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TRAVELING IN STYLE : WITH JEFFERSON IN PARIS : He Visited Monuments, Fell in Love, Spoke Bad French--Our Third President Was the Original American in Paris

October 16, 1994|Mike Zwerin | Paris-based Mike Zwerin writes on culture for the International Herald-Tribune.

IN AUGUST, 1784, THOMAS JEFFERSON ARRIVED IN PARIS ON a two-year special mission on behalf of the 13 newly independent American states. He stayed for five years. I came for three years in 1969, leaving New York on Richard M. Nixon's Inauguration Day. I'm still here. My friend Charlie, on the other hand, came for the rest of his life, but only stayed nine months because neither the phones nor the plumbing worked. "Either one," he said, "but not both."

Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin as U.S. minister to France. Franklin, Jefferson and John Adams all worked in Paris at about the same time, negotiating commercial treaties, their tours of duty overlapping. Their years in the city were important for all of them. They took to the place. In those days, they called Paris "a pleasure-loving capital."

Ismail Merchant and James Ivory ("Howards End") are currently shooting a film called "Jefferson in Paris," starring Nick Nolte as everybody's favorite Founding Father. Visualize the Paris scene in Jefferson's day: swords, silver belt buckles and lace ruffles, the wigs and fans and all the dainty shoes worn by the aristocratic liberals who formed his circle of friends. He wrote to James Madison back in the States about corruption in the French court: "The King, long in the habit of drowning his cares in wine, plunges deeper and deeper. The Queen cries, but sins on."

Jefferson came to Paris between revolutions--after America's, before France's. His role in the development of the latter, though, has been exaggerated. He simply believed that mankind could be saved by knowledge. He had what he called a "zeal to promote the general good by an interchange of useful things." Of course, he did say: "I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." But Jefferson's faith was that of an enlightened liberal rather than of a doctrinaire revolutionary.

He arrived in Paris with his 11-year old daughter, Martha, known as Patsy, and his slave James Hemings. (He was an "enlightened" slave master rumored to have fathered children with James' sister, Sally Hemings--but that's another story). Franklin stayed on after Jefferson's arrival, living in the quiet village of Passy, a former woodcutters hamlet turned spa west of Paris, near the Bois de Boulogne. Franklin's home was the Hotel de Valentinois (a hotel in those days was a private mansion), which stood on the crest of a hill, with terraces and gardens leading down to the Seine.

Then in his late 70s, Franklin had developed some kind of "stone," which the rough carriage ride into Paris had aggravated. So instead of venturing out, he received visitors--and Jefferson paid a call on Franklin after presenting his credentials at Versailles. Passy was incorporated into Paris in 1859 and is now a Metro stop in the 16th arrondissement . Tourists come to the neighborhood to visit French novelist Honore de Balzac's house on the Rue Raynouard and the Clemenceau Museum on the Rue Franklin--perhaps noticing the memorial plaque at the corner of Rue Singer and Rue Raynouard (not far from the apartment in which Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando shared butter in "Last Tango in Paris") marking the site of Franklin's onetime home.

John Adams got to Paris with his family, including his wife, Abigail, and his son John Quincy a week after Jefferson did--settling "away from the (city's) putrid streets" in Auteuil, a wine-producing village then on the outskirts of Paris, also now in the 16th. Jefferson liked the people and the places in this area, and he visited both Franklin and Adams often. All the people I know who live in this arrondissement today, though, complain that they would be happier living elsewhere. They mostly occupy inherited or corporate (and thus rent-controlled or free) apartments. But there are more banks than cafes, and more poodles and politicians than people.

JEFFERSON EVENTUALLY SETTLED IN ANOTHER neighborhood, one that has come to be so famous and emblematic of Paris as to be beyond like or dislike. His spacious home, the Hotel de Langeac, stood on the corner of Rue de Berri and the Champs-Elysees. That was the exurbs then, but today it's practically Times Square. The Hotel Le Warwick, a favorite of rock musicians, occupies what used to be Jefferson's land.

Sponsored by his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, Jefferson's daughter Patsy was placed in a classy convent school. She wore a crimson uniform and soon spoke effortless French. This rather annoyed her father. Any American who has ever tried to learn French and failed can identify with this Renaissance man who somehow never felt really comfortable with the French language.

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