An encounter with a famous (and infamous) French Resistance hero
vividly brings to life the agony and confusion that France suffered
during the period of World War II and how world events
can transform our lives.

 

Aux Deux Magots

 

I had just turned twenty-three when I met him. It happened during the French General Strike of 1953. In the dead heat of August, France had come to a standstill. Trains, planes and garbage collectors were on strike. Postal and telegraph services were paralyzed. Army trucks replaced striking buses, and on a chilly, drizzly afternoon, I stood at a bus stop for forty-five minutes for one of them to pick me up near the Sacré Coeur. I was about to give up and walk back across Paris to my hotel when an elegant Frenchman I guessed to be in his early forties––and whom I had noticed all along––approached me.

Écoutez, Mademoiselle,” he said. “It appears that our army truck will never arrive. If you’d care to join me, we could share a taxi.”

Despite my halting French, we managed to have a conversation during the taxi ride across Paris. He introduced himself, said his name was René Hardy and that he was a writer. I told him I was a painter, and as fellow artists, we discovered common ground. Before dropping me at my cheap hotel on the Left Bank, he invited me to join him the following morning to meet several artist friends. We would meet on the rue Saint Germain des Près at the Café Deux Magots. I had passed by the famous café many times. It had a long history as the meeting place de rigeur for artists like Sartre, Hemingway and Picasso. Could this be my introduction to the Paris art world? The hub of artistic creativity throughout the world?

In my hotel room, which was scarcely larger than the bed, I leaned out of the balcony and looked over Paris rooftops and chimneys. I had dreamed of going to Paris for so long. Living at home and working as a television secretary in Chicago, I had managed to save a thousand dollars. Round-trip tourist  class on the Queen Elizabeth cost four hundred dollars, leaving me a nest egg of six hundred dollars. Paris was cheap then, and as a budding painter, limited deprivation appealed to me. By eating bread and cheese on weekdays and sardines on Sundays, I calculated I could stretch my savings for six, glorious months. Even today, I look back with wonder at my hubris. What a magical time it was.

Paris was everything I had imagined––and much more. Wherever I looked in the city and countryside, paintings I knew by heart by Pissaro, Monet and Manet came to life. I filled sketchbook after sketchbook of everything in sight. It was not long after World War II, and the French were grateful to Americans for having liberated them from the German Occupation. I had always heard that French people were reserved and inhospitable. But a young woman traveling alone was still something of a rarity at that time, and I found them to be warm and friendly. They even invited me to their homes for dinner. And now, I was about to be introduced to Parisian artists and writers. I could hardly believe my good fortune.

The next morning, I arrived at the Deux Magots well before the appointed hour. I stationed myself near the entrance to view the dazzling parade of extraordinary looking people, assuming each one to be a celebrated painter, writer or philosopher. After a while, René Hardy appeared, wearing an open shirt and a paisley scarf, the epitome of a French intellectual. Entering the café was like stepping back in time. The high ceilings, stately columns and tulip-shaped wall lamps were from another era. The café was crowded and alive with conversation. Waiters looked like penguins in their starched white aprons, black bowties and jackets. Gliding as if on ice, they skillfully balanced trays of coffee and croissants, inexplicably avoiding collision.

René was obviously an habitué. People greeted him as we walked past their tables, and he nodded amiably to the waiters. Then, one by one, his longhaired and bearded friends arrived, each one more bohemian than the last. After downing un petit crème at the bar, René tossed a few coins on the counter, took my arm and we joined his friends to visit the apartment of a painter who lived in a building adjacent to the cafe. An astonishingly attractive young woman was uncombed and carelessly wrapped in a transparent chiffon robe that highlighted her nakedness. The apartment was equally disconcerting. Except for a paint-splattered easel and broken down sofa, it was barren and smelled of turpentine and unwashed dishes suggestive of a fish dinner the night before. At one point, the painter himself made a groggy, disheveled appearance in pajama bottoms and, without ceremony, spun around and staggered back into the bedroom. One of the young men in our group for no apparent reason leaned precariously out of a window overlooking the Deux Magots and began removing various items of clothing. With panache, he tossed each one to the sidewalk below until there was little or nothing left to toss. I was mesmerized. I thought people like this existed only in books.

At this point, a heavily bearded man took my arm and drew me aside. “Did René tell you about himself?”

“He told me he’s a writer,” I said.

“C’est juste. A highly successful writer. Did you know that two of his books were made into films?”

My eyes opened wide.

“Listen, Mademoiselle, if you had come to Europe and the only thing that happened to you during your entire stay was meeting René Hardy—and nothing more—your trip would have been worth your while. He’s more than merely famous; did you know he was the most important chief of the Resistance in France?”

“Really?” My eyes opened wider.

Growing up in an insular Midwestern suburb, the Second World War had seemed far away. Since arriving in France, I learned more and more about the terrible years of the war and German occupation. I heard about the Resistance movement. I learned that from 1941 through the end of the war, many French people left their families and relative safety to disappear into the maquis and join the underground réseaux in the densely wooded countryside, risking their lives to fight the occupying German armies.

Prior to the war, the heavy-bearded friend went on, René had been a principal director of the French Railroad and therefore had crucial knowledge for sabotaging the occupation forces. He was so critical to the Resistance and so sorely sought by the Germans that he had to be constantly on the move.

“It must have been dangerous!” I exclaimed.

“Dangerous?” he repeated with an incredulous laugh. “Mademoiselle. René Hardy lived for two years with nothing more than a small briefcase. He could never sleep more than two nights in one place. His life was in constant peril. He was the most daring and famous hero of the war.”

Despite the difference in our ages and his dazzling past, René and I became friends. We met occasionally for morning coffee at the Deux Magots. Sometimes we met for lunch. Sometimes I stopped by a cafe in the secluded neighborhood where he lived and where he spent afternoons working on his latest novel. He would beckon me to join him and chat over a glass of wine. Though I never spoke of my feelings, I treasured every moment with him. We talked about the book he was writing. We talked about painting, art, about what I should experience in Paris, about life, and when from time to time I brought up the subject of his extraordinary role in the Resistance, he evaded my questions, saying that many people did as much or, with a dismissive gesture, “c’était normal.” If I persisted, he deftly changed the subject. I knew of course that his exploits were far from normal. René Hardy eclipsed everyone I had ever known or admired. Everything he said, everything about him enflamed my heart. Was I in love with him? How could I not have been? He was the most exciting man I had ever met—the quintessence of every virtue I imagined. Then one day he told me about Jacqueline. His tender look when he spoke of her left no doubt as to how much he cared for her. He was divorced from his first wife, he explained, and was thinking of remarrying. I was devastated. For weeks I was despondent. But then, a real-life crisis confronted me: I had run out of money. After six months, my bank account had dwindled to zero. I had no choice but to return to the states. René and I had a farewell coffee. He wished me bon voyage with a lingering, fraternal kiss on the cheek.

Back in the states, I settled in San Francisco, found a job as contract manager at CBS, and never stopped dreaming of Paris. Once again, I began saving my money, hoping to build a more substantial bank account that would allow me to remain in Europe for a longer time. During the years that followed, I exchanged letters with René from time to time. It thrilled me to keep in touch with him. He wrote that he and Jacqueline had married, that he had moved to the farm she owned outside of Paris where they raised and sold exotic fowl and where he continued to write his novels. I wrote him that I had an apartment overlooking Fisherman’s Wharf, that I got up at five o’clock each morning to paint before going to work and rushed home each evening to paint until late at night. I wrote that it would be a struggle to make even a meager living from my art, that sometimes it was hard for me to believe in myself as a painter. I’ll never forget his reply. He wrote back,

“Chère Marjorie, you must find the courage to return to Paris. You belong in Europe, where artists are respected and considered essential to society regardless of commercial success.” My resolve was sealed. Six years after my first trip, I crossed the Atlantic a second time. Arriving in Paris, it was as though I had come home. I telephoned René, and we met at the Deux Magots. He told me about Jacqueline and invited me to come to the farm over the weekend so we could meet. I knew I would like her; my feelings for René had mellowed. He was now a cherished friend rather than a potential lover. A month later, I met, fell in love with and soon afterward married an exciting and talented French artist—thus indefinitely postponing my departure.

After my marriage, René and I continued to meet for coffee from time to time. My new husband, although reclusive by nature, was delighted to know a famed Resistance hero. We spent long afternoons and evenings at their farm, talking about art and literature over Jacqueline’s incomparable cooking and René’s exquisite wines. It always puzzled me that a man as extraordinary as René would bother with  someone as young and ingenuous as I was. Perhaps it was because  French were reserved in showing their appreciation of his accomplishments. Perhaps he was flattered by my boundless admiration.

Over the years, as I met more and more people whose lives had been transformed by the war, I began to piece together the moral quagmire in which the war and German occupation had engulfed the French people. Patriotism, bravery, fear for the safety of their families, fear for their own survival, self-interest––endless and complex emotions tore at the hearts of people as they faced conflicting choices. Danger had been everywhere. Crucial decisions were made under the worst of circumstances. Many left their families and escaped to London to join Charles de Gaulle and the Free French movement, fighting the occupation from abroad. Those who had relatives in the country fled cities to spend the war years on farms, where their children might not suffer from malnutrition. People told me of being barred from schools and public places because they were Jewish, and how they were forced to go into hiding to avoid being captured or denounced by a neighbor. Some spoke of the feared French Police who were frequently zealous in cooperating with the occupying armies, and of their dread of being shipped off to a concentration camp and almost certain extermination.

Often what I learned was more than I could digest. My experience of the war years, seen through childish eyes, had been limited to my older sister’s boy friends being drafted into the army, tending a Victory Garden, my parents’ anxious hovering over evening radio newscasts and my mother inviting soldiers to our home for Thanksgiving dinner. How could I understand that France––this enchanting, romantic country that inspired poets and artists around the world––had suffered such unimaginable upheavals?

There were the unspoken choices, too: there were those who, convinced that the Germans would ultimately be victorious, collaborated with the enemy. There were even those who volunteered to join the infamous French battalions that fought alongside the German armies against the Russians  and who were shipped off to the bloody battles at Stalingrad by the Germans as canon fodder. Those who managed to return to France were despised and considered traitors by their countrymen. Women who had slept with the enemy were publicly shorn of their hair. France was torn apart. The romantic veil of the country I loved and had adopted as my own had been swept aside, revealing a hidden, dark and tortured past. And then, there were those who joined the Resistance. The more I learned about the tumultuous war years in France, the deeper my esteem grew for the Resistance Movement, and for René. He was my idol, the incarnation of a courageous man.

Eighteen years later, in 1978, after having achieved modest success in European art circles and having separated from my French husband, I returned to America and settled in New York. Although from time to time René and I continued to write, our exchanges became infrequent. For a long time, I heard nothing. Then, on a peaceful afternoon in May of 1987, I went to a quiet cafe near Columbus Circle. Settling back to savor a cappuccino and skim through the Times, I came across an article about a trial in France of the notorious SS officer and Nazi wartime criminal, Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon. From all I had ever read or heard about him, Barbie was the personification of evil. As the Gestapo Chief of Lyons, his cruelty was legend. No mere technocrat signing papers and giving orders, Barbie was directly responsible for unspeakable crimes, taking personal pleasure in torturing victims himself. When questioned about the events of June 1943, the article said, Barbie testified that someone high in the French Resistance had been captured and had turned informant, providing him with knowledge of a secret meeting with Jean Moulin, the beloved leader of the underground, along with six other top leaders of the Resistance network in Lyon. Thanks to the informer, whose Resistance code name was “Didot,” the following day all seven were captured by the Gestapo and executed. The informer, according to Barbie’s testimony, was René Hardy. I choked back a scream. The article went on. It claimed that while Hardy had also attended the meeting, he had managed to jump through a window, eluding the carnage. The implication was that the Gestapo had been alerted to the scheme and had allowed him to escape. It was well documented that almost no one lived through interrogation and torture by the Butcher of Lyon. Yet, somehow, René had survived his capture and had walked away unscathed. The unmistakable inference was that René Hardy had betrayed Moulin and his other compatriots to save his own life. The article quoted René from one of his last interviews.

“You will see,” he had said. “People will be fighting even over my dead body.”

The article concluded by saying that René Hardy could no longer defend his tarnished reputation. He had died earlier that year.

Stunned, I dropped the article. René dead? The grief I felt over his death was overshadowed by outrage and confusion over his being called a traitor.

“On the basis of what?” I cried out. “Accusations by the Butcher of Lyon? The ravings of a monster?”

I grabbed a taxi, bounded up the steps of the New York Public Library, and spent the rest of the day clawing through old newspaper and magazine articles, grasping at anything that might exonerate René and prove Barbie’s charges false. I learned that after the war, both the De Gaulle and Communist governments had imprisoned René as a collaborator. I learned that while he had been declared innocent for lack of evidence in two separate trials, suspicion persisted. How was it possible I had never heard about that part of his history? I learned that Jacqueline had divorced him in one of the most contentious marital battles on record. That because of his shadowy past and for legal reasons, they had put everything he owned and that they owned together in her name. In the divorce proceedings, she succeeded in keeping everything; he had been left with nothing. I learned that in recent years, new accusations and new testimonies by fellow Resistance fighters reignited the controversy of René’s role in the massacre at Lyon. René Hardy proclaimed his innocence until the end, but doubts endured. And now Klaus Barbie had added his loathsome voice to the conflagration. Barbie’s trial ended. He was convicted, his accusations of René left to fester, with neither proof nor acquittal.

Months later, I went to see a documentary about the trauma France had suffered during and after the war. Near the end of the film, filling the screen in the darkened theater was René Hardy. Not only had he aged, he looked pathetic. He was barely recognizable. Questioned about his role in the demise of the réseau of Lyon, he appeared disoriented. Tearfully denying the accusation, he was unconvincing. At that moment, and in tears myself, I had to concede the possibility that my idol may have been an informer to save his own life.

For months I couldn’t paint. Then I embarked on a series of wild, uprooted, blood-red expressionist canvases, representing the destruction of everything I had ever known or had wanted to believe in. They helped. Perhaps, unknowingly, they were therapeutic.

A year later, while rummaging through stacks of old papers, I came across a forgotten photo taken on the balcony of my hotel room in Paris, shortly after the French General Strike of 1953. In the background were rows and rows of rooftops, their timeworn, rust-color tile roofs and uniform chimneys as Parisian as shrouds of morning fog hovering over the Seine. Leaning over the iron railing and gazing out toward a distant horizon was René Hardy, vibrant, courageous, and proud—the essence of a hero—or was it bravado masking an unforgivable past? In the end, did René die of remorse? Or was he unable to live with the torment of false accusations? Did he behave heroically a thousand times––only to surrender to weakness and cowardice once, and be for.ever branded a traitor?

The entire truth at Lyon may never be known. We can never know to what threats and fear of torture René or someone he loved had been subjected. We do know he was faced with the most agonizing choice of all: resist and be killed – or do whatever we must to survive. Who among us knows with certainty what our choice might have been?

How young I was when I came to France. How clear-cut and well defined the world was for me then. Some people were born to be evildoers—others were destined to be heroes. In my naiveté, it never occurred to me to question whether the essence of one’s nature could be touched by, ennobled, or disfigured by world events. Going forth from my sheltered world, I had unwittingly stumbled upon the heart of the wound that had ripped Europe apart. The unveiling of René’s tragic choice had shaken my certitudes from their core, changing forever the way I saw the world.

August 2012