An American Programmer in Paris -- 1965-1966

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

Following my stint at Univac, I followed my mentor Dr. Louis Rader to Bull General Electric, as he had need of loyalty and technical competence when GE purchased the components of both Compagnie Bull (Paris) and Olivetti (Milan and surrounding). Italy was easier -- they had no Charles de Gaulle to stir up dislike of Americans. So I was assigned to Paris, under Brainerd Fancher, a GE manager's manager with scant knowledge of the computer business, likeable though he was.

It proved to be a remarkable adventure and thorough re-education (not only in the language spoken). These are some of the happenings.

Living Quarters for a Year

After taking my Berlitz French course, my wife and I flew to Paris (trip 1965 #5, Feb 26 to Mar 03) to pick out an apartment. Found a very nice almost affordable one on the second floor of a 6-floor building. Remember that in Europe this means 6 floors above ground, plus the ground floor itself - the "rez chaussee" in France.

It was in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb just on the West side of the Bois de Boulogne opposite Paris itself. We looked out on the park and its horse chestnut trees just across the road. The address was 33 Blvd du Commandant Charcot, and it was notable for the residents, the neighbors, the decor, and the help.

The Residents

Each floor (etage) had one apartment with two front windows, and a larger one with three.

M. Guerlain used to hunt pheasants with Generalissimo Franco of Spain. After one such trip he waved a trophy and offered it to my wife, as she stood on the 2nd floor balcony. Refusal would have been rude (the maid got it).

The Neighbors

The second-floor neighbor deserves a paragraph or two to himself. His name was Munther N. Fattah, an Iraqi. He had graduated from M.I.T. in 1947 (although now listed as a lost alumnus), and his wife from Smith. I am not sure, even today, what his business was, but he conducted it from an office above the Crazy Horse Saloon, a most popular Paris night spot. The refrigerator in his apartment was a small French one like ours, but he augmented it with a another of American build -- very large -- and it was always full of nothing but Dom Perignon champagne! Have you priced that lately?

At one of his parties I looked down to the street to see a Ford Mustang, and commented to three Arab oil businessmen that I had read in Playboy that James Bond's creator Ian Fleming had said that he always kept an American car, in addition to the best British makes, so he could be certain of having one that started in the morning. To which one of the sheiks responded "Oh, do you know the Playboy people? We financed the London Club for them."

The car turned out to belong to a Swiss general at the party. The only comment was that he liked boys.

I can verify the Arabic thinking that women are chattels. Once, before Munther and I could notice, one of them had swung my wife into the air over his shoulders, and was heading to a bedroom wih her,

Of course, Munther himself wasn't averse to a little of that himself. Once, while his wife was at a diet farm, he tried to give me a free trip to Nice on the Riviera, with guaranteed dates with Playboy girls. This was not a scam; he showed me pictures in Playboy magazines, then pictures of himself on the beach with the same girls. I decided to stay in Paris to protect my wife.

One Sunday morning Munther came over, whispering "Come see who's in my bed". As he had a bottle of that Dom Perignon in hand, we did. A vision in a black feather negligee stretched her arms and asked "What's going on?" Surprisingly, in English, for it was the actress Claudine Longet. She who costarred in the Peter Sellers film "The Party".

The Decor

The Help

We were pretty helpless as far as shopping went. It took a while to identify horseradish at the markets ("raifort" - strong radish), as the word was not in our French dictionary. And the kitchen facilities were small and in a very tiny space. So we mentioned the problem to the concierge. No problem at all. He mumbled something about a Cordon Bleu graduate, and his wife cooked a superb dinner for us. So we hired her sister, who definitely was not a Cordon Bleu graduate, even though the wife of the concierge was.

A Question

This was 20 years after World War II, and Paris to our eyes looked very prosperous and totally restored. Was I just a country boy dazzled by the richness of the life? Or did I get placed automatically in a fancy position because I was in charge (via some 1500 people) of most of the software business in Europe that wasn't IBM's?

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