Posts from the “Popular Culture” Category

How Dunkirk Brought the de Gaulles Together Before France Fell

Posted on August 1, 2017

Christopher Nolan’s World War II tour de force “Dunkirk” has captivated moviegoers and reviewers since its release on July 21. It’s the story of the harrowing, heroic rescue of 400,000 Allied troops from the French port city of Dunkirk after German forces stormed into the country. Nolan’s film focuses on the rescue mission itself, not the aftermath in France. In THE GENERAL’S NIECE: THE LITTLE-KNOWN DE GAULLE WHO FOUGHT TO FREE OCCUPIED FRANCE , I write about the havoc Dunkirk wrought on the French population, and how it brought the de Gaulle family together before their beloved country fell to the Nazis. Here is an excerpt:


If there was to be a last stand in France against the German forces that laid waste to the country, some military men believed that it would take place in windswept Brittany. Xavier waited for his marching orders that June in a home that teemed with family members. Armelle, her two small children, Genevieve, and Roger awaited the arrival of Xavier’s frail, eighty-year-old mother, Jeanne, who was fleeing German attacks on the port of Le Havre, not far from where she lived with her daughter, Marie-Agnes; son-in-law, Alfred Cailliau; and their children. Jeanne had been a widow since May 3, 1932, when her husband, Henri, died at age eighty-two. In the years after Henri’s passing, Jeanne’s health had begun to decline too, and she became consumed with seeing her sons before war separated them again.

It was not an easy feat, given the situation on the ground. The German Luftwaffe had begun bombing Le Havre on May 19, 1940, and continued their attacks for the next two evenings. British troops fired antiaircraft guns as Nazi planes dropped bombs on warehouses, factories, shipyards, and Le Havre itself. When large numbers of Dutch and Belgian refugees began arriving in the town by train, locals panicked and thought that the Germans were winning. A dark mood descended over the public as air-raid sirens became commonplace.

The bombing continued in June when the British began evacuating at Dunkirk. Not all troops could be rescued, so they escaped to other ports along the country’s northern coast, striving to find a way back to England. Nazi planes tried to prevent their return by bombing Le Havre ten more times. Bedlam ensued as local officials tried to evacuate residents. Many wanted to flee incoming Nazis by heading for Brittany, but trains could not long travel in that direction because they had to go through the train station in Rouen, which was almost sixty miles to the east. That station was closed, but Jeanne was so determined to see her boys that she traveled 475 miles south to Grenoble to see her son Jacques before getting one of her grandsons to drive her 571 miles north to see Xavier.

After Jeanne’s arrival in Paimpont, nineteen-year-old Genevieve comforted the delicate old woman, whose anxiety gave way to vivid memories from her girlhood of France’s humiliation by the Prussians at Sedan in 1870. She felt like she was reliving those dark days, and her weakened heart couldn’t bear it. Her granddaughter reassured her that it wouldn’t happen like that, not again. Charles would come to visit his mother and Xavier’s family en route to London, where he’d meet with British prime minister Winston Churchill on June 15. After that visit Genevieve assured her grandmother that France would fight back — yes, right there in Brittany.

Brittany. The very shape of the peninsula on which the French army hung their dwindling hopes jutted out toward the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean like the hand of a drowning man begging for help. Two weeks before Petain’s radio address, the military devised a plan that would gather forces along Brittany’s Rance and Vilaine Rivers to fend off an enemy assault. As French troops kept up a stiff resistance along those rivers, allies from Great Britain could stream through the ports west of that line of defense to come to the country’s aid. A prolonged fight under this strategy would allow France to keep its lines of communication open with its allies and, in case of trouble, make it easier to relocate the state’s armed forces and government ministers to London or North Africa.

Two days after Petain addressed the nation, Charles de Gaulle, who had been recently appointed undersecretary of war and national defense, held secret meetings with commanders about the feasibility if this scheme. The overwhelming consensus: Such resistance was futile. There were simply not enough troops to hold off a German advance. General de Gaulle bid farewell to his wife and children. He was headed to London, he told them because things were very bad.

“Perhaps we are going to carry on the fight in Africa,” de Gaulle told his wife, Yvonne. “But I think it more likely that everything is about to collapse. I am warning you so that you will be ready to leave at the first sign.”

The signs were everywhere. After securing passports, Yvonne and the children left on June 18 to join Charles in England.

On the morning of June 18, Xavier de Gaulle and several other reservists were ordered to march west in an effort to regroup against the enemy. His family joined him on the crowded streets in an procession riddled with anger, shame and fear. All around them there was a growing feeling that whatever came next would be in vain. Genevieve lingered close to her grandmother, “this little old lady, dressed in black, so tiny and easy to miss,” so she didn’t fall behind and get lost in the crowd. Throughout the day the young woman reassured the matriarch, as she worked through her own tormented emotions about this turn of events.

By evening, they had walked forty miles to the town of Locmine and faced their first Nazi soldiers. They looked like war gods, Genevieve thought; their smart black uniforms and chiseled features exuded strength and pride as they breezed past on motorcycles and tanks. Some reservists cried because it was clear that there was no hope left and no will to fight this aggressor. As the crowd grew numb with dismay, a priest ran toward them from the other side of the town square. He was excited because he had just heard a French general speak on BBC radio.

“He said we may have lost a battle,” the priest cried, “but not the war. The general’s name was de Gaulle.”

Thrilled by the news, Jeanne de Gaulle, broke from the crowd and ran to the priest.

“Monsieur le Cure, that’s my son!” she cried as she tugged on the sleeve of his cassock. “That’s my son! He’s done what he ought to have done!”

A country away, Charles de Gaulle couldn’t have known how his mother reacted to his decision to offer France another way, but Genevieve remembered the moment as one of her grandmother’s last great joys. For Charles, it was a lonely affair, because as he heard himself speak into the BBC microphone, he realized his life would never be the same. Up until then he had been devoted to both the army and the nation he served. And yet he was not the sort of man to capitulate, which was why he had broken with his superiors and headed to London, to condemnation. At forty-nine years old, fate had lured him away from all his predictable patterns and responsibilities. He was obligated to the France he once knew, and he summoned his countrymen, uncertain of who might hear or put their trust in him.

Few people caught the general’s broadcast, but the ones who did began risking their lives to spread his word.


Excerpted from THE GENERAL’S NIECE: THE LITTLE-KNOWN DE GAULLE WHO FOUGHT TO FREE OCCUPIED FRANCEpublished by Chicago Review Press. Copyright 2017 by Paige Bowers. All rights reserved.

The Martian

Posted on November 3, 2015

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Confession: Lately, I’ve been thinking about Mars.

Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about Mars is because my daughter, her best friend and I played hooky from school and work on a recent Monday and went to go see Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.”

Don’t tell on us, please.

I hate to spoil this for anyone who has not seen the flick, but this is not about a real live actual extraterrestrial being. “The Martian,” which is based on the novel by Andy Weir, is about a really resourceful and funny American astronaut named Mark Watney who has to figure out how to survive after his cohorts leave him for dead on the Red Planet.

Do not judge them. In the midst of a bad situation, they actually thought Watney was dead.

So the other reason I’ve been thinking about Mars is because I have moments when I think that this astronaut’s experience is sort of (kind of) similar to that of a first-time author. You find yourself in new and challenging circumstances, but you have to calm down (no, really…CALM DOWN) and focus on the situation day by day using all the resources and skills and knowledge that you have in order to reach the finish line.

Some days are encouraging, exciting, inspiring.

Some days you blow things up trying to make water and wonder whether you’re fit to make it. (Don’t get me started…)

But in the face of those setbacks, there is always tomorrow if you haven’t messed up too terribly badly. So you adjust. You go forward. You do your best.

And so it goes.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you found yourself in Watney-esque circumstances? If so, what happened and what steps did you take to survive and thrive? Also (and I have to ask): What was your soundtrack? Watney’s was disco, much to his chagrin. Mine is Duran Duran’sPaper Gods.” Yours? Let me know in comments.

Match Race

Posted on June 22, 2015

Seabiscuit was an undersized, crooked-legged horse who was a champion napper. After years of floundering in the lowest ranks of horse racing, he was snapped up by a trainer and owner who understood him and who handled him so well, that he became an inspiration to a country that needed to see that the little guy could win.

Seabiscuit was a little horse with a big heart.

I’ve always loved this story and I have a bad habit of forcing Laura Hillenbrand’s masterful Seabiscuit: An American Legend on anyone who says they haven’t read it.

But I also turn to Hillenbrand’s book (and the above video of Biscuit’s historic match race with the Triple Crown winner War Admiral) at times when I need to remind myself that I have everything I need to cross the finish line, perhaps even by a couple of lengths. It is not easy, but as I’ve learned this past spring, it also helps to have a fantastic jockey…or at least some savvy people in your corner who can help you find the right, well-packed path.

I have no way of knowing how certain things will or won’t unfold. But I’ve dog-eared this account of what Seabiscuit’s jockey George Woolf did the night before his mount was to blaze around the track at Pimlico, leaving War Admiral far behind. Seabiscuit didn’t do well in the mud, but Woolf was determined to find a way to overcome that.

Hillenbrand writes:

A lone figure walked out onto the Pimlico dirt, clutching a flashlight. It was Woolf. The rainwater had not fully drained from the track, and he was concerned that Seabiscuit might struggle over the dampness. “Biscuit likes to hear his feet rattle” was how he put it. Turning down the lane, the jockey weaved back and forth, sweeping his flashlight beam from side to side, hunting for the driest, hardest path.

At the top of the homestretch Woolf stopped, testing the footing. In the soil beneath his feet, he could feel a firmer strip, the print of a tractor wheel that had lately rolled over the surface. The path was obscured by harrow marks. Walking the full length of the track, Woolf found that it circled the entire oval, a few feet from the rail.

He knew what he would have to do when the bell rang the following afternoon. “I figures to myself,” he said later,” “’Woolf, get on that lane and follow it.’” In the darkness of the last night of October 1938, George Woolf walked the course until he had memorized the path of the tractor print. Then he quickly stepped off the track.

“I knew it,” he said later, “like an airplane pilot knows a radio beam.”

— from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

Has there ever been a time in your life when someone has stepped in to show you the right, and well-worn path, for whatever reason? If so, when was that time, who was that person, and what was the ultimate result? Or, is there a story you turn to in order to get you through certain times in your life or projects that may bedevil you? What is that story and why does it appeal to you? Let me know in comments.

Postscript, August 12, 2015: Many thanks to Jane Dystel and Miriam Goderich for helping me find that tractor print. Now I’m off to the races and I couldn’t have done it without their guidance and support.

Coco the Spy

Posted on December 3, 2014

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

On Monday, French historian Franck Ferrand said that documents locked away in French Ministry of Defense archives since World War II proved without a shadow of a doubt that Coco Chanel spied for the Nazis. Although her affairs with high-ranking German officers have been known about for years, this is the first time a French broadcaster has said that she actually gathered intelligence for occupying forces. Three years ago, American author Hal Vaughan’s book Sleeping with the Enemy shed the first light on the story with documents he culled from various archives in Paris, London, Berlin and Rome.

Ferrand spoke in a France 3 documentary called “The Shadow of  a Doubt” and said that Chanel used the code name “Westminster” — a reference to the fling she had with the Duke of Westminster in the 1920s — when she passed information to the Abwehr, Adolf Hitler’s secret military intelligence agency. The documentary went on to claim that the designer used her influence with the Germans in an effort to reclaim her perfume business, which had been sold to a Jewish family in 1924.

Ronald C. Rosbottom’s acclaimed history When Paris Went Dark shows how the French faced difficult choices during the Nazi occupation. The France 3 documentary illustrates this further with the information about Chanel. But it also questions the roles of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier, whose careers thrived due to Germany’s policy of promoting French popular culture during the war.

It has been a good year for fresh looks at this complicated historical period. France 3’s historical drama “A French Village” has also been acclaimed for the realism with which it depicts Frenchmen during the Occupation. If only I could stream it here in the States…

Gerald and Sara — Many Fetes

Posted on July 23, 2014


 Photo:  © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

I’ve been preparing a new class for LSU Continuing Education that I’ll teach this fall about the Lost Generation. Although it will discuss how World War I impacted the mindset of people in this time and influenced creative disciplines from writing to painting and dance to theater, it will also look at some of the personalities that became so famous — and infamous — during this era.

Obviously, my class will hear about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. But it will also learn about Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, the Ballets Russes and many others that were pushing the creative envelope in one of the world’s greatest cities — Paris, France. And it will also learn about some lesser-known, but no less influential folks, like the dancing couple up above. They’re Gerald and Sara Murphy, they were American and well-to-do and they mingled with pretty much everyone who was anyone creatively during this period. Ever heard the saying “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”? Well, Gerald Murphy coined it, and anyone in the Murphys’ orbit knew that few lived better and more interesting lives than that particular duo. Random facts about them: They were perhaps the first people in France to own a waffle iron, they had one of the best private collections of African-American spiritual music (which they sang in perfect two-part harmony at their cocktail parties), and they used to enlist Man Ray to shoot their family portraits.

Here is a 1962 profile written about the couple in The New Yorker.

The bottom line is that these were people you really needed to know. And I can’t wait to introduce them to my class in September.

One of the reasons why I can’t wait to talk about the Murphys is because you don’t really hear about the them a lot, unless you read very deeply about the Roaring Twenties. But you might have come across them (sort of) and not realized it, if you’ve ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is The Night.

Many scholars agree that Fitzgerald modeled Dick and Nicole Diver after the Murphys for about the first half of the book, recreating their very charmed life in Paris and on the French Riviera for his readership. In the second half of the book, the Divers seem to become an entirely different couple and I’ll be talking about who that couple was and why scholars seem to think Scott seemed to have no qualms about such a mashup in his manuscript. He dedicated his book to the Murphys, but when they first read it, they felt betrayed.

One year after Tender’s publication, the Murphys were undergoing a terrible family tragedy. At that time, Gerald wrote Scott, saying “I know now that what you said in Tender in the Night is true. Only the invented part of our life — the unreal part — has had any scheme any beauty. Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed. In my heart I dreaded the moment when our youth and invention would be attacked in our only vulnerable spot…”

The Murphys have a wonderful and ultimately tragic story that I look forward to telling in about a month and a half from now, one that provides an interesting framework for a time and a people who may have felt likewise blundered, scarred and destroyed. If you’re in the Baton Rouge area, I hope you’ll consider taking the class to find out more about them. If not, please stay tuned here as I share anecdotes, pictures, videos and music that I’ll be featuring in the class.

And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask away in comments.

The Power of Habit

Posted on July 15, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with New York Times-bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, who is finishing a new book about habit formation called Better Than Before. Here is a recent post she wrote that distills the ideas she’ll cover in her book, which comes out in March, 2015.

I interviewed Gretchen because I was working on a forthcoming story about exercise for USA Today‘s Best Years Magazine. The story will give pointers on how to get back into the habit once your kids become more independent or leave home altogether. Although I interviewed several excellent health and wellness experts who could speak to reps and research about how 10 minutes of walking a day will benefit your blood pressure, I thought Gretchen would be a good source about starting a new habit and sticking to it.

Some notes from our conversation that didn’t make it into the final piece:

* She got the idea for Better Than Before while she was working on her blockbuster The Happiness ProjectShe found during her research for that book that people who tried to become happier and succeeded could often point to some sort of habit they developed as the reason for their success. It didn’t take long for her to become “obsessed” with how to change habits.

* If you’re having a hard time starting a positive new habit like exercise, she said it’s important to look at the reasons why. Maybe the gym is located in an inconvenient place with bad parking. Maybe you hate the music they play in the gym. Maybe exercise machines aren’t your thing. “Rather than saying ‘I hate exercise,’ you need to face what it is that’s actually the problem so you can see the solution,” she said. “If you hate loud music, find a place that plays music you like or go for a walk in nature. If you don’t have time to shower after your workout, do some sort of exercise where you don’t sweat.”

* Some people say they want to start a new, healthy habit because people say they should, or because there is some other sort of external expectation. But deep down, they don’t really want to make that sort of change, which makes them feel worse. “You really need to look within and see whether this is something you actually want to do,” she said. “It’s better to say [that this habit is] not a priority than to pretend it is and feel like a failure.”

I hope you’ll look for the piece when it hits newsstands this fall, because Gretchen was a lively and fascinating interviewee. In the meantime, have you ever had trouble starting a new habit? If so, what was the habit and why did you have trouble starting it? What steps did you take to make this habit part of your everyday life? Please let me know in comments.

In the meantime, check out Gretchen’s web site  and visit this link to start a Happiness Project of your own.



Monday Reader: 4/28/2014

Posted on April 28, 2014

Photo: The New York Times

Photo: The New York Times

New rule instituted last year: I can write about horses, and I can read about horses, and I can ride them and love them and feed them oats. But I cannot give people advice on how to bet on them during the Triple Crown season. Last year, I gave a good friend of mine my opinion about how he should bet in the Kentucky Derby. I forget what I told him (I’ve since blocked it from my mind), but I know that at the end of the race, he sent me a text that read “To the moon, Alice.” Fortunately for me, our friendship has survived this great unpleasantness.

Having said that, The New York Times  ran a story today about Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome. It’s the kind of story that makes me start thinking about Seabiscuit and I’ll Have Another, and equine glory on the Santa Anita track. It’s the kind of story I’d point the aforementioned friend to, if I were still in the business of giving betting advice this time of year. But because I’m out of that racket, I’ll just say here’s an interesting story about a plucky pony with the potential to be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. That’s all I’m saying. I promise.

Speaking of I’ll Have Another, The Vancouver Sun says his former jockey Mario Gutierrez is still looking for a great horse. Word is, he might have found it in Dancingtothestars, which won the Valentine’s Stakes at Santa Anita racetrack.

And, in The Sacramento Beetrainers debate the value of a pre-Derby workout on the Churchill Downs track.

Finally, The Washington Post looks at the widespread use of painkillers and performance-enhancing drugs in racehorses.

Addendum, posted on May 2, 2014 at 1:49 CST: The aforementioned friend in this Derby betting anecdote called my attention to a scene that wound up on the cutting room floor. It goes like this:

Friend who will go unnamed: …I’m probably with you on Lucky Day and Palice Malice. Goldencents will be too pricey due to Pitino’s involvement, and Orb is too much of a favorite. Revolutionary is out because he’s ridden by Borel – he’ll either be too expensive because of that, or if he’s cheap it’ll be because PawPaw has some inside scoop to stay away. But Lucky Day and PM seem to hit that sweet spot of not too pricey, but good shot at finishing in the money.
Paige:I have a hunch about Goldencents though, and, betting aside, I can’t seem to shake it. Maybe the name is too similar to a Bond film title, a fact that makes me think of Daniel Craig.
Friend who will go unnamed: I hope you’re right. Just got Goldencents for $675. Bidding on Lucky Day now.
Paige: Wait. Did I say Goldencents?
Friend who will go unnamed: You think you’re funny …
Paige: Goldencents is that stock car, right?


Monday Reader: 4/21/14

Posted on April 21, 2014



There are a lot of goofy quizzes on the Internet. Among other things you can find out which 1970s music star you are (I got Olivia Newton John) and where you’re really supposed to live (I got Paris, bien sur). My recent favorite is “How French Are You?” which features some of the worst stereotypes about the people, from how much you strike, to how much you complain or cut in line. Of the 90 questions on the quiz, I clicked 65, which apparently makes me:

as French as Jean Dujardin eating camembert on the Canal Saint Martin. You’re pretty French. You know good food and good wine and although you’re a pessimist who complains a lot, you always know how to enjoy life.

I can’t argue with this.

Some reads:

France Marks 70 Years of Women’s Voting Rights (France24.comToday marks the 70th anniversary of women’s suffrage in France, a measure signed into law by General Charles de Gaulle, who headed the provisional government at that time. Women cast their first ballots a year later, during the country’s first elections after German occupation. There’s a great video on the France 24 website of women casting those first votes, and a roundup of Western countries where women were already voting before les femmes joined the fray. The role of women in French politics has grown slowly. In 1993, only 5.7 percent of seats in France’s Parliament were occupied by women – barely more than that after the end of World War II. The lack of women in politics prompted France to pass a law in 2000 requiring political parties to present an equal number of men and women on voting lists, making it the first country to do so. But men still heavily dominate French politics. Seventy-three percent of the National Assembly is comprised of men, while the Senate is 78 percent men.

France’s Silent Tea Revolution (BBC NewsWhen I worked in Washington, D.C., I had a French roommate. When her mother came to visit, we used to make sure we were well-equipped with Lapsang Souchong tea, her morning drink of choice. Up until this particular point in time, I thought the French were more of a coffee-oriented people, but I learned that wasn’t the case. Ever-resourceful, my roommate would brew mint leaves from our backyard for a mid-afternoon restorative. And, we’d go tea-shopping in Chinatown even when her mother wasn’t coming to town. So I enjoyed this story about how tea culture is strengthening in the hexagon, between the delicate and refined French blends and wonderful tea salons that dot the City of Light. What you find is that tea has been in France longer than it has been in Great Britain. The reason why more people associate it with Brits is because it was a popular drink instead of a drink for a wealthy few, as it was in France. News that coffee was bad for you changed all that, and more of the French began looking for a replacement. They rediscovered tea and, as you might figure, began putting their own Gallic twist on it, pairing it with cheeses, among other things.

Paris’s Haut Marais: From Shabby to Chic (WSJ.comWhen I was in Paris finishing my thesis research a couple of years ago, I rented an apartment in the Marais. My first favorite memory of staying in that neighborhood was walking to picture-perfect Jacques Genin, buying a finger-sized eclair and almost weeping when I sunk my teeth into that first, perfectly creamy bite. My second favorite memory: Discovering the Repetto store on Rue des Francs Bourgeois. The Wall Street Journal looks at how real estate prices are skyrocketing in this part of town, once ground zero for the French nobility. “Five years ago nobody wanted to be here,” says Nicolas Wibaux, a Marais-based agent for Paris real-estate firm Daniel Féau. “Now everybody wants to be here.” In the past five years, the average Paris apartment has increased by about 25%, to $1,056 a square foot. In prime areas of Haut Marais, prices in the same period jumped by 35.2% to 41.2%, reaching as high as $1,535 a square foot.

French Village Fights for Right to Use Its Name (rfi.frThe Laguiole council is appealing to France’s 36,000 local councils to come to its aid, claiming that it is the victim of a “supernatural catastrophe” following a Paris court’s refusal to uphold its case against Gilbert Szajner, who lives in the Val de Marne département just outside Paris. Szajner patented the Laguiole brand in 1993 for 38 different types of products, among them knives, tableclothes and cigarette lighters. But Szajner has had his wares made in China and Pakistan, while the town itself has been making its own distinctively designed knife since 1829. In 1997 local officials took Szajner to court, accusing him of dishonest trading practices and carrying out “harming its name, its image and its reputation”. After a long legal wrangle, the court threw out the case a few weeks ago and ordered the village to pay 100,000 euros in costs to Szajner.


Monday Reader: 4/14/2014

Posted on April 14, 2014