Paris — June 28, 1940
The phone message waiting for Walter at his hotel read: “If you’re free, please come for dinner at 8:00. Sylvia has performed a miracle and we have fresh chickens.” Walter called Adrienne as soon as he got the message. “I’d be delighted, Adrienne,” he said. “Food is still scarce in Paris, how on earth did Sylvia manage chickens?”
“She scared us half to death, that’s how! She left at 9:00 this morning on her bicycle and was gone all day. I spent an increasingly nervous afternoon waiting for her return. At four o’clock, Sylvia’s concierge, Mme Allier, stopped in, all in a panic that something was wrong. I called the American Embassy to see if they had any news and asked Mme. Allier to go immediately to the local police station to inquire about Sylvia. An hour later I was in a complete state. Marthe Lamy stopped by, I told her my fears about Sylvia’s safety and she called the Hôpital Marmottan where they take people injured in traffic accidents and also the American Hospital. No news. Finally, Sylvia returned. I didn’t know whether to hug her first or yell at her. But she’s safe and we have chickens, so please join us for dinner.”
“I’d be delighted,” said Walter. “I’ll bring the wine.” He spent the morning shopping. Except for German military vehicles, which he prudently pulled over for, his was one of only a few civilian cars on the streets. There were no taxis, only pedicabs. Buses were being changed from running on gasoline to wood and charcoal gazogène power supplied from containers on the roof that made the buses look like prehistoric beasts. The number of bicycles, however, made some of the side streets as tricky to navigate as streets in Amsterdam.
Walter had gained unlimited access to the income from his trust fund at 21 and used it to enjoy a better quality of life than in his first stay in Paris. He rationalized that wealth need not be harmful if one didn’t make it a goal in itself and just used it as a tool — especially to share with one’s friends. So his pocketbook allowed him to pay for better wine at the significantly marked-up price wine sellers had to charge to make up for the equally deep discounts they were required to offer Germans — when the Germans simply didn’t just appropriate it. They had happily looted the splendid wine cellars in the private residences they commandeered and the hotels they occupied like the Crillon, Ritz, and Georges V. He wrestled for a few moments with the concern that showing off his American wealth might be offensive, then decided that the gifts of Adrienne and Sylvia’s friendship far surpassed anything he could buy. And good wine is good wine.
He found what he wanted at a wine shop on Rue de Sèvres just up from Raspail: five bottles of 1928 Domaine Montbourgeau L’Etoile en Banode — enough for dinner and some left over. The full-bodied, rustic field blend of Chardonnay and Savagnin would be perfect with Adrienne’s chicken. And to top it off, they had some equally-overpriced aged Gruyère for sale.
He arrived a few minutes after 8:00. Adrienne’s other guests, Paul Valéry and Jean Guéhenno, had already arrived. He knew the poet Valéry from 1935, when Sylvia’s business was near collapse because of the financial ravages of the depression. André Gide, Jean Schlumberger and Paul had created Friends of Shakespeare and Company, a society whose members contributed yearly dues to support the shop. The response from the French literary community and Sylvia’s American “bunnies” was overwhelming. Many, including Walter, gave far beyond the $45 yearly membership fee. Walter hadn’t seen Paul since his return to Paris. Paul looked gaunter; the circles around his eyes were deeper, and his white hair and mustache were now a bit unkempt.
He had never met Guéhenno, a gently austere-looking man whose large, round eyeglasses made him look like a deeply pensive owl. But Walter knew him by reputation: a respected critic and author who taught post-graduate secondary classes, khâgne, in one of the elite lycées reserved for students preparing for the humanities section of the nationwide competitive examinations. Successful applicants were admitted to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. Walter had read and admired Guéhenno’s essays on Montaigne, Voltaire and Rousseau.
Walter produced the wine with a bit of a fanfare, and then, like a magician pulling a final rabbit out of his hat, the Gruyère, Everyone applauded. After they’d opened and started the first bottle of wine, Sylvia launched into the story of her escapade.
“If I’m to do the shopping now, Adrienne will need to get used to my disappearing for hours. I went to Carlotta Briggs’ apartment on the boulevard Suchet to check on it as she asked me to do when she left for the United States, then started the search for food. With the roads open now, food is starting to become available in Paris again, but it’s all so much a hit or miss affair. I found morels at the Bon Marché and some raspberries — a bit mushy but still edible — nothing else. One makes the rounds of patisseries, greengrocers, and butchers — long lines and often little to choose from. On an impulse, I went back to Nortier’s on my way home, and miraculously, he had just opened. It seems he was waiting to get a delivery. I was the only one there. He happily sold me the chickens — and the butter. When I triumphantly pulled the butter from my shopping bag, much as Walter just did with the cheese,” she was laughing now, “Adrienne imperiously declared ‘This is for the kitchen only, not the table! If you want something with bread in the morning —when there is bread — it must be jam — when there is jam.’ Neither Gisèle nor I had a thought of challenging her edict.”
After the laughter died down, Sylvia continued. “Someone told me the strangest story. It appears that the Germans — at least the ones they’ve sent here — are fascinated by French butter. They seem to have heard it praised but never tasted it before. Clearly, Hitler didn’t give them the choice between guns or butter. So yesterday a German walked into a store, cutting to the head of the line, pointed to the butter for sale and demanded a kilo. The civilians in line, of course, muttered their disapproval, but very quietly. He didn’t even notice. The clerk weighed and wrapped up the butter. Unwrapping the package, the German walked out of the shop and bit off a big piece. It evidently was not what he expected, so he spit it out and threw the rest of the butter violently over the wall into the bushes next door. The story got around. People came to look at the butter. No one touched it.”
“Well, Adrienne here, knows the proper use for butter, “ said Valéry. They turned their attention to Adrienne in the kitchen. She was in the final stages of what was sure to be another masterpiece. The chicken was arranged on a heated serving platter, surrounded by morels browned with the chicken in a little butter and pre-cooked pig’s fat. As they sat at the table following Sylvia’s seating arrangement — Walter was happily next to Guéhenno — Adrienne finished the sauce of cooking fat, some of Walter’s L’Etoile en Banode, and pre-prepared chicken stock that had been boiling on the stove. She strained the sauce, poured it over the chicken and morels, and brought it to the table. With the outbreak of war months ago, Adrienne had begun wisely stocking up on canned foods and root vegetables. New potatoes, topped with dill, cooked in some of Sylvia’s precious butter, completed the meal.
After the initial congratulations to Adrienne on her artistry, for awhile the only sound at the table was that of people enjoying splendid food.
Sensing the moment was right for a joke, Walter asked, “Have you heard this one? Hitler is standing with Himmler on the raised dais at one of the Nuremberg rallies. Hundreds of thousands of madly-cheering Germans fill the huge stadium in front of him. He turns to Himmler and asks, ‘They love me now, Himmler, but what can I do to ensure the German people will love me forever?’ Himmler peered over the edge of the dais and measured the drop to the concrete below the dais with his eyes, then turned back to Hitler, shrugged, and said, “I don’t know, Herr Reichsführer. Maybe jump?”
As the laughter ended, Gisèle offered her story: “A Parisian reports to his friend that at 9:20 the previous night, a Jew killed a German in the Mêtro. He even ate part of his entrails, including his heart. His friend says with a laugh, ‘You’ll believe anything you hear, Pierre.’
‘But’s it’s true!’
‘No my friend, it’s impossible.’
‘First, Jews don’t eat pigs; second, Germans have no heart; and third, at 9:20 everyone is listening to the BBC.’” The room exploded again in laughter.
Perhaps we laugh at these people because it helps us stay sane,” Valéry said, then launched into his own joke. “You all know that Mussolini was a bit put out by all the adulation being given to Hitler after he managed only to defeat a handful of poorly-armed Ethiopians by using poison gas. He had to content himself with table scraps from Hitler’s conquest of France. So he declared war on Greece. The Greeks crushed the Italian invaders. So in a train station in Savoy, some young people are chatting near two immaculately-dressed Italian officers.
‘You know that uniform?’ One says, loudly.
‘It’s the Romanians.’
‘Nah, they’re Hungarians.’
‘Not at all, I’m tellin’ you, they’re Serbs.’
One of the officer says pompously: ‘Gentlemen, you have obliged us to hear your conversation. You are wondering to what army we belong. You really should recognize the uniform of the victorious army.’
And one of the young people says, ‘I told you they were Greeks, didn’t I?’”
Guéhenno waited until the laughter again subsided like the ripples of a retreating tide, then a bit shyly, said, “I rarely tell jokes, but you might find this amusing.
“Hitler, searching for a way to invade England, calls in the chief rabbi of Berlin and asks him how Moses parted the Red Sea. If he can get that information, the Führer promises to end his harassment of the Jews. The rabbi answers: ‘Give me a week, Chancellor.’ Returning a week later, the rabbi announces that he has good news and bad news. ‘Well,’ insists an impatient Hitler, ‘do you have the answer or not?’ The rabbi replies, ‘Yes sir — it was the staff Moses always had with him that had the power to part the waters.’ Demanded Hitler, ‘Where is it?’ The anxious rabbi answered, ‘Well, that’s the bad news. It’s in the British Museum.’”
Then Guéhenno’s face transformed into one of the most completely, unreservedly joyful laughs Walter had ever seen. He looked like an elf.
The laughter gradually died away and was replaced by an almost embarrassed silence. Walter, uncomfortably aware of his status as a “protected” American who could leave Paris whenever he wished, kept from looking at his dinner companions.
Adrienne finally broke the silence. “I think we laugh to release the unspeakable, confusion, fear, disgust and horror we feel at this monstrous thing that has happened to us.”
“At least the horror is easy to understand,” added Guéhenno. “As for me, the less I say or even have to think about the gray men I pass on the street the better. An invasion of rats. I was outside Paris when the Nazis arrived. They had moved the school to Clermont-Ferrand in Auverge to keep the students safe. I saw the refugees who fled Paris. People locked their houses when the refugees — pitiful civilians and more pitiful, demoralized, defeated soldiers, many who hadn’t eaten or had any water to drink for days — started to infest the town like a horde of locusts. Finally, shelter was arranged for them at the École Technique. Three days later, the Germans arrived, and the refugees, and for that matter, the whole population of Clermont-Ferrand, rushed out of their locked homes to see them. God what lunacy. Yesterday’s barbarian is merely today’s celebrity; people want to see the circus.” The happy elf had disappeared.
“The disgust is easy to understand, too, ” said Adrienne. “What we are witnessing is the triumph of the right wing bourgeoisie, their revenge on the common people of France, and the dismantling of French democracy. No parliament, no debates and compromise. Certainly, no universal education to help the masses raise their hopes and quality of life. Pétain— actually the people behind the scenes that pull the strings of the Pétain puppet — have, as they are now constantly bleating on the radio, restored order to France. In ugly accents they praise their Order Nouveau in which we will all once again become happy peasants, tilling the soil, or working in shops and factories. All docilely subservient to our masters and the Church and under the loving leadership of our leader, Chef de l’État Français.” The revulsion in her voice was unmistakable.
“And, of course, the fault, as they sanctimoniously remind us, is our own softness and lack of moral fiber,” said Guéhenno, “not the Germans’ brilliance or the incompetence of all our generals — except for de Gaulle. But we need to remember that Maréchal Pétain and his Vichy puppet masters are masters of nothing. They get to sermonize and pontificate solely because it suits the Nazis.
“Perhaps it is Hitler’s genius to have understood that by playing on people’s cowardice between 1930-1940 he could do anything: he doesn’t make war; he organizes panics.” Guéhenno had everyone’s attention now. “I read his speeches to try to understand what possibly could have happened to a people who once produced a great thinker like Goethe. As far as I can tell, Hitler’s language is horribly impure, vile, but there is a movement in it that gives it eloquence and guarantees that it will take with the people. The thought is confused but brutal, astonishingly well-adapted to the public.
“Yesterday I heard a broadcast on the anniversary of his accession to power. Never has he been more frenzied. Never a better demagogue. And what thunder. Then he affected tranquility. Jealous, perhaps, of Churchill’s humor, he has never been wittier. I heard the loud laughter of the crowd and I could imagine all the paunches shaking like jelly. He is a marvelous actor. For a long time, he did imitations of his former adversaries. The crowd went delirious with joy. To conclude, he flexed his muscles, recalling all the former contests from which he emerged victoriously. And then he proclaims the grace of God is with him. And with that, then music.
“I think the great men of these new times — Hitler, Stalin — are great mass men. A great man in civilized times was great precisely because of what set him apart from the mass: intelligence, will power, and culture. These new great men are great because of what makes them similar to the mass — a kind of crude common sense, brutality, and a lack of culture. They are admirably cunning and remarkably good at politics, but to maintain their prestige and power they must also maintain their lack of culture and brutality.”
The rest of the dinner was more subdued. The Germans had extended the curfew to midnight, but everyone left early. They didn’t want to be caught on the street after curfew.