- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010


By Charles Glass

Penguin Press,$32.95

524 pages, illustrated


Paris has always occupied a very special place in Americans’ hearts, and so it is not surprising that they took its shocking occupation by Nazi forces in June 1940 very hard. As is so often the case, this feeling was encapsulated in a popular song, “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” which Oscar Hammerstein II felt impelled to write in response to the catastrophe that had befallen what had once been known as the “City of Light.”

Millions on this side of the Atlantic wept as they listened to this ballad celebrating the glories of what had been. For those Americans unfortunate enough to find themselves in the French capital that fateful summer, though, there would be little time for nostalgia. They were too busy coping with the grim realities of living under the iron heel of Nazi Germany.

American author and journalist Charles Glass has chosen to concentrate on four very different Americans living in Paris at this time. Sylvia Beach ran the celebrated English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company, so important to expatriate writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Joyce who patronized it. It was not just a bookshop either: When publishers would not touch Joyce’s masterpiece “Ulysses,” Beach published it herself under the imprint of her store.

Charles Bedaux was a French-born American citizen who had made a fortune through his controversial methods for increasing business productivity but was more famous for hosting the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at his chateau in 1937. Dr. Sumner Jackson was a rock-ribbed Yankee from Maine who was head of the American Hospital in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris. Countess Clara de Chambrun was the Ohio-born sister of Speaker Nicholas Longworth of the U.S. House of Representatives, married for decades to a Frenchman who through his direct descent from the Marquis de Lafayette held dual U.S./French nationality.

Through this odd quartet of Americans - and also through two institutions, the American Hospital and the American Library of Paris of which Clara de Chambrun was a pillar - Mr. Glass tells his gripping tale which is a piquant melange of integrity, opportunism, heroism, and collaboration.

Beach and Jackson stand out in their different ways as admirable characters, she by adhering to her principles and keeping herself free of any taint of accommodation to the vile occupiers of her beloved city and he as a genuine hero of the resistance. Not only did Jackson keep the American Hospital going as an oasis of humane treatment of Americans and others in need (often at no cost), but he also used it as a cover for a vital network that enabled downed Allied fliers and Free French couriers to escape to neutral nations. For this, he paid a heavy price: He, his French wife and 17-year-old son were deported to Nazi Germany as slave laborers, and he died, ironically, as a result of Allied bombing toward the end of the war. Mr. Glass paints a deeply appreciative portrait of these two fine Americans.

But his treatment of Bedaux and Clara de Chambrun is problematic, to say the least. Bedaux was actually charged by the United States with treason (very rare even at this point in history) for his trading with the enemy. Mr. Glass chooses to view his subsequent suicide as an unselfish and even heroic act to avoid incriminating people in the resistance with whom he had ties, but he takes insufficient account of the very real possibility that Bedaux, who was a consummate operator, was playing all sides and that he took his own life when he saw that the game was up for him rather than out of concern for others. Clara had close family ties to the odious and infamous French collaborator Pierre Laval (shot by the French after the Liberation) - her son was married to his daughter. Almost unbelievably, Mr. Glass repeatedly cites her conflict between family ties and loyalty to the nation of her birth (to say nothing of the one that was hers by adoption and marriage) as a dialectic between poles equally worthy of respect:

“A straight line of only 500 yards separated Sylvia Beach’s apartment from Clara de Chambrun’s house. For four years of occupation, the two American women had shared the Sixth Arrondissement and a love of books. Yet they inhabited different worlds. Clara, 70 years of age and friend of men she believed had shielded France from the worst of German occupation, distrusted the mobs that were forming to take over Paris when the Germans left. They were, in her eyes, ‘wartime profiteers,’ ‘ruffians’ and ‘urchins.’ Sylvia, 57, and a friend of resistants and Jews murdered by the Nazis, saw the same militants as heroes. Negotiating the moral maze of occupation, Sylvia had even thanked a Vichy police minister for her release from internment in 1943. And Clara, whatever her sympathy for Vichy, looked forward to the arrival of the American army and never doubted her loyalty to her native and adopted lands. The countess from Cincinnati and the publisher from Princeton represented, as well as differing French reactions to occupation, opposing American conceptions of right and wrong.”

Despite Mr. Glass‘ advocacy for Clara and his repeated attempts to invoke sympathy for her, she comes across as a collaborator who betrayed the values of the both her countries and who richly deserved the ignominy and shunning she received in postwar Paris.

There is also a distressing subtext of anti-Americanism in Mr. Glass‘ narrative. It is one thing to criticize the United States for continuing to recognize the collaborationist Vichy regime rather than De Gaulle’s Free French as the government of France until as late as 1942. But his pointed references to American racial discrimination and his hostile account of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI’s pursuit of Bedaux smack of an attempt at moral relativism that is rebarbative and inappropriate given the depths of Nazi iniquity. Mr. Glass definitely does better with his heroes in this book than he does with those whom many readers will judge to be villains, even if he does not.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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