Atlas 6 | Editorial Stanley Karnow: Paris in the Fifties
Text by Stanley Karnow
Illustrations by Annette Karnow

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Initially I checked into a cheap hotel and wandered through the city, absorbing its dazzling sights -- Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Palais-Royal, the Arc de Triomphe. When the moment came for me to return home, I was reluctant to leave. I felt that I had only scratched the surface of France, and wanted to dig deeper. So I decided to remain, at least for the foreseeable future. As a veteran I was entitled to the GI Bill, which paid $75 a month on condition that I attend school. I enrolled at the Sorbonne, but instead of going to classes I hung out in Latin Quarter cafes with my newly-made French friends, and learned to speak the language. Meanwhile I met and married a French girl and, though we were later divorced, I got to know her family intimately -- an experience that taught me much about the complexities of French society.

Before long I was hired as a gofer in the Paris bureau of Time, and ultimately became a staff correspondent. While my older colleagues focused on serious subjects, like America's strategic policy or the defense of Western Europe, my principal task was to explain what made the French tick. I covered the upper crust and le tout Paris, the world of fashion, the tormented political scene and the intellectual community, whose vedettes included Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Andre Malraux. Among my other assignments, I reported on crime and justice, dined with gourmets and toured the vineyards with wine experts. Occasionally I interviewed such visiting celebrities as Audrey Hepburn, Orson Welles, Ernest Hemingway and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. My job also carried me to Morocco, Tunisia and particularly Algeria, where Moslem nationalist insurgents were fighting to end France's rule -- and the protracted guerrilla struggle prepared me for the challenges I would subsequently face as a journalist in Vietnam.

My book is about France as it was forty years ago, not as it is now. The country has evolved dramatically since then, yet to a large extent, as the old saying goes, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" -- which is, for me, one of the most charming traits. One anecdote illustrates that preoccupation with continuity.

In May 1968, after an absence of 10 years, I returned to Paris and, out of nostalgia, dropped into the bar of the Crillon Hotel, where in my time the American and British press had customarily gathered to drink before lunch every day. Some of my old pals were still there. So was Louis, the bartender, his patent-leather hair as slick as ever. Without batting an eye, he extended a limp hand and mumbled, "Bonjour, M'sieur Karnow, back from vacation?"

Stanley Karnow

 

Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines.