French Impressions: Nancy L. Green on the “other” Americans; Right Bank expatriates in 20th century Paris
24 Tuesday Jun 2014
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Nancy L. Green is professor of history at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales and a member there of the Centre de Recherches Historiques. She is the author or coeditor of several books, including Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York, Jewish Workers in the Modern Diaspora, Repenser les migrations, and Citizenship and Those Who Leave. She received her Doctorate at the University of Chicago and a Doctorat d’État from the University of Paris VII.
While Gertrude Stein hosted the literati of the Left Bank, Mrs. Bates-Batcheller, an American socialite and concert singer in Paris, held sumptuous receptions for the Daughters of the American Revolution in her suburban villa. History may remember the American artists, writers, and musicians of the Left Bank best, but the reality is that there were many more American businessmen, socialites, manufacturers’ representatives, and lawyers living on the other side of the River Seine.
Nancy L. Green recounts the experiences of a long-forgotten part of the American expatriate population in The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941, (June 2014, The University of Chicago Press). She introduces us for the first time to the Right Bank American transplants. There were newly minted American countesses married to foreigners with impressive titles, American women married to American businessmen, and many discharged American soldiers who had settled in France after World War I with their French wives. The book details the politics of citizenship, work, and business, and the wealth (and poverty) among the Americans who staked their claim to the City of Light. For more information about Nancy L. Green visit: (Website) (Purchase)
Excerpt from The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941, “Reprinted with permission from The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941, by Nancy L. Green, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2014 University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.
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Photo portrait: Cynthia Truant
“Whether she is taking us into the territory of marriage and divorce…unearthing consular records of American misdeeds, or tracking down the capture of Baby Cadum soaps by Palmolive, she surprises and delights on every page.” —Alice Kaplan, Yale University, author of Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and French Lessons: A Memoir
INTERVIEW: The Other Americans in Paris
“There is an untold tale of Americans in the City of Light, a history of expatriation that parallels the story of those who came to France for creative inspiration. But with an important twist. While many Americans came to France in search of (European) civilization, many more came to disseminate the American version of it. Even as the writers and artists of the well-known ‘Lost Generation’ expressed angst over modernity and America’s role in it, other Americans overseas were participating in the debate over modernity in another way: by selling it or trying to.” —Nancy L. Green, The Other Americans in Paris
AWP: You are the author of The Other Americans in Paris. What inspired you to write this book?
NLG: An archival find. While working part-time as a secretary at the Law Offices of S.G. Archibald in Paris (to finance my history habit and finish my dissertation), I came across old client registers dating back to the early part of the twentieth century. They were vibrant testimony to the Americans and the American companies – selling everything from soap to tires to chewing gum – already in Paris before World War I.
AWP: Your research is exemplary. How did you accumulate and obtain this information? From civil and court records, memoirs, letters, eyewitnesses, among others? What were the challenges and how did you unfold the story you wanted to tell?
NLG: Two major sources were the law firm’s archives and those of the Paris consulate (in the State Department archives). While rich Americans could afford expensive legal help, more modest members of the “American colony” as it was called turned to the consulate for help. Consular archives are thus a terrific source concerning everyday encounters with the locals when the Americans turned to the U.S. government for aid with French problems.
AWP: During your research for The Other Americans in Paris, what aspect of the American colony in Paris wouldn’t you include?
NLG: I wish I had found things not to include, but the American bigamist and the French philanderer are all in there.
AWP: At times you intimately describe the selling of dreams—the dream of fitting in, the notion that if you dined at the right tables, rubbed shoulders with the right guests, married the right French title, people might indeed look at you in a new way. How do you unfold this story of transformation from the late nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century?
NLG: There is a significant shift in the make-up of the American community after the First World War. While wealthy rentiers and socialites – the idle rich – came in large numbers from the 19th century onward, accompanied by a certain number of bankers and… American dentists, there were increasing numbers of the working rich who flocked to Paris in the 20th century, perceiving opportunities after the war. There were also the more modest soldiers who, once they had seen “Paree” (and often a Parisienne), decided to stay. There is thus a relative “democratization” of Americans heading to France, from those who dreamed of salon life and furnished their French apartments with antiques to those who dreamed of economic opportunity after World War I.
AWP: During the early years of the American colony in Paris, did many businessmen, lawyers, and heiresses believe they were framers of a new era of American-French relations? Do we know their shared “truths”? Were they caught in their own web of gathering “riches” and “titles” or did they see themselves as historical interpreters, thereby influencing events around them?
NLG: Good question. It’s hard to know whether the heiresses or the rentiers thought of themselves as charting new territory. The businessmen and lawyers, however, as the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris records attest, clearly saw themselves as the avant-garde of American enterprise overseas.
AWP: Was the trade of Paris in the late nineteenth century mainly sustained by the economic invasion of American expatriates and visitors who spent money among the shopkeepers? What was the economic effect of the American Colony’s presence in Paris?
NLG: The economic effect was a dual one: in sales and in purchases. Americans (men mostly) came to sell their products. Other Americans (women, mostly) came to buy French goods. The former were both welcomed and feared. The latter were well appreciated, and tales are told of weeping dressmakers when “les Américaines” headed back home after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
AWP: Was theirs the romantic expatriate life commonly imagined, free from the constraint of provincial America?
NLG: Lucy Hamilton Hooper’s novel Under the Tricolor, or The American Colony in Paris: A Novel (1880) provides a well-informed insider’s view of the scheming, scams, and infighting among the elite. And, as journalist and author Albert Sutliffe commented, in 1887, Bostonians kept to Bostonians and Philadelphians Philadelphians. It is not just that Americans were divided among themselves. Henry James’s The Americans and Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth both show how Americans, be they from Boston or Chicago, had to come to terms with the stricter norms of French society. Social constraints may be of many sorts.
AWP: In the late nineteenth century, what was it like for an American to wake up in Paris? What was it like in the interwar period before the Second World War?
NLG: There were probably more roosters crowing and goats bleating in 1900 than in 1930, although Hemingway was still able to describe goatherds selling fresh milk in my neighborhood (the Contrescarpe) in the interwar period.
AWP: You write: “Doing business and socializing, the men of the American Chamber of Commerce, the Legionnaires, the women of the Daughters of the American Revolution chapters, and the members of the American Women’s Club in Paris, were all expatriates of another sort.” In what way? Did they band together?
NLG: Yes, they banded together, but in a different way than the Left Bank American writers and artists. Until now, we have all focused (understandably) on the salons of Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney, but the men and women of the Right Bank had their own forms of socializing, from the American Women’s Club of Paris (which also ran a whole range of literary and cultural activities) to businessmen’s banquets and DAR teas, talks, and wreath-laying on holidays and at other gatherings.
AWP: Were there directories and guidebooks of the American colony? Did churches play a role in the earliest organization of the colony?
NLG: Yes and yes. In fact, the directories of the American Chamber of Commerce are a rich source of social history. We know where people lived, what clubs they belonged to, which companies they represented. And in addition to the ACC, the two major American churches in Paris, the American Cathedral (Episcopalian) and the American Church (Protestant), have been important pillars of the community ever since the 19th century.
AWP: Were the great majority of talented and aspiring Americans coming to Paris young? Were they familiar with France, its language and its ways?
NLG: Age: a good question. We know a good deal about the art students, even if they didn’t necessarily make their way to the consulate or the law firm. The businessmen were presumably older. And it would be interesting to run a check on the countesses’ birth dates at time of marriage. But we don’t always know who spoke what to whom. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the businessmen and Right Bank bankers knew more French (they needed it for business) than the writers and artists who hung out together on the Left Bank.
AWP: Not all American residents in Paris between 1880-1941 were in the business of Americanizing the world. Some were there to spend rather than to sell. What part did American journalists reporting in American magazines and newspapers published or represented in France provide to this community?
NLG: The spenders were legion, as Gertrude Moulton’s porcelain collection attests. As for the journalists, American journalists were key intermediaries in both directions: feeding curiosity about France to the audience back home; and keeping Americans in Paris up to date on floods in Ohio or storms in Kansas. Their other major function was helping Americans in Paris keep track of each other’s escapades.
AWP: Was there a journalistic theme, such as “the mythical attraction of the French capital,” that resonated in their writings meant for American audiences in the U.S. and in Paris? What American newspapers were available in Paris in the late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century?
NLG: Janet Flanner’s “Letters from Paris” are perhaps the best known, but she was hardly alone. The African-American journalist Edgar Wiggins wrote under the nom de plume “the Street Wolf of Paris.” What intrigued me were the American papers published by and for Americans in Paris. The dentist Thomas Evans began a newspaper in 1868, but the most long-lasting American newspaper in Paris has been the International Herald Tribune, which advertised itself as “FRIEND and GUIDE of Americans Abroad” when it started life as the Paris edition of the New York Herald in 1887. The Chicago Tribune began its Army Edition during the war in order to give soldiers an alternative to the New York point of view, and, given the number of soldiers who stayed on, transformed itself into a European Edition of the Chicago paper. In the mid-1930s the two papers merged, leading to the IHT, which, only recently, as you undoubtedly know, changed its name to the International New York Times.
AWP: “Americans were not the only foreigners in Paris, nor where they the richest,” you write. Who were the others? The American “working rich”, as you call them?
NLG: There were British aristocrats, wealthy South Americans, and Russian princes also hobnobbing with the rich American crowd. But, as I point out, even if the American colony was by and large an elite, it was a working elite, although they were hardly your average immigrant worker. One could argue that they were, literally speaking, immigrants, and indeed, they worked and definitely did not just loaf around in cafés all day long (indeed they resented those who did). Many came to Paris with the strength of their industrial prowess behind them; others made great strides in foreign investment while in Paris. But they had to work at it, as I show. And negotiating with the French was often a serious challenge.
AWP: The “Americanization of France,” what does it mean in the late nineteenth century? In post-1945 France did it imply something different?
NLG: Many people don’t realize that the post-1945 debate – which in France has often focused on the idea of the Marshall Fund Plan’s heavy-handed imposition of American goods and models – in fact dates to the late the nineteenth century. The 1898 Spanish-American War alerted Europeans to America’s growing military power, and increasing U.S. manufacturing exports began to worry European manufacturers. After the First World War, although Americans were heralded as heroes for their (belated) part in the war, worries about economic encroachment grew along with fears about the cultural models which accompanied it. But the debate was vigorous, and even Americans in Paris sometimes responded that regardless of changes, you could still tell you weren’t in Chicago anymore…
AWP: How did the Americans, by and large, deal with the Parisians? Did the American residents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century blend into the French community? Is it different today?
NLG: I would say that, then as now, there are the blenders and the complainers. The blenders make do, with enthusiasm or simply as a way of life. The complainers keep reminding everyone of how things are done back home. And there are of course the enthusiasts who enjoy the difference, try to blend in, but do not necessarily succeed. Oh well, that’s life as a foreigner.
AWP: Marriage and divorce in the French capital—not just matters of love and hate. What were seen as the “dangers” lurking for unsuspecting American girls? The American female falling for the smooth Frenchman: “every girl’s dream, every mother’s nightmare”. What was the myth?
NLG: Romance (and sex) is the myth. Marriage (and divorce) may be the reality. In the abundant literature on the dangers of Paris, we hear the voices of worried parents and patriotic moralizers arguing that the American girls should go find good American husbands at home. But danger in the eyes of some (parents and clergymen) was freedom in the eyes of young adventurers.
AWP: How did this extraordinary period become essential in forging the spirit of American expatriation we know now?
NLG: The first half of the century is key in order to see both the multiple varieties of expatriation (to write, to paint, to perhaps fall in love, but also to do business) and to recognize the fact that it is not always easy as a day-to-day proposition.
AWP: Do Parisians have a different attitude toward the American expatriate community today?
NLG: It depends on whom you talk to. The Parisians today, as yesterday, can range from disgruntled Americanophobes to enthusiastic Americanophiles.
AWP: What inspired you toward a life and career so dependent on scholarship and the ability to communicate?
NLG: I’m happy to cite them all, from “Mme Pitts,” my high school French teacher (and friend through today) who taught me how to write (in any language), to Harvey Goldberg, legendary Jean Jaurès scholar who got standing ovations for his history lectures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and inspired a whole generation of scholars. Plus, I love the archives, I love teaching, and I often feel fortunate when hunting things down in the reading room at the Bibliothèque nationale to realize I’m being paid to do what I enjoy.
AWP: Why did you feel that now, in particular, would be the right time to publish your book, The Other Americans in Paris?
NLG: Because I finally finished it!
AWP: When you started writing The Other Americans in Paris, did you have a sense of what you wanted to do differently from other authors whose work you had seen?
NLG: There is definitely this other tale of Americans in Paris that no one had written about. The Right Bank Americans have been invisible, under the (charming I must admit) shadow of the Left Bank Americans. Overseas Americans are not just a late 20th century phenomenon. They are part of an earlier period of globalization that began in the early part of the 20th century, before the term “expats” was invented (in the 1960s).
AWP: Are there things that you feel haven’t been said about American expatriation that you are trying to explore in your work now?
NLG: American expatriates have made me think more broadly about immigration, emigration, and “expats” as the words and ideas we use to talk about citizens abroad.
AWP: Your books, The Other Americans in Paris and Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work, have had a huge impact on Francophiles, historians and expatriates living in France. What do you think it is about your books that make readers connect in such a powerful way?
NLG: Thank you. I do try to write beyond an academic audience. From Isaac Merritt Singer and his 22 children (who appear in both books) to Clara Steichen’s travails, I like to combine scholarly insights with stories that can help us all think about the joys and trials of transnationalism in the 20th as in the 21st centuries.
AWP: Could you talk about your process as a writer?
NLG: Slow! Lots of rewriting. Too many footnotes! – a professional hazard of the historian.
LIVING IN PARIS
AWP: How did your interest in France unfold?
NLG: Slowly. I was not a raving Francophile upon arrival. I came to Paris to do my doctoral research and ultimately stayed on. (The dedication and chapter 3 hint at why.)
AWP: When you moved to France, how did you grapple with the cultural differences? Can you share the moment when you knew it had changed for you?
NLG: The differences still exist, and I still get anxious about the wrong handshake, whether to do two bises on the cheeks or three or four. Not to mention that great Franco-American conundrum: when to use the tu form and when to use the vous. The mystery persists (it is very contextual), and it sometimes seals the lips – afraid to make a gaffe.
AWP: What French cultural nuances, attitudes, ideas, or habits have you adopted? In which areas have you embraced a similar aesthetic?
NLG: As one of my historical informants says: Yes, I tend to cross my 7s. I have also learned to eat chèvre and oysters, two foods I long resisted. But I still cannot wear those shoes!
AWP: What is the best part about living in France?
NLG: Crossing the Seine on a bus, looking up and seeing the Eiffel Tower. Especially at night. Especially when it sparkles. It still thrills me, and I trust it always will.
AWP: Describe your own “Paris.”
NLG: The university variant of métro-boulot-dodo: classes, research, and too many meetings. Interspersed, however, I have to admit, with long lunches and the occasional glass of wine.
AWP: Your life is extraordinary. What’s next?
NLG: Funny that you should say so. I feel like it just happened. As will la suite, I suppose.
BOOKS RECOMMENDED BY Nancy L. Green
Recent great reads with my University of Chicago book group (nothing like the classics):
Vassily Grossman, Life and Fate
Vladimir Nabokov, Ada
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (a perennial favorite of mine)
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (it’s never too late)
Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête (a great pair to read together)
SELECTED BOOKS BY NANCY L. GREEN
The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (June 27, 2014, The University of Chicago Press)
Citizenship and Those Who Leave: The Politics of Emigration and Expatriation Nancy L. Green (editor) and François Weil (editor) (2007, University of Illinois Press)
Jewish Workers in the Modern Diaspora Nancy L. Green (editor) (1998, University of California Press)
Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York (1997, Duke University Press Books)
Acknowledgements: Alyssa Noel, student of French and Italian, and Journalism at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities and English editor for A Woman’s Paris.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® blog, French Impressions: Alice Kaplan – the Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, on the process of transformation. Author and professor of French at Yale University, Ms. Kaplan discusses her new book, Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and the process of transformation. By entering into the lives of three important American women who studied in France, we learn how their year in France changed them and how they changed the world because of it. (French)
Tilar J. Mazzeo’s “The Hotel on Place Vendôme” – Hôtel Ritz in Paris: June 1940 (excerpt). Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of the New York Times bestseller The Widow Clicquot, and The Secret of Chanel No. 5. This riveting account uncovers the remarkable experiences of those who lived in the hotel during the German occupation of Paris, revealing how what happened in the Ritz’s corridors, palatial suites, and basement kitchens shaped the fate of those who met there by chance or assignation, the future of France, and the course of history.
John Baxter’s “Paris at the End of the World” – Patriotism transforming fashion (excerpt). Preeminent writer on Paris, John Baxter brilliantly brings to life one of the most dramatic and fascinating periods in the city’s history. Uncovering a thrilling chapter in Paris’ history, John Baxter’s revelatory new book, Paris at the End of the World: The City of Light During the Great War, 1914-1918, shows how this extraordinary period was essential in forging the spirit of the city we love today.
Joan DeJean’s “How Paris Became Paris” – Capital of the Univers (excerpt). How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by acclaimed author Joan DeJean. Paris has been known for its grand boulevards, magnificent river views, and endless shopping for longer than one might think. While Baron Haussmann is usually credited as being the architect of the Paris we know today, with his major redevelopment of the city in the 19th century, Joan DeJean reveals that the Parisian model for urban space was in fact invented two centuries earlier.
French Impressions: Harriet Welty Rochefort’s “Joie de Vivre” comes when you least expect it. Harriet brings us on an intimate journey of love and life, which she shares with humor and great élan. As she remarks after more than four decades of living in Paris, “Oh yes, and I can almost shrug and argue the way the French do.”
French Impressions: Shari Leslie Segall on melting into French culture. Philadelphia native Shari Leslie Segall traveled the world before settling in Paris, where she has lived since 1985. Calling upon her insights into what makes our French cousins who they are, she shares her views in good humor about the inhabitants of her adopted country; and what it’s like for her as a writer, teacher, author—and marathon runner—living in Paris.
Oh, so French! Crossing to the other side. Paris-based writer Shari Leslie Segallshares her observations of becoming a little bit French and writes: “To a greater or lesser degree, whether you expected to or not, one day you realize that you’re crossing to the other side.” She offers a very incomplete list of how you know when you’ve arrived. (First published in FUSAC.FR July 5, 2013.)
A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre
We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Text copyright ©2014 University of Chicago Press. ©Nancy L. Green. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.