Orwell in Paris: War Correspondent*

Wearing the uniform of a British officer, George Orwell returned to Paris in February 1945 as a war correspondent for The Observer and Manchester Evening News. He had resigned as the literary editor at Tribune who promptly announced, “George Orwell has gone to France where he will stay for approximately two months”. He would end up staying in Europe until late May with one brief, tragic sojourn back to England to bury his wife.

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PARIS 1945

Orwell joined American and British correspondents staying at the Hôtel Scribe on 15th February and spent the next ten days re-acquainting himself with the city and making notes for his first news articles. He found Paris was less dingy and neglected than London which had been badly battered by Nazi bombing. Orwell immediately explored the areas he knew intimately noting that Notre Dame was almost unchanged, even though nearby streets were poorly lit and there were no taxis. The little bookstalls along the Seine were still selling the same books, postcards and prints.

The Latin Quarter was more changed. He noticed the absence of foreign workers and that the famous Montparnasse cafés were frequented by middle-class French families rather than artists. The Panthéon had been damaged by machine-gun bullets. In the old quarter between the Boulevard Saint Michel and the Rue Monge he recognised few shops from when he lived nearby but did have a joyous reunion with one proprietor of a bistro he had frequented regularly as a young man. The Frenchman took half the cigarettes proffered by Orwell and then they shared a surprisingly fine wine.

A Paris bistro kitchen from 1927 Photographer: André Kertész

A Paris bistro kitchen from 1927 Photographer: André Kertész

Gas was available at certain hours but there was no coal for households. Orwell noticed women to be carefully made up as ever and that certain fashionable clothing and jewellery stores nearly retained their pre-war allure. It would almost be possible to imagine that nothing was wrong until he saw elegantly dressed women collecting bundles of twigs for firewood. Wandering along the rue du Pot de Fer he passed his old hotel which was badly rundown, partly boarded-up and on first inspection, empty. Glancing up he saw two half-starved children staring down at him from behind a broken window pane of what used to be his room. He thought they looked just like wild animals.

Orwell could see that the terrible impact of food shortages on Parisians would likely fuel resentment against the British and Americans if it continued. The city had been liberated more than six months ago but there were shortages of butter, milk, sugar and coffee was almost unprocurable unless you were friendly with an American soldier or could afford the excesses of the Black Market. Most were existing on a diet of a blackish bread made from rye or barley and stunted vegetables. The small meat ration was usually unobtainable. A litre of the coarsest wine, even if one could get it, was terribly unaffordable at the equivalent of eight shillings.

When wandering from the centre of the city to the working-class suburbs glassless windows and shuttered cafés were the norm. Most depressingly, some shops had little stock and long lists of unavailable goods were posted at the entrance. Orwell speculated that the pigeons, always so numerous in Paris, must have been eaten. Travelling on the Metro Orwell felt self-conscious wearing his uniform sensing that people resented that he was well fed, had plenty of cigarettes, soap and coffee. He wrote that nobody ever asked for a cigarette but when offered one accepted with pathetic gratitude.

Orwell was repeatedly surprised that, even in the poorest quarters, life is less terrible than he would have expected before arriving in the city. He did not see anyone without shoes and very few who were conspicuously ragged. Many women were wearing stockings. He saw almost no beggars. He noticed that the children of five or six look fairly sturdy but babies were terribly pale. His first article recording these initial reflections, ‘Paris Puts a Gay Face on her Miseries’, was published in The Observer on 25 February.

THE PARISIAN PRESS & CAMUS

Not all of his insights about postwar Paris came from wandering the city. During these first weeks back in Paris Orwell met with other journalists, writers and at least one old friend of his Aunt Nellie. He was particularly interested in the French Press noting that newspapers often reported complaints about food distribution. Described by the Manchester Evening News as their ‘correspondent in Paris’ his first article in that newspaper appeared on 28th February.

‘Inside the Pages in Paris’ analysed the state of the print media in the capital. It would have hardly been surprising to Orwell that Paris had less newspapers than before the war but he notes there were still more than in London. Many had commenced clandestinely during the Nazi occupation. He counted 23 daily or evening papers with more about to resume shortly but of this total only four were in existence prior to the war. The largest of these established newspapers, the Communist L’Humanité (which he had been observed reading by the secret police as a young man in 1928) now had a circulation of 400,000, double that of any competitor.

 George Orwell reporting for Manchester Evening News, February 1945. Image: British Library.


George Orwell reporting for Manchester Evening News, February 1945.

Orwell mentioned in a letter that he attended an intellectually impressive editorial meeting for Libertés, the weekly newspaper that was most similar to his beloved Tribune. He also participated in a semi-public meeting of their readers. Many British and American papers were being sold in Paris and he believed there was a considerable reading public who would love get hold of a continental edition of Tribune, or failing that, the regular publication. He also quipped in the same letter, written from Room 329 in the Hôtel Scribe, that he enjoyed wearing a beret again.

Orwell believed that the French would no longer tolerate the stupid, scurrilous, and dishonest newspapers which had been the norm before the war. He was deeply impressed with the courageous journalism demonstrated in the new, daily papers like Combat, Franc Tireur and France Soir. He felt the Nazi occupation had created a new kind of journalist—idealistic, tempered by risk and completely non-commercial—who he hoped would make their influence felt in the post-war Press. Orwell speculated that these talented amateurs, who learned their journalism in the cellars of the resistance, may struggle to compete when life returned to normal and the commercial presses recommenced.

Combat, edited by the French writer Albert Camus, with a circulation of 180,000, is singled for being the most outspoken, addressing delicate subjects such as Franco-American relations. It is likely that Orwell was thinking about Camus when he wrote that the French literary intelligentsia behaved extremely well under the German occupation. He was uncertain the same would be said of their English literary counterparts if the Nazis had occupied Britain. Orwell arranged to meet with Camus at Les Deux Magots but the Frenchman never showed at the cafe. Sadly, and more than a little ironically, Camus was incapacitated by tuberculosis, the disease that would claim Orwell, five years later.

Combat edited by Albert Camus

Combat edited by Albert Camus

ERNEST HEMINGWAY

The American writer, Ernest Hemingway, claimed to have met Orwell during this period in Paris. Orwell never mentioned it in his diaries or correspondence. His closest friends and numerous literary acquaintances, except for Paul Potts, never heard him talk about meeting the famous American. Potts was a Canadian poet who Orwell befriended in London and who visited him on Jura. Potts’s account has been accepted in some biographies of Orwell but seriously questioned by other biographers. Potts was perennially down on his luck and Orwell tolerated him where other literary colleagues did not.

There are two versions of the meeting.

Potts says that Orwell examined the guest register at Hôtel Scribe and spying Hemingway’s signature presented himself at the writer’s room. Introducing himself as Eric Blair, he was greeted with a string of profanities by the American, who was packing suitcases, before receiving a much warmer welcome on discovering that this was Orwell. They then shared a bottle of Scotch in Hemingway’s room.

Hemingway described the meeting in True at First Light, a ‘fictional memoir’ published posthumously in 1999 which varies significantly. Orwell, looking in very bad-shape, presented himself at Room 117 of the Hôtel Ritz seeking a pistol that could be easily concealed. Hemingway found him one but warned Orwell it would take anyone shot a long time to die. It was clear to the American that the gaunt war correspondent needed it more as a talisman than a weapon. Hemingway made enquires to see if Orwell was a British intelligence operative and discovers that he is not.

Hemingway also lived in Paris in the 5th arrondissement, at rue Cardinale Lemoine, a short distance from Orwell’s hotel in the late 1920s. They both wrote about their experiences in the Spanish Civil War and and the card catalogue of the lending at Sylvia Beach’s famous bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., reveals that Hemingway borrowed Homage to Catalonia in 1938 – and never returned it. Hemingway would have admired Orwell’s physical bravery. The men would have had much to discuss besides writing.

Hemingway's Lending Library card

Hemingway’s Lending Library card

The trouble with both accounts, from Potts and Hemingway, is that they were particularly self-serving. Potts made a career out of being Orwell’s friend and Hemingway’s reputation for boasting, constant self-aggrandisement and out and out lying had become legend. However, both have enough believability to suggest the meeting did take place.

Hemingway had written to Harvey Breit in 1952 saying that Orwell was afraid of being killed by communists and needed a pistol. One of the American’s biographers suggests that it was .32 Colt, already on loan to Hemingway from a friend, that was given to Orwell.

Orwell did buy a gun shortly after returning to London in mid-1945. Rodney Philips, an Australian friend who financed the journal Polemic, sold Orwell a German luger pistol for five pounds relating that Orwell feared he would be assassinated. His experiences in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War left him under no illusions that violence organised by the Russians would silence those who spoke against Stalinism and communism.

The truth of the matter is that the two writers met briefly but that we do not know what passed between them. The incontrovertible evidence for this is contained in the closing sentences of a letter written in March 1948 by Hemingway to Orwell’s friend, Cyril Connolly:

“If you ever see Orwell, remember me to him, will you? I like him very much and it was a moment when I had no time when I met him.”

LUCIEN BANNIER

On discovering that Orwell was to return to newly-liberated Paris, his Aunt Nellie insisted her nephew take as much food as possible to her friend and Esperantist colleague, Lucien Bannier. Orwell followed her wishes and visited Bannier shortly after arriving in Paris. Limouzin’s loyalty was to be expected as when her husband departed Paris, abandoning her in 1936, Bannier was extremely supportive. This close relationship continued until Nellie’s death, as their correspondence reveals.

Since it was still wartime, Bannier was cautious and provided Orwell with a professional rather than private address. They arranged to meet at his bank, as if Orwell were one of his clients, at Comptoir d’Escompte (which later became BNP, Banque Nationale de Paris) on rue Bergère. Orwell arrived, in his British army officer’s uniform, asking to see “Monsieur Bannier” who was not at the bank counter. Bannier later told his son that it lacked more than a little discretion and the news that a British officer wanted to see him quickly became gossip. The content of their discussions is unknown, as is how long they chatted for but certainly Bannier would have been a good source for a journalists that had just arrived back in Paris.

Lucien Bannier c. 1939 courtesy of Bannier family

Lucien Bannier c. 1939 courtesy of Bannier family

Orwell’s next article in, The Observer on 4th March, was ‘The Occupations Effect on French Outlook: Different Political Thinking’ and it is possible that the highly intelligent Frenchman he mentions in the article is Bannier. Orwell explains that competent observers consider there are five political forces in France: Conservatives, ranging from old-style Nationalists to outright supporters of Pétain; the large, well-organised Communist party; General de Gaulle, who is sufficiently powerful and popular to be considered a political force in himself; the old “moderate” parties, including the Socialist party, which are now rapidly reviving and which represent all the middling people who are neither revolutionaries nor Vichyites; and, the resistance groups, which include in them most of the elements that could be called revolutionary but reject the aims and methods of the Communists.

Bannier did not see Orwell again. However, Orwell did send a man who did not speak French to deliver more food, as Aunt Nellie would have wanted him to do.

TRAGEDY

When Orwell had departed for Europe he left his newly adopted son and wife to stay with relatives. Eileen Blair had been unwell for some time but had not discussed the need for an operation with her husband due to the perilous state of their finances and the excitement over adopting Richard.

Eileen telegrammed to tell her husband that she was having a hysterectomy and, as required at the time, to seek his written permission for he operation. Orwell was himself in hospital in Cologne, Germany at the time suffering from the perennial weakness in his lungs which would later claim his life. There is no indication that either Eileen or Orwell were concerned about the routine operation.

Eileen tragically died on the 29th March due to heart failure under anaesthetic. Orwell was informed the next day and departed for London immediately where he stopped, to see Inez Holden. She hardly recognised him and recorded his grief in her diary. Often, over the coming weeks and moths, Orwell’s friends noted a direct lack of emotion about his wife’s death but this was just his reserved manner.

Orwell found a half-finished letter among his wife’s effects she was writing which the morphine prevented her from completing. It is terribly sad, especially as the war was nearly over and Eileen had the prospect of a better life ahead with her baby son and husband. Animal Farm was to be published later in the year and would sell phenomenally well, solving Orwell’s money-troubles.

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Orwell’s own mortality was now to the forefront of his mind and he quickly prepared a document for his literary executor. He intended to care for his adopted son, Richard Blair, which was an unusual decision for a widower to make in 1945 which meant he had extra responsibilities.

However, Orwell returned to Paris on the 8th April where he spent one week at Hôtel Scribe before heading back to Germany where he witnessed the destruction wrought by the war and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps. Writing always took precedence over the other manifold challenges of life.

 

*This is an excerpt from the book I am writing, Orwell in Paris.

FEATURED IMAGE: Le Chartier du Quartier Latin, Paris by André Kertész

REFERENCES

Bowker, Gordon (2004) George Orwell, London: Abacus

Email correspondence (2020) Bannier family

Hemingway, Ernst (2004) True at First Light, London: Arrow Books

Meyers, Jeffrey (1999) Hemingway: A Biography, New York: Da Capo Press Inc

Orwell, George (1998) The Complete Works of George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, London: Secker & Warburg

Orwell, George (2006) The Lost Orwell: Being a Supplement to the Complete Works of George Orwell, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Timewell Press

Orwell, George (2005) Orwell: The Observer Years, Atlantic

Potts, Paul (1960) Dante Called You Beatrice, Eyre & Spottiswoode

Rodden, J. and Rossi, J., 2009. The Mysterious (Un)Meeting Of George Orwell And Ernest Hemingway | Journal. [online] The Kenyon Review. 

Shelden, Michael (2020) George Orwell: A Sage for All Seasons, Audible: The Great Courses

Topp, Sylvia (2020) Eileen: The Making of George Orwell, Unbound

Wadhams, Stephen (1984) Remembering Orwell, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

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1 Comment

  1. Peter Duby:

    An interesting article Darcy.
    While rue Cardinal Lemoine is near rue du Pot du Fer in the 5e, the two are worlds apart in the standard of living.
    Although the coroner’s report states that Eileen died of ‘heart failure’, she actually died of a massive aortic aneurysm; it would appear that an aortic aneurysm brought on by the administration of aesthetic can be symptomatic of syphilitic aortitis – which occurs particularly in women below the age of fifty (but, hey, I’m not a medical doctor).

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