Alone at Vittel

ON 10 DECEMBER, Dr von Weber informed Drue Tartière that she could leave Vittel the next day. Dr Lévy took her aside and asked her to visit his mother in Paris. Drue thanked him for all his help, which he had offered at the risk of his life. ‘His eyes filled with tears,’ she wrote, ‘and he went out.’ Noel Murphy and Sarah Watson were released with her. Collaborationist friends in Paris had obtained Mrs Murphy’s release, while Sarah Watson’s patron had been the rector of the University of Paris, to which her American girls hostel was attached. A Hungarian priest with connections at Vichy may also have interceded for her. The three American women travelled under German guard on the overnight train from Nancy to Paris.

The departure of Sarah Watson and Drue Tartière left Sylvia Beach on her own in the hospital. Nights grew lonelier, and the German censor had still not returned her copies of the complete works of William Shakespeare. She read her bible. She wrote letters, most of which never arrived. And, as she wrote to Adrienne, she had ‘migraines toujours’.

‘Suddenly, on Christmas Eve, we were told that all Americans were to move to the hotel reserved for us,’ Sylvia wrote. The move was not much of a Christmas present.

Ours [the Hôtel Central] was carefully picked as very rundown, though it had been good in its days, apparently. It was a shabby, dirty old building, with plumbing out of order: the room I was to share with the other Sylvia, the Giraff, had dirty water over the floor which one of my fellow prisoners, the Princess Murat, was mopping up into a goldedged chamber pot with ‘Grand Hotel’ emblazoned on it. In the middle of the room, a large rathole. The kind of room in which my librarian friend said ‘you slit your wrists.’ … The bathroom, I discovered, had no water, and the tub was for some reason full of mud.

The ‘Giraff’ was released before she could share the room with Sylvia. Sylvia believed that the woman’s husband, a French colonel, had arranged it. Maurice Saillet sent Sylvia a Christmas hamper of treats from himself and Adrienne that Sylvia thought was ‘magnifique’. Adrienne’s sister, Rinette, sent her home-made gingerbread. Sylvia’s thank-you letter for the presents to Adrienne ended, ‘Dis à notre ami tu dors.Tu dors, you sleep, was her play on the name of their friend Tudor Wilkinson, an aged American millionaire from St Louis, Missouri, who was doing his best to obtain Sylvia’s release. A former thoroughbred owner, he had given up racing when he decided the fences were harming his animals. Wilkinson had amassed an art collection that included Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of George Washington and some of the finest Holbeins in private hands. Hermann Goering knew of Wilkinson’s paintings and, on a pre-war visit to Paris, stopped by his flat at 18 quai d’Orléans on the Ile Saint-Louis to see them. Although this acquaintance gave him access to Goering and his minions, the American was no collaborator. Behind the carved mantelpiece of his lavish apartment overlooking the Seine was a cache of short-wave radios and weapons for the Resistance. His wife, Kathleen Marie Rose, had been the most famous dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies under her stage-name, Dolores Rose. She was also helping the Resistance and the downed Allied airmen whom Drue Tartière brought to her. Wilkinson had assured Adrienne in November that Sylvia would be released within a few weeks. Sylvia, however, remained interned, to Adrienne’s disappointment.

Christmas at Vittel was nonetheless merry. The Dramatic Society’s 150 members staged plays, and internees watched a series of films in the 1,000-seat camp auditorium: The Corsican Brothers, Fort Dolores, Stage Door and If I Were Boss. Midnight Mass was held on Christmas Eve in three different chapels for Catholics and Protestants, and on Christmas Day the women held a big party for the children. On New Year’s Eve, there was a ‘Fancy Dress Ball’.

When Sylvia moved out of the hospital to lodge with the main body of American internees in the Hôtel Central, she threw herself into work as camp postmistress. She sorted and delivered letters, much as she used to collect mail and put it in cubby holes at Shakespeare and Company for her writer friends. ‘Every day I went over to the Grand Hotel where the mail was deposited, and brought ours in a pouch to the hotel where we lived,’ Sylvia wrote. ‘Some of the internees were rather unreasonable and when I was unable to produce a letter for them accused me of keeping it back.’ Organizing the kitchen in the new location was more difficult: ‘There were no utensils to cook our miserable soup in nor to make our acorn coffee in.’ Nor was there any china, as in the Grand Hotel. The task of making the kitchen function was assigned to ‘a young, pretty woman with high heels and a long cigarette holder: to my surprize [sic], she took hold of the kitchen problem which was serious when we were suddenly installed in our hotel … This blonde girl made such a row that the articles we needed were finally provided. Every day at noon we filed up for the soup–hot water with a hint of potatoes, cabbage and little else–and the bowls were to contain enough for supper as well as lunch.’ Only Mabel Gardner, the Montparnasse sculptress with the golden hair, liked the prison food. All she took from the Red Cross packages was cigarettes. She happily spent her time carving firewood into voluptuous statues.

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