Paris American Club

The History of the Club

War has dominated the history of the Paris American Club, just as it has dominated the history of Europe in which the club is rooted.

The precursors of both the American Club of Paris and the Paris American Club in New York, the Benjamin Franklin Sunday dinners in Paris, were established on a regular basis because of the American Revolution. The French Revolution interrupted and then prompted the resumption of the Paris Club dinners. World War II led directly to the formation in New York of the Paris American Club.

By the late 1930’s the large American business and professional colony in Paris was an established and integrated part of Paris life. There was some coming and going, but most of its members had elected to live and work in France on at least a semi-permanent basis. Nazi aggression changed the pattern. As the Germans conquered Austria, obtained the Sudetenland after the Munich conference and signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, the prospects for Americans living in Europe grew increasingly dim. Then the invasion of Poland in September 1939, put out the last lamp of peace. Americans in Paris, reluctantly and sadly, began leaving for home.

All during the so-called “phony war” – from September 1939 to May 10, 1940 – the American colony in Paris moved bag, baggage and hopes, back to the United States. Most of the members settled in New York, and all were curious as well as heart broken about developments in Europe. In restaurants, on street corners, at private parties, whenever two Americans from Paris met in New York, they asked anxiously about their City of Light. Their weak hopes faded when, following the Dunkirk disaster (and miracle), the German divisions turned south toward Paris. Their fading hopes were extinguished when Paris fell on June 10, 1940.

Shortly afterward, a few Americans who had been Americans in Paris began meeting at the Brevoort Hotel in New York for lunch. Raymond Harper, an international lawyer who had practiced in Paris, was the moving spirit but he sent out no announcements and made no phone calls. Neither did anyone else. By word of mouth the news got around. At first there were five or six for lunch, then 10 or 12, soon 25 or 30.

In late 1940 the Brevoort lunches became, without much fanfare, the Paris American Club of New York. Dues were kept reasonable, Raymond Harper was elected President and agreement was reached to meet for lunch on the first Thursday of each month. That was about it. No constitution or bylaws were adopted; no membership qualifications were stipulated.

The New York colony that had once been the American business and professional colony in Paris wanted to remain in touch with itself and with France. The Paris American Club of New York was organized solely to realize that simple goal.

As might be expected, some Paris American Club of New York members returned to Paris following its liberation and the end of World War II. Most did not, however, and the decision was reached to continue the club as a Franco-American institution of mutual regard and goodwill.

The locale of the monthly meetings was shifted in the early days from the Brevoort to the Railway Machinery Club for a time because of its convenience for members with downtown offices. Over the years, Paris American Club luncheons have been held at the Lawyers’ Club, the old Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the Hotel Pierre, The St. Regis, the Parker Meridien, The Westbury, The Union Club, the Club at the World Trade Center (“Windows on the World”), the restaurants Le Regence in New York’s Hotel Plaza Athenee, Daniel, Le Cirque and La Caravelle.

In the Fall of 1989, the France-America Society, established in 1911, merged with the Paris American Club.

Today, the Club’s membership is about equally divided between American and French government, business, professional and private individuals in New York.

The American Club in 1777, by C. Inman Barnard

During the darkest period of the War of American Independence, Benjamin Franklin, then living in his hospitable and imposing residence at Passy – The Hotel Valentinois, 4 rue de Basse, now rue Raynouard – adopted the pleasing custom of Sunday Dinners to cheer up his fellow countrymen in Paris. At about three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright crispy Sunday in December, 1777, a group of Americans sat at Franklin’s table. Notwithstanding the fine bracing weather, and in spite of the sumptuous yet delicate dishes and the choice of wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne that enhanced Franklin’s repasts, gloom and sadness prevailed.

Reports had reached Paris that General Sir William Howe had taken Philadelphia. Suddenly a chaise-poste, drawn by three horses abreast, dashed into the courtyard. Jonathan Austin, a young American from Boston, wrapped in a travel worn fur coat, alighted, and announced that he had just arrived with urgent dispatches entrusted to him by Congress.

“Is Philadelphia taken?” asked Franklin.

“Yes, sir,” was the reply.

“But I have later news than that, Sir. General Burgoyne has been defeated at Saratoga, and with his whole army, has surrendered.”

Franklin’s eyes beamed behind his big horn spectacles, as he cried to his butler: “Champagne for Mr. Austin, who brings this glorious news!”

Franklin at once apprised the Court of Versailles with the news of this American victory, and did so with such tact and force that, five days later, he was informed by the Count of Vergennes that the King had decided to recognize American Independence, and make a treaty with the United States.

These Sunday Dinners became a weekly feature of Franklin’s administration in France. They took place with the same regularity as the Thursday Lunches of the present American Club, to which indeed they were a precursor. So, in fact, Benjamin Franklin may be considered the true founder of the American Club of Paris.

After the break caused by the French Revolution of 1789, the Franklin traditions were resumed and club dinners were celebrated usually under the auspices of our Ministers or Ambassadors. As related in the Yearbook of 1925 by an eminent painter, the late Ridgeway Knight, one of our former Vice-Presidents, the long chain of clubs – “Latin Quarter Club,” “Gradle Club,” “Pen and Pencil Club,” “The Ramblers,” and “Stanley Club” – led up to the Universities Club which was in turn converted into the “American Club.”

This was done during the Thanksgiving Dinner in 1904 of the Universities Club, membership of which was limited to alumni of American Universities. General Horace Porter, American Ambassador and Honorary President of the Universities Club, presided, and the late William S. Dalliba was elected by acclamation President of the “American Club of Paris.” The “Course aux Flambeaux,” by which the sacred flame of Minerva was transmitted to successive generations in ancient Greece, was thus revived, and the spirit of Franklin still lives in our hearts.

During the Great War, the American Club rendered inestimable service not only by keeping alive good fellowship between Americans, both resident and passing, but especially so between Frenchmen and our own countrymen, The American Club this developed logically, with the growth of a young giant, into the powerful and patriotic institution as it exists today, and the Franklin Dinners of 1777, through their consecutive transformations, became the American Club Thursday Luncheons, which still continue.

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