- 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
Inside, the café was what reporters describe as a shambles, though I have never bothered to learn what a shamble might be. Part of the wall was blown in. The furniture was all either smashed or overturned. The floor was littered with empty bottles, shattered china, and cruets. The air hung heavy with the mingled aromas, neither pleasant, of horse manure and stale beer.
While we looked and poked about, hopeful of finding a name brand to be plucked from the burning, there came from under the overturned bar the lowthroated chuckle of a woman. There was something very pleasant about it, as if she were laughing at us, not because we looked funny but because that was the best way to greet another human.
We turned the bar upright, and she stood. It is enough to say how she looked on first sight, since she did not later change. She was small and slight and much too ill-clad and dirty to be described as a gracious figure. Her dark face was marred by conspicuous buckteeth. The eyes were brown almost to blackness. Her hair was tangled and hung stringily halfway to her waist. Her gown looked like a cut-down Mother Hubbard, once black, faded to gray, and frequently slept in. Such was Elena, and she was just eighteen. But no unkempt damsel ever wore a warmer and less embarrassed smile. I will give Elena that, adding also that her courage made her seem beautiful during the two days we knew her.
The reason for these rough-hewn details is that the great American novelist was later to picture her as a gorgeously bewitching siren who held every man of the column in the hollow of her classic hand. Also, he made of her a profound philosopher, spouting great words about noble causes, whereas I have known few women who have had such an appalling gift of reticence. That was for Collier’s , but it was also for the birds. Elena was, as I have set her forth, simple and unbeautiful. Hemingway hadn’t yet stumbled into this scene, but he was on his way in search of a friendly wall.
Elena’s first words were: “What is American opinion of Marshal Pétain?” So help me—that was what she said even before she had tugged at a stocking or straightened her dress. A most unusual woman, though the strangeness of her mental processes was no more startling than the irregularity of her speech. A light dawned. Since her French was almost as abominable as my own, she too must be a stranger.
I said in Spanish: “You are not French?” (We never got around to saying how Pétain rated back home.) She grinned proudly and replied: “I’m from Bilbao. I came here to fight with the resistance. My man is F.F.I. He’s somewhere out in front of this column.”
As she said it, Hemingway came through the door. We had last talked at Key West in 1936. But it could have been yesterday. Like Elena, Ernest wasn’t saying any on-stage words for history. He simply yelled: “Marshall, for God’s sake, have you got a drink?” I said: “We’ve ransacked this place; we don’t have; we have not.”
Westover spoke: “Boss, there’s a fifth of Scotch in your pack back in the jeep. You put it there three weeks ago and forgot it.” I said: “OK, Big Mouth, for having such a good memory you can walk back through that fire and get it.” He did.
One of the minor surprises of war is the great thirst on the part of any group of fugitives from the law of averages. With Elena helping—I had just introduced her to Hemingway—that Scotch soldier was dead within twenty minutes. So, by then, were quite a few members of the German battery, the French artillery having at last gotten the range.
But that isn’t how the story came out in Collier’s . Here’s how Ernest saw it: “I took evasive action and waded down the road to a bar. Numerous guerrillas were seated in it singing happily and passing the time of day with a lovely Spanish girl from Bilbao whom I had last met at Cognières. This girl had been following wars and preceding troops since she was fifteen, and she and the guerrillas were paying no attention to the accrochage at all. A guerrilla chief named C— asked me to have a drink of his excellent white wine.” Ah there, romance, and isn’t it fun to be a pack of guerrillas once in a lifetime? Who’d have thought it?
We were soon joined by a character with the nom de guerre of Mouton, leader of the local F.F.I. His real name was Michel Pasteur. This particular scion of the great scientist was about thirty-five, tall and spare, with flaming red hair and sky-blue eyes. He had the stride, carriage, and dress of a hog drover. Beyond his courage, Mouton’s overawing asset was his silence. He made himself understood by means of a grunt, varyingly intoned. It wasn’t his fault exactly that in the Hemingway stories about the liberating of Paris, Mouton became the reincarnated Demosthenes. Somebody had to put words in his mouth.