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Thursday, 15 September 2016

Ben Franklin in Paris

Hôtel de Valentinois
Photo: WC News Service
By Richard Carreño
[WC News Service]
DURING HIS LONG life of eighty-four years, Benjamin Franklin was an inventor, postmaster, printer, librarian, scientist, politician, journalist. Here in Paris, though, the polymath Franklin reached his apogée, as an American freedom fighter, Society maven, intellectual superstar, statesmen, and, despite his age and age-related ailments, even as an envied roué and lady's man.

Franklin (1706-1790) was always peripatetic. This was all the more remarkable in that 18th century travel, both overland and overseas, was time-consuming and involved incredible hardship, planning, and danger. Franklin mastered it all, becoming arguably the most well-travelled American of his time.
Born in Boston, he wound up, via New York, in Philadelphia in 1723, where he married, raised a family, and blossomed as the Anglo-American luminary of legend.

Though always a Philadelphian at heart, Franklin had also spent time in Montreal as the founder of the British colony's postal system; in London, on two occasions, as a representative of the American colonies; traveled to Ireland; and, lastly, for almost ten years, from 1776 to 1784, lived in Paris as a minister plenipotentiary of the upstart United States of America. Officially, he was a Commissioner of Congress. Unofficially, he was 'spy,' seeking the intervention of Louis XVI on behalf of the American cause. He, of course, got it. 
Of the several sites Franklin called home, in America as well as in Europe, only one lodging, in Craven Street, off the Strand, in central London, remains. His Philadelphia home is long gone, though its site, off Market Street East, has been turned into a museum-like shrine.
No original physical remnants of Franklin's stay here endures. Unless you count Louis' Versailles, the site of numerous Franklin visits; and some other public buildings (like the one that houses the Ministry of the Navy on the Place de la Concorde) and Notre Dame, of course.
But no matter. His footprint still looms large here as possibly the most publicly recognized -- though in contemporary terms, little-known -- American of all time. An imposing statue of the great man, the same sitting stance of Franklin that's depicted in the mammoth statuary housed in the Benjamin Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, surveys the scene around the Trocadero. Nearby, is the rue Benjamin Franklin, which winds through the posh 16th arrondissement Passy neighbourhood. At 59 rue d'Auteuil, not far away, is also the site one of Franklin's favourite getaways, the literary salon of Madame Helvetius. (Unhappy as a widower, he proposed marriage to her; she decorously declined).  
As is the case with many newcomers arriving from afar, it took Franklin some time to settle in to his new surroundings. Franklin, while living in London, had visited Paris before. But, now, for the long term, he was looking for permanent digs. At first, he settled -- ironically, like so many ex-pat Americans after him! -- in the St. Germain area on the Left Bank. Just 150 years later, the famous American Lost Generation also made this area its home.
In time, the Left Bank proved to be unsuitable. Wherever he showed up, huge crowds would form. Moreover, he was easily shadowed alike by friends (admirers, fans, and, indeed, Franklin groupies) and foes (British spies). Donning a coonskin cap, he cultivated the persona of backwoods philosopher. It was said that Franklin was more recognizable in Paris than the king himself.
As a result, in 1777, Franklin sought refuge in a less populated neighbourhood, moving to 66 rue Raynouard, at the corner of rue Singer, in what was then the posh suburb of Passy. Franklin, now ensconced in a friend's residence, the Hôtel de Valentinois, was able to lead a more contemplative life (experimenting with his lightening rod, for one thing) and, ahem, a more 'private' life.
Today, the Hôtel de Valentinois is just a memory; it's history and association with Franklin only recalled by an upper-story bas-relief, on an existing building, and a nearby historical marker.
In a time, when even the 20th century is fast fading, much less the 18th, that's probably no surprise. (Polls indicate that French schoolchildren even have a hard time identifying Charles de Gaulle).
I walked by the Hôtel de Valentinois recently. But wait! There was still a crowd of people around, milling about and filling the street.
This, I soon recognized, was a gaggle of elementary pupils; school just letting out.
Some of the children were accompanied by parents and nannies. I envisioned an ensuing teaching moment.
'Here, mon enfant, lived the famous American historical figure, Benjamin Franklin,' I could hear what a mother might say.
'Oh, tell me more, maman!'
The children and their parents just scurried by, of course, propelled by other non-historical urgencies.
I was the only one looking up.