Paris, June 16, 1936
When the Seydlitz family visited Europe, it avoided the grand hotels. In Paris, Charlotte had long since found a little hotel off the Place de la Contrascarpe. It did have some rooms with private baths, but few other amenities. Tucked in behind the unglamourous back door of the Sorbonne, it was in an area where students lived and mingled with the tramps who slept under bridges and cooked on the pavements.
Marie-Claude Serrault was shocked by their choice of lodgings, and would have liked to be able to put them up. However, it was obvious that Marie-Claude wasn't really in a position to open up her mother-in-law's home to her friends for extended visits.
It happened that the Seydlitz visit coincided with the greatest strike in French history, one which, for the first time, included waiters and the people who worked in hotels. While all the grand hotels were shut down, their little hotel remained open. Charlotte and the landlady together prepared meals and served them in the lounge. When the Chamber of Deputies, a few days later, voted in a forty hour work week and paid vacations, the strikes ended in a festive atmosphere in which Charlotte, in particular, participated enthusiastically.
On this occasion they were also celebrating the graduation from West Point of Erich Stuhlenkamp, Hans' older brother. While Charlotte and Klaus had been in Paris many times, and Hans had been there once, Erich had always been tied up with school, college, and summer maneuvers. This was thus his first visit to Paris, and he found himself entirely fascinated. So much so that, when Klaus and Hans left to visit relatives in Germany, he remained behind with Charlotte.
This somewhat suggestive arrangement didn't show any signs of bothering Charlotte. When she had first met Erich, he was a precocious fifteen. He had been flirtatious then, and still was. However, Charlotte had once remarked to Marie- Claude that she had seen from the first that Erich wasn't interested in her sexually, and that he would have been terrified if she had reciprocated. Since that time, Erich's compliments had become somewhat stylized and automatic.
Unlike Klaus, who sounded about the same no matter what language he was speaking, Erich's French was very good, even better than Charlotte's. It was really remarkable that anyone could have acquired such a good accent merely in school, without ever setting foot in a French-speaking country. Charlotte said that it was just another instance of Erich's ability to affect whatever manners seemed to him to be appropriate.
As a couple, Erich and Charlotte could be taken anywhere in Paris, and could be depended on to make a favorable impression. People hardly noticed that Charlotte was fifteen years older, and they were sometimes treated almost as if they were a married couple. On the other hand, it was a pleasant surprise to the women present when they found that Erich was free to roam. Unlike Klaus, who seldom complimented anyone, Erich always knew what to say to a woman.
As if anything else had been needed, Erich, despite his Germanic origins, looked quite French. Small and dark with handsome sharp features, he found, after only a little practice, that he could match the Parisians, gesture for gesture.
He couldn't quite match their rate of verbal output, but he often watched university students arguing points of philosophy in the cafes, and, on occasion, he managed to insinuate himself among them. That was the best practice of all.
At West Point, it was noted that Erich had a tendency to boast. He did now occasionally try to restrain himself. However, it soon became obvious that modesty wasn't greatly prized in the circles in which Marie-Claude moved. Since he had chosen to be a pilot in the Army Air Force, and had had his civilian pilot's license for years, he was able to present himself with a modicum of glamour as he stood in a salon with a drink in his hand.
Marie-Claude soon introduced Erich to a friend of hers, a young officer of the Armee de la Air. At first, hoping for an affair with Marie-Claude, Erich wondered if Gerard might be a rival. Indeed, Gerard behaved in such a way as to suggest that he, in turn, perceived Erich to be a rival. When it became clear that Marie-Claude had chosen a third party, the two young men came to be comfortable with one another. Erich was then invited to come out to the aerodrome where Gerard was attached to the staff of the commandant.
Gerard, tall and blonde, had touches of aristocratic eccentricity which were unquestionably genuine. He also knew how to cut a figure in a sports car. Erich, in the passenger seat, played the complementary role, looking frequently to see if they were being watched.
Gerard's driving did catch the attention of women on the streets, but the woman he most impressed was one selling vegetables near Les Halles. When he almost ran her down, she replied with spirit. Erich, realizing too late that he knew enough of the language and milieu to get into trouble, replied to her shouts a little too effectively. It was then necessary for Gerard to escape in reverse gear, but not before some produce had landed in the open car.
Gerard had arranged things in advance with his commanding officer, who welcomed Erich as if he were a young Rickenbacher. A large man who obviously ate and drank well, the commandant called for a number of toasts before they sat down to lunch. The conversation that followed was much less restrained than a corresponding one in the American army would have been. It wasn't impossible to interrupt a senior officer, or more likely, to add yet another stream of conversation to the ones already flourishing simultaneously. However, while the style might be different, it was apparent to a reasonably discerning eye that the people were much the same.
Erich had already encountered various American versions of the British Colonel Blimp, some of whom could drawl in the accents of South Carolina. It now appeared that slightly different versions could speak frenetic French with the full complement of Parisian gestures.
Since it would be dangerous for Erich to take up a fighter without specific training, he was added to the crew of a Farman bomber which was scheduled for a training flight. As they drove out to the aircraft, the commandant alternated between blood-curdling descriptions of the damage his bomber formations would inflict on Germany and fits of hysterical laughter as he engulfed Erich's shoulders with his large arm.
The bomber itself looked less like an airplane than a series of angular greenhouses and boxes glued together. Of impressive size, the enormously thick wings dwarfed the four little engines slung underneath them, two pulling and two pushing. To Erich, it appeared unlikely that the ship could move, much less take off.
They were standing beside the aircraft as a mechanic grasped the end of a big two-bladed propellor and yanked at it. After some hacking splutters, the engine produced a roar that drowned out all further conversation. It was almost as noisy inside the aircraft, and Erich had to be conducted by gesture to the seat normally occupied by the nose gunner in the forward upper greenhouse.
Even with the throttles wide open, the aircraft didn't move until the ground crew pried the wheels forward with levers. It then broke into a jouncing, rather alarming, trot. Each time they passed over a rut, there was a painful lurch which was accompanied by assorted screeches and groans from the airframe.
If the takeoff run could have been compared to a gallop, it seemed to involve as much motion sideways as forward. It looked, from Erich's perspective, as if it might end in the hedgerow at the end of the field. Finally, with overtaxed engines close to overheating, the big plane lifted and fought for altitude as the neatly laid out fields and barnyards swept underneath.
Later on, cruising at two thousand meters, the flight engineer was able to get the intercom system to work. The pilot thereupon offered Erich a chance to fly.
While the instruments were laid out in an unfamiliar way, Erich was able to keep the plane on course. He then swept it through a big turn at the direction of the pilot. The Farman was much slower to respond than anything he had ever flown, and also required much more physical effort to fly. Erich was almost exhausted when the pilot took over again.
The practice bomb run was the high point of the exercise. From a mile up, they could just make out the circular cleared space in a field, and the round yellow canvas which was the bulls-eye. After going around once, they approached at only 140 kilometers an hour. Since they were heading directly into a 50 kilometer wind, their ground speed was somewhat less than the velocity at which Gerard habitually drove his car. It was thus possible to draw a careful bead on the target.
When the practice bomb, a large sack of flour, was released, Erich was able to follow it all the way down with his sharp eyes. To the great delight of the crew, it burst almost on the edge of the canvas. Since they wouldn't find out exactly how close they had come until the measurements had been telephoned back, an effort was made to return to base as quickly as possible. As the throttles were rammed forward to achieve their modest maximum speed, the whole aircraft shook as if it were being buffeted by anti-aircraft fire.
There was a brisk cross-wind at the landing strip. The engines had to be gunned to clear a hedge, and the bomber approached the runway moving crab-wise. Just as the pilot cut his throttles, a gust hit them from dead ahead. The final glide was prolonged and pushed up, and then, when the wind suddenly died, the big ship dropped like a stone. There was a sickening crash which caused Erich to bite his tongue, but there seemed to be no damage.
It took hardly a hundred meters to stop, during which time the pilot called Erich to apologize for the landing. He joked that aircraft designed to be sitting ducks for enemy fire were built so strongly that even the worst landing couldn't damage them.
It turned out that the sack of flour had missed the center of the bulls-eye by only thirty meters, a record for the training period. That occasioned another round of celebration in which it was clearly implied that Erich's presence had been responsible for the success. The true wonder was that, after it all, Gerard was actually able, that evening, to deliver Erich back to his hotel.
When he went into the lounge, Erich found Charlotte and Marie-Claude with an extraordinary-looking middle-aged man. Erich first took him for one of the rag-pickers who lived on the sidewalk near the Place de la Contrascarpe, but he looked again and saw that he had on a coat and tie. When they were quickly introduced, Erich missed the man's surname, but settled into the conversation easily. Marie-Claude and Charlotte both seemed quite impressed with the visitor and practically hung on his words. Erich set out to compete, and a lively discussion ensued. When Pierre whoever he was started talking, there was no mistaking him for a rag-picker.
It only dawned on Erich by degrees that Pierre was Pierre Laval, the man who had, a few months previously, been prime minister of France. Erich wouldn't have treated him with such informality, sometimes bordering on derision, if he had realized who he was, but the older man didn't seem to be the least bothered.
Laval, a youthful communist who had become an arch- conservative, was now out of office with the left-wing Fronte Populaire in power. But he was associated with a literary journal which had recently published a leader under the title "Should Britain be Enslaved?" It had gone on to answer its question in the affirmative, and Charlotte was now taking issue with that position.
Erich had first taken it as a bit of a joke, but he was amazed to see how much both Marie-Claude and Laval hated England. Finally referring to his political career, Laval almost shouted,
"It was the treachery of the English government which caused the French Republic to vomit me out!"
Erich had no doubt that he really did want to see England enslaved. When, after a short pause, Eric asked who was going to do the enslaving, Laval answered, this time with more restraint,
"A modern corporatist and authoritarian state, probably Germany."
Erich, himself rather apolitical, made no strong objection. As the conversation continued, it turned out that some of the members of the far right actually wanted to restore the monarchy. While Erich could easily imagine Marie-Claude, and even Charlotte, conducting intrigues in the atmosphere of a court, he wondered if Laval could ever pass as a courtier. As if to answer Erich's unspoken question, Laval said,
"I'm a former peasant. I'm not as Catholic as the elites, and I don't much trust the old aristocracy. Besides, why adopt a medieval solution when there's a modern one at hand?"
Erich doubted that there was anything very new about dictatorship, but it was obvious that all three of his companions thought that they were riding the wave of the future.
When it came out what Erich had been doing that day, he was besieged by questions. Laval was particularly interested in the airplane in which he had flown, and Erich replied,
"It reminded me of that early Bleriot monoplane that looked like a bat. The pilots are quite fatalistic. They know they wouldn't have a chance in combat. But I met a number of higher officers. The higher the rank, the better they think the aircraft."
"Did the higher officers strike you as generally incompetent?"
"No more so than most of those at West Point, but in different ways. The ones here have more grasp of the concepts of air power. For one thing, they have an air force separate from the army. However, they seem to have very little drive and energy. I, at least, have spurts of enthusiasm, and I like to fly. Perhaps I wouldn't if I had to fly their planes."
Laval was delighted, and Erich, wondering why he was pleased to have an inadequate air force, probed a little. Laval replied,
"France really has no need for either an army or an air force. We have no desire to attack our neighbors, and, if the Fronte Populaire is replaced by a government of the right sort, neither Germany nor Italy will have any reason to attack us."
When they finally broke up for the evening, it seemed to Erich that he had made quite a favorable impression on an interesting and important man.
Hotel Descartes, June 25, 1936
Erich and Charlotte were both at breakfast, such as it was, by nine. Charlotte was intent on still another visit to the Musee de Art Moderne at Trocadero. She laughingly invited Erich to join her, evidently knowing that he would refuse. She would then have lunch with a couple she knew slightly at the Cafe des Europeeans opposite the Gare de Lyon. In the middle of the afternoon, she would return to the hotel to rest, and to dress for dinner. They had both been invited out to a house in Neuilly for the evening.
Erich had different plans, and began,
"I fear, my lovely cousin, that today will be an extremely expensive one. I'm having lunch with both Therese and Jeanne at the Cafe de la Paix."
Both ladies were acquaintances of Marie-Claude, and had come Erich's way rather quickly. Therese was almost Charlotte's age, and not very pretty. However, she possessed wit, style, and some of the most beautiful clothes in Paris. She had also been a mistress of a president of the Republic. She was said to be capable of extraordinary venom toward her political and social rivals, and it was also said that she saved a little of it for men who had dropped her.
Jeanne was much younger, much prettier, and no match for Therese. Jeanne's family of conservative landowners disapproved deeply of flippant Paris life, in which they suspected that there was little place for religion. They had only just allowed Jeanne to come to Paris to study, and only then because she lived with a cousin. They also viewed the cousin with some suspicion, but Jeanne's mother had succumbed grudgingly to one of that lady's arguments.
Having allowed that it was time for Jeanne to marry, her mother had then been forced to admit that Jeanne was unlikely to meet many potential suitors if she remained on her parents' country estate. The cousin had virtually promised that, if Jeanne were allowed to come to Paris, she would marry someone suitable.
It was no part of anyone's plan for Jeanne to have an affair with a touring American, and both Charlotte and Marie- Claude were afraid of what would happen if it got back to the parents. Still, evidently having resigned herself to the inevitable, Charlotte was financing Erich's amatory adventures. On this occasion, as usual, she reached for her purse. Erich stopped her.
"Before you reach for money, let me fill you in on the background. I've been quite cheap to maintain up to this point because Therese and Jeanne have been paying their way, and even some of mine. I was aware that this was not totally gentlemanly, but, in the interests of preserving .."
Charlotte smiled and interrupted him.
"It's not in order to save money that you let them pay. You like it because it feeds your enormous ego."
"Of course, young men of my sort are always in demand, but I try to be modest ..."
"Without conspicuous success. When did you start seeing them both at once?"
"Well, you see, that's part of what needs to be explained so that, when you do reach for your purse, you'll use the correct grip and have the right amount of money in mind. We don't want to have your hands shaking. The fact is, neither Therese nor Jeanne is totally thrilled with having the other along, but each will try awfully hard to please me. I dare say they'll both succeed. I, for my part, will have to buy lunch, and, what will be much more expensive, take them shopping on the Rue St. Honore afterward."
"Oh Erich, those women can buy their own dresses. And they get them from designers, not shops. I'll give you the money, but I think you can get away with buying them a silk scarf each. Then you can spend the rest of the money on yourself."
"Yes. A dress would be a mistake, but perhaps something more intimate. Have I ever explained to you how the cost of women's clothing is in inverse proportion to its value?"
Charlotte looked at Erich as if she were trying to avoid taking the bait. It would certainly occasion a long disquisition. Weakening, she replied,
"That would certainly be welcome news to a good many of us if it were true."
"But it is. All impartial judges agree. The most important clothing a woman wears is her underclothing. It's only when she has nothing else on that she looks her best. But even the most expensive lingerie costs much less than dresses of comparable quality. Of course, dresses can be very nice, and they do come next in importance. Despite the expense, there can be no question of scrimping on them.
Moving out another layer, coats, particularly fur coats, are more expensive than dresses. While glamourous, they're not even worn most of the time. Moving out yet again, at even more ruinous expense, the next item of clothing is the automobile, preferably a sports car. This also adds a certain aura, but the man deciding between two women will consider many other things before he gets to the car.
Finally, the home, the outermost layer, is the most expensive of all. I'd be the last to deny that it's nice to see one's mistress waving from the steps of her chateau as one tools up the drive. But even I must take exception to the vast sums which must be spent for what's really only a backdrop to the main attraction.
You'll be happy to hear that, today, I intend to confine myself to the first, and most economically priced, layer."
Charlotte swept her hair out of her face with one hand as she replied,
"You could economize still further by buying the necessary garments on the Rue de la Gaite. There's a shop between two burlesque theaters where ..."
"Oh, I do call that hard! These are highly respectable ladies with a social position to maintain."
"They could better maintain their reputations if you took them to the Rue de la Gaite. If so, they'd be less likely to be seen with you."
With this, Charlotte handed over an impressive wad of notes with a gesture characteristic of feeding animals at the zoo.
"You'll need this to heal your wounds, particularly if you get them both to go to a hotel with you afterwards."
Denying any such intention, Erich kissed Charlotte elaborately and started out of the room. He then hesitated at the door. Her last remark had apparently caused him to stop and reflect.
"I think it will not be bad. Therese will be nice to Jeanne. She'll realize that she can't compete as regards looks, but, instead of being jealous or nasty, she'll be slightly maternal. She'll manage to imply, in such a way that Jeanne won't catch it, that Jeanne is a pretty plaything that she, Therese, is procuring for me. It will also be implied that there are times for adults to be alone together without the children. That wish I can satisfy."
"You may be right. You've certainly learned to think the French way. You've even acquired French gestures and accents when you speak English."
"That's good. I may need them."
Events transpired much as Erich had predicted. At the Cafe de la Paix they lunched in the supposedly informal, but still expensive, dining room on the ground floor. Glassed in, but with all the doors open, it looked out over the terrace, with its five rows of coffee drinkers. Each lady, for the occasion, borrowed some of the virtues of the other.
Therese, dressed very simply, looked younger than usual, and her waist seemed unusually small. This effect might have been produced by a heavy corset, but, if so, she moved freely and vivaciously without giving the appearance of being trussed up. She certainly didn't appear to be Jeanne's mother. While there was a touch of solicitude toward Jeanne, it was that of a somewhat older and wiser friend who, against the advice of her husband, has been persuaded to come out with the young people for a day of fun and games.
Jeanne, on the other hand, looked older and more sophisticated than usual. While she was actually a girl not long out of school, she looked rather like a married young Parisienne of the better class out for a day of shopping. Erich had told Charlotte from the first that Jeanne was smarter than people thought, and now, in highly supportive company, she showed a rather nice, wry, sense of humor.
Since he had no legitimate claim to either woman, Erich thought pleasantly of all the men who had supposedly better claims who might want to strangle him. In that atmosphere, he was a little surprised that Therese still seemed interested in politics, and asked him about the friends of Charlotte and Marie-Claude. With even Jeanne hanging on his words, he could hardly avoid telling them of his little chat with Pierre Laval.
After lunch, the trio emerged on to the broad pavements of the Grand Boulevard. Since the afternoon was warm with just enough breeze to ripple the skirts of the ladies, they decided to walk. With Jeanne on his left arm and Therese on his right, Erich found himself walking at a Parisian pace as his companions, despite their heels, deftly stepped over and around various obstacles. En route to the Rue St. Honore, they passed the Place Vendome and stopped at the Ritz for a drink.
When they finally arrived at the first shop, Erich, a little tipsy, was deposited in a chair while the women tried on clothes. Even though neither of his friends bought many ready-to-wear clothes, both enjoyed experimenting with different images. First one, and then the other, swept out of the fitting room, spun around in front of the seated Erich, and then came up to him so that he could feel the material of their dresses. He hardly knew whether he was choosing between the clothes or the women wearing them.
At a second shop, Therese was able to persuade Jeanne to come out in a nightgown under which she had very little. Jeanne blushed prettily, both when another man caught her in his glance, and when Erich insisted on buying her the gown. Therese refused to let him buy her anything, and only allowed him a couple of quick glimpses of herself between the curtains of the fitting room. Upon leaving the shop with Jeanne's nightgown in a large elaborate box, all three discovered, to their surprise, the lateness of the hour. There were then embraces all around before they scattered in separate directions. Erich felt entirely satisfied with the events of the day.