I just stumbled across a news item. The hotel Lutetia in Paris is going to close for three years for renovation.
That meant something to me because for a while I lived there.
For over a century it was just another good Paris hotel; they now want to make a stab at turning it into a fabulous hotel de luxe, as good as any of the other great European establishments.
(“Lutetia,” by the way, was what the Romans called Paris.)
I stayed in that hotel while working in Paris in the sixties. And I became fascinated by its history, especially the part they didn’t like to talk about.
Back in 1940 the Germans knew a good place when they saw one so as soon as they occupied Paris they took the hotel over. It actually became the headquarters of Abwehr, the Nazi intelligence operation.
This was the outfit that dealt – rather harshly as you can imagine – with sabotage, counter-espionage, security, etc.
One aspect of this that you don’t read much about is the effect this had on the citizens of Paris. The city was flooded with gray mice.
You see, along with the German army came busloads of young German women to work for the occupying force. They wore special uniforms, sort of gray in color, and there were so many of them about in town that the Parisians called them “souris grises” – gray mice.
It was a different kind of tourism. For these girls, the several years beginning with 1940 were a kind of paradise. They got to go to Paris, not only with all expenses paid, but also with a salary.
For quite a while it was a huge party. For many of them, their home was the Lutetia.
They did the usual tourism things; sight-seeing, shopping, etc.
They went out of their way to avoid being feisty or argumentative; they carefully paid the asking price for everything they bought.
Hitler wanted to “woo” Paris; he had dreams of a post-war empire with Berlin, Paris and London as key parts of a new Europe – with Berlin on top, as you might guess – so his orders were to make nice to the local population.
Years later I was at a tourism conference in New York and met a German woman and we began talking about Paris. She was pleased to learn that I had stayed at the Lutetia. “I stayed there too, for several years!” she exclaimed. “During the forties.”
I suddenly realized that I was talking to a gray mouse. I didn't want to be meddlesome so I diplomatically didn’t ask her what it was like to work for the Nazi security organization Abwehr.