D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944

The recent anniversary of D-Day has put me on a reading streak of WWII related books. My favorite is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. (You can read my earlier review and see my photographs of its setting in St-Malo here.) One of the most powerful insights from the book was the realization of how much damage the Allies caused as they forced the Germans out of St-Malo.

An Alliance Francaise teacher recently shared with me a line she recalled from her parents: “Nous aimons les Américains. Mais nous aimerions qu’ils encore plus si ils ont bombardé un peu moins.” (We like the Americans. But we would like them even more if they bombed a little less.)

d-day through french eyesSpurred on by these insights, I was drawn with great curiosity to this book: D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944 by Mary Lousie Roberts (University of Chicago Press 2014). The book is based on first-person testimony by French people who lived in Normandy in June of 1944. It’s absolutely fascinating to hear their stories.

Paratroopers fell into family gardens and farmers’ fields and were welcomed into French farmhouses, regardless of the danger. Norman families gathered up the silk parachutes and later used them to make shirts, blouses and even wedding dresses.  As Roberts put it: “In the next few years, hundreds of Norman brides would be married in dresses made from that material.”

But the truth is much more complicated. Liberation came at great cost. Nineteen thousand civilians were killed during the Norman invasion. The towns of LeHavre, Caen and Saint-Lo became “martyred towns, almost completely wiped off the map.” These towns were key transportation routes for advancing German troops and the Allies were determined to  destroy their bridges and roads. The Allies dropped leaflets to warn the occupants of these targeted towns, but they often had nowhere else to go. Bomb shelters were rare in France, unlike England. The Normans hid under tables or mattresses and prayed the rosary while “friendly” bombs fell and their homes were destroyed. By the time Caen was liberated, just one-quarter of the town was still standing.

In a chapter called “First Glimpse,” the French share their first impressions of the American soldiers. They were all amazed at their height and size – they called the Americans “giants,” “beanpoles,” “strapping fellows.” They noticed the Americans’ silent rubber boots, so different from the loud sound of German boots they’d become accustomed to.

Norman children fondly recalled American soldiers who gave them their first Hershey bars and their chewing gum. They thought the “brownish-beige chocolate . . .  tasted funny,” and didn’t really know what chewing gum was. “Do you just keep on chewing?” Many Norman children were fatherless during the war, so they bonded quickly with the American soldiers who befriended them, playing soccer and basketball. The adults marveled at “thin” Lucky and Camel cigarettes wrapped so neatly in cellophane. The French noticed that German soldiers smelled like leather, soap and tea, but American soldiers smelled like peppermint, doughnut and American tobacco.

These are just a few of the many well-told first-person stories in D-Day Through French Eyes. They offer a refreshing and sobering point of view for Americans who are more accustomed to looking at the world through their own eyes. We should probably try it more often, n’est-ce pas?

Coco Chanel: Sleeping with the Enemy

Sleeping With the Enemy is a bubble-bursting kind of book.

When most people think of Coco Chanel, they probably picture her like I used to, as played by Audrey Tautau in Coco Before Chanel (2009). Either a hard-working young thing from the provinces, or the ambitious and innovative fashion icon she became later in her life.

After reading Hal Vaughan’s 2011 book, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent, a new image comes to mind, and it’s not good. At best, Chanel was a powerful woman who would do anything to survive, to succeed, and to walk away from the war unscathed. At worst? Chanel was an anti-semitic Nazi collaborator and morphine-addicted snob who not only slept with the enemy, but aided them.

U.S. Edition (2011)

Hal Vaughan’s book relies on documents from a variety of archives and other legitimate sources, including German files discovered in the Soviet Union. They show that Chanel had a long-term love affair with a Nazi spy, the handsome, aristocratic and half-British Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, known to his intimates as “Spatz.”  At the beginning of the Second World War, Chanel sought help to obtain her nephew’s release from a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Spatz was the perfect string-puller. It didn’t take long until the two formed a long-lasting romantic alliance.

Chanel’s relationship with Spatz enabled Chanel to keep living in luxury in the midst of war. Although Chanel initially departed for Vichy, France, Spatz called in a favor with the German High Command and they invited Chanel to move into the Cambon wing of the Ritz as the Nazi’s “Privatgast.” Chanel’s new rooms weren’t quite the same as her old suite facing Place Vendome, but they would do.

While other Parisians suffered through severe food rationing during the long, desperate years of occupation, Chanel sipped champagne with the top German officials who had taken over the Ritz. Chanel and Spatz dined at Maxim’s, went to black-tie affairs at the opera, and attended glamourous dinner parties at the German Ambassador’s residence on the Left Bank.

But of course, there was a price to be paid for Spatz’s favors. And it appears Chanel had no trouble paying it. Chanel and Spatz traveled to Berlin to meet with with a top SS intelligence chief, and Chanel became German Secret Agent F-7124, code name “Westminster.” If Vaughan’s book has a weakness, it is here, where he seeks to explain the nature of Chanel’s missions on behalf of the Germans. It is not entirely clear what specific traitorous acts she performed against the interests of the French people. Nevertheless, it is perfectly clear that Chanel was a pro-German collaborator who was not quiet about her dislike for Jews.

Chanel didn’t just nod when other people said bad things about Jews at German dinner parties. She spouted quite a bit of venom herself. But even worse, she actually tried to use anti-semitic laws to fight for the ownership of Chanel No. 5. Back in 1924, Chanel had sold her highly successful perfume line to the Jewish Wertheimer family, and  she wanted it back. Spatz introduced Chanel to the senior Nazi official in charge of the “Aryanization” of Jewish property in France, and he helped her try to wrestle the control of Chanel No. 5 away from the Wertheimers. However, the Wertheimers were prepared and had already placed the company into a trust. For once, Chanel did not succeed.

It is still a mystery how Chanel was ever able to avoid arrest and prosecution after the war. According to Vaughan, a case was opened against her and she appeared for an interrogation, but the case went nowhere. The rumor is that Winston Churchill intervened on her behalf. Chanel slipped out of France and headed straight to Switzerland, where she spent several more years living with Spatz.

Chanel made a huge comeback in Paris in 1954. She was in her 70’s and the French didn’t wanted to be reminded of who did what in the the war. She died in her rooms at the Paris Ritz in 1971, the past varnished over. She was a fashion icon worth over $54 million. And the brand lives on.

Despite everything I learned from Vaughan’s book, and I was still interested in going on the Paris Walks Fashion Tour, which I did just this week. The tour guide was well informed about Chanel’s past, and offered a middle-of-the-road, no-one-really-knows interpretation of Chanel’s role with the Nazis. The tour guide shared a particularly interesting quote. When asked about her relationship with Spatz, Chanel supposedly said: “At my age, I’m so happy to have a lover, I don’t ask for a passport.”

In any event, here are some photos from the Paris Walks Tour, which I highly recommend.

And just in case – like me – you don’t have the right credentials to get on the Chanel VIP list for current tours of Chanel’s apartments, at least we can enjoy the photos of someone who does. Check out this story from the Guardian, complete with eye-popping photos of Chanel’s glamorous lifestyle on rue Cambon.

The flagship Chanel boutique at 31, rue Cambon in Paris. Chanel had apartments above the boutique where she entertained her clients, but she did not sleep there. She slept at her apartment in the Ritz, just across the street.

The back entrance to the Ritz on rue Cambon. Chanel's apartments during the war would have overlooked this street.

The famous mirrored staircase leading up from the boutique to Chanel's private apartments. Picture Spatz and Chanel here.

Chanel's suite at the Ritz before WWII, facing Place Vendome. It can be yours now for only 8,500 Euros per night. (Hopefully without any smoke damage from the recent garage fire!)

Pictures at an Exhibition: Art, War And Memory in Paris

In the novel Pictures At An Exhibition, (Knopf Hardcover 2009, Vintage Paperback 2010) Sara Houghteling tells a captivating story of the Nazi looting of art in occupied Paris during World War II. Told through the eyes Max Berenzon, the son of a highly successful art dealer in Paris, this exceptionally researched and beautifully executed book is about lost paintings, lost love, the art of survival and the power of the imagination.

Max’s father is a leading Jewish art dealer with a gallery on Rue La Boetie in the 1920’s and 30’s. The gallery represents such artists as Picasso, Matisse, Manet and Morisot. In a wonderfully imagined scene in the book, Max’s father would pass by Picasso’s studio, just a couple of doors down from the gallery, and Picasso would raise his canvases up to the window for his dealer’s friendly thumbs-up.

Max grows up with artwork on his walls and and in his veins. Max’s father makes Max memorize the paintings of the wall at one of their exhibitions, in the exact order in which they appear. They are etched into his memory, a lesson that will prepare Max for the tragic mission that lies ahead.

Anti-semitism is building in Paris and Max’s family finally realizes the true danger and scope of the Nazi threat. They leave their gallery and artwork behind as they escape to a small village in southern France. Max’s youthful sidekick, Betrand Camondo, the grandson of Count Moises de Camondo, tries to stay in Paris too long and sadly becomes of les absents.

After three years in hiding, Max returns to liberated Paris and finds his father’s gallery completely looted. Max stumbles through Paris, searching for his friend Bertrand and hunting down his father’s lost art in the shady world of black market galleries and tight-lipped collaborators. Max seeks out his father’s former gallery assistant, Rose Clement, for whom he has long had unreciprocated feelings.

Rose is modeled after the real-life Rose Valland, who earned the French Legion of Honor for her work as a spy and gallery assistant in the Jeu de Paume during World War II. Valland covertly tracked most of the 20,000 pieces of the stolen art, enabling the Monuments Men to follow the front lines and rescue the art from Hitler’s private collection or secret hide-outs deep in the mountains of Germany.  In 2005, the French government placed a plaque on the outside of the Jeu de Paume to commemorates her heroism.

I enjoyed this book so much that I followed it up with Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholson. In addition, fans of old movies might enjoy watching The Train, a hyped-up version of the Rose Valland story starring Burt Lancaster and Jeanne Moreau. For Rape of Europa is also available as a documentary film, which I highly recommend.

I can’t wait to sign up for a Paris During the Occupation walking tour. In the meantime, I took a short walk down Rue La Boetie to find the site of the Berenzon’s fictional gallery and Picasso’s former art studio. Because Sarah Houghteling has a Master of Fine Arts and researched the book while on a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, I wouldn’t be surprised if the addresses are based on historical fact. I really hope so. On my own visit, I sat down inside 21 Rue La Boettie (in what is now a Pomme et Pain restaurant) and enjoyed some hot vegetable soup, right in the spot where Picasso would have raised his canvas in a salute to  Daniel Berenzon.

I give my own salute to Sara Houghteling and Pictures At An Exhibition. Highly recommended. This would be a great book for a book club to read along with a trip to their favorite art museum. Or better yet, a trip to Paris!

23 Rue La Boetie: Berenzon Gallery

21, Rue La Boetie, Picasso's Studio

Rose Valland Plaque at Jeu de Paume