Americans in Paris
By Jerry Marterer
Statue of Washington and Lafayette in Paris. Images courtesy of the author.
Americans have been drawn to Paris since their nation was young. Part of the early attraction was the deep affection for General Lafayette, the French marquis who fought alongside General Washington to win our independence from England. Our near-simultaneous revolutions that declared the rights of man and the Declaration of Independence created an affinity that continues to this day. In his book, The Greater Journey, David McCullough highlights the early attractions of medicine and art. In the early 1800s, the United States had few hospitals and no medical schools.
Paris had the first large-scale hospitals, where teaching physicians would make daily rounds with medical students, including many Americans. Napoléon had just filled the Louvre with art liberated from his conquests. Its galleries, previously restricted to royalty, were open to the public, with Sundays reserved for visiting foreigners. Many Americans who arrived with the intention of staying a year or two never left. The French were just as fascinated with tales of the American frontier by authors such as James Fenimore Cooper.
The Paris of today honors their American heroes with avenues Wilson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy. A statue of George Washington standing alongside Lafayette overlooks the Place des États-Unis (United States Square). Thomas Jefferson’s statue stands near the National Assembly, where, as U.S. minister to France, he worked with Lafayette on drafting France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. The legend is that he brought the French fry to America. If true, burgers and fries are Franco-American cuisine! Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris in 1776 as an unofficial diplomat from a country that barely existed. His goal was to win support for America’s war of independence. He was preceded by his reputation as a scientist and inventor and was warmly received by royalty and intellectuals. He eventually charmed Louis XVI into providing the Americans military and financial aid.
Left, Benjamin Franklin. Right, Thomas Jefferson.
Ironically, the American ideals helped to inspire the French Revolution in 1789 and the end of the monarchy. Franklin lived in the village of Passy, now within the city limits. There, a statue of the great American sits in a small garden called the Square de Yorktown, which commemorates the Battle of Yorktown, where a combined French and American army defeated the British in 1781. In 1783, officers of the combined French and Continental Armies formed the Society of the Cincinnati to maintain the relationship and to preserve the history of the war. The 13 original state chapters, as well as chapters in France, still exist today.
The American Church in Paris was established in 1814 to serve English-speaking Protestants. The American Episcopal Cathedral, completed in 1886 on the Avenue George V, was partially financed by J. P. Morgan, whose cousin Dr. John Morgan was the rector. Flags from all the states are draped from the ceiling of this Gothic landmark.
The American Hospital of Paris is in a suburb of the city. It was founded in 1906 to serve the expatriate community. In 1914 it was transformed into a military hospital with 600 beds. When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, American doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers volunteered to work at the hospital, which was recognized in 1918 by the French government as an “institution of public benefit” that can receive donations and bequests under French law. In 1949 the Marshall Plan provided funds to expand, and in 1960, the Eisenhower wing was built. Today, more than 350 physicians practice at the hospital. Anyone, not just Americans, may seek care there.
There are 11 American military cemeteries in France. Twenty minutes from Paris is the Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial, dedicated in 1937. It shelters the remains of American soldiers who died in both world wars. The 7.5-acre cemetery holds the remains of 1541 Americans from World War I and 34 unknown dead from World War II. The Memorial Chapel between two loggias is dedicated to the dead of both wars. The hilltop setting overlooks Paris. The train runs between the Gare Saint-Lazare and Suresnes.
Suresnes American Cemetery & Memorial, the resting place of many American soliders.
Two blocks from our apartment, near the Eiffel Tower, is a plaque that states in French and English, “On This Site was Born the American Legion, March 15-17, 1919.” The American Legion Post 1 was established in Paris on December 13, 1919. In 1928, the post raised sufficient pledges to purchase the mansion in Paris that General John J. Pershing used as his headquarters from 1917 through 1919, and named Pershing Hall, Paris Post 1. After the stock market crash of 1929, many pledges were not honored. The withdrawal of American forces from France in 1987 led to the decline of the post, and the building fell into disrepair. In 1998, the Department of Veterans Affairs, in a controversial move, signed a long-term lease with a French company that turned it into a five-star hotel, still called Pershing Hall. Paris Post 1 is still active, has regular meetings and participates in many ceremonies each year.
Left, Pershing Hall. Right, the American Legion plaque.
The American Library in Paris is in a tranquil quarter of the seventh arrondissement. It was founded after the First World War. Americans entered in the war’s final two years. Libraries in the U.S. launched the Library War Service to send books to the doughboys. At war’s end, more than one million books had been sent. These became the core collection of the new library that opened in 1920, founded by a group of American expatriates, many of them artists and writers of the literary era who were patrons and served on its board. Today it hosts lectures, readings and programs for adults and children. I can read the Sunday New York Times there. The paper edition is not sold anywhere in Paris. Non-Americans are also welcome.
During the literary age of the 1920s, American writers and artists settled in the Montparnasse neighborhood in Paris, lured by the cheap French franc and the absence of American prohibition. Several restaurants opened a Bar Américain to accommodate their appetite for hard liquor and mixed drinks. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled the café culture of the era, which ended with the American stock market crash of 1920 and the adoption of the gold standard that weakened the U.S. dollar.
Julia Child and her husband, Paul, arrived in Paris in November 1948. Paul was assigned the task of putting together exhibits for the U.S. Information Service to promote French-American relations. They were able to take their American Buick with them. On the day of arrival in Le Havre, while driving to Paris, they stopped in the city of Rouen, and Julia tasted sole meuniere for the first time and fell in love with French food. She was raised in a home with servants and had never learned to cook. Their apartment in Paris was on the rue de l’Université in the seventh arrondissement. She shopped on the rue Cler, a market street near where we would buy an apartment years later.
She enrolled the Cordon Bleu and learned the secrets of French cooking. When she discovered Dehillerin, a store near the Les Halles market, she wrote: “I was thunderstruck. [It] was the kitchen-equipment store of all time … stuffed with an infinite number of wondrous gadgets, tools, implements and gewgaws — big shiny copper kettles, turbotieres, fish and chicken poachers …” Today, it appears that nothing has changed since then. We take visitors there who are into cooking. It is cavernous, and a trip back in time.
The Childs returned to the U.S. in 1956. In 1961 The Art of French Cooking, written by Julia Child with several French friends, was published, demystifying French recipes for Americans. In 1963, WGBH in Boston launched her half-hour show, “The French Chef,” on PBS. In ran nationally for more than ten years. In 2001, Julia Child donated her Boston kitchen to the Smithsonian, where it can be seen today. She died in 2004.
Oliver Wendel Holmes once said, “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.” Josephine Baker, the American entertainer, resistance member and civil rights activist who spent her life in France, sang, “J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris” (I have two loves, my country and Paris.” I share her sentiments. George Gershwin’s orchestral work, “An American in Paris,” first performed in 1924, used real taxi horns brought from Paris in the percussion section to create authentic city sounds. The 1951 musical comedy of the same name starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron won six Oscars.
Left, a gospel concert in the American Cathedral. Right, Josephine Baker; image in the public domain.
The mutual fascination and bond between Parisians and Americans continue to this day with posters on kiosks in Paris, advertising performances by American jazz artists and gospel choirs, while French films like “Amalie” delight American audiences. The works of the great French novelist, Victor Hugo, have been produced as films with American casts, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the musical and film versions of Les Misérables. Most young people in France speak pretty good English, usually with an American accent. When I asked where they learned it, many answer, “On MTV!”
Hemingway called Paris “a moveable feast.” The way I see it, each visitor carries home his or her own personal, private Paris: perhaps the taste of onion soup on a cold winter’s day, the shabby chic of the one-star hotel on that student trip, or the boulevard Saint-Germain on a rainy April evening. My first impression of Paris came on a business trip when I was in my 30s, not at all romantic or literary, but still vivid. On an industrial edge of the city, I went to lunch with some customers who used our packaging in their factory. It was in a plain dining room that served the surrounding facilities.
After we were seated and shared a carafe of red wine at a table covered with brown paper, a large zucchini and tomato tart was brought to the table and served along with a basket of crusty bread. It was like nothing I had ever tasted! I must have shown my enthusiasm in eating it because I was quickly given a second helping, which I consumed with equal gusto. I was just about to say, “That was the best lunch I ever had,” when a copper pot of beef Burgundy was set in the middle of the table, followed by Camembert, crème brûlée and café. I’ve had many culture shocks around the world since then, but none so pleasant!
For the next 20 years I traveled regularly to Europe for business. Whenever possible, I would end the trips with a weekend in Paris. I found that staying in three-star hotels in quiet neighborhoods helped me learn the “real” Paris of the Parisians and the local patois. Three stars in Paris usually means a large lobby, comfortable rooms, breakfast, conference rooms and a front desk that can help with reservations, directions and taxis. Prices today run $100-250 per night.
Off the beaten path, the locals were welcoming and the streets were lined with cafés, family-owned bistros and brasseries, and shops. I learned that many of these neighborhoods were once self-contained, independent villages before they were annexed to Paris in 1860. Older residents continue to speak of “going to the city” as if they were still villagers.
We were more attracted to the Left Bank than the Right Bank when we thought of buying an apartment. On a map, everything north of the Seine, including the islands, is the Right Bank; everything south is the Left Bank. There has been a long-running discussion on which is a better place to live. It will never be settled. The Right Bank has the grand magasins (the large department stores), major financial institutions, the Champs-Élysées, more five-star hotels, both opera houses, and the 16th arrondissement, known as the “gratinee” or upper crust of Paris.
The Left Bank has the Musee d’Orsay, the Sorbonne, the Latin Quarter, the cafés of Saint-Germain, the zoo, the botanical garden and the literary Montparnasse. There is more green space on the Left Bank, and well, it just seems more comfortable to us. The New York Times once ran a comparison of its Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, another argument about neighborhoods that will never be resolved. Both are high-end enclaves, but the moving companies they interviewed said that apartments on the West Side always had more books to move. Case closed!
The late Russian-born actor Sasha Guitry once said, “One does not become a Parisian by being born there. One becomes a Parisian by being reborn there.” Do I really want to become a Parisian? Nah. Not when I can have the best of both worlds and be an American in Paris!
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.