In Les Parisiennes, New York Times bestselling author Anne Sebba explores a devastating period in Paris's history and tells the stories of how women survived—or didn’t—during the Nazi occupation.
Paris in the 1940s was a place of fear, power, aggression, courage, deprivation, and secrets. During the occupation, the swastika flew from the Eiffel Tower and danger lurked on every corner. While Parisian men were either fighting at the front or captured and forced to work in German factories, the women of Paris were left behind where they would come face to face with the German conquerors on a daily basis, as waitresses, shop assistants, or wives and mothers, increasingly desperate to find food to feed their families as hunger became part of everyday life.
When the Nazis and the puppet Vichy regime began rounding up Jews to ship east to concentration camps, the full horror of the war was brought home and the choice between collaboration and resistance became unavoidable. Sebba focuses on the role of women, many of whom faced life and death decisions every day. After the war ended, there would be a fierce settling of accounts between those who made peace with or, worse, helped the occupiers and those who fought the Nazis in any way they could.
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How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation
By Anne Sebba
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Anne Sebba
All rights reserved.
Paris On The Edge
When the future looks uncertain some women get married, others get divorced, yet more buy jewels and hundreds go into hiding. Just a few, a very few, give such opulent balls that the world seems for a moment to have tilted on its axis.
On 1 July 1939 Elsie de Wolfe, an American-born interior decorator and failed actress, gave one of the grandest and most bizarre parties ever hosted by a private individual. Elsie, by then aged eighty-one and married for the previous thirteen years, much to everyone's surprise, to the retired British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, had shown her mettle during the First World War when she had remained in Paris volunteering in a hospital and winning the Croix de guerre and the Légion d'honneur for her relief work with gas-burn cases. Now she nursed a passion for parties. Owner of the newly fabulous Villa Trianon, a Louis XV chateau in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, Lady Mendl was the best-known American hostess in Europe. She had devoted the last thirty-five years of her life – both as Lady Mendl and long before when she was the close companion of the theatrical agent Elisabeth Marbury – to the villa's restoration and redecoration (it had been unlived in for many years). Giving lavish and original parties there was now her life's work. She had recently created a dance pavilion with a specially imported spring-loaded floor, and had installed glass walls so that the views to the gardens were unimpeded; she had also had the space wired for sound under the supervision of her friend Douglas Fairbanks.
Throughout the 1930s, Elsie had organized a succession of dinner dances, bals masqués, themed parties. She was credited with inventing murder-mystery parties and, occasionally, she gave small parties for about forty close friends. As she entered her ninth decade her energy seemed undimmed. She still worked at her diet as well as her daily exercises and was so well known for her handstands that Cole Porter immortalized her in his song 'Anything Goes'. As Wallis Simpson, her friend and admirer, said of her: 'She mixes people like a cocktail – and the result is sheer genius.'
For the previous year Elsie had been planning the most spectacular ball yet. Ever since the previous summer when she had thrown an extravagant circus ball featuring acrobats, she had determined that next time she would outdo herself by repeating the theme but with elephants as well as clowns, tightrope-walkers and jugglers. She may have been inspired by a visit to India, or perhaps she even remembered an occasion thirty years before when she had seen elephants walking sedately through Boston. Whatever the inspiration, she knew that the elephants would create an incomparable social buzz. However precarious the world situation, she was not going to abandon her plans for an unforgettable night of entertainment.
It was a balmy evening on 1 July 1939 when shortly after 9 p.m. the chauffeur-driven Mercedes and Rolls-Royces and numerous taxis began disgorging the 700 or so guests at the Boulevard Saint-Antoine entrance to the Petit Trianon. Although the men in their elegant white tie and tails may have felt the heat, most of the women, in outfits designed by Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin and Lucien Lelong, needed cloaks or jackets before the party was over at dawn.
Elsie herself draped a long, shocking-pink cape over her shoulders. Beneath the cape she wore a magnificent ivory silk gown emblazoned with silver sequins and jewelled butterflies designed by her favourite couturier, Mainbocher, who was now basking in international fame as the designer of the pale blue wedding gown worn by Wallis Simpson for her marriage to the recently abdicated Duke of Windsor. It was Elsie who had effected the introduction to the couturier. Although she was small in stature Elsie cut a striking figure as a circus ringleader with a diamond and aquamarine Cartier tiara in her hair. Brandishing a whip 'as if to defy the fates', she walked bravely between the legs of the elephants before leading eight white ponies and dogs through their paces in a circus ring laid out on the lawn. In addition, she had hired a blind strolling accordion player, a Hawaiian guitarist who floated on a boat in the swimming pool and three orchestras in rotation playing in the dance pavilion. In one part of the gardens she had placed a champagne bar in a small circular tent with a striped roof set up around a fat tree trunk; not far away was a hot buffet which stayed open until 5 a.m., serving (unusually for Elsie who did not place much store by offering food to her guests) lamb chops, scrambled eggs, cakes and even more champagne.
In social terms, the surreal occasion was considered a triumph. Everyone talked about the magnificence of the gardens with their unusual topiary as much as they praised the originality of the entertainments – although some complained about the inevitable smell given off by the animals and about their need regularly to relieve themselves, a detail left out by Vogue and others in their coverage of the spectacular event. The magazines were no more interested in the guests – aristocrats, diplomats, dukes, duchesses, princesses, writers, designers and artists, many of whom will reappear in the following pages – describing the clothes they wore and the jewels adorning their gowns. One of the most beautiful was a stunning Brazilian woman, Aimée de Sotomayor, widely considered one of the most glamorous women of the twentieth century, whose smiling photograph from that night appeared in Vogue a month later. With gardenias strewn in her blonde hair, she was wearing one of the first dresses designed by the then little-known Christian Dior, albeit not yet under his own name label. Christian Dior himself was, according to Aimée, 'a little sad' not to have been invited. However, Aimée's style made a big impression on one of the other guests, the textile magnate Marcel Boussac. After the war, Boussac was to finance Christian Dior in creating his own label and design house.
Few among le tout Paris were concerned that night with what was going on in the rest of Europe because they believed that France would not be seriously affected, or at any rate not for long. Surely the seemingly impregnable Maginot Line, a series of concrete fortifications along the border with Germany, would protect the country? Throughout the spring and early summer the social season had continued as normal; in fact there was a sense of recklessness in the determination to celebrate which none in this high-society group considered excessive or out of place.
In April, Hélène Arpels, a former model born in Monte Carlo to Russian parents now married to Louis Arpels, youngest of the brothers in the jewellery firm Van Cleef & Arpels, was photographed with friends at Longchamp races, all wearing stunning designer outfits. A month later Hélène was snapped at the supremely smart Hippodrome de Chantilly in a dress by Maggy Rouff, a designer intensely proud of her royal clientele, and a white hat by Reboux, the house that had created Wallis Simpson's wedding-day halo hat two years before.
Since the death in 1938 of Alfred Van Cleef, the family jewellery business had been run by his daughter Renée Puissant, a young widow. Renée had been briefly married to Emile Puissant, a racing driver, whom she met through her mother, Esther, his nurse during the First World War. When Emile was killed in a car crash in 1926, the administration of the firm passed to Renée.
Just as Parisian couture was flourishing, so was high art. That July, serious music-lovers travelled to Bayreuth, the town dedicated to the performance of Wagner operas, to admire the first French woman ever to sing Isolde there. Performing this role was considered a huge triumph for the Parisian-born Germaine Lubin, who seemed to have reached the pinnacle of her career. Wagnerian heroines were invariably German, and the French were proud of her achievement. Germaine Lubin had been educated at the Collège Sévigné, a well-known private girls' school in Paris founded in 1880, intending to train as a doctor like her father. But she was persuaded to study singing instead at the Paris Conservatoire where Gabriel Fauré, deeply impressed, encouraged her. Her fine voice as well as her statuesque beauty ensured an early success singing roles from operas by Strauss as well as by lesser-known French composers. But, since 1930, she had found a niche tackling most of the great Wagnerian roles including Sieglinde in Die Walküre, Elsa in Lohengrin, Brünnhilde in the Ring Cycle and Kundry in Parsifal, and it was for these that she was renowned.
Although married in 1913 to the French poet Paul Géraldy, with whom three years later she had a son, the marriage was not a success and came to an end in 1926. Lubin was always surrounded by a posse of male admirers, including Marshal Philippe Pétain, whom she first met in 1918 when he was at the height of his fame as the hero of Verdun. A soldier famous for his womanizing, he was immediately smitten and even proposed marriage to Lubin though she was not free. Instead, the pair conducted a warm correspondence and remained friends until Pétain's death in 1951. But Lubin was always less popular with female colleagues such as the Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence, another Wagnerian, who found the Parisienne arrogant and overrated.
'War between me and Lubin was on,' Lawrence wrote in her memoirs, describing a moment of upstaging when the pair took their bows at the end of a performance of Lohengrin in 1933, in which Lawrence sang the role of Ortrud. 'Lubin refused to shake my hand when I extended it to her and, being more practised than I in the tricks of the opera trade, she was able to edge herself in front of me and behave as if all the cheering was for her.'
At Bayreuth, Lubin established friendships with several members of the Wagner family and was even complimented by Hitler himself (a photograph of the pair together would eventually seal her fate) when he told her she was the finest Isolde that he had heard. Lubin hoped to follow up her triumph by taking the role to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, having been recommended to the Met's management by the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. However, she could not travel during the war and was never to sing in the United States.
Also at Bayreuth that month were two English sisters, Unity and Diana Mitford, there at the personal invitation of Hitler. As soon as they arrived the girls were presented with two bouquets, one from Herr Wagner, the composer's grandson, and one from the Mayor of Munich. On 2 August, the final day of the festival, Hitler invited them for lunch and Diana remembered him remarking that, as England seemed determined on war, it was now inevitable.
But an inability to face reality was not exclusively the preserve of the fashionable and wealthy. The writer Colette may have been at the height of her fame in the late 1930s but she was famously indifferent to politics throughout her life. By 1935, aged sixty-two, despite being married to a Jewish journalist, Maurice Goudeket, she still did not wield her pen to warn of the dangers of Hitler's policies in Germany or of the failure of the Popular Front government and the rise of the far right in France. She was constantly writing – mostly novellas at this stage of her career – and also, in the first weeks of the war, giving broadcasts to Americans about the atmosphere in Paris which involved her travelling across the city in the early hours of the morning, often in a state of déshabillée. The two major pieces of journalism that stirred her in 1939 were both about unhinged murderers: one a toothless woman brothel-keeper in Morocco who tortured and killed her child prostitutes, believing that females had no value; the other, a man with many aliases who gruesomely murdered no fewer than five people, seemingly at random, for small amounts of money. The latter, Eugen Weidmann, was to become notorious as the last person guillotined in public in France, although the guillotine, that peculiarly French invention, would still be used during the war. Colette, appointed special reporter for Paris-Soir during the trial, devoted much time and thought to the brilliant investigative essay she wrote on Weidmann's spiritual capacity for truth. Why did she not find it equally interesting to study the rabble-rousing tyrant from Munich about to unleash mass murder? Was it because, in Colette's worldview, war and politics were the follies of men? The female self, struggling with the pain and ties of love, remained her natural subject until war affected her personally. Only then did she become engaged. Perhaps more remarkable, as the New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner wrote at the time, was that in 1939, even as France stood on the brink of war with Germany, 'Weidmann's being a German was not considered an additional crime.'
Today, observing these events with the advantage of hindsight, one can only marvel at the blind sense of unreality shown by most of those that summer who were managing to live a carefree life dominated by concern about being seen in the latest fashionable hat. On the Champs-Elysées, where the expensive hotels were filled with American and English tourists and the pavement cafés were thriving, it was impossible not to notice the extraordinary confections that passed as hats merely because they sat on women's heads, creations both tiny and huge, decorated with feathers, flowers and jewels and worn with more than a touch of insouciance. 'The Parisian women,' according to Elsa Schiaparelli, 'as if feeling it was their last chance, were particularly chic.' Flanner had a slightly different perspective on the phenomenon. 'It has taken the threat of war to make the French loosen up and have a really swell and civilised good time,' she wrote.
There were exceptions, however. As the New York Times reported on its political pages, the circus ball had provided the setting for the second meeting that day between the French Foreign Minister, Georges Bonnet, and the German Ambassador in Paris, Count Johannes von Welczeck. The French minister had given warning that his country would not stand idly by, as it had over Czechoslovakia only a few months earlier, if Germany invaded Poland. Just two weeks after the ball, on 14 July, Paris celebrated the 150th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution. How many of those who took part in the long-planned pageants, military parades and days of dancing in the streets saw the irony of festivities marking the birth of democracy and the end of tyranny in 1789? Clearly, the deeper significance of the date was not overlooked by everyone. The extent to which the legacy of the Revolution was accepted by the whole of France was about to be severely tested.
Thousands of Spanish republican refugees, who had fled over the border into France after the Battle of Catalonia, were only too aware that fascist tyranny, in the shape of General Franco, had not been beaten in their own country. Some 17,000 were now living in appalling conditions in a hastily constructed camp at Gurs in south-west France, one of the first of about fifty camps on French soil where non-native refugees were 'concentrated'. The internees had created an orchestra and constructed a sports field; on 14 July 1939 they arranged themselves in military formation in the field and gave a boisterous rendition of 'La Marseillaise'; they then took part in sports presentations and various choral and instrumental concerts. From the start, Gurs was overwhelmed by the numbers of internees sent there. In 1939, at the outbreak of war, it took in German prisoners of war and French nationals with suspect political views and later, after the German defeat, Jews. Those held at Gurs were neither tortured nor beaten, but food was scarce and often inedible and conditions barely tolerable. There was no sanitation, no running water other than constant rain, no plumbing nor proper drainage as the buildings were unfinished, no one imagining that the situation would continue for long. There was a separate women's camp at Gurs and initially the commander permitted some imprisoned women to rent a horse and cart and leave the camp to buy provisions.
Crane Brinton, a brilliant Harvard history professor whose particular expertise lay in the study of revolutions, wrote with great prescience in an essay published on 15 July 1939 that he saw much metaphorical rain ahead. As he contemplated the 150th anniversary of the storming and taking of the Bastille by the people of Paris, he predicted 'changes which, in pure logic, are quite antithetical to what the men of 1789 were striving for ... Democracy is in for harder sledding than it had throughout most of the nineteenth century.'
On 1 September, two months after Elsie Mendl's surreal circus ball, Germany invaded Poland and democracy was indeed tested. General mobilization of all young men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five was announced in France immediately, and on 3 September France and Britain declared themselves at war.
Excerpted from Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba. Copyright © 2016 Anne Sebba. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Les Parisiennes xiii
Part 1 War
1 1939: Paris on the Edge 3
2 1940: Paris Abandoned 35
3 1941: Paris Divided 71
4 1942: Paris Ravaged 111
5 1943: Paris Trembles 153
6 1944 (January-June): Paris Awaits 193
Part 2 Liberation
7 1944 (June-December): Paris Shorn 223
8 1945: Paris Returns 243
9 1946: Paris Adjusts 283
Part 3 Reconstruction
10 1947: Paris Looks Newish 317
11 1948-1949: Paris Americanized 339
Epilogue: Peacetime Paris 363
List of Illustrations 432