Marianne of ’68

France government came close to collapse in May 1968, enveloped in what was the largest political action in a developed country to date; eleven million workers protested over a period of two weeks in a political anomaly that rejected both communism and capitalism.

Student leaders of 1968 emulated the style and icons of the earlier revolutions in France — at times to the point of caricature. At the top of their subversive icons was Marianne — an allegory of Liberty and Reason since the founding of the First French Republic. Ironically, in May ’68, it would be an English socialite, Caroline de Bendern, who came to symbolize her. In an iconic photo from that May, de Bendern was perched on the shoulders of her friend the painter Jean-Jacques Lebel, the instigator of Odeon Theatre occupation. De Bendern was a rebel, having expelled from numerous English boarding schools, modelled in Paris and New York, consorted with the likes of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, and made experimental films with the Zanzibar group. However, on May 13th, she was just an accidental celebrity — she rode upon Lebel’s shoulder because her feet were sore. She waved the flag of Vietnam, not because she herself protested Vietnam war, but because it was the flag Lebel had been brandishing. Yet, the ultimate showman, she posed as Marianne from her elevated position — a solemn mockery of Delacroix’s immortal La Liberté guidant le peuple.

At Place Edmond Rostand, near the Jardin de Luxembourg, Jean-Pierre Rey took the above famous photo of her which was later published in Life Magazine on May 24th. Her patrician grandfather saw the photograph and disinherited her out of 7.5 million pounds largesse *. Caroline spent the rest of her life decennial and unsuccessfully suing Rey for the rights to the photo, in ’78, ’88, and ’98.

Life was not better for Marianne herself. The tarnished icon was phased out from on the stamps, and during the 1789 Revolution’s Bicentennial, she was hardly seen. The photo, on the other hand, made numerous appearances: on the covers of Les enfants de l’aube (The Children of the Dawn) by Patrick Poivre d’Arvor and Paris-Match’s commemorative edition on 1968.

*Her grandfather Maurice Arnold Deforest (1879-1968) was adopted by banker Baron Moritz Hirsch. No one knew where Deforest came from. It was alleged he was the illegitimate son of King Edward VII or an Austrian prince. The shadowy billionaire was later a Liechtenstein count (Graf von Bendern), a French lord (Châtelain of Beauregard), an English baron (Baron deForest) and a MP (for West Ham).

Shapiro in Columbia University

1968. It was a year of turmoil and trepidation. Assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Vietnam War had come home with impending drafts. Thus it wasn’t a surprise that the college campuses all over the United States erupted into chaos and disorder–and nowhere was did disorder more apparent than on the grounds of Columbia University in New York.

The university was then a prestigious academic enclave surrounded by poverty and decay of the Harlem ghetto. The anxieties there were exacerbated by the university’s ban on indoor demonstrations, its work with a Pentagon think tank and the ‘Gym Crow’ scandal: the newly proposed gym had a grand entrance facing the university while a small separate door for part of the gym built ‘exclusively’ for the neighborhood kids.

On April 23rd, students stormed the acting dean’s office and took him and two others as hostages for 26 hours. Another group of students broke into the empty office of the university president Grayson Kirk, destroyed it and pasted a sing on the window: “Liberated Area. Be Free to Join Us.” The above photo of student David Shapiro relaxing and smoking Kirk’s cigar sitting in Kirk’s chair became one of the iconic images of student unrests in the 1960s. It was taken by Blake Fleetwood who described his experience here.

Over the next 48 hours, students seized three more campus buildings. It forced 17,000-student university to suspend all the classes. Counterdemonstrations were flared up. The university called in the New York Police, and just before dawn on April 30th, 1,000 officers armed with warrants signed by the university trustees entered the campus. More than 130 people–including 12 police officers–were injured; nearly 700 people were arrested. This ended the impasse but further demonstrations, police brutality and arrests plagued Columbia until that summer. As Margaret Mead, the famed anthropologist and longtime Columbia professor, noted, the demonstrations marked the end of an epoch in the way universities are governed.

David Shapiro went on to teach at Columbia.