Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a newspaper and I fell in love...
REPRINTED FROM: THE COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW MAY-JUNE 2013
The Back Page A feature writer at the erstwhile International Herald Tribune remembers the glory days, when presses were on the premises and the paper left ink on your hands
They’re going to bury my newspaper.
The International Herald Tribune is dead.
Once upon a time, this wonderful, irreverent, and forever-iconic, six-days-a-week, Paris-based broadsheet was cherished by Americans in Europe. With the IHT, being away from home didn’t mean being cut off from home. This fall, The New York Times, which owns the paper, is taking down the masthead and turning it into the The Global Edition of the New York Times.
It doesn’t make sense. If you want what the Times has to offer, you can have it on the Web. Why would anyone from Lubbock, Texas, who finds herself in Lubbock, Germany, care about The New York Times? There are already plenty of people in New York who don’t care about it.
One of the last of the great journalistic legacies is soon to be a vacant lot.
Born as the Paris Herald in 1887, the paper was the lovechild of the man who then owned the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett Jr. The lunatic son of a legendary American newspaperman, Bennett headed for Europe after socially disgracing himself in New York and settled in Paris, which has always been a fine place to be the family’s black sheep.
His timing was perfect. Wealthy Americans were flocking to Paris to buy art, to dress in the latest fashions, to eat the food, and to soak up the culture of a city they considered to be the most sophisticated in the world. While the British built London for the British, the French had built Paris for the world.
Some of us have never been able to get enough.
Seeing a niche, Bennett reinvented his New York paper in Europe to cater to the tastes of wealthy American travelers and expatriates. He stressed names and news, told stories you couldn’t find anywhere else, brought Linotype and comic strips across the Atlantic, raced his early editions by Mercedes to the Channel so they could be sold quickly in England (he eventually flew them, making the IHT the first truly international newspaper). He even highlighted sporting events on the front page.
He set a tone of impertinence that characterized the IHT for more than a century.
The paper, when I came to know it in the early 1970s, was housed in a grubby office block at 21 rue de Berri, just off the Champs-Élysées in the 8th Arrondissement. Newsweek’s Paris bureau was on the third floor. The printing presses were in the basement.
To be honest, calling that building grubby doesn’t come close. The paint on the walls had long ago flaked off. The building probably had an elevator—I’m almost sure there was one—but no one in their right mind would have trusted it. Not that the stairs were any better. None of the steps were parallel with the floor.
There was a horseshoe editors’ desk, manned by old salts wearing shirt garters, none of whom could be bothered to hide their bottle of booze in some desk drawer. Drawers didn’t close, anyway, because the wood was so warped with age. The furniture was mostly broken, all of the typewriters had seen better days, and the place stank of smoke—cigarette, cigar, and pipe.
The staff wasn’t very big, and then not everybody was there all the time. If you couldn’t find someone, the first place you checked was the bar across the street at the Hotel Californie.
The editor was a rough-and-ready character named Murray Weiss (everyone called him Buddy) —who’d started at the New York Herald Tribune as a copy boy just after World War II and worked at every desk in the building — then moved to Paris to run the IHT from 1966 to 1979 like Patton’s army. Buddy liked writers, especially young writers, and he was always extremely nice to me. As I recall, his wife worked there too, which wasn’t uncommon. Just about everybody seemed to be married to, or divorced from, or married again to, everybody else.
Although I was based in the south of France, one of the great treats of Paris was coming up to that office and mooching an impromptu invitation to dinner. The paper didn’t go to bed until late, so food at 7:30 meant plenty of time afterward to get the paper out. On the best of those visits, someone would announce, “We need a back page,” and someone else would say, “The kid’s here,” and I’d be directed to a half-broken desk with a mostly-broken, infinitely uncomfortable swivel chair and told, “Half an hour.”
Everyone seemed to be shouting at the same time—well, mostly cursing at the same time—and deadlines were always too short. I vaguely recall a deadline bell. Manual typewriters clanked and phones rang. It was what a newspaper office is supposed to sound like.
Most of the time, once copy was handed in, I’d get ignored. I’d already been fed, I’d written, and there was no further use for me. But sometimes, on really good nights, someone would take me downstairs into the basement to watch the first edition roll off the press. They’d let me yank my own copy from the conveyor belt and there it was: my story, still warm, like a fresh-baked baguette.
Best of all, there was ink on my hands.
Sadly, progress took its toll. When the IHT moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, the old building was sold and the name on the front of it taken down.
Somehow the editors coped.
I never could.
The new office was open-plan, with a few private, glass-walled rooms along the side, and no booze anywhere to be seen. There might have been a news desk, I don’t remember. Everyone was just someone else in just another cubicle. The place had the pall of an insurance office.
Not long after the move, I had an as-yet-unfiled story, which someone said they could use. But now the copy deadline was early, like 6 or 7—they were printing all over Europe and had to worry about the Far East edition, too—which meant no more lazy dinners. It also meant no more manual typewriters. Someone sat me down in front of a word processor for the very first time, and I hated it.
When I finally finished, instead of carrying the copy to a desk, and getting a grunt from some guy with gin breath, I merely pushed a button. And that was that. I never saw the story again until it appeared on the back page the following morning.
It just didn’t feel right.
There was no ink.
There were, however, still some great characters. Mike Zwerin knew more about jazz than just about anyone in Europe. And Hebe Dorsey was the first to critique fashion like a Broadway play. The fact that I never saw her smoke stogies and swig bourbon might only be because I wasn’t always watching.
Then there was Dick Roraback. He was a terrific guy who’d been an editor there for years and wrote all sorts of offbeat stuff. I remember one piece he did about crossing the Danish border without his passport. All he had to prove that he was him was his American Express card. Dick wrote funny, and when the IHT wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Stanley finding Livingstone, they sent him.
It was Bennett who, in 1869, had dispatched the New York Herald’s best reporter, Henry Stanley, to investigate the disappearance in Africa of the Scottish medical missionary Dr. David Livingstone. Two years later, Stanley located the long-missing man on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. That’s where Stanley supposedly said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
Truth be told, he almost certainly didn’t say that. Dick’s centenary version of the encounter ran as a double-truck spread—two facing pages—in the middle of the paper, over five days. At least I seem to remember it as five days. Maybe it was only three. Still, it was a lot of space for one story. No paper would dare consider such a thing today. But that’s what the IHT did.
It was a paper that loved writers and writing.
Mary was the great ghost of the IHT, because she never came into the office and few people could claim sightings of her. She would phone in her idea and send her copy over by messenger. She might have been the best crisp, clear writer the IHT ever had.
My problem was that I became her shadow. I was the one they called when Mary didn’t want to write the story. Too often, I had to force a polite grin through disappointing wails of, “But we thought Mary Blume was covering this.”
I admired her enormously, although I never met her. I once suggested we have lunch. She politely declined. I never held it against her, because no one else at the paper—at least no one I knew—ever had lunch with her, either.
I did, however, know Waverley. We spoke on the phone every now and then—he was in a wheelchair and never left his apartment—and although he habitually refused guests, I was invited to visit.
More people have won the Nobel Prize for Literature than had an audience at home with the elderly Waverley Root. He looked like Santa Claus, with one of those great white beards and wonderfully smiling eyes, but wrote much better than Old Saint Nick. Or, for that matter, most people.
Whenever he appeared on the back page, it was always a gem. Often it was something charmingly obscure about food, like why no one in France grew lime. But then there was his masterpiece. “I Never Knew Hemingway,” a perfect essay about being the only journalist in Paris during the 1920s who was honest enough to admit that.
The back page, where Mary and Waverley and I wrote, was prime real estate. In the middle of the page, there was a box, 850 to 900 words long, about anything and everything. This was center stage at Carnegie Hall.
Below the fold were the IHT’s not-to-be-missed classified ads—Americans selling dodgy cars, Americans with overpriced apartments for rent, and hookers looking for dates.
Above the fold, there was the gossipy People Column on the right side, and a humor column on the left side. That’s where Art Buchwald was and where every Thanksgiving they reran his classic “Le Jour de Merci Donnant“—his translation of thanks and giving—and why, for one day a year, Americans eat better than the French.
From the time I moved to the south of France in late 1970, I’d been writing 650-word features for the Christian Science Monitor. In those days, the CSM was one of the five papers read in the Oval Office, with news bureaux all over Europe. I had my first front-page byline with them, chasing Henry Kissinger all over Paris during the Vietnam War peace talks. They paid me $35 per story, and added $5 for a photo. My rent, with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, was $72 a month.
Then along came the IHT, offering $75 a pop. It was a no-brainer. Not just because of the money, but because it was the IHT.
Over the next 10 years, I wrote hundreds of back-page features for them, and developed my own form, using quotes the way television does, without the usual “he said” attribution. Now it’s done all the time. I probably didn’t invent it, but I made it mine. I also, eventually, got my rate all the way up to $100.
My byline appeared from all over Europe, from various places in North America and from as far afield as Australia and Tahiti. I wrote about artists, pickpockets, addicted gamblers, world-championship Monopoly players, a woman who once posed for Modigliani, and the jazz great Earl “Fatha” Hines. I interviewed Richard Boone (he was fantastic), Graham Greene (he was lonely), Anthony Burgess (delightfully nuts), Andy Warhol (he took pictures of me taking pictures of him), Carmen McRae, Lino Ventura, Bobby Short and Walter Cronkite. (I told Walter that his retirement from the CBS Evening News meant the world would never be the same, and when I bumped into him in New York shortly before he died, I reminded him of that and he said, “You were right.”)
I wrote about counterfeit stamps, hidden wine cellars, obscure museums where the public wasn’t welcome, and Italian train bandits. I interviewed Elaine Stritch, Natalie Cole, Art Carney, Carl Reiner, Henry Moore, and Cary Grant (I asked him if he got laid a lot and he assured me he did). I even got to have lunch with Richard Burton, and when I asked him what he wanted to drink, he said, “Anything, sweetheart, as long it floats an ice cube.”
And then, one day, it ended.
No one said goodbye. There was no handshake. I’m not sure if anyone even noticed. It was 1982. I left France for England to write books. By then, the IHT was desperate to become a serious business newspaper, to do battle with the newly arrived Wall Street Journal European Edition.
No one there today remembers me, or what the IHT and I shared. Waverley is gone. Mary has moved on. Mike and Hebe and Buddy are gone. So is Dick.
Intellectually, I understand why the NYT has turned off the life support machine. But I will never forgive them for doing that.
They’re going to bury my newspaper.
The International Herald Tribune is dead.
So what if I was just another one of her suitors?
Mon amour, we’ll always have the rue de Berri.