When France Adored Us
In an excerpt from her new book, Jill Jonnes shows Paris on July 4, 1889—with cowboys firing guns in the air, raucous Champagne bashes, and Old Glory flying atop the brand new Eiffel Tower.
For years, all the best Americans in 19th-century Paris celebrated the Fourth of July at Bella Rosa, the magnificent mansion of Dr. Thomas Evans, longtime dentist to the nobility of Europe. One of the American colony’s leading lights, Dr. Evans had arrived in Paris from Philadelphia in 1847 at age 24 with his wife Agnes. Within five years, his pain-reducing services secured him the job of official court dentist to Emperor Louis Napoleon III. The dentist adopted certain French customs: He was an ardent royalist and kept a mistress, the Paris grande horizontale, Méry Laurent, a red-haired "laughing beauty with arched eyebrows and a wide-eyed gaze…Her mouth was sensual, her bosom formidable.” (Méry had become famous for emerging nude from a large silver shell at the Châtelet theater.)
“Altogether,” the New York World correspondent observed, “Paris and America are on exceedingly good terms with one another.”
But the Fourth of July of 1889 promised to be something very different from those of the past. Americans in Paris would see the Stars and Stripes flying atop the brand new Eiffel Tower, which loomed over the wondrous Exposition Universelle. Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West troupe—one of the sensations of the World's Fair—would be on hand to lend a unique frontier flavor to the day's many patriotic events, including the American colony's long-awaited presentation to France of a smaller version of Bartholdi's beloved Statue of Liberty. And the new U.S. minister, not Dr. Evans, would host the big party.
Out at the Wild West camp in Neuilly, the Glorious Fourth got off to a rousing start as all the cowboys and Indians rose early to festoon their teepees and tents with French and American flags. The Cowboy Band played sprightly versions of “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia,” manager Nate Salsbury declaimed the Declaration of Independence, "Guillaume Bufle" weighed in on liberty, the cowboys fired their guns, and the 20 bison looked on.
Then Cody, wearing his best buckskins, raced to the 12th arrondissement, where by 10 a.m. he jammed into the tiny Rue de Picpus with the new U.S. Minister Whitelaw Reid (publisher of The New York Tribune), 30 U.S. Marines, and several hundred other Americans carrying bouquets and wreaths. All filed into the high-walled cemetery attached to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, past the common grave of almost 2,000 guillotined aristocrats. They gathered round the simple tomb of General Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution. Soon the gravestone disappeared under all the floral tributes. Minister Reid spoke, added his wreath to the pile, Senator Edmond de Lafayette thanked the Americans (in English), the Marines shot several volleys, and the ceremony concluded with mournful bugling.
After lunch, the Fourth of July observances shifted to the Pont de Grenelle at the Isle de Cynes on the Seine, where the summer breezes blew gently. Minister Reid, Buffalo Bill, Chief Rocky Bear, and the American colony, now almost a thousand strong, cheered along with hundreds of French officials as the cover came off the bronze statue cast from the original model of Bartholdi’s famous Liberty Enlightening the World. This gift from the Americans in Paris to the Third Republic was one-fifth the size of its New York sister.
“Altogether," the New York World correspondent observed, "Paris and America are on exceedingly good terms with one another.” Looking up, the Americans could see the novel sight of their flag flapping atop the Eiffel Tower, where it had been hoisted at 2 and would remain til 5 p.m.
But the tombs and the statue were mere ceremonial preludes. What the Americans of Paris were most avidly anticipating was Minister Reid’s Fourth of July bash at his new home, a legendary private mansion rented from the Duc de Grammont. That evening, carriages clogged the cobblestone porte cochere entry, while Mrs. Reid of Gold Rush wealth wore an eye-popping diamond necklace glittering on a black-and-white striped silk gown. The Hôtel Grammont did not disappoint either with its four mirrored Louis XV drawing rooms and a crimson-brocaded dining room (seating 24).
The evening held special sweetness for the American diplomatic corps assigned to Paris, for they had long resented Dr. Evans. One visiting American diplomat had remarked to the dentist, “For us it is a great thing to see a king or prince; but it seems that they all have opened their mouths to you.” Not only did Dr. Evans have better access to the nobility of Europe, he had heretofore lived in far greater splendor than any U.S. minister and entertained in far more lavish style. Worse yet, this now elderly American with his signature mutton chops was a royal sycophant.
And so, on this Fourth of July, much of the American colony and the resident U.S. diplomatic corps were delighted to find the royalist Dr. Evans displaced as the traditional host of America's most patriotic fete. More delicious yet, the very wealthy new Minister Reid had issued an open invitation to all Americans to celebrate Independence Day at his new mansion. This year Dr. Evans would not lord it over it his fellow countrymen by inviting only those he snobbishly favored.
“We offer our hearty congratulations to the United States Minister," opined The Paris Herald, "for the wise step taken in the way of invitations. Instead of making a great stir and commotion by drawing up ‘visiting lists’ and ruling out Mrs. Flibertygibit, and ruling in Mrs. Humdrum, and causing heartburnings and tempests in teapots, Mr. Whitelaw Reid simply reverted to the old ways of Washington and Jefferson, and Adams. All Americans were informed they were welcome to the Minister’s home. And they went there, and they enjoyed themselves.”
The Chicago Tribune declared the Reids’ soirée a rollicking success: “Miss Eames and Miss Marie Decca sang, and everybody came, ‘some in rags, and some in tags, and some in velvet gowns.’ Ladies in bonnets and gentlemen in dusters elbowed the latest creations of Worth, and the American colony had great pleasure… Champagne flowed in an unceasing stream and a bountiful supper was spread in the grand dining room.” A thousand Americans of every station happily inspected the Avenue Hoche mansion and one another.
The next day Colonel Cody wrote his favorite sister Julia back at Scout’s Rest in Platte, Nebraska: “Yesterday was a busy day for me. First I went with the American Minister to the tomb of General LaFayette then to the unveiling of Barthold’s Statue, then to a reception & dinner we gave in camp—then the afternoon performance—then to the Legation reception—back for the evening show—then into my evening dress and to Minister Reid’s reception, turned in at daylight—and today I am off my feed—I am like you I can’t stand so much as I used to… Love to you all Brother Will." For the Americans of Paris, it had been a Glorious Fourth such as none would see again.
Jill Jonnes is the author of Eiffel's Tower: And the World's Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count. She is also the author of Empires of Light and Conquering Gotham and holds a degree from Columbia Journalism School and a Ph.D. in American History from Johns Hopkins University.