The July 1919 victory march held in Paris to celebrate the end of World War I signaled a seismic shift in French-American relations. Original plans called for the victors to march in alphabetical order, which would have positioned the United States at the rear. But, acknowledging the country's critical role in the conflict, France and her European allies allowed the United States to participate as “America,” moving it to the head of the parade. This small but significant gesture recognized both the United States's contribution to the war effort and its new role as the world's leading industrialized nation, as well as the power and prosperity that accompanied this position.
America's featured parade position suggested that the “Old World” was finally considering the upstart nation as a political and cultural partner. This new dynamic reverberated throughout the interwar period as France and America—and especially their financial and cultural capitals, Paris and New York City—developed an increasingly competitive and reciprocal relationship in many arenas that historically had been considered Paris's domain.
Until the end of World War I, Paris had dominated New York in all the fields suggested by the phrase la belle France.
Paris was the home of haute couture
and grande cuisine.
It was the training ground for aspiring American architects and artists throughout the nineteenth century and continued to attract such American expatriates as writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and composer Cole Porter. For them Paris was “a movable feast,” as Ernest Hemingway titled the book charting his literary coming-of-age in the city, a place with a long history of supporting artists, which offered them a haven free from American constraints of commercialism and conformity.
Yet Paris's allure wasn't simply as a center of painting, music, and architecture. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the French capital's dominance also derived from its unique fusion of art, commerce, and industry that made it to many observers the mythic capital of nineteenth-century Europe. In the decades before World War I, France had turned commerce into an art: Paris's world's fairs of the nineteenth century showcased French talents and wares and offered testimonials to the country's commercial savvy.
Following the devastating world war, Paris was, according to cultural historian Tyler Stovall, in a “state of transition between a vanished past and an uncertain future.” New York, on the other hand, was a city of progress and expansion in the 1920s, transformed in a few short decades by waves of immigrants, new corporate business practices, and revolutionary advances in transportation, communications, and building technologies. As the cultural status quo shifted, New York architects and designers in the 1920s and '30s studied the newest ideas emanating from Paris's expositions, studios, and fashion houses but responded with their own “made in New York” versions. As financial magnet and, later, refuge from a second world war, New York also lured a generation of talented Parisian émigrés who revolutionized its fashion magazines, innovated stage design, and transformed American cuisine.
Two international expositions—one held in Paris in 1925 and one in New York in 1939/40—bracket one of the most intense and influential chapters in the love affair between these two world capitals and vividly represent the shifting balance of influence between them. During this period the interchange between Paris and New York was never simple, comprising in equal measure admiration and envy, respect and rivalry. New Yorkers began to shed their feelings of New World inferiority in the face of Paris's vaunted cultural traditions, and Paris increasingly looked to New York as the freshly vibrant center of modern culture, best represented by jazz and skyscrapers, whether built of steel and stone or imagined by artists, illustrators, and movie-makers. By the beginning of World War II, New York had created its own fusion of art, commerce, and industry, transforming itself from a city of national stature into an international capital that rivaled—and in some spheres bypassed—Paris in worldwide cultural influence.
The dialogue between Paris and New York in the 1920s and '30s continues to shape each city even today. New York remains a center of dance, gastronomy, and modern art, largely as a result of pre-World War II Parisian émigrés, with a dynamic fashion industry that rose in spirited response to Parisian couture—itself still thriving as luxury brands sold in stylish boutiques throughout New York. The skyscrapers of La Défense, which were built on the outskirts of Paris starting in the 1960s, have Manhattanized the City of Light. The impact of American popular culture, initiated by the invasion of jazz during World War I, remains strong. Paris and New York, as well as France and the United States, confront the ramifications of what composer George Antheil called the “giant spiral” that unites them as multiethnic cities and nations. Yet, as much as Paris and New York gained individually, it is the intensity and velocity of the interwar dialogue between them that remains a compelling model for international collaborations in a global culture.