Thursday, September 20, 2012

From Jean and Gene Elliott, October 1948, Paris

Dear Rosa and Murray—everyone here talks French and we stumble after with our pitiful little burden of simple sentences which we try to feed into gaps in conversations but usually our opportunities have swung way behind us while we are still sorting out pronouns, subject-verb agreement, etc. We sit at the table of our pension nodding and smiling from time to time and sometimes getting a chance to say yes or no or thank you or the soup is very good tonight. It’s pretty maddening—we’ve discovered how really addicted we are to conversation. To correct our ineptitude as quickly as possible, we are taking an 8 to 10 AM daily class in French taught entirely in French at L’institut Panthéon, a class that is a little too hard for us so that we have to study about six hours each night. I think it’s helping.

Jean Elliott at the Lake Union houseboat, 1945
We have been homesick for people and animals but not for home so the obvious solution is to import les gens et les animaux, n’est-ce pas? And we’d like to start with you. Paris is a marvelous place to be in spite of some lack of comfort. We live in a fairly large room on the fourth floor; our windows are on the street and we have a fireplace which we will be able to use at some vague future date after the chimney is swept (we shall not have coal but maybe wood although it’s high because of the coal strike). There’s a washbasin behind a screen but not hot water at all, a toilet down the hall and not a bathtub in the house. We bathe at the public bains et douches in a private room for the two of us: we each have, for about forty cents altogether, two big European tubs, chin high, in which we sit for half an hour in all the hot water we want and chat as we wash. We both think it’s a very fine, unboring way to bathe. Our meals, included in bill here, are good. A maid brings us café au lait, which is neither coffee nor stimulating but good, and the dark Paris bread (without butter) at seven-thirty. We gagged on the bread at first but have, fortunately, developed a taste for it. [Bread was rationed in France into 1948; the loaves that were available were made from the sourdough starter and unrefined “gray flour” now used to make the priciest of pain de campagne loaves.] At noon we have a big meal with a vegetable hors d’oeuvre and fruit or cheese or yogurt for dessert and at seven we have another dinner (dîner—I think it means supper) with soup to begin with, salad and same kinds of desserts. We always have meat at noon, often at both meals. And always vegetables. This is costing us a little or $60 a month including tipping. 

Heat and light are something else. One night the electrician of the house came into our room, asked if we had warmth in our radiator. We said no, and he put his hand on it and said oui, oui, you have the heat. It was a little warmer than body temperature. That was a week ago and apparently just an experiment with the heating system because we haven’t had heat since and the days are getting quite cold (they’re like Seattle’s cold, frosty days only a little damper). The lights in the hall are so dim that often we’ve reached for the button before we realized that they were on. … The bathroom light is not automatic but is so unfunctional that we have to take a flashlight in to see what we’re doing. Our  reading lamps are slightly better, but only if we are huddled under them. But these few discomforts are nothing compared to the joys of being here. You know how incomparably beautiful it is (didn’t you once hang from the netting of the Eiffel Tower?). We’ve been doing some organized sightseeing, that is—organized by us, such as going to a famous place outside the city each Sunday: Versailles, Chartres, Chantilly, Senlis, St. Germaine
Bee [Lucille] Shepherd, Puget Sound, 1948
en laye. And then, of course, we wander the streets constantly. If we don’t watch ourselves, we spend two hours getting from our school ten blocks away back to our house. Books and art books are everywhere and we covet nearly every one we see. Also decanters, pottery, hand-woven material—almost everything. We have also become addicted to pastries of which there 486,000 varieties, each one better than the one before and all very inexpensive. We’ve had some meals in restaurants and they’ve been wonderful. The French say that food, wine, pastries are below pre-war standards and if that is true it is impossible for me to imagine what they were like because all of it now is almost the best we’ve ever had. You should come for next year or sooner.

Shep (Charles) Shepherd, Port Ludlow, 1948
The Shepherds overwhelmed us with kindnesses. In the first place, they met our train at some awful morning hour, eight-thirty I they met our train at some awful morning hour, eight-thirty I think. Then they brought us presents, beautiful billfolds wrapped up in tissue and ribbons. We had coffee in the station, took a taxi to the art museum and looked for Bill’s [Bill FettLudlow including a very fine one of the bottom of your feet, Murray. Objet d’art.
Howard Daniel was not home at all. Nor Howard Lewis—at the paper we were told that he was in Paris but flying back to NY the 26th; we sailed the 24th. We looked for a plane overhead Sunday afternoon and Monday morning but didn’t even see a wing-tip to wave at. We talked to Ann [Ann Elmo, Murray’s agent] about how she was (she had a strained back) and how we were (we were fine) and how you were (you were fine too) and how Agony was (Agony  was not fine but she said that she’d like us to try rewriting the last chapter). One nice piece of news we had for her was that we had seen, the first day we were in the city, a fairly prominent display of Dixie Raider on one of the tables at Brentano’s. (How is DR going?) …
“Liquor for the State of Washington, Wallace for president: the perfect life.”
If the house caught on fire, we would first save each other and the toss to decide whether to grab the typewriters or the Baedeker next. I can’t find words, French or English, to tell you how much we’ve needed it, relied on it, enjoyed places because of it, used it to find things or to keep from getting lost or to get unlost, loved having it and read ourselves to sleep with it. I shudder to think how different our lives here would have been if you had believed us when we were protesting that we really couldn’t accept it from you. God.
This 1948 image of the Republican Members of the House Un-American Activities Committee included, from left to right, Representative Richard B. Vail of Illinois, Chairman John Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, Representative John McDowell of Pennsylvania, Robert Stripling (chief counsel), and Representative Richard M. Nixon of California.
Our ballots came just as we were about to give up and so we voted Monday, mailed them back. Liquor for the State of Washington, Wallace for president: the perfect life. Please, please, please write us about the Canwell committee’s fate (and that of their victims). As far as the letters we’ve received are concerned, the whole business never happened. Harry and Jo Fugl told us on their arrival that two of the committee-men had been defeated in the primaries which is excellent but we’d like to know more about all of it. [Harry Fugl, director of the activist Pacific Northwest Labor School in the late 1940s, was called before the Canwell Committee.]
Monday’s Le Monde carried a short paragraph about M. Parnell Thomas , among the loveliest French we’ve ever read. Maybe it is just Democratic Party move and maybe he does get a closed session in contrast to all the public reputation-feasts he’s officiated over, still it’s good. [Thomas, head of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, was convicted of fraud for putting friends into phantom jobs on the Congressional payroll in exchange for kickbacks.]  a We’d like to know more about that, too, if you have time.
Gene wants space. We miss you deeply. Send a note as soon as you can and seriously think about how happy you’d be here. 
Love, Jean

Dear Water-dwellers: we have not yet found the Keplers or Kepples (choose one) [it’s Kleppers] but will give you all the dope soon. In the meantime we are constantly reminded by seeing the boaters on the Seine, some with those double-bladed paddles and some with sails, having what is apparently the time of their lives. Jealousy gnaws at our vitals, or would if it were not for the fact that there are so many land-borne pleasures t every hand that we don’t stand still long enough to be gnawed. Harry and Jo arrived (as implied above) and are settled near the Boulevard Saint Michele, very happy. Better come over. Study threatens. Much more soon. Love to you both.    g 
For more on Parnell Thomas:
For more on the Canwell Committee hearings at UW:   
Canwell biography:

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