The man on the hot spot was Ambassador Jefferson Caffery, for whom the Lafayette street is named. He was the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and brought long experience to the job. He'd served as ambassador to El Salvador (1926-1928), Columbia (1928-1933), Cuba (1934-1937), Brazil (1937-1944), and had been named ambassador to France in the difficult years at the end of World War II.
He was appointed to the Egyptian post in 1949 and seemed to be making some headway in a ticklish situation by Jan. 1, 1953, when Robert Ruark, the novelist and globetrotting newspaperman wrote about him in his nationally syndicated column.
Writing from Cairo, Ruark noted, "There has been a great change in the attitude toward the Americans in Egypt since I was last here. ... Eighteen months ago, the American was viciously hated in this city. ... It was not safe for an American to walk alone. There were mutters and gestures and active threats.
"The Egyptians were quite reasonably sore at us for our stand on Palestine, with whom they were at war. As one Egyptian put it, 'We got so mad at the Americans that for a while we even forgot to hate the British [who had occupied Egypt for decades].' The man also said, 'I don't know how he did it, but I credit your ambassador, Jefferson Caffery, for bringing about the change. He understands us. He goes among us. He has thrown his embassy wide open to people of all classes, people who never saw the inside of it before.'"
Mohammed Naguib, who had been a primary leader of the Egyptian revolution that overthrew King Farouk and ended dynastic rule in 1952, called Caffery "a wonderful man" who "knows us very well and wants to help us." Caffery "has made the difference in our feeling for your country," the first president of Egypt said.
Even taxi drivers and bartenders told Ruark that Caffery had changed the relationship between Egypt and the United States.
"Most of the time you hear nothing but knocks for the State Department abroad," Ruark wrote, "because we have certainly unloaded some foul balls on our unsuspecting friends, but Caffery actually seems to run an embassy for its primary purpose, which is to create a mutual understanding between the country he represents and the country he inhabits.
"Caffery knows every inch of Cairo. He has ... prowled every street and alley. He makes extensive field trips all over Egypt. ... During the heat of ... riots [during the 1952 revolt] when it was worth your life to appear on the streets, Caffery got tired of sitting cooped up in the embassy. He called for his car and drove all over Cairo, unguarded, through the screaming, murderous crowds," Ruark wrote. "I doubt if another foreigner could have done it and lived."
Caffery's biographer, the late Philip Dur, agreed with Ruark's assessment. "Riots in Cairo aren't any little thing," he told me in a 2003 interview about Caffery. "They go for the jugular. They might have burned the [American] embassy if Caffery had not been so popular."
Caffery had some experience with danger. He'd survived assassination attempts in Cuba and in France, which may have been why a riot in Cairo didn't intimidate him.
After the revolution, Caffery helped negotiate an agreement under which Britain withdrew from Egypt after 72 years of occupation.
He remained ambassador to Egypt until 1955, when he retired from the diplomatic corps after 43 years of service under five presidents: Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower.
He moved back to his native Lafayette and began to write his memoirs, but gave up on the project. "I wrote a fair amount of stuff and then took a look at it," he said. "It was all nonsense. It sounded as if all I had done was go to tea parties and talk to kings."
Ambassador Caffery died in 1974 at the age of 87 and he and his wife Gertrude, who had died a year earlier, are buried behind the old chancery building at St. John Cathedral.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.