When the Allied forces entered Paris on August 25, 1944, war correspondent A.J. Liebling (or “Joe”) was right there with them. Thanks to his high-level connections in the U.S. Third Army, he had been attached to its First Infantry Division since its campaign in North Africa, filing stories for The New Yorker throughout the war. He had not been allowed to accompany them across the Channel on D-Day, but three weeks later, he had been shipped over and given his own jeep and driver to facilitate his reporting on the aftermath of the Allied invasion. It had been a busy couple of months. Then, at summer’s end, the Allies had marched on Paris, and five days of heavy fighting brought them to the outskirts of the city. Liebling followed behind, keeping as close to the action as he could, but getting up to Paris was not easy. There was continuing resistance from the Germans. Many bridges, buildings, and roads had been sabotaged along the way, and there had been blockades, traffic jams, and random gun- and artillery fire as well. But at last Liebling’s driver reached the southern entry into the capital, the Porte d’Orléans.
Liebling had last seen Paris four years and two months earlier, just hours before the arrival of the Nazis, and now he was one of the first Allied journalists to return. The city had been much on his mind throughout the war: from boyhood onward, it had been his favorite place on earth. His father, a self-made New York furrier, had regularly taken the Liebling family to Europe, ostensibly so that his zaftig wife might lose weight at a German spa. But these health-related journeys had always included a stop or two in Paris, during which time the entire family ate grandly and to their hearts’ content. Liebling’s earliest memories of the place, which dated from the years before World War I, had been of military parades, fantastically curvaceous, full-figured women of the Lillian Russell type, and a seemingly endless array of elaborate desserts and iced pastries. The elegance of the city, of its residents, and of its restaurants was all so different from anything he had known at home.
Liebling spent most of his boyhood on the outskirts of New York, in the little beach community of Far Rockaway, where he was brought up on the plain, eat-it-it’s-good-for-you cooking of the household’s equally plain German Fräuleins. As boyhood gave way to adolescence, he developed a passion for military history, a talent for writing, and a predilection for trouble. Though he didn’t quite fit in with them, he liked to hang out with tough guys and hoods. And he liked to break rules. After he got booted out of Dartmouth College, he talked his father into sending him to Paris, saying he would spend the academic year of 1926 to 1927 completing his education at the Sorbonne. His father only reluctantly agreed, but he nonetheless provided Liebling with a two-thousand-dollar letter of credit, one that enabled his son to spend the better part of the following school year skipping classes, strolling the boulevards, and eyeing pretty girls, or else whiling away the hours in restaurants and cafés, reading, smoking, and learning hands-on all about French wine and French food.
The Sorbonne may have bored him, but French literature and culture did not: Liebling immersed himself that year in various French novels, histories, and memoirs, and he read all kinds of French newspapers and magazines as well. At one point, his lifelong love for the racier French classics led him to translate the pornography of Nicolas-Edme Rétif, hoping he might use his new French to pick up girls. At the end of that glorious year (having successfully picked up a number of them), he was entirely broke and without prospects, and upon returning to the United States penniless he was forced to take a job as a local news reporter in dreary Providence, Rhode Island. “If I had compared my life to a cake,” he later noted, “the sojourns in Paris would have represented the chocolate filling. The intervening layers were plain sponge.”
Now, on this day of liberation, as his jeep rumbled into Paris, the most brilliant and widely read bad-boy reporter of his generation was struck yet again by the attractiveness of the Parisian women, who seemed to have grown even more desirable through their years of wartime hardship. They “wore long, simple summer dresses that left their bodies very free . . . their bare legs were more smoothly muscled than Frenchwomen’s before the war, because they had been riding those bicycles or walking ever since taxis vanished from the streets of Paris, and their figures were better, because the pâtissiers were out of business.” He was now thirty-nine years old and desperate for a taste of real female company — not just the pay-and-get-out services of the whores who followed the army. As the beautiful young Parisiennes on their bicycles bore down upon the oncoming jeeps, all smiles and waves, he was overwhelmed by a rush of desire. “I understood how those old Sag Harbor whalers must have felt,” he wrote afterward, “when the women of the islands came swimming out to them like a school of beautiful tinker mackerel.”
The sight of the beautiful city — and of the beautiful welcoming women on their bicycles, of the jubilant crowds rushing out to meet the advancing Allied troops, some of them offering up fresh fruit and sandwiches and bottles of wine to the liberators — was suddenly more than Liebling could bear, and he wept. “There were thousands of people, tens of thousands, all demonstratively happy,” he wrote of the moment. “In any direction we looked, there was an unending vista of cheering people. It was like an entry into Paradise.”
Excerpted from “The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy” by Justin Spring. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Justin Spring. All rights reserved.