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Biarritz American University

The universities at Florence and Shrivenham were housed in functional buildings intended for college use. Biarritz was very different.

Army University Center No 2 in Biarritz, France, soon gained fame as the “GI Paradise”, the U.S. forces’ cushiest billet: a college carved out of an opulent resort town. Writing in Time magazine, the novelist John Dos Passos dubbed its students “the most contented GIs in Europe”.

Biarritz American University had no campus as such. Much of the resort had been mothballed since the fall of France, when its rich and aristocratic clientele stopped coming. The Americans simply took it over, billeting instructors and students in 300 hotels and villas.

The lowliest privates, accustomed to draughty barrack rooms, slept in soft beds with linen sheets, private bathrooms, hot water and maid service (as many townsfolk were glad of the work the new college brought).

The Hotel du Palais, built by Napoleon III for Empress Eugenie, became a regular college hostel; fine-art students at Villa Rochefoucauld were surprised to find one of Queen Victoria’s inventories in an armoire. Ten professors were billeted in what had been the resort’s top brothel, and were disturbed nightly by former customers. The casino became a library, with bookcases replacing the roulette wheel.

The wearing of uniform was about the only piece of military discipline to be retained at BAU, though soldiers cutting lectures could be summonsed and fined. But there was a sense that this was not just a U.S. campus transplanted on to French soil.

Unlike SAU, Biarritz did not bother with college songs, colours or a coat of arms; although there was a newspaper, orchestra and radio station. Teaching methods were extremely informal and experimental, and became much studied by educationalists.

Academically, BAU differed from its sister colleges in that it was not directly sponsored by a major university nearby (as the universities of Florence and Oxford aided the other two). There were severe difficulties in sourcing learning materials, leading to last-minute course cancellations.

Although many of the soldier-students had fought in the European Theatre’s bloodiest actions just months before, there was little evidence that the horrors of war affected their adjustment to peacetime study. If anything, the opposite seemed true. The fear that the GIs would fritter their time away on the beach proved similarly unfounded.

The calibre of guest instructors and visiting lecturers was among BAU’s most extraordinary attributes. Most famously, Marlene Dietrich came to lecture on movie acting techniques (and the hapless GI charged with looking after her found himself tasked with sucking her toes to help her sleep).

Actor-director Richard Whorf was among the visitors from Hollywood and Broadway to help shape the drama course. The Comedie Francaise made frequent trips to Biarritz, and French surrealist Paul Éluard – very much at the zenith of his fame – was appointed poet in residence.

Biarritz American University was considered a showcase by the U.S. command, and 12 friendly nations were invited to send guest students to sample a college education, American style. Only Britain, France and the Netherlands took up the offer; but the “Foreign Legion”, as they became known, were seen as a vital part of BAU’s image as a beacon for international cooperation.

It seems that more has been written about BAU than on the other two Army Universities; but this still amounts to surprisingly little. It is vital that first-hand accounts of life at Biarritz are sourced while there remains the chance to do so.

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