Winters in Paris


IT was decided that we should go to Paris for the winter. Laura, our oldest daughter, showed marked disposition for art and wanted to work in an atelier; some of the older children were to go to English schools, and would spend the long Christmas holidays with us; the younger ones would learn French. My husband would hunt the fox in Ireland and join us now and then when frost stopped the hunting. I agreed to take the flock over in time for the opening of schools and classes; Wintie would follow a little later after enjoying the cream of the October hunting in the Genesee Valley. I found it hard to leave Sweet Briar Farm, where we now lived, when the country was in its autumn glory. Beside seven children and their various attendants, I took my good Steinway piano and a thoroughbred mare to study haute école with in Paris. The transatlantic move was successfully accomplished and we soon found ourselves comfortably settled in an apartment on the Rue Boissière.

Wintie and I had often been in Paris since our marriage, always staying at a hotel for a week or two of shopping, eating at restaurants, seeing the new plays; leading, in short, the more or less dissipated life of the foreigner in Paris, the place of all others where every taste can be cultivated and gratified, the city which knows how to welcome and dazzle the stranger and has so much more to give him than he knows how to ask for. It was a new experience to spend a whole winter there, to dig oneself into the life of the place — an experience and an education. I have done it again and again since that first time when I took Laura to study painting.

The old saying that ‘all good Americans go to Paris when they die’ is not quite as foolish as it sounds, for to the majority of Americans who go there alive Paris offers in every variety of form the fulfillment and increase of their desires, teaching them the while to desire and enjoy more fastidiously, whether it be the creations of the Rue de la Paix, the grande cuisine of famous restaurants, the bouquet of rare vintages, or the more intellectual and æsthetic pleasures of the mind. Where can the history of art be better studied than in the cosmic labyrinth of the Louvre or the gold-glimmering twilight of the Cluny, with its Lady and Unicorn tapestries, its jeweled Visigothic crowns, and its many incomparable treasures, to say nothing of all the other collections, public as well as private, which await the sightseer’s pleasure? If it is learning you seek, the Sorbonne and the Collège de France, with their free lectures by world-famous teachers, keep up their immemorial tradition of passing on the torch from one generation to another; and the Institut de France, with its five component academies, covers every field of intellectual endeavor.

There is too much to choose from, and that is why many of our young people who go to Paris unprepared accomplish little or nothing. French life is highly evolved and vastly differentiated. The French child works hard from the time he is seven. Nothing is left to chance and there is little opportunity for play; by the time he is a man he must have learned all he can be taught.

The great star-pattern of the French forests, originally invented to facilitate riding to hounds and later adopted by Haussmann in reordering the topography of Paris with a system of intersecting avenues and boulevards, has always seemed to me typical — almost symbolic — of the French mind, with its taste for clarity, synthesis, and radiation, its aversion to what is vague and undefined. The French park or forest is in this the very opposite of its English counterpart across the Channel, where the whole intention is to make you feel lost in the woods; where a path meanders beside a brook, following its curves; strays through some pleasant dingle; leads you by a clearing that gives you a lovely view; then perhaps, as in Through the Looking-Glass, gives a wriggle and a twist and takes you back to where you started from, not whither you had intended to go — if by any chance you had set out with the intention of getting anywhere.

And this symbolizes another racial genius, the genius of Shakespeare opposed to that of Racine, the difference between Tristram Shandy and Madame Bovary. The essential antithesis runs deeply through the literatures of both these highly talented peoples, both so especially endowed for literature that this very contrast makes a good point of comparison. The Frenchman is more of a literary strategist. He knows before beginning his book just what things he has to say, just what fields he has to cover, and how the divergent points are to be disposed about the central subject, united to it on straightly logical lines — there you have your star-pattern. The writer of English, on the contrary, and more especially the English essayist, takes you with him on a ramble of discovery. If he has a fixed purpose he does his best to conceal it so as to give the sense of coming upon the unexpected adventure of the mind.

It is interesting to see how much and how little the foreigners living in Paris get from the experience. They all seem to enjoy it; the longer they live there the less they wish to live anywhere else. Some of them never get much further than the clothes, food, and drink stages of initiation; and who so happy as they until gout or digestive troubles overtake them, or dressmaker’s bills outstrip their bank account?

There are the light-hearted art students of Montmartre, the young architects working at the Beaux-Arts, the serious youth who is preparing his thesis for the Doctorat ès Lettres at the Sorbonne; there are the socially ambitious, who make friends with what is left of the old Faubourg St.-Germain and eventually take their place in the fashionable circles of Tout Paris — and many more. While all these follow their own tastes, seeking their own satisfactions, — physical, intellectual, æsthetic, moral, or immoral, as the case may be, — Paris itself, the greatest of universities, is teaching them, according to their capacity to learn, its own lesson of good taste, in small things as in great. Who can see the Place de la Concorde without admiration for its ordered beauty, its disciplined magnificence? In the winter twilight when the lamps shine palely in the fading daylight, it takes on a quality of sheer wonder, difficult to describe, but never for a moment does it lose its geometrical distinction. It is never romantic or theatrical; it is the sober triumph of mind over matter and space. And all the splendid ‘landscape in stone’ along the quays, the bridges and palaces, Notre-Dame, the SainteChapelle, the Ile St.-Louis, teach the same lesson of talented sobriety, of inspiration controlled by reason and good taste.

I have said that the French are highly evolved and extremely differentiated; they fall into manifold groups and categories — the social, the political, the clerical and anticlerical, the artistic, the intellectual, and many more. Their differences are strongly marked. Each group looks on the others with mistrust and they would seem to have little in common but their great art of conversation; in this they all excel. The French are masters in this subtle art of give and take, of knowing how to help, above all how never to hinder, the flow of discourse. The great ladies of the salons must have practised it to perfection. They must have known how to eliminate or else how firmly to discipline bores and chatterboxes.

The French have too much skill in their pleasure, and know too well how to give material things their full value, ever to spend money carelessly. Their thrift is to Americans a stumblingblock; it looks to them like so much avarice, while the French take American open-handedness for stupid purseproud extravagance, which they, upon occasion, are glad enough to profit by. When dealing with money, natural virtues are apt to exaggerate themselves into vices. The French bas de laine, the woolen stocking in which the peasant is said to hoard his slowly accumulated coins, stands to him for safety, for stability, for self-respect. He would not trust his savings to a bank, much less to a speculative investment. Safety and stability make but small appeal to the American; he daily hears of fortunes made by lucky speculation; if he has money in his purse it is there to be spent or played with — there must be more where that came from; he banks confidently on the future and buys on the installment plan a house, a car, a fur coat, an encyclopædia, or any of the ingenious devices for cooking, freezing, cleaning, and making a noise.

There is among Anglo-Saxons a general impression that the French standards of morality are lower than those of English-speaking peoples. Max O’Rell in his amusing book on John Bull et son Ile called the French the braggarts of vice, the English the hypocrites of virtue. This would tend to establish an equation in their respective moral worth. If you base your opinion of French morality on the examples offered by French writers in their novels little and great, you will wonder if there is such a thing as a happy marriage, a faithful lover, or an honest wife in all France. The French novelist — more particularly the nineteenth-and early twentieth-century novelist — never wearies of embroidering variations on the familiar theme, the irregular human triangle in all its phases. It was a literary convention, it pleased the public — it was the kind of fiction they enjoyed. A friend of mine asked Paul Bourget, one of the most popular novelists in his day, why he never wrote about an honest woman. His answer was that honest women wore not interesting to write about. Yet in life he was a devoted and exemplary husband, a good friend, a sincere Catholic, no destroyer of hearthstones. The French are naturally religious; Christian morals have penetrated deeply into their consciousness for many centuries. Many of their best thinkers have been and still are sincere Catholics. Many, indeed, have turned against religion; then they hate and wish to revile and destroy it. Their very antagonism to it testifies that for them it is always a real thing; they cannot be indifferent to it. And perhaps this is one reason why the conflict between human passion and divinely constituted law — the breaking point of virtue — has always interested them so much.

The psychomachia, the battle of the soul, is one of the favorite subjects of French Romanesque sculpture. We often find it following the curve of ancient portals, angels and devils in fierce but unequal combat. The angels have long spears for attack and strong wings for flight, while the poor devils have only their horns and claws to defend themselves with, and their ugly distorted faces which cannot frighten their serene antagonists, who feel sure of ultimate victory. The more modern exponents of the immemorial struggle see less of a foregone conclusion in its outcome; their angels and their devils are not so easy to identify as those of the mediæval sculptors. ’What is good and what is evil?’ the present analyzers of the psyche seem to ask, but they know that there are such things as vice and virtue, as brutality and kindness, as meanness and generosity, and that they will fight for the soul of man to the end of time.


I like Paris in winter for all its bad weather, scant sunshine, and dark afternoons. Its structure is just as beautiful in rain as in sunshine — and wet stones have more color than dry ones. It is the quiet season for making friends and seeing something of them, for attending excellent lectures at the Sorbonne, the Collège de France, or the Société des Conférences, for hearing and making music, for leisure rich with choice.

During the two winters spent in Paris in order that Laura should study art, I saw a great deal of Edith Wharton. She and her husband had a pleasant apartment in the Rue de Varenne, where I was often invited.

It was said of Edith Wharton and Theodore Roosevelt that they were both self-made men; she was pleased with the saying and repeated it to me. There was a good deal of truth in it. If it is easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it would seem just as hard for one brought up in worldly security, with the mental and spiritual inertia it so often engenders, to put himself through the discipline of attaining professional mastery in any field. Both Edith Wharton and Theodore Roosevelt grew up in the complacent atmosphere of New York’s haute bourgeoisie in the latter nineteenth century, and both won name and fame through their own efforts, to the admiration and surprise of their families and friends.

When I found Edith in the Rue de Varenne she had achieved wide and well-earned reputation with her writings. The Valley of Decision, The House of Mirth, and some short stories had made her famous. Ethan Frome came out that winter. I remember how I read the grim and wonderful story at one gulp, and just as I finished the last chapter, still panting with the tragic sincerity of the tale, I received a note in Edith’s flowing capable writing, asking me to come to dinner.

Henry James was a lifelong and devoted friend of Edith’s and came to pay the Whartons long visits in the Rue de Varenne. It was delightful to see him and Edith together; there was between them a relation of perfect understanding, respect for one another’s talents, and whole-hearted mutual admiration. She gave a number of little dinners for him to which I gladly went. As I remember, these were never of more than six or eight, but the guests were carefully chosen for their absolute compatibility, and the stream of good talk flowed and sparkled as it should round the well-appointed table, and later in the drawing-room. But for me the best part of the evening came at the end when the other guests had gone and I was asked to stay on. Then Henry James would draw up his chair to the fire and make us do the same, and say, in his inimitable way, ‘Now let us say what we really think,’ opening his wise gray eyes a little wider as if to look more deeply into the mystery of things.

He shared with Edith an almost morbid hyperæsthesia in the presence of strangers. A room full of people suffocated them both; crowds terrified them, no matter how friendly and well disposed. Perhaps such extreme perceptiveness as theirs takes in too much at a time. Edith has told me that when confronted with a new face she seems to see it enlarged as in a ‘close-up,’ with a searching floodlight on it which makes it grotesque and inhuman, with every imperfection magnified. I have often seen her show her dismay on such occasions, to the further dismay of the harmless stranger who was being presented to her merely that he might tell her how greatly he admired her work. When in a small and thoroughly familiar circle, these two were at their most enchanting best — their wit and their wisdom could flash back and forth in cozy confidence.

Both were great letter writers and had for many years carried on an active correspondence. Edith often showed me his letters; they were always enchanting and I was sure they would eventually be given to the public together with hers, which were probably in their way just as good, for she writes admirable letters. Unfortunately Henry James destroyed all his personal papers, shortly before he died, and American literature has lost what would certainly have been a delightful volume, possibly a classic.

During the Great War Edith valiantly did her part; she provided for whole bands of orphaned children, organized a preventorium in which delicate ones could be watched and strengthened against disease, and was duly decorated with the Legion of Honor for these and other generous activities. Later, when the War was over, she spent her winters in the South of France, in her lovely castled villa Ste. Claire le Château, where I paid her long visits every time I went abroad.

The house is built in what remained of an old convent of Poor Clares, on the side of a hill dominated by the ruins of the seignorial Château d’Hyères. At the highest point of rock and ruin there is a splendid view giving the whole panorama of mountains and sea, bold headlands and the golden islands from which Hyères derives its name. The castle itself was long since destroyed, but its massive outer ring of fortifications still crowns the craggy height. Ilex, carob trees, and wild olives cluster about the old walls; century plants shoot up their stiff candelabra spikes from a rich undergrowth of maquis, the luxuriant tangle, thorny, flowering, always aromatic, which covers the stony hillsides of Provence. When I am there I learn the names of all these lovely wildings and then I forget them; tamarisk, mimosa, broom, cytisus, rosemary, are all I can remember — there are many more. Ste. Claire, the charming house, stands on a ledge near the foot of the hill, surrounded by an indescribable garden, or rather a series of gardens planted in terraces among the rocks, supported and dominated by stony walls and craggy boulders hung with ivy and climbing roses. A succession of rock gardens skillfully planted look as if they had nestled there of themselves, whereas they are full of exotic rarities collected from all parts of the world. There is no end to the flowers and the flowering trees and shrubs. One terrace is a sheet of freesias with two rows of lemon trees, all glossy leaves and ivory blossoms, leading to a little garden house where one must stop to enjoy the sight and the fragrance. A little rest is welcome, for there are few paths; the beauties of the garden are reached by a maze of stone steps.

A flock of dazzling white pouter pigeons add life to the place. They perch on the old sycamores that shade the brick terrace near the house. They group themselves about the drinking fountain, as if to invite attention; they strut and make love with tender monotonous cooings, and when they fly the whir of their wings is like the passing of flames.

I seem to feel Edith’s searching eye upon me as I write. ‘What are you saying about my garden ? ’ she seems to ask, and I hardly dare say any more. She could do it so much better herself, but I doubt if she would try to describe it. It would be telling something too intimate, for her garden is somehow an image of her spirit, of her inmost self. It shows her love of beauty, her imagination, her varied knowledge and masterly attention to detail; like her, it is somewhat inaccessible. Her garden is a symbol of the real Edith.


Among the new acquaintances made in Paris during the winters we spent there, none bloomed for me into more affectionate friendship than that of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Gay. They, too, are expatriates who have made an unqualified success of their life in a country not their own. Matilda Gay was the daughter of William Travers, a brilliant New York lawyer whose witticisms are still quoted. While still a girl, she became a Catholic, to the puzzled astonishment of her friends and relations, among whom Catholicism was looked upon as a Celtic superstition wholly inappropriate to people of quality. She was fervent and intelligent. She had much of her father’s wit, and has to this day bravely rejoiced in her conversion.

She married Walter Gay, a talented but then comparatively unknown artist; her family thought little of the match. The young couple went to live in France. He studied with the Barbizon School and painted Breton peasants and kindred subjects, acquiring an excellent technique thereby, but no particular distinction. He had exquisite taste and appreciation of beautiful things; he found himself when the poetry of the old château in which they lived entered his soul. He began to paint pictures of their salon, their dining room. He knew how to give a room an intimate sense of life, to make you feel that charming people had just left it, and that room and furniture had belonged to other charming people long ago. He is now so famous for these interiors that it seems idle and presumptuous to praise his most delicate art, but one may always offer a sprig of laurel where laurel is due.

The American public is apt to find fault with distinguished Americans who leave their own country because, be they artists, novelists, historians, or whatever, they find the European surroundings more congenial, easier to work in. Good work can surely be done in these United States, but the fact remains that children of the Muses find Europe more to their taste, and talent must work where it can work best. Genius has its own categorical imperative. Henry James had much to say on this his favorite subject. He lived in England because he found it impossible to live in America, but he assured me he never felt really at home in the country of his choice, fond as he was of English people; kind and appreciative as they had shown themselves, they were not his own.

The problem is an insoluble one. The fact that it tormented Henry James to the end of his days shows the countless ramifications it must have had in his mind, delicately sensitive as it was to ethical values. His great inimitable full-length portraits, Maggie in The Golden Bowl, Milly in The Wings of the Dove, Strether in The Ambassadors, are all essentially American, the best America can produce, but they seem to attain their full stature, and come to their exquisite humanity, only by contact with Europe. Was this perhaps the pattern in the carpet which the author would not disclose to the literary critic who wanted to write an article about him? Lovers of Henry James will understand what I mean.

I came to know a good many French people belonging to one or another of the many groups, coteries, and petites chapelles which outline the many patterns of the Parisian world. It is better for the stranger living in Paris not to identify himself too much with any one of these; he can never become a charter member, and there are amusing people and brilliant discoveries to be made in them all. Edith Wharton, with her delicate appreciation of human values, moral and intellectual, was fond of the great game of eagle or swan hunting.

One day she asked me to come to tea; she wanted me to meet a new light she had recently discovered, a most unusually intelligent young man, bookish and knowledgeable; she was sure I should like him. I went and found him interesting and agreeable. We had a rather long and exciting talk about books and ideas, in a sheltered corner of the salon. He had a queer name I did not quite catch — I am very stupid about names. The next day I got home late in the afternoon and found the card of a Monsieur —; he had not yet risen to fame and the name meant nothing to me. It did not sound quite like the name of the young man I had met the day before, but I did not see how it could be anyone else. I wrote him a cordial note expressing my regret at having missed his visit and asking him to come to tea the following Saturday to resume the conversation I had so enjoyed at Mrs. Wharton’s the other day.

At the appointed time Monsieur —, a complete stranger, presented himself, very handsomely dressed with a fancy waistcoat and beautiful cravat, very sure of himself and his new conquest. I had not the presence of mind to disguise my complete dismay and exclaimed on seeing him, ‘Oh, but you are not the right man!’ I never saw the expression on a human face change so rapidly. A glass of ice water thrown on it could not have produced more effect. ‘Mais, Madame, vous m’avez invité.’ (‘But, Madam, you invited me.’) And he pulled my letter out of his pocket to show me as piece justificative, rather crossly. I asked him to sit down and have a cup of tea all the same, while I explained what had happened.

He had never heard of me and evidently did not believe a word I said. He saw before him a woman who had, he was persuaded, planned and somehow miscarried an adventure, and could not see why he would not do as well as the other man. It turned out that he had some friends living on another floor of the same house and had left two cards on them, one of which had slipped down the porter’s little rack into the place reserved for those left on me. I could hardly tell him that I was a respectable woman not looking for adventure; the fact that I had written to a man whose name I did not know made him think otherwise.

The uncomfortable situation was solved, to my huge relief, by the entrance of a lady of unimpeachable reputation, who knew us both and was inspired to call at that moment. I could have kissed her — perhaps I did, but not with the grateful ardor I felt for her. Monsieur — never forgave me. When I met him later in the house of some friends, he was formally presented to me and I laughed a little, saying as I shook hands with him, ‘Oh, we have met before,’ but he did not even smile, and I saw that he did not wish to be reminded of the mauvais quart d’heure he had passed in my company. By one of fate’s ironic little caprices the young man I had intended to invite turned out to be neither an eagle nor a swan, a puddle duck rather, doomed to dimness, while the man who came in his stead has achieved international reputation.

Charles Du Bos, the gentle and accomplished man of letters, and his charming wife Zezette lived on the Ile St.-Louis, in beautiful rooms overlooking the Seine and the Choir of NotreDame. There, at carefully selected gatherings, small tea parties, or smaller luncheons, I met many well-known authors, poets, novelists, and literary celebrities of every sort. Du Bos has devoted his life to his enthusiasm for the work of others. François Mauriac, Paul Valéry, André Gide, Paul Bourget, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Rainer Maria Rilke, and many more were all his good friends, and held his opinion in high esteem. What good talk there was, and how pleasant to listen to, while the river flowed under the bridges gleaming in the afternoon light as the spires and buttresses of Notre-Dame grew darker against the western sky!

  1. An earlier chapter from Mrs. Chanler’s new book, Autumn in the Valley, appeared in the September issue. — EDITOR