Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day Special Edition: French Angelenos in World War One

"War is the business of the French, and they do it very well."

                                                                               - Rudyard Kipling

World War One began in 1914.

The United States of America initially stayed out of the conflict, only entering the war in 1917.

Los Angeles' French community, however, rushed to the aid of their homeland.

The 1918 Los Angeles City Directory (i.e. phone book) lists a French Ambulance Service sharing space with the Alliance Francaise (the location is now Ace Hotel Los Angeles). Three blocks away, there was a French Society for the Relief of Wounded Soldiers. Since phone books are compiled in advance, the Ambulance Service and Society likely existed prior to 1918. (Note to self: check the 1915-1917 city directories the next time I'm deep in the bowels of Central Library. I can't believe I forgot to do that this time.)

Most notably, Georges Le Mesnager - 64 years old in 1914 - stepped away from all four of his jobs and his large family to go back to France and enlist in the French Army. He earned several medals for bravery, was wounded five times, and eventually acted as a special liaison to General Pershing. (Mesnager noted that his fellow French soldiers doubted the arriving American troops would be of much help. He assured them otherwise.) His last task before retiring to the Verdugo Hills was to establish a society for Los Angeles' French war veterans (presumably, there were enough French veterans of war in LA to merit founding such a society).

Dr. Kate Brousseau, a busy psychologist and professor, took a two-year sabbatical to put her French fluency and Ph.D to work in war-torn France. Dr. Brousseau, who was 55 when she left California, spent 1917 and 1918 examining French women called into war service and working with French soldiers in Lorraine, French-occupied Germany, and war-torn northern France. When the war ended, she helped to rehabilitate traumatized soldiers (today we'd call it treating PTSD).

And then there was Lucien Napoleon Brunswig.

Brunswig, a pharmacist by trade, was already active in immigrant support societies and social organizations when the war began. He soon became active in the American Committee for Devastated France and the Maisons-Claires (which supported French war orphans). In 1917 at the age of 63, Brunswig spent eight months in France, writing about his experiences. After the war, he vice-chaired the committee that placed the Doughboy statue in Pershing Square. (Brunswig, like Remi Nadeau, deserves his own biography. But give me time.)

Pershing Square is slated for a renovation. Happily, I have been informed that the Doughboy will remain in the park.

Take a moment to remember all the good people who have died in conflict. And take a moment to remember the French and French-speaking Angelenos who walked away from everything to do whatever they could.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

How I Fell Down The Rabbit Hole to Frenchtown

Whenever I'm asked about my blog, one question always pops up: how did I start on this journey?

In the spring of 2013, I was doing two things at once. My mom knew very little about her late father's family, apart from the fact that they were mostly farmers and of French extraction. When she started doing genealogical research, I helped her put her giant redwood of a family tree together.

At the same time, we were clearing out Grandma's house in the Valley to put it on the market.

In the back of Grandma's Danish modern buffet cabinet, I found a very old, deeply yellowed menu from a Chinese restaurant. I couldn't tell how old it was, but based on the condition and font style, I'm guessing it was at least 60 years old (I've spent my entire life around vintage and antique items and can guess the era correctly most of the time).

Later that day, I pulled up Google Maps and entered the restaurant's address (listed on the front of the menu) to see if it still existed. It was long gone - if the building were still there, it would be on Castelar Elementary School's campus.

I zoomed in for a closer look and spotted something strange. Something that made no sense at all.

"Public Art - 'Jeanne d'Arc'".

I clicked on it.

Joan of Arc was standing smack in the middle of Chinatown, outside of a hospital building.

What the hell?!

So I started Googling. I found out pretty quickly that the Pacific Alliance Medical Center was previously the French Hospital.

What the hell?! Since when did LA have a French Hospital?

Since the cornerstone was laid in 1869, as it turned out. That hospital celebrated its 100th anniversary when my mom was in high school. But she never knew it existed until I told her about it. Mom grew up miles away in Santa Monica/Mar Vista, and my grandparents definitely weren't socially active in what little remained of LA's French community.

Every answer led to more questions. Jean-Louis Vignes, the Sainsevains, the Nadeaus, the Mesmers, the Pellissiers...and more. So many more. And one question loomed over all the rest: why was this sizable, once-thriving community missing from LA's narrative?

Five years later, I keep running lists of people I want to profile on this blog. I keep lists of forgotten French families in greater LA whose lives are, as of now, still a complete mystery to me. I keep lists of places where I need to do serious research when I can get some time off. I've plotted well over 400 sites associated with Southern California's forgotten French on a Google Map (and I'm nowhere near done).

I'm still finding out how deep the rabbit hole goes. And now you know: it began five years ago with a yellowed, crumbling menu from a long-forgotten Chinese restaurant. (In an interesting turn of events, some of this blog's biggest supporters are members of the Chinatown community.)