Paris – June 14, 1940
Today was a Friday — reserved for the pleasant ritual of breakfast with Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier. In spite of the tension that gripped the city, Walter was determined to continue at least that small gesture of civilized life. Sharply at 9:00, he walked out of his hotel on Impasse Royer-Collard, down Rue de Médicis, and headed towards Adrienne’s apartment at No. 18 Rue de l’Odeon.
Beach was the owner of Shakespeare and Company booksellers, the reigning doyen of the English literary world in Paris, and a patron saint to a generation of writers like Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, MacLeish and Ezra Pound. Monnier, Beach’s long-time former lover, owned the French bookstore La Maison des Amis des Livres across the Rue de l’Odeon from Shakespeare and Company.
They had become friends when Walter first came to Paris as a student, in love with the romance of the writers of the Lost Generation. He knew he needed to muster the courage to introduce himself to Sylvia, Adrienne, and the literary world of Odénia. For the first few months in Paris he successfully found excuses put off doing it. I’d walk past Shakespeare & Company and La Maison des Amis des Livres, he laughed to himself, and peer through the windows at the treasures inside, like a kid with his nose pressed to Macy’s windows at Christmas time staring at a marvelous world he could never enter. What did the French call that kind of hungry window shopping, he thought? Manger la vitrine – eating glass.
I was living in a tiny room in the attic of the Brasserie Lipp across from Café de Flore and Deux-Magots. There was no window, just a skylight, and the roof was so steeply angled that getting in and out of the narrow bed, especially after a night of drinking, was quite dangerous. There was no toilet, but at each floor landing there was a ‘step on two pedals’ toilet: you squatted on two raised, foot-shaped platforms in the middle of the drain, trying not to crap or piss on your partly-lowered pants, and when you were done, had to manage the trick of yanking a piece of newspaper from a nail in the wall and pull the chain above you to flush. Another risky prospect at any time, but especially when drunk.
Sylvia and Adrienne were almost daily visitors to Deux-Magots. Watching them from several tables away, I felt like I was spying on them. Mercifully, Bill Shirer at the Paris Tribune finally dragged me over to meet them. Strange how we create barriers in our own minds that exist nowhere else. My fear turned out to be all just in my own head.
Hemingway said of Sylvia “no one I ever knew was nicer to me.” I could happily have said the same thing. That wonderful refuge of books and conversation, warmed by a glowing stove in winter, became my refuge, as it had been for so many others. I became one of Sylvia’s many “bunnies,” near penniless students who borrowed books from Sylvia rather than buying them, whom she playfully named after the French word for ‘subscriber,’ abonné
Walter knocked at Adrienne’s door and was immediately admitted, not by the concierge but by Adrienne, her plump face now tightly lined with tension. “You came,” was all she said. They climbed the long curving marble staircase in silence; when they entered her 4th-floor apartment, Adrienne’s current lover, the young German-Jewish photographer Gisèle Freund, locked the door after them. When Gisèle replaced Sylvia as Adrienne’s lover, the three of them, Sylvia, Adrienne and Gisèle. had become close friends.
Walter had never gotten quite used to Adrienne’s choice of décor. Everything was pink – the toile wallpaper, the heavy drapes, the upholstery, the table linens. Every time he visited Adrienne, he felt as if he had been plunged into the midst of a rose garden. Food had been scarce in Paris for nearly a week, but somehow Adrienne had been able to manage spinach and saffron omelets, some ripe strawberries, and fresh brioche. They had far too much on their minds and in their hearts for conversation. The only sound in the room was the clatter of cutlery. Like the rest of Paris, the four of them were holding their breath.
Adrienne’s spacious kitchen had large windows overlooking the Rue de Odeon. They provided a clear view of the broad expanse of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, flanked by the surrounding buildings, opening up at the end of the street a few blocks away. It was, Walter thought, like an empty canvas in the distance, about to be filled by an artist whose brush was dipped in Hell.
They heard the German army enter Paris before they saw it. Walter had never listened to the piercing metallic squeal of tank treads and the low diesel growl of tank engines before. It was a sound he knew he would remember the rest of his life. More faintly, breaking through the noise of the tanks, they could catch the sound of a marching band.
The metallic clamor of tanks stopped. Walter imagined them now in defensive positions, tank commanders sweeping the surrounding buildings with binoculars for threats, gun crews at the ready. The sound of marching bands grew closer, then, seconds before the first Germans appeared, Sylvia, Adrienne, Gisèle and Walter clearly heard the clatter of hundreds of iron-clad horse hooves. Lines of Wehrmacht cavalry entered the scene in front of them on elegantly-groomed mounts, eight abreast, their riders tall, blonde, eyes forward — stern — terrifying.
The four friends lost track of time as thousands of Germans paraded through their small picture frame into the heart of Paris: an interminable stream of tanks, nasty little whippet-like armored cars, truck and horse-drawn artillery, half-tracks full of soldiers staring straight ahead like robots, and endless files of grey-clad, jack-booted infantry. The infantrymen sang lustily and triumphantly as they marched, their massed voices echoing off the stone walls around them.
Walter recognized many of the songs and understood the lyrics: The Horst Wessel Lied, Wenn Wir Fahren Gegen Engeland, and of course, the Wehrmacht’s favorite, Erika.
“In der Heimat weint um dich ein Mägdelein, und das heißt: Erika. Back at home, a maiden weeps for you, and she’s called Erika.” As he watched what felt like an endless river of young Germans march by, Walter thought: I wonder if in time you’ll wish you’d never left her.
Finally, the procession ended with a column of heavy supply trucks and petrol tankers. As silence returned Sylvia said, “What makes it worse is that they actually sing very well.”
“C’est tout très impressionnant, mais moi, je leur dis, c’est la merde,” answered Adrienne. “It’s all quite impressive, but I say it’s just shit.
Walter looked down at his half-eaten omelet, now cold and soggy. “Well their entrance into Paris has certainly started badly. They managed to ruin what should have been another of Adrienne’s marvelous breakfasts.” He waited a few minutes before asking the question he knew was on all their minds. “Sylvia, what do you imagine you will do now? Stay in Paris or leave?”
“I became frightened yesterday and tried to get out but couldn’t. There were no trains. And the stories one hears of the Germans bombing and machine-gunning the refugees on the roads…no,” she shrugged, “I will stay here with the rest of Paris and see this through.”
Seeing the worry in Walter’s face, she added, “I should be all right. Ambassador Bullitt issued red cards to identify American-owned businesses. Tyler Thompson from the Embassy personally tacked them up to my shop and apartment doors.” In a resigned gesture, Sylvia pushed her empty coffee cup away from her. “And this can’t last forever. I simply cannot imagine a world in which the Nazis are allowed to triumph. This is like a disease — we must endure the horrors until the sickness passes.”
“Well said, Sylvia, Adrienne declared. “And I, too, will remain.” She did not need to mention the risk involved in that decision. Over the past few years, Adrienne had published scathing articles in her journal denouncing the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. The articles had been widely read in France and, Walter had no doubt, in Germany as well. What Walter also knew, but didn’t say, was that Adrienne had been actively helping Jews escape France since the start of the war, hiding some, like the writer Arthur Koestler, in the rooms above her bookstore until their forged papers could be completed. Her bravery might come at a much higher price than Sylvia’s. [AIP 33]
“What about you?” Sylvia asked Walter.
“I don’t know. Really. I imagine the Germans will respect American neutrality and not want to offend us. I doubt they think the American people will have much interest in what happens over here. I suspect life at the Sorbonne will continue as usual, and I have a book to finish.”
“Ah,” Adrienne said. “Ronsard and the Pléiade.” She raised her eyebrows in what Walter sensed was gentle reproof. “One might wonder how you could write about ideal love in a time like this of such hateful violence?
“When it comes to poetry,” Gisèle said, “I much prefer Brecht these days, although one is not permitted read him now in Herr Hitler’s Germany.” She thought for a moment. “Yes. I think it goes like this.”
Gegen abends, versammler ich um mich Männer
Wir reden uns da mit ‘Gentleman’ an.
Sie haben ihre Füßen auf meinen Tischen
Und sagen, ‘Es wirt besser mit uns.’
Und ich frage nicht, ‘Wann?’
Walter translated for Sylvia.
“In the evening, I get together with my friends. We greet each other as ‘Gentlemen.’ They put their feet up on my table and say ‘Things will get better for us.’ And I never ask “When?’”