Thanks to Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris and David McCullough’s book The Greater Journey, summer crowds are again satisfying their appetite for that guilty pleasure: the Americans-in-Paris romp. Such celebrations of the adventures of Americans in the City of Lights are certainly fun. But they evoke a version of the city that’s rooted as much in fantasy as fact. Like many guilty pleasures, they actually tell us a lot more about who we are, and about our yearning for an elusive American innocence, than they do about the gritty realities of the French capital.
In his chronicle of artists and apprentices who journeyed to France during the 19th century, McCullough gives us his trademark vignettes, so richly descriptive that you can feel the tight clothing and smell the candles going out. The Americans are well-meaning and hard-working. In turn, Paris is obliging, with picturesque rather than menacing poverty, and where, the author tell us, no drunks stagger through the streets.
With Allen we also get postcard Paris and a parade of illustrious expatriates ripped from history as we follow Owen Wilson’s character on his fantastical journey back to the 1920s. The film’s opening montage sets the tone: shots of Fouquet’s café on the Champs Elysées; the wind-milled Moulin Rouge; squares magically empty of traffic jams; and alleys mercifully free of noise, drug deals, or urine. While Wilson plays the incredulous but enthusiastic initiate, the French serve as scene shifters and helpful guides.
Allen and McCullough may look to different golden ages, but both essentially give us old-timey Paris with mirrored brasseries, obligatory homages to the Eiffel Tower, mustaches, and just a dash of prostitution so things don’t seem too sanitized. It’s the same airbrushed city that wowed moviegoers in An American in Paris and Funny Face. It’s the same depoliticized place that armchair time travelers look for when they pick up Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Here, Americans are bystanders to war and civil unrest, and, in peacetime, the only bad guys around are Englishmen, snooty waiters, or maybe a few fussy bureaucrats.
In this mythical Paris, no one rolls their eyes at your American accent or asks you to defend U.S. foreign policy. No one rubs up against you in line. No one gets arrested. Can’t you see the lights dancing on the Seine? Can’t you hear the accordions? Americans eat this stuff up — but not simply because Allen and McCullough do it so well.
Such a romanticized Paris provides the perfect backdrop for depicting Americans abroad as wide-eyed newcomers exploring foreign lands with only the best intentions, as reluctant heroes who never intended to throw their weight around. The Americans-in-Paris romp allows us to imagine ourselves out in the world, but removed from political quagmires, the burdens of world leadership, anti-American blowback, and other problems, which have, in fact, long plagued tourists and policy-makers alike. Going to Paris was imagined as novel and chic by those coming from a nation with few French immigrants. It wasn’t like a homecoming, which is how many experienced London, Berlin, or Rome. But at the same time, it didn’t seem too threatening. It promised to be only delightfully exotic.
In truth, Paris back then, like today, teemed with conflicts that Americans never fully escaped. In addition to its revolutions and failed insurrections, the city attracted anarchist assassins, angry exiles, and anti-Semites who waged their battles in the streets (not to mention plenty of unruly absinthe drinkers). While Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent painted their portraits, distrustful national leaders and a far-right municipal council ruled the capital with an iron fist.
By the 1920s, Paris had become one of the most polarized places in the world. Communists built up their strength in the city’s infamous suburban “red belt,” while its center was ruled by a police prefect, Jean Chiappe, whom the American press rightly called France’s “best bet” for fascism.
We always focus on the artists and intellectuals. But other Americans came, too, among them vanquished Confederates pining for the age of slavery, materialistic strivers determined to buy culture, and conmen looking to scam their countrymen. By the mid-1920s, 40,000 Americans lived in Paris, and a quarter million or more arrived each tourist season.
In 1926, right-wing protesters, enraged about the bullying power of the dollar and Americans’ refusal to forgive French war debts, ruffled some tourists on the boulevards and forcibly removed others from buses. Parisians grumbled about the spread of English. The following year, left-wing activists sought retribution for the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts, descending on visitors’ favorite hotspots. The façades of Fouquet’s and the Moulin Rouge, which so enchanted Woody Allen, were destroyed in scuffles between Sacco-Vanzetti rioters and American patrons. Disdaining the capital’s cosmopolitan nightlife, the police prefect raided famous American nightclubs in Montmartre.
But perhaps it’s not the task of popular history to dwell on the confounding state of Franco-American relations but rather to fill that place in the heart that wants to be warmed, to tell stories that make people feel good about who they are. We might regard tales about Americans in Paris as corny and clichéd, or we might relish them for their charm. But whether we criticize those who play to the myths or laud them for delivering la vie en rose, the City of Lights will continue to hold a special place in our culture, because Americans want to believe that they once were and maybe again could be — innocents in the world.
Brooke L. Blower is assistant professor of history at Boston University and the author of Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars.
A Paris policeman directs traffic on Place de la Concorde in Paris, with a display of American flags in preperation of the arrival of United States President John F. Kennedy (Globe file, 1961); Rachel McAdams and Owen Wilson in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics).