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France: A bookish haven for Americans in Paris

PARIS — Charles Trueheart, the director of the American Library in Paris, picked through the shelves in his office and withdrew a surprisingly well-preserved June 1922 edition of the long-gone literary magazine the Smart Set.

The cover touted a short story debuting in that issue: "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

That Trueheart can easily lay his hands on a journal roughly contemporaneous with the Paris expat years of one of America's leading writers is appropriate, because the American Library is a living, thriving link to the literary love affair that many Americans have had with the French capital.

More than that, it is a gathering place for Americans and other English-speaking residents of Paris, a research center, a friendly environment for working writers and an outpost of Americana in the heart of Europe.

On any given day, you might find students — American and French — browsing the stacks and bent over laptops in the reading room; a book group engaged in discussion in the conference room; a story hour underway in the Children's Library. In the evenings once or twice a week, the library hosts talks by authors and others that run a gamut of topics — literature, politics, music or movies, for instance — and are free and open to the public. The library also hosts holiday parties and the occasional guided walk around the city.

In October, the library will award for the first time what is expected to be an annual literary prize for "the best book of the year in English about France or the French-American encounter."

"We are more than just a library; we are a kind of cultural center, community center," says Trueheart, a former Washington Post correspondent in Paris who took over as director in 2007. "As you see on our logo — literature, learning, culture and community — that encompasses all the things we try to do."

Donald Morrison, a Paris-based author and teacher and former editor of Time's European edition, says, "It's a combination social center, literary salon and intellectual treasure trove that's been welcoming Americans since Hemingway and Fitzgerald walked the Earth."

Founded in 1920 using leftover books that had been shipped from American households to U.S. doughboys fighting in World War I, the library has a colorful history and distinguished literary pedigree. Edith Wharton was a founding trustee. Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein wrote for its literary journal. Stephen Vincent Benét composed his poem "John Brown's Body" at the library. When the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, director Dorothy Reeder defied them by smuggling books to Jewish members who had been banned from the building.

Today the library, on a narrow street on the Left Bank with the Eiffel Tower looming overhead, houses 122,000 books, most in English, counts about 2,500 individuals and families as members, only about half of them self-identified Americans, and runs on a budget of about $1.45 million a year, none of which comes from the U.S. government.

Despite its popularity among expat and French literati, the library is unknown to most American visitors. I've known Trueheart since the mid-1990s, when we were foreign correspondents in Toronto, he for the Post and me for the Los Angeles Times. When he told me on an earlier visit to Paris that he'd taken the director's job at the American Library in Paris, it was the first I'd heard of the institution.

Although the library is aimed mostly at residents here, it holds appeal for visitors as well. Most obviously there are evening programs, a schedule of which is posted on the library website at http://www.americanlibraryinparis.org.

Authors who have spoken recently include Ben Fountain ("Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"), Stephane Kirkland ("Paris Reborn"), Alan Riding ("And the Show Went On"), Charles Glass ("Deserters"), Jerome Charyn ("The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson") and poet Fanny Howe. The library also has hosted lectures and workshops on such diverse topics as the art of Pissarro, printmaking and comedy acting.

"The author's evenings are a great way to meet people whose work you've long admired," Morrison says. "And, I mean, really meet them. The room is cozy, the crowd is friendly and you can stay for a drink with the author afterward."

The library managed to remain open during World War II thanks to Clara Eleanor Longworth, a Cincinnati socialite who had married Aldebert de Chambrun, a French count and military officer, and lived in Paris.

When America entered the war in December 1941, Reeder was forced to return home and the Countess de Chambrun took over. Her efforts to keep the library's doors open to members and closed to Nazi depredations led one French diplomat to call it "an open window to the free world" during the occupation. She was aided by the coincidence that her son was married to the daughter of Prime Minister Pierre Laval, a notorious German collaborator who was executed by the French after the war for his role in the Vichy government.

In the 1950s, the library gained fame of another sort when director Ian Forbes Fraser confronted Roy Cohn and David Schine, two aides to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who were on a well-publicized tour of Europe looking for "subversive" material in American institutions. Noting that the library was private, Fraser barred them from entering.

As testament to the special relationship Americans have had with Paris since Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were enchanted by the city in the 18th century, the library is among several venerated institutions here with long-standing connections to the U.S., including the American Cathedral, the American Hospital, the American University of Paris and Reid Hall, a center for American college students administered by Columbia University.

Although it may be a home away from home for Americans in Paris, it is, like every library in the world, challenged by changing reading habits.

"I've understood all along — every library understands this — that if all you're doing is warehousing books and being a lending library, you're going to die," Trueheart says. "You've got to offer people all kinds of other stuff, now that they may be going for books in another way. ... And our programming is not just authors, but it's art appreciation, music, fashion, education, politics, current events."

The library also contracts with U.S. universities to provide services to American exchange students and compiles study material for French students seeking accreditation as English teachers.

Indeed, for all its appeal to Americans in Paris, the library has plenty of French members and supporters.

"There are a lot of French people who are very serious about keeping up their English, and they come to events in English at the library," says author Diane Johnson, who has lived off and on in Paris for decades and chairs the library's Writers Council, composed of such colleagues as Julian Barnes and Adam Gopnik.

Russell Shorto, the nonfiction writer who is director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam, attended the library's June 6 fundraising gala (Joyce Carol Oates was the guest of honor) and described its cross-cultural importance to a videographer.

The library, he says, is "a bridge. It's one of those very crucial organizations that provides a kind of link, a way for Europeans to get a sense of what America actually is."


Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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