“The best years of our lives”
In the 60s, Jim Goldsborough was the star Paris reporter for the Paris Herald-Tribune (later to be the International Herald Tribune and the International New York Times). He recently published The Paris Herald, a roman à clef mined from his exciting days at the Herald. It was a yeasty time in France — the war was barely 20 years in the past, DeGaulle was (once again) in power, and the fate of the Paris Herald hung very much in the balance after the failure of its mother ship, the New York Herald Tribune.
I reviewed the novel for Part-Time Parisian last week and recommend it highly, especially if you’re a journalism or Paris junkie (I’m both). The book is here on Amazon. It’s available in Kindle and hardback editions.
John Pearce: Jim, we were almost contemporaries at the Herald-Tribune, although we never met, probably because I was working from Frankfurt. I remember Buddy Weiss very well indeed, along with some of the other characters in The Paris Herald. How much of you is in The Paris Herald? In other words, how autobiographical is it? Tell us about your time there.
Jim Goldsborough: I’d have a hard time making the case that the experiences of Rupert Archer, the lead character of my story, didn’t parallel some of mine. They did. But there’s a good deal of invention in my story, which is why it’s a novel rather than a straight history of the Herald Tribune. As for some other characters in the book, sure I could have used the customary disclaimer, “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” But that line is typically used to keep people from suing, and newspaper people tend to be suees rather than suers. Many of the characters in my story are real people and I use their real names – Jock Whitney, Kay Graham, Punch Sulzberger, Ben Bradlee, to take four – and their actions in the book try to be true to events. Some of the fictitious characters may be identifiable, and some not. Some are pure invention, though their actions serve real events. It is a work of historical fiction, and I have used a typical technique, interlacing fictitious characters with real ones, to tell the story.
JP: I was an admirer and devoted follower of your stories, and I very much enjoyed your novel — I will review it a few days after this interview appears. Tell me what you most enjoyed about working at the newspaper, and what effect it’s had on the balance of your career, both in journalism and in your non-fiction writing?
JG: I think that any of us who worked on the Herald Tribune in the late 1960s would say that those were the best years of our lives. Maybe we didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect we surely understand our good fortune to have worked for that newspaper in those exciting times. Covering Charles de Gaulle at the height of the Cold War, would be the highlight of any reporter’s career. The Herald Tribune in those days was an old-fashioned newspaper where you got off work just before midnight and downed too many demis at the Berri Bar waiting for the first edition and worrying about how you’d translated de Gaulle’s latest thunderbolt. We were underpaid and overworked but exhilarated to know we were the first truly international newspaper and that all Europe was out there waiting for what we wrote. For me, a young reporter who’d arrived in Europe knowing next to nothing, the time in Paris was transformational. I went on from there to become Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Newsweek bureau chief, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment in New York, author of a half dozen articles in Foreign Affairs and three books. Hemingway had it right: Paris is a moveable feast. You leave it but it never leaves you. I knew I would never be content until I told the story of those years in Paris.
JP: You used a lot of real identities in the book, which I know must have made it more interesting to all of us who worked there at one time or another. How have your old friends reacted to the sudden fame?
JG: To a degree “The Paris Herald” is a roman à clef, though some of the principal characters – Whitney, Sulzberger, Graham etc. – don’t need a clef because I use their real names. As for many of the invented characters, some who may bear some resemblance to real people, the only complaint I’ve heard so far came from someone who was left out. I understand. If an author is molding his characters on real people he’s going to choose the most interesting models. Readers should not jump to conclusions. I’ve used not only imagination and invention but also amalgamation. Henri de Saint Gaudens, for example, a key French figure in the story, is a composite of two men who worked for President de Gaulle at the time. Saint Gaudens is in effect an original. So is Theo le Tac. So is Tonton Pinard.
JP: When you and I knew it the Paris Herald was truly a Paris newspaper, right down to the ratty offices on Rue de Berri. It was more like something out of The Front Page than the sixties and seventies. I don’t see as much Paris in the International New York Times. What’s your view about how it has changed over the decades? What has it done to the special feeling a lot of Americans have for Paris?
JG: James Gordon Bennett Jr., the man who sent Henry Stanley to find Dr. Livingstone, started the Paris Herald in 1887. At the time it was strictly a Paris newspaper – like the New York Herald and New York Tribune were strictly New York newspapers. Newspapers kept to their hometown. Later, as transportation improved, the Paris Herald began to be distributed around France and soon around Europe. This was especially true after the two world wars when the Herald Tribune’s American readership was spread around the continent. When the Americans went home in the 1930s and 1950s, the newspaper had to refocus, starting to target English-speaking Europeans. By my time, the owners knew the Herald Tribune had to become more European oriented. The changes that began in the 1970s – to move out of Paris, to cover less of Paris and more of other countries, were inevitable. Those moves also changed what had been a real Paris newspaper into what my friend Don Cook of the Los Angeles Times called a Neuilly “computer center.” One change that was not necessary was to change the name of the newspaper. That was an a-historical act of arrogance and contumely that is inexcusable.
JP: Some of the most interesting scenes in your book illustrate very clearly that the French government doesn’t hesitate to involve itself in the day-to-day work of journalism. Did you see the effects of such meddling in the day-to-day editing and publishing decisions of your own work?
JG: As a rule, the French government did not mess with the Paris Herald or International Herald Tribune. Before my time, there were a few cases of censorship related to coverage of the Algerian War, but French newspapers went through that as well. In my time, there were frequent cases of official complaint, but that is no different from what I’ve experienced on U.S. newspapers when government officials think you’ve been unfair or even wrong. As far as censorship, I know of none. As I make clear in my novel, the French government understood and understands the advantages to France of having the Herald Tribune (oops, New York Times) published in Paris, even though Paris may not be covered as much as it was. In my time, the government knew it was touch and go whether we would remain in Paris, especially in 1968 with the anti-Vietnam demonstrations and May revolt. The government was careful to do nothing that would strengthen the case of those in the newspaper’s ownership, especially Jock Whitney, who wanted to move the newspaper to Germany or Switzerland.
JP: What’s next? Do you have any other Paris-related projects in the oven? This is a Paris blog, and I’m a part-time Parisian, so I’d certainly like to write about another Goldsborough Paris book.
JG: My next novel is not about Paris, sorry to say. It is about Cuba. But after that, who knows? My daughter lives and works in Paris so I come over as often as I can. I stay in touch with French friends and events. A writer never knows what will pique his fancy. I wrote the first draft of The Paris Herald years ago in New York and put it in my trunk as I moved on to other newspaper jobs and to write other books. It might have remained there if the New York Times hadn’t decided two years ago to air brush the hallowed Herald and Herald Tribune names from history – just as Stalin air-brushed Trotsky and Mao air-brushed Liu shaoqi away. Changing the newspaper’s name was an offense that needed an answer so I pulled out the manuscript, worked on it for about a year, sent it off to an agent and then to a publisher. Maybe the next time I come to Paris I’ll see something that inspires me to do a new book on Paris. That’s David McCullough’s thesis in his book The Greater Journey, isn’t it? How Paris has inspired Americans though the ages. I see no reason why it should stop.