AS THE ALLIES SURROUNDED PARIS and the Germans prepared to defend it to the end, the Laval and de Chambrun families withdrew into a tight family orbit. Aldebert and Clara found themselves in a unique position to observe the Vichy regime’s final political manoeuvres. They turned up at the prime minister’s official residence at the Hôtel Matignon for their usual family dinner on the night of 12 August. Pierre Laval himself was unexpectedly absent. He called his wife from Maréville, a town near Nancy. When Jeanne Laval hung up, she explained to Clara, Aldebert, René and Josée that her husband had just freed Edouard Herriot, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, and his wife from German captivity. Ambassador Otto Abetz and Foreign Minister Ribbentrop had approved the release. Laval’s old adversary Herriot was the parliamentarian whom Dr Keller at the German Embassy had offered to exchange for the release of Charles Bedaux. Laval was bringing Herriot to Paris to reconvene the National Assembly. His purpose was to ensure a legal transfer of authority from parliament to Charles de Gaulle and to avert a civil war between collaborators and résistants. Clara remembered that, when the dinner ended, ‘we all went home happy, and learned next day all had gone well’.
Laval appeared to have the assent, not only of the German Foreign Office, but of the United States. He was secretly dealing with America’s Office of Strategic Services chief in Switzerland, Allen Dulles, through André Enfière. Enfière, as a senior member of Charles de Gaulle’s Committee of National Resistance, had been attempting to obtain Herriot’s release for almost a year. He met Dulles in Berne on 15 July 1944 on behalf of Herriot. Enfière, whose American intelligence code name was Lamballe, told Dulles, ‘Kindly make it clear that regardless whether Herriot is alive or dead, I carry with me the backing of his supporters for the reinstitution of a democratic and parliamentary republic.’ Dulles reported that, while Enfière supported de Gaulle, he and his colleagues ‘desire to have genuine republicans surrounding de Gaulle’. Enfière informed Laval on 6 August that President Roosevelt would not oppose a provisional Herriot government. Roosevelt, who would never recognize Laval, had misgivings about Charles de Gaulle and had been looking in vain for alternative French leaders. With a deniable hint of Allied endorsement, Laval went ahead in the hope that a peaceful transition from Pétain to de Gaulle would imply de Gaulle’s recognition of Vichy. De Gaulle, however, had never recognized Vichy or the abrogation in July 1940 of the 1875 Constitution. Laval intended to present the Allies and de Gaulle with a fait accompli that they could hardly reject without disavowing France’s last elected parliament. He had not reckoned, though, with Paris collaborationists Marcel Déat and Fernand de Brinon, who informed the SS chief in Paris, General Karl Oberg, of the machinations. Oberg’s chief, Heinrich Himmler, opposed transferring power to anyone and intended to keep the Vichy puppet government intact–even in exile.
On the morning of 13 August, Laval deposited the Herriots at the Prefecture of the Seine in a wing of Paris’s Hôtel de Ville. Members of parliament began arriving at the Hôtel Matignon to endorse Laval’s scheme. Laval also sought and received the approval of the eighty mayors of the Paris region, the local prefects and chiefs of police. Preparations to convene the National Assembly with the members who had not joined de Gaulle or were unable to reach Paris went smoothly until the night of 16 August. That evening, the last German civilians were departing with all the wine, radio sets, rugs, haute couture dresses and even bidets that they could carry home in their convoys. Laval was having dinner with Jeanne, Josée and René at the Matignon, when he received a call from the Hôtel de Ville. The Gestapo had just arrested Herriot. Laval went straight there to protest that confining Herriot ‘constituted the gravest offence against me’. He called Ambassador Abetz to come to the Hôtel de Ville. When told Himmler himself had ordered Herriot’s arrest, Abetz was at a loss to justify the confusion in Germany’s command structure since the 20 July attempt on Hitler’s life. He and the Foreign Ministry, like the army, had lost influence to the SS, SD and Gestapo. Herriot and his wife remained at the Hôtel de Ville.
On the morning of 17 August, Abetz took the Herriots to the German Embassy and then, at twelve thirty, to the Hôtel Matignon for lunch with the Lavals and René de Chambrun. Before the guests ate, Laval recorded, ‘A notice of arrest was served on me.’ René de Chambrun recalled Abetz’s first words to Laval: ‘President Herriot and you are prisoners in the Matignon. President Herriot will be transferred, after lunch, to the Prefecture of the Seine. You will leave with the government in the evening, in the direction of the east.’ Lunch went ahead in the grand dining room. Liveried servants poured vintage wines from the prime minister’s cellars for Abetz, the Herriots, the Lavals and René and Josée de Chambrun. Josée remembered:
It was a marvelous summer day in that handsome old Hôtel Matignon, with its windows wide open on one of the most beautiful gardens in the world … The lunch was good. Everyone tried to cover up the anxiousness of the situation with pretended lightness. Abetz began by asking if it was true that, in Lyons, Herriot’s city, there was a statue dedicated to a ‘good German’? Madame Herriot then told us of the statue of a rich German merchant of the sixteenth century who had showered the city with good works.
Unwilling to endure more false cordiality, Herriot objected to his arrest. He had come to Paris in good faith and with German assurances to preside over the National Assembly. Now, he was being linked to the Vichy government, whose actions he had always opposed. He demanded not to be sent to Germany. ‘Abetz looked very much embarrassed, ’ Josée recalled, ‘as he had just received orders to the contrary and had so notified Herriot before the luncheon.’ While the conversation proceeded, more armed Gestapo guards surrounded the Hôtel Matignon. Jeanne Laval appealed to Abetz, ‘Mr. Ambassador, this departure, under these conditions, is an outrage. See for yourself the painful situation it puts us all in.’ Herriot interjected, ‘Please, listen to her, Mr. Ambassador. This is the voice of France.’ Jeanne Laval said it was significant that her husband and Herriot, old political opponents, had come together. ‘You cannot condone an action that would make it appear as if my husband had instigated unscrupulous tactics resulting in Monsieur Herriot’s being forced to undergo the same fate as ours, under duress.’ The lunch party lingered till after four o’clock, making small talk, in Josée’s words, ‘anecdotes and reminiscences–the Duke of Windsor, Anthony Eden, the League of Nations, the Ethiopian crisis, etc.’. At four thirty, Abetz took the Herriots back to the Hôtel de Ville under arrest.
René followed his wife and her father upstairs to the Lavals’ apartment. Josée, near tears, told her father, ‘I’ll go alone with you.’ When René heard his wife offer to accompany him to Germany, he said, ‘I’ll go too.’ Laval gave René what he called a ‘heavy look’, and Josée backed down. ‘Alors,’ she said, ‘I’ll stay in Paris.’
René and Josée returned home to the Place du Palais Bourbon, but René went out again on the pretext of bringing Herriot some cigars and books. It was five thirty when he drove up to the Hôtel de Ville. The Prefect of the Seine led him past Gestapo guards to Herriot’s quarters. René offered the old man an escape route. He whispered, ‘There is a side exit that is not watched, and I propose, with the prefect’s agreement, that you escape with me through the sewers. I will hide you in Passy in a little flat that an American let me have in case of need.’ The American was his friend Seymour Weller, who ran Bordeaux’s famed Château Haut-Brion vineyards and had avoided German internment through various ruses to remain in Paris. While René waited for an answer, Herriot ‘alternately raised and lowered his right and left hands, as if weighing the pros and cons’. Coming to a decision, he said to René in a low voice, ‘I must follow my fate.’ He then embraced René, who left disappointed.
When all her guests had left the long lunch, Jeanne Laval called Clara de Chambrun. Pierre, she said, had been arrested and was about to be deported. She refused to be separated from her husband and would accompany him to Germany. ‘I hurried to Matignon,’ Clara wrote, ‘where I found her, as always in moments of calamity, in complete possession of her presence of mind and will, and of that extraordinary psychic power of divination which is almost like second sight.’ Jeanne Laval worried about the children, René and Josée. When the Resistance came into the open, it would keep its promise to deal with collaborators. She urged Clara, ‘They must get to the country and work with their hands, for Josée cannot live and think without her father and without me. We three have always formed one unity.’ Clara recalled, ‘She knew that I would never see her husband again and begged me to ask the General to come from the hospital that night to say farewell.’
Clara left through the courtyard, passing a throng of prefects, presidents of municipal councils, chiefs of police and mayors of the Paris region, who had come to see Laval. Laval issued them a letter requesting their support for two prefects, René Bouffet and Amédée Bussière, ‘in whose hands I am placing the fate of Paris’. Clara waited at home in the rue de Vaugirard for Aldebert. He arrived from Neuilly just after nine o’clock, and they went together to the Hôtel Matignon. ‘The German police were already on the spot and were arresting all the cabinet members,’ Clara wrote. ‘Under the cover of darkness and confusion Laval recommended to two of them to disappear and hide themselves, which they accomplished to the fury of the police, who assumed a very threatening aspect towards the President. With his characteristic form of humor he said, “I don’t see why you complain to me. I am the aggrieved one. I told them to bring me back two cartons of cigarettes and they have gone off with my change.”’
The three Chambruns waited in the gravel forecourt of the Matignon with Josée. Upstairs, where the only light in blacked-out Paris shone weakly from rows of candles, Laval said farewell to a few friends and fellow politicians. He came down holding his cane and wearing his familiar white tie and dark hat. René watched his father-in-law kiss Josée goodbye as he got into a sleek black Hotchkiss car. A moment later, Laval opened the car door, stepped onto the running board and rushed back to Josée. Giving her another kiss, he said, ‘Toi, encore une fois’ (‘You, one more time’). The palace’s iron gate opened, and the Lavals disappeared into the night. Now, the Chambruns would have to save themselves.
The occupation was ending ignominiously for Count René de Chambrun, who had bound his destiny to Pierre Laval’s. Only later would he admit the possibility of a different life. If he had married an American he loved before he met Josée, he would not have collaborated with Laval. To Josée’s biographer, Yves Pourcher, he confided, ‘I was in love with the daughter of the chief of the Federal Reserve Bank, who was originally Jewish and German. I would not have been happy, because she was so oriented to art, to music. Not me, apart from do-re-me-fa-so . And in Cincinnati they [the Longworth family] were anti-German and anti-Jewish.’ He did not tell Pourcher the name of the woman, whom he had met when he lived in New York between 1930 and 1934. The Federal Reserve chief at the time was Eugene Meyer. Meyer, son of a German-speaking immigrant from Alsace, was the Reserve’s first Jewish head since its founding in 1913. Meyer had two daughters, Katharine and Florence. In 1930, his younger daughter, Katharine, was thirteen, and the elder, Florence, was nineteen. Florence Meyer was undoubtedly René’s first, albeit secret, love. René explained to Pourcher that the Longworths’ objections to her were ‘strictly American’, in that Cincinnati’s large German community had opposed his Uncle Nicholas Longworth in elections. There was also an aversion in conservative, Christian circles to what were called ‘mixed marriages’. If René had married Florence Meyer, the Free French, American and British forces approaching Paris would be celebrating Bunny de Chambrun as the soldier who persuaded his cousin Franklin Roosevelt not to abandon Britain in 1940. Instead, all three reviled him as a collaborator and confidant of the despised Pierre Laval.
After the Gestapo left the Hôtel Matignon with Pierre and Jeanne Laval, René and Josée returned to their magnificent duplex apartment at 6-bis Place du Palais Bourbon. A hundred yards from their front door, German troops in the Chamber of Deputies were digging in and erecting bunkers to defend themselves from the Allies and the Resistance. René reflected that only Laval’s harsh look had prevented Josée and himself from ending up imprisoned at Sigmaringen castle in Germany with Maréchal Pétain, Laval and most of the Vichy regime. Paris would soon be no safer: ‘We had risked spending the last days of the occupation in a German prison, and being transferred at the liberation to a French prison. We had to disappear quickly, which is what we did, the next day, in going to seek refuge in the rue d’Andigné at the house of our American friend, Seymour Weller.’ René had envisioned Weller’s flat as a hiding place for Edouard Herriot, but things happened so quickly that he took it for himself and Josée. While Parisians prepared to welcome their American, British and Free French liberators, the younger Chambruns went underground.
Free French forces landed in the south of France on 15 August, moving north to join the Anglo-American invaders and the French Second Armoured Divison on their way south from Normandy. One of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s officers in the First French Army was an American. William Christian Bullitt, the last American ambassador to Paris, had spent the previous four years in the United States. President Roosevelt denied him a cabinet post but persuaded him to run, unsuccessfully, as a Democrat for mayor of Philadelphia. When 53-year-old Bullitt asked Secretary of War Henry Stimson for a commission in the American army to fight the Nazis, Stimson turned him down. Charles de Gaulle cabled Bullitt from Algiers on 25 May as the Allies were preparing to invade France: ‘Come now! Good and dear American friend. Our ranks are open to you. You will return with us to wounded Paris. Together we will see your star-spangled banners mingled with our tricolors.’ De Gaulle commissioned him as the French equivalent of major, commandant, in the Free French army.
Bullitt accompanied the First French Army, which he called ‘the only French Army’, as it captured Marseilles and Toulon. His admiration of General de Lattre, a First World War hero who went into battle wielding his grandfather’s Napoleonic era sabre, was unbounded. He wrote to his brother, Orville, ‘He goes into the front line constantly with your humble brother along.’ In the midst of battle, bon vivant Bullitt appreciated Lattre’s ‘superb’ chef and found time to buy ‘a lot of the best wines in Burgundy’. He wanted only two things: to see free Paris again and to defeat the Nazis, whom he had condemned as enemies of America when most Americans wanted to stay on the sidelines.