Paris — June 16, 1940
When Walter got back to his hotel, Madam Hortense had a message for him. “This came for you while you were out. A woman. I wrote down what she said.” Madame Hortense handed over the note, holding it by the edge with her thumb and index finger as if it were something that smelled bad. Walter looked at the signature, “Dominique.” That explained Madame Hortense’s disgust. She would have known everything she needed to know about Dominque after listening to a few sentences.
Walter, can you please help me? We were on our way back to Paris and something terrible has happened to Edouard. I’m stranded in Angerville, all alone and quite desperate. The concierge at the Hotel de France knows how to reach me. The number is 44-718. Please, please come. Dominique.
“This is a problem,” Walter said, his eye still on the note. He composed himself to lie as guilelessly as possible before looking up. “She’s an acquaintance. I met her at a party in the Embassy. Not my crowd, really.” He shrugged. Better to say too little than too much. “You know what those people are like.”
Madame Hortense nodded in agreement. “They’ll get what’s coming to them, sooner or later. La punition boite, mais elle arrive. Retribution limps along slowly, but sooner or later it arrives. Well. So the vain little bird gets caught in cow shit and then begs to be pulled out. If she’d asked me, I’d have given her something to cry about. But of course you will try to rescue her?”
“I think I must try.”
“Well it’s what you Americans do, isn’t it?” She paused. “With the roads and the bombings … wait a moment before you go, I’ll see if there’s something in the kitchen I can make up for you.” Then she added with a piercing look, “Entre l’arbre et l’écorce il ne faut pas mettre le doigt. Don’t put your finger in a bad place; it may get pinched.” Walter was pretty sure she wasn’t talking just about his finger.
* * * * *
After calling the hotel and leaving word for Dominique, he was on his way. He’d taken N-2o south out of Paris. A month ago, when one could still buy petrol, Walter had filled four 20-liter jerry cans with fuel and stored them in his garage. He had one strapped in the trunk of the car. Good thing the Germans aren’t strafing cars now, he thought. This car would turn into a torch.
Angerville was about 80 kilometers away. The trip should have taken about an hour and a half; after two hours he’d covered only 20 kilometers to the outskirts of Fresnes.
He was fighting traffic now heading back to Paris — the same people who days before had fled the city. The sides of the road were littered with the remains of that frantic attempt to escape: abandoned suitcases, boxes, clothing, personal belongings — including a children’s doll, lying in the mud, its ceramic head smashed — and mattresses. Every few hundred yards he would pass cars, stranded in the middle of the road or pulled off on to the shoulder at crazy angles. Many had bullet holes stitched across their roofs, hoods and windows; a few were just burned-out shells. The bodies had been removed, but occasionally he drove past fields still littered with the now bloated bodies of horses and cows.
He gave up fighting the mass of people on the N-20 and took a detour at Arpajon on to N-449, swinging to the east. Near la Ferté-Alais the bridge had been bombed, and he had to crawl across the single lane that remained. He passed a detachment of French troops in Malesherbes and remembered de Maupassant’s description of the 1870 French defeat by the Prussians.
For several days in succession, the remnants of a routed army had been passing through the town. They were not disciplined units but bands of stragglers. The men’s beards were unkempt and dirty, their uniforms in rags, and they slouched along without colors or regiments. All of them seemed crushed and exhausted, incapable of thought or resolve, marching out of force of habit, and dropping with fatigue as soon as they stopped.
He didn’t reach Angerville until early in the afternoon. The square in front of the white stucco Hotel de France was jammed with cars, tumbled together like fish trapped in a net. He finally found an opening by driving on the sidewalk of the vegetable market, slowly pushing people out of the way with his front bumper, until he reached a gap in the cars he could squeeze through, scraping both front fenders on either side. A few of the men around him cursed as he forced his way through, but without energy. He parked the car on the lawn of the church and muscled his way through the crowd back to the hotel. He passed a house with a small garden in front. The fence had been torn down and the vegetables ripped out of the ground. At a table on the hotel veranda, a woman, her face streaked with dried blood, sat by herself. She was cradling a baby in her lap. The baby looked dead; so did the woman. No one paid attention to her.
“C’est des conneries! No food. No rooms. Nothing to drink. No fucking anything,” complained an older man as Walter reached the hotel’s entrance. From his greased-stained blue de travail, Walter guessed some kind of mechanic. Walter just nodded as he pushed inside to the reception. Amazingly, there was still someone at the desk, a little man, taken to combing his disappearing light hair upwards to hide his growing baldness.
He sized up Walter immediately. “I’m so sorry Monsieur, we are full up and the kitchen is closed. Perhaps if you want to eat, you might try the café across the street?” Walter had seen the sign, “Café et Tabac.” The metal grille was pulled down over the storefront.
“No, I’m looking for someone. A Madame Beauvert. She left a message?”
“Ah yes. These are terrible times. Still, one must help one’s friends. She is safe. At the house of my sister’s cousin on Rue de Champ de Fiore.”
“And I would find that street…?” Walter began.
“My apologies,” the manager said. “When you leave the hotel, take the immediate right, direction Dourdan, and go up the street to your first left. If you reach the Restaurant L’Angervillois, you’ve gone a block too far. Second house on the right.”
Walter found the house easily. It was trim, whitewashed, with soft green shutters and a front garden the refugees had not yet discovered. The door, and the house were old. He glanced quickly around. Very petit-bourgeoisie. Not Dominique’s crowd either. He lifted the iron knocker and rapped several times on the door. After a few minutes he heard footsteps and a woman’s voice from behind the door.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Tough questions, Walter thought. I’m not sure I can answer either of them right now.
“I’m a friend of Madame Beauvert. I’ve come to take her back to Paris.” I don’t know whom that news will please more, he thought, Dominique or her hosts. He could hear several locks being undone. The heavy door finally squeaked open. When he stepped into the dim entrance, lit by a single ceiling fixture, Dominique was standing next to a very frightened woman. Dominique rushed to him and crushed him in an embrace.
“You’re here! Bless you, Walter. Bless you!”
He stepped back to look at her. She was wearing a Breton striped shirt over a simple, perfectly-styled black skirt and what he knew were Roger Vivier buckled low-heeled pumps, set off with a pink and green Hermès scarf. Jesus, he thought. In the midst of a god-damned war how does she do that? She hadn’t troubled with her hair. It was un-brushed, tousled — a sexy “just out of bed” look. He liked it.
Only when he looked at her face did he see the difference. Her eyes were red with weeping — or fear — or both. There were lines around her eyes and mouth he had never noticed before. The well-tended rose had faded.
They had been led to the front parlor. Dominique collapsed in a chair and Walter sat next to her as the words tumbled out. “It’s been such an awful nightmare. We stayed with Edouard’s cousins in Orleans. That was fine. Then the Germans attacked and began shelling the town and their planes dropped fire bombs. The pompiers were helpless. The Germans blew up the water plant. If the wind hadn’t shifted to the south we would have burned to death. The next day, Edouard said we would head back to Paris. There would be a cease fire — an armistice. The new government would need him. He sent the servants ahead with our luggage. He took the car, saying he would find petrol to get us back to Paris. That was three days ago. I haven’t seen or heard from him since. He sent the servants ahead in the Citröen. I finally got a ride here in a vegetable truck. Quite horrible. Along the way I thought I saw our Citröen alongside the road. It was burned. The truck driver wouldn’t stop so I couldn’t see if anyone survived.” Dominique broke down and started sobbing. Walter saw her patting her pockets for a handkerchief and offered her his own. She blew her nose noisily and wiped the tears away.
“If we are to get back to Paris before the curfew, what with the roads as they are, Dominique, perhaps we should leave now. Have you eaten?” He had saved one of Madame Hortense’s sausage and onion sandwiches for Dominique.
“I’m fine,” she said, looking up at him eagerly. “Let’s go.” It took her just a moment to get her one small suitcase and make her thankful goodbyes to her hosts.
Walter topped off his gas tank and they scraped their way out of the rat’s nest of jammed cars in the square. Walter decided to try N-20 again. This time, they were lucky. He had to weave in and out of stalled vehicles, and stop at times when something ahead brought the procession of returning Parisians to a halt, but they made progress. Dominique was soundly asleep, a car blanket wrapped around her, ten minutes after they left Angerville.
A few days before the Germans entered Paris, Bob Murphy had given Walter two American flags to attach to his front bumper with the thought they might be helpful in navigating German checkpoints. He hadn’t been aware of it on the way down, but now, the people he passed noticed the American flags. Many of them waved, and got out of the way so he could pass. He even heard cries of “Vive les Américains!” and “Quand est-ce qui vous arriverons?”
It was near dusk when he pulled up in front of Dominique’s mansion on Tolstoï Square off Boulevard Suchet. He shook her shoulder gently. “We’re here.” The mansion was dark.
She woke up, rubbing her eyes like a little girl after a nap, then looked around, and let her mind re-adjust itself to where she was. She reached across and took his right hand in both of hers, squeezing hard. “Come in with me,” she said. By the longing in her eyes,, Walter knew she meant not just her house but her bed. He gently removed her hands and placed them back in her lap.
“I’ll see you in safely, Dominique, and then leave.” She waited for the rest of it. “Do you have money to get by on your own, if that becomes necessary?” he asked.
Dominique nodded towards her suitcase in the back seat. “Edouard left me money… Yes.”
Walter didn’t know what to expect next — tears, pleading, a difficult scene — Dominique was better than that. “Well. So this is it,” she said, with a small, sad smile. Then thank you, mon chérie, for rescuing me — for everything. You were a wonderful lover.” She leaned forward and kissed him, Parisian style, on both cheeks.
“I won’t forget you either,” Walter said, although he knew that wasn’t what she had meant. “You will survive, Dominique. As for me, I have no idea what lies ahead, but I think it is a road I will need to travel by myself.”
After getting Dominique inside and checking to make sure the house was safe, Walter left without any more goodbyes. There was nothing more for either of them to say. He thankfully reached his garage well before curfew. After the day like this, he had no interest in dodging German patrols in a locked-down city. Before turning off the garage light and shutting the door, he looked ruefully one more time at the dents, scrapes, and smears of different colored paint on his front fenders. I’ll have to check the bolts on the front bumper he thought. It was hanging at a lopsided angle. Now we both know what it’s like to be in a war, he laughed to himself.
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. Gustav, 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 poltrons s’envolent. 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.
NEUILLY Rue de Chezy 45
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 Bill his State Department position and maybe even a cabinet position if Roosevelt is re-elected in November.”