Clara under Suspicion

KING JOHN WAS STILL PLAYING at the Odéon in late June, when a ‘new and peculiar sort of reader’ appeared at the American Library. These fake readers did not speak to Clara, but they asked about her and ‘looked darkly at any member of staff they chanced to encounter’. Clearly, German undercover agents were taking a renewed interest in the library. Had she or one of the staff been denounced? Hilda Frikart, the secretary whose sister, Florence, Clara had saved from execution almost three years earlier, told her one morning in late June 1943 that Dr Hermann Fuchs had telephoned. He apologized for not being able to call on her and asked whether the countess would come to his office near the Hôtel Majestic before business hours. Clara went the next morning with Hilda Frikart to see Dr Fuchs. Aldebert waited across the street, ‘in case we did, or did not, come out’.

When Clara and Hilda walked into the office, Dr Fuchs pointedly remained seated at his desk. He warned Clara to speak only the truth. Before he could ask anything, she defended her management of the library. Her duty, she stated, was ‘to safeguard the institution and avoid trouble by any so-called “resistance”’. Dr Fuchs said someone had accused her of circulating anti-Hitler propaganda. As Clara knew from her involvement with Hilda’s sister in 1940, the Nazis could impose the death penalty for that offence. Dr Fuchs said that magazines from the library with certain caricatures outlined in red ink were in circulation. ‘Certain caricatures’ were comic illustrations of Adolf Hitler in a pre-war issue of Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine. Clara said that periodicals were not permitted outside the reading room. ‘If they have been circulated, it must be by Germans who carry them off. They have been particularly attached to the magazine room of late. I assure you, Dr. Fuchs, I am neither knave enough nor fool enough to betray the institution I have promised to safeguard.’ Fuchs, uncomfortable during the encounter, warned her not to show any periodicals to Germans without a card issued by himself. The next matter, he said, was more serious. Someone had denounced Countess de Chambrun for conspiring with Dr Karl Epting, director of the German Institute in Paris, to keep the library open by fraud. It appeared Dr Epting, who socialized with her son and his wife and had attended two performances of King John at the Odéon, was under suspicion.

Clara was confident she had nothing to fear. Dr Epting had merely sent students to the library two years before. The library, she said, remained open under the agreement Dr Fuchs himself had reached with Dorothy Reeder in 1940. The German ambassador, Otto Abetz, had given his approval to that arrangement and to the subsequent affiliation with the French Information Centre before Dr Epting had seen the library. Dr Fuchs drew a long breath and said, ‘Madame, I am very happy for you. It would have been for me a most disagreeable duty to make an unsatisfactory report. I will not conceal that I am also very happy for myself.’ Clara realized that his fate was somehow linked to hers. If the library violated occupation regulations, he would be responsible.

To avoid further German attention in the short-term, Clara closed the library for the summer holidays on Bastille Day, 14 July, rather than wait until August. That night, the Gestapo called at the home of the senior librarian, Boris Netchaeff. He and his wife, a Russian princess, were playing bridge with friends when the Germans broke into their flat and ordered them to raise their hands. As Netchaeff was about to comply, they shot him. One bullet pierced his lung. Eventually, he was taken to the German-commandeered Hôpital de la Pitié. General de Chambrun rushed to the Pitié to request Boris’s transfer to Neuilly for treatment by an American doctor, but the police were adamant that Boris would remain under arrest. Worse, the Gestapo planned to deport him to Germany. As a Russian under Gestapo suspicion, he would probably not return. Clara went to Dr Fuchs to hold him to his promise of responsibility for the library and its employees. If the evidence against the Russian proved false, Fuchs said, he would make sure that the Gestapo released him to the American Hospital. All he needed from Clara was a written report on Boris Netchaeff.

After three years under German rule, Clara had anticipated his request for a report. She had one ready, leaving him no excuse for delay. Dr Fuchs read it and pledged to effect Boris’s release within the week. The countess and the Bibliotheksschütz then had one of the more curious exchanges of the occupation. He reminded her that, at their previous meeting, he had asked her to tell the truth. Now, he was asking her not to respond if it would embarrass her. He asked, ‘Did you ever hear of a man called Aldebert de Chambrun?’ Clara, suppressing a laugh, confessed that she did not knoweverything about the Comte de Chambrun. After all, they had been married for only forty-two years. Dr Fuchs explained that the Bibliothèque Nationale had in its catalogue a two-volume life of Aldebert de Chambrun by Richard Wagner. Did the countess know why the great composer would have written a book about her husband? Again, she managed not to laugh. It seemed that Uncle Aldebert de Chambrun, for whom her husband had been named, had had a passion for Wagner’s music and had often visited Bayreuth. The senior Aldebert wrote a book about Wagner, not the other way round. Perhaps, she suggested, the cataloguers had accidentally reversed the names of subject and author. ‘I was beginning to think something of that kind must have occurred, but my searchers would not admit having been mistaken,’ Dr Fuchs said. Four days later, Boris Netchaeff was safe in a bed at the American Hospital.

Paris had nothing to celebrate on 14 July 1943, the 154th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille with its now-hollow promises of liberty, fraternity and equality. But, in New York, expatriate French men and women danced in the street on the evening before France’s national day. They roped off 44th Street between Second and Third Avenues and declared it ‘a little bit of Paris in Old New York’. Lampposts were festooned with American and French flags, and refreshments were served from a large tent in the middle of 44th Street. A sign labelled ‘French territory’ advised, ‘New Yorkers–Don’t believe all you hear –There was a France–There is a France–There will always be a France–ALWAYS.’ The actors Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin took part. New Yorkers and overseas Parisians danced congas, rhumbas, waltzes and the ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ on the cobbled ground. At a minute before midnight, a French sailor took the microphone and asked for silence. A young woman wearing red shoes and blue slacks played the accordion, and the Frenchman called on the crowd to join in singing La Marseillaise. Even hard-bitten American New Yorkers sang along. At the last refrain, the French sailor said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we owe this celebration to the generosity and hospitality of our American allies and our American hosts. Vive l’Amérique!

That holiday morning in Paris, Phillip Jackson cycled through deserted streets past German sentries in the avenue Foch and around the Arc de Triomphe to the American Hospital in Neuilly. Phillip was carrying eggs from the family’s maid, Louise, for his father. At the hospital where he had been born fifteen years earlier, a British woman patient had posted a poem on the hospital bulletin board to honour a physician on whom she clearly had a crush:

Portrait of an American:
We all agree he’s a perfect dear
Altho at times he inspires fear
And we quake when he draws near
Oh, so severe!
But those eyes so stern and steel blue
Can gleam with laughter, too
And life takes on a brighter hue
When he smiles at you.

Sumner was operating on a patient, so the boy went up to the roof to wait. The summer morning was tranquil, until German anti-aircraft batteries suddenly erupted with fire. American Flying Fortresses roared towards the air base at Le Bourget and dropped their payloads. Like his father from the same roof on 4 April, Phillip watched the Luftwaffe and the American Eighth Air Force duelling in the sky. Bombs fell, air gunners fired at one another, planes screamed in flames to the ground and parachutes snapped open. To the 15-year-old, the sight was unforgettable, almost hypnotic. Then his father appeared on the roof. Wearing a white, blood-spattered surgeon’s gown, Sumner Jackson shouted, ‘Damn, Pete! Get the hell out of here. Shrapnel’s flying all around.’ In the distance, American airmen were burying their parachutes and running for cover.

Before Sumner left the hospital that afternoon, he modestly removed the British woman’s poem from the board. He and Phillip then bicycled with Toquette to their house on the lake at Enghien to spend the rest of the holiday with Toquette’s sister, Tat. When Phillip recounted the story of the air battle he had seen, his mother ordered him to stay off the hospital’s roof. This seemed strange to a boy whose parents let him risk his life to photograph German naval installations at Saint-Nazaire. That was war. To be injured by falling ack-ack was unnecessary voyeurism.

The Jacksons’ lives were increasingly threatened. Toquette told Sumner that General Karl Oberg was paying 50,000 francs to anyone who led his agents to an Allied flyer in hiding. Those assisting the airmen would be shot. Someone had already taken the money, and one British airman disappeared. The informer responsible was himself murdered by the Resistance. One Resistance cell, she said, had been penetrated by Oberg’s men. Theirs could be next.

When the family weekend was over, Dr Jackson cycled back to work at the hospital. More airmen needed help to reach England, and more patients were brought from the internment camps. It was business as usual. On the bulletin board, to Sumner’s irritation, someone had pinned back the English patient’s poem praising her ‘perfect dear’, Dr Jack.

A month after Phillip Jackson watched the 331st Squadron of the American Eighth Air Force from the hospital’s roof, a crewman from one of the downed Flying Fortresses suddenly appeared at the American Hospital. Gladys Marchal, a British woman working for the Resistance, delivered the 19-year-old tail-gunner to Dr Sumner Jackson. The airman’s civilian clothes did not fit, and he did not look or speak French. Joe Manos was a half-Greek, half-Polish American from New York City, who, like Jackson, stood just over six feet tall. Joe had been on the run for a month, since that 14 July morning when Phillip Jackson saw his plane shot down. Two of Joe’s crewmates had been killed inside the B-17. Joe had parachuted from 16,000 feet with seven others onto a field of sugar beet near Le Bourget. Cut off from the other seven, he wandered along a country road. Two Frenchmen spotted him and warned that a German soldier was cycling past. Joe hid in the brush, until the two men returned with a car, covered him in firewood and took him to a safe house. By the time Gladys Marchal brought Joe to the hospital, he had been in three safe houses waiting for the Resistance to bring him false travel documents. Somehow, though, the résistants could not obtain the papers he needed.

Joe appealed to Dr Jackson for help. Jackson took him into his office, which Joe remembered as ‘a nice place, well furnished. A citation framed on the wall caught my eye and I believe it was the French Legion of Honor.’ After giving Joe a thorough physical examination, Jackson asked Elisabeth Comte to lodge the airman in one of the rooms for patients. ‘Everything, bed and linens were spotlessly white,’ Joe wrote later. When they could not find a safe house for him, the Jacksons invited Joe to their apartment at 11 avenue Foch. They had taken the precaution of asking Toquette’s sister, Tat, to keep Phillip at Enghien for a few days. ‘I suppose my mother thought that at fifteen, being with an American B-17 gunner was a bit too much for me,’ Phillip told his father’s biographer, Hal Vaughan, years later. ‘I think my father brought Joe to the apartment on the back of his bike.’ Even without Phillip there, Joe’s presence was a hazard. A neighbour might denounce them to the Nazi SD secret police, whose bureau was just down the road at Number 19, or to the Gestapo at Number 43. Sumner knew the danger of mixing different Resistance networks. The American Hospital was part of one, and Goélette-Frégate was another. Sumner had kept them separate to avoid the possibility of a captured résistantrevealing under torture the secrets of both. Toquette fed Joe on their meagre rations, and she contacted the escape networks to get him out of Paris before the Germans found him.

Gilbert Asselin of another Resistance group, Libération, was the man Toquette decided could provide Joe with false papers and a safe route to Spain. When she asked Asselin to take responsibility for Joe, the Frenchman did not hesitate. He moved him into the flat of his mistress, Lise Russ. Joe spent long, dull hours there, waiting to go outside again. At any moment, he knew, a neighbour might guess he was there and inform the police to claim Oberg’s reward. The Germans were searching everywhere for Joe and the rest of his B-17 crew, arresting French men and women whom they suspected of assisting them. After three weeks, everything was ready. Asselin presented Joe with well-forged documents and delivered him to another safe house near Sainte-Foy-la-Grande. From there, Joe was taken to Toulouse in southwest France to wait for an escort to lead him over the border to Spain. In late October, along with RAF Squadron Leader Frank Griffiths, he was taken across the Pyrenees. Spain did not automatically mean freedom. Spanish police arrested Joe and Griffiths in Barcelona, where a German officer was allowed to interrogate them. For more than a month, they were moved with other Allied airmen from prison to prison. At the end of November, the Spaniards released them to the British Consul and allowed them to cross the border to Gibraltar. Back in England, Joe gave a full account to US military intelligence of his escape route and the help he had received from Sumner and Toquette Jackson.

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