Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  Americans in Paris

The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Ludovic Halévy (1834–1908)

Americans in Paris

From “The Abbé Constantin”

FORMERLY Paris belonged to the Parisians, and that at no very remote period—thirty, or forty years ago. At that time the French were the masters of Paris, as the English are the masters of London, the Spaniards of Madrid, and the Russians of St. Petersburg. That time is no more. Other countries still have their frontiers; there are now none to France. Paris has become an immense Babel, a universal and international city. Foreigners do not only come to visit Paris; they come here to live. At the present day we have in Paris a Russian colony, a Spanish colony, a Levantine colony, an American colony. The foreigners have already conquered from us the greater part of the Champs Élysées and the Boulevard Malesherbes. They advance; they extend their outworks; we retreat, pressed back by the invaders; we are obliged to expatriate ourselves. We have begun to found Parisian colonies in the plains of Passy, in the plain of Monceau, in quarters which formerly were not Paris at all, and which are not quite even now. Among the foreign colonies the richest, the most populous, the most brilliant, is the American colony. There is a moment when an American feels himself rich enough, a Frenchman never. The American then stops, draws breath, and while still husbanding the capital, no longer spares the income. He knows how to spend; the Frenchman knows only how to save.

The Frenchman has only one real luxury—his revolutions. Prudently and wisely he reserves himself for them, knowing well that they will cost France dear, but that at the same time they will furnish the opportunity for advantageous investments. The Frenchman says to himself:

“Let us hoard! Let us hoard! Let us hoard! One of these mornings there will be a revolution, which will make the five-per-cents fall fifty or sixty francs. We will buy then. Since revolutions are inevitable, let us try at least to make them profitable.”

They are always talking about the people who are ruined by revolutions; but perhaps the number of those enriched by revolutions is still greater.

The Americans feel the attraction of Paris very strongly. There is no town in the world where it is easier or more agreeable to spend a great deal of money. For many reasons, both of race and origin, this attraction exercised over Mrs. Scott and Miss Percival a very remarkable power.

The most French of our colonies is Canada, which is no longer ours. The recollection of their first home has been preserved faithfully and tenderly in the hearts of the emigrants to Montreal and Quebec. Suzie Percival had received from her mother an entirely French education, and she had brought up her sister in the same love of our country. The two sisters felt themselves Frenchwomen, still better, Parisians. As soon as the avalanche of dollars had descended upon them the same desire seized them both—to come and live in Paris. They craved for France as if it had been their fatherland. Mr. Scott made some opposition.

“If I go away from here,” he said, “your incomes will suffer.”

“What does that matter?” replied Suzie. “We are rich—too rich. Do let us go. We shall be so happy, so delighted!”

Mr. Scott allowed himself to be persuaded; and at the beginning of January, 1880, Suzie wrote the following letter to her friend, Katie Norton, who had lived in Paris for some years:

  • “Victory! It is decided! Richard has consented. I shall arrive in April, and become a Frenchwoman again. You offered to undertake all the preparations for our settlement in Paris. I am horribly presuming—I accept! When I arrive in Paris, I should like to be able to enjoy Paris, and not be obliged to lose my first month in running after upholsterers, coach-builders, horse-dealers. I should like, on arriving at the railway station, to find awaiting me my carriage, my coachman, my horses. That very day I should like you to dine with me at my home. Hire or buy a house, engage the servants, choose the horses, the carriages, the liveries. I depend entirely upon you. As long as the liveries are blue, that is the only point. This line is added at the request of Bettina.
  • “We shall only bring seven persons with us. Richard will have his valet, Bettina and I two ladies’ maids; then there are the two governesses for the children, and besides these two boys, Toby and Bobby, who ride to perfection. We should never find such a perfect pair in Paris.
  • “Everything else, people and things, we shall leave in New York. No, not quite everything: I had forgotten four little ponies, four little gems, black as ink. We have not the heart to leave them. We shall drive them in the phaeton; it is delightful. Both Bettina and I drive four-in-hand very well. Ladies can drive four-in-hand in the Bois very early in the morning, can’t they? Here it is quite possible.
  • “Above all, my dear Katie, do not consider money. Be as extravagant as you like, that is all I ask.”
  • The same day that Mrs. Norton received this letter witnessed the failure of a certain Garneville. He was a great speculator, who had been on a false scent. Stocks had fallen just when he had expected a rise. This Garneville had, six weeks before, installed himself in a brand-new house, which had no other fault than a too startling magnificence.

    Mrs. Norton signed an agreement—one hundred thousand francs a year, with the option of buying house and furniture for two millions during the first year of possession. A famous upholsterer undertook to correct and subdue the exaggerated splendor of a loud and gorgeous luxury.

    That done, Mrs. Scott’s friend had the good fortune to lay her hand on two of those eminent artists without whom the routine of a great house can neither be established nor carried on. The first was a head cook of the first rank, who had just left an ancient mansion of the Faubourg Saint Germain, to his great regret, for he had aristocratic inclinations.

    “Never,” said he to Mrs. Norton, “never would I have left the service of her grace the duchess if she had kept up her establishment on the same footing as formerly; but the duchess has four children—two sons who have run through a good deal, and two daughters who will soon be of an age to marry—they must have their dowries. So the duchess is obliged to draw in a little, and the house is no longer important enough for me.”

    This distinguished character of course made his conditions. Though excessive, they did not alarm Mrs. Norton, who knew that he was a man of the highest merit; but he, before deciding, asked consent to telegraph to New York. He wished to make certain inquiries. The reply was favorable; he accepted.

    The second great artist was a stud-groom of the rarest and highest capacity, who was just about to retire after having made his fortune. He condescended, however, to organize the stables for Mrs. Scott. It was thoroughly understood that he should have a free hand in purchasing the horses; that he should wear no livery; that he should choose the coachmen, the grooms, and every one connected with the stables; that he should never have less than fifteen horses in the stables; that no bargain should be made with the coach-builder or saddler without his intervention; and that he should never mount the box, except early in the morning, in plain clothes, to give lessons in driving to the ladies and children if necessary.

    The cook took possession of his stores, and the stud-groom of his stables. Everything else was only a question of money, and with regard to this Mrs. Norton made full use of her extensive powers. She acted in conformity with the instructions she had received. In the short space of two months she performed prodigies, and that is how, when on the 15th of April, 1880, Mr. Scott, Suzie, and Bettina alighted from the mail train from Havre, at half-past four in the afternoon, they found Mrs. Norton at the station of Saint Lazare. She said:

    “Your carriage is there in the yard; behind it is a landau for the children; and behind the landau is an omnibus for the servants. The three carriages bear your monogram, are driven by your coachmen, and drawn by your horses. Your address is 24 Rue Murillo, and here is the bill of fare of your dinner to-night. You invited me two months ago; I accept, and will even take the liberty of bringing a dozen friends with me. I shall furnish everything, even the guests. But do not be alarmed; you know them all. They are mutual friends; and this evening we shall be able to judge of the merits of your cook.”

    The first Parisian who had the honor and pleasure of paying homage to the beauty of Mrs. Scott and Miss Percival was a little confectioner’s boy, of fifteen, who stood there in his white clothes, his wicker basket on his head, at the moment when Mrs. Scott’s carriage, entangled in the multitude of vehicles, slowly worked its way out of the station. The boy stopped short on the pavement, opened his eyes wide, looked at the two sisters with amazement, and boldly cast full in their faces the single word:


    When Mme. Récamier saw her first wrinkles and first gray hairs, she said to a friend:

    “Ah, my dear, there are no more illusions left for me! From the day when I saw that the little chimney-sweeps no longer turned round in the street to look at me I understood that all was over.”

    The opinion of the confectioners’ boys is in similar cases of equal value with the opinion of the little chimney-sweeps. All was not over for Suzie and Bettina; on the contrary, all was only beginning.

    Five minutes later, Mrs. Scott’s carriage was ascending the Boulevard Haussmann to the slow and measured trot of a pair of magnificent horses. Paris counted two Parisians more.

    The success of Mrs. Scott and Miss Percival was immediate, decisive, like a flash of lightning. The beauties of Paris are not classed and catalogued like the beauties of London; they do not publish their portraits in the illustrated papers, or allow their photographs to be sold at the stationers’. However, there is always a little staff, consisting of a score of women, who represent the grace and charm and beauty of Paris, which women, after ten or twelve years’ service, pass into the reserve, just like the old generals. Suzie and Bettina immediately became part of this little staff. It was an affair of four-and-twenty hours, of less than four-and-twenty hours, for it all happened between eight in the morning and midnight, the day after their arrival in Paris.

    Imagine a sort of little fairy play, of which the success increases from act to act.

    1st. A ride at ten in the morning in the Bois, with the two marvelous grooms imported from America.

    2d. A walk at six o’clock in the Allée des Acacias.

    3d. An appearance at the opera at ten in the evening in Mrs. Norton’s box.

    The two novelties were immediately remarked, and appreciated as they deserved to be, by the thirty or forty persons who constitute a sort of mysterious tribunal, and who, in the name of all Paris, pass sentences beyond appeal. These thirty or forty persons have from time to time the fancy to declare “delicious” some woman who is manifestly ugly. That is enough; she is “delicious” from that moment.

    The beauty of the two sisters was unquestionable. In the morning it was their grace, their elegance, their distinction, that attracted universal admiration; in the afternoon it was declared that their walk had the freedom and ease of two young goddesses; in the evening there was but one cry of rapture at the ideal perfection of their shoulders. From that moment all Paris had for the two sisters the eyes of the little pastry-cook of the Rue d’Amsterdam; all Paris repeated his “Mazette,” though naturally with the variations and developments imposed by the usages of the world.

    Mrs. Scott’s drawing-room immediately became the fashion. The familiars of three or four great American houses transferred themselves in a body to the Scotts’, who had three hundred people at their first Wednesday. Their circle rapidly increased; there was a little of everything to be found in their set—Americans, Spaniards, Italians, Hungarians, Russians, and even Parisians.

    When she had related her history to the Abbé Constantin, Mrs. Scott had not told all; one never does tell all. In a word, she was a coquette. Mr. Scott had the most perfect confidence in his wife, and left her entire liberty. He showed himself very little; he was an honorable man, who felt a vague embarrassment at having made such a marriage, at having married so much money. Having a taste for business, he had great pleasure in devoting himself entirely to the administering of the two immense fortunes which were in his hands, in continually increasing them, and in saying every year to his wife and sister-in-law:

    “You are still richer than you were last year.”

    Not content with watching with much prudence and ability over the interests which he had left in America, he launched into large speculations in France, and was as successful in Paris as he had been in New York. In order to make money the first thing is to have no need of it.

    They made love to Mrs. Scott unmercifully. They made love to her in French, in Italian, in English, in Spanish; for she knew those four languages, and there is one advantage that foreigners have over our poor Parisians, who generally know only their mother tongue, and have not the resource of international passions.

    Naturally Mrs. Scott did not drive her adorers from her presence. She had ten, twenty, thirty at a time. No one could boast of any preference; to all she opposed the same amiable, laughing, joyous resistance. It was clear to all that the game amused her, and that she did not for a moment take it seriously. Mr. Scott never felt a moment’s anxiety, and he was perfectly right. More, he enjoyed his wife’s successes; he was happy in seeing her happy. He loved her dearly, a little more than she loved him. She loved him very much, and that was all. There is a great difference between “dearly” and “very much” when these two adverbs are placed after the verb “to love.”

    As to Bettina, around her was a maddening whirl, an orgy of adulation: Such an heiress! Such a beauty! Miss Percival arrived in Paris on the 15th of April; a fortnight had not passed before offers of marriage began to pour upon her. In the course of that first year she might, had she wished it, have been married thirty-four times, and to what a variety of suitors!

    They asked her hand for a young exile, who under certain circumstances might be called to ascend a throne—a very small one, it is true, but a throne nevertheless.

    They asked her hand for a young duke, who would make a great figure at court when France—as was inevitable—should recognize her errors and bow down before her legitimate masters.

    They asked her hand for a young prince, who would have a place on the steps of the throne when France—as was inevitable—should again knit together the chain of the Napoleonic traditions.

    They asked her hand for a young Republican deputy, who had just made a most brilliant maiden speech in the Chamber, and for whom the future reserved the most splendid destiny, for the Republic was now established in France on the most indestructible basis.

    They asked her hand for a young Spaniard of the purest lineage, and she was given to understand that the marriage settlements were to be signed in the palace of a queen who does not live far from the Arc de Triomphe. Besides, one can find her address in the Almanach Bottin, for at the present day there are queens who have their addresses in Bottin, between an attorney and a druggist; it is only the kings of France who no longer live in France.

    They asked her hand for the son of a peer of England, and for the son of a member of the highest Viennese aristocracy; for the son of a Parisian banker, and for the son of a Russian ambassador; for a Hungarian count, and for an Italian prince; and also for various excellent young men who were nothing and had nothing—neither name nor fortune. Bettina had granted them a waltz, and, believing themselves irresistible, they hoped that they had caused a flutter of that little heart.

    But up to the present moment nothing had touched that little heart, and the reply had been the same to all: “No!” Again “No!” Always “No!”