US election 2012: Mitt Romney's life as a poor Mormon missionary in France questioned
MUCH of Mitt Romney’s life as a Mormon missionary in France was not as poor or arduous as he has claimed, say those who knew him at the time.
It was a rare reflection by Mitt Romney on his life as a young Mormon, offered as proof to struggling Americans that despite being born into privilege and amassing a $250 million fortune, he too had known hard times.
A day after being labelled “out of touch” for casually offering a $10,000 bet to a rival candidate, Mr Romney told supporters he had experienced austerity as a missionary in France, using a bucket for a lavatory and a hose for a shower.
“You’re not living high on the hog at that kind of level,” he said.
But the Republican presidential hopeful spent a significant portion of his 30-month mission in a Paris mansion described by fellow American missionaries to The Daily Telegraph as “palace”.
It featured stained glass windows, chandeliers, and an extensive art collection. It was staffed by two servants – a Spanish chef and a houseboy.
Although he spent time in other French cities, for most of 1968, Mr Romney lived in the Mission Home, a 19th century neoclassical building in the French capital’s chic 16th arrondissement.
“It was a house built by and for rich people,” said Richard Anderson, the son of the mission president at the time of Mr Romney’s stay. “I would describe it as a palace”.
Tearful as he described the house, Mr Anderson, 70, of Kaysville, Utah, said Romney aides had asked him not to speak publicly about their time together there.
The building, on Rue de Lota, was bought by the Mormons in 1952, having been seized by the Nazis during the Second World War. The Church sold it again in the 1970s, and it was until recently the embassy of the United Arab Emirates. It is currently worth as much as $12 million (£7.7 million).
Mr Romney moved into the building following a stay in Bordeaux, after being promoted to assistant to the president, Duane Anderson. He arrived in the spring of 1968, weeks before Paris erupted into riots, and returned to the US that December. He was given a room on the third floor.
“They were very big rooms,” said Christian Euvrard, the 72-year-old director of the Mormon-run Institute of Religion in Paris, who knew Mr Romney. “Very comfortable. The building had beautiful gilded interiors, a magnificent staircase in cast iron, and an immense hall.”
Mr Romney and his fellow missionaries worked ten-hour days from 6.30am trying to spread the word of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Several said that the future Governor of Massachusetts was a gifted doorstep salesman.
In his remarks this week, Mr Romney said of his French lodgings: “I don’t recall any of them having a refrigerator. We shopped before every meal”. Mr Anderson said that as well as a refrigerator, the mansion had “a Spanish chef called Pardo and a house boy, who prepared lunch and supper five days a week”.
It was “well equipped” with all modern conveniences, including a combination washer-dryer machine, Mr Anderson said. “I never saw anything like it in another private home at that time.”
Mr Romney added in his comments that “most of the apartments I lived in had no shower or bathtub”. He said: “If we were lucky, we actually bought a hose and we stuck it on the sink.” He said he was forced to use a hole in the ground and a bucket for a lavatory.
Jean Caussé, a 72-year-old Mormon who met Mr Romney in Bordeaux, said he “would be astonished” if that had been the case. “I never knew missionaries who had to do that,” he said. “I don’t see why he would have lived in conditions like that for two years when it was far from the general case”.
The mission home in Paris was fully plumbed and central heated. “All of the missionary rooms had something like a bath or a shower attached to it,” said Mr Anderson. “The home had several”.
This was in stark contrast to lodgings in working class areas given to other missionaries in Paris at the same time. “It was much better than the other places,” said one, Alan Eastman. “Most of us stayed in rented apartments quite a way from luxurious”.
Mr Eastman, 65, of Salt Lake City, Utah, recalled waking in one “spartan” apartment to “frost on my blanket”. A lavatory trip meant creeping past the owner’s vicious dog to an outhouse, he said.
Regarding spending money, Mr Romney “would have been on the same amount of money as the rest of us, about $125 per month,” said Mr Eastman – about $813 per month in today’s money.
But Mr Anderson said that while “we made a contribution for the common meals, I remember feeling that financially it was somewhat easier to be in the mission home”. Mr Romney said this week: “I lived in a way that people of lower middle income in France lived, and said to myself, 'Wow, I sure am lucky to have been born in the United States of America’.”
One of the mansion’s details stood out to several of the young Mormon men, whose faith banned them from courtship, among other perceived vices such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.
“It had beautiful stained glass windows, including a woman with bare breasts, which raised some eyebrows,” said Mr Eastman. “The windows depicted the four seasons,” said Mr Anderson. “Summer was lightly dressed, let’s put it that way”.
Mr Romney’s time in Paris was marked by tragedy when he, the president and the president’s wife were involved in a car crash as he drove them back from Bordeaux in June 1968. Mrs Anderson was killed and Mr Romney, who had not been at fault, was admitted to hospital after initially being presumed dead.
When the president returned to the US for surgery, J. Fielding Nelson, the president of the Geneva mission, was sent to Paris to take over. But Mr Romney had things so under control that he soon returned to Switzerland. “It was astonishing,” Mr Nelson said. “This 20-year-old kid was running it”.
Mr Anderson said that Mr Romney’s Mormon allies were eager to cite this as an example of his natural leadership skills. But it is “a story that his campaign doesn’t want spread around,” he said. He declined to say who on the Romney team made this request. “I’ve been in email contact with his eldest son Tagg, who is an old friend,” he said. “Tagg basically does what the campaign says”.
One Mormon friend who has known Mr Romney for decades said: “The campaign’s line is that whenever people talk about his missionary time, people try to make him sound like a kook”.
Spokesmen for Mr Romney did not respond to a request for comment.