PARIS -- Saudi businessmen read it jetting to London. Singapore tycoons have it with papaya for breakfast. South American coffee barons check its stock tables. And yes, American travelers sitting in Left Bank cafe's still dip into it for a taste of home.
The International Herald Tribune is celebrating its centennial this week with a dose of nostalgia and a lot of fond looks back at the ink-stained characters who people its history as a Paris institution. But as the Trib starts its second century, it has come a long way from its beginnings as a quirky journal for rich American expatriates that James Gordon Bennett Jr. started here on Oct. 4, 1887.
Atop Page 1, the 1987 Trib proclaims itself the world's first "Global Newspaper." Circulation figures show it goes to 170,000 subscribers and 270,000 readers living in 164 countries and flying 56 airlines. To get the paper to them all, the Trib beams electronic carbons by satellite from a computer-jammed Paris headquarters to printing plants in London, Zurich, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Hague, Marseilles, Miami and Rome.
A tight selection of American comics and sports items still provides tourists and expatriates with "Doonesbury" and baseball fixes every day but Sunday. For the lonely male, there are also ads for call girls. But the main offering is international and business news, edited in a high-tech newsroom in the Paris suburb of Neuilly for an elite selection of readers.
Editors say the bulk of the readership has evolved sharply over the years from wandering Americans to international businessmen or officials. More than half of today's readers are non-Americans looking for independent political or financial coverage at a level they fear their local newspapers have not reached. What they see mainly are general news articles by U.S.- and foreign-based reporters of The Washington Post and The New York Times, which are part owners of the paper, with an increasing number of contributions from the Trib's own small staff.
The paper's special audience, combined with Trib writers' own penchants, has encouraged highly regarded coverage of financial markets, art and food. The Paris-based reporting also is perhaps a last bastion of the eccentricities that gave the old Trib its flavor and cozy appeal. Longtime readers recall with affection, for example, the late Waverley Root's essays on leeks. Because he is interested, Souren Melikian has chronicled the rise of art as investment with unusual care and expertise.
More recently, the Trib ran on Page 1 a story about a French mayor's plans to build a museum last summer and this week considerable space was devoted to questions and answers with the secretary general of the usually anonymous North Atlantic Assembly.
The Trib started out as the Paris edition of The New York Herald, known as the Paris Herald or "le New York" by Paris street vendors. By the time the parent paper folded in 1966, the Paris publication already had undergone several changes and finally was adopted as the International Herald Tribune under joint ownership by Whitney Communications, The New York Times and The Washington Post. To its current readers it often is known as the IHT, and to Paris kiosk tenders as "le Herald."
But when it came time to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the spirit of Bennett and the early Herald rose naturally from the past. Bennett, a yachtsman who gave himself the rank of commodore, stamped the publication early on with his personality -- headstrong, inventive and American.
Bennett, heir to The New York Herald made great by his father, came to Paris originally because proper New York society had banished him. According to a legend reporters have always been too fond of to check for accuracy, he earned his status of pariah by relieving himself in his fiance'e's fireplace while roaring drunk at a highbrow party.
The Paris edition of The New York Herald started out in offices near the Ope'ra. Within its first few years, it won attention here for its independent tone and American-style energy. True to the Bennett tradition, The Herald published society and sports news, distinguishing itself from the partisan and encrusted French press. It introduced Europe to color comics. A bogus letter signed "Old Philadelphia Lady" became a famous fixture, running 6,718 days in a row with an inquiry about how to convert centigrade temperatures to Fahrenheit.
An undersea cable brought news from New York at what was then record speed. Bennett imported modern presses from the United States, and using the equivalent of today's satellites, he dispatched papers to Normandy watering holes in a red Mercedes that could speed from Paris in two hours.
Bennett died as World War I wound down, but the newspaper lived on, increasingly becoming a local journal for the growing colony of Americans come to live in Paris. Through the 1920s and the Lost Generation, The Herald kept pace with the frantic front-page style of the big American dailies, right down to invented stories and drunken reporters. One, Sparrow Robertson, became a legend, both as a sportswriter and as a figure in Paris nightspots.
But the writers and artists who had set up Hemingway's "movable feast" in the Paris between the wars revolved more around the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. Mary Blume, in the International Herald Tribune's centennial self-examination, pointed out that it was the Chicago Tribune here that actually gave struggling writers a break, while the Paris Herald catered to what one editor called "lobster palace Americans."
The Chicago Tribune's Paris edition folded in 1934, leaving the field clear for the Paris Herald as the voice of America in Europe. But during that decade the paper's editorials shrank to timid compromise with the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. One called for a fascist party in the United States. The Herald was the last Paris paper to close down as the Nazis overran the city. It was by then sorely convinced of the dangers of totalitarianism. When it resumed publication in December 1944, the Old Philadelphia Lady was still writing to ask about centigrade conversion, and there were fond stories about GI Joe.
Syndicated humorist Art Buchwald began his columns in The Herald in 1949, at first as a restaurant critic. In a column that appeared in the Trib this past Tuesday, 38 years later, he said his 14 years in Paris were "the happiest years of my life, except for the first three, when I lived there as a bachelor."
Although the raucous tone has disappeared and Executive Editor John Vinocur views the whole world as his beat, the International Herald Tribune still regards Paris as its home. Capping a week of centennial celebrations here is a 1,500-guest dinner tonight at the Chaillot Palace on the banks of the Seine. Perhaps the most spectacular event so far, though, was a gala held Thursday night at the palace of Versailles, at which the city was presented with a replica of the Statue of Liberty torch.
And despite its current far-flung circulation, the Trib still retains some of the quirks of its Gallic birthplace. The Tour de France bicycle race receives extensive annual coverage, for example, and some readers complain that French political news receives undue attention in a newspaper that claims an international aspect. The classified section lists mostly Paris apartments and job opportunities -- or fake diplomatic passports and anonymous banking. But it also includes ads for "Escorts and Guides," who most readers know are call girls seeking trade from traveling businessmen in European capitals.
Mort Rosenblum, a former editor, says some Trib board members have urged repeatedly that such ads be dropped on the grounds that they are undignified for a paper identified with The Washington Post and The New York Times. The ads remain a daily feature, but as a compromise with propriety, they have been restricted to discreet ambiguity and moved from their regular, highly visible display on the back page to a less conspicuous position inside the paper.