By D. D. GUTTENPLAN via the New York TImes
In April 1945, while World War II still raged in Europe and Asia, an emissary from recently liberated Paris arrived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The setting was the Maison Française at Columbia University, a town house on 117th Street devoted to bringing French thought and French thinkers to New York. The messenger was Jean-Paul Sartre, not yet 40 years old, but already acclaimed as a playwright and philosopher. His message, delivered in a seminal lecture later published in Vogue magazine: “Literature is no fancy activity independent of politics.”
Expressing for the first time to a public audience his idea of “littérature engagée,” or “committed literature,” Sartre held up his friend, the novelistAlbert Camus, as a model of a writer who, far from turning his back on conflict and controversy, was fully involved in the burning questions of his day. Sartre himself was in New York on assignment for Combat, the clandestine French resistance newspaper edited by Camus.
A year later, in March 1946, it was Camus’s turn to visit New York. According to Andy Martin, the author of “The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre versus Camus,” both men’s lectures at Columbia University were well attended by students and faculty members — and by agents from J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I.
Later, Sartre and Camus would quarrel over Soviet communism and the political use of violence, but at that time they were comrades of the left. Yet Sartre, on his visit, was actually invited to the Pentagon; Camus, in contrast, “was stopped at immigration,” said Mr. Martin by telephone. “Hoover sent out a ‘stop letter’ to all U.S. customs agents saying this man should be detained,” Mr. Martin said. Eventually, Camus was allowed to proceed to New York, where his novel “L’Étranger” (“The Stranger”) had just been published in English.
On Sep. 18, Mr. Martin will give a talk at Columbia on “The F.B.I. and French Philosophers,” discussing what happened when Hoover’s G-men met France’s leading Existentialists. The lecture is part of an exhibition and events, starting Sep. 10, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Maison Française.
The idea of a home for French culture on a U.S. campus was the brainchild of Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945. “Butler had lived in Germany and France after he finished his own studies here,” said Shanny Peer, the current director of the Maison Française. “He used to boast: ‘I know every important man in France,’ which was probably true,” she said. “He was also president and founder of the France-America Society, whose membership was a who’s who of New York society.”
When it came to campus outposts, the Germans got there first: The Deutsches Haus at Columbia was founded in 1911. The Maison Française came two years later, after an agreement between Butler and Louis Liard, the head of the Sorbonne in Paris.
A. Barton Hepburn, the New York banker who donated the house on 117th Street — the institute has since moved to nearby Buell Hall — told Butler that he wanted “to place the French interests in this city on a par with the German,” according to an essay in the exhibition catalogue written by Ms. Peer.
The university also organized what may have been the first U.S. study abroad programs, sending students and faculty members on tours of Paris and the French provinces.
“The idea was to create a network of elites in France and America,” said Ms. Peer. For France, the motivation was clear: to make sure that in the event of a war with Germany, the United States would side with the French.
When World War I broke out in 1914, J.P. Morgan, the treasurer of the France-America Society, became the purchasing agent for both the French and British governments, while his eponymous banking firm raised hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to France and Britain.
“You have to remember that before World War I, the United States had much stronger ties with Germany than France,” Ms. Peer said. “There were many more Americans of German origin, and in academia especially, German universities were particularly influential.” Yet, “by the end of the war, French had replaced German as the most studied foreign language in the U.S.,” she said.
According to Michael Rosenthal, an English professor at Columbia and the author of “Nicholas Miraculous,” a biography of Butler, the shift in allegiance was wrenching. “Butler loved the Germans, Kaiser Wilhelm above all,” Mr. Rosenthal said. But after publicly praising the Kaiser, to whom he wrote a lengthy testimonial in the New York Times Magazine in June 1913, Butler welcomed the opportunity offered by the Maison Française to “cover his pro-German tracks,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “He was obviously horribly embarrassed by what he had done.”
Though the Deutsches Haus was shut during the war — its premises were used as part of the Columbia War Hospital — the French link flourished, with the university awarding honorary doctorates to Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the supreme commander of the Allied forces, and to Prime Minister Aristide Briand in 1921.
When hostilities between Germany and France resumed in World War II, Frédéric Hoffherr, a professor of French and the director of the Maison Française, formed a committee to support the efforts of Charles De Gaulle. He later worked for the U.S. Office of War Information, the propaganda agency that invited Sartre to the United States.
“Sartre was part of a group of journalists brought over by the O.W.I.,” said Mr. Martin. “They were trying to put out good propaganda, and Hoover wondered what kind of good propaganda you can hope to get out of the author of ‘Nausea’ and ‘Being and Nothingness.”’
“Hoover thought there must be some kind of conspiracy between communists, blacks, poets and French philosophers. He was hoping for some kind of evidence of conspiracy,” he said.
The F.B.I. was baffled by Sartre. “These agents were trying to work out what the hell existentialism was all about,” said Mr. Martin, adding that “20 years later there’s a note in Sartre’s file saying ‘I can’t work out if he’s pro-Communist or anti-Communist.’ They were still baffled!”
At least they spelled Sartre’s name correctly, unlike that of Camus, who is identified as “Canus” or “Corus” in his file.
“Camus had been a member of the French Communist party, but the F.B.I. didn’t seem to know that,” said Mr. Martin. “The thing that disturbed them was that he was a member of the resistance.”
Describing the whole episode as “the Untouchables in pursuit of the unintelligible,” Mr. Martin said that the visits of Sartre and Camus to New York had a lasting impact on both.
“Sartre mistrusted America politically. He thought there was a conspiracy to support Vichy,” the French collaborationist government. “But he loved the literature. He loved jazz. He loved the movies,” Mr. Martin said.
“Camus was much more ambivalent,” Mr. Martin continued. “He acquired a girlfriend” — Patricia Blake, a young copywriter at Vogue magazine — and “he loved ice cream and the Camel billboard in Times Square that sent out real smoke. But he found America depressing and never returned.”