Fifty Martini Cocktails!
Once Hemingway had been in a place where he was happy and had worked well, he regarded it in some sense as his property. So, in August 1944, not long after he’d suffered another mangling car accident in the London black-out, he was back in Paris under contract to Collier’s magazine to play his part in liberating what he called ‘the city I love best in all the world’.
Whilst more conventional Allied troops were busy flushing out the remaining pockets of German resistance, Hemingway and an ill-assorted guerrilla band went on to conduct his own personal liberation of Paris, including the Café de la Paix and the Brasserie Lipp, as well as Sylvia Beach’s bookstore and the Ritz Hotel, where the barman asked Hemingway what his men would like and received the answer, ‘Fifty martini cocktails!’
In the interests of historical research I have been given a chance to experience my own liberation of Paris. We have permission for me to ride up one of the approach roads to the Arc de Triomphe in a World War Two American tank.
Unfortunately the tank is stuck in rush-hour traffic. A chilly, insidious drizzle has descended, as we look in vain among the Renaults and Peugeots of the commuters for the reassuring sight of a gun barrel. When, an hour later, our tank does arrive, it’s smaller than I expected – the sort of tank you might use to do the shopping.
An anxious bespectacled face peers apologetically from one of the forward hatches. This is Patrick, the French owner of the tank, an M8 Greyhound with a stubby 37 mm cannon, made by Ford in 1944. After introductions all round, I climb aboard, inserting myself like a shell into a mortar barrel at the hatch next to Patrick. Choosing our moment, we make a slow but spectacular pull-out into the traffic.
Unlike 1944, our progress is almost completely ignored. Though tourists wave and point, the first French people to acknowledge a tank in their traffic are two gendarmes who bring us to an undignified halt half-way up the Avenue Hoche and demand to see our papers.
The good news is that the papers are in order. The bad news is that the tank won’t start again. Patrick and his assistant tinker around for a while before diagnosing a failure in the fuel supply. It might take an hour or two to get it fixed, so they suggest we try and kick start it. Just how easily the filming process can turn human beings into automatons is that we all without question agree to Patrick’s suggestion that we push the tank.
In 1944 he would doubtless have had thousands of willing volunteers, but today there’s half a dozen of us and we manage to shift it only as far as an old lady crossing the road, who shrieks at us in a most un-liberated way.
Patrick notices a tow-truck about to hitch itself to a trailer full of builder’s rubble. He races through the traffic and manages to persuade the driver to hook up to the tank instead. He agrees with remarkably good grace and after a moment the M8’s engine is conjured into life with a puff of smoke and a flash from the rear exhaust.
The liberation of Paris is never quite the same after this, but trundling across the cobbles towards the Arc de Triomphe, encased in inch-thick steel, is not a bad way to remember the place.
All that’s missing are the martinis.
As we prepare to leave Paris I have the same feelings I always have when I leave Paris. I have been happy here and I’m full of admiration for this well-run city and the way it respects and displays its heritage of antiquity, elegance and culture. But Paris is impossible to thank. It will not soften and allow itself to be hugged around the shoulder as you say goodbye. Unlike Venice, or Chicago, or even New York, it has no sentimental side. It outlasts and outshines everyone, and Hemingway recognised this too.
‘Paris’, he wrote in a piece for Esquire magazine in early 1934, ‘was a fine place to be quite young in and it is a necessary part of a man’s education … But she is like a mistress who does not grow old and she has other lovers now.’
By that time there was another place Hemingway had fallen in love with. It was, along with Italy and France, the third, and most important of that triumvirate of European countries in which he felt truly happy. Gertrude Stein had pointed him in its direction and he had already used it as a setting for the novel that had made him famous. It was Spain and the Spanish way of life that were to remain the greatest influence on him from now on.