By CHRISTINE HAUSER
Stanley Karnow, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and historian, entertained a large audience in the Mumford Room on Dec. 4, reading from his latest book, Paris in the Fifties, and recalling his days in Paris as a student and a correspondent for Time magazine.
Compiled from carbons of his dispatches from the early '50s, Mr. Karnow's volume was illustrated by his artist wife Annette, who used the Library's collections to assure the historical accuracy of her sketches.
John Y. Cole, director of the Center of the Book, introduced Mr. Karnow and reminded the audience that this lecture series, "Books and Beyond," is particularly interested in sponsoring events that showcase the Library's resources.
Mr. Karnow first went to France in June 1947, just out of college. "I went for the summer, and stayed 10 years. Why Paris? There were a lot of reasons. First, there was the magic of the name and this legendary city of light ... that promised something for everyone. I think one of the attractions for a lot of Americans of that generation was the nostalgia of previous generations. We were attracted by the idea that we'd retrace the footsteps of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, sit at the feet of Gertrude Stein, or at least revisit their ghosts."
Because he became fluent in French, knew his way around town and was the youngest of Time's Paris staff, Mr. Karnow was assigned to stories about what made the French tick." He tried to follow the first editor of The New Yorker Harold Ross's 1925 advice to Janet Flanner: "I want to know what they think, not what you think."
Mr. Karnow learned the importance of the art of eating in France in October 1952 when he met Curnonsky, the most famous gastronome of the time, who invited him to one of the dinners celebrating Curnonsky's 80th birthday. Co-author of the 28-volume France Gastronomique, Curnonsky counseled him, "Whenever you get to a town and want to know the best place to eat, consult the local doctor and especially the priest. They know the best places."
While accompanying the proprietor of a Left Bank cafe, who took his regular customers with him on a wine-buying trip to the Beaujolais region, Mr. Karnow got an inside look at French drinking habits. Toward the end of the trip he observed, "Albert's habitués had never raised their pinkies, swirled their glasses or judiciously held them up to the light for examination. They smoked ceaselessly and swallowed their wine in a gulp or two instead of sniffing it, rolling it around their tongues and spitting it out, as professionals supposedly did."
Crime reporting was part of Karnow's job. He declared himself spellbound by something uniquely French, the crime passionnel, or crime of passion. In spite of the French tolerance for adultery, a woman killed her husband because he was having an affair with the redhead next door, confessed and was acquitted of the crime. When Mr. Karnow queried the lawyer about this, he said "That's called denying the evidence."
"Celebrities of one sort or another would pass through Paris in those days, and one day I moseyed over to the Ritz Bar to meet Hemingway, who of course had been one of my heroes. He came into the bar to meet me, and he looked just like his Karsh portrait, with his turtleneck and the gray beard and his shaggy hair hanging over his wrinkled forehead.
"He gripped my hand -- his grip was like an iron vise -- embarked on a series of Pernods and, propelled by my questions, carried on a monologue. The Nobel Prize? 'Oh, that little Swedish thing. Gave to the mayor of Havana. Win medals, but don't wear them. Journalism? I free-lanced for newspapers before I turned to fiction. Learned a lot. Every reporter needs a built-in [expletive] detector.' As he rattled on, I gradually felt that the icon of my youth had devolved into a caricature of himself, and my ears glazed over. After a while, visibly fatigued and slightly tipsy, he stumbled to the telephone, rang up his wife in their room and slurred, 'For God's sake, come down here and rescue me.' I have to confess -- he was a terrible disappointment."
In contrast to his disappointment with Hemingway was Mr. Karnow's experience with Audrey Hepburn, who arrived in Paris in July 1953 to promote her first film, "Roman Holiday." "I went up to spend the best part of the afternoon with her in her suite, and for me it was a memorable, if brief, encounter. She seemed to be thoroughly poised until she began to fiddle with her hair, fidget with her dress and fumble with her gold cigarette lighter; and I sensed that, for all her cool composure, she was as jittery as a kitten. I was just a kid, I was as young as she was. ... I could have stayed with her for the rest of the day, prattling about one thing or another. But my infatuation was probably one-sided. I left, floated out of the hotel in the Place Vendome -- and never saw her again."
When queried about differences between the French of today and the French of his decade in Paris, Mr. Karnow responded, "The French are eternal. In France I think there's a dual feeling. One is a great self importance because they're French -- this is the center of the universe. Yet at the same time they feel beleaguered. ... I think they're concerned about in-roads made by foreign cultures." Acknowledging that this could be a generational conflict, Mr. Karnow mentioned French youths whizzing by on skateboards wearing jeans with torn knees and American college sweatshirts ... "who could be from anywhere in the world. ...I don't know how they can seal them [the kids] off from all these other influences coming out in the rest of the world."
Another difference in the France of today: "Paris is no longer the cultural center of the world. Go back to my day, when a new work came out by [Jean Paul] Sartre, or Simone de Beauvoir or Francoise Sagan, or [Andre] Malraux, it would be a worldwide event. It would be translated. Today you can't name a French writer who has the same kind of stature outside France. ... The question is 'Why?' And I'm not sure I know the answer. ... Maybe cultures rise and fall, maybe they're in a slump now and maybe they'll come back."
Mr. Karnow noted that the French have not yet come to terms with World War II, with the surrender to Germany. "Many of the great writers of the '50s were collaborating either directly or indirectly, mostly indirectly. Sartre's plays were first produced under the European occupation. [Albert] Camus straddled, was in the resistance ... but at the same time published novels under German censorship. As a friend of mine, the novelist Ward Just pointed out to me the other day, postwar German novels are filled with concerns about the war, and you don't find that in French novels."
One Sunday recently, while in Paris for "CBS Sunday Morning," Mr. Karnow visited one of the philosophy cafes where people congregate to drink coffee and indulge in "the national industry of France": talk. Although they didn't exist in his day, the philosophy cafes illustrate the French belief in the power of abstract ideas. While Americans believe in pragmatism, in getting things done, the French believe that ideas for their own sake are the reality. "The philosophy cafe exemplifies this, as it did back in the days when I lived there, when the cafes were jammed with people counting the angels dancing on the heads of pins. It was very invigorating, you never quite knew what it added up to, but that's the reality."
Ms. Hauser is a Washington freelance writer and editor.