TRAVELING IN STYLE : WITH JEFFERSON IN PARIS : He Visited Monuments, Fell in Love, Spoke Bad French--Our Third President Was the Original American in Paris

<i> Paris-based Mike Zwerin writes on culture for the International Herald-Tribune. </i>

IN AUGUST, 1784, THOMAS JEFFERSON ARRIVED IN PARIS ON a two-year special mission on behalf of the 13 newly independent American states. He stayed for five years. I came for three years in 1969, leaving New York on Richard M. Nixon’s Inauguration Day. I’m still here. My friend Charlie, on the other hand, came for the rest of his life, but only stayed nine months because neither the phones nor the plumbing worked. “Either one,” he said, “but not both.”

Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin as U.S. minister to France. Franklin, Jefferson and John Adams all worked in Paris at about the same time, negotiating commercial treaties, their tours of duty overlapping. Their years in the city were important for all of them. They took to the place. In those days, they called Paris “a pleasure-loving capital.”

Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (“Howards End”) are currently shooting a film called “Jefferson in Paris,” starring Nick Nolte as everybody’s favorite Founding Father. Visualize the Paris scene in Jefferson’s day: swords, silver belt buckles and lace ruffles, the wigs and fans and all the dainty shoes worn by the aristocratic liberals who formed his circle of friends. He wrote to James Madison back in the States about corruption in the French court: “The King, long in the habit of drowning his cares in wine, plunges deeper and deeper. The Queen cries, but sins on.”


Jefferson came to Paris between revolutions--after America’s, before France’s. His role in the development of the latter, though, has been exaggerated. He simply believed that mankind could be saved by knowledge. He had what he called a “zeal to promote the general good by an interchange of useful things.” Of course, he did say: “I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” But Jefferson’s faith was that of an enlightened liberal rather than of a doctrinaire revolutionary.

He arrived in Paris with his 11-year old daughter, Martha, known as Patsy, and his slave James Hemings. (He was an “enlightened” slave master rumored to have fathered children with James’ sister, Sally Hemings--but that’s another story). Franklin stayed on after Jefferson’s arrival, living in the quiet village of Passy, a former woodcutters hamlet turned spa west of Paris, near the Bois de Boulogne. Franklin’s home was the Hotel de Valentinois (a hotel in those days was a private mansion), which stood on the crest of a hill, with terraces and gardens leading down to the Seine.

Then in his late 70s, Franklin had developed some kind of “stone,” which the rough carriage ride into Paris had aggravated. So instead of venturing out, he received visitors--and Jefferson paid a call on Franklin after presenting his credentials at Versailles. Passy was incorporated into Paris in 1859 and is now a Metro stop in the 16th arrondissement . Tourists come to the neighborhood to visit French novelist Honore de Balzac’s house on the Rue Raynouard and the Clemenceau Museum on the Rue Franklin--perhaps noticing the memorial plaque at the corner of Rue Singer and Rue Raynouard (not far from the apartment in which Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando shared butter in “Last Tango in Paris”) marking the site of Franklin’s onetime home.

John Adams got to Paris with his family, including his wife, Abigail, and his son John Quincy a week after Jefferson did--settling “away from the (city’s) putrid streets” in Auteuil, a wine-producing village then on the outskirts of Paris, also now in the 16th. Jefferson liked the people and the places in this area, and he visited both Franklin and Adams often. All the people I know who live in this arrondissement today, though, complain that they would be happier living elsewhere. They mostly occupy inherited or corporate (and thus rent-controlled or free) apartments. But there are more banks than cafes, and more poodles and politicians than people.

JEFFERSON EVENTUALLY SETTLED IN ANOTHER neighborhood, one that has come to be so famous and emblematic of Paris as to be beyond like or dislike. His spacious home, the Hotel de Langeac, stood on the corner of Rue de Berri and the Champs-Elysees. That was the exurbs then, but today it’s practically Times Square. The Hotel Le Warwick, a favorite of rock musicians, occupies what used to be Jefferson’s land.

Sponsored by his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, Jefferson’s daughter Patsy was placed in a classy convent school. She wore a crimson uniform and soon spoke effortless French. This rather annoyed her father. Any American who has ever tried to learn French and failed can identify with this Renaissance man who somehow never felt really comfortable with the French language.


JOHN TRUMBULL, SON OF A CONNECTICUT GOVERNOR, ARRIVED IN PARIS during the summer of 1786. A 30-year-old artist who wanted to paint the events of the American Revolution in retrospect, Trumbull carried letters of introduction to Jefferson from all sorts of other well-connected people. Hitting it off with the tall Virginian, Trumbull soon moved into a guest room in the Hotel de Langeac. The two men took long walks together in the Bois de Boulogne. Jefferson considered Trumbull to be as good a painter as the highly regarded Jacques-Louis David; Trumbull introduced Jefferson to Maria Cosway.

As Dumas Malone writes in his biography “Jefferson and the Rights of Man”: “Then began an adventure such as Jefferson had certainly not expected, in a late summer which was amazingly like Spring. To put it somewhat differently, a generally philosophical gentleman, hungrier for beauty and a woman than he realized, was quite swept off his supposedly well-planted feet.”

Jefferson may not have learned the language, but he thought he had a fairly good fix on French women. He feared the effects of their voluptuous dress and manner on his susceptible young countrymen. He warned against “female intrigue.” (Every heterosexual male American resident of Paris I know either came or remained for the love of a French woman.)

Maria Cosway, on the other hand, Jefferson found to be talented, modest and “soft of disposition”--although it was said that she could also be “the most coquettish of them all.” Born in Italy of English descent, Cosway had studied art and music and spoke many languages. She played the harp. (Jefferson played the violin and harpsichord.) She was 27, slim and graceful, with bountiful curly blond hair. Biographer James Boswell addressed her as “Serenissima Principessa.” She was married.

Jefferson was a 43-year-old widower with a philosophical bent, particularly unsuited to withstand her charms. Her marriage was to some extent “convenient,” but Jefferson nevertheless always went out of his way to be correct with her husband, a society painter. There was something magical, though, about every day he spent with Maria.

He kept a record of their day-trips. They went to the Chateau de Bagatelle, a small palace in the Bois de Boulogne built as a rest-stop for the queen on her trips between Versailles and Paris. (The building still stands in what is now called the Parc de Bagatelle. The park’s flower gardens are renowned, especially for their irises in May and roses in June. Art exhibitions are held in the chateau’s outbuildings, the Trianon and Orangerie.) They strolled the hills along the Seine and visited the nearby river port of Reuilly. They enjoyed the panoramic terraces of the ancient town of St.-Germain-en-Laye just west of Paris (whose imposing Renaissance chateau now houses the Museum of National Antiquities) and the magnificent marble horse statues at Louis XIV’s Chateau de Marly not far away (now standing in a park at the foot of the recently revamped Champs-Elysees).


One of their favorite spots was Le Desert de Retz, the country estate of Racine de Monville, located near the village of Chambourcy, about four miles from St.-Germain-en-Laye. In the heart of Monville’s compound was a huge column, designed to appear “ruined,” with a spiral staircase Jefferson admired. The column has been restored and still stands, classified as an historic monument.

Jefferson ended his affair with his famous “Head or Heart” letter. According to the Head, Jefferson wrote Cosway, the most effective means of being secure against emotional pain was to retire within oneself, as “The art of life is the art of avoiding pain!” Meanwhile, the Heart taunted, “Let the gloomy monk, sequestered from the world, seek unsocial pleasures in the bottom of his cell.” In the end, the Head won out, though not by much.

JEFFERSON CONTINUED TO discover and enjoy Paris on his own. He particularly loved the Tuileries Gardens (and who does not?) and witnessed a hot-air balloon ascension there. He had been interested in “aerostatics” even before leaving the United States, but this was the first time he had seen a balloon lift off with people aboard. He also attended many concerts in the gardens, hearing such artists as Haydn and the violin virtuoso Rudolphe Kreutzer (to whom Beethoven dedicated his “Kreutzer Sonata”).

Diplomacy and royal amusement, however, were increasingly moved from the Louvre and Tuileries palaces to Versailles, away from the city’s “putrid streets.” It was probably just as well. On July 12, 1789, passing through the Place Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) in his carriage, Jefferson saw German cavalry and Swiss Guards confronting an angry crowd. He turned back to see the crowd attack the forces of order. Two days later, what was now being called “the people” got muskets, freed prisoners and beheaded the mayor. Jefferson came to believe that he had in fact witnessed the first act of the “Universal Insurrection.”

The American Revolution was a salient role model for the French, thought Jefferson. He wrote to James Madison, “Our proceedings have been viewed as a model for them on every occasion. . . . (Our revolution) is treated like the Bible, open to explanation but not question.” He believed a French revolution was imminent, and he believed that, by following the American example, this revolution would mark the “commencement of a general reformation in the government of the world.” Optimistic, he wrote to Thomas Paine in England: “I think there is no possibility now of anything hindering the final establishment of a good constitution” in France. He was wrong.

Jefferson and his family left Paris in October, 1789, waiting for 10 days-- because of bad weather--at the channel port of Le Havre for a boat to begin their voyage home. Finally, shortly after midnight one evening, the Jefferson entourage set sail for England on the packet Anna. They arrived at Cowes after 26 hours of “boisterous navigation and mortal sickness” and had to wait there for nearly two weeks before boarding a ship for home.


Jefferson received special tariff considerations at the English customs house by order of Prime Minister William Pitt. And he read in the English newspapers that a mob had invaded the Versailles Palace and conveyed the French king to Paris.

GUIDEBOOK: Jeffersonian Paris

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for France is 33; the city code for Paris is 1. All prices are approximate and computed at a rate of 5.5 francs to the dollar. Hotel prices are for a double room for one night. Restaurant prices are for dinner for two, food only.

Getting there: Air France, United and AOM French Airlines have nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Paris. Connecting flights are offered by American, United, Northwest and Continental airlines and TWA.

Where to stay: For a Jeffersonian connection--and if price is no object--try the Hotel de Crillon, 10 Place de la Concorde, 8th arrondissement , telephone 4471-5000, fax 4471-1502; reservations (800) 888-4747. This ultra-luxurious hotel occupies part of the 18th-Century building in which the Treaty of Friendship and Trade between France and the fledgling United States was signed in 1778. It is furnished with Aubusson carpets, inlaid floors and antiques, and its service is legendary. The restaurants, Les Ambassadeurs and L’Obelisque are highly rated. Rates: $435-$710. Hotel Le Warwick, 5 Rue de Berri, 8th arrondissement , tel. 4563-1411, fax 4256-7759. Strictly a 20th-Century hotel, but it does stand on the site once occupied by Jefferson’s Parisian home, the Hotel de Langeac. The Warwick offers large, quiet rooms in a central location. Rates: $315-$465.

Where to eat: Le Procope, 13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, 6th arrondissement , tel. 4326-9920. Founded in 1686 and often host to Jefferson, Franklin and their friends. Today, the interior (though it has been renovated and updated often) seems time-worn, and the food is rarely better than acceptable. It is undeniably Jeffersonian, though; $36-$135. Le Grand Vefour, 17 Rue de Beaujolais, 1st arrondissement , tel. 4296-5627. An elegant place with perfect service and excellent food, popular with the Parisian upper-class since the 1760s. (The original owner, Jean Vefour, was chef to the Duc d’Orleans, who helped send Louis XVI to the guillotine. The period interior is a classified historical monument; $235-$360.

For more information: French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Beverly Hills, 90212; (900) 990-0040 (calls cost 50 cents per minute).