The two sides of liberated Paris

August 28, 1994|By Michael Kenney | Michael Kenney,Boston Globe

The winter of 1946-47 was a bitter one in Europe. Three years after liberation, Paris was still the "two cities" decried by the influential communist press -- "the Paris of nauseating luxury . . . and the other Paris."

Paris had rapidly regained its prewar status as the capital of culture and style. In February, while "the other Paris" was shivering in its unheated apartments -- coal barges had been icebound on frozen rivers -- Christian Dior introduced his "New Look," fashions extravagant in their use of fabrics.

In March, a photographic session was organized to show off Dior's fashions in settings such as the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysees. And "someone," write Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper in their light-and-dark, glitter-and-grim account of "Paris After the Liberation," "thought of a street market in Montmartre" as a photography setting.

When the models, "proud and graceful," emerged into the rue Lepic from the neighborhood bar that served as changing room, "the effect was electric." As Mr. Beevor and Mr. Cooper recount the scene, "the street sank into an uneasy silence; and then, with a shriek of outrage, a woman stallholder hurled herself on the nearest model, shouting insults." Other market women joined in, beating the model and trying to tear the clothes off her.

This graphic scene -- there is an arresting Paris Match photograph of it -- provides a necessary corrective for the main thrust of the authors' account: that "almost immediately after the humiliation of the Occupation, and surrounded by the dilapidation and poverty of 1945, Paris rapidly managed to resurrect its sense of cultural superiority."

Setting aside the occasional twinges of two-cities social unease, this is a wondrous account that thoroughly matches the brilliance of its subject. If it is a story that seems familiar, at least in general terms, it is made fresh by the marvelous anecdotes of the great and near-great (the papers of Mr. Cooper's grandfather, British ambassador Duff Cooper, supplying many of them).

Mr. Beevor and Mr. Cooper find the foundations for the city's resurrection in "the superficial glamor of the Occupation." So many of the people who sparked the near-instant revival had remained in Paris during the Occupation -- some, like Raymond Bruckberger and Albert Camus, working in the Resistance, but many more, like Jean Cocteau and Serge Lifar, not. Colette was also there, "supplementing her income

. . . by writing for a collaborationist newspaper." But, Mr. Beevor and Mr. Cooper note by way of expiation, she was hiding her Jewish husband, Maurice Goudeket, after his escape from a prison camp.

The Luftwaffe had taken over the Rothschild townhouse in the Avenue de Marigny and there were "magnificent receptions" attended by many French film and stage stars. When Baron Elie de Rothschild returned after liberation -- from a Nazi prison camp -- he remarked to the old family butler that the house must have been quiet during the Occupation.

"On the contrary, Monsieur Elie," he replied. "There were receptions every evening."

But, de Rothschild asked, "Who came?"

"The same people, Monsieur Elie. The same as before the war."

Throughout liberated Paris, the magnificent receptions continued with barely a break, courtesy of a black market and the "smart Parisians with places in the country who were able to supplement the tiny meat ration by bringing game back to the city."

But liberated Paris was much more than parties and fashions. "After the Occupation," write Mr. Beevor and Mr. Cooper, "the urge to express ideas was quite overwhelming for a cerebral society." There was "an instant outpouring of prose" from writers who had refused to write for the collaborationist press, and "an astonishing quantity" of new newspapers and literary magazines appeared.

They quote Simone de Beauvoir, who, with Sartre, had remained in Paris during the Occupation: "To be 20 or 25 in September 1944 seemed a great stroke of luck: all roads opened up. Journalists, writers, budding film makers, discussed, planned, made decisions with passion, as if their future depended only on themselves." Of herself she added ruefully, "I was old. I was 36."

Of course, there is the commanding presence of Charles de Gaulle. He is a continuous point of reference throughout the period, from the moment of his "triumph" when he alone stands "majestic, fearless and untouchable" at the high altar of Notre Dame while nearly everyone else attending the Liberation ceremony falls on their faces as troops outside fire at suspected snipers.

The reader must balance admiration, even gratitude, for a city that so swiftly put the war -- and all its insult to the human spirit -- behind it, with dismay at the conspicuous consumption that accompanied the war's aftermath (and perhaps gave it a necessary sparkle). But how else could it be for Paris? As Mr. Beevor and Mr. Cooper put it in one chapter title, "Paris Sera Toujours Paris."

Title:"Paris After the Liberation: 1944-1949"

Author: Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 479 pages, $27.50

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