PARIS — There are moments in the Ernest Hemingway story “A Room on the Garden Side” that any war reporter of his generation, or many that followed, would recognize: the moment when the danger has passed, and such luxuries as life—or as still being alive—can afford are enjoyed for all they are worth.
In Hemingway’s case those luxuries were at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, one of the most luxurious places on earth, in the days just after the city was liberated by the Resistance and the Allies. His room looked out on the little garden that is now a terrasse full of tables between the hotel and the old Ministry of Justice. In the story, he is propped up on four pillows, drinking Champagne out of the bottle, and carrying on a half-attentive conversation with his combat-hardened buddies who have “even taken to drinking out of glasses.” Off and on, he is reading a copy of Fleurs du Mal from among the books brought by the manager of the hotel, contemplating Baudelaire’s lines about the jealousy of those in their graves as they think of the living “between warm, white sheets.”
One could say the story is fiction, written a dozen years after the liberation of Paris. Long available to scholars, it was published this month for the first time by The Strand Magazine as a literary event. And some of the characters, the compression of the narrative into an hour or two in one room, the depiction of an encounter with an insufferable French colonel (understood to be André Malraux)—maybe those are imagined. But many of the descriptions are absolutely true to life in a time of death.
One of the beds “was covered with maps of the country we had gone through. These maps were now discarded and were being used to cover the bed where the weapons were being disassembled, cleaned and reassembled…. I liked to watch the sun on the trees of the garden and the play of the light on the wall of the Ministry of Justice and the light on the newly cleaned and oiled weapons and the heavy mushroom-shaped heads of the long Panzerfausts [rocket propelled grenades] and the light through the yellow wine in the good glasses…. what the light was doing through the window and on the well-loved faces made me happy, as the great wine without any label did.”
Hemingway uses the word “love” many times in this brief story, explaining why he had joined this fight, telling us of his love for an infantry division he wished to serve “in any useful way I could,” and his love of France and Spain, before telling us the one reason “you cannot tell which was that we liked it.”
Hemingway by then was a very famous novelist who had once been a reporter, and who had had huge bursts of creativity as a young writer living in Paris in the 1920s. In August of 1944, he had just turned 45 years old, and he was not quite a journalist, not quite a soldier. He was a dilettante of war. Even so, he commanded respect from important people, and from soldiers in the field.
Col. David K. E. Bruce, the head of European espionage operations for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, was with Hemingway and his ragged irregulars in Paris on this day, August 25, in 1944: the day the City of Lights was liberated, and Bruce’s journal, eventually published as OSS Against the Reich, takes us almost every step of the way along the avenues that lead to Place Vendôme and the room with a garden view.
Bruce and Hemingway had linked up five days earlier near the forest of Rambouillet where the Free French forces were deployed. The French soldiers were desperate to move on Paris at a time when the Allied command intended, in fact, to go around it in a rush toward the Rhine. Meanwhile Hitler, in his fury after the Normandy invasion, was plotting to raze the city completely rather than let it fall to the Allies.
At Rambouillet, Hemingway had a room at the Hôtel du Grand Veneur, with an American Army private called “Red” apparently at his beck and call, and about 10 men from the French Resistance ready to fight alongside him. On his arrival, the OSS officer wrote, “We were plunged into a bath of excitement.”
There were no regular U.S. Army troops stationed in Rambouillet, and the forces mustered around Bruce and Hemingway were a motley bunch: “about 30 Americans—officers and men—including two very drunken AWOL paratroopers, 10 Resistance people, 14 gendarmes, and a few machine guns.”
“It is maddening to be only 30 miles from Paris, to interrogate every hour some Frenchman who has just come from there and who reports that even a very small task force could easily move in, and to know that our Army is being forced to wait—and for what reason?” Bruce wrote on August 21. “Yesterday the Resistance people, hearing we were in Versailles and were moving onto Paris, rose prematurely and are said to have suffered considerable losses.”
There were many, many interrogations—and there was a meal of foie gras stuffed with truffles. There also were incidents like this, mentioned in passing on August 22: “Mouthard [the pseudonym of a French intelligence officer] just made a report to Ernest and myself, and has asked and been granted permission to go away for 15 minutes to kill a civilian traitor. We lent him a .32 automatic.”
On the 23rd, the French General Philippe Leclerc finally was allowed to try to move on the city. “Apparently, the pressure from the Resistance people in Paris, who are being chopped up by the Germans, was finally too great for the High Command, and they have belatedly decided to capture the capital,” Bruce noted.
Traveling with one of Leclerc’s columns on August 24, Bruce caught up again with “Hemingway and the Private Army” five or six miles outside Versailles. They had thought the road was clear, but it wasn’t. Hemingway had to join in a fight to take out two German 88 artillery pieces, infamous for their range and accuracy.
Slowly, dodging random small attacks, edging past an exploding ammunition dump, they made their way into the town of Sèvres, famous for its fine china. The factories were in flames. But the people were pouring into the streets: men, women and children hugging and kissing the soldiers.
“We yelled ourselves hoarse shouting ‘Vive la France,’” Bruce wrote. “Everyone thrust drinks at us. … In the course of the afternoon, we had beer, cider, white and red Bordeaux, white and red Burgundy, Champagne, rum, whiskey, cognac, armagnac, and Calvados.” It was, he said “enough to wreck one’s constitution.”
Bruce’s journal the in days ahead would chronicle a binge of raw adrenaline and fine wines.
They bedded down for the night in Sèvres and did not cross the Seine for the push into the capital until shortly after noon on August 25.
Paris was not burning. The German governor of the city, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, had been appointed by Hitler only weeks before with the express order to leave the city “a pile of rubble” rather than surrender it. Explosive charges had been positioned to bring down the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and other iconic monuments; to blow up the reservoirs, and to destroy the bridges. Hitler was on the phone with Von Choltitz’s superior screaming: “Is Paris burning?”
Von Choltitz, having concluded the Führer was insane, decided not to obey the order to raze the city. But his men still fought the Resistance and, now, the encroaching French and Allied troops.
Bruce and Hemingway could not know what was in store as they crossed the bridge at Sèvres. Leclerc’s main column had made it into Paris the night before, but downriver they could see the fort at Mont Valérien holding out under heavy shelling by Allied artillery. The fort dominated western Paris, and it was infamous. More than 1,000 members of the French Resistance had been taken there for execution over the previous three years; 93 had been shot as recently as August 11.
Hemingway and Bruce moved at times cautiously, sheltering from snipers, then rushing through the streets in a car that Hemingway had commandeered somewhere. And often they were stopped by “kissing and shouting” as the roads filled with people.
They made it to the Arc de Triomphe and stopped. The afternoon was sunny and clear and down the long Avenue des Champs Élysées, which runs in a straight line through the heart of the Right Bank all the way to the Louvre, they could see a tank burning in Place de la Concorde. Smoke was pouring out of the Hôtel Crillon and also from the National Assembly across the river. “Snipers were firing steadily into the area around the Arc de Triomphe, and the French were firing back at them.”
Beneath the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and Bruce and Hemingway found it guarded by six French veterans standing at attention, with a seventh in a wheelchair. They had stayed there through all the nearby fighting. The writer and the spy climbed to the top of the Arc, some 300 spiraling stairs, to find a breathtaking view: the golden dome of Les Invalides; the green roof of La Madeleine; the white domes and tower of Sacré Coeur.
They passed dead German soldiers piled in the street as they tried to get back to their car, and had to detour because of a firefight around the building on Rue Lauriston where French collaborators with the Gestapo had tortured countless people suspected of involvement with the Resistance.
“As we sheltered beneath a tank,” Bruce writes, “a man dove in alongside of us and asked if we would like to drink a bottle of Champagne at his house.” It was that kind of day.
The man’s apartment was on Avenue Foch, one of the richest residential parts of the city. It was filled with fine furniture and Chinese porcelain, and their host’s “lovely wife” served a magnum of Champagne well chilled on ice. Outside, up the street, a French lieutenant colonel was entertaining some of the rest of the gang with more Champagne, “continually renewed by a servant bringing it from a nearby apartment.”
Then Hemingway, Red, and Bruce, “finding the Champs Élysées absolutely bare of traffic, passed down it at racing speed” to the Travellers Club. The wonderfully ornate rooms, so evocative of Second Empire glory, were all closed except for the bar, where some of the club’s old guard and its president were having a drink. “We were the first outsiders to come there since the taking of Paris,” Bruce writes. “They celebrated by opening Champagne.” Again. (The current president of the Travellers tells me he is sure the Champagne served that day was Pol Roger.)
From there, it is not clear by what route exactly, Hemingway, Red, and Bruce “dashed to the Café de la Paix” on Place de l’Opéra, which was filled with “a solid mass of cheering people, and, after kissing several thousand men, women, and babies, and losing a carbine by theft, we escaped to the Ritz.”
The hotel, in Bruce’s account, was deserted except for the manager, Claude Auzello, who had run it with his wife Blanche since the 1920s. The whole Private Army moved in. Auzello asked what he could do immediately for them. “We answered we would like 50 martini cocktails,” Bruce writes. “They were not very good, as the bartender had disappeared, but they were followed by a superb dinner.”
“During the night there was almost incessant shooting,” he wrote, “The French Forces of the Interior are well out of hand, and draw on anybody whom they consider suspicious.” The next morning there was no coffee, “but we had an omelette and a bottle of Chablis.”
It is easy enough, today, to walk those last miles traveled by Hemingway and Bruce and the Private Army. The city is at peace and prospering, as it has been for most of the 74 years since The Liberation. And when reading the accounts of Bruce or Hemingway, or watching the 1966 movie Is Paris Burning?, which is full of documentary footage from the time, it is striking how much remains the same.
You can climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and see the same sights, with only a few skyscrapers on the distant horizon. If you are lucky enough to find light traffic on the Champs Élysées and race down to the Travellers Club, you pass Louis Vuitton, Nespresso, and Five Guys. Abercrombie and Fitch is right next door. But the club is still essentially the same.
Here and there, sometimes with flowers placed beneath them, are plaques to mark the places where members of the Resistance fell in August 1944. They are on Rue Lauriston, for instance, and on the edge of the Étoile near the Arc. Several in a row are lined up just off Place de la Concorde, where that tank was burning, on the edge of the Tuileries Gardens.
“I said good night to Charley and walked out on the pavement in the summer dusk of Paris,” Hemingway writes at the end of “A Room on the Garden Side.” “For three years I had thought that I would never see it again and now we left it of our own free choice. Maybe that was stupid; maybe that was impractical; maybe it was wrong.
“Walking down toward the Tuileries I knew it was not wrong and that it was not stupid and that the town would never look the same again unless you left it when you should.”
What did Hemingway mean by that? Not that the city had changed, I think. But that he had. War and age will do that to you.