Once the war ended, the urge to travel as a civilian, not a soldier, became strong. In Britain, there was a longing to escape the austerity of war, socialism and bomb damage. Only a very few, however, were in a position to afford and arrange such a luxury. In the late summer of 1945 Winston Churchill, recovering from his defeat in the general election, went to stay at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. He registered under the nom de guerre of Colonel Warden and followed ‘une véritable cure de Pommery Rosé 1934’, to use the words of Monsieur Roger, the chef sommelier, who had to beg for more supplies.
Britain remained in the grip of rationing for much longer than France, and appeared no closer to pulling itself out of destitution. The chief obstacle to travel, for those who were prepared to respect the law, was the £25 travel allowance imposed by the Labour government. More and more Britons began to flout it in their desperation to escape the greyness and austerity of Attlee’s Britain, which, in comparison with France, seemed to have progressed little beyond Nissen huts, short-back-and-sides and suet pudding. The appeal of Paris fashions, boulevard cafés and sumptuous food became overwhelming.
From May 1948, American citizens had been allowed to bring home 400 dollars’ worth of goods, but the real boom in tourism began in the summer of 1949. By then, travel arrangements were easier and Europe slightly better prepared. ‘We are informed that 3 million tourists are upon us,’ wrote Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh in April 1949. ‘The Ritz say they have no roomuntil 10th October.’
‘Americans in Europe,’ Letitia Baldrige wrote home from her job in the United States Embassy, ‘do create harm and ill-will often. I hate to think of the careless, complaining, spoiled people who flounce through these struggling countries making the Europeans feel even more embittered and inferiority-complexed.’ The main objection among Europeans of the old school, however, seemed to be sartorial. ‘You should have seen them in the Ritz here as I did this morning,’ Nancy Mitford wrote to Waugh at the end of August, ‘all dressed up in beach clothes.’
To greet the invasion of dollar-packing tourists, shops in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré had arranged window displays on the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. Fresh oranges and bananas symbolized ‘greed’, a point which may have been lost on tourists from a land of plenty, while at Lanvin ‘envy’ was represented by a headless mannequin in formal brocade and weighed down with jewellery. Cartier even laid in ‘gold swizzle sticks at 11,000 francs and a semi-automated version at 21,000’, appliances which horrified the French.
People were drawn to Paris for a combination of reasons, whether shopping, sightseeing, the inspiration and excitement of the place or simply curiosity. For those who had dreamed of the Montparnasse era, the voice of the nightclub singer Jacqueline François singing ‘La Vie en Rose’ was enough to make them feel ‘like a young Scott Fitzgerald character sopping up the romance of Paris’.
The city also symbolized sexual liberty, from the sequinned G-strings of the Folies Bergère to the excitement of seeing the art student revellers from the Quat’zarts Ball. On the night of 5 July, they swarmed across Montparnasse ‘dressed, or rather underdressed,’ noted the American ambassador when his car was good-naturedly overrun, ‘as Indians or Japanese warriors, with smears of paint, the only visible garments being loin cloths’.
But while the younger American longed for such liberty, his stuffier compatriots expressed shock and disapproval. French indiscipline – political, sexual, hygienic and gastronomic – provided subjects for much moral condemnation. In the summer of 1948, the first trickle of tourists criticized the seemingly endless political crisis as one Cabinet after another failed from July to September. And puritanism was outraged by the waste of grande cuisine at a time when France as a whole was supposed to be ‘on welfare handouts’. Even the gastronomic extravagance of the French middle class struck many of them as immoral, and they did not keep their views to themselves. Often their censure was influenced by their own inability to cope with rich and unusual food. Laden with remedies for upset stomachs, they had a horror of squatting over a hole in the floor. Nor was their concern with hygiene helped by the water shortages in the summer drought of 1949.
The French were not the only ones taken aback by opinionated or self-absorbed tourists. In June 1949, a young American woman staying at the Ritz rang David Bruce at the United States Embassy to ask him ‘to have her mattress changed as it was too lumpy’. Later Bruce was accosted at a party by a New York model who demanded to be introduced to some interesting French people because she wanted ‘to increase her vocabulary’.
Bruce, however, was certainly not stand-offish with the swelling American community in Paris. He made an effort to go to every soirée vernissage of exhibitions by young American painters however much he disliked their work. One exhibition which the Bruces attended with more enthusiasm than usual was that of Edward G. Robinson’s wife at the André Weill gallery. She was selling her paintings for charity to help rebuild a French village. Over the next few weeks, while Robinson was filming on the Côte d’Azur, Gladys enjoyed herself in Paris. The Bruces saw her again for lunch at Maxim’s, ‘slightly over-cocktailed but very funny’, before she staggered forth for a fitting with Marcel Rochas.
One feels slightly weak when contemplating the resistance to alcohol required in those days. American influence in Paris had introduced a ‘cocktail hour’ in hotels, a sort of limbering-up session before going out to dinner and a show. But the cocktail hour was in fact two and a half hours long, fromsix to eight-thirty, a bibulous counterpart to the French period of cinq à sept reserved for adultery.
There were half a dozen favourite places, very different from the austere French establishments with their zinc counters and tiled floors. The Crillon bar, full of journalists and Marshall Planners, was reputed to offer the best TomCollins in Paris. The Ritz barman André Guillerin was famous for his champagne cocktails. The passing trade from Hollywood tended to stay at the George V or the Prince de Galles, where the barman Albert remembered the taste and capacity of even the most infrequent customer. The Meurice and the Claridge had small, quiet bars for talking, while the bar of the Plaza Athénée offered the advantage of a quick snack before the theatre.
Those visitors who could afford it wanted to go to the most famous places. Albert, the maître d’hôtel at Maxim’s, now back in his old job, bowed to the rustle of dollar bills, the currency of what the Communists called the ‘new occupying power’. The Tour d’Argent was still famous for its pressed duck and the view of Notre-Dame by night. On warm summer evenings, middle-aged romantics were tempted by the Pavillon d’Arménonville in the Bois de Boulogne, where they could dine out by the lake with Chinese lanterns in the trees, and the ubiquitous violinists playing Tzigane music. Or there was the Pré Catalan nearby, sited on the traditional duelling ground.
For most Anglo-Saxon visitors with limited French, the theatre tended to mean the Folies Bergère, the Lido or the Casino de Paris, rather than the Comédie-Française. But for those who could understand the language, the Parisian theatre in the early autumn of 1949 had a lot of entertainment to offer. Jean Gabin was reputedly brilliant in Henri Bernstein’s La Soif at Les Ambassadeurs. David Bruce described it as ‘a sexy piece, rather old-fashioned in the sense that it is a repetition of all Bernstein plays’.
On Saturday, 1 October, the Ballet de Monte Carlo, produced by the Marquis de Cuevas, opened its season. Tamara Toumanova and Rosella Hightower, one of the American principals whom Cuevas had brought over from the United States, were hailed as superb. George de Cuevas, a Chilean married to a Rockefeller heiress, had taken over the ballet in 1947 from Serge Lifar, with whom he had allegedly fought a duel. Nijinska was Cuevas’s maîtresse de ballet and he also recruited Lichine and Markova. The capricious and egotistical Cuevas renamed his company ‘Le Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas’.
The following month, Un Tramway nommé Désir by Tennessee Williams opened and became one of the hits of the year despite hostile reviews. For those who had seen the controversial original in New York with Marlon Brando in his famously ripped T-shirt, the French version offered a different originality. Jean Cocteau, who adapted it, made many changes. For a start, his evocation of New Orleans was rather curious, ‘with some pretty odd erotic Negro dances’. David Bruce went to the first night in a large party with Paule de Beaumont, who had translated the play. The scenery was brilliant; it needed to be, since it was in competition with another European winter. The curtain rose to the sound of crickets to convey a sweltering hot southern night, but the audience was freezing.
Although the critics were unimpressed by the production, Arletty was wonderful in the role of Blanche (which was played by Vivien Leigh at the same time in London). It was her first stage part since she had been banned from acting. Her film, Portrait d’un assassin, with Maria Montez and Erich von Stroheim, came out on 25 November, during the play’s run.
One night, Arletty had an unexpected visitor in her dressing room after the performance. Marlon Brando was in Paris for a long holiday after making his name as Kowalski in the original American production. He had several reasons for wanting to see her. Les Enfants du Paradis was his favourite film and he had adored Arletty in the role of Garance. In the States, he had been cast as the peasant assassin in The Eagle Has Two Heads, a part which Cocteau had written for his lover, Jean Marais. But Brando’s ‘Method’ peasant had been so conspicuously churlish, with nose-picking and crotch-scratching, that Tallulah Bankhead as the Queen with whom the assassin falls in love (the part played by Edwige Feuillère in the Paris production) had taken his crude insouciance as a personal affront. Largely at her insistence, he had not accompanied the production to Broadway.
Brando’s notions of diplomacy had not improved. To meet Arletty, he turned up wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Arletty, a true Parisian in matters of dress, was affronted and gave him an obviously frosty reception. Brando shrugged and transferred his attentions to the Boeuf sur le Toit, that new right-bank colony of the Left Bank, and spent his time with Germano-pratins whose sartorial standards were more relaxed. He found himself a modest Mobylette and Juliette Gréco gave him conducted tours of Paris from the pillion; but the singer he fell for at the Boeuf was Eartha Kitt.
The nightclubs in Paris offered a richer variety than anywhere else in the world. The Bal Tabarin was perhaps the most dramatic. Before the show it looked like any other club, with tables and chairs grouped round a dance floor; but the semi-nude show itself was a breathtaking display, with trap doors, trapezes, lights, sounds, mirrors and circus animals creating magical effects. The Carrousel, at 40 rue du Colisée, a few doors along from the Boeuf sur le Toit, had female impersonators in beautiful costumes as its main attraction. But the night ended with a can-can danced by the girls from the Folies Bergère who came over after their performance.
There were any number of male homosexual or lesbian establishments, such as Le Monocle in Montparnasse; but La Vie en Rose, despite its less romantic nickname of ‘la salle viande’, or ‘the meat parlour’, was the most endearingly eccentric. Sir Michael Duff and David Herbert, two eminent English queens, took Louise de Vilmorin, Diana Cooper and her young son, John Julius, there one evening. ‘It’s a small dancing hall,’ wrote Diana, ‘with orchestra and couples of middle-aged dentists dancing very well together, not cheek to cheek, as the languorous youth and maiden dance, but briskly and business-like. A “patron”, with a face painted an inch thick, hangs about waiting for the moment when his shirt and trousers are exchanged for a sequinned Edwardian evening gown and hat, à la Boldini. Then at a beat from the band out troops a corps de ballet of oldish gentlemen en décolletage and maquillage – delight as best they can, while between numbers the male couples go prancing round with here and there a couple of tweedy women.’
Another White Russian nightspot in succession to the Schéhérazade and the Troïka was the Dinarzade, run by Alexis de Norgoff and Colonel Tchikacheff, with their staple fare of caviar, shashlik, vodka and champagne. Les Grands Seigneurs in the rue Daunou, near Harry’s Bar, otherwise known as Ciro’s, had velvet curtains, burgundy walls, huge wine-coolers and gypsy violinists playing in your ear. Like the old Monseigneur in the rue d’Amsterdam which it resembled, it was only for starting a relationship unless you wished to be financially ruined.
Less expensive but also less predictable entertainment was offered by Suzy Solidor at her Club de l’Opéra in the rue Joubert. Solidor had a collection of over a hundred portraits of herself, including works by Christian Bérard, Cocteau, Dufy and Van Dongen. For those who liked tropical rhythm, there was La Cabane Cubaine in Montmartre, or the Martiniquaise Canne à Sucre in Montparnasse. There were informal jazz clubs like that of Honey Johnson, or Chez Inez in the rue Champol-lion, where Inez Kavanagh from Harlem employed out-of-work musicians; when orders for fried chicken or spare ribs dropped off, Inez herself would ‘belt out a number or two’. The Lapin Agile in the rue des Saules in Montmartre, where Koestler had taken Mamaine on their first night together in Paris, was said to be full of penniless painters, but now the tourists had squeezed them out.
For foreigners the most sought-after show in the early summer of 1949 was Josephine Baker’s great comeback at the Folies Bergère in an extravaganza called Féeries et Folies. In June, the actor Michael MacLiammoir described taking out a friend in Paris for the first time. The experience began with a dish of snails at the Méditerranée. Then they went to see ‘Josephine Baker, appearing in a series of roles that portray the Quest of Love down the ages, from tropical Eve (accompanied by ash-blond Adam, several doves, and misty Jungle of Eden at dawn under gigantic waterfall) through a bevy of startling incarnations that included Greek princesses, Eastern impératrices, and Queens of France. After this she dodges about a good deal as the Empress Josephine and as Mary Queen of Scots. This diversion reaches its height in dark purple cathedral where she is publicly executed (in trailing black velvet), after which the lovely headless thing, now robed in dazzling diamanté, sings Gounoud’s Ave Maria to crashing strains from the organ, and scores of stained-glass saints descend luminously from their windows to celebrate the triumph of Mike over Matter, and execute stately saraband in violet-ray. All this émouvant in the extreme: we find ourselves far too tired for night-club, put poor tired (but pleased) Paul to bed, and drink cocoa at the Dôme to calm our nerves.’
For the more robust, there was always Les Halles – ‘the belly of Paris’, in Zola’s phrase – to go on to for onion soup just before dawn. After the almost solid soup and a petit vin blanc, smartly dressed couples watched beefy-armed and red-nosed porters in blue overalls heaving sides of beef around. Then they would walk slowly through the flower market, buying bunches to take back to the hotel where the night concierge, about to go off-duty, would greet them with an indulgent smile.
At the beginning of July, the municipal council of Paris decided to end the Grande Semaine with a Grande Nuit de Paris as climax. Fountains in the city and at Versailles were turned on and illuminated. The Eiffel Tower was floodlit for the first time and circus elephants performed at its base. A special supper was organized at 3,000 francs a head, where celebrities – including Edward G. Robinson and Ingrid Bergman – watched the entertainments, which ended in a huge firework display from the Pont d’Iéna. Foreigners were, of course, an important audience, but the exercise was also a political demonstration to the people of Paris that better times were returning.