Officers and crew of an arriving French warship are showered at the dock with tricolor cockades and lusty renditions of the Marseillaise. When, some weeks later, the French ship exchanges gunfire with a British frigate off Sandy Hook, boatloads of watching New Yorkers hail the French victory, and when a whole French fleet then by chance appears, it is greeted at the Battery by thousands of New Yorkers, and women collect linen to make bandages for wounded French sailors. More parades follow, with workers in liberty caps marching arm-in-arm with French officers, coffee house toasts to the French army and navy, more lusty renditions of the Marseillaise, and spirited dancing of the carmagnole, a wild dance danced by Revolutionary mobs in the streets of Paris, including around the guillotine. And all this in a supposedly neutral U.S., while the French and British fight it out abroad.
Nor does fashionable society hold aloof. The most refined ladies and gentlemen bandy about French expressions and develop a taste for French food, French music, and French mattresses. (The latter bears looking into.) Boarding houses become pensions and fancy taverns restaurants (a new word imported from France), wives appear in low-cut gowns and gauzed coifs à la française, and husbands reject powdered wigs, knee britches, and shoe buckles – so old hat and deplorably ancien régime – for daringly revolutionary pantaloons. Regardless of official neutrality, in New York City liberty, equality, and fraternity are most definitely in.
Such was the Gallomania that raged in this city in 1793-95, when the newly hatched Democratic-Republican Party (now the Democratic Party) espoused the principles of the new French Republic, while the conservative Federalists – now on the defensive in New York – deplored the excesses of Robespierre & Co. and maneuvered to avoid another war with Great Britain.
Adding at the time to the French presence in New York were a stream of émigrés whom the turbulent events in France had driven to these more tranquil shores: Bourbon loyalists, constitutional monarchists, and republicans – a bit of a political hodgepodge, but all of them fearful of Madame la Guillotine. Among them were assorted aristocrats; Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, not yet the skillful diplomat who would serve so many regimes; the author Chateaubriand; and Prince Louis Philippe of the junior Bourbon line and a future king of France. A colorful bunch, many of whom, to earn their living in exile, were soon reduced to teaching French or dancing or music or fencing, or becoming jewelers, furniture makers, booksellers, watchmakers, and such, an experience that in the long run instilled in most of them a deep yearning for la patrie, no matter who governed it, as long as the guillotine no longer threatened.
|Citizen Genêt. He evidently liked|
being seen in profile.
Such were Franco-American relations in the mid-1790s, but the French presence in New York went all the way back to the city’s beginnings. Being eager to found a settlement in North America and launch what they hoped would be a vastly profitable commercial enterprise (the New World always induced glowing visions of wealth), in 1624 the Dutch West India Company had managed to enlist for this risky undertaking a group of young French-speaking Walloons of both sexes who, being Huguenot exiles from the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium), were uprooted and desperate enough to leave the comforts of Amsterdam for the rigors of a distant wilderness named Manhattan. So right here from the start, long before the Anglophones arrived in force, were the French. Or at least, French-speaking Walloons from just north of what was then, and now still is, la Belle France. Coming here as fugitives from religious persecution in another country, they established a pattern that would be repeated often in the city’s history.
(An aside: Should Belgium, or at least the half of it inhabited by French-speaking Walloons, be a part of la Belle France? Opinion has always been divided, nor would Belgium, I suspect, split though it is between Walloons and Flemings, care to lose its independence. But General de Gaulle, whose fondness for “les Anglo-Saxons” was well known, reportedly once remarked, “Belgium is a country invented by the British to annoy the French.”)
As New Amsterdam grew and flourished, more Huguenots came from various European countries until, by 1640, they constituted about a fifth of the population. When persecution in France intensified, climaxed by Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, more French Huguenots, many of them merchants and skilled craftsmen, arrived in New York and prospered, including refugees from the former Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle who then founded New Rochelle in what is now Westchester County. And if, by the eighteenth century, the French language was heard less and less in the city, it’s because the French Huguenots had assimilated so successfully that they ceased to exist as an ethnic group; many, in fact, became Anglicans. Score one—tentatively -- for the Brits.
|Lafayette, circa 1824.|
Indeed, one wonders how the frail sixty-seven-year-old survived the patriotic frenzy inspired by his visit – a celebratory frenzy such as he had never experienced in his own country, where monarchists and republicans alike viewed him, a moderate who had advocated a constitutional monarchy, with suspicion. Even more challenging was the thirteen-month tour by stagecoach, canal boat, horseback, and steamboat that took him to all twenty-four states of the Union, in each of which he was received tumultuously with a hero’s welcome. New Yorkers were as greedy as anyone for a piece of the old general, whose image appeared on sashes, badges, gloves, programs, vases, banners, and bowls. Busy with his exhaustive and exhausting tour, during which he met for the last time with white-haired veterans of the Revolution, he was back in New York in July 1825, and in a speech on Independence Day hailed the “prodigious progress of this city.” In September he wound up his tour with a last visit to the capital and left from there for France. He was surely the most popular Frenchman to ever tread these shores; not even Charles Boyer came close.
With the end of the second war with Great Britain in 1815, the port of New York resumed trading with all the major ports in the world, not the least of which was Le Havre. And what came from there? “Fancy goods,” meaning silks, ribbons, laces, gauze scarfs and tassels, pearl buckles, shawls, embroidered bead bags, embroidered silk stockings, and, rushed across the Atlantic by the speedy packet boats of the time, the latest hats and bonnets from the trend-setting modistes of Paris. Obviously, these were luxury items intended for the fashionable women of New York, who each year were the first to learn of, and adopt, the latest Parisian styles. From Britain came such plebeian but necessary items as hammers, nails, scissors, thimbles, pincers, shovels, fishhooks, dustpans, and spittoons, but from France came all the frills and adornments required by the queens of fashion. Serving them were milliners and dressmakers who subscribed to French fashion magazines and maintained correspondents in Paris who sent them dolls dressed in the latest styles; often, to mask their working-class and sometimes Irish origins, they even adopted the fanciest of French names. And so it went throughout the century.
A startling new innovation from France came in 1856, when the Empress Eugénie, the Spanish-born consort of the Emperor Napoleon III, adopted the latest marvel of contemporary technology, the hoopskirt. There were two stories – neither verifiable -- explaining her sudden infatuation with this new contraption: she wanted to hide (1) her bad legs or (2) her pregnancy. In either case she was the queen of contemporary fashion, her portrait displayed in shop windows throughout Europe and North America, and whatever style she adopted, female multitudes were quick to embrace.
|The Empress in the new style, 1854.|
Other names for this new phenomenon were “steel skirts” and “skeleton skirts,” for the hoopskirt was made of flexible steel rings suspended from cloth tapes. Many women hailed its domed magnificence as freeing them from layers of hot and heavy petticoats, for it was lightweight and comfortable, even though its typical three-yard width made negotiating doorways difficult. It was caricatured and satirized at the time, but New York factories were soon producing up to four thousand hoops a day, and even servant girls were tempted to essay the new style, which they saw sumptuously displayed in the Journal des Demoiselles and Les Modes parisiennes. The style prevailed for a good ten years or so, until the Empress decided that it had had its day, and began transitioning to the next new style, the bustle. Eugénie’s influence in fashion persisted even after the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870, which sent her and the Emperor into exile, for when the Panic of 1873 hit New York and prices plunged, New York newspapers featured ads proclaiming “French Empress cloths reduced.”
|Le Journal des Demoiselles, 1857. Mother, daughter, and doll, all hooped.|
Not all the New York dressmakers were Americans flaunting fancy French names, for the real article flourished here as well, and not without criticism, as seen in the comments of one observer in 1864, quoted in Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, volume 9:
The city is full of harpies from the Rue du Bac and the Chausee [sic] d’Antin – shrivelled, snuffy, toothless old French milliners and dressmakers ‘played out’ in their own country, who have taken ship at Havre and crossed the Atlantic to prey on the credulous and prodigal daughters of the West. You shall rarely walk ten yards along Broadway in its ‘uptown’ section or turn into one of the streets branching from it into Fifth Avenue without coming on a glass full of French bonnets – without seeing those emblems of riotous luxury, perched on stands, in the parlor windows of private houses – or without being made aware through the medium of a flaunting show board, in French, that Madame Harpagon de la Cruchecassee, or Mademoiselle Sangsue [Miss Leech], or Fredegonde, Athalie, Jezebel et Compagnie, Modistes de Paris, dwell on the first or second floor. Beware of Harpagon, she will skin you alive. Avoid Sangsue, she will suck the life blood from you. But the belles of New York will not beware of, will not avoid these snares.
I suspect a bit of bias on the part of the commentator, and seriously doubt that the French milliners and dressmakers of New York were shriveled and toothless; on the contrary, they were probably stylish, attractive, and most accommodating.
It wasn’t just in female fashions that the Second Empire impinged on New Yorkers. In the 1860s the mansard roof became all the rage, causing Greek Revival houses and brownstones to crown themselves with sloping roofs and discreetly protruding dormer windows. The affluent residents of those homes dined often, and lavishly, at the Delmonico’s on 14th Street, where the menu was completely in French, and those deficient in the language of the Franks depended on the obligingness – and the mercy – of the waiters, who glided noiselessly over thick carpets without a hint of flurry or worry.
Meanwhile in the window of Tiffany & Co. on Broadway imports of a different kind had often been displayed: diamonds from the girdle of Marie Antoinette and, at a later date, gems obtained from titled French families fleeing the revolution of 1848. And as this loot came westward to the New World, the New World in exchange exported to Paris its miscreants, as for example Boss Tweed’s cronies in the wake of revelations of colossal fraud in the construction of the new county courthouse. For whenever a New Yorker found it expedient to decamp from Gotham, nothing so lured him as the fleshpots of Paris.
A French import of a different kind was the arrival, in 1876, of the hand and torch of a projected Statue of Liberty, to be seen in Madison Square prior to its display at the centennial of American independence in Philadelphia. This fragment was the forerunner of the whole giant neoclassical statue, the work of sculptor Auguste Bartholi, which a group of French republicans wanted to erect in the United States as a symbol of the ideal republic they hoped to establish in France. And why over here, rather than in France? Because in France the diehard monarchists might vandalize it. So it was destined for Bedloe’s Island, where it would be visible to every vessel arriving in New York harbor. Fundraising proceeded in both France and America, but here, in the wake of the Panic of 1873 and the depression that followed, it proved difficult. “No true patriot,” announced the New York Times, “can countenance any such expenditures for bronze females in the present state of our finances.” (She wasn’t bronze, by the way, but had copper skin with iron supports.) Finally an appeal to the American public brought in a vast number of small donations in the 1880s, and the statue, built in France, was shipped across the Atlantic in crates, and assembled on its pedestal on Bedloe’s Island. In 1886, amid much civic brouhaha, the completed statue was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland.
|As she stands today.|
Now let’s zoom ahead to the twentieth century and a personal note. In 1919, soon after the end of World War I, my mother was sent to Paris by the YWCA to work in the Foyer, a YWCA center offering English classes and other services to young French women. “To be an American in Paris in 1919,” she often told me, “was to be a god.” Our entering the war in 1917, when the French and their British allies were exhausted after years of trench warfare, had brought energy and hope to the Allies, and for this and the victory that followed, the French were profoundly grateful. In her year and a half in Paris my mother, unencumbered by any solid grasp of the language, made many French friends and acquired a taste for France and things French that remained with her all her life. When, in 1940, Paris fell to the Germans and French resistance collapsed, I remember my mother’s dismay, and her concern for French friends living in Paris. When her younger son started grade school, she saw to it that he took French, thus instilling in him a similar taste for things French that in time would take him to France with a Fulbright scholarship, and cause him, an English major, to study French language and literature in graduate school and end up teaching French.
The love affair between the two republics was put to the test in the years following the end of World War II, for France no longer enjoyed the status of a world power, while the U.S. had become one of the two superpowers, confronting the Soviet Union. The result: wounded French pride vs. American arrogance – not the best formula for friendship. And American arrogance was a fact. In a youth hostel in Italy I remember a brash American telling a cultivated young French woman, “France is done, finished, kaput!” – an opinion that struck me then, and still strikes me now, as ignorant, stupid, and naïve. Of course, in the years that followed, General de Gaulle’s towering presence, with his deep distrust of “les Anglo-Saxons,” didn’t help. “I don’t like that guy,” my students often told me, to which I could only answer, “He doesn’t want you to.” But all was not lost: Marilyn Monroe was celebrated over there, just as Brigitte Bardot was hailed over here.
And today? We have survived more ups and downs in the love affair. In 2003, when the French government declined to jump through Bush Junior’s hoop and join in the war in Iraq – a refusal that I cheered at the time – the cafeterias of the House of Representatives stopped serving French fries and served “freedom fries” instead. Just
when Congress seems to have exhausted all possibilities for silliness, it manages to outdo itself again.
Recent events show that, in spite of all, the love affair persists. Early last July a replica of the Hermione, the three-masted, 32-gun frigate that brought the twenty-two-year-old Lafayette to these shores in 1780 (his second visit) with news of French support for our Revolution, sailed into New York harbor, fired a round of cannon blasts by way of greeting, and docked at the South Street Seaport. The mission of the vessel and its volunteer costumed crew, including officers in cocked hats and gold-braided jackets, was to reinforce the somewhat shaky Franco-American friendship by a round of visits to East Coast ports. “There are two things the French and the Americans agree on totally,” the ship’s superintendent observed: “D-Day and Lafayette.” An exhibit at the New York Historical Society featured Lafayette and the Hermione, the reincarnation of which led a parade of vessels past the Statue of Liberty on July 4. On board the arriving vessel was a barrel of Hennessy cognac to be auctioned off in New York, the proceeds going to charity. And where is the Hermione today? Back in its home port of Rochefort, with return visits to the U.S. a possibility.
|House of Representatives menu.|
when Congress seems to have exhausted all possibilities for silliness, it manages to outdo itself again.
In the years before 9/11 I remember hearing a French resident of the U.S. say how exciting it was to live in an adolescent country like this one, as opposed to the more mature nations of Europe. He liked the sense of adventure, the openness to change, the daring – for a cultivated Frenchman, a surprising point of view. What he would say today, in the wake of our response to 9/11 and all that followed, I’d just as soon not know.
A further strain on the relationship came with revelations that the American embassy in Paris was packed with eavesdropping equipment focused on President François Hollande and, for a very French touch, his actress girlfriend who discreetly frequents the Élysée Palace but a few doors away from the Embassy. This keyhole peeping drew an outcry from the French press, though French officials, mindful perhaps of France’s own eavesdropping prowess, were inclined to shrug it off. Said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, “If we criticize the States, it’s because we love the States…. We love Lincoln. We love Kennedy. We love Roosevelt and the New Deal. We love the Founding Fathers. We love the creativity. We don’t like the rifle association.” A New Yorker couldn’t have put it any better.
When an American journalist visited the well-preserved trenches of World War I in northern France last year, he recognized that in that war the Germans had better weapons, better soldiers, better generals, better spies, better barbed wire, and vastly better trenches – in short, better everything – and yet, having repelled French attacks for four years, the Germans managed in the end to lose. How? When he asked elderly residents in the area, people whose memories went back to 1918, their answer was always the same: “Les Américains.”
And recently, when three Americans helped thwart a terrorist attack on a crowded Amsterdam-to-Paris train, thus saving the lives of countless passengers, they received from President Hollande himself France’s highest honor, the Legion of Honor.
|American troops embarked for France, 1917.|
Yes, come what may, the friendship will survive.
Coming soon: 14th Street: from pig ears to Macs, Our Lady of Guadalupe, heroic pedicures, Joan of Arc, Art Deco and terra cotta, how Merrill met Lynch, and a building I love to hate. And after that, New York hustlers.
© 2015 Clifford Browder