- Historic Sites
How Papa Liberated Paris
An eyewitness re-creates the wonderful, wacky day in August, 1944, when Hemingway, a handful of Americans, and a senorita named Elena helped rekindle the City of Light. Champagne ran in rivers, and the squeals inside the tanks were not from grit in the bogie wheels
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
Punctuated by random rifle fire, this interlude lasted not more than five minutes. Then there was a roar and rattle in the direction we had come from. Six French half-tracks followed by five tanks raced into the circle and, turning inside the stalled column, continued round and round the circle with their machine guns wide open, blazing at the building we were facing. That fire grazed just above the jeep and stripped every twig and leaf from the upper part of the fallen tree. There was nothing to do but hug the handiest gutter and curb. Westover sang “I’ll See You Again” through his teeth, which was always his habit when the wind was slightly up, a sign that he was thinking of home and Eloise. The Spanish girl said: “Tengo mieda much,” and laughed like hell to prove it. She was worth any ten duchesses in such moments. We knew great fear and high excitement exquisitely mixed, for it was touch-and-go whether we’d come out. The shooting stopped when there was nothing left to fire. We were whole-skinned and not yet shaking. The entire thing was stark mad, our escape due to pure luck.
The tanks pulled off. The place quieted. We heard a man yelling from a great distance. Then we saw him, and the sight was more whimsical than all else. He was on the third floor balcony of the apartment building across the circle, and he was hunched far over as he scuttled along. “Looks like Lon Chaney haunting Notre Dame,” said Westover. The man shouted in French, but though he had his hands cupped, the words barely cut through the wind. But we knew the voice. It was Papa again.
“What’s he saying?”—this to Elena.
She answered: “There are Germans in the building behind us. We have to get out. The French are bringing in artillery to blow the place down.”
We got out. Elena went first, taking those eighty yards like a startled doe, we following at twenty-second intervals, with Westover coming last so that he could cover the windows against snipers during the getaway. Not one hostile round dignified the extrication. When we made the portal on the far side, there was Papa with his carbine at shoulder, laying down the covering barrage. That was a big building, and he could hardly have missed it. The French artillery duly arrived and did its sterling stuff. Whether there were ever any Germans in the apartment, or whether the fire had come from a few rascals trying to make whoopee, was never proved to the satisfaction of the trio closest to the scene. In any case, if the situation was as painted, it would have been better handled by a half-squad armed with a dozen hand grenades. But that would have been poor theater.
Soon after the column had its last hurrah at the head of Avenue Foch, we said good-by to Elena. A French major came down the line screaming: “Get these—women out of the vehicles.” That had to be resisted, since the honor of a very gentle person was concerned. So the major was told off, loudly, profanely. From behind me, a voice roared: “You tell ’em, Marshall. Since when hasn’t a soldier the right to company in his sleeping bag? That’s the way I won____,” but the name was lost in the roar of approval from the crowd. Papa’s wisecrack got to Elena, where the major had failed. Without a word she slipped away to seek her lover, and we never saw her again.
From the Étoile, John and I drove on the short run to the Hotel Claridge. We were tired. The desk clerk refused us a room, though the hotel clearly was untenanted. We demanded to see the manager.
He said: “There are no rooms. This hotel is reserved for the German Army.”
I said: “You’ve got just five seconds to get it unreserved. This is the American Army moving in.” We got the rooms and quickly learned the reason for the attempted stall. Each bathroom bore a neat sign bidding warm welcome to German officers. The embarrassed host had wanted time to remove them.
The story was told at the clambake in the Ritz that night, which put it in circulation. Jack Ritz commented drolly: “What could you expect? Hotel men have no country. They’re the only true internationalists.” Here is the probable basis of the greatly embroidered legend about Hemingway liberating the Ritz. Wrong hotel. Wrong cast. I know Jack was waiting there with Dunhill pipes as souvenirs for each of us when we made the Ritz lobby, slightly ahead of Papa.
Until the last dog was left unhung, the grand event had these overtones of opéra bouffe. Von Choltitz, the enemy commander, had his headquarters in the Hotel Meurice, that monument to the rococo. In early evening a tank went by the Meurice, fired one round at an ancient Chevy parked alongside and set it afire. That was enough boom-boom to save Choltitz’s honor. He and twenty of his staff officers came running from the hotel, hands in air. Choltitz, with his boys stringing along, was taken to Montparnasse, where Leclerc told him to surrender the twenty spots where Germans still held out. Captain Paul Sapiebra, U.S.A., wrote out twenty copies of a surrender order, and Choltitz signed them. The twenty staff officers were then loaded in twenty jeeps and speeded to twenty points of resistance. That no more ended the sniping than the next morning’s sun tranquilized the throb of the hangover. But it was the formal ending to the German occupation and the story.