Wednesday 7 March 2012

The Rue de Lota: the house where Mitt lived


As Invisible Bordeaux has already told us, Presidential candidate Mitt Romney remembers his 30-month stint in France as a Mormon missionary in the 1960s as being marked by buckets for toilets and hoses for showers. For the period spent in Paris though, in a neo-classical house in the wealthy 16th arrondissement, it is unlikely that there was such hardship.

His final months in France were spent with the country's Mission President at 3 Rue de Lota, in a home that fellow mission volunteers described as being a palace with servants. Today the opulence of the property is still evident (despite the fact that it is currently unused), but coming after a tour of some smaller cities in the west of France, where he lived in more rudimentery accommodation, it is surprising that the house did not make more of a lasting impression in Mitt Romney's memories of his mission abroad. 

As Romney has not spoken of his time at this house, it is not clear what he knew about the property. Did he know for example that it had a link to the United States? 

The house was built at the very end of the 19th century for Douglas Fitch, the heir of a wealthy American shipping family that had emigrated to France and settled near Marseille. Fitch had recently inherited the family chateau (the Chateau de Pradines) on the death of his father, and although although he didn't sell that property, he did almost immediately marry a comtesse named Marie-Thérèse Gouttenoire de Toury, and set about moving to Paris. 

The scale and decoration of the property they built show that they clearly had vast sums of money to spend (a further sign of the wealth of the Fitch family is the fact that the young Douglas had even had his portrait painted by Renoir). As a pied de terre in Paris, it is certainly impressive, with its largely classical forms supplemented by several more modern touches.

For the mormons who made it their home 50 years later, several features particularly stood out. There was the magnificent cast iron staircase and the vast rooms, but above all, there was the huge stained glass window on the facade. This window provided titilation for some of these rather repressed young men, who remember it featuring a lady with bare breasts. The creation features four women representing the four seasons, but seen from the outside, it seems that summer is only in fact revealing barely a single breast. This was probably excitement enough though for the group of mormons living beneath it!

Douglas Fitch lived until 1951, but it is not clear whether he lived in this house until that date. His Renoir portrait is listed as being housed in the Chateau de Pradines until the year of his death, so it is likely that the various properties owned by Fitch were sold at this point. The mormon community purchased the Paris property in 1952, and retained ownership until the 1970s, when it became the embassy of the United Arab Emirates. Were they too attracted by the nubile young ladies in the window?

Top: an addition to the facade when it became an embassy. The golden leaves frame three letters; EAU, the Émirats arabes unis. Bottom: the embassy has now moved to a new address, and the building is awaiting a new occupant.
The house had made a lasting mark on many of the mormons who spent some time there, but what Romney made of it - as well as the time he spent in Paris - remains a mystery. He arrived just as the 'mai 68' movement was winding down, possibly just after his release from hospital in Bordeaux, but the city would still have been simmering as summer arrived. Walking the city's streets dressed smartly in shirt, tie and name tag (the default mormon missionary uniform), he must have made a curious contrast to the protesting students.

Mormons on mission cannot smoke, drink or date, which must make Paris a cruel place of constant temptation. Trying to recruit new members to the mormon church in France is surely a thankless task at the best of times, but as the city revolted, proclaiming amongst other things that 'Dieu est mort', it must have been a hopeless period for Mitt Romney. 

What we do know is that the war in Vietnam was often a bone of contention between Romney and the French students. Romney would defend his country's position, seemingly not seeing the irony in the fact that his time in France was what was keeping him out of the military draft.

As Paris veered back towards normality, Romney passed his final months in the country living very much out of the way in what remains a quiet district of diplomats and embassies. The passage through Paris for many young Americans leaves a lasting impression for the rest of their lives, but, Romney, without the opportunity to indulge in women, cigarettes and alcohol, was seemingly glad to go back to the United States. 

Read about the first part of Romney's stay in France on the Invisible Bordeaux blog.


Peter (the other) said...

One of the many elements of Mitt's more mildly nauseating (mild compared to his two major competitors) characteristics, is his seeming void of interest or knowledge in cultural affairs. Traditionally, "businessmen" such as he, leave culture to the little women.

rgsoundf said...

Very good research, sadly dedicated to a boring corporate Republican salaud :)

Adam said...

I have a deep suspicion of Romney, but am too far away from the US to make any kind of value judgements. I have nothing against the mormons either (hell, Low are one of my favourite bands!), but for me, the real subject of this piece was the house itself. Romney was just the angle in to that subject!

With the time he spent down in Bordeaux and his accident though, he did have quite a busy time in the country. It just wasn't the same time that most other young kids were having in France in the 60s!

PeterParis said...

I know that your concern here really may have been the building, but I feel also that it ends up as a frightful story of a person I would hate to see as a world leader. It seems that the Republicans have some difficulties to find a candidate for whom I could have some esteem, but of course they don't bother... I'm not voting! :-)

Anonymous said...

Mitt earned his way to living in the mission president's house, by working really hard. He became the mission president's assistant near the end of his mission. During most of his mission, however he lived in the very rudimentary accommodations that he described. They were nothing like this house.

Michael said...

I, too, served as a Mormon missionary in France in the mid sixties. Romney was one of my cohorts. He was pretty much like the rest of us. Young. Ambitious. Dedicated. Hard working. As one other post indicated, Romney only lived on rue de Lota for a few months at the end of his mission.

The apartments in which we lived as missionaries were, as a general rule, quite rudimentary. When I lived in Paris we had a one room apartment and shared a toilet with 6 other apartments.

I loved serving the French people. I loved learning the language, which I still speak quite fluently. I loved dedicating two and a half years in service to my God.

I find it interesting that so many judge Romney from afar. I didn't know him all that well when we were missionaries together. I have followed his career from afar and with little interest over the past 4+ decades. My observation is that he is a good man. Certainly not perfect, but a good man who governed Massachusetts well. America would certainly be better off with Romney in the White House than we are with Obama.

One of Romney's campaign supervisors and close friend offered his opinion of the candidate: "Mitt is a great leader who knows how to govern, but he's a terrible campaigner." Agreed.

By the way, the word "Mormon" is a capital noun. Not sure who wrote the article, it doesn't appear to contain a by-line, but religions are capitalized in the English language. Would you refer to a Catholic as a catholic? I think not.

Bonne journée.

Anonymous said...

I lived in 3, rue de Lota for almost 6 months, and the observation about an unclad lady is laughable. As for its luxurious rooms, that is true of the first floor. But the rooms the missionaries live in were very, very small and plain.

The author seems to think that not noticing the architecture of the building is somehow the sign of a boring individual, devoid of interests, and that is crazy as well. The building was, as I understand it, next to the Russian embassy, though we never saw evidence of that. The staircase at the entrance led to a foyer, with offices to the left and right and, straight ahead, a large ballroom (used for church services) flanked by a good sized dining room. It was a fun place to be, but not because of the architecture - the people I worked with, and the French people I was fortunate enough to know (Mormon and non-Mormon) are the treasures I've retained.

Let me add to Michael's well-written entry that the most important reason that 'Mormon' should be capitalized is because it is, as he says, a proper noun, but not because members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are called Mormons - it is because 'Mormon' is the name of the ancient prophet who abridged and assembled the plates upon which the scriptures were written.

Overall, though, I thought the article by this blogger was good, absent the snipes at Mitt Romney who was, for all intents and purposes, just like any other missionary that served at that time, except for his knowing that money for college wasn't going to be an issue!

Anonymous said...

P.S. Is the blogger aware, when commenting on alleged friction between Romney and French students vis-a-vis the war in Vietnam, that the United States' involvement came to be because of France's stubborn unwillingness to relinquish the country as part of its empire (ne 'French Indochina). In other words, if the French had not clung to Vietnam with a pompous, politically motivated death grip, the United States may not have been involved, "Communist threat" or not. That the United States decided to get sucked in and cling to the war due to an equally 'pompous, politically motivated death grip' - and a wild fear of the advance of communism, is to the Land of the Free's eternal same.

If the French had backed away earlier, as they should have - and as they were admonished, paradoxically in the end, to do by the United States, Viet Nam would have been led by a western-sympathizer by the name of Ho Chi Minh, who only turned left when the United States reneged on its commitments to the notion that people should be free to choose their own destiny, whether good, bad or indifferent, and backed the corrupt familial monarchy that that ultimately brought South Vietnam to its knees. How, you ask, did the USA renege? By bolstering, and eventually assuming, the adversarial role that the French had adopted during the 19th century, and more formally championed by virtue of the First Indochina War in December of 1947. The USA took the French pomposity to a new level of bombastic self-destruction.

So if the French students had an issue with the USA's involvement in Vietnam they should have been told to shut their traps and read a history book. I doubt these arguments that the blogger cites actually happened, though Vietnam was no doubt a subject of discussion during his mission, as it was when I lived in France from 1972-74.

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