by Bart Moon
A consular assignment in a major European capital can be dull and bureaucratic or full of adventures. The author seems to have had more than one brush with celebrity while working away at his obligatory tour in consular affairs.–Ed.
A self-propelled tourist looking for the American Embassy in Paris today would eventually find himself standing on Avenue Gabriel, a street beginning at the Place de la Concorde and running generally north, parallel to the Champs Elysées on the left. There he would find his objective, an aging matron of no special architectural merit set back about 20 paces from the sidewalk, its most attractive features a brick courtyard fronting the embassy’s main entrance and the high, gated fence of finely worked wrought iron surrounding it. His view and his passage, however, would be impeded by a patchwork of temporary fences keeping pedestrians at even greater distance from the building and by a seemingly endless row of whitewashed concrete bollards set on the sidewalk along the entire perimeter of the embassy grounds: silent sentinels designed to keep explosives laden vehicles from crashing through the fencing.
Further, if there were a terrorist threat alert, he could find himself the object of scrutiny by a small contingent of the French gendarmerie provided by the city to help safeguard the grounds. Perhaps 100 feet down the opposite side of the street he might also see two large, blue, windowless police vans, their contents a mystery, parked in front of a small, one story building.
It was not like this in November 1958, when I, a very junior Foreign Service officer, walked into that embassy to start my first overseas assignment. Then Avenue Gabriel was a sleepy, tree-lined haven from the endless bustle of the Champs Elysées. There were no bollards, no ominous vans, and no temporary fences. One only rarely saw a gendarme in his blue capped and caped elegance idly patrolling the street, looking for the occasional vagrant or for a disoriented ivrogne left over from the night before. The great gate of the embassy’s iron fence stood open wide during the day, and a lone smartly uniformed Marine stood by the main door, helping direct callers to the information desk in the lobby. That a visitor might have several kilos of high explosive hidden under his jacket would never have occurred to him or to anyone else in 1958.
After reporting in I found myself dispatched directly to the Visa Section, where I was to spend Monday through Friday for the next two years. Junior officers regularly cut their teeth doing consular work, but was this what I had signed on for? Fantasies of days spent drafting cables to Washington analyzing de Gaulle’s moods and delivering demarches at the Quai d’Orsay faded fast.
Most of the embassy’s consular functions, e.g., passport renewals, notary services, etc., were handled in the chancellery building along with the post’s political, economic, and commercial activities. The Visa Section, however, was not part of that world. Its officers and staff worked in an embassy annex, the small building a short walk down the street near where the French police today park their vans.
There, pell-mell, I became part of a busy team headed by the consul, a mid-career officer who had dedicated his career to consular work. I joined two other vice consuls, supported by two seasoned Foreign Service Staff officers – the profession’s noncoms – and five French national employees, this latter group headed by a formidable woman in her fifties. Mme. Davy greeted our visa clients, reviewed their documents, established the order in which they would see an officer, and watched over them in the waiting room.
Tall, big boned, and heavy breasted, she was physically imposing with dark hair, dark eyes, and a strong Gallic nose and jaw. Her manner, always courteous, nonetheless projected the sense that it would be wise not to test her patience, as the occasional fractious client discovered. The chancellery had its Marine guards; we had Mme. Davy.
Our leader decided that I should begin my visa career handling prospective immigrants. I gulped and dived in, thanking my stars that I would be working with the two staff officers. Visa specialists, they knew what they were doing and seemed happy that I interfered as little as was seemly in administering a complex and controversial law.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (known less formally as the McCarran-Walter Act and passed over President Truman’s veto) expressed two strains of American thought in those Cold War days.
First, it continued the immigration quota system established in the 1920s (and finally abolished in the 1960s). It was based on the belief that the ethnic composition of our population at that time was just right and should be perpetuated. Thus, with some important exceptions, each country was assigned a percentage of the total number of allowed quota immigrants – 200,000 or so each year – corresponding to that nationality’s share of the existing American population. Exceptions included the countries of the Western Hemisphere (Canada and Latin America) and spouses and other direct family members of persons already residents of the United States. Second, it sought to protect American society from carriers of such pathogens as tuberculosis, other contagious diseases, moral turpitude, and current or former membership in a communist party or its ilk.
Most of our immigration work involved non-quota applicants: many of these the newly acquired French wives of American GIs returning home after completing their tours in Europe. We became quite good at moving these cases quickly; the only sticky moments occurring when a routine background check with the French authorities revealed that in the dark and difficult years immediately after the war a few of these future brides had paid the rent by means Senators McCarran and Walter would never have approved of. We could usually obtain a waiver of ineligibility from the then named U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in such cases, but explaining to the glowing newlyweds why a waiver was needed required a degree of diplomatic sensibility I doubted that our senior officers up the street had ever been called on to demonstrate.
After the war and before the Soviet Union slammed shut the borders of its occupied territories, Paris became home – or at least a stopping point – for a stream of émigrés from the East. Many must have made their first order of business a visit to Avenue Gabriel to register as applicants for an American immigrant visa. These were applicants from quota countries behind the Iron Curtain who now had to wait for their number to come up. It could take years. For me, these were the most interesting and gratifying cases. The realization by these families that a seemingly impossible dream was finally coming true was moving. It brought home to me how America was viewed by so much of the world in those days. You may not buy that “Shining City on a Hill” business, but for many, an ocean away, that is how we were seen.
I was nonetheless glad when our leader decided that the time had come for me to move into the non-immigrant visa (NIV) side of the house; for there, it seemed to me, was where the glamour of the business resided. That may seem a curious word to use in connection with work that varied little from day to day, but in the 1950s regulations required that every applicant for a visa, without exception, appear in person before a consular officer. Paris was full of interesting people wishing to visit the United States.
No small part of the pleasure over the new assignment was the office I moved into. It was ample in size with a large window on the back wall letting in the afternoon sun to warm my back. I sat behind a bare oak desk in a swivel chair. Before the desk were two government-issue wooden chairs, padded with faux-leather, for the applicants. The office had a glass-fronted bookcase holding black-bound books of regulations and a small typewriter table supporting a Smith-Corona. There was a framed picture of President Eisenhower on the wall, and in the corner stood a large American flag. In my mind the office projected an appropriate air of dignified and sober republicanism in which to receive descendents of the French Revolution.
My duties were simple in concept, but not always easy to fulfill. Once a background check revealed no immediately disqualifying factors, the vice consul’s responsibility was to ensure by means of a face to face interview that applicants were bona fide nonimmigrants, i.e., that once in the United States they would not remain there, either illegally or, with the help of a complaisant INS, by changing their visitor status to that of permanent residents, in effect using up quota numbers more honest souls were waiting for.
Because the majority of our clients were employees of French firms sending them to the United States for business reasons the interviews were easy. The firm would supply the applicant a letter describing the purpose and duration of the visit, and a signed and sealed B-1 visa was the result. Other more specialized visas, e.g., for students or for airline crews, presented few problems. The cases that gave us headaches, where we had to dig hardest, involved clients with no professional reason for their travel, but who wanted merely to visit the United States as tourists; more about them later.
One special category of visas was reserved for artists and performers traveling to the United States to work temporarily. These required prior authorization from Washington, obtained by cable, reflecting the U.S. Department of Labor’s satisfaction that the applicant possessed skills or talents not otherwise available in the United States. These cases added spice to our work.
The agents or managers of these performers were used to our visa procedures, and usually telephoned in advance to avoid long waits for their wards. Mme. Davy had her own criteria for the treatment of celebrities. When Brigitte Bardot and, later, Sophia Loren came in, there was no question: the consul was to be the interviewer. All we vice consuls could do was find some excuse to be in the waiting room for a glimpse as they were whisked into the chief’s office.
Celebrities of less fan magazine fame were parceled out randomly as Mme. Davy saw fit. I recall finding the excellent French pianist, Robert Casadesus, across from me. He was booked for a series of concerts with several major American orchestras, and it pleased me to be part of launching his tour.
Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, he a popular French crooner, she, his wife and an accomplished actress, were not traveling to the United States to work, but rather had been invited as guests to some California gala event. Nonetheless, I had to tell them I would need a waiver from Washington because they were ineligible under section 212(d)13 of the McCarran/Walters act, the one that proscribed current and former members of a communist organization.
I expected outrage; I got shrugs and resigned smiles. They had been through this charade before and knew that the waiver would be forthcoming. They told me that during the Nazi occupation several clandestine resistance groups had formed in Paris, usually led by pro-Soviet activists. These groups, they said, talked a lot and did little. They did not regret their youthful membership in one of them. After a few days they got their visas.
On Thanksgiving morning 1959, the embassy was closed for the holiday, but I found myself alone in the annex surrounded by a dozen or so excited, happy, and very attractive young women. These were the “Lido Girls,” the main attraction of Paris’s most expensive nightclub. I had been designated the Visa Section’s duty officer for the holiday, expected to deal with emergencies. I suppose this qualified as an emergency; the cable authorizing work visas for the girls had arrived the night before, and they and their manager had airline tickets for Nevada the following morning. They were under contract to perform at one of the new casinos in Las Vegas.
At the Lido Club the nature of their act was to remove as much clothing as the law allowed (French law was quite generous on this point) and to sway about the dance floor displaying their anatomies to the customers – always tastefully, of course. How this satisfied the requirement that they possessed skills not available in the United States was not entirely clear to me. I concluded that it was not mine to question, but rather to enjoy, the moment. Therefore, I had opened the annex and retrieved my consular seal from the vault after calling the manager to have the girls appear with their passports at 10.
Much as I might have wanted to prolong the morning, my task was easy. We had already completed the name checks and other administrative requirements for issuance. All I had to do was assure myself that the woman before me was the same as the woman described in her passport. It surprised me that only one of the “dancers” was French. The rest came from countries such as Germany, Sweden, the U.K, and Ireland. In other words they were the products of gene pools that produced female bodies leggier and more amply endowed, fore and aft, than did the French.
My work completed, I stood at the door and watched them as, blowing kisses and waving, they boarded the bus that brought them. Despite their line of work they seemed to be wholesome girls. I hoped they were ready for Las Vegas.
These were the easy cases; I was after all acting with prior authorization. The tough ones involved applicants with no business or commercial reasons for wanting a visa, and the decisions, yes or no, were mine to make.
One afternoon, a young woman in her early twenties was shown in. She was blonde, pretty, and carried, as I recall, a Swedish passport. Her application said that she intended to stay in the United States for six months “visiting friends.” Caution flags went up. She was single and evidently had no job or other strong ties in Europe to bring her back. I found no evidence that she had the resources to support herself without working for six months. And who were these friends willing to take her in for half a year?
Her composure was fragile, and deception did not come easy for her. It didn’t take long to find out that her “friend” was an American woman who had hired her to come to the United States to help take care of her three-year-old daughter. I told her that we could not issue a visitor’s visa for that purpose. She left in tears.
The following morning I arrived at the annex a bit before our 9 a.m. start of business to find a stunning woman, smartly dressed, probably in her 30s or early 40s, already sitting in the waiting room. When I had settled behind my desk Mme. Davy appeared to tell me that the woman was American and wanted to talk about the girl I had refused.
I steeled myself. Dealing with a woman of obvious means whose plans were being frustrated by a junior bureaucrat was not going to be pleasant.
She took a seat, and, foolishly, I launched into a lecture on the requirements for a visitor’s visa. Trying hard not to be distracted by her intelligent eyes and patient smile, I pointed out that traveling to the United States to work as a domestic in the home of a resident would require an immigrant visa, for which the wait would be considerable.
When I paused, she disarmed me completely by apologizing. She was, she said, the cause of an unfortunate misunderstanding. She had told the girl what to put on her application; not realizing that obtaining a visa was so complicated. She was American, she said, but her residence was here in Paris. It had been since 1955 when she married the editor of Paris Match, Pierre Galante. She and her husband owned their apartment in town, and they had no other residence. They were traveling with their daughter to the United States not to stay there, but rather for a short visit. The girl I had turned down would be traveling with them and would be returning to the Galante residence in Paris at the end of the visit. Under these circumstances would she not qualify for a visitor’s visa?
She had brought with her a number of supporting documents, including even a copy of the deed to her apartment. As I studied them she continued to smile at me, apparently genuinely amused by our encounter. It was as though she had a secret that I was too dense to uncover. After a theatrically judicious pause I told her to send the girl back in and that I would issue the visa. She thanked me, and as she gathered herself to leave turned and said, seemingly pleased with the thought, “You honestly have no idea who I am, do you?”
Something clicked – the face, the voice, the manner, the vague sense I had had all morning that I had seen this woman before. I felt a flush rising like a tide and lighting up my ears like Christmas ornaments. For the past half hour I had been discussing visa regulations with Robin’s Maid Marian, with Scarlett’s rival for Ashley’s hand. Mme. Galante was Olivia de Havilland. A pro at making dramatic exits, she was gone before I could think of a thing to say.
Then there was the visa that has to rank high on the list of the worst ever issued. It began with a phone call from one of the American secretaries (a title no one was afraid to use in those days) working in the chancellery. She was calling on behalf of the young Frenchman she had been seeing for the past three months. A native Parisian, he had little money, but was steadily employed in a local firm that made bicycles. Things had developed nicely between them, and he had suggested that it would be proper if he could somehow meet her parents, adding that he was sure he could get a week off from his job to travel to America.
Charmed by his old world approach to courtship, she had telephoned her parents explaining the situation. Though disappointed that she could not accompany him, they said they would be happy to put him up for a week and show him the delights of her hometown. She wanted me to have this background information before he showed up at the annex, adding that he would have a roundtrip ticket to Dallas (later I found that she had paid for it).
Her story seemed odd to me, but not beyond belief. And when the young man – he was in his mid 20s – appeared before me I was favorably impressed. He was bright with relaxed good looks and a forthright, open manner. I could see why our secretary thought him a catch. He had brought a letter from his employer granting him time off “for personal reasons,” adding that he was expected back on the job in one week’s time. The routine check had turned up nothing negative in his background, so I issued the visa.
What ensued was a nightmare. I learned the details from the shattered girlfriend who got them from her father on the telephone and from newspaper clippings he sent her. Within three days of arrival our forthright Lothario had persuaded the father to lend him a substantial sum of money. (How, I never knew.) He then disappeared, only to turn up in New Orleans a few weeks later. Newspapers there reported that he had been arrested for murder after he shot and killed a shopkeeper in a robbery attempt gone bad.
Documents he was carrying at the time included some with a name unlike the one in the passport he had shown me. I asked for another background check using the new name. The results were shocking. Nothing he had told me or his girlfriend was true. The passport was phony. He was not a native of Paris, but had come to the city only six months earlier from Algeria, where he had a police record. The employer’s letter he had given me was forged. The bicycle plant had never heard of him under any name. As to his intentions regarding the girl in the chancellery, it seemed obvious she was only a pawn.
I was shaken. I had begun to think of myself as a more than competent visa officer. That I had been so badly fooled was deflating. For the next few weeks, applicants walking into my office bore the brunt of a new cynicism. Every story was questioned, every document suspect. It took a while to satisfy myself that I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to issue a bad visa. It pained me for a long time, however, to wonder what I might have done to avert that death in New Orleans.
My Avenue Gabriel time was coming to a close. I learned that I was to be one of the six officers being sent to open an embassy in newly independent Madagascar. Of all things, I was to be the post’s administrative officer, responsible for hiring local personnel, finding and furnishing housing for the American staff, and managing the post’s finances. Was I never to get a chance to write those brilliant, analytical, policy-changing cables?
As the years passed, I decided that, despite the sometimes-grinding nature of the job, starting out in visas had been a good thing. Dealing with new supplicants every day and trying to uncover their sometimes hidden agendas taught me things about people and about myself. Besides, it was the only nine to five job I ever had in the Foreign Service.