The holiday season tends to bring out the best in the big cities of America and Europe — they are decked with Christmas lights, shop windows are filled with seasonal displays, and Santa Claus pays his visits. Depending on where you live, the ground might be covered with snow. For Margaret Sanger, visiting Paris in December of 1913, however, the city did not provide the expected “gaiety and elegance,” but instead an “atmosphere of petty penury” that put a damper on her impression of the city. The family — Margaret, Bill, and their three children — let an apartment on the Boulevard St Michel, facing the Luxembourg Gardens, which provided a wonderful playground for the youngest Sangers.
Although the city so disappointed, the people that both Margaret and Bill were meeting did not. Bill had the opportunity to rent a studio on Montparnasse, and Margaret reports that he often “came home aglow with news of meeting the great Matisse and other revolutionary painters barely emerging from obscurity.” Although she occasionally went on visits to the studios and exhibits of some of these painters, who “loomed up later as giants in the artistic world,” she had people of her own to meet.
One of these was Victor Dave. Sanger reported in her autobiography that he was “then over eighty, but still keen and active.” This is a bit of an exaggeration — he was only 68 at the time. Sanger’s interest in him was a result of his leadership during the 1871 Paris Commune. At this point, she noted, he was earning a few dollars working for the government because of his knowledge of English and the languages of the Balkans. “Just the day before,” she explained, “he had begun translating a new series of treaties which France was making with the Balkan States in a desperate attempt to tie them to the Triple Entente.” In fact, Victor Dave was wiser than many others — he sensed war on the horizon, while they insisted that such a thing could not happen.
Sanger also met Jean Jaurès, another socialist leader, who was assassinated in 1914, and Bill Haywood, whom she heard speak to an audience of 3,000.
Perhaps her most interesting meeting was at the home of the Indian nationalist, Shyamaji Krishnavarma. In typical fashion, Sanger commented in her Autobiography, “No Hindu had ever given a reception in my honor. Trying to appear, however, as though this were a frequent occurrence, I set a time and bravely entered his salon.” When Sanger returned home, three police appeared at her apartment and questioned her about the visit, how long she had known Krishnavarma, how long she was staying in France, and other such detailed questions. Sanger later found out that the police were working with the British Secret Service to keep an eye on Krishnavarma’s callers.
Sanger also found time to speak to more ordinary Frenchwomen about her passion, birth control, and found that “nobody would marry a girl unless she had been instructed how to regulate the numbers of her household as well as the home itself.” Although, to Sanger’s chagrin, abortion was frequently practiced, the birth control situation was an admirable one.
Despite all of these exciting goings-on, Sanger felt that she “could find no peace” in Paris. Finally, on December 31, 1913, Bill and Margaret bid each other farewell, and at Cherbourg she set off home to New York City with the children.
For more information, see Sanger’s Autobiography, chapter eight.