Monday, August 31, 2009

Culture Shock

[Excerpts from Chapters 28 and 29, "Culture Shock" and "Tabasco in Buckhead."]

In many ways, the Gatins family’s permanent return to Atlanta proved to be a culture shock for both the family and for their new American friends and neighbors. To begin with, none of the children spoke English in 1952. The oldest three had forgotten it, the youngest three had never spoken it. For Sylvia in particular, who had only visited Atlanta previously, this was a strange new world. In Paris, there was the underground Métro for transportation; in Atlanta, electric streetcars going up and down Peachtree Street. In America, the children had the funny papers, Dick Tracy and Snuffy Smith, and later, the very irreverent Mad magazine. In Paris, there was Tintin’s Hebdomadaire, which Grandmother Eglé religiously shipped to her grandchildren.

The Gatins kids looked and dressed differently from American children. In elementary school, the boys all wore shorts with long knee socks (flannel shorts in winter, khaki cotton in summer) and high-top leather shoes from France. American kids wore T-shirts and jeans and rubberized, high-top Keds. The food was strikingly different, too. In France, we ate macaroni with butter and Parmesan. In America, spaghetti was lathered with Ketchup. Sylvia made sauce Béarnaise to put on steaks; in America, there was Heinz 57 Sauce. Instead of hot roasted chestnuts bought from Paris street vendors in newspaper cornets, we stopped at the drive-by watermelon-and-fruit stand at the intersection of Peachtree Street and Peachtree Battle Avenue. And there was hot popcorn at the movies in Atlanta!

Still, assimilation did occur, somewhat faster for me and Charles and Sophie, who’d been born in the U.S., than for the youngest three. By dint of daily repetition, I recall learning to say the Pledge of Allegiance and the Hail Mary every day at Christ the King School by rote memory and sound—not having the faintest idea what all the words meant. Charles and I stopped dreaming in French, and with the help of little crystal radios attached to a metal night-light, learned idiomatic English while tuned in to Atlanta Crackers baseball games, Georgia Tech football games and the Grand Ole Opry, whose AM broadcasts from Nashville were powerful enough to reach Atlanta. Cousin Minnie Pearl, with her trademark greeting, “How-deeeeeee,” was our favorite. Rather than Citroën sedans and 2CV economy cars, we learned to recognize the sweeping lines of Plymouths and Buicks, Chevrolets, Fords, the ill-fated Edsels and every version of the modified hot rods that teenagers used to cruise up and down Peachtree Street.

It cannot be overestimated how memory of the Lost Cause suffused Georgia and Atlanta in the 1950s. Gov. Herman Talmadge has just been succeeded by an equally adamant segregationist, Marvin Griffin. Confederate flags flew everywhere after the state flag was changed in 1956 to include the stars and bars, as a protest to the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education. The little Studebaker sedans still driving around Atlanta traded in their “I Like Ike” bumper stickers for vanity license plates depicting a scruffy, mustachioed soldier in grey. The tagline: “Fergit, Hell!” Sometimes, sinister-looking redneck ruffians rode around town with Ku Klux Klan posters affixed to the sides of their big sedans, sidearms on their dashboards, after another cross burning on the top of Stone Mountain.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Excerpt: Grandmother lands in Atlanta

[My grandmother Eglé de Villelume-Sombreuil Gatins arrived in Atlanta in 1914, an event that marked her for life. That part of the story is now to be found on Like The Dew: A Journal of Southern Culture & Politics. Click below to view the entire, 1,500-word excerpt.]

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Excerpt: Grandmother's private war of resistance

Eglé de Villelume-Sombreuil Gatins fought a private war right under the noses of the German forces occupying Paris [during World War II]. She sneaked escaped prisoners to the then-still free south of France, hid papers for Free French forces and aided the budding Resistance as best as she could. Unlike many of her countrymen and the cowardly Vichy government—and not a few collaborators of her own class of society—she had little use for the Nazis and the French puppets who were running what was left of the French government, or for the Vichy policy of working hand-in-glove with the Nazis’ anti-Semitic extermination programs. She particularly resented the military parade the Germans staged down the Champs d’Elysées every day of the occupation in Paris, so jarring to one who had seen the magnificent victory parades down the same long boulevard after the Allied victory over the Krauts in World War I.

In the early years of the occupation, in 1940-41, goodly numbers of escaped French prisoners of war were still fleeing through Paris, trying to get to the south of France, which was then still classified as a “free zone.” “So, we looked for passage and with money we could pass people through there,” Eglé recalled. “Thank God, we got some money, and the most important thing was a man in Montmartre who could make phony papers. He could make the best phony papers—you could not tell the difference from the real ones. That’s how I could get so many people out.”

The escaped prisoners, Eglé explained, were directed to a safe passage near Macon, a small town in Burgundy, about 35 miles north of Lyon, where a Red Cross committee provided them money “after they’d crossed the line,” (that is, the boundary between occupied France and the “free zone” in the south of the country). Eglé also recalled being able to assist several British escapees using the same escape route. “When the free zone was taken over by the Germans, it became much more difficult, but we managed to do so anyway. We had to watch out, though, because not everyone thought the same way as us, that is to say, they weren’t opposed to the Germans,” she said.

Grandmother Eglé’s work with the Red Cross in Paris, as well as her helping prisoners escape, was recognized after the war as a signal achievement that garnered her the highest award possible for French civilians, the Legion d’Honneur.

Excerpt: Of torture on the Eastern front

[During July-August, 1942, my father was imprisoned in Stalag 325 at Rawa-Ruska, a harsh Nazi punishment camp for recalcitrant French POWs, located on what today is the Ukraine side of the Polish-Ukrainian border.]

There was a persistent scrambling and scrounging for anything that could be eaten, including the vegetable peelings and kitchen scraps thrown away by the prison guards, which were then cooked by the prisoners in small, make-shift pots over open fires. In one instance, a root cellar abandoned by the guards after they’d finished all the good potatoes once kept there, turned into a hunting ground for prisoners so starved there was little reluctance to pick at the leftover rotten and frozen tubers. “As we uncovered them, [there was] a terrible smell. We were picking up the feet and the arms of dead men, scattered among their bones. The root cellar had been placed on top of a charnel house for several thousand Russians, dead of typhus!”

My father never ate many potatoes after Rawa-Ruska.

Daddy’s imprisonment at Rawa-Ruska was to mark him physically, psychically and indelibly, as his children would discover decades later. What he never spoke of in any detail to the children was that he was singled out for special punishment and torture there. He was taken for a Jew by his captors, who burned off his eyelashes. That point was well known to his wife and mother, but not to all of his children. I only learned that something awful had been done to my father’s eyes in the early 1970s, when he told me he’d had a hard time letting an ophthalmologist treat his eyes after a storm blew dust and tiny gravel into them. It reminded him too much of what had been done to him.

Excerpt: Of Colombian bloodlines

[The Gatins clan allied itself with a colorful Colombian bloodline when my father Francis married Sylvia de German-Ribon in 1943.]

The German-Ribon family was no less colorful than that of the Villelume-Sombreuil-Madec-Gatins clan. It had originally settled in Colombia in the early 1700s, sent over by the Spanish crown from its home base in Seville to help govern parts of the new world. The family settled in the Mompox area of Colombia, which was then the cultural, educational and riverine transportation center of the country along the Magdalena River (and now a World Heritage Site, largely because of its rich, colonial/Indian architecture). With other Spanish families, they subsequently took up arms against Spain and fought for the independence of Nuevo Granada (in the early1800’s) with the help of Simon Bolivar. But guerrilla incursions and hopes for a better life prompted the entire German-Ribon family to leave Colombia, first decamping to New York City and eventually moving to London, where they sought out a more European cultural environment. My German-Ribon grandfather Martin and his siblings grew up in London, where he obtained an engineering degree and secured a position with the international public works engineering firm S. Pearson & Son (a predecessor firm to the global Pearson PLC), and where Sylvia eventually was born.

His wife Elvira's family, the Valenzuelas, also of Spanish origin, first came to Nueva Granada, as Colombia was then known, in the mid-1700s, when Don Eloy Valenzuela, a learned botanist, was commissioned by Spain to identify and record the new world’s plant life. His relatives settled in and never left Colombia and built their own enormous wealth through the acquisition of land and other businesses, eventually settling in Bogotá, the capital. Elvira, née Valenzuela, was born in Colombia, descendant of an arch-Catholic family that encouraged her, as a young teenager, to flagellate her back with stinging nettles. She was attracted by Martin de German-Ribon, who first spied her on a visit to Bogotá in 1913. He was immediately struck by her beauty and obvious international savoir-faire, given that she was reading the French periodical, La Revue des Deux Mondes. He proposed almost on the spot but her father would have none of it until substantial proof of Martin’s reputation and financial standing could be ascertained. As this turn-of-the-century credit check had to come from bankers in far-off London, it took months for this to be completed. But eventually all was approved, and a lavish wedding was organized.

Excerpt: Of French bloodlnes

My grandmother Eglé de Villelume-Sombreuil Gatins, was a direct descendant of one of France’s best-known families, several of whose members, unreconstructed Royalists, were guillotined during the French Revolution. Another, René de Madec, became a minor French historical figure for his exploits as a French corsair in India during the late 1700s. A sailor from Quimper in Brittany, he’d gotten his start on the high seas in the slave trade to Santo Domingo, then translated that experience into what he hoped would be more lucrative efforts as a privateer in India, sanctioned by the French government.

Her father, Charles Jules, Comte de Villelume-Sombreuil, was born in Paris, August 26, 1861, the fifth child of a family of six, descendant of noble lineage dating to an early Crusader. At age 28, he was married for the first time to a widow twice his age, 57-year-old Eglé Ney de la Moskova. That wedding took place in China, where he was posted as a diplomat attached to the French government’s foreign desk. Eglé Ney, duchess of Persigny by her first marriage, died a year later. Less than a year after that, young Charles consummated a second marriage, with his niece from Brittany, Jeanne Marie de Madec, 23, herself the descendant of French nobility through that family line.

“She was a very pretty woman, very headstrong and very independent,” Eglé said of her mother, but not so strong-willed as to defy her own prideful mother. “My mother was really very much in love with a truly handsome man, charming and rich,” Eglé recalled in her 1988 oral history. “But he was just an accountant. And my grandmother, arrogant and proud, never permitted her to marry him.” Instead, she was foisted off on her uncle.

Excerpt: Of Irish-American bloodlines

Our particular branch of the Gatins family originated as the McGettigan clan, of Killybegs, a small, commercial fishing village in County Donegal, on the craggy and stormy, northwestern-most coast of Ireland. This territory was so barren and rough and wild that local people viewed some of its rocky features as a gate to Purgatory. Three McGettigan-Gatins brothers, James, John and Joseph (the latter, my great-great grandfather) came to the United States in the mid-1840s as part of the huge Diaspora that brought so many Irish families to the new world as the crippling potato famine decimated Ireland. John and Joseph moved to and remained in Atlanta, marrying two sisters who also immigrated from County Donegal, Ann and Bridget Cullen, respectively. James returned to Killybegs after their father died.

John and Joseph Gatins and their descendants seemed to quickly outgrow Irish antecedents to become part of the meteoric ascent that Atlanta, with a knack for self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, still evidences today. The extended family emerged from Celtic immigrant beginnings to hobnobbing with Atlanta society in Buckhead and with high international society at the Hotel Ritz in Paris in three generations.

The first Joseph Gatins in this particular line of new Irish-Americans arrived in Atlanta, probably via New York and/or Savannah, Georgia, by 1849. Once there, he worked for the next 50 years as a clerk and freight manager for the Central of Georgia Railroad, located in the Atlanta freight depot. He also was a founder of the Immaculate Conception Church, and often was referred to as one of Atlanta’s original “pioneers.”

Excerpts: Love letters

[My mother, Sylvia Gatins, saved many of the letters from my father, both from behind enemy lines when Francis Gatins was a prisoner of war during World War II, and afterwards, when he was isolated in upper New York state to fight a deadly case of tuberculosis.]

July 5, 1943 (from Berlin): "All I wish to tell you is that I love you. I am absolutely incapable of adding an adverb to that verb, or to tell you that I love you more than before. All I know is that my greatest times of happiness, of fun, are always tied to your presence. A future without you would seem eternal ennui."

September 12 & 13, 1946 (from Saranac Lake, N.Y.): “It’s very pretty and cold today. But the house is really sad without you. Yesterday, your bedroom still smelled of you; today, it’s a sad room as anonymous and dead as an hotel room. I think of nothing more but to repeat: I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you … "

Undated, from late September, 1946 (from Saranac): "I’m always thinking of you – you’re the only one I have fun with. I love your spirit, the way you see things, your laugh, the blues you get in the fall. I have so many warm memories of you that we could spend years remembering them. But especially, you are always new to me. I’m really looking forward to seeing you as a mother. Because your dominant strengths are your freedom and your kindness. That’s what makes you so desirable: Your native ease for making love. You gave me your mouth one day, so simply, so kindly and with such a good, open heart. The same way, one night, you gave me the best gift in the world, your entire body, all the sweetness of your skin, all your perfume ... "

Monday, August 10, 2009

Excerpt: Of a one-armed grandfather

What might a young, international playboy and sportsman with plenty of money do for fun in his free time in the advent to World War I? Well, why not head to Paris for a party like so many others? Thus did my grandfather Joseph F. Gatins Jr. become part of the crowd of Americans descending on the French capital during the summer of 1914. He was a young real estate investor and horseman from Atlanta and New York, a well-traveled and well-heeled 32-year-old international sportsman and aficionado of French history, and a member of that class of idle rich spawned from America’s Gilded Age, largely living off of his father’s considerable fortune, well- traveled in Europe and the Far East, and still an eligible bachelor.

As things were done in that era, he was properly introduced to a lovely and intelligent French girl 10 years his junior, Eglé Marie de Villelume-Sombreuil, my grandmother, who had enough experience and savoir-faire to speak passable English. They were attracted to each other. “He was the handsomest man I had ever met,” Eglé recalled many years later. “He was very handsome. He was short, nice-looking. He was very intelligent, very well read and had studied in England. I met him at a big party at the Ritz. And very quickly, we were engaged. He pleased me very much. He had beautiful blue eyes,” Eglé recalled. But she also felt sorry for her fiancé. “He had lost one arm,” Eglé said. “That was probably one of the reasons I married him. I felt sorry for him.”

I discovered two versions of how my grandfather lost his right arm. The first had him taking a tumble while running on a set of stairs as a youth of 16 and losing his arm from that accident. The second, which seems more plausible, would have had him receiving a smallpox vaccination before his arm was set in a cast, and the vaccination spot becoming so infected underneath the cast that it necessitated amputation.

His recollection of meeting Eglé is not recorded for posterity but the available record suggests clearly that he was very much intrigued by Eglé and her connections to a rich French history. As early as July 1914, he’d sent a cable to Atlanta to announce his intentions, which were duly recorded in a brief article in The Atlanta Constitution of July 10. “Joseph Gatins, Jr., wins bride in Paris,” the headline said. The article went on to relate that Gatins Jr., “one of the most prominent young men socially and otherwise” in Atlanta, was soon to wed Eglé, daughter of the countess de Sombreuil of Paris, “one of the most aristocratic of French families.”

A post-wedding headline was, “Marriage of Mr. Joseph Gatins and Comtesse de Sombreuil in Paris,” marking the beginning of a long newspaper love affair with the Gatins family, which apparently fascinated Atlanta society and its society columnists.

Excerpt: Of Salons and Suffragists

In Paris, Grandmother Eglé found relative freedom and rich reward, intellectually and spiritually, in the two decades between the world wars. Denied in love, battered by unholy matrimony and unable to afford staying in Atlanta with her only son, she had formally filed for divorce, and left her one-armed, womanizing husband, Joseph F. Gatins Jr., in 1920. Brief attempts at reconciliation in the States (1923) and in France (1924) had failed. By 1927, she was a young widow back in her native France, wearing the black dresses and plain black overcoats she was to wear for decades hence, her husband having succumbed to the double curse of tuberculosis and hard drink. But she kept his name.

Eglé and her son, Joseph F. Gatins III, had moved into a residence with a decidedly fancy address, 150, avenue des Champs d’Elysées, with her mother, her stepfather, the Swiss banker Henri Fischer, and her brother Charlic, a World War I cavalry veteran, former German prisoner of war and confirmed, life-long bachelor. She also found a second spiritual home—the first being the Roman Catholic Church—in the Salon Society that flourished in Paris between the world wars. “My life was truly pleasant. I moved in a very intellectual milieu,” she said. Her memoirs also make mention of following feminist and suffragist matters, linked particularly to Edmée de la Rochefoucauld, “with whom I busied myself over feminist questions, which truly absorbed me. I wanted equality for women."

Like many salon-goers, Eglé also traveled in the circle of American expatriates known as the Lost Generation, the motley collection of American wanderers, hard-drinking writers, publishers and adventurers seeking something other than what the United States had to offer. “In Paris between the two wars, it was marvelous,” said Grandmother, who had just turned 30 years old in 1922. “Especially from the 1920s to 1929-30—and the Americans were kings of the place. It was the day of Hemingway and Sylvia Beach and all those people—and Gertrude Stein, [whom] I never liked. We used to go see Sylvia Beach because she banked with Hanzi Fischer,” Eglé said. “She had a bookstore and I saw Hemingway there several times.”

As for other intellectuals in her life, she felt especially attracted to an old and distant cousin, Pièrre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and now well-regarded paleontologist, whose works were spurned by the Vatican and his Jesuit hierarchy at the time. “He was famous for his paleontological research and he’d tell me: ‘Don’t read my books. Keep on believing, like a good girl from Brittany, in goblins and fairies.’ The Jesuits treated him really shabbily,” Eglé said in her memoirs. “They fired him. They made him leave Paris, defrocked him and shipped him to New York, where he died. No one attended his funeral. But when he became famous worldwide, they made him their great man. I’ve always resented the Jezzies because of that. "

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Excerpt: Grandmother arrives in Atlanta

While still in New York and New Jersey, Grandmother Eglé had received a telephone call in which it was suggested she had better come to Atlanta quickly. Her husband had gone on such a bender that he’d been hospitalized. “I learned that he was really sick and in a clinic,” she said. Yet, the worry and concern over her husband’s state seemingly was offset by her first experience of the deep South, an experience that foreshadowed a long love affair with Atlanta and its people and the many women friends she made there, if not with the man who had brought her to this brave new world.

Outwardly, her new home could not have been more different than Paris: Its population in 1914 approached a mere 155,000 compared to the French capital’s three million-plus residents; recorded Paris history began in the 3rd Century A.D., while Atlanta did not exist as a metropolis before the 1800s. Yet, the social milieu she moved within was remarkably similar: Society in both cities was consumed with maintaining appearances of propriety and class and, for Eglé in particular, putting on a brave public face.

“It was a 22-hour trip in those marvelous Pullmans,” she recalled. “Upon waking up in the morning, I was won over by the feeling of the South, the cotton fields, the Negroes coming home from work with a song on their lips.” If she was cruelly disappointed upon her arrival at Atlanta’s old Terminal Station “to not find my husband there,” she simultaneously found herself embraced by the upper crust of a little railroad crossroads state capital down in the middle of nowhere, whose denizens then, as today, appreciated a class act.

Excerpt: About a great-grandfather

The headline on the front page of The New York Times of April 24, 1910, was big and bold, its lengthy and detailed article stretched down the entire news page.


The news had federal authorities listing Joseph F. Gatins Sr. as the “bankroll man” behind a string of unlawful bucket shops operating across the East Coast, under the banner of the Baltimore-based William B. Price & Co. My great-grandfather was taken to the Tombs that night and briefly lodged in cell 718, according to The Times and subsequent news articles in many other papers. The Washington Post the next day had him posting a $5,000 bail in cash, a proceeding during which he appeared to “take his apprehension to heart.” He appeared “decidedly agitated during the examination,” the newspaper said. He was 45 years old at the time.

Newspapers in Washington, where the case was to be prosecuted, also had a field day with the bucket shop cases, and it became obvious federal authorities were feeding the press of the day. The Washington Star, (in an article of April 23, 1910), described Gatins as “reputed both here and in the South, where he has been a prominent figure, to be worth something like $10,000,000.” (That $10 million would be worth more than $228 million today).

What was a bucket shop anyway?

Excerpt: About the grandmothers

We grandchildren remember Abuelita Elvira de German-Ribon as a colorful character, quick to dispense treats to her grandchildren. She chain-smoked Craven A cigarettes. She played flamenco guitar, and taught us card games like solitaire or Canasta (which she played for high stakes once a week with a set of other Colombian expatriate women in Paris). When she lost, she would issue a terse “ai, caramba.” She was comfortable showing emotion. Often when saying good-bye, her tears would flow. She never saw a patisserie that did not require a stop and purchase of croissants, brioches and innumerable pains au chocolat. She put out a lavish table daily, spiced with odd dishes that the children got nowhere else—rice with fried eggs and plantains on the side, for example, or frothy hot chocolate with a piece of Gruyère cheese melted into the cup. She was definitely an international bon vivant, whose self-flagellation as a young teen was well behind her and who, thank God, did not try to pass that practice on to her grandchildren!

Our Gatins grandmother, Eglé née de Villelume-Sombreuil, was more reserved and something of a saint when it came to self-denial. Servants saw her that way, and some of the help reported she made a particular point of taking on physical pain, holding her legs away from the floor when kneeling at the prayer stools at Chaillot parish in Paris, which I remember as being the most uncomfortable kneelers ever devised. With Grandmother Eglé, there were hardly ever any tears.