Best selling author David McCullough comes to town, treating guests of the Hay Adams Author Series to a lecture about his latest work, on the formative experience of Americans living in 19th century Paris.
By John Arundel
As part of its celebrated Hay Adams Author Series, 130 A-Listers were treated to a French-inspired three-course lunch at the exquisitely remodeled Top of The Hay, with its stunning views of the The White House and downtown momuments, and a lively, intimate discussion of McCullough’s acclaimed new book.
The New York Times bestseller was released on May 24, just seven days before the June 1 luncheon, co-hosted by McCullough’s longtime friend, retired Foreign Service Officer Philip W. Pillsbury, and Hay-Adams President Kay Enokido.
VIP guests attorney Bob Bennett of Hogan Lovells and McCullough’s agent; NPR’s Diane Rehm, former Rep. James Symington; Dan Jordan, president emeritus of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and Wendy Thompson-Marquez, the president and CEO of The Onyx Media Group.
In a departure from McCullough’s most recent novels, Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, who spent time in Paris, are not covered in the non-fiction novel.
Instead, McCullough focuses on the impactful 19th-century Parisian experience as seen through the eyes of Americans like Mark Twain and Samuel Morse, who migrated to Paris and returned to the United States to achieve formative roles in culture or innovation.
McCullough also discussed the Parisian experiences of Americans like Elihu Washburne, the American ambassador to France during the Franco-Prussian War, and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States.
For the most popular American writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the City of Light was the most romantic place to go after World War I to gather their thoughts and find a muse.
McCullough said he wanted to focus on the stories of America’s less-heralded forbears, the seeker who came to Paris between 1830 and 1900.
“They were citizens of a new country with few cultural traditions, so they came to Paris to find inspiration, instruction and broadened horizons,” McCullough said. “Paris always held the answer, providing for these American seekers a rich history, civility and a deeper education, either in a school or at a studio.”
McCullough spun yarn after yarn for his guests, telling how author James Fenimore Cooper spent decades in Paris writing about wilderness America in his “Leatherstocking Tales.” It was in Paris that Cooper mentored a young painter, Samuel F. B. Morse, who spent countless hours at The Louvre until deciding to do a portrait of it, then painting 40 others copies of the Old Masters.
Morse left the Old World with a grander idea: The telegraph, which he perfected there but struggled getting patents approved overseas.
There were others, like the American politician like Charles Sumner who encountered black people in Paris for the first time outside of slavery, and concluding that they are just like everyone else. Returning Stateside, Sumner went on to be a U.S. senator and staunch abolitionist.
And more, like Oliver Wendell Holmes who brought back basic medical ideas from Parisian surgeons, and American painters of renown like John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens who honed their painting, sculpting and statuary skills in the great Parisian studios of the 19th century.
Guests received McCullough with something akin to a hero’s welcome, as would be expected from the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
A two time Pulitzer Prize winning author, the 78-year-old is also a narrator, historian and lecturer who has been at the writing business since 1968, when he published his first book, The Johnstown Flood.
McCullough has since written eight more books on such topics as Harry S. Truman and John Adams (which won him Pulitzers and were adopted by HBO into a TV film and mini-series), 1776 and the building of The Panama Canal and The Brooklyn Bridge, and has narrated multiple documentaries, as well as the 2003 film Seabiscuit. He was host of PBS’ acclaimed “American Experience” for 12 years.
But this book perhaps reaches one of McCullough most seminal conclusions: After France saved the Colonies at the end of the Revolutionary War, it was Paris and its cultural, artistic and intellectual influences that shaped America in the profoundest of ways.
For more information on the Author Series, visit www.hayadams.com.