Joseph Kessel in America: Journeys Through the Abyss

From 1933 to 1960, the French novelist and journalist (1898-1979), who wrote Army of Shadows, The Lion and The Horsemen, produced five series of articles about the United States which have recently been republished in France. From the fallout of the Great Depression to the ravages of alcoholism, he studied every facet of U.S. society – including Hollywood and New York City during the election of President Truman.
Joseph Kessel, 1968. © Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

For French writers, a trip to the United States is almost an obligatory rite of passage, a literary genre in its own right. Joseph Kessel, a novelist, journalist, pilot during both world wars, and Resistance fighter (who wrote the French lyrics to the protest song “Le Chant des partisans” with his nephew Maurice Druon while exiled in London in the spring of 1943) was no exception. In 1933, the conservative daily newspaper Le Matin sent him to cover the American financial crisis. He discovered a completely different country from the joyful land he had first traveled across by train in November 1918 at the age of 20.

After arriving by boat in New York City, “Jef” Kessel described his astonishment at the laser-straight avenues, swarms of people, and “feverish traffic.” When night fell, the lights of Broadway shined brighter than all the Parisian neighborhoods put together. But this “mask” constantly slipped to reveal the “suffering and hunger” underneath. Kessel was staying near Central Park and compared Manhattan and Paris for his French readers. He had the impression of walking through a “dead city” in which the hands of the poor stretched out all around him. “To fully grasp the poignancy of this idea of starving people, I mentally transposed it to Paris,” he wrote in an article titled “Les lignes de pain” (“The Bread Lines”). “I found myself on the roundabout of the Champs-Elysées, or on the Place de l’Opéra, where people were waiting in line to receive a ration of bread.”

Combining style with a talent for both description and dialogue, he immersed himself in every layer of society, from the speakeasies that sprang up during Prohibition to an incredible shelter for poor people in the Bronx which only accepted former millionaires. His perseverance even earned him a brief interview at the White House with the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He later recounted this informal discussion in a shrewd profile piece: “He was exceptionally, absolutely charming,” he said of the president, even nicknaming him “the master of hearts.”

Kessel’s next trip, in 1936, led him to Hollywood, where he was introduced by his friend Anatole Litvak, a director and producer with whom he shared an Eastern European heritage. While visiting the “dream factory,” he discovered a culture of all-powerful producers that was completely at odds with the French film industry of the time. “If one were to write all the comical and silly things the studios do, it would take up a whole book,” he said, half-amused, half-aghast. In one such example, the producer for All Quiet on the Western Front asked director Lewis Milestone to remove all images of rats because his pregnant wife hated them. To hell with depicting the reality of life in the trenches during the Great War! Taking a harsh tone with Hollywood’s “dazzling Ferris wheel” going round with its cargo of stars forming an “absurd Olympus,” Kessel compared the film world to a drug which the Americans had become hooked on to compensate for Prohibition.

© Léa Chassagne/France-Amérique

Harlem and the Dawn of a New Era

Twelve years later, Roosevelt was dead and Harry Truman, his vice-president, naturally took his place. In 1948, Truman ran for president against Republican candidate Thomas Dewey. After arriving in New York City to cover an election that he likened to a thriller novel, Kessel started by visiting Harlem – as he did every trip. Surprised by the tense atmosphere at concerts and parties, he realized that he was witnessing the first stirrings of the civil rights movement. “Having learned that Blacks bleed the same color on the battlefield as Whites,” he wrote, “millions of men now want true equality.” Shaken and worried, he took a taxi and left the neighborhood without trying to find out more. This attitude was unusual for such an insatiably curious man, someone who could blend in with anyone from Bowery bums to millionaires and from gangsters to actors, such as Peter Lorre, whom he met at the star’s Hollywood ranch.

After the resounding success of The Lion (1958), he was welcomed back to New York City as a celebrity in 1959. He chronicled the show business world and the Broadway backstages thanks to the journalist Leonard Lyons, but Kessel was at his best when exploring the darkest abysses. Rounding off his American experience, his final, eight-part article in 1960 portrayed the devastating effects of alcohol in the United States. The subject was apt, as the writer, whose wife Michèle O’Brien had herself sunk into alcoholism, was also fond of a drink. “Kessel drinks; he likes to drink,” wrote journalist and writer Etienne de Montéty in the introduction to the collection of his articles. “He sees drinking as a condition for conviviality, for life itself. But his robust constitution preserves him from addiction.”

While trawling New York’s poorest neighborhoods, Kessel walked into a bar and discovered the haggard faces of those beyond the point of no return. In his article “La rencontre d’Akron”(“The Akron Encounter”), he wrote about this Ohio town and the meeting between Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, a new organization using radical methods with branches popping up across the country.  Deeply moved by the accounts of destroyed lives, Kessel produced one of his best feature stories. Seven years later, this giant of a man who looked like a boxer traveled with a television crew to Afghanistan – a now legendary trip which provided the material for his final novel, The Horsemen (1967).

Reportages aux Etats-Unis : 1933, 1936, 1948, 1959, 1960
by Joseph Kessel, Arthaud, 2023.

Article published in the October 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.