July 04, 2024

Clare Boothe Luce

Clare Boothe Luce

Source: Public Domain

I met two out of the three women I’ve most admired, and who lived during my lifetime, the one I never encountered having recently passed away. Margaret Thatcher (and her husband, Sir Dennis) stayed with me in Gstaad, the alpine Swiss village that used to be a paradise before Russian and Arab nouveaux riches discovered it. Lady T, as we and her staff called her, was as kind and friendly to everyone who approached her as she was iron-willed while in power to those who opposed her. The lady saved Britain from becoming Albania, the reason why the left will never forgive her. I treasure the letter she and Dennis sent me to thank me for their trip, and have it up on a wall, next to one from President Nixon, the only two epistles I care to show off with.

The second remarkable lady was Clare Boothe Luce, diplomat, prolific journalist, magnetic public speaker, playwright, screenwriter, conservative, a great beauty, with legs to die for—a real heartbreaker. I met her when she was already old and retired, when my father bought her apartment at 993 Fifth Avenue for a member of my family. She was even then an enchantress, with unmatched wit and knowledge, and always a flirt.

“An aristocrat to the end, never bragging, always modest and radiant.”

The one that I will now write about I never met, but I have admired her heroism since that fateful day in May 1954 when the news came that Dien Bien Phu had fallen. I was in boarding school, and even some of the teachers didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked for a moment of silence. (Refused.) The noblest of all defeats is, of course, Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans fell to a man against thousands upon thousands of Persians. Of numerous other noble defeats, Dien Bien Phu stands out. Here’s the background leading to the battle that saw France lose its faraway empire of Vietnam.

It was called hell in a very small place, where the French high command, Generals Navarre and Cogny in Hanoi, decided to lure General Giap’s Viet Minh forces into a final battle. 15,000 Foreign Legionnaires, mostly Germans, Greeks, and Central Europeans, with only French officers, faced a superior Vietnamese army that had managed to carry heavy guns up into the impassable mountains surrounding the valley of death, as it became known. The commander of the French defenders was straight out of a romantic novel. General Christian de Castries, scion of an old and noble French family, was given the post because of his swashbuckling nature and romantic victories. Typically, he named the outposts defending his central command bunker after his mistresses. There were two Kathryns and a couple of Elianes, and so on until the eight outposts were named.

Rumor had it that John Foster Dulles, then Eisenhower’s secretary of state, had verbally promised the French air cover. True or not, no Yankee planes ever appeared, while Giap’s men bombarded the valley nonstop. The camp turned hellish, with horrendous casualties inflicted on La Legion defenders, who refused to give an inch.

For almost two months in the hell of the besieged base, a 29-year-old military nurse tended to the wounded and consoled the dying in the dark, filthy underground hospital. Genevieve de Galard was a French aristocrat, a Sorbonne graduate who became a nurse for reasons of her own. After a retreat at a Benedictine convent, she volunteered for duty in French Indochina. Already known for having saved soldiers in various missions, her refusal to leave the base before it was surrounded helped morale. In no time everyone was calling her the “Angel of Dien Bien Phu.”

At the time she was reported as the only female in the hellish place, but in reality the other women there were prostitutes who had been caught up in the fighting. Most of them, it seems, were as courageous and as helpful as the patrician Galard. After two months, with the Viet closing in, de Castries awarded her the highest honor of the French state. He called her the “purest incarnation of the heroic virtues of the French nurse.” She had never left the side of the dying and the wounded under the severest of bombardments, holding the hands of those beyond help, changing the bandages, and always offering support to those bleeding in the hell of the bunker.

As the camp was being overrun, de Castries spoke to General Cogny in Hanoi. “I’m not raising the white flag, they’ve fought too bravely.” Cogny was in agreement and told him to hold on, as de Castries’ wife could be connected from Paris. “You sound awfully cheerful,” he told her. “Because for once I know where you’re going and with whom,” she answered.

A French duke’s son, Sanche de Gramont, who as an officer fought in Algeria and later changed his name to Ted Morgan and became an American, wrote beautifully about Somerset Maugham and about the “Valley of Death.” He was a friend of mine, but I never met Bernard Fall, who stepped on a mine after writing Hell in a Very Small Place, a classic.

Genevieve was liberated after two months and feted as the hero she was both in Paris and Washington, along with a ticker tape parade down Broadway. She died at 99 two months ago, having lived a perfect married life with her husband and three children, an aristocrat to the end, never bragging, always modest and radiant. Just like Kim Kardashian.


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