- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004


By Harvey Levenstein

University of Chicago Press, $35, 359 pages


“Seductive Journey,” the first volume of Harvey Levenstein’s study of American tourists in France, began with a drop-dead anecdote: an entry from the diary of one Robert Johnson, a Connecticut lawyer on a grand tour of France, who on January 21, 1793, “mixed with the citizens and saw Louis XVI beheaded.” It’s an opening that’s hard to top.

Volume II, “We’ll Always Have Paris: American Tourists in France since 1930,” starts with a less dramatic but nonetheless promising glimpse of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the wealthy expatriate couple who led a charmed life in Paris and the south of France during the 1920s. Their friends—among them Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Cole Porter—were legion, their parties legendary.

The stock market crash changed all that and here is this golden pair on the liner Aquitania sailing back to New York in 1931. But there is something wrong with this picture. While Mr. Levenstein rightly points out that Fitzgerald patterned Dick Diver, the central character of “Tender is the Night,” on Gerald Murphy, he is mistaken in dismissing Gerald as a drunk who, like Diver, “ultimately forsakes his creative talents for the bottle.”

Mr. Levenstein cites two sources for his assertion: Amanda Vaill’s “Everybody Was So Young,” and Calvin Tomkins’ “Living Well Is The Best Revenge.” Neither portrays Gerald Murphy as a drunk, but rather as a painter of considerable talent, a lively, considerate host, and a generous soul who at various times loaned or gave money to his artist friends.

Moreover, it’s no secret that Fitzgerald in “Tender is the Night” was describing his own problems with the bottle. This faux pas in the opening paragraph made me wonder if Mr. Levenstein could be relied on to get his other stuff straight—despite 70 pages of small-print notes in the back of the book. “We’ll Always Have Paris” relies heavily on written sources: tourists’ diaries and letters, newspapers and magazines, along with opinion polls and interviews by the author and his wife—who interviews her own relatives.

Nor am I convinced there is a need for this new genre of social history—one that takes account of class, gender and racial differences as it tracks the sacred (Notre Dame) and profane (Moulin Rouge, Folies Bergeres) wanderings of American tourists in France. Visitors might do better with a practical guide like Fodor or Michelin, or Julian Barnes’ “Something to Declare: Essays on France,” or Simon Schama’s “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.” And a French-English dictionary of course.

As noted, Mr. Levenstein resumes his account of American tourists in France as the Depression begins, a time when despite the crash France still offered much to attract well-heeled Yankees—haute cuisine, haute couture, naughty nightclubs and a chance to acquire culture by brushing up against it in the palaces, museums, and chateaux they visited in ever-increasing numbers.

While some liked what they saw, others found the country dirty and shabby, the food weird, and the French a smelly, immoral and arrogant lot out to fleece tourists at every turn. So strident and frequent are complaints about the perceived rudeness and rapacity of Parisians that they made me wonder if the squawkers had ever visited their own New York City, whose denizens also have a reputation for brusqueness.

Some assessments of the French are vicious. Syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler claimed the French defeat by the Germans in World War II was the result of “the decay so thoughtlessly but accurately summed up in the drunken yelp of the tourist: ‘So this is Paris! Where are the naked women?’” The French were thoroughly corrupt, he wrote: “Everybody grafted … Even in their biggest and best hotels the traveler had to check his possessions against pilferage and examine the bill with care. Chiseling was a national pastime.”

Mr. Levenstein points out that some American tourists contrive not to be cheated or overcharged and rarely encounter rudeness but, according to his account, they seem to be in a minority and it’s useful to note that most of them can speak at least a few words of French.

But the best bits he digs up from the archives of tourism are intriguing details such as the arrival in Paris of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (formerly Mrs. Wallis Simpson of Baltimore) with 134 pieces of luggage and their subsequent departure, after several shopping safaris by the Duchess, with 155.

Tourism changed over the course of the 20th century as France became a destination not only for the rich with time to travel by boat, but also for the moderately prosperous middle class, retirees and students, thanks to cheap air fares. As lightning packaged tours of Paris became popular, former Herald Tribune columnist Art Buchwald observed that Americans wanted to see only three things at the Louvre—the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, and the Winged Victory: “the rest of the stuff was all junk!”

Inspired by British runner Roger Bannister’s 1954 record-breaking four-minute mile, he and a friend achieved “the six-minute Louvre,”—the time it took to catch a glimpse of the three masterpieces and race to a waiting taxi. Mr. Levenstein notes that some tour groups even skipped the Winged Victory.

British author Nancy Mitford, who lived in Paris, was not delighted by the advent of mass tourism. “The barbarian of yesterday is the tourist of today,” she wrote, adding that their growing number, “far more surely than any war, will be the end of Europe.”

But now there’s a new way for American tourists to enjoy the charms of France without the hassles. In 1999 the “Paris Las Vegas” opened, an $850 million hotel-casino, featuring scaled-down replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre in the middle of the Nevada desert. Croissants are flown in daily from Paris and beret-wearing hotel employees bicycle around in striped T-shirts, bearing baskets of baguettes.

“We might be seeing the triumph of the kind of overseas tourism American visitors to France have often wished for,” writes Mr. Levenstein: “foreign tourism without foreigners.”

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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