PARIS -- I came back to Paris a few weeks ago to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the running of the Six-Minute Louvre. Yes, I know it's hard to believe that 40 years ago a young American student named Peter Stone broke the Six-Minute Louvre and brought glory and honor to American tourists everywhere.
For those of you who weren't around, this is the story.
It is common knowledge that there are only three things worth seeing in the Louvre. They are the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory and the Mona Lisa. The rest of the stuff is all junk. For years tourists went to see those three works and then rushed out to continue their shopping in Paris.
Before World War II, the record for going through the Louvre was seven minutes and 30 seconds held by a man known as the Swedish Cannonball. After the war an Englishman, paced by his Welsh wife, did it in seven minutes flat -- and pretty soon everyone started talking about a Six-Minute Louvre.
Thus it was in 1950 that the young Peter Stone went in on a Sunday -- a day when you didn't have to pay -- and, while thousands cheered, ran around the Venus de Milo, up past the Winged Victory, down to the Mona Lisa. You always have to say something when you look at the Mona Lisa. Peter's famous remark was, "I know the guy who has the original," and then he drove away in a waiting taxi. Peter did it in five minutes and 56 seconds, a record no tourist has ever been able to beat.
As I stood in the courtyard of the palace looking around me at the seasoned veterans who had come back, I recalled the '50s and thought, "When it came to sightseeing, we were the best and the brightest."
Our group gathered outside the Louvre to try to relive the memories. Many of us brought our children to share the moment. I told my son, "I.M. Pei's glass pyramid has made it impossible to get near the record. Look at us -- we've been standing in line for an hour."
"Give me a pair of Reeboks or Nike shoes and I could do it," my son said.
"It doesn't help what kind of shoes you wear when there are now escalators all over the museum. The French always had a fear that an American would beat the Six-Minute Louvre, and they did everything to confuse us. That's why they would point you in the direction of the Mona Lisa, and you'd wind up in the salle displaying 22 armless and headless Roman statues from Sicily. The reason that Peter broke the record was he refused to take any directions from the museum guards."
A man with a cane came up to me and stuck out his hand. "My name's Gerry Tornplast. I was on Thomas Cook Tour Number 230 on September 13 when it all happened. My God, I was proud that morning. The French didn't think we could do it, but we proved that when you have a strong dollar and a weak franc, an American can achieve anything."
My son asked, "Wasn't there something else you wanted to see in the Louvre?"
"There was nothing. You have to remember, son, in those days the American tourist was strapped for time, and there were just so many hours in the day until we trotted off to see the Folies-Bergere."
I continued, "The reason I brought you here today is so that you can be aware of your heritage. Once upon a time there were thousands of American tourists who never failed to visit the Louvre for a very short time. Now they are all gone, but the halls still echo with Peter Stone's voice, as he broke into the sunlight, proclaiming, 'There isn't a museum in the world that can keep me inside for very long.' "