Paris 1940–1944

Steve Newman Writer
11 min readNov 1, 2022

Martha Gellhorn, Django Reinhardt, Maurice Chevalier, Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and more…

German officers taking up a lot of cafe space in Paris. Image: The Guardian

Life in Paris, between 1940–44, seemed, on the surface, to go on as usual, with The Moulin Rouge, and the Folies Bergere, along with most of the other clubs, bars, and restaurants — plus the swank stores and boutiques — open and doing good business.

International French singing stars such as Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and jazz musician Django Reinhardt, had decided to remain in the city and perform in front of German audiences. Contradictions on every corner, in every home.

Most people wisely kept their heads down and got on with life and resistance.

Maurice Chevalier 1930s. Image: fineartamerica

Chevalier found it a hard choice to stay in Paris. He could easily have skipped across to England, but he stayed in the city he loved and said damn to the consequences, and if one studies his performances of those years, they are examples of an angry sophisticated, smiling defiance which the Nazi German officer class, in their rigid, self-righteous frame of mind, never saw or understood. But it could easily have cost him his life, especially after singing on German radio. It was part denial, part defiance, and a great deal of bravery.

The elf-like Edith Piaf, like Chevalier, continued to perform, and even travelled to Germany to sing to French POWs (who adored her for it), for which she was heavily criticised; but never once did she show any support for the Nazis, or the treacherous Petain government in Vichy. She loved Paris. She would stay in Paris.

Edith Piaf (photo of Chevalier behind her) in the 1930s. Image: vintagenewsdaily.com

For Django Reinhardt - the legendary Belgian jazz guitarist who had played with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong in the 1930s - it was a much more dangerous game, but it was all about defying the Germans, almost to the extent of egging them on to arrest him and throw him into a concentration camp (he was of gypsy origin), which of course they never did. The German authorities saw him as an ineffectual, uneducated drunken peasant…

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