Many people remember specifically their location on 9-11, because they were either traveling, in the air, or waiting to board a plane. Four days later, air travel resumed in the United States, however the shockwave this halt had caused continued to spread throughout the transportation system. The demand for trains, buses, and rental cars all sky rocketed in the course of only eight hours. I know personally people who rented cars and drove from New York to California, navigating through towns in the middle of Nebraska, Ohio, and Illinois.
September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. In response, France and Britain delivered an ultimatum to Germany due to expire on Sept 3rd, resulting in a declared state of war. On September 2nd, the Anchor Line Steamer S.S. Athenia left Liverpool England with 1,103 passengers, including 300 Americans, many last-minute passengers, attempting to return to North America and flee the war zone. Due to the liner assuming a zigzag course, a German U-Boat mistook the liner for an armed merchant cruiser. The following morning the S.S. Athenia sank at the stern, leaving 98 passengers and 19 crewmen dead.
The after effect came on Sept. 5th, 1939. Insurance companies, usually out of London, stopped underwriting the passenger ships. This resulted in the Ocean Liner Companies having to assume all the risk of operations. The companies instead canceled their sailing in response to the lack of financial backing. However for a businessman, honeymooner, or tourist traveler holding a ticket for the British RMS Queen Mary, the French S.S. Normandie, or a host of other passenger liners, the back office decisions of insurance companies meant little to them, for they had a new problem to solve: how they were going to get back home the day the ships stopped?
Passengers already at sea traveling to America also noticed the difference. A young couple returning from a European honeymoon descending the marble art deco stair case into the first class dinning room of the Ile De France knew this night’s dinner would not be the same. Votive candles replaced table lamps and the bright lights above remained dark. Black drapes covered the double row portholes of the dinning room. Romantic dinner conversation disappeared to be replaced by the silence of fear. Upon the docks of New York, travelers anticipating to leave on ships such as the S.S. Normandie camped out, stranded with their luggage. Some considered alternative ways to return to France while others wondered if it would even be wise to return at all.
In Paris, the shipping line offices were located close to the Opera house on Rue Auber. September was a very busy month for transatlantic service from Europe to America, because many tourist and business people planed upon returning in the months of September and October before the weather became to rough for travel on the North Atlantic. The 30,000 Americans living or visiting Paris shared the same dilemma of those stranded in New York.
Whenever a situation arises when demand outstrips supply, a solution comes to the market. The Italian Line began running the southern route to America out of Genoa, Italy on a very unpredictable schedule. The astronomical prices by the standards of the day covered both insurance and the empty eastbound crossings. Norwegian American Line accepted refugee passengers with valid papers, as noted in this letter, however research indicates that the ships never sailed.
As the false war period drew on, the sense of urgency declined as the various options to leave Europe became available to the truly motivated traveler. People once again settled into a sense of entitlement. If they should need to leave, these options would remain open for them in the future. The United States Lines ran two ships to Lisbon, Portugal and Genoa, Italy, boldly painted with the American flag. Tramp steamers and various cargo vessels became a high-risk choice or anyone attempting to return to South America. The idea that Germany could prevail against both France and Britain had not yet entered the imaginations of many undecided Americans living in Paris and the greater part of France.
Everything changed on May 10th, 1940, when Germany began an invasion of Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, circumventing the Maginot Line through the Ardennes forest. Within weeks, the British trapped at Dunkirk waited for rescue ships. Nearly eight million French civilians took to the roads on the move to the South as the French army attempted to slow the advance of the Germans. Public opinion in America remained strongly against entering the war, and for the stranded traveler who had waited too long for a better price, or a change in direction of the war, time was now up. Just days before Italy entered the war, the S.S. Manhattan left Genoa, Italy for New York, overloaded by seventy percent with fleeing American civilians. Americans waiting at Lipson took the S.S. George Washington home, but not without first getting the scare of their lives upon being stopped by a German U-boat that had mistaken it as a Greek ship.
Survivors of tragedies are often haunted by the unanswerable question of what if they had done just one thing differently. What if they had left earlier? What if they had taken a different route? Why did they make the choices they made that brought them to the place they most regretted in life? Marc Tolbert, a French Born American who chooses to return to France for art studies is just such an individual. Due to a long series, normal decisions for this affluent well-connected young expatriate, he becomes cursed by the most powerful of paranormal ghosts. It is this haunting feeling of destiny that people have when they look back upon all of the choices they made up to a moment, and ask themselves, “Why?” Why did he wait this long? Why was he in Saint-Nazaire? Why was he back in Paris? Why did he leave America?
The opening chapter and scene of The Siren of Paris is a bizarre mysterious cast of characters. A priest holding a clock recites prayers leading up to a final moment. Ghosts from an unknown ship sinking gather in numbers directly proportional to a hurricane vortex with a perfect eye. Marc Tolbert reflecting upon his life after he has died is reduced down to a wreck until he calls out this ghost by name, “Why?” His life then plays out before him, opening up one year prior to the Fall of France, on June 18th, 1939, as he leaves the chapel of the S.S. Normandie, traveling eastbound for France. Crossing the threshold of the most magnificent room that ever went to sea, he passes by the crystal Lalique floor lamps. He takes a chair at an empty table underneath the statue “La Pax” that graced the first class dinning room. A new shipboard friend calls him away to dine in the grillroom, thus he leaves the presence of “La Pax,” symbolically for the last time in his life. Unaware of the future, he anticipates a life that shall never be and is woefully unprepared for the life he will assume in the course of this story.
If you’re interested in reading The Siren of Paris here is the book blurb:
Marc, a French-born American student, never suspected that he would become trapped in German occupied France when he came to Paris in the summer of 1939 to study art. While smuggling a downed airman out of the American Hospital, through the Paris resistance underground, his life is plunged into total darkness when someone he trusts becomes a collaborator agent for the Gestapo. Marc then must fight to save his soul when he is banished to the “Fog and the Night” of Buchenwald, where he struggles with guilt over the consequences of having his trust betrayed.
Check out the rest of David LeRoy’s stops on his The Siren of Paris book tour here