- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

NEWS OF PARIS: AMERICAN JOURNALISTS IN THE CITY OF LIGHT BETWEEN THE WARS

By Ronald Weber

Ivan R. Dee, $27.50, 352 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY ROGER K. MILLER

“News of Paris” is one of those agreeable books that make you wish you could have lived then and done that. If you are or were a journalist, the desire is likely to be even stronger.

Ronald Weber, a professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, takes his title from an unpublished F. Scott Fitzgerald story, “News of Paris—Fifteen Years Ago,” about what the European experience meant to Americans during the 1920s. Mr. Weber uses it to refer to American journalism in Paris, “the day-to-day news work that occupied many members of Fitzgerald’s generation.”

That generation includes, of course, such high profile newspapermen-turned-authors as Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. But it also takes in lesser names familiar only to students of American literature or journalism — Vincent Sheehan, Harold Stearns, William L. Shirer, for example — and others scarcely known at all.

With the conclusion of World War I, the center of American journalism in Europe shifted from London to Paris, the author says. Americans went to Paris in part because, with the favorable exchange rate, it was extremely cheap; Paul Scott Mowrer, who became a successful foreign correspondent, said they were willing to work for little just to be able to stay there.

Which means they went there, in greater part, simply because it was Paris, the city of fabled beauty and charm, offering freedom from back-home restrictions on drink and sex. The sizable American expatriate community gave them the feeling they were leading — as Janet Flanner, for 50 years The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, said — a double life of home and abroad.

It was important for the image, as Jake Barnes said in “The Sun Also Rises,” never to be seen working, or at least not to work with excessive zeal. In their own minds the journalists saw themselves as separate from the rootless expatriate crowd and as writers-in-waiting, marking time in journalism until they made their names as poets, novelists or short-story writers.

But newsrooms are notoriously the graveyards of literary dreams. Stearns, whose own early promise as a public intellectual dimmed with the years, said Paris also may have let literary hopefuls prolong their delusions about their talent and prospects.

Stearns, the original of Harvey Stone in “The Sun Also Rises,” was one of scores of writers who worked for one or more of the three English-language newspapers whose histories form a good chunk of this book: the Paris Herald, Paris Tribune and Paris Times. None, as a journalistic enterprise, was particularly distinguished. The Herald was considered marginally the best of the three; Whit Burnett and Martha Foley (later the founders of Story magazine) said its soul was essentially “up-state New York.”

But any self-respecting journalism history has at its heart fascinating characters and anecdotes. “News of Paris” is no exception.

James Thurber worked at the Tribune, which was considered a more bohemian, madcap place than the Herald. He was a dab hand at taking a sentence from the brief nightly cabled news report each newspaper received and spinning it into a column of copy, not without a fair measure of totally fabricated embellishments.

On all the newspapers the limited local reporting consisted primarily of announcing recent tourist arrivals. For this Thurber was adept, as he admitted, at inventing “mythical lords and ladies, commodores and generals, and villas and yachts.”

The book’s writing is solid and its organization into topics generally works well, aside from some repetition. It moves from newspapers to other categories, such as literary magazines (transition, co-edited by Elliot Paul, a central figure in this account) and cultural magazines (The Boulevardier, Comet) and the careers of foreign correspondents.

Within the latter is a nice section on women, starting with Ida Tarbell and going on to Dorothy Thompson, Mary Knight (a latter-day Nellie Bly known for her “participatory journalism”—she disguised herself as a man to witness a guillotining) and Martha Gellhorn.

One of the closing chapters, “Stories of Paris,” explains the real-life events and people behind the novels that grew out of the period. Primarily this means Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” but there is also Paul’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (technically a memoir, but we know how that goes) and Ned Calmer’s elegiac-sounding “All the Summer Days.”

It all came to an end with the outbreak of World War II. The Herald, the last newspaper standing, closed down two days before the Germans entered Paris.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer.

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