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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Left Bank

Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50

Agnès Poirier

Henry Holt and Co.





Queen Elizabeth was wearing an ankle-length white satin dress, long white silk gloves, a white satin pochette, and a wide-brimmed white hat. She was walking slowly, with French president Albert Lebrun, in a tailcoat, top hat, and white gloves, a few feet behind. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England’s official state visit to Paris, in July 1938, was intended to impress Hitler by reaffirming the strong alliance between Britain and France. Newsreel operators placed along the route of the royal cortège filmed the black limousines approaching the Louvre, followed by mounted Republican Guards in full regalia, their elaborate sabers with inlaid brass scintillating in the sun. Britain’s monarchs had chosen to pay a visit to the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, to show the world that the Entente was still Cordiale and everything was as it should be. Except that Germany had annexed Austria just four months earlier.

The newsreel shows six men hovering around the royal party as they pass a series of early Impressionist paintings. Jacques Jaujard, the deputy head of the French National Museums, was among them. Tall, dark-haired, and slim, he was, at forty-three, a dashing albeit austere figure.

Jaujard did not believe in appeasement, he never had. While he showed the queen around the Louvre’s Grande Galerie,1 very few knew that he had already started to plan the evacuation of France’s entire public art collections for when, not if, the Germans would invade Paris. He had supervised the expatriation of the entire Prado Museum’s collection from Madrid to Switzerland, to shelter it during the Spanish Civil War. He had already begun to elaborate contingency plans for this war, writing up lists and ordering thousands of wooden cases made to precise measurements.

There were very few people in the summer of 1938 who felt personally concerned by Germany’s aggressive policies against its eastern neighbors, let alone who were preparing actively for war. Untroubled by the worries of a grown-up man spending his days and nights thinking how best to preserve the world’s cultural heritage and thousands of years of civilization from a very uncertain future, the youth of Paris were more preoccupied by emulating their idol Charles Trenet, “Le Fou Chantant” (“the Singing Fool”), as the twenty-four-year-old musical prodigy was known. In the summer of 1938, Paris’s teenagers wore blue shirts and white ties and hats just like Trenet, the man who made France swingue.

One of their philosophy teachers at the Lycée Pasteur in Neuilly, the plush western suburb of Paris, also felt completely unconcerned by world events. Like his pupils, the thirty-three-year-old Jean-Paul Sartre enjoyed listening to Charles Trenet. What he enjoyed even more was shattering social conventions. But war? War was not on his mind. He liked taking his students to cafés to discuss literature, something that was simply not done in 1938; nobody before had dared to breach the revered distance between a pupil and his teacher, and question the concept of hierarchy so directly. Sartre also liked to lend his pupils his personal books. Through this strange-looking man with a terrible squint, a buoyant intelligence, and a contagious laugh, they discovered the writing of Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, and Faulkner.2 Sartre was himself about to be published for the first time by the prestigious publisher Gallimard. He called his first novel La nausée (Nausea),3 an unsavory title. Le Figaro and other conservative newspapers deemed it unpleasant, too bleak, nihilistic even, but all recognized the undeniable talent of its author.

La nausée was dedicated to “The Beaver,” a word play in English on the name of his best friend, sparring partner, and lover, Simone de Beauvoir. “Beauvoir” sounds like “beaver” in English pronunciation, which is castor in French. In other words, Simone de Beauvoir became for her close friends “Le Castor” by way of English. Le Castor was, just like Sartre, a brilliant thirty-year-old philosophy teacher, though rather more beautiful. They lived together—that is, they lived in the same shabby hotel, the Hôtel Mistral, 24 rue de Cels, just behind Montparnasse Cemetery, though not in the same room.

Beauvoir and Sartre were attractive teachers and great listeners and never passed moral judgments. Unsurprisingly, their students became their most ardent admirers, often developing a crush on them. Instead of scolding them, Beauvoir and Sartre returned their affection. There were the very blond sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz, there was Jacques-Laurent Bost, called “le petit Bost” as he was the youngest of a family of ten children, and there were Bianca Bienenfeld and Nathalie Sorokine. They were all infatuated with Simone. Beauvoir and Sartre had agreed that their relationship was essential while other relationships they might have on the side were to remain contingent. Their life together, and not together, formed ripples in an ever-growing pool. New entrants to Beauvoir and Sartre’s circle usually accepted the premises of their contingent relationships with their mentor-lover, and an astonishingly large number would remain on friendly terms after passion had consumed itself. Then they often fell for another member of the group. Transparency was not universally shared between the members of what would be later known as the “Sartrean family,” and many small secrets allowed such a system to work. For instance in 1938 and 1939, while she was in love with Bost, Beauvoir was having a passionate affair with Bianca (Bost knew about Bianca but Bianca did not know about Bost). Sartre then started courting Bianca in January 1939 after Beauvoir had ended her affair with her. Beauvoir and Sartre were not only lovers and mentors; they also provided for these student-lovers of theirs. They worked hard and paid for everyone’s lodgings and food. Their world was one of knowledge and foreplay in which politics and world affairs played the tiniest of parts. They were philosophers and thought of themselves as above politics.

Samuel Beckett did not have much time for politics either. He had just turned thirty-three and liked sleeping till noon. On April 18, 1939, he wrote to his friend Thomas MacGreevey back in Dublin: “If there is a war, as I am sure there must be soon, I shall place myself at the disposition of this country.”4 Beckett wanted to be useful; he had time on his hands and had not yet found his voice. He was living in the shadow of another Irish writer, James Joyce, for whom he had briefly worked as secretary, and he was at pains to actually produce something he thought worthy. There was of course Murphy (1938), a novel that he had written in English and that he’d have loved his friend Alfred Péron, an English teacher, to translate into French, but when the two young men met every Tuesday for lunch, they ended up playing tennis rather than talking about work. Apart from Murphy, Beckett had a few poems (some in French) and some translation work to show, but not much else. He read a lot, though, and along with his admiration for this French philosophy teacher’s book Nausea, which he thought “extraordinarily good,”5 he liked the work of an older writer, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, particularly his novel Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night). Beckett lived very modestly on his occasional translating and teaching income, supplemented by a monthly allowance from his brother Frank in Ireland. At least if there was a war, he could be of some use.

While Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Samuel Beckett were either happily ignoring world affairs or envisaging what their future role in a war could be, Jacques Jaujard was already fully engaged in action, following his instinct. He had confided to Laure Albin Guillot, a sixty-year-old celebrity photographer, that he would soon do an inventory of the museum’s art collection, a rearrangement of some kind. The terms remained purposely vague. Whether he privately told her the extent of his plans is uncertain. Perhaps he wanted one of the most talented French photographers of the 1930s to immortalize artworks that might soon be destroyed or vanish forever.

He could have asked another, younger photographer, the thirty-one-year-old Henri Cartier-Bresson, known at the time only as Henri Cartier. Cartier-Bresson was the well-known name of Parisian industrialists and he did not want his comrades in the Communist Party to realize that he was the son of grands bourgeois. However, Jaujard might have been wary of asking the official photographer of the Communist newspaper Ce Soir, edited by Aragon, especially as Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany had just agreed to sign a pact of nonaggression. Besides, Henri Cartier was busy working for the film director Jean Renoir. Since 1936 he had been enjoying his role as Renoir’s assistant director, not only on Communist propaganda documentaries but also films such as La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), which portrayed a world on the brink—the world of the pleasure-seeking French bourgeoisie oblivious to the world around them.6

On August 24, 1939, the day after the Soviet foreign minister Molotov and his German counterpart von Ribbentrop had signed the pact that gave Hitler free rein to attack the West, Jacques Jaujard ordered the Louvre to be closed for three days. Officially, for repair. In fact, for three days and three nights, two hundred Louvre staff, students from the Louvre art school, and grand magasin employees from La Samaritaine carefully placed four thousand world treasures in wooden cases. Luckily, The Wedding at Cana by Veronese could be rolled around a cylinder. So could Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon. But Delacroix’s Crusaders, Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, and all the Rubenses were too fragile and had to be hauled on a special open truck made to transport set designs and murals from France’s state theater company, the Comédie-Française. The Raft of the Medusa, weighing nearly one and a half tons, stood in the open-air truck covered only by a giant blanket.

Masterpieces were categorized in order of importance: a yellow circle for very valuable ones, a green circle for major artworks, and a red circle for world treasures. The white case containing the Mona Lisa was marked with three red circles. In a letter to the curator who was in charge of traveling with La Joconde but did not yet know the full burden of his responsibility, Jaujard broke the news by telling him: “Old friend, your convoy will be made of eight trucks. I have to tell you that the Chenu truck which will be departing from 5 rue de la Terrasse, with the plate number 2162RM2, contains a case with the letters MN written in black. It is the Mona Lisa.”7 Leonardo da Vinci’s finest work was traveling in an ambulance specially fitted with elastic rubber-sprung suspension.

Private cars, ambulances, trucks, delivery vans, and taxis were requisitioned. A convoy of 203 vehicles transporting 1,862 wooden cases set out one morning in late August to eleven castles in France where they would wait, anonymous and secure, for what would come. Grand châteaux on the Loire such as Chambord and Cheverny were used, but Jaujard also requisitioned more inconspicuous and privately owned estates conveniently “lost” in the French countryside, far from any strategic locations. Every convoy had a curator and staff attached to it. Their mission: to look after the art collections in their new homes for as long as it was necessary. Whole families were displaced and relocated. For those dedicated museum employees, it was an adventure that would last more than five years.

The eleven-foot-tall Winged Victory of Samothrace was the last piece to go into hiding, at three o’clock on the afternoon of September 3, the precise time that France declared war on Germany. Then, in the next few weeks, the entire national public collection was taken to safety. Every museum in the country used the plan of evacuation Jaujard had used for the Louvre, each work being treated in order of artistic and historical importance. By autumn 1939, every single artwork of significance had been put in safekeeping. The news, quite inevitably, filtered out. Raymond Lécuyer, in Le Figaro, wrote of “the exodus of paintings,” praised the dedication of the national museums’ keepers, many of them retired veterans from the Great War, and apologized to his readers for being elusive about the whole operation. He could not be specific, nor could he give names, dates, or places, but he wrote: “May [it] be, however, a comfort for you to know that the world’s art heritage is safe from the scientific enterprises of German barbarism.”8

Having fulfilled his duty to history, Jaujard retreated to his office in the Louvre overlooking the Tuileries Gardens. He was now bracing himself for the inevitable. It might take months, but the Germans would soon be in Paris, he was certain of that. Jaujard may have been ready but, unfortunately, the French army was not.


Instead of immediately fulfilling their duty of assistance to Poland, Britain and France bided their time and did not engage in offensive military operations, allowing the German army to concentrate on invading and crushing Poland without having to fight on two fronts at once. There was something decidedly strange about this war. The French called it the “Drôle de guerre,” the Americans and the British the “Phony War.” If the French army had attacked head-on, immediately after the declaration of war, the German army could not have held out for more than one or two weeks—at least that is what the German general Siegfried Westphal stated years later during the Nuremberg trials. In September 1939, Britain and France had a combined 110 divisions to Germany’s 23.

Both France and Britain, however, were busier making life difficult for the German and Austrian citizens living on their soil, such as Arthur Koestler in France and Stefan Zweig in Britain, than confronting Hitler on the ground. In October, the Hungarian-born antifascist intellectual Koestler was arrested and interned at the Le Vernet detention camp in the French Pyrenees,9 while the celebrated Austrian author Zweig, now a UK resident, was forbidden to travel more than five miles from his home in Bath.

Some Parisians left immediately after the war was declared. Janet Flanner, the formidable Paris correspondent of the New Yorker since 1925, a lesbian who was as well known for her beautiful lovers as for her steely writing, decided to go back to the United States. She told her French lover Noeline, or Noel Haskins Murphy, as she was officially known, that she would write and come back soon. Noeline, a six-foot-tall “stunning woman with high cheekbones and hay-coloured hair, a veritable Viking, a blend of Garbo and Dietrich,”10 would look the shadow of herself when they next met in December 1944.

The fifty-eight-year-old Pablo Picasso, horrified by the bombings of Guernica in April 1937, left Paris on September 2 for Royan, a seaside resort in southwestern France, sixty-one miles north of Bordeaux. He rented a villa11 for his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter and their daughter, Maya, about to turn four, and lived with his new love, the photographer Dora Maar, at the Hôtel du Tigre. He soon rented a studio space on the third floor of the Villa les Voiliers with a beautiful sea view. Royan failed to inspire him, though. Picasso was no wildlife or landscape artist. He may have felt relieved at first to be away from Paris, but the vivid light of the Poitou region did not suit him. He kept busy sketching and even writing to fight his anxiety about the war. The seafood at the local market inspired a few paintings, but he drove back to Paris regularly to get supplies of brushes, paints, canvases, and sketchbooks. The November 15 opening of his first American retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, called “Forty Years of His Art,” which should have been a great satisfaction, felt very far away, almost unimportant.12

Others had decided to wait and see, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who had remained in Paris, teaching, and occasionally changing hotels, their lovers and students in tow.

* * *

While everyone in Western Europe was adjusting to this “phony war,” the largest army in the world, as the French army was described in newspapers at home and abroad, was utterly unprepared, a victim of traditionalism, ignorance, arrogance, and paralysis. One eyewitness account of the time clearly understood the collapse of French soldiers’ morale, the total failure of the French high command, the demented military strategies focused on the Maginot Line and the so-called “impenetrability” of the forest of the Ardennes, and the fantasy worlds inhabited by the French bourgeoisie and the working class. Marc Bloch was a veteran of the Great War, a professor of medieval history at the Sorbonne and founder of the Annales School.13 He volunteered to serve in 1939 at the age of fifty-three. The French high command’s utter incompetence and inability to adapt to modern times was not the only cause of the fall of France, wrote Bloch in 1946’s Strange Defeat, published posthumously. The way in which the state, its government, and France’s political parties relayed the most inane optimistic messages to the country, hinting that defeat was inconceivable, while acting in the most timid way toward Hitler, prevented a clear and cool-headed look at reality. He accused the working class of coward pacifism while the bourgeoisie only sought egotistical pleasures in life. What Marc Bloch described was the complete moral collapse of an entire country—as Renoir had done a few months earlier in his film La règle du jeu, showing the unbearable lightness of the French elite, an innate insouciance shared by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Immigrants, and foreign Jews in particular, like Arthur Koestler, could not afford the luxury of insouciance. Having been released in early 1940 from the internment camp at Le Vernet thanks to the tireless campaigning of his lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy, who alerted the British authorities, Koestler first tried to get French papers in Paris in order to stay in France. On May 1, thinking ahead, he also sent a manuscript to a London publisher. His novel, translated from German by Hardy, was called Darkness at Noon, and it told the story of an old Bolshevik tried for treason by the very government he had helped create. In Paris, Koestler stayed at the homes of different friends. One of them was the fifty-three-year-old Sylvia Beach, owner of the celebrated Shakespeare and Company bookshop at 12 rue de l’Odéon in the 6th arrondissement.14

Beach, a friend of the writers Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and André Gide, had improvised as a publisher in 1922 in order to bring James Joyce’s Ulysses into the world. She still lived above her bookshop, just like Adrienne Monnier, her former lover and best friend, and the owner of the bookshop just opposite hers, at 7 rue de l’Odéon. Sylvia and Adrienne were the souls of what some of their friends called “Odeonia,” a kingdom of culture, international fraternity, and tolerance. They belonged to a bygone era, and in May 1940 Odeonia felt like a besieged city. Adrienne was seeing Gisèle Freund, a thirty-two-year-old from Berlin who had done her PhD thesis at the Sorbonne on photography in France in the nineteenth century. Freund busied herself taking portraits of all the writers still passing through Odeonia; of Jewish descent, she was also seriously considering fleeing to Argentina, where she had friends and family.

The few American writers still in Paris in 1940, such as Henry Miller, as well as the artist Man Ray, were starting to flee to the south, and from there to safer countries. Arthur Koestler was clinging to the hope of getting French papers. At Sylvia Beach’s flat, “he was reading Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black) when a four-leaf clover resting on an upper shelf ‘fell right between his eyes.’ Adrienne kissed his eyes and assured him it was an omen that he would be safe.”15


“The new phase of the war”—the euphemism used by some—began at daybreak on Friday, May 10, 1940. German tanks had entered Belgium and the Battle of France had begun. However, French newspapers had dedicated their headlines to the governmental crisis in London, which would soon bring Winston Churchill to power. With dawn came the air raid sirens, startling a city that had heard no daytime alert since the first weeks of the “Phony War” eight months earlier. The rubicund, jolly, and overweight A. J. Liebling, a special reporter for the New Yorker who had replaced his colleague Janet Flanner, looked out from his hotel room on the Square Louvois, opposite the French National Library. He stood there alongside his French neighbors, all spectators, framed in the opened windows of every building. Everyone stood in their nightshirts or stark naked, looking up at the sky. A few hours later that day, Corporal Henri Cartier-Bresson, stationed in Metz with the Third Army in the Photographic and Film Unit, had just enough time to bury his Leica in the courtyard of a farm in the Vosges region before being sent on a mission.

On Wednesday, May 15, the day the Germans made a decisive thrust that would split the Allied armies a few days later, Samuel Beckett volunteered to drive an ambulance. Ireland was a neutral country in the war but he wanted to participate in the way other foreign writers had done in previous conflicts, just like Ernest Hemingway, who had enlisted to go to the Italian front as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I at the age of eighteen. “Beckett took out a heavy vehicle licence, but heard nothing.”16 In truth he wanted to join his best friend, Alfred Péron, now in Brittany, who had been posted as a liaison officer with a British ambulance unit.

On Thursday, May 16, panic hit the correspondents of Paris’s foreign newspapers and French politicians. That night, Liebling saw slick-haired, sullen young men in pullovers speeding through the night on fast motorcycles. “They had the air of conquerors.”17 Probably German spies on reconnaissance missions.

On Saturday, May 18, the seventy-three-year-old General Weygand replaced General Gamelin as the French army’s supreme commander, while the eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain was invited to join the government. Though both were arch-right-wingers, royalists, ardent Catholics, and antiparliamentarians, they canceled each other out in strategic and military terms. As A. J. Liebling described it to his American readers, Pétain was “incapable of conceiving any operation bolder than orderly retreat,” while “Weygand believed in unremitting attack.”18

On Tuesday, May 21, the head of the French government, Paul Reynaud, announced to the Senate that the Germans had reached the northern town of Arras and that “France was in danger.” A week later, Belgium’s King Leopold III capitulated, leaving the British and French armies in a worse position still. Winston Churchill was stung: “Without prior consultation and upon his own personal act, the Belgian King surrendered his Army, and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat.”19 Operation Dynamo, better known as the evacuation of Dunkirk, had started. Britain needed to get its troops back. It started very badly, but disaster turned into “triumph” when almost 338,000 soldiers (among them 26,500 French soldiers) were evacuated by June 4. That day Winston Churchill rejoiced, but he also warned the British public: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”20

On June 6, taxis became scarce, hotels were deserted, telephone services restricted, and restaurants and cafés lowered their metal shutters. Communication with the outside world was breaking down, making life difficult—especially for foreigners. Samuel Beckett could no longer draw money from his Irish account at the bank, nor could he get the papers he wanted.21 A. J. Liebling, though, managed to obtain a safe-conduct.

On June 10, Mussolini’s Italy declared war on France and Britain. The French and British governments had been hoping the fascist dictator would stay neutral after they had wooed him with territorial concessions in Africa to expand Italy’s colonial empire. In Paris, the American ambassador to Paris, the forty-nine-year-old William C. Bullitt, was seen laying a wreath of roses at the statue of Joan of Arc at the place des Pyramides, in view of Jacques Jaujard’s office in the Louvre.

William Christian Bullitt Jr.—a former news correspondent in Europe, Yale graduate, man of the world with a taste for beautiful women, talented writer, and ambassador to the Soviet Union between 1933 and 1936—was also an ardent European and a keen Francophile. His mother, a German Jew named Horowitz, had made sure that her son was perfectly trilingual, as fluent in German and French as in American English—a gift that soon came in handy.

His friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to whom Bullitt spoke every day on the phone since he had been appointed the president’s man in Paris in 1936, asked him to leave the city. Bullitt cabled the White House in Washington: NO AMERICAN AMBASSADOR IN PARIS HAS EVER RUN AWAY FROM ANYTHING AND THAT, I THINK, IS THE BEST TRADITION WE HAVE IN THE AMERICAN DIPLOMATIC SERVICE. Indeed, Gouverneur Morris stayed throughout the French Revolution, Elihu B. Washburne braved the Prussian occupation of Paris during the Commune in 1870, and, although within range of the kaiser’s artillery, Myron T. Herrick did not flee Paris in 1914. Bullitt was not alone in wanting to stay: five thousand of the thirty thousand U.S. citizens who lived in or near Paris, the largest American community in Europe, also refused to leave.22

On the evening of June 10, Parisians retreated inside their homes and gathered around the radio. Those who stayed up after midnight heard Roosevelt’s speech, relayed from London, in which he described Italy’s war declaration as a stab in the back. Earlier that day, in Royan, Picasso had painted the head of a woman, looking decidedly somber. A. J. Liebling did not hear Roosevelt’s speech: he had left Paris a few hours earlier. On leaving he was more broken-hearted than scared. It had never occurred to him that Hitler might one day destroy France, “the historical continuity of intelligence and reasonable living,” without which “nothing anywhere can have meaning until it is re-established.” Liebling was angry, too, at French cowardice. There were many cowards in June 1940. Liebling had had lunch that week with a notorious French journalist who wrote for a dozen Parisian newspapers of varying political leanings under a dozen different pseudonyms. He had told his American colleague: “What a terrible mistake to have provoked those people, my dear! What madness to concern ourselves with Poland!” He had cried like a baby while stuffing asparagus into his mouth, then shouted: “Peace, quickly, quickly!”23

Liebling was not the only one fleeing Paris—thousands of Parisians and refugees from the north of France were also in transit. So was Arthur Koestler, still without any legal papers. Hidden by friends who passed him on in turn, hiding him for one night each, obtaining a travel permit to Limoges for him—Koestler saw no alternative but to enlist in the Foreign Legion, which since 1831 had granted men of all creeds and nationalities a new life and a new identity. Koestler enrolled for five years and legally ceased to exist. He was now Albert Dubert.

Simone de Beauvoir left too. The father of her student and now ex-lover Bianca Bienenfeld gave her a lift. He dropped Simone off at Poèze, near Angers, at the cottage of a friend, Madame Morel. Simone de Beauvoir admitted later not feeling much connection with the historical events unfolding. She listened to news bulletins on the radio, of course, but she also spent her days reading detective novels and discussing sexuality with Madame Morel. Young women kept falling in love with her, and Madame Morel had called her a “wolf trap”—in other words, a lesbian. Simone had started wearing a headband that looked a little like a turban. Her lover, le petit Bost, had commented on her new hairstyle: “You look like a lesbian, a cocaine addict and a fakir too.”24

The forty-two-year-old American heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim could see the refugees dragging their belongings through Paris, but she was too busy buying paintings from artists desperate to leave Paris before the Nazis reached it to care much. For a quarter of a million dollars, she acquired a collection that would come to be worth more than $40 million.25 After striking many bargains, Guggenheim fled south toward Arcachon, where her friends the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí and his muse and wife, the Russian-born Gala, had rented a villa and were welcoming friends “in transit.”

On the morning of June 11, Samuel Beckett, along with those Parisians who had not yet left, woke up to the smell of soot. Ammunition factories around the capital city, blown up by the French authorities, had been burning through the night. “The high brilliance of the sun had been reduced to a sulphurous glow.”26 The head of the French government, Paul Reynaud, was preparing to flee to Tours on the river Loire with his government. In order to spare France’s capital, Paris was officially declared an “open city,” which meant the French government was abandoning all defensive efforts in the hopes that the German army would respect the international conventions of war by which open cities are protected from bombings. However, one could never be sure with the Nazis. Before leaving, Reynaud went to see his friend the American ambassador Bullitt and asked him to try to persuade the Wehrmacht not to destroy Paris. Bullitt, the last foreign ambassador still present in Paris, was in effect made provisional governor of the city, in the absence of all French authority.

On June 12, Samuel Beckett and his “French girl,”27 Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, who had decided at the last minute to go with him, boarded a slow, crowded train at the Gare de Lyon toward Vichy, where he knew people who could, he hoped, lend him some money. Nobody was aware yet that Vichy would become the headquarters and capital of unoccupied France. In Royan, Picasso was painting another sinister-looking head of a woman.

At first, the Wehrmacht agreed to enter the city peacefully. However, the shooting of German officers by French patriots near the Porte Saint-Denis, outside Paris, enraged General Georg von Küchler, the German 18th Army commander, also known as the “Butcher of Rotterdam” for having demolished that Dutch city just a few weeks earlier. He ordered as retaliation an all-out air and artillery assault on Paris at eight o’clock the following morning. There were only a few hours left for Bullitt to save Paris from the fate shared by Rotterdam and another capital city, Warsaw. Bullitt managed to persuade two French officials to meet their German counterparts at Écouen, twelve miles north of Paris, to settle terms for the handover. With the document signed, von Küchler called off the bombardment of Paris. An American had saved the City of Light.

While the city was being spared Nazi barbarism, pigeons had taken over all the great open spaces, and in the deadly silence their cooing filled the ears of the few remaining Parisians. Posters had been pasted up on the walls to advise its 2.8 million inhabitants to stay right there. There were few left to read them. On June 14, at dawn, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier looked out their small windows toward the Carrefour de l’Odéon and saw German army trucks roaring down the boulevard Saint-Germain. They had entered Paris. One minute they weren’t there, the next Paris was swarming with them. One minute Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosophy teacher in Paris and Jacques-Laurent Bost was his student; the next, Sartre and Cartier-Bresson were prisoners of war and le petit Bost badly wounded.


German cars, trucks, wagons, and cavalry poured through the streets, while giant swastika banners started draping public buildings. “The deadly silence of a dead city had given way to the ear-splitting roar of Nazi planes flying very low over the city, day and night, throwing vulture shadows into every room. The avenues became autostradas for German officers in high-powered cars. The feldgrau was everywhere.”28

Parisians watched the Germans with blank stares. The Germans did not understand at first; they felt ignored, as if they were transparent. They soon called Paris “the city without eyes.”29 Paris’s spirit had disappeared just as the Germans thought they had caught it in their steely embrace. They had turned Paris and its inhabitants to stone.30

In Vichy, the French writer Valery Larbaud, whose work had inspired James Joyce’s Ulysses with its interior monologues, kindly helped Beckett out and gave him cash. Beckett and Suzanne then set off on foot and slept in barns and on shop floors on their way to Arcachon, where their American friend Mary Reynolds, Duchamp’s mistress, had a house and, they hoped, could accommodate them for a few days. They found her house was more than full with Peggy Guggenheim and other friends. Dalí and Gala’s villa was also crowded with artists and writers, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp among them, but Beckett and Suzanne eventually managed to rent a room in a boardinghouse, the Villa Saint George, 135 bis boulevard de la Plage. Duchamp and Beckett, fanatical chess players, spent much of the time playing the game in a seafront café.

On June 18, in an address broadcast by the BBC, Charles de Gaulle, a French general unknown to the majority of French people, called for France to continue the fight, urging all young men and women to join him in résistance from London. Four days later, though, Marshal Pétain capitulated and signed an armistice with Adolf Hitler. As A. J. Liebling wrote the same day: “De Gaulle had spoken for France; Pétain always seemed to speak against her, reproachful with the cruelty of the impotent.”31

On June 22, while armistice negotiations were finalized at Compiègne, Henri Cartier-Bresson was taken prisoner and sent to Stalag VA in Ludwigsburg in Germany with the identification number KG 845, along with another twenty-three thousand French prisoners. Jean-Paul Sartre had been captured the day before, his thirty-fifth birthday, and was to be transferred to Stalag XIID near Trier. In Arcachon, getting some fresh air on the seafront, Samuel Beckett and Marcel Duchamp overheard a fat lady with gold rings on every finger welcoming the armistice: “Ah, we’re going to be able to eat cakes again.”

Copyright © 2018 by Agnès Poirier