I bought Stanley Karnow’s Paris in the Fifties almost on a whim, and I’ve been glad ever since. I’ve enjoyed the book immensely, even as my interest in the topics varies. For instance, though I didn’t dawdle in the fashion essay, it still startled me to read of a macabre fashion after the Reign of Terror: pretending to have been guillotined. In a style known as “a la victime” women cropped their hair, bound their necks with red ribbons and tilted their heads to simulate decapitation. An early form of punk fashion, I guess.
The essays include gastronomy, fashion, race cars, the new French interest in the American le strip-tease, disaffected youth, the guillotine, and politics. The stuff on disaffected Parisian kids in the 1950s, and the outrage his Time magazine essay caused when it was translated and re-printed in France, is great stuff.
He has a knack for well-told anecdotes. For instance, I never knew Ho Chi Minh was so well-traveled, living in Brooklyn for a while before returning to Europe and working as a pastry chef for the “illustrious” chef Auguste Escoffier at the Carlton in London. Or of the first restaurants, in 1765, whose fortifying dishes were guaranteed would cure or restaurer intestinal ailments.
In Curious Singularity we recently read some Hemingway, and I thought of referencing Karnow’s meeting with Ernest in a hotel bar, but that blog discussion was in January, and the anecdote merely reiterates the image of Hemingway as self-caricature toward the end of his life.
I’m finishing it now, and among the wonderful vignettes is the story of a French politician who had been imprisoned in Morocco by the Vichy regime during World War II. He made his escape out a window to a rooftop and hoped to escape down a tree, but was thwarted by an amorous young couple below. He fears discovery as he overhears the boy making a “proposition.”
The girl eventually agreed, and the young lovers departed. The future radical socialist French premier later reminisced, “Never did it seem more urgent for me to see a woman lose her virtue … The day that we account for our behavior before the Creator, I will take on myself, if you wish, the fault you committed that evening. For I wished it, I swear, more passionately and more impatiently than did your young lover.”
How’s that for Gallic gallantry?