteur.


French women may not all look like Catherine Deneuve but they are the most effortlessly and unashamedly sensual, and they have a mystique and imponderable mystery about them, and an earth-mother acceptance of the way things are, that is opium to me. Think of Simone Signoret. 


It’s funny how, when my mind drifts back to that time, it always sees an outdoor world. Even on the dreariest days, people are outside, sitting in cafés, strolling the boulevards, walking their dogs. Television doesn’t appear, or at least have an impact, until the late ‘50s.


And that dog being walked is always a poodle, always a large one, immaculately clipped and often sitting in its own chair at a restaurant. You did not see any other breed of dog in 1955 France. Whenever I walked Bumper, our English springer spaniel, he always drew a crowd.


Fifties France is still the capitol of high fashion, the France of Dior and Fath and Givenchy, but you don’t see it on the streets. What you see is the long duffle coat, usually with a hood, often topped by a beret. That visual cliché is true. It’s like a uniform.


There are cars zipping along those streets but there are more bicycles than cars, so many they clog the boulevards. You also see a fair number of motor-scooters -- Italian-made Vespas and Lambrettas, with girls riding sidesaddle on the back -- and, more commonly, Mobylettes, the French-made motor-bike.


The cars you do see are largely the old prewar Citroën Traction-Avants, which, with their long, square, black bodies and running boards, look like something Al Capone might drive; or the stubby little Renault 2Cs and 4Cs that are gradually taking their place as the predominant vehicle.


You will also see Peugeots, of course, and Simcas, Fiats and Alpines; and heads do not turn at the occasional Bugatti, Delahaye or Talbot-Lago. But an American car, any American car, is a rarity. People stop and stare at our passing ’53 Buick as if it were a Silver Cloud Rolls Royce.


If this era has a soundtrack, it is sung by Edith Piaf. I can recall walking through the city center of Bordeaux and across its vast public square and never once losing the sound of the Little Sparrow’s voice coming from some radio, record player or jukebox.


There’s a jazz track as well. Paris was full of basement clubs with the world’s best audiences for visiting American jazz bands. This is wonderfully captured in the 1961 movie, Paris Blues, though, as its director Martin Ritt told me, the scene was “basically over” by the time he made the film.   



 The budding sound of American rock music could also be heard coming from black-marketed .45 rpm records or over Radio Luxemburg (the same station the Beatles listened to in their boyhoods) and Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around the Clock  was a brief sensation in 1955.


But, as I remember it, the appearance of Elvis in 1956 was greeted with more giddy laughter and disdainful curiosity than passion, and his French equivalent, Johnny Hallyday, would not release his first single until 1960. This is not yet a rock and roll world.

When you see pictures of people in the streets and parks of this time, they always seem to be reading newspapers. Le Monde, Le Figaro, France-Soir. And for English-language readers, the Overseas Weekly, the Stars and Stripes and, most prominently, the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune.


Indisputably, the journalistic voice of the midcentury American in Paris belongs to Art Buchwald. He is the city’s foremost American personality and his column in the Trib is a daily ritual. How many times can I remember people reading it aloud to each other?


People are reading books in those pictures too, and writing them. The days of Hemingway and the Moveable Feast are long gone but a whole new generation of post-WWII American writer-expatriates is here to fill the void, attracted by the legend and the same low cost of living.


Norman Mailer, James Jones, Irwin Shaw. Richard Wright and the other black writers who hold court at Le Deux Margot. George Plimpton and the Paris Review crowd. French authors too. Roman Gary, George Simenon, and the existentialist writers Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir.


Of course, these were just names to a ten-year-old that would be fleshed out in the coming decades of reading. But the real literary phenomenon of the French ‘50s, Françoise Sagan, had a face to me and I once happened to catch it in the lobby of Paris’ Hotel Splendid Etoile.


Sagan was just eighteen when her angst-ridden novella, Bonjour Tristesse, was published in 1954 and it made her an instant icon of the time. Her boyish haircut and pre-Beatnik dishevelness become a brand and the book was a body part of every Parisienne student and shop girl.


When they’re not reading Sartre or Sagan, people are going to the movies in this world. Paris is a city of cinemas: elegant first-run movie palaces like the Grand Rex and the Gaumont Palace (Europe’s largest cinema) on the Right Bank, hundreds of smaller movie revival houses on the Left Bank.


The French New Wave will not happen until Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959 but its participants are marinating in the Cinémathèque Française, seething with their cinematically rebellious thoughts, writing their iconoclastic reviews in Positif and Cashiers du Cinema.


Hollywood is here too, not just in the cinemas but on the streets, shooting Lust for Life, Bedeviled, Trapeze, Gigi, Love in the Afternoon and, yes, Bonjour Tristesse -- the last two staring, respectively, Françoise Sagan’s sister-trendsetters of the time, Audrey Hepburn and Jean Seberg.


If any single filmed-on-location Hollywood movie defines the particular glamour of Midcentury France, it is 1955’s To Catch a Thief, directed by Alfred Hitchcock (who all those New Wave directors-to-be considered the God of Cinema) and starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.


Rare for a Hitchcock thriller, it’s remembered today less for its suspense, its rooftop acrobats, its spin-outs on the corniche or even its movie-star charisma, as for its sparkle of sophisticated elegance: a commodity so painfully extinct in the New Hollywood it plays like pure platinum.


And, of course, it’s the movie that brought Grace Kelly to the Riviera and sparked her romance with Prince Rainier and led to the fairy-tale wedding of the century. It’s possible that the Universe will never again witness such a glamorously enchanting sequence of events.  



Princess Grace Kelly was hands-down the era’s biggest American celebrity, but there were many others. Art Buchwald once wrote that you had a better chance of seeing a Hollywood movie star in Paris than in Hollywood: drop by Fouquet’s any time of the night or day and you won’t be disappointed.


Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Kurt Douglas, Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster were all common sights in the cafés and hotels of this pre-paparazzi era. 

Lana Turner kept an apartment in Paris. I once stalked Greer Garson for most of a day. My brother got Gary Cooper’s autograph in the Paris PX.


The French had their own movie celebrities as well -- Yves Montand, Gérard Philipe, Fernandel, Martine Carol and their star of stars, Brigitte Bardot. The 1955 Cannes special edition of Paris Match sultrily introduced the face of “B.B.” on its cover and the rest is history.


No sex symbol ever had a greater cultural impact and, had she died young and tragically (instead of growing old and heavy before our eyes), she would surely be the same kind of mythic symbol that Marilyn Monroe is today. I still think she’s the sexiest woman who ever lived.


But B.B. did grow old and television pulled people indoors and the economy improved. De Gaulle brought political stability and rid the nation of Algeria and buoyed up the sagging French self-image by kicking out the American military without so much as a thank you. 


The skyline of Paris was blighted by the buildings of La Defense and the monolithic Montparnasse Tower and the travesty of the Pompidou Center. Les Halles Market closed, the ancient buildings were scrubbed white, the cinemas began to one-by-one go dark.


France of the ’50s died, rather neatly and right on time, at decade’s end.


Today’s Paris is said to be the cleanest, the prettiest and most efficiently run city in the world. Jet airliners roar in eighty million tourists each year, making it the world’s most popular tourist destination. The same hotel room that cost you five dollars in 1955 can now cost you five hundred.


Smoking is banned from the cafés and the consumption of wine has declined to undreamed levels and the cantankerous French character has been globalized (or maybe lobotomized) into a knee-jerk political correctness that considers Victor Hugo a racist.


In so many ways, this is a better world than I knew in my French boyhood. Fairer, more equitable, more hygienic, less self-deluded. There’s no dog poop on the sidewalks. Waiters and taxi drivers are afraid to be snippy because it might earn them a bad review on the internet.


Still, every time I return to this Brave New Millennium France, and as much as I enjoy its pristine national monuments and high-tech sobriety, I miss the old France. I miss the Galois smoke and sooty buildings and Brigitte Bardot. I loved that world then and I feel great nostalgia for it now.

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