POLLY PEABODY WAS A RAVISHING, 22-year-old ‘all-American girl’ from East 57th Street in New York. The blonde-haired society beauty spoke perfect French and German, having studied in France, Switzerland and Germany for much of her childhood. Defeating the Nazis became her obsession from the moment the war began in September 1939. Seeking to play a part, she volunteered to drive ambulances in France for Anne Morgan’s American Relief Service. Miss Morgan, who had returned to Paris from New York in March 1940 to direct humanitarian operations, rejected Polly’s application on the grounds that she was too young. Undeterred, Polly applied to the American-Scandinavian Field Hospital and was accepted for medical work in Finland. ‘About that time,’ she wrote, ‘stories of Finland’s gallant resistance were flooding New York.’ Stalin’s Red Army, allied with Hitler, was invading its neutral neighbour, and the Finns fought hard to defend their independence. ‘Finno-hysteria broke out in New York, like a violent rash on a baby’s face … “My deah! you simply MUST come to my little ‘do’ for the Finns”.’ The American-Scandinavian Field Hospital’s trustees, no doubt recognizing determination when they met it, made her their Assistant Secretary. Polly set sail for Norway in March 1940, one of ‘twenty-eight wild Americans’ including Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, ‘the Black Eagle of Harlem, a negro who claimed he was going to teach the Finns how to fly’. When her ship docked in Norway, the Germans invaded the country–the first stage of an operation leading to the Nazi conquest of Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. She escaped to Sweden, Russia and Switzerland. By the time she caught a train over the border to France, it was a German-occupied country.
‘At each station,’ Polly wrote, ‘a huge pile of twisted and rusting metal was dumped beside the tracks. Old bedsteads, pipes, etc.–all intended to make guns for the defence of France.’ On one of the many buses she took through the ravaged countryside after her train broke down, she overheard a disheartened French soldier moan, ‘Hell, we’ll be just as well off under German rule as under our own.’ That was too much for Polly Peabody.
I turned on him like a she-wolf. The discussion grew louder and louder, and pretty soon everyone had joined in on my side. Nobody suspected that I wasn’t French until I made my fatal mistake:
‘I, an American, am more patriotically inclined towards your country than you are …’ I shrieked, in a fit of impatience. There was a silence followed by an explosion. This time the positions were reversed. Everyone attacked me.
‘An American! … if you are patriotic about France as all that, then why didn’t you send us some guns instead of a lot of cotton-wool and pills?’
The bus dropped her in Clermont Ferrand, the industrial centre of the French midlands. The government had left only hours before. ‘“Where is everybody?” I asked, like the ostrich peering over the rumps of other ostriches whose heads were in the sand. But I couldn’t find out where the Government had gone to, although everybody seemed pretty sure they had gone somewhere.’ In the government’s wake, the Germans arrived.
The people were greatly impressed with the behaviour of the Nazi soldiers. They even bordered on enthusiasm. They had visualized the enemy as monsters who raped little girls and chopped off the ears of little boys and hung them on their belts. They were gratefully surprised when this did not happen; but they did not stop to think that had the enemy been ordered to turn all the inhabitants of France into sausage meat, they would have carried out their orders with just as much efficiency.
Polly Peabody was unaware that German soldiers who committed rape or pillage were subject to court martial and execution, a precaution the Wehrmacht had not taken in Poland. The Franco-German Armistice, signed at Compiègne on 22 June, carved France into four zones: the northern coast around Calais, administered from Belgium as a ‘forbidden’ area; Alsace and Lorraine, incorporated as provinces of the German Reich from which citizens of French origin were expelled; the bulk of France around Paris and down to Bordeaux, officially occupied territory; and the south, free of direct occupation by German troops. Because Clermont Ferrand fell south of the main line of demarcation between the ‘Occupied’ and ‘Free’ zones, the Germans withdrew from the city. Polly then noticed that ‘the Mayor had not waited until the last Nazi tank was out of sight before he ordered the French flag to be hoisted in the public square. Around it the townspeople quickly gathered and sang the Marseillaise with unrestrained emotion.’
Following the new Pétain government to Vichy, Polly chanced upon a French officer in the lobby of the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs. He had been military attaché in Norway, where they had met two months before. He offered to help her find lodgings, and he introduced her to the dapper Senator Gaston Henry-Haye. Senator Henry-Haye and the officer took Polly out to see ‘all the Vichy celebrities’ at the fashionable Restaurant Coq d’Or. ‘Stepping into the street, whom should I see emerging from a long black limousine, but Ambassador Bullitt? He looked so dashing and neat, just like the hero in the million-dollar picture, compared with all those who ogled him.’ Polly settled into ‘a questionable, small hotel’, which charged her twenty francs a night for a room shared with three other people. She remembered, ‘During the first few days in Vichy, I witnessed some of the saddest and most amazing pages of French history.’
Aldebert and Clara de Chambrun, after three weeks of privation at the Polignacs’ austere castle near Le Puy, were back in Vichy for their usual summer vacation. In their absence, the town had transformed itself from a bourgeois resort for rich hypochondriacs into the temporary capital of France. Vichy’s resident population of 50,000, while used to providing rooms for 40,000 summer visitors, was hosting almost 100,000 refugees, civil servants, soldiers, diplomats, legislators and journalists. All of them were clamouring for places to sleep, wash and eat. Polly Peabody observed ‘a French duchess–who for eight nights slept sitting bolt upright in an armchair, because she could not find a room’. Aldebert and Clara had, thanks to a longstanding arrangement with the Hôtel du Parc, their own room. But government officials found themselves running ministries from hotel bathrooms, receiving ambassadors in garrets and sleeping in corridors.
The American Embassy made its ambassadorial residence in a luxurious summer house, Villa Les Adrets at 56 rue Thermal, that it leased from Florence Jay Gould and her husband, Frank. The chancellery was in a doctor’s house, the Villa Ica, nearby. Most of the diplomats moved into the fortuitously named Hôtel des Ambassadeurs. Clara’s already low opinion of American diplomacy sank further because of what she saw as Counsellor Robert Murphy and his staff’s hostility to Maréchal Pétain and Pierre Laval. She wrote, ‘They made up their minds first on what tack they had best embark, avoided any information which might be calculated to bring new light on the subject in hand, and were particularly careful not to get mixed up with other than leftist politicians with whom their sympathies obviously lay.’
Ambassador Bullitt had left Paris on 30 June with Carmel Offie, his longtime secretary who had served with him in Moscow, as well as Commander Roscoe Hillenkoetter and Robert Murphy. Riding in their chauffeured convoy were Bullitt’s Chantilly neighbours, the Gilroys. Frances Gilroy was an American friend from Bullitt’s home town, Philadelphia. Her British husband, Dudley, was a thoroughbred trainer. Bullitt caught up with the government in Clermont Ferrand and lodged in the comfortable Hôtel de Charlannes in the mountains nearby at La Bourboule. By the time he contacted the government again in Vichy, Clara wrote, Bullitt ‘seemed to have lost many of his illusions concerning the Popular Front [the leftist coalition that won the last pre-war parliamentary elections, in 1936], and missed no opportunity of getting in closer touch with Pierre Laval, whose feelings toward him were very friendly’. She reserved particular animosity for Third Secretaries Douglas MacArthur, nephew of his namesake, General MacArthur, and H. Freeman Matthews–both of whom believed Laval was too accommodating to Germany. The Americans tended to see Laval as Vichy’s villain, although Pétain and most of the new Vichy establishment curried favour with the German occupier as much as Laval did. The British were also critical of Laval, but they were forced to withdraw their diplomats when Pétain broke relations with Britain in July. The diplomatic rupture resulted from a British ultimatum to French warships in the Algerian naval base of Mers-el-Kébir to surrender on 3 July. When the French commanders refused, the Royal Navy sank their ships and killed 1,267 French seamen to avoid the possibility of the ships falling into German hands. Pétain not only cut relations with Britain, he ordered an aerial bombardment of Gibraltar. The United States and about forty other countries kept embassies in Vichy–to the fury of Britain.
On the hot and sunny morning of 9 July, Clara and Aldebert watched the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate convene in the theatre of the Vichy Casino. Other fashionable, well-dressed women joined Clara in the gallery to witness the death of the Third Republic. By 395 votes to three, the lower house abolished the 1875 Constitution. The Senate, urged by Pierre Laval and its president, Jules Jeanneney, voted for abolition 225 votes to one. The dissenter was Aldebert’s 75-year-old brother, Pierre, Marquis de Chambrun. He was the Senate’s sole American member, who had come from German-occupied Lozère with his wife, Clara’s cousin Margaret, to defend the Republic. Despite her brother-in-law’s republican convictions, Clara’s sympathies lay with Laval and Pétain’s project for a new France of order, hierarchy and discipline.
When the next day, 10 July, dawned, Polly Peabody noticed a change of mood in Vichy: ‘During that morning, the halls of the big hotels, the streets, the public squares, were full of little groups of agitated men, discussing, arguing, weeping, repudiating blame, while some paced nervously up and down alone, their eyes riveted on the ground.’ The people outside wept and argued, and the two houses of parliament met together in the Casino as the Assemblée Nationale. The resolution before them was whether to grant ‘full powers to the Government of the Republic under the authority and signature of Maréchal Pétain in order that he may promulgate by one or more acts a new Constitution for the French State’. Short of declaring war, which would require the Assembly’s approval, Pétain would be given carte blanche to rule by decree. The morning session was held in secret, although few of the parliamentarians used the opportunity to launch a vigorous opposition to the proposed dictatorship. In a committee meeting that afternoon, Laval inserted language into the resolution that increased Pétain’s executive and legislative authority–eradicating the Republic’s separation of powers. The Free Zone would be a tyranny, royalist in its prerogatives yet subject to the fiat of the occupier in the north.
In the late afternoon, the National Assembly reconvened in public. Observing from the visitors’ gallery were Ambassador Bullitt, Clara de Chambrun, Polly Peabody and the grandes dames of the emerging Vichy elite. Edouard Herriot, president of the Chamber of Deputies, rose to declare that the absence of the legislators most likely to vote against the motion made the exercise a sham. William Bullitt cabled President Roosevelt that Herriot’s speech was
the single example of courage and dignity during the dreary afternoon. He pointed out that the French Government had decided to go to North Africa; that [Edouard] Daladier, [César] Campinchi and others who had boarded the Massilia which had been placed at their disposal by the French Government, had done so thinking that the Government was going to North Africa to continue the war, and insisted that they should not be treated as men who had run away. His words made such a deep impression that Laval immediately took the platform and admitted that everything that Herriot said was absolutely true.
Laval added that he, Maréchal Pétain and other patriotic Frenchmen, in contrast, had refused to abandon the sacred soil. The implication was that parliamentarians, like Georges Mandel, who sought to carry on the war from North Africa were deserters. (When the deputies disembarked from theMassilia in Casablanca, the Pétain government’s representatives arrested them.)
In the early evening, the votes were cast: 509 for Pétain’s dictatorial powers against eighty opposed. Bullitt heard a lone voice cry out, ‘Vive la République, quand même!’ ‘Long live the Republic, just the same!’ He noted, ‘The last scene of the tragedy of the death of the French Republic was well placed in a theatre.’
Among the eighty dissidents was Pierre de Chambrun, the only senator to vote against abolishing the Constitution the day before. When Maréchal Pétain saw Aldebert de Chambrun, he called to him in the street, ‘Say there, Aldebert, your brother voted against my constitution. ’ De Chambrun replied, ‘Yes. You know, he has always been a liberal … the only one in the family.’
Senator Henry-Haye took Polly to meet Maréchal Pétain, who had been awaiting the result at his usual table in the Hôtel du Parc’s Chanteclerc restaurant. ‘I was introduced as the young American girl who had travelled through chaotic Europe doing a lot of things and who still wanted to do a little more for France,’ Polly wrote. ‘The Marshal arose and shook my hand, and said something about admiring American girls because they were so “débrouillardes” [resourceful] and, unlike French girls, managed everything by themselves, without any help.’ Pétain invited her to sit, and he told her, ‘I am going to Versailles in two weeks. This time I have quite made up my mind. I have sent word to the Germans to evacuate the premises.’ The 22 June Armistice Agreement permitted the French government to move to Versailles, but Pétain had no force with which to compel the German occupier to evacuate any premises. Perhaps he was bluffing to impress the débrouillarde American girl. He even told her that he ‘had had his suitcase more or less ready’. Like most of France that summer, Polly was sympathetic to the aged roué: ‘Of all the people, young and old, who were present, the Marshal was probably the oldest and yet he looked far younger than many of his juniors … he struck me as being what, for want of a better expression, I would call a “fine figure of a man”, and very alert to the happenings of the moment, that is to say, as many happenings as reached his ears, for I think that a lot was carefully kept from him.’
Maréchal Philippe Pétain had become, at the age of 84, both ‘head of state’ in the so-called French State that replaced the French Republic and prime minister. His deputy, or vice-president of the council of ministers, was Pierre Laval. The only people, as well as the only Americans, on intimate terms with the two most powerful men of the new Vichy regime were Aldebert and Clara de Chambrun. Pétain was an old friend, who had been Aldebert’s military instructor and his commander in the Great War and Morocco. Laval’s family and the Chambruns had been close since their children married in 1935. Clara, although enthusiastic about the new leadership, spotted danger in the court forming around Pétain: ‘Without suspecting that his entourage was working for its own aggrandizement, the Marshal became in fact their prisoner.’ She watched the old soldier being cut off from reality: ‘A row of high screens separated the regular habitués of the Hotel du Parc from the Chief of State and the guests whom he daily invited.’ Her scepticism did not prevent her from succumbing to the reflected attention. ‘What a kowtowing and flattery went on: What glances of envy were darted in our direction when, as he often did, Marshal Pétain came to join us for coffee in our corner!’
William Bullitt, despite his respect for Pétain, preferred not to be accredited to the Vichy government. Roosevelt had asked for Bullitt’s help in the 1940 presidential elections, when he would stand for an unprecedented third term. He also dangled in front of his outspoken ambassador the possibility of a cabinet appointment if he won. Bullitt left Vichy for Spain with his secretary, Carmel Offie, and his Chantilly neighbours, the Gilroys. He had issued Dudley Gilroy, a reserve officer in the British Army, an American passport to help him over the Spanish border. The Spaniards were sending British subjects back to France, where they risked internment. As cover, Bullitt listed the Gilroys as his valet and maid. Dudley carried off his part, but the regal Frances aroused suspicion. One Spanish official commented, ‘She is not a maid.’ Carmel Offie took him aside and said, ‘Of course not. Don’t you understand that the ambassador has a mistress?’ The Spaniard admitted them at once.
In Bullitt’s absence, Robert Murphy became chargé d’affaires at Vichy. ‘In those first weeks at Vichy,’ the red-haired Milwaukeean wrote,
I think most of us felt as if we had been knocked on the head and were slowly recovering our senses. History has rarely, if ever, moved with such dizzy speed as in that summer, and it seemed almost impossible to readjust our thoughts to a Europe dominated by one man, as in the Napoleonic era more than a century before. In this new Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere, Vichy seemed an appropriate capital for that portion of France, one-third of the country, which the German armistice permitted Frenchmen still to govern. Offices were located in gambling casinos, music halls, and tourist hotels designed to lighten the hours of health-seekers. The Hotel du Parc, long popular with fashionable invalids, became the seat of government. All of us felt absurdly isolated in this inbred community, making our diplomatic rounds in this artificial, gaudy, improvised political center which nobody expected to serve this purpose for long.
Washington maintained diplomatic relations with the Vichy government. At the same time, Roosevelt circumvented America’s 1939 Neutrality Act by sending weapons to Britain. Murphy and his small staff worked late into the night, doing political and consular work. He set out to ‘sell’ the American position of pro-British neutrality to Pétain and Laval. ‘The old soldier and the suave lawyer-politician,’ Murphy wrote of the head of state and his vice-premier, ‘had almost nothing in common except their conviction that Germany had won the war and that Frenchmen must somehow adapt themselves to this fact.’ He recalled his first meeting with Pétain in July 1940:
The Marshal was then eighty-four years old and in his eyes I was only a young diplomat substituting for an ambassador, so he smiled at me indulgently. Then, in his cool, clear, rather formal French, he said that continuance of the war would have been insanity, and that France would have been completely destroyed, since neither France nor Britain should have gone into a war for which they were wholly unprepared. With some emotion he declared that France could not afford again to have a million of its sons killed … Each time I talked with Pétain he expressed in some way his friendly feeling for the United States, implying that it was only his affection for our country that made him tolerate my rather unwelcome arguments.
Count René de Chambrun arrived in Vichy on 19 August. Clara had not seen her only son for more than two months. A frontline soldier during the Battle of France, René had served as a lieutenant on the Maginot Line. The high command promoted him to captain and assigned him as liaison officer to the British forces at the front. His brief mission to England convinced him that Britain would hold if America provided aid. At Ambassador Bullitt’s suggestion, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud posted René to Washington as a temporary military attaché to persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to send weapons to Britain. René spent two months in America, seeing Roosevelt, his cabinet, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the press and Republican isolationists like his Aunt Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Ohio Senator Robert Taft. On returning to France via Spain, René went first to Châteldon to see his wife, Josée. The next day, at Vichy’s Hôtel du Parc, he told Clara and Aldebert what he had accomplished in the land of their births.
It was an impressive story. On 12 June, two days before Paris fell, René’s Yankee Clipper touched down in the water off Long Island’s La Guardia Field. A Pan Am employee handed René an urgent message from Marguerite Lehand, FDR’s longtime private secretary and, unknown to René, sometime mistress of Ambassador Bullitt. It asked him to call President Roosevelt as soon as he reached his hotel, the old Ritz, in Manhattan. When he called, ‘Missy’ Lehand told him, ‘The president wants to see you as soon as possible.’ René turned up at the White House the next day to be greeted by the president, ‘Happy to receive you, cousin!’ Roosevelt asked, ‘Are you going to win this war?’ René answered, ‘That depends very much on you.’ Later, FDR welcomed him to the presidential yacht, the converted 165-foot Coast Guard cutter Potomac. Also on board were financier Averell Harriman, who was advising Roosevelt on foreign affairs despite his business interests in Germany, and Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins. René wrote later to a friend about the cruise: ‘Radiograms reporting the advance of the German army through France kept coming in and when it was about 7 p.m. the President was informed that the German army had crossed the Loire. He turned towards me and said, with deep feeling in his voice: “René, the show is over” and then, after a silence of a few seconds, he added, “I really think Britain will be unable to hold out.”’
René repeated what he had told Bullitt at the embassy in Paris: ‘I maintain that Britain, entrenched in her island, is invincible, thanks to her fleet, her fighter force, which is becoming the best in the world, a good antiaircraft defense, which must be reinforced immediately, and ground forces, which have been miraculously rescued.’ Roosevelt, a sagacious politician whose private views already accorded with René’s, needed less persuading than René imagined. He had already arranged for 3,100 planes purchased by France but embargoed under the Neutrality Act to be sent via Canada to Britain.
Running for his third term as president, Roosevelt had pledged not to send American boys to die in Europe. Yet he was trying to help the British to stop the Germans and their threat to American interests in the western hemisphere. FDR saw in his young Franco-American cousin an ally who could lobby for the additional arms that Britain needed without seeming too close to the administration. FDR wrote a list of twenty-two influential Americans that René needed to persuade. They included Secretary of State Cordell Hull, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Treasury Secretary Hans Morgenthau and New York Daily News publisher Joe Patterson. When Missy Lehand suggested René meet important women, FDR added a twenty-third name, his wife Eleanor’s. René saw Mrs Roosevelt, who was also his cousin, the next day. He toured the United States, using family members, like his Aunt Alice, who was as powerful within the conservative wing of the Republican Party as his cousin Eleanor was among New Deal Democrats. Alice, Teddy Roosevelt’s only daughter and René’s ‘favorite aunt on both sides of the Atlantic’, arranged an important dinner with Senate Republican leader Robert Taft and Joe Patterson. René undoubtedly knew that his mother disliked Aunt Alice. Clara had sided with her brother, Congressman Nicholas Longworth, in his many marital disputes with his wife, who was notoriously temperamental. Alice had once caught her husband in flagrante with her closest friend, Cissy Patterson. Although the flamboyant and red-headed Cissy was Joe’s sister, she went to work for his national newspaper rival, William Randolph Hearst, as editor of the Washington Herald. Whenever she could, Cissy published malicious gossip about Alice. René may have been aware of the tortuous background, but the dinner was business. He convinced both Taft and Joe Patterson not to oppose FDR’s proposed increase in military spending. Producing more American weapons would make some available to Britain.
At public meetings, René was usually introduced as Lafayette’s descendant and the nephew of the late House Speaker, Nicholas Longworth –links that emphasized his American origins. That René’s campaign worked was borne out by Roosevelt’s release to Britain of tanks, anti-aircraft guns and machine guns that had been ordered by France and embargoed since the beginning of the war. Lord Lothian, Britain’s ambassador to Washington with whom René had breakfasted regularly there, wrote to the young captain on 9 August, ‘You have been able, almost alone, to change official public opinion in favour of my country … For all of this, I want to assure you that Great Britain will never forget anything that you have done for her during her days of misfortune and distress.’
René maintained what contact he could from the United States, via telegram and occasional telephone calls, with his parents and his wife, Josée, in France. Aware of food shortages and the millions of refugees in the Vichy zone, he asked Roosevelt to send humanitarian aid to southern France. On 14 July, the president said he might do it, ‘if Bullitt agrees’. When William Bullitt arrived from Lisbon on 20 July, René was waiting for him at La Guardia Field. Bullitt endorsed his scheme to send food to France. On 1 August in Washington, René repeated his request to Roosevelt. The president wanted assurances that Germany would not seize the American food. René pointed out that the German army would not cross the line of demarcation to seize powdered milk, when its forces were concentrated in the north to invade Britain. FDR agreed to provide assistance on two conditions: Maréchal Philippe Pétain must cease his government’s anti-British propaganda and declare publicly to the American reporters in Vichy that he supported America’s increased defence expenditure and its democratic ideals.
Back in New York, Henry Luce, founder and owner of Time and Life magazines, invited René to lunch and an editorial staff meeting. René was already a friend of Luce and his glamorous wife, the playwright Clare Boothe, whom he had guided around the Maginot Line the previous May. Timehad given favourable publicity to René, noting on 24 June that Roosevelt had returned from his cruise with de Chambrun on the Potomac ‘refreshed and ready to act within the limits of his great powers. Some of them he used forthwith–to wave U.S. planes across the Canadian border’. Luce asked René a favour: would he meet Time’s 33-year-old editor, Frank Norris, and photographer Ed Riley ‘by chance’ on the Pan Am Dixie Clipper to Lisbon and ease their way across Portugal and Spain to Vichy? Luce told René he wanted Time to be first with a story out of the Free Zone, perhaps choosing to forget that a dozen American newspaper correspondents were already there.
When René arrived in Vichy with the two Time men, Clara was proud of her son and his achievements in the United States. She did not have to tell him what everyone in France knew: that his father-in-law, Pierre Laval, believed that Britain would lose the war and France must find a place, albeit secondary, in the new German Europe. If René de Chambrun and Pierre Laval argued about their differing conceptions of the outcome of the war, neither René nor Clara spoke of it. Nonetheless, Clara persisted in her belief that René, rather than Charles de Gaulle, who had been condemned to death in August for desertion by a Vichy court martial, was the man to save France.
After seeing his parents at the Hôtel du Parc, René met his father’s old commander, Maréchal Pétain, to deliver Roosevelt’s message. Pétain agreed to the president’s conditions for supplying powdered milk and other necessities to France. His foreign minister, Paul Baudoin, was immediately instructed to suspend his verbal attacks on Great Britain. At five o’clock that evening, Pétain gave the press conference Roosevelt had asked for. Correspondents from the United Press, New York Herald Tribune, New York Times,Baltimore Sun and Chicago Daily News recorded Pétain’s words: ‘France will remain firmly attached to the ideal that she shares with the great American democracy, an ideal based on respect for individual rights, devotion to family and the fatherland, love of justice and humanity.’ Satisfied that Pétain had done all Roosevelt asked, René returned to the United States on 31 August with his wife, Josée, bearing a letter from Pétain to the president.
René’s plans unravelled as soon as he reached New York, where Missy Lehand told him over the telephone not to come to Washington. Harry Hopkins, one of Roosevelt’s closest advisers in the cabinet, was on his way to New York to meet him for dinner that night. Hopkins was candid: ‘The president has had to give up the plan of shipping condensed milk. Churchill telephoned him insisting that we maintain the blockade [of France].’
René de Chambrun, whom the president declined to meet again, felt betrayed. Arrayed against him were, in addition to the British, many French émigrés in the United States like Eve Curie who believed that aid to any part of German-occupied Europe would only help the Nazis. Yet René persevered, campaigning across the country and seeking private assistance from Anne Morgan and the Quakers. Henry Luce’s Time magazine wrote, ‘René de Chambrun, a captain of French infantry, is a wiry little man of 33, with the late Nick Longworth for an uncle, a profitable knowledge of the law, both French and American, a host of important connections, a taste for driving too fast in an automobile and an inborn capacity for landing out of any catastrophe on his feet.’ The praise was for the book he had just published, I Saw France Fall: Will She Rise Again?, whose royalties he donated to a charity for French prisoners of war.
When Clara learned of Roosevelt’s change of mind, she took her son’s side:
Like his mother, the fact that a President of the United States, after all that passed between them, is false to his promise, does not turn him from his purpose when once it is settled. Consequently, after the terrible shock of such a disappointment he said little, but set about getting relief for France from other than government sources. He obtained all that was possible from the Red Cross and ex-President [Herbert] Hoover. The two ships which were sent over to Marseilles (where they arrived safely) did as much as two ships can to attenuate suffering.
René’s circumvention of Britain’s blockade of France attracted the attention of the British Embassy in Washington. Forgotten was Lord Lothian’s praise for René’s help to Britain in its most difficult hour. The embassy sent a cable to the Foreign Office in London recommending that René and Josée be denied transit visas for Bermuda, where the Pan Am Dixie Clipper stopped on its way across the Atlantic. (On René’s first return to France from New York in August, he had carried an introduction from Lord Lothian asking the Governor of Bermuda to offer him full hospitality.) An embassy officer named Mr Butler wrote on 14 November of René, ‘He is a plausible anti-British talker and the Passport Control Officer agrees that he and his wife be granted visas for the outward journey [to France], and his return [to the United States], if possible, be impeded. He possesses United States citizenship as well as French, but difficulties may be put in the way of him using a United States Passport on return.’ A handwritten note in the margin signed ‘MS’ added that ‘we don’t like the Chambruns’.