Thursday, July 14, 2022

Bastille Day in Old LA

On this day in 1789, the French Revolution began.

I an pretty open about having a complicated relationship with La Fête Nationale/Bastille Day. My dad is a descendant of an earlier French monarch, which makes both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette my very distant cousins. My mom's family comes from centuries of French peasant stock.

Still, I wish I could take a time machine to Old LA on this day. The French community put on quite a Bastille Day celebration.

In fact, it used to be a pretty big deal in LA.

Los Angeles Herald, 1881

One of the earliest references I can find lists the parade route: Aliso to Arcadia, Main to the Plaza, then to Spring, Spring to Second, Second to Fort (Broadway), Fort to Fourth, Fourth to Main, Main to the junction with Spring, and to the Turnverein Hall for speeches. "A representation of the Bastille" (i.e. a very early parade float) was included in the procession.

This route would have effectively started in the French Colony, gone to the Plaza, doubled back and wound through downtown, ending up where the Convention Center parking lot is today. For comparison, the Rose Parade follows a roughly 5.5 mile route.

Two of the speakers were Pascal Ganée and Georges Le Mesnager, who was quite well known for his speeches! More on that in a minute. 

Bastille Day 1881 concluded with a banquet at the Pico House, prepared under one of LA's early celebrity chefs, Victor Dol.

On this day in 1882, the festivities began with a 21-gun salute at sunrise from Fort Hill. The Mayor, the President of the City Council, "delegates from fire companies and civil societies", French citizens of varying prominence, and a beauty queen - the Goddess of Liberty - all made appearances.

The Goddess of Liberty chosen for the event, by the way, happened to be 14-year-old Narcisse Sentous, eldest daughter of Jean Sentous. She was carried in a "Car of Liberty" with several maids of honor, all girls from the French Colony.

Los Angeles Herald, 1882 (snippet of much longer article)

The parade procession was big enough to have two divisions, both made up of prominent citizens and local societies. Besides the Car of Liberty, another car had Marie Deleval representing France, Mathilde Reynaud representing the United States, Honoré Penelon (eight-year-old son of the late Henri Penelon) dressed as the Marquis de Lafayette, and ten-year-old Auguste Lemasne dressed as George Washington. Rounding up the rear were citizens riding donkeys in tribute to the city's butchers.

Eugene Meyer, the "President of the Day" (i.e. Grand Marshal) and then-Agent for the French consulate, gave a speech in French and introduced Frank Howard (who gave a quick history lesson on Bastille Day in English). "The Star-Spangled Banner" was sung, the band played, "La Marseillaise" was sung, and Georges Le Mesnager gave a speech in French.

And that wasn't all. A large model of the Bastille had been built on Fort Hill. After the sun went down, it was stormed and set on fire. (Good thing two fire companies were there!)

The day concluded with a party at Armory Hall.

In 1886, the French Colony invited the editor of the Los Angeles Herald to attend the Bastille Day celebration. He had a prior commitment in Long Beach that day, but thanked the French Colony in the newspaper.

Los Angeles Herald, 1886

The newspaper did still cover the event, of course. 

In spite of a half-hour rainstorm (an extreme rarity during a Southern California summer), the parade went on, although many people who had planned to join the parade waited inside the French Theatre for the rest of the day's events. The President of the Day was Jean-Louis Sainsevain this time - and again, one of the last speeches was given by Georges Le Mesnager.

The biggest celebration of them all was held in 1889 - the 100th anniversary of the French Republic. Besides the usual festivities, an extravagant banquet and ball was held at the Pico House, then owned by Pascal Ballade and renamed the National Hotel. The speech Georges Le Mesnager gave on this day was particularly well remembered by French Angelenos - and you can read most of it (thoughtfully translated into English by the Los Angeles Herald) here.

Los Angeles Herald, 1891.

An interesting footnote to the 1891 celebration is that one of the vocalists was J.P. Goytino, who despite having some musical talent was also a highly problematic newspaper editor/slumlord/all-around dirtbag.  Goytino is perhaps most notorious for stopping issuance of a marriage license five years later when his extremely wealthy father-in-law, Joseph Mascarel, sought to legally marry his common-law second wife. (He needn't have bothered; Mascarel left most of his fortune to his grandchildren from his first marriage.) I could do a pretty ugly deep dive on Goytino, but David Kimbrough already did a very thorough one on Facebook (warning: it's a 12-parter).

Los Angeles Herald, 1900

Los Angeles Herald, 1901

Los Angeles Herald, 1908

Los Angeles Herald, 1908

By 1908, Bastille Day was a big enough celebration that it was held at Chutes Park - and pyrotechnics were part of the event (no gunfire here!).

Los Angeles Daily Times, 1926

By 1926, two thousand French Angelenos were coming to the Bastille Day celebration. That evening's grand ball was a fundraiser for the French Society for the French War Orphans - and hosted by Felix Clavere.

Los Angeles Daily News, 1930

Hollywood Citizen-News, 1940

Bastille Day took on a somber significance in 1940, with two-thirds of the country having fallen under Nazi control. The following year, the Colony was nearly as divided as France, but everyone agreed that a big party wasn't appropriate during a time of war. Supporters of the Free French (who accounted for most of the Colony), believing France would rise again, had their own event at the Riverside Breakfast Club. Supporters of the Vichy government spent the day in mourning.

Los Angeles Daily News, 1941

In 1943, Capt. Paul Perigord addressed the United Nations Committee at the Hotel Clark. His keynote? "France is rising again." While there understandably doesn't seem to have been a celebration, the Fighting French tricolor flag was flown from City Hall's flagpole. (In case anyone needs to be reminded: the French are fierce fighters.)

Los Angeles Times, 1943

Los Angeles Times, 1946

Los Angeles Times, 1947

After the war, Bastille Day was back - and hosted by the Los Angeles Breakfast Club! 

Two years later, Bastille Day was marked by a flag ceremony at City Hall.

Los Angeles Daily News, 1949

Los Angeles Times, 1951

Hollywood Citizen-News, 1952

Los Angeles Times, 1957

Highland Park News-Herald and Journal, 1957

Los Angeles Times, 1960

Bastille Day was a big enough event to merit an annual flag ceremony at City Hall and draw a crowd of thousands to the Colony’s celebration. That certainly isn't the case now, and I fully expect Mayor Garcetti to ignore Bastille Day again, as Mayors of Los Angeles have tended to do for years.

What happened? 

Bastille Day fell on a Sunday in 1968. 

Any city employees involved in the ceremony would have had to come in on their day off, and overtime pay would have more than doubled the usual cost of the ceremony. The City Council didn't want to pay for it, voted against increasing the budget, wanted to scrap the ceremony entirely, and Councilman Wilkinson sniped "you ought to remember what France has done to us in the past year or two". 

French Consul General Gerard Peres put an end to the uproar by canceling the ceremony himself "so that City Hall personnel will not lose a day off and municipal expenses will not be increased at a time of financial difficulties". 

Mayor Sam Yorty sent Peres an official apology for the Council's rudeness, and the French tricolor did still fly alongside the US flag in the Civic Center.

At one of my lectures, I was asked when the last Bastille Day parade was held. I can't be 100 percent certain when the parade was retired, but the last time the city officially acknowledged Bastille Day at all (although wordlessly flying a flag barely counts) seems to have been in 1968.

Knowing that the flag ceremony was retired for budgetary reasons, when the city now spends a fortune lighting up City Hall in different colors for just about everything, is pretty irritating. There is no liberté, egalité, or fraternité in regards to what the city chooses to consider important enough to recognize.

Have a good Fête Nationale anyway, dear readers!

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