When you round a Paris corner or cross a bridge over the Seine or stroll down a boulevard, you may come upon someone – in his or her statue form – who draws you in and makes you take notice.
[Note from Clive: This is a long post. Suggest you make a cup of tea before reading it.]
I don’t recall, looking back, the first time I noticed Ben. He would have drawn our attention sometime when we were walking by – because walking is what you do so much of in Paris – perhaps on an evening stroll or en route to somewhere else.
Ben sparks interest
Ben is located on the western side of Paris, at the southwest corner of the Place du Trocadéro. The place is a busy traffic roundabout and site of the Palais de Chaillot, the palace (now housing multiple museums) whose esplanade offers a terrific view of the Eiffel Tower.
Across a side street, amidst horns beeping, locals dog-walking and tourists hurrying to take in the view, Ben sits unobtrusively beneath spreading chestnut trees on a petit green hillside.
Ben’s location is officially named the Square de Yorktown. This commemorates the 1781 Virginia battle in which the combined forces of American general George Washington and French general Comte (Count) de Rochambeau defeated the English, prompting the Brits to begin negotiating an end to America’s war of independence.
Ben’s ‘square’ is actually a grassy triangle, flanked on both sides by the appropriately-named rue (street) Benjamin Franklin. A tablet placed by the Rochambeau chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) provides tribute to the more than 2,500 French who lost their lives at Yorktown.
Once we spotted Ben, his memorial immediately sparked my interest.
The first connection, from American schooldays, was ‘Oh, cool, Ben Franklin!’ This was accompanied by long-instilled admiration for the man known for everything from inventing the lightning rod to writing Poor Richard’s Almanac to signing the 1776 Declaration of Independence and negotiating the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which finally ended America’s Revolutionary war.
An American in Paris – 1700s
As America’s first ambassador to France, Ben lived in Paris – actually on rue Raynouard in the commune of Passy, incorporated into the city limits in 1860 — from the end of 1776 to late 1785.
In 2008, Clive and I visited Benjamin Franklin, Un Américain à Paris, an excellent exhibit at the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris. (I also recall Clive’s less than enthusiastic response to exhibit labels and brochures printed only in French.)
And since 2005, my to-read list has included Stacy Schiff’s well-reviewed A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the birth of America.
By all accounts, Ben was much-loved by the French. Not only did they appreciate his statesmanship, diplomacy and wide-ranging knowledge; they adored his philosophical intellect, his wit and his humour which charmed all who enjoyed the great French art and sport of conversation with him in Paris salons.
My absolute favourite fact about Ben in Paris is that, along with his diplomatic activities and scientific projects, he pursued a lifelong interest in printing and typefaces and established his own printing press in his house at Passy.
What a great online blogger Ben would have been. He wrote and self-published, in English and French, pamphlets, opinion pieces, invitations, letters, and short pieces called the ‘Bagatelles’ – many of which can be found in an inexpensive reproduction of Luther S Livingston’s 1914 gem, Franklin and his Press at Passy.
It tickled me no end to find the statue of Ben, sitting comfortably on his hillside, looking for all the world as if he’s ready to start conversing with you in a Paris salon.
A statue for Ben’s 200th – 1900s
Ben’s Paris statue, by John J Boyle, is a replica of one now located at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
On the pedestal, two bas-reliefs by French sculptor Frédéric Brou depict Ben being presented to the Court of Louis XVI at Versailles in 1778 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
All thanks for this memorial are owed to Mr John H Harjes, another Philadelphian in Paris, who gave this statue to the city in 1906 to mark the bicentennial of Ben’s birth.
Harjes was a founder of the Morgan bank on Place Vendôme and also the American Hospital at Neuilly, just west of Paris. Apparently a bust of him resides in the hospital entryway.
I’m no statue connoisseur, but everything about Ben’s Paris statue appeals to me.
The location is in the midst of Parisian life, with much to offer in addition to Ben himself – museums, walks, the Seine, shops, cafes, gardens, the view of the Eiffel Tower and multiple metro lines all close by.
The setting is a gentle hillside with residential buildings behind Ben, the Place du Trocadéro in front of him, the walls of Passy cemetery across the street on one side and the tip of the Eiffel Tower peeking above the Palais de Chaillot on the other. From his perch on the hill, Ben gazes out over the whole scene.
Ben’s size seems just right — larger than life, but not so immense as to exude ‘airs and graces’ or project the kind of military prowess or personal pomposity some statues radiate.
Ben’s body position looks relaxed; he’s sitting down, with his left forearm resting on the arm of the chair and his right hand holding a copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Clive says the pose reminds him of a smaller version of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
Finally, Ben’s expression strikes me as friendly and rather bemused, as if he’s listening or reflecting or perhaps silently composing his next pithy quotation or witty and wise observation about the state of the world.
The whole feel around this statue is positive. Even when the evening is dark or the temperature freezing, whether the trees are in leaf or leafless, the simplicity and humility of it feel warm to me.
Over the years, as we passed and paused by Ben, I did notice we could never get up close to the statue because the gate around it, low as it is, was always locked.
I found this slightly annoying and thought it perhaps one of Paris’s ‘keep off the grass’ edicts for certain green spaces. To the list of a million things I always want to do and see in Paris, I added a vague mental note, ‘I should learn more about it’ — not in an urgent way but a pleasant ‘it would be interesting to know why it’s locked and I’ll try to find out more in due course’ kind of way.
Mostly, though, I just wanted to see Ben sitting on his hillside, watching over the world.
Wanting to see Ben – 2000s
My deepening affection for Ben snuck up on me.
I didn’t recognise it while it was happening, but at some point I began tweeting photos of him in all sorts of seasons and weather.
Until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to exactly why I like the statue so much. I just knew I liked it.
My affection blossomed into a small but meaningful Paris tradition, especially on arrival: I always want to walk to Trocadéro and say hello to Ben. (The nearby Eiffel Tower view is admittedly another draw.)
An upsetting sight – 2014
This shocking scene greeted us in October, 2014.
How distressing to find Ben’s hillside ripped up, the pedestal boxed up and NO SIGN OF BEN himself. Still mourning the prior year’s departure of Vlad, our favourite Paris café waiter, I didn’t want to lose Ben, too.
An Internet search revealed the reason for Ben’s absence: RATP, Paris’s rapid transit, work on metro Line 6, ‘yards of sand blasting … and sealing work … ballast discharged through two wells drilled in the roof and swept away by truck‘ [note: this work was/is different from the 2014-2018 works on the Trocadero terraces].
Ouch! I never realised how protective I felt about Ben and his patch of green until I saw it all ripped up. The box teetering on the edge of a giant hole did nothing to help, though its presence at least indicated the statue would one day return.
A week later, when we had to say goodbye to Paris, the digger was gone but the box’s position still looked precarious. I just wanted Ben back in his usual place.
Instead I had to trust the city of Paris, which continuously and mostly brilliantly maintains and improves the city’s historic and current buildings and transport systems, that we would in time see Ben again
Ben comes home – 2015
Last summer, I nearly dragged Clive to Trocadéro in my haste to see what we’d find.
Ben’s back! To my deep relief and happiness, Ben had returned to his hillside. What a joy it was, and is, to see him again.
His pedestal looked cleaner. He had a new, paved path. But the grass – or weeds — beneath him were scruffy and unkempt. And we weren’t sure about Ben himself. He still looked like he needed a green-clean.
Still, my spirits soared to see Ben again. I hoped a future visit would reveal more care given to the hillside around him.
Sure enough, last December it appeared some preparation work had occurred on the grass immediately in front of Ben.
Curiosity rekindled – 2016
By February this year, the area had been further tended, with small green plants poking their heads above the dirt.
I looked forward with great anticipation to see what, if anything, would greet us on our next trip.
Finally, last month, we arrived to find that the area in front of Ben appears to be fully planted, as shown in this post’s header photo and repeated here. The gate surrounding the square remains locked.
Is this as far as Ben’s ‘renovation’ will go? His unboxing and fresh landscaping have rekindled my interest in finding out more about his statue and the time he spent in the city that means so much to both of us.
To that end, I’ve added a few items to my Paris to-do list and emailed queries to several organisations. Highest on my list:
– What department or organisation is responsible for maintenance?
– Is there a budget or some sort of fund (and can I contribute)?
– Will the statue have a green-clean?
– Who has the keys for the gate? Who decides when it’s open? When will it next be open? (It would be unseemly, we feel, to climb over the gate …)
– Who decides what to plant? Find out what kind of tree the smaller one is on Ben’s hillside (I’m fairly sure the larger ones are chestnuts, but check this, too).
– Once I know when the square is open, try to be there and pay my respects up close.
If and when I find some answers to these pressing matters, I shall share them in a future post.
Ben’s time in Paris
– Read Stacy Schiff’s book, which I’ve finally purchased. Enjoy paging through the delightful, also recently-purchased Franklin and his Press at Passy.
– If and when we’re at the American Hospital at Neuilly (no hurry on this one), find the bust of Harjes and thank him.
Always, of course, where to next is — to Ben! To see and greet him on our arrival in Paris and when we’re passing by.
My journey with Ben and his hillside memorial has taught me that, beyond schoolgirl admiration, more than anything else Paris connects me to this great American and friend of France.
The City of Light isn’t perfect, nor was it ever. But two centuries after Ben walked the streets of Trocadéro and Passy, I share his love of the city’s quartiers, its people and – notwithstanding strikes, demonstrations, security concerns, floods and ongoing change – its way of life.
The DAR tablet at Square de Yorktown contains a quote from Ben, ‘the best of all works – the work of peace.’
I wonder what this great peacemaker would think – and write – about events in today’s world. Surely he would have much to say about the USA, the UK/EU and many other national and international topics.
Ben left Paris in July, 1785 to return to Philadelphia. In 1787, he was the oldest delegate to America’s Constitutional Convention.
Two years later, in his beloved France, the Bastille fell on 14 July 1789. The following year, on 17 April 1790, Ben died of pleurisy in Philadelphia.
The engraved quotation at the base of his Paris statue is from the Comte de Mirabeau, a voice of the French people during their own revolution. Translated from the French:
‘The genius who liberated America and poured upon Europe torrents of light, the wise man whom two worlds claim ‘ Mirabeau 11 juin 1790
This modest statue in its great location is well worth a stop, especially if you’re interested in the enduring friendship between the USA and France.
Change is constant, but with any luck, on our next trip to Paris we’ll say hello to Ben on his hillside and sip coffee at one of Vlad’s tables a few blocks away.
After a month of unexpected, time-consuming events which kept me from regular blogging, we’re off to the USA. Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from New Jersey.