When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Tag archive: France

Sign Of Maturity

Edith Sitwell, painted by Roger Fry in 1915

1904: Writing home from Paris, where she had been sent to finish her education, 17-year-old Edith Sitwell described the changes to her pubescent body: “I am growing eyebrows. One can see them distinctly.”

Source: Richard Greene, Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius (2011), p. 48

Reckless Driving

1988: The tradition whereby the victor in French presidential elections granted an amnesty for recent traffic offences led inadvertently to motorists driving with particular abandon in the months immediately before voting. Greater recklessness meant more road accidents; more road accidents meant more casualties. This was particularly noticeable before the presidential election of April and May 1988. In the last seven months of 1987 and 1988 the number of deaths on France’s roads were almost identical – 6,436 and 6,400 – but the figures for the first five months of each year were 3,425 and 4,077 – an increase of 652 deaths, almost one-fifth, during election year.

Source: Claude Got, La Violence Routière: Les Mensonges Qui Tuent (2008), pp. 57–64

Lollipop Period

1938: Art historians might quibble, but the summer of 1938 could be regarded as Pablo Picasso’s Lollipop Period. On holiday in the south of France, he drew and painted a series of pictures depicting mostly men sucking lollipops or licking ice creams.

Source: Sabine Rewald, Twentieth Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (1989), pp. 206–9

Breast Reduction

1929: For almost a thousand years, women had been banned from the monastic communities on Mount Athos, in northern Greece. The French journalist Maryse Choisy, however, managed to sneak in and stay for a month. She claimed she had improved her disguise beforehand by having her breasts “appropriately trimmed” by a plastic surgeon.

Source: Maryse Choisy, A Month among the Men (1962), p. 11

Multiple Deaths

Ferdinand Foch, portrayed in 1918

1914: The French dead from fighting near the Belgian border on 22 August included Germain Foch, the only son of corps commander General Ferdinand Foch, and, on the same day, the general’s son-in-law, Captain Paul Bécourt.

Source: Martin Gilbert, First World War (1995), p. 56

Gunboat Diplomacy

1911: Germany’s attempt to increase its influence in southern Morocco at the expense of France provoked the Agadir crisis, which almost bump-started the First World War three years early. Under the pretext of protecting German citizens during a period of insecurity, Berlin dispatched the gunboat Panther to the port of Agadir. There were in fact no German citizens in Agadir so, to keep up appearances, one had to be fetched from a town up the coast.

Source: Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (1992), chap. 39

Confined To Bed

1971: From childhood, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel walked in her sleep. The fashion designer’s somnambulism eventually became so bad that, to stop herself straying at night, she instructed her maid, Céline, and her assistant, Lilou, to tie her down in bed.

Source: Lisa Chaney, Chanel: An Intimate Life (2011), pp. 430–1

Discordant Note

Caricature of William Somerset Maugham

1955: William Somerset Maugham’s affair with Syrie Wellcome and their subsequent marriage produced one child but little happiness. When they divorced in 1929, Maugham was obliged to agree to a costly settlement to secure Syrie’s silence regarding his homosexuality. As the years passed, Maugham deeply resented the misery of their marriage and the continuing financial burden of the settlement.

Syrie died in London on 25 July 1955. Maugham heard of her death while playing cards at the Villa Mauresque, his home in the south of France. He put down the pack and drummed his fingers triumphantly on the table. “Tra-la-la-la,” he sang. “No more alimony. Tra-la, tra-la.”

Source: Robin Maugham, Somerset and All the Maughams (1966), p. 208

Green Girls

André Derain, photographed in about 1903

1906: The young girls of London, André Derain wrote to Henri Matisse, have faces “made to stand out in the misty streets or in the cold calm of English interiors”: “very blond hair, untidily wound up, with plaits tight around a matt-ivory coloured face, with their lips and cheeks lightly tinted pink, which makes the skin green”.

Source: Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen et al., André Derain: The London Paintings (2005), p. 133

Stylish In Stripes

1945: Bessie, comtesse de Mauduit, returned to Paris from Ravensbrück concentration camp still dressed in her striped uniform, but looking elegant all the same (“encore vêtu de l’uniforme rayé des déportés et très élégante tout de meme”). Another inmate, a head seamstress from the Schiaparelli fashion house, had restyled her uniform.

Source: Jean Galtier-Boissière, Journal 1940–1950 (1992), pp. 410, 413

Right Priorities

1944: Major-General Charles Gerhardt, commander of the American 29th Division, was a stickler for discipline. Amid the carnage and destruction of Omaha beach on D-Day – mangled corpses, smashed landing craft, burned-out vehicles and discarded weapons – he yelled at a soldier for dropping orange peel.

Source: Antony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (2009), p. 153

Papal Divisions

1935: During a visit to Moscow, the French foreign minister, Pierre Laval, urged Joseph Stalin to improve the lot of Catholics in the Soviet Union. Stalin was utterly contemptuous of Catholics and the Vatican. “The Pope!” he snorted. “How many divisions has he got?” (To which the perfect riposte would have been: “The same number that Karl Marx had.”)

Source: Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, I: The Gathering Storm (1950), p. 121

Lindbergh’s Logic

Charles Lindbergh, standing in front of the plane he flew across the Atlantic, the Spirit of St Louis

1927: Charles Lindbergh’s inflight food for his trans-Atlantic trip consisted of five sandwiches. With dry logic he explained, “If I get to Paris, I won’t need any more, and if I don’t get to Paris, I won’t need any more either.”

Source: A. Scott Berg, Lindbergh, 1998, pp. 14–15

Unmusical Anatomy

Erik Satie, photographed by Man Ray in about 1921

1917: The music critic Jean Poueigh congratulated Parade’s composer, Erik Satie, when the ballet was first performed in Paris, but then savaged it in print. The enraged composer fired off a series of insulting postcards. “You are an ass-hole – and, if I dare say so – an unmusical ‘ass-hole’.” (“Vous êtes un cul – si j’ose dire, un «cul» sans musique.”)

Source: Satie Seen Through His Letters, ed. Ornella Volta (1994), pp. 131–3

Natural Causes

1967: Grigori Rasputin was murdered in Petrograd on the night of 29 December 1916. Prince Felix Yusupov and his fellow conspirators poisoned Rasputin with cyanide, shot him four times, clubbed him, kicked him, tied him up and finally pushed him through a hole in the ice on the River Neva.

After the Russian Revolution, Yusupov fled abroad and lived most of the rest of his life in Paris. He died on 27 September 1967 at the age of 80 – unlike Rasputin, from natural causes.

Prince Felix Yusupov, photographed in 1914

Source: Andrew Cook, To Kill Rasputin: The Life and Death of Grigori Rasputin (2005), p. 226

Nuclear Option

1954: Did the Eisenhower administration really offer to drop atomic bombs on the Vietminh troops besieging the French at Dien Bien Phu? Nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, did the Americans contemplate once again using their nuclear arsenal in combat? Howard Simpson thought so. “The relevant documents remain classified,” he wrote in Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, “but enough has seeped out through personal comments and written memoirs to suggest that such a proposal was seriously considered.” Fortunately for the men on the ground, the idea was abandoned; any attack would have wiped out attackers and defenders indiscriminately.

Source: Martin Windrow, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam (2004), pp. 568–9

Singed Eyebrows

1938: In dense cloud over the south of France, a ball of lightning entered the open cockpit window of a B.O.A.C. flying boat, singed the captain’s eyebrows and hair, burned a hole in his seat belt, and then meandered harmlessly through the forward passenger cabin into the rear cabin, where it burst with a loud explosion.

Source: Nature, 5 April 1952

Vulgar Wailing

1932: “Ravel’s Bolero I submit as the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music. From the beginning to the end of its 339 measures it is simply the incredible repetition of the same rhythm,” scoffed Edward Robinson in The American Mercury. The main theme, he wrote, was “an overwhelmingly vulgar cabaret tune”, little different from “the wail of an obstreperous back-alley cat”.

Source: Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time (2000), p. 138

Beauty Regime

1920: “Like every morning I have had my enema, in order to preserve a clear skin and sweet breath,” wrote Princess Ghika in her notebook on 11 January. “It is a family habit, approved of by Dr Pinard,” explained the princess, the former demi-mondaine Liane de Pougy. “One of Maman’s old great-aunts, the beautiful Madame Rhomès, died at the age of ninety and a half with a complexion of lilies and roses, skin like a child’s. She took her little enema, it seems, at five o’clock every evening, so that she would sleep very well. She did it cheerfully in public. She would simply stand in front of the fireplace; her servant would come in discreetly, armed with the loaded syringe; Madame Rhomès would lean forward gracefully so that her full skirts lifted, one two three, and it was done! Conversation was not interrupted. After a minute or two my beautiful ancestress would disappear briefly, soon to return with the satisfaction of a duty performed.”

Source: Liane de Pougy, My Blue Notebooks (1979), p. 83

Target Practice

1916: When the British attack lost momentum on the first day of the battle of the Somme, Lieutenant R.A. Heptonstall found himself stranded in no man’s land. “From my shell hole I could see a dead man propped up against the German wire in a sitting position.” A German rifleman whiled away the time taking pot shots at the corpse “until his head was completely shot away”.

Source: Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916 (1988), p. 218

High Flyer

Vaslav Nijinsky, portrayed by John Singer Sargent

1909: Ballerina Tamara Karsavina recounted how Vaslav Nijinsky “rose up, a few yards off the wings, described a parabola in the air, and disappeared from sight. No one of the audience could see him land; to all eyes he floated up and vanished.” Nijinsky’s leaps, defiant of gravity, caused a sensation in Paris. How did he accomplish them? Were they difficult? “No! No!” he replied, “not difficult. You have just to go up and then pause a little up there.”

Source: Tamara Karsavina, Theatre Street (1930), pp. 240, 241–2

Record Breaker

Jeanne Calment in 1895, aged 20

1997: Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment died on 4 August at the age of 122 years and 164 days – the longest confirmed lifespan, by a considerable margin, of any human in history. At the age of 100 she still cycled around her hometown of Arles, she was almost 110 before she needed to move into a retirement home, and she didn’t quit smoking until her 117th year.

Source: Michel Allard, Victor Lèbre and Jean-Marie Robine, Jeanne Calment: From Van Gogh’s Time to Ours, 122 Extraordinary Years (1998), pp. 73, 119

“Wind Of Change”

1960: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent,” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told South Africa’s white lawmakers. Belgium relinquished control of the Belgian Congo; in West Africa, a swathe of French colonies gained independence; Britain pulled out of Nigeria. In a single year, Macmillan’s “wind of change” gusted through 17 African nations.

Source: www.france24.com/en/
20100214-1960-year-independence

Safe From Bullets

1928: The War of the Hoe Handle took its name – Kongo Wara in the Gbaya language of central Africa – from the hoe handles, or kongo, that the messianic leader Karnu distributed to his adherents to protect them against European bullets.

Karnu attracted followers in western Ubangi-Shari by claiming to have the power to get rid of the detested French colonisers and, for good measure, the ability to turn them into gorillas.

Source: Canadian Journal of African Studies, 1984

Bound For Glory

Isadora Duncan, photographed in 1911 by Otto Wegener

1927:Adieu, mes amis, je vais à la gloire!” the dancer Isadora Duncan shouted from the passenger seat of her car – “Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!”

The car was an Amilcar Grand Sport – low and fast. The driver was a young garage owner from Nice named Bénoit Falchetto.

Duncan sat with a red shawl draped round her neck. The shawl was the size of a tablecloth; its fringe slipped over the side of the car and dangled dangerously close to the rear wheel. “Isadora, ta châle! Ramasse ta châle!” shouted a friend – “Isadora, your shawl! Pick up your shawl!”

Falchetto revved the engine and put it in gear. The car surged forward. The fringe caught in the spokes. The shawl wrapped round the wheel, yanked back Duncan’s head and snapped her neck.

Source: Peter Kurth, Isadora: The Sensational Life of Isadora Duncan (2002), pp. 553–6

Dodgy Excuse

1923: On 11 January, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr region on the pretext that Germany had defaulted on the payment of reparations: specifically that it had failed to deliver a shipment of telegraph poles and cut timber on time.

Source: Conan Fischer, The Ruhr Crisis, 1923–1924 (2003), p. 28