Paris—June 15, 1940
The next morning, breakfast at the Hotel Les Jardin de Luxembourg was a meager affair: day-old bread and the remains of a few pots of jam—and no butter. Walter was the only one eating.
Madame Hortense, the concierge, was clearly in a mood. Phillipe, the waiter, had apparently joined the hordes fleeing Paris along with the rest of the hotel’s guests, so she had to serve him herself.
Madame Hortense was a formidable woman. She stood several inches below five feet, and her girth almost matched her height, but she was clearly hewn from the same stone as Notre Dame. She might have been the model for the gargoyles, he thought. Her gray hair curled on top of her head like a mob cap. She’d be right in place in front of the guillotine, knitting away fiercely as the heads rolled. Madame Hortense nearly slammed the coffee pot down on the table in front of him, looked around the empty room, and sniffed contemptuously.
Walter responded by smiling pleasantly and raising his eyebrows as if to say, “Ah yes?”
“Les effrayants s’envolons. Eh bien, qui se fait brébis, le loup le mange,” she spit out. “The cowards run like sheep; that just makes it easier for the wolves to eat them.”
“D’accord,” Walter nodded sympathetically in agreement, then returned to his breakfast.
On his way out, he stopped at the desk to return his key. The hotel’s reception area, like those of most Paris hotels, had a wall of cubbyholes in which messages might be placed and the keys left when guests left their rooms for the day or evening. With the same innocent smile he asked, “Madame, I know it’s quite irregular, but might I take my passport with me?
“The regulations…” she began.
Walter politely, but firmly, interrupted, “Yes, Madame but there no longer is any French authority to whom you should report foreigners. And as for reporting to the Boche …” he mimicked her shrug. When she seemed to agree, he added, “As a neutral, I really do need my documents for my own protection.”
Without a word, she turned to the hotel safe behind her, and shielding the combination from his view, opened the safe, removed his passport, returned to the desk and slid it across to Walter. “N’a pas d’importance.” Walter could see inside the safe now. It was empty.
Thus armed with his American passport, he set out to explore a Paris now under Wehrmacht control. Instead of the tennis shoes, shorts, and sweater he normally wore for morning runs, he had chosen to wear a suit. His wardrobe had now expanded significantly beyond a single good suit. What had Papi said? “Clothes make the man.” His father didn’t know this adage came from that phony Polonius in Hamlet, but the advice was true. People often make up their minds in seconds about whom they’re dealing with, based on their first visual impression. More than that, he felt more confident when he was properly dressed. A good suit was social armor.
The silence that surrounded him as he walked down Impasse Royer-Collard was deafening. It was as if all the breath had been sucked out of the city. It took him several minutes to figure out why: there were no birds and no birdsong. Only later would Adrienne provide the reason: all the birds of Paris had been killed off by the thick cloud of black smoke and ash that had hung over Paris for the past week as French and English officials burned thousands of documents and the Standard Oil refineries were set ablaze to keep the petrol reserves from the Germans.
But the biggest shock came when he reached Boulevard Saint-Michel. Overnight, at every major intersection, street signs in German had been driven into the ground, nailed to trees, or bolted to street lamps.
Next to them were yellow posters requiring French citizens to turn in their radios and all firearms to their local arrondissement town hall by the end of the day and to present their private automobiles for requisition within forty-eight hours. Other signs announced that effective June 14, Paris time had been put ahead one hour to coincide with Berlin time, and Parisians should set their clocks and watches accordingly. Most startling, huge German banners hung everywhere, lining boulevards and draping the upper floors of important buildings. It was as if the city had been splashed with blood.
A handful of cafés were open, but most of their customers were German officers. The occasional Parisians he met seemed to be walking in a daze, as if they had been dropped into another world, strangers in their own city.
He really didn’t have a plan, just the strong feeling that he really wanted the familiar comfort of American voices. He walked down Boulevard Saint-Germain to the Pont de la Concorde. Maybe the bar at the Hôtel Crillon might be open. But when he entered the Place de la Concorde, the façade of the Hôtel Crillon was now disfigured by a huge Swastika flag and uniformed German soldiers stood guard at the entrance. He spotted Bob Murphy walking out of the American Embassy next door, which still proudly flew the Stars and Stripes.
“Bob,” Walter said when they met, gesturing at all the road signs in German and the Nazi flags. “What is this shit?”
“It’s amazing how fast they worked,” Murphy said. “They were at the front door of the Crillon at 7:55 this morning. Within an hour after taking over the Crillon, they even tried to run phone lines from the embassy to the hotel. Ambassador Bullitt was furious.
He kicked them off the property and told them from now on the Marine guards would shoot any German soldier intruding on embassy grounds. But you know what? The hell with all this. I need a drink. The Ritz is out—the Germans have appropriated it for their Generals and top Nazi brass— but maybe we’ll get lucky at the Café de la Paix. You coming?”
They were lucky, Aside from a cluster of German officers at the far end of the bar, they had the place to themselves. After getting their drinks, Walter exclaimed, “The Germans must have been planning this for months!”
“Years, more like it,” Murphy said. “Shortly after they took over the Crillon, I paid the obligatory, and obviously necessary, courtesy call with Colonel Fuller and Commander Hillenkoetter, both of them in uniform, of course. The Germans were all quite proper and polite—we were offered the best champagne from the Crilllon’s cellars. In the lobby, they had set up a table with blueprints of the hotel, already marked off into each of the departments and offices for their general staff. Colonel Weber, whom I met in Poland before the war—he’s now General von Stüdnitz’s aide-de-camp—was happy to give us a complete briefing. The Germans know where everything is—all the hotels and government buildings they want to occupy with floor plans and the locations of all exits—all the bordellos, and which brothels, like One Two Two, they plan to commandeer for the exclusive use of German officers—the telephone and pneumatic-tube systems, where all the telephones and switchboards are—all the Jewish-owned buildings and luxurious homes they can seize and loot, and which banks contain the most valuable Jewish-owned deposits, the intersections they want to secure, the Mêtro stations they want to control, which museums still had art they could steal—everything.”
Murphy took a long pull of his drink and almost absent-mindedly swirled the bottom of the glass in wet circles on the table top before beginning again. “I think most of us feel we’ve been knocked over the head and have yet to recover our senses. History has rarely if ever, moved with such dizzying speed. It’s almost impossible to re-adjust our thoughts to a Europe dominated by one man, as in the Napoleonic era. Only now, instead of conquering kingdoms, Hitler is sweeping away democracies as if they were scared schoolchildren cowering in front of a bully, or,” he added, with a touch of anger, “like the crowd around Pétain, toadies looking to gain favor and status by doing his work.”
Walter let this news sink in for a few minutes. “So what now?” he finally asked.
“We’re moving the embassy out of Paris to Vichy. We’ll leave a charge d’affaires here to look after American interests. Bill has cabled the President that he will not serve the new government in Vichy. That will probably cost him his State Department position and maybe even a cabinet position if Roosevelt is re-elected in November.”