Books, December 1997
“Why do people come to Paris any more?” asks Stanley Karnow, Pulitzer prize-winning writer and author of a new book, “Paris In The Fifties.” He lights another Gitane and sips his café crème. “When we came here, we were kind of searching for the belle époque of the ’20s, the Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein era… I’m told that young people today come here searching for the belle époque of the ’50s. Everyone looks backs and says wow! Things were better then. Who knows, maybe they were.”
Karnow’s story may sound familiar. He came to Paris as a student in July 1947, straight out of Harvard, planning to stay for the summer. After a whirlwind tour of a Europe still devastated by war, he fell in love with a French woman and started looking for work in Paris. Taken on by Time magazine, he stayed for 10 years.
His new book is “a reporter’s notebook, not a social history.” Despite the grinding poverty – food and clothing were rationed, and only fifteen percent of Parisians had a bathroom – Karnow lived a charmed life, hanging out in cafés with the local intellectuals, eating endless lunches, then retiring to the bar of the Crillon Hotel on Place de la Concorde – the Time office was just upstairs – to file his voluminous weekly dispatches. Most of these were never used, and form the basis for his book.
Karnow recounts his interviews with a long list of visiting celebrities – Hemingway, Orson Welles, John Huston, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett and a breathless Audrey Hepburn, only 24 and just finished filming “Roman Holiday.” He plays golf with the Duke of Windsor, and befriends Karl Marx’s great-grandson, Robert-Jean Longuet. He describes the political confusion of the chaotic Fourth Republic, and his investigations into crime, “le Tout Paris,” the intellectual world, French youth, the fashion season, and the last prisoners to return from Devil’s Island. We go on quick tours of the Beaujolais and North Africa, and are given potted histories of Paris brothels (a favorite subject), the grandes écoles, the French love of food, the guillotine, even tax evasion.
If a lot of this sounds like romanticized nostalgia, remember that France used to be dirt cheap for foreigners. Karnow came over on the GI Bill, $75 a month, and lived “not lavishly, but pretty well. Now you can shoot 75 bucks for a dinner, easily.” And if it was a golden age for Americans in Paris, it wasn’t so great for the French. “It was terribly poor, especially in the immediate postwar years, salaries were very low, there were lot of social tensions. The French look back and they say it was terrible – they were humiliated by their surrender in the war, they had an absolutely preposterous political system, they were losing a war in Algeria, and getting engulfed in a war in Indochina.”
The Cold War casts a long shadow over the book. On one side are the American bureau chiefs who are convinced that the French are all commies, and make Karnow swear on oath that “I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Communist.” On the other side are the French intelligentsia, lead by Sartre, who toe Stalin’s line until late into the decade – only André Gide, shocked by a visit to Moscow, dared to question the Soviet orthodoxy, and he was ostracized for it.
In May 1958, Karnow moved to Hong Kong to become Time bureau chief for Asia. He went on to write acclaimed books on Vietnam and the Philippines, before returning to the States in the early 1970s. He visits Paris regularly, to visit old haunts and friends from the ’50s.
So how has Paris changed? Not a lot. “I think the French are fundamentally conservative, in the sense that they want to preserve things, they like things the way they were. In many cases, what sounds like radicalism is rhetoric. They recoil from drastic change.”
But he can’t help this feeling that a certain dynamism has gone: “One of things that attracted Americans, and a lot of other foreigners, to Paris in the ’50s, was this sense that this was a cultural center. With a global impact. When Sartre, Camus, Malraux [or] Françoise Sagan published a new book, it was a worldwide event, it would make the newspapers in New York, London; it had real impact. The painters were painting, Picasso, Braque. Paris still dominated the fashion world. It’s all gone.”
So why do people come to Paris any more? “Well, there is a style of life that is very pleasant,” he says, puffing on his Gitane and looking around the café. “No one cares if you smoke! It’s a very permissive city, a very discrete city. And all week I’ve been going out to restaurants. Naturally, that’s what you do in Paris – dine out night after night. I sometimes wonder when they sleep.”