12 July 2009

Interview: Stanley Karnow, Part II

In Washington, DC
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

By far the majority of Stanley Karnow’s books treat very serious topics — international politics and war — and Stanley’s role is that of narrator and guide, not participant. The notable exception is Paris in the Fifties, which combines a memoir with a résumé of stories he covered as a young reporter. Augmenting the pages are another personal touch: illustrations by Stanley’s wife, Annette, who passed away earlier this month. Paris in the Fifties concludes with Stanley and Annette’s marriage, and the launch of the great global adventure they shared.

It was natural, then, that the conversation would turn to Paris, when Stanley and I sat down last week at his home in Maryland.

WVM: You were talking about sitting with Hemingway. I’ve been rereading Paris in the Fifties, as you know, since I’ve been here.

STANLEY KARNOW: I need to get you a copy.

I’ve got a copy! I bought it when it came out — gave it to everybody I knew for Christmas. … Again, just rereading it, the number of amazing, influential 20th-century figures that you were running around with on a daily basis in Paris.

Well, don’t exaggerate. I mean, Hemingway — my only meeting was just once. Audrey Hepburn was just once. The Duke of Windsor was just once.

But think about it! [Laughing] That’s not a bad little list, though! … The question is, as you look back on it: I’m living in Paris in the Aughts, and you were living in Paris in the Fifites. What do you think I’m missing out on most, by being there fifty years later?

I don’t know. It’s very hard for me to say, because places change. You have to find your own Paris.

I’m trying.

When I went to Paris, just after the war, France was just recovering from the war. It took me a long time to begin to understand what I saw. There was a lot of bullshit around. Everybody had been in the Resistance, of course, which was absolutely bullshit.

They still are, by the way. All of them in the Resistance.

I saw some statistics. On D-Day, there probably weren’t more than 25 thousand Frenchmen in the Resistance. You know who’s done some very good work on that, is Tony Judt. Does that name ring a bell? He teaches at N.Y.U.; he’s done a marvelous book on French intellectuals. What a bunch of phonies a lot of them are. You know, Simone de Beauvoir was broadcasting for Vichy radio during the war. Sartre — his plays were being produced during the war, which means they had to have authorization from the Germans. Louis Aragon, who made vicious, vicious attacks against collaborators and was in league with the execution of [Robert] Brasillach — but you don’t know about that.


Well, there was a guy — he wasn’t a collaborator, but he was executed [by firing squad, in 1945]. But [Aragon] himself was running a magazine, and if you ran a magazine, you had to have paper and ink and all those things, and authorization from the Germans. He was married to a Russian woman, Elsa Triolet. Anyway, there was a lot of that phoniness in that period.

I always think about Arletty —

She dated a German, yeah.

She did, yeah. She had a great line: “My heart belongs to France, but my ass is my own.”

She was a great woman.

Arletty, with Pierre Brasseur,
in Carné’s
Les Enfants du paradis

It doesn’t seem all that collaborative, honestly, in the end.

Well — I mean, there were some great heroic figures. Just after the war, for example, the Communist Party was very strong. And the chairman, the head of the Communist Party, was named Maurice Thorez. I don’t know if you know of him. And I remember you’d go to these Communist conferences and congresses and meetings, and they’d all stand up and they’d say, “Hail Maurice Thorez, Premier Résistant!” Bullshit! He spent war in Moscow. He was nowhere near the war. And all these horrible guys. The whip for the Communist Party in the Assembly was a guy called Jacques Duclos. A little tubby guy, an ex-baker. And when [Pierre] Mendès France became Prime Minister, in ’54, Duclos referred to him a “sale yupin.” You know what that is? Kike.

I never heard that word, I’m glad to say!

Anyway — they all were — I mean, today, the head of the Communist Party couldn’t even get elected to the Assembly from his own constituency. But in those days they almost carried the country. I mean, more — a lot of the Communism was protest. It wasn’t necessarily ideological. You had the big union, the CGT [Confédération Générale du Travail] was Communist. The south was very Communist, the “Midi Rouge.”

And then you had all these idiocies. Simone de Beauvoir goes to America, where she has an affair with that writer, Nelson Ahlgren. So she writes a book called America Day by Day, in which she denounces American intellectuals for being materialistic. I don’t know whether you remember that. “Oh, you know, American intellectuals are interested in cars and refrigerators,” and she waffles on about all that, denouncing them. And the rejoinder to that was a brilliant piece by Mary McCarthy, saying, “It’s you who are being materialistic, because you make such a fuss about it.” She said, “We have cars — so what?” That’s just the way it was.

Material Girl? Simone de Beauvoir

But you know, I remember when I first got my little Renault, there was a young French poet called — what was his name again? People tell me he’s well-known. André. It’ll come to me at some point. So he looks at me — he was friendly with my first wife’s parents. “Oh! He has to buy a car! How crude, how materialistic!” What was his name again? André de Boucher.

That’s all finished. I mean, I used to stay at my friend’s house, André — my beloved André [Wormser]. He lived in an apartment that his family bought in about 1920. And at one stage, he just renovated the whole thing. He got microwave ovens and all that kind of stuff. That’s what the French are interested in. As France became modernized, they wanted all those things. They wanted cars; they wanted microwave ovens. They wanted this, that, and the other thing. They wanted to travel. They got to travel….

And then of course, there was the whole story of collaborationism, and Vichy. A guy who did a lot of work on that was a professor at Columbia. What was his name? Robert Paxton. Did you ever see The Sorrow and the Pity?

Not all the way through.

But you know what I mean.

Sure, of course. The wounds of the war must have been rawer back then.

Well, as I say, everybody was in the Resistance. Which was bullshit. What they were doing mostly — the French were sort of scrounging, scrounging to keep alive. The black market was very active. I was married to a French woman [his first wife, Claude Sarraute]. Did you ever hear of her mother, Nathalie Sarraute? They were trying to be as pure as possible. And they were sort of railing against “B.O.F.” Beurre–Oeufs–Fromage. That was a sort of nickname during the war, during the post-war period and the shortages. It was a reference to a lot of merchants who made a lot of money on the black market with butter, eggs, and cheese — beurre, oeufs, and fromage. So in their attempts to be pure, they would denounce all that stuff. You know, there was nothing wrong with that [position].

You know the magazine Transition? It was a little magazine that was started in the Twenties by a guy called Eugene Jolas. Does that name ring a bell?

Because I read the name in the book last night!

Maria Jolas

It was a magazine that Jolas founded with his wife. His wife’s name was Maria Jolas. She was a rich woman. She had gone to France in World War I as an ambulance driver or something. She stayed on, and she became a sort of great patron of literature and the arts. She was connected with Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare & Co., Natalie Barney … Janet Flanner. And whatnot. When my mother-in-law, Nathalie, bought house in a village in Normandy — [Marie] kind of adopted Nathalie. And when Nathalie bought a house in this village in Normandy, Maria Jolas also bought a house in this same village. Her husband died; Jolas died. She wanted to have him buried in the village cemetery. And the villagers didn’t want a foreigner. Not just a — well, first of all, he wasn’t really a foreigner. He was born in Alsace. But he’d become American. But they didn’t want an outsider. So anyway, she paid a lot of money to get him buried there.

There was another trait of the French, which I think is probably true of a lot of people — “mesquin.” Cheap, sleazy. You can get the French to do a lot of things for money. I don’t know whether that’s the proper word.

But look at the positive side. One of the lovely things about living in Paris was, it’s a very discreet city. You can do anything you want in Paris, nobody cares. Privacy, nobody’s butting into your business. The other side of that is a total lack of what we call civic responsibility. The French least civic-minded people I know. I mean, you could be sitting on a café terrace, and lying on the sidewalk is somebody having an epileptic fit, and nobody will get up to help him.

I’ve seen the opposite, actually, often. Maybe they’re afraid of getting arrested for non-assistance, but they do actually stand up and help.

Really? In my day, the French were very civically — how shall I put it? Concerned with yourself, and everybody else is a stranger. The idea of helping other people was very rare. Now, maybe that’s changed.

Especially in the case of an emergency.

I think, while I was there, they were not terribly civic-minded.

Well, they’d just been under an oppressive regime and they were trying to make their way back out again. That does tend to make people more selfish.


Or looking out for their self-interest. But I’ve been at the scene of a few accidents in Paris, and people jump to help.

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

In my day, I thought that, in contrast to England — I went to England in the summertime. The English are the biggest buttinskis in the world. They’re always prying into what you’re doing. And so forth. The English are … always concerned with what you’re doing.

I think now because of terrorism — you had the I.R.A. for all those years, and now because of Islamist terrorism —

I’m talking about my time.

Yeah, but I think that today they’re just even more, perhaps, concerned about anything you might be doing.

Well, what else is there to say about France? I was an American kid, going there and rather puritanical in an old-fashioned way. I can’t say that I was shocked. In a way I was kind of bemused, if that’s the word, by the amount of kind of sexual — what’s the word I want to use? Activities? That’s a terrible word.

The openness, I would think — I mean, the Americans were having sex, they just weren’t being quite as open about it.

Well, think about it. For example, my father-in-law, Nathalie’s husband, was a lovely guy, a terrific guy, Raymond. I really adored him. We had a friend, her name was Anne-Marie. We introduced him to our friend. She worked for Air France. She was not particularly pretty. She was tall, thin, kind of very angular, model-y looking woman. The next thing you know, he’s having affair with her. She’s our friend. She’s telling us all about the things he tells her, about the affairs he’s having with other women, or had been having with other women. Including the maid in the house, and so on and so forth. She told it to us, we told it to the other kids. The kids are just teenagers, and everybody is just giggling about these stories about their father. Here he’s having an affair with one of the maids they had. And everybody seems to know except his wife. She was in many ways naïve. She would say things like, “Raymond needs fresh air, so he’s going to Normandy to walk on the beach.” Really he’s taking his girlfriend off, and they’re going to stay at this little hotel in Normandy, which we had told him about. We all knew what was going on. I suppose in the end it’s harmless, but for me, it was like — the puritanical guy I was as a kid, an American kid — it was kind of dazzling to me.

I mentioned some of this in my book, and I remember my ex-wife was furious with me. All of these things were done, but you’re not supposed to talk about it.

I don’t know what it’s like now. Things have changed. First of all, divorce was quite impossible in those days. The ideal was, you could have extramarital relationship. Go ahead and have it, but keep the family intact. I mean, the family was sacred, right? So you keep the family intact. I remember when my mother-in-law talked about her friends and their extramarital relationships. She would talk about it. I mean, she was a very sophisticated woman. She wasn’t shocked. One of her heroes of course was Picasso. She’d talk about Picasso and all his mistresses. And I remember one time, I wasn’t there for this story, but Picasso came to her house in Normandy. And her youngest daughter, who was then about 15 or 16, and Picasso was interested in Nathalie’s daughter. And she would have been delighted if Picasso had run away with her youngest daughter.

And then a lot of the theater had to do with all that kind of stuff. Farces like — have you ever seen any Feydeau?

Yes, exactly.

Jumping from one bed to another.

What I’ve noticed in reading books, is there’s this huge kind of culture of the mistress in French literature. From Manon Lescaut to Nana —

Some of them — Madame de Maintenon! Some of the mistresses would be historically remembered, with names of streets. It’s somewhere over there near the statue of Louis XIV —

The château of Madame de Maintenon is huge. And I live in the shadow of — it’s in ruins, but a château that was owned by Diane de Poitiers.

The Château of Beynes (right), Fêtes Beynoises 2008
Photo by WVM

Well, that all played a part in [the culture and attitudes]. You’d hear stories. I remember a French woman reporter, who was a Neiman Fellow when I was, in the Fifities. She was telling me a story about how a friend of hers at L’Express goes to the editor and says, “I’m having an affair with Mitterrand,” or whoever it was. The editor says, “Stick with it! You’ll get a raise!” [Laughter]

This may be a way to wrap up — but most Americans — I think there are surveys that will back me up on this assertion — but when I talk to Americans, they say, “Oh, the French are awful.” I’ve actually found them to be pretty welcoming.

When Americans go there? Well, I think [the French] are, actually. I mean, once again, you get different stories. I have a friend who was the editor of Nouvel Observateur, Jean Daniel. He was with Leclerc in the landings of Normandy in the second tank division. And he would say to me, “Oh, it was terrible. When I went through Normandy, all the people were complaining about the American bombing.” Why does he tell me that? It’s nonsense. He loves to come to America. He comes here. He considers himself the expert on America.

There was always a certain amount of jealousy on the part of some French toward the United States. But on the other hand — you could probably tell me more about it — young people, right? The young people, they’re into whatever, rock music —

The culture is very Americanized.

I remember seeing on the platform inside the Métro, where I used to get on when I stayed at André’s. I’d be sitting there, and the kids were coming by on skateboards, wearing Yankees T-shirts and sweatshirts, and Giants baseball caps. And the French are coming to America.

Oh, the tourism is amazing in New York! You can hardly walk down the block —

André Wormser

There are hotels where everybody speaks French! And there’s a hotel out west, I can’t remember, where the owners are French, and the whole hotel is French. When I took André out to a dude ranch one time, he loved it! He would eat these huge breakfasts, and he was on his horse all the time. He would brag to his friends. He’d go, “I have been to the Fahr Vest.” [Laughter]

You and I were both kind of adopted into French families in a way that our own families would not have done for our partners. Which I find very interesting.

Well, I must say, I thought that the way my French family adopted me — they were lovely people, they were terrific.

That was like my experience.

But when we broke up, naturally they supported their own daughter, of course. I didn’t expect anything else. I was a little upset, because I thought that they liked me so much. But anyway. They were much nicer to me than my family was to my wife. My mother was born in Europe, and you know, had this horror of being a greenhorn. So along comes this Frenchwoman, this French girl, and my mother thinks, “What is he doing, bringing some European refugee?” And my mother had no idea. She had never gone to Paris. She would’ve seen my in-laws’ apartment. This vast apartment in the 16th Arrondissement. They were classy people. But she had no idea. All she knew was that this foreigner — “can’t be foreign.”

Well, we can’t go on forever.

No. But this is terrific. Anyway, it is fun for me to be there, and having adventures against the same backdrop, against which you had yours. It’s a nice connection.

Well, you do what you want to do. I don’t know how I feel about it. I used to go to France quite often. I’m not going to go anymore. Cathy [his daughter] wants me to go there on a trip, she’s going to give one of her talks down there in the Midi. I’m not sure I’m gonna go. My friends are gone. My friend André is gone. I have some other friends, but not many.

It changes things.


Newlyweds: Stanley & Annette Karnow
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

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