NY TIMES, February 1967 - They had been on their feet all day, waiting on table or working in kitchens. They were on their feet all night, dancing, at the 17th annual Brittany Ball, held last Saturday at Manhattan Center. And a lot of them were dancing again on Sunday, above La Grillade restaurant.
Almost all French restaurants were represented at the ball, because almost all French restaurants have waiters or bus boys or cooks who hail from Brittany. And many of them come from one small town and its farming environs, the town of Gourin.
When they first came here in the early part to this century, the Bretons worked, played and stayed so tightly together in New York that few of them learned to speak English. Nevertheless, they were promptly dubbed The Americans when they returned home. Today, most of them seem to pick up English quite fast, perhaps because not all of them still live together in the Forties around Ninth Avenue. Many have moved to Astoria, Queens, and a few live on the East Side.
The Bretons, who are a Celtic people (they were driven out of England by the Anglo-Saxons about 14 centuries ago), have no great culinary tradition. “But they have a natural feel for cooking,” said Mrs. Robert Low, wife of the councilman, who has had a succession of Breton housekeepers. Mrs. Low, who said that a Breton never left without finding a replacement, has visited Bretons who have returned to France.
They seem to have the capacity of being equally happy in either environment, she said.
But not all have been happy back in that bleak northwest corner of France.
And the Brittany Association estimates that only about halt even try to return.
According to the newspaper France-Amerique, there are about 12,000 Bretons in New York City (more than one-third to the French population here). Three-quarters of the French waiters here are Bretons, the newspaper estimates.
Children Stayed in France
The original pattern seemed to be for the husband to go to work in a restaurant and the wife to go into domestic service. The children stayed in France until the parents either sent for them or returned home with enough money to start a small business.
Today, most Bretons who come over are single and, even when they marry and have a family, they can afford to keep the children here and live on what the husband makes. Consequently the children grow up in this country and, even though they may go to French schools, they prefer to speak English, the language of television.
“People take more interest in a country through their children than they would otherwise," said Jean Bodenes, owner of Le Cheval Blanc (145 East 45th Street).
Mr. Bodenes, who has no children and has been here for 37 years, would like to retire to Brittany. Mr. Bodenes traces the start of the Breton restaurant monopoly to the closing of the Michelin Tire Corporation's factory in Milltown, N. J. during the Depression.
A lot of Bretons had been employed there and most of them came to New York where, because they had no particular skills and little English, they went to work as dishwashers or bus boys at French restaurants.
One of the leading figures in the Breton community is the ample one of Mrs. Anna Daniel, who came here in 1914 and might he considered typical of early immigrants. She went to work for a lawyer on Park Avenue (she is still in service there), married a chef who worked in a private club until his death, and had two daughters whom she sent back to France to be raised by her sister before bringing them back here. Although Mrs. Daniel owns a house back in Gourin, she does not plan to live there. “This is my home,” she said, placing her hands over heart.
Mrs. Daniel used to bring a lot of girls over to work for friends of her employers. “How many times have I gone to Ellis Island to get them,” she reminisced. I would vouch for them and then get them fixed up properly so they could work in homes. Now all that has stopped."
Mrs. Daniel was referring to the new immigration laws, implemented last year, under which it is necessary to have a special skill or a very close relative in order to get into this country. As a result, few Bretons are now able to come here.
Restaurant owners are already worried about the situation. “In a few years it will be very difficult,” said Edouard Duthu, one of the owners of Le Marmiton ( 216 East 49th Street). Mr. Duthu is not from Brittany, but most of his employees are. “And a French restaurant without French help is not much appreciated." he added.
Like most people from other regions of France, Mr. Duthu looks upon the Bretons with exasperation and admiration.
“They are individuals, stubborn," he said. “But if you treat them right they work! very hard. And believe me it is no picnic to carry dishes all day.
The Bretons work hard because they are used to hard work and because most of them hope some day to open a restaurant of their own.
Gilbert Le Dour, a waiter at La Croisette (1063 First Avenue, at 58th Street), is no exception.
On Saturday, at the ball, Mr. Le Dour was wearing sideburns and native costume and doing folk dances. On Sunday he was wearing sideburns and casual clothes and doing spine-dislocating acrobatics at La Grillade, where dancing to an Italian four-piece band costs $2 on weekend evenings. Mr. Le Dour, who has been here four years, says he likes it better here when he is here and there when he is there.
“I'm mixed up,” he admitted, and added that in three months he plans to take a vacation in Gourin and marry a local girl.
Grateful for Opportunities
“In France I wouldn't be able to open a restaurant like this, even if I worked my whole life," said Albert Deniel, who opened La Grillade ( 845 Eighth Avenue, at 51st Street) in August.
Mr. Deniel came here in 1957 and started work as a bus boy at La Potiniere (60 West 55th Street).
A year later he married Lisette, who was the checkroom girl at the restaurant.
They have two children who attend l'Ecole Francaise, but prefer to speak English.
"We try to keep together in New York by having four or five gatherings a year.” said Roger Gourin, president of the 300-member Brittany Association.
“All these nationalistic things are beginning to die out," said Deputy Commissioner of Public Events J. J. O'Brien who represented the Mayor at the ball. “But I think the Bretons are probably holding together better than any of the others.”
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is an organization established to create, facilitate, promote, and sponsor wide-ranging innovative and collaborative cultural and economic projects that strengthen and foster relations and cooperation between the United States of America and the region of Brittany, France.