- - Sunday, July 3, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

EVERY FRENCHMAN HAS ONE

By Olivia de Havilland

Crown Archetype, $16, 143 pages

If you want to show that movie stars today just aren’t what they used to be in their glory days, a case in point is Olivia de Havilland, who turned 100 on July 1. The last survivor of the great screen queens of the 1930s — who can forget her indelible Melanie in “Gone With the Wind”? — she had already made many other films before that one. She went on to make memorable movies as different as “The Snake Pit” and “The Heiress” (which brought her second Oscar), star on Broadway and light up the screen for decades.

But she has had a full life apart from her acting, including two marriages and a child from each. Her second marriage, to an editor at the French magazine Paris Match brought her in the early 1950s to Paris, where she has lived ever since. This slim book is a light-hearted but also penetrating look at adjusting to French life, written more than half a century ago in the happy throes of a marriage that would end in divorce just before its silver wedding, although the couple remained close. Long out of print, we are lucky enough to have it published anew, embellished with some observations on today’s France, which show that, in her 100th year, Miss de Havilland has lost none of her acuity or her talent for informed and convincing cultural stereotyping.

Although quintessentially English in manner and diction, Miss de Havilland and her slightly younger sister Joan Fontaine, although British subjects by birth owing to their parents, were both born in Tokyo and raised in what is now known as Silicon Valley in California. But “Every Frenchman Has One” is very much written in the voice of an American woman — Miss de Havilland was naturalized at age 26 just before Pearl Harbor — complete with references to her alma mater, Los Gatos High School. She is also the mother of Ben, “a full-blooded American, half-Texan boy,” aged four when they “settled down to live in France.” Soon he wins first prize in French at a French school. Miss de Havilland replies to a friend’s inquiry: “How is Ben’s English? Lovely, simply lovely. He speaks it just like Charles Boyer!” We see at once not just his total immersion but her surprisingly vibrant sense of humor.

Which brings us to the riddle of the book’s title. No, it is not where its sauciness or the cliche about Frenchmen’s prowess as lovers might lead. Rather, it is the liver, “this most significant of all human organs as far as the French constitution is concerned.” She goes on most amusingly to recount her husband’s instructing her as to this oddity of French medical outlook, which attributes multiple diseases from colds to upset stomachs to “mal au foie”(liver trouble):

“Every Frenchman has one. Every serious Frenchman takes good care of his own and gives advice regarding his neighbor’s. A really patriotic Frenchman takes a cure every year and, if possible goes to a foreign spa to do so, showing himself to his European cousins as a responsible Frenchman.”

The account here of the couple’s trip to the Italian spa of Montecatini, its alternating purging and gorging, is one of the most delicious parts of this delightful book.

Of course, the liver is not the only organ under discussion and when it comes to the bladder, there is a serious gender divide. The male’s is catered to everywhere, but Miss de Havilland drily writes that “the French female bladder is exactly the contrary. It may not even exist at all. Not once has a French woman asked me where the ladies’ room was.” But this book is not all about body parts or functions: We learn the difficulties of adjusting to the dictates of everyone from the ubiquitous French concierge to Parisian couturiers, and in general navigating countless shoals fraught with embarrassment that sometimes feels like peril.

In her sharp remarks on contemporary — and perhaps eternal — French traits, the 21st-century Miss de Havilland lists “the importance of tact, restraint, subtlety, and the avoidance of banality” as well as “the key tenets of the guiding philosophy behind Parisian style,” which she had dubbed the “Paris Principle: 1. Discretion. 2. Discretion. 3. Discretion.”

Fortunately for us, she remains American enough to abandon this quality to tell us something that “Parisians could learn from Americans: How to fix things.”

Miss de Havilland concludes her book with what she has learned about the French during her six decades as a Parisian: “If a Frenchman is tender, his tenderness cannot be equaled. If a Frenchman is considerate, his consideration cannot be matched. If you are loved by the French as a whole, you really feel loved.”

So we are left in no doubt that, although the author’s marriage to a Frenchman did not endure, her love affair with the French — and with Frenchmen in particular — most definitely did. For this book is a love letter to them. Happy Birthday, Joyeux Anniversaire, Mademoiselle de Havilland.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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