By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
NEWS OF PARIS
American Journalists in the City of Light Between the Wars
By Ronald Weber
Ivan R. Dee. 333 pp. $27.50
Paris during the 1920s and '30s is widely celebrated as the place to which Americans with literary or artistic ambitions flocked in great numbers, as has been amply documented in the work they did there as well as in cultural histories of the period. What is considerably less well-known is that Paris during the same time was also thick with American newspaper people and other journalists. Most of them are forgotten now -- indeed, the pages of "News of Paris" are littered with names of the forgotten -- but their stories are interesting and connect, more than merely tangentially, with the stories of those who did more important and lasting work.
We take it for granted now that the American media cover the whole world, but that wasn't the case a century ago. Not until World War I, when U.S. newspapers and magazines sent significant numbers of reporters to cover the European conflict, did this begin to change, and even by the early 1920s the American journalistic presence on the Continent was comparatively small. But the war focused this country's eyes on the rest of the world, all the more so after the United States became involved. At war's end, some journalists who had covered it were reluctant to leave, while others were lured by the chance to write about distant places and, by no means least, to drink all the alcohol they wanted as America knuckled under to Prohibition.
As the 1920s turned into the 1930s, journalists were attracted to Europe not merely by the stories that could be written there but by the prospect -- or hope -- of doing work of a more durable nature. In "News of Paris," Ronald Weber quotes one of them as recalling "that nearly every journalist of his era 'had the notes for a novel, the synopsis of a play, inspirational clippings, secret jottings of poetry, rejected manuscripts or published works tucked away somewhere in desk drawers or on shelves at home. The flow of words rarely stopped when the office typewriter was covered for the day.' "
With two notable exceptions, though -- Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller -- these journalists didn't add anything to the world's, or their country's, literature. Weber works hard to make a case for the novels of Ned Calmer and Elliot Paul, and perhaps as period pieces they have some interest, but Calmer now is known only to those of us old enough to remember his work for CBS News, and Paul has vanished into the mists of journalistic history.
What the American journalists did in Europe was journalism, some of it quite good -- Janet Flanner, William L. Shirer, Eric Sevareid and A.J. Liebling, most notably -- but most of it was as memorable as the fish-wrapping that the papers in which it was printed became. The papers themselves were memorable in their own fashion: the Herald, the Tribune, the Times (Paris, not New York) and various magazines, most important among them transition (which declined to capitalize itself) but also the Boulevardier, the Comet and others that came and went in rapid succession.
Some of the journalists worked as foreign correspondents, filing dispatches for newspapers back home, primarily in New York and Chicago, but in the early and middle parts of the period, most of them worked for Paris-based newspapers written and edited for Americans overseas. "For newsmen searching for work in Paris, the Herald was ordinarily the paper of first call"; it was the best-known and paid the best salaries -- "best," that is, in relative terms. By the mid-'20s, it had been acquired by the owners of the New York Herald Tribune and became, in the words of its managing editor during that period, "an incubator for the most colorful, competent and sometimes crazy newspapermen that ever populated a city room."
By Weber's account, the honors for craziness surely had to go to the Tribune. Established by Col. Robert McCormick, the Tribune was described by Shirer, who put in some time there before finding his way into broadcasting, as "the world's zaniest newspaper, a crazy journal without peer." Shirer, Henry Miller and James Thurber are about the only Tribune staffers whose names mean anything now, but the forgotten ones seem to have had just as much fun there as they did. A reporter named Spencer Bull, assigned to cover the Prince of Wales's trip to Paris, stopped off for drinks en route to the office and was inspired to embellish fact with fiction. He wrote:
"Stopping before one manly youth the Prince inquired: 'What is your name, my lad?'
" 'None of your goddamned business, sir,' the youngster replied. At that, the Prince snatched a riding crop from his equerry and beat the boy's brains out."
The story ran under a headline (the editors must have been as tipsy as Bull was) that read: "Prince of Wales Bashes Boy's Brains Out with Bludgeon." The prince took it all in stride and insisted on comparatively mild forms of redress, but Bull "was fired -- though it was said he was later kept well supplied with free drinks and meals by admirers of the man who had accused the Prince of Wales of murder."
Bull may have been a trifle more irreverent than most, but he was just one among many free-spirited Americans who went to Paris between the wars in search of . . . well, that was not always entirely clear. They made an impression, though, as described by a British journalist who clearly found them quite marvelous:
"The American newspaper men swarmed all over the still-ravaged territories of the European belligerents. They came hungry for adventure, for news, for experience, for sensation, for novelty, for sex. They came with their bright and cynical eyes, their calm, unworried faces, their tireless industry, their cool courage, their infinite capacity for drinks, jesting, poker, and work, their insatiable curiosity, their generosity to a comrade, American or European, their professional pride, their calm assumption of equality with any king, president, statesman or newspaper reporter under the sun."
From time to time, they rubbed shoulders with F. Scott Fitzgerald, the painter Gerald Murphy, the Canadian writer Morley Callaghan and others who did work of greater substance during their Paris years, but mostly they did their jobs, raised as much hell as time, energy and money permitted, and went on to other jobs and/or pursuits as the new war dawned and the Nazis marched on the city. A few, most notably Vincent Sheean and John Gunther, published "popular [nonfiction] books for homebound readers hungry for tales of foreign lands" and made a good deal of money from them, but most of them just had their brief moments in what passed for the bright lights of the ex-pat and then disappeared, as is the fate that awaits just about all of us in this most evanescent of occupations.
The stories of these men (and a very few women) are interesting, and Weber -- a retired professor at the University of Notre Dame -- has gathered together many of them. The book goes on a bit longer than the evidence warrants -- especially in a long chapter devoted to such fiction as these journalists were able to publish -- and it probably will be of more interest to journalists than to other readers, but it does serve as a useful reminder that the American presence in Paris during the Jazz Age and the Great Depression was larger and more varied than is usually understood.