80 Years of France-Amérique

La Marseillaise, a Taste of Free France in Manhattan

Where could you have once danced to accordion music, met fellow French comrades-in-arms, and even bumped into Marlene Dietrich, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jean Gabin? All the Free French soldiers who passed through New York City during World War II would have pointed you toward La Marseillaise. This community center and restaurant, open from 1943 to 1946, was a Gallic enclave on the East Side, serving both as a makeshift mess hall and a political club supporting General de Gaulle.
During World War II, La Marseillaise served as the unofficial headquarters of de Gaulle’s supporters in New York. (The sign behind the bar reads: “We want de Gaulle. Long live eternal France.”) © Graphic House/Getty Images

A few accordion notes rise amid the cacophony of Second Avenue. A French sailor stops in front of the blue door at number 789, drawn in by this familiar sound and no doubt nostalgic for his occupied homeland. Seeing him hesitate, holding his red pompon-topped hat, several passersby call out “Hello, French!” as if to welcome him. He’s come to the right place: La Marseillaise, a Free French enclave in the heart of Manhattan.

“The lights are bright, the tables are bare, and the beer is cold,” wrote France-Amérique on August 8, 1943. “The atmosphere at La Marseillaise is warm and welcoming; the sailors arrive in a hurry and settle down, quickly making themselves comfortable. Some dance, others chatter, and there is even a ping-pong table […]. Everyone is in good spirits and the mess, created for ordinary heroes passing through, is built on the values of simplicity and good taste.” This friendly establishment, where French soldiers came to forget the war by singing “La Madelon” and “La Paimpolaise,” and about which France-Amérique wrote countless articles, was actually created by a rich Francophile American woman.

Maria Jolas, née McDonald, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1893. She was Thomas Jefferson’s great-grandniece and moved from the United States to Berlin in 1919 before attending a Parisian singing school. In the French capital, the young woman met Eugène Jolas, a French-American poet and journalist, and the pair were wed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 1926. Together they moved to France and founded transition, a multilingual magazine that serialized James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and published works by Gertrude Stein, Robert Desnos, and André Gide.

Fleeing the looming war, the Jolas family left their home, La Boisserie – Charles de Gaulle’s future residence – in the Champagne village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises and returned to the United States. In the fall of 1940, the couple joined the Gaullist association France Forever. Eugène translated Office of War Information dispatches into French for the Allied forces and the Resistance. Meanwhile, Maria started working for the troops and opened a community center-cum-mess hall, or cantine, to welcome the many French soldiers flocking to America.

Red Pompons on Shore Leave

Following the Anglo-American landings in North Africa in November 1942, the Vichy-controlled French army in Morocco and Algeria, including its naval fleet, defected to the Allied side. But before continuing the fight, many of the ships went to America, the “arsenal of democracy,” for repairs and modernization work. The battleship Richelieu, the cruiser Montcalm, the destroyers Le Fantasque and Le Terrible, and many others headed for East Coast dockyards which were soon brimming with French sailors.

The Americans had just broken off diplomatic relations with Vichy and, for the first time since 1776, France no longer had an ambassador to the United States. The sailors happily played this part. On February 23, 1943, the French crews were honored in New York. The city declared Freedom for France Day and organized a parade as a tribute to the Allies. Led by their officers, the sailors – in their iconic red pompon – marched up Broadway in a flurry of flags in blue, white, and red, before Fiorello La Guardia himself officially welcomed them. “From the official gallery, the mayor […] took the floor to proclaim, in French: ‘La France n’est pas morte! La France vit ! Vive la France !’” wrote one sailor, René Cérisoles. “The warmth of the applause we received warmed our hearts.”

The crew of the French cruiser Montcalm parades in Manhattan, February 23, 1943. © Murray Befeler/Associated Press

But despite this heroes’ welcome, a bitter surprise awaited the French sailors as they stepped off their ship in the United States. Since they were loyal to General Henri Giraud, the new arrivals clashed with the supporters of Free France, the movement led by Charles de Gaulle since 1940. This latter group lambasted their “frenemies” for their former allegiance to the Vichy regime and their late rallying to the Gaullist cause. The Battle of New York raged on, and Giraud’s supporters kept to themselves as a result. On 44th Street, they found refuge at the French Seamen’s Foyer, opened at the Algonquin Hotel by Anne Morgan, daughter of the renowned banker and a philanthropist known for her commitment to France during the Great War. According to France-Amérique, the atmosphere there was cozy and bourgeois. “It looks like an English club,” said sailor Eugène Le Gall. At the entrance, a sign warned newcomers: “Talking politics is strictly forbidden.” Unity among the French was the cornerstone of this establishment.

As time went by, more and more sailors arrived from North Africa. Suspecting that their commanders had remained loyal to Vichy, many of them were enticed by Gaullist propaganda and joined the Free French Delegation on Fifth Avenue. By late February 1943, more than 150 crew members had left the Richelieu to join the FNFL, General de Gaulle’s navy. On March 30, 35 of them went to the French Seamen’s Foyer, but were insulted, called deserters, and violently thrown out. The incident made the front page of The New York Daily News and drove the Gaullists to open their own community center.

A Taste of France in New York City

American philanthropist Maria Jolas wanted “to make the French fighting man feel at home in a strange land.” To do this, she was given the keys to a former grocery store on Second Avenue, a stone’s throw from the future headquarters of the United Nations. France Forever provided funding, the French-American Club gave its blessing, and the local chapter of the French veterans of World War I and their female auxiliaries stepped in as bartenders, waitresses, and cooks. La Marseillaise was inaugurated on April 17, 1943 (and two other cantines under the same name later opened in Boston and Jacksonville, Florida).

“On a New York City avenue, we walk through a small door and it’s like a miracle. We discover French sailors dancing with young French women speaking with France’s regional accents,” wrote France-Amérique. “The turntable is playing so loudly that we can barely hear ourselves speak […]. The regulars at La Marseillaise love this din, which reminds them of the open-air dance halls of old. The records keep spinning, although slow waltzes and the java are the sounds of the moment, not the swinging tunes of [Benny] Goodman or the Harlem blues. The young sailors dance with equal parts gusto and conviction.” When our journalist tried to interview an old sea dog, he barked an irritated reply: “Let me listen! This is a song from the old country. That means something here…”

The venue also featured a piano, a dual-language library – where soldiers in striped shirts were photographed reading France-Amérique – and regularly screened movies made in support of France Forever, such as Under the Cross of Lorraine (1942). The hostesses made the visiting soldiers dance, sing, and smile. They also encouraged them to sign the register. Those who put their names down were sure to receive invitations from Francophile American families asking them out to dinner, to spend a weekend by the sea in the Hamptons, or to visit the Catskill Mountains or the Adirondacks.

Laughter erupted from the back of the room as a group of sailors teased their comrade, buried in a pocket-sized French-English dictionary. France-Amérique witnessed the scene: “You’re funny,” said one. “You think you’re going to learn English in a few days?” The other replied, dejectedly: “I can’t always be courting pretty American girls with a dictionary in my hand…” Despite the language barrier, the women of New York were moved by these sailors from the other side of the world. For the first time since the beginning of the war, French kissing was back in fashion. Gallic compliments flew thick and fast, usually in broken English: “OK, toots!” or “Cheerio, chérie!” Unsurprisingly, more than a hundred French-American weddings were celebrated in New York City in 1943.

A “Heroic” Adventure

Despite the light-hearted atmosphere, the war was on everyone’s mind. La Marseillaise welcomed soldiers on leave from Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. All of them were to return to sea as soon as the U.S. Navy had finished installing radar detection equipment, anti-submarine sonar, and new anti-aircraft guns on their ships. But these sailors weren’t the only Free French fighters in uniform. They would drink and talk with airmen training on American bases or soldiers from the Antilles Battalion. This latter unit was comprised of young men who had fled Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana – territories still loyal to Vichy – and who were now stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

A group of French soldiers celebrating the news of the Normandy landings at La Marseillaise, June 6, 1944. © Bettmann/Getty Images

For France-Amérique, actress and novelist Henriette Pascar painted a vivid portrait of this generation thrown into action. “They are the sons of bakers, farmers, laborers, who all talk about the families they have left behind,” she wrote, before turning her attention to one sailor: “This young man from Normandy is daydreaming in front of a beer. He smokes constantly, his serious appearance at odds with his youthfulness. ‘Since I left France,’ he confesses, ‘I haven’t danced… I don’t have the heart for it… After what I’ve seen and experienced, I feel old.’ He talks about Dieppe, his hometown, about his mother. I realize that I am looking at a little boy who just wants to go home.”

Our reporter then met an 18-year-old sailor and “passionate Gaullist” from Martinique. “A man of countless feats who has braved so many dangers! He was torpedoed three times and spent ten days at sea in a lifeboat without bread or water – but he pulled through. ‘Joan of Arc protects me, of course. She also watches over de Gaulle.’ Growing tired of the conversation, he slumps down in an armchair.” La Marseillaise endeavored to provide a little warmth, a sympathetic ear, a comforting shoulder, and a home away from home to those that France-Amérique described as “the crusaders of the Cross of Lorraine.”

“It’s not always easy to host this motley bunch, these hot-headed youngsters who have suffered so much,” wrote France-Amérique. But everyone more or less found something to suit them. “They make us feel welcome,” said a nostalgic sailor named Paul. “They’re nice, really nice, but… lots of things from home are missing here.” Another was more enthusiastic: “I’ve been to every mess hall in New York City, but this is where I feel best. It’s a little slice of Paris, half-bistro, half-family.”

The Free France HQ

La Marseillaise was a French oasis in the heart of New York City’s East Side, a place to relax, and a military club, but it was also a political showcase. Designed by French architect and decorator Pierre Chareau, the entire cantine was built to promote “a certain idea of France,” the one represented by General de Gaulle. Nothing was left to chance. Immediately at the entrance, a sign in English challenged any Americans who may have still doubted Free France’s legitimacy: “New Yorkers! Don’t believe all you hear. There was, there is, there will always be a France!”

Inside, volunteers from the Free French youth association served visitors while wearing aprons in horizon blue – the color of the uniforms worn by the poilus in the Great War – and decorated with a Cross of Loraine. From wall to ceiling, wrote France-Amérique, the decorations “served as bold images and weapons.” Items included an American flag, a portrait of the General, and a reproduction of La Marseillaise, also known as Le Départ des volontaires de 1792, the relief sculpture by François Rude featured on the northeast pillar of the Arc de Triomphe. American artist Alexander Calder, who lived in Paris for many years, also donated a blue, white, and red mobile, which hung above the dance floor, fascinating the guests.

Fernand Léger, Fraternité, ca. 1943.
Moïse Kisling, Marseille, 1940.

Elsewhere, visitors would discover posters of the appeal of June 18, 1940 (“To all French people: France has lost a battle! But France has not lost the war!”). Further along, there was a painting by Fernand Léger entitled Fraternité, and another of the port of Marseille under the sun by artist Moïse Kisling. At the far end of the room, under a flag bearing the Cross of Lorraine, letters were pinned to the wall – written by many of the sailors who were leaning against the zinc-topped bar and singing ditties from Brittany. On a large map, the various crews from the Free French Naval Forces had marked the ports visited by their ships with a tricolor ribbon. And at one of the large wooden tables, Maria Jolas would carefully sew the Cross of Lorraine onto the uniforms of the young men joining the Gaullist campaign – not knowing how many would return.

Jean-Paul Sartre visited the center in 1945, encouraged by his friend, the artist André Masson, who had created one of the wall paintings at La Marseillaise. “This charitable project is excellent propaganda,” wrote Sartre in Le Figaro. “Many pro-Giraud sailors told me that they had learned the location of our premises by asking in French bistros displaying portraits of the General and patriotic posters,” said the Free French delegate in New York City in his report to the Gaullist authorities. The cantine’s name was a symbol in itself. When asked by France-Amérique about this tribute to the French national anthem, Maria Jolas replied: “‘La Marseillaise’ has been a rallying cry since 1789 and, now more than ever in these dark days, it has become a vivid symbol of the love for freedom that distinguishes France among all nations.”

Bastille Day on Second Avenue

On July 14, 1943, La Marseillaise celebrated its three-month anniversary – and the Free French commemorated their third Bastille Day in exile. In France-Amérique, American journalist Janet Flanner wrote: “July 14 this year, 1943, is more hopeful than any other […], it is filled with tricolor hope.” Flags with the Cross of Lorraine flew over the city halls of New York, Jersey City, Denver, and even San Diego. In our pages, French painter Michel Georges-Michel recalled his joy upon rediscovering Parisian-style July 14 celebrations, which “today see us as excited as if witnessing a resurrection.” In New York City, wrote the painter, “hope was in the air, on our faces, on the walls of this friendly, welcoming city, where everyone smiled and cheered us on, their eyes shining bright.” In the streets of Manhattan, “La Marseillaise” rang out as if echoing the Revolution, like a promise to France as the country began to break free from her chains. Approached by our reporter, an American woman marveled at the national anthem: “How right every word is, still today!”

At the Gaullist mess hall, a surprise was waiting for New York City’s French community and their American friends. A tricolor rope had been wound around the entire block. The streetlights were decorated with Free French and American flags that danced in the wind. A white tent, decorated with a large Cross of Lorraine, welcomed visitors. More than a thousand people turned out that evening for La Marseillaise’s block party. “Sailors and socialites mingled under the lanterns,” wrote France-Amérique. The Baroness de Rothschild admired an elaborate, layered cake decorated with dozens of Crosses of Lorraine in sugar paste. At the back of the room, the young poet André du Bouchet fell in love with Tina, the cantine owner’s daughter. Her sister, the future composer Betsy Jolas, tickled the ivories to entertain the guests. Further along, Henri Matisse’s twelve-year-old grandson topped up the beer of a sailor barely older than himself.

“How moving, these French youths, thrown into heroic adventure,” enthused France-Amérique’s reporter. A few minutes before midnight, Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin joined the dance. Outside, it was impossible to do the jitterbug on the cobblestones of Second Avenue. Unperturbed, the accordionist launched into a frenzied java. The orchestra, perched on the back of a pick-up truck, immediately started playing with all their might. Tables were moved onto the sidewalk and Maria Jolas weaved in and out of the dancers serving hearty plates of cassoulet and Alsatian sauerkraut. That night – just like every evening – the soldiers of the Free French Forces ate and drank for free.

Marlene Dietrich celebrating Bastille Day at La Marseillaise, New York City, 1944. © Getty Images

At midnight, the crowd launched into “Le Chant des partisans.” Our journalist had tears in his eyes: “A cry of pain rings out from within us, all the more so because it is so simple, heart-rending, and terrible. Whenever we hear it, the suffering of the martyrs and their triumphant revolt weighs forever on our hearts.” “La Marseillaise” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” soon followed, along with “La Marseillaise américaine,” an improvised anthem to the tune of Rouget de Lisle’s original piece, which was later reprinted in France-Amérique:

“Rise up, children of America,
Let us remember Rochambeau.
Let us save our republican brothers,
Who saved our own flags long ago!
Together French and American!
Let us unite once again!
March forth, march forth!
Passionate hearts,
Liberators, every one!”

At 3 a.m., after being cajoled by a group of sailors, Maria Jolas stepped onto the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, “we owe this celebration to the generosity and hospitality of our American allies and hosts. Long live America!” The crowd replied in unison: “Long live America!”

La Marseillaise’s Closing Notes

Throughout the war, La Marseillaise remained the epicenter of Free French life in New York. In August 1943, it hosted a “delicious dinner for 80 guests” in honor of French commandos passing through the city. On December 5, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was invited to the cantine. Her speech, in French, was printed in France-Amérique: “We have a feeling of freedom whenever we think of France. I hope that each one of you will rediscover the freedom which was yours, which is so dear to both you and all of us.”

A few days later, Jean Gabin stopped by to donate blood for Free France. The New York Times covered the event and reported that he convinced some 50 sailors to do the same, before inviting them out to lunch. Actor Jean-Pierre Aumont and director Jean Renoir were also regulars at La Marseillaise, which hosted more than 150,000 Allied soldiers throughout the war. It also held celebrations for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the liberation of Corsica, the Normandy landings, and the liberation of Paris.

The Free French returned home soon after the war ended and the mess hall closed its doors in February 1946. The France-Amérique team attended “this closing, this grand finale.” Maria Jolas, “the driving force behind New York’s most welcoming French-American institution,” was featured on the front page. “This kind-hearted woman devoted the best of herself to the cantine,” wrote our journalist. “On behalf of its editorial staff and its readers, France-Amérique would like to offer her our sincerest thanks.”

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