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Charles Glass

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The Last of the Lost Generation in Paris Under the Nazis

Posted: 01/07/10 10:28 AM ET

The idea for Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation came to me one day while wandering through Paris and wondering what I'd have done when the Nazis took the city. Not being French, I had to consider how an American expatriate like myself might have distinguished or disgraced himself. It was the stuff of a novel, but I'm not a novelist. The inevitable outcome of this self-questioning was two years of research into what the Americans who actually did live in Paris in June 1940 did with their lives until the Germans were driven out in August 1944. The original title was Two Loves (from Josephine Baker's theme song, "J'ai deux amours, mon pay et Paris"), but my publishers seem to have had a better idea.

It was hard to write about all of the several thousand Americans in the city of light at the time, so I concentrated on four: businessman Charles Bedaux, physician Sumner Jackson, bookseller and publisher Sylvia Beach and American Library directress Clara Longworth de Chambrun. Their lives in different ways represented the majority of their countrymen in the decisions they made. Jackson resisted the Germans from the first day. Sylvia Beach tried to ignore them as much as she could. Bedaux did business with them on the grounds that there was no one else to do business with, although he was a regular informant to American diplomats who valued his assessment of German and Vichy officials. Clara Longworth de Chambrun, whose brother (US House of Representatives Speaker Nicholas Longworth) had married Teddy Roosevelt's daughter Alice, was related by marriage to both Franklin Roosevelt and the Vichy deputy premier Pierre Laval. She, more than the others, negotiated carefully between her loyalties to her native land and to the France she thought that Laval and Marshall Philippe Petain represented. Her equivocal position would cost her dearly when Paris was liberated.

There are many histories of the Lost Generation Americans who inhabited Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as of the Americans who settled there after World War II. This is the first look at those who stayed on during the most crucial period in the modern history of Paris. I have to admit, though, that - even after researching and writing their story - I cannot answer my original question: what would I have done? I know what I wish I had done, but can I be sure I'd have done it?


Charles Glass is online at www.charlesglass.net. "Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation, 1940 - 1944" is available from Penguin and on Amazon.