Friday, October 04, 2019

'A Couple of Battered Old Correspondents'

In Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling, Raymond Sokolov off-handedly mentions a television appearance Liebling made a few years before his death in 1963. I’ve periodically searched for that footage or any other film of Liebling, without success. Now I’ve found a brief film in color showing him and other war correspondents (starting around 1:15) visiting Mont-Saint-Michel in 1944. The post-synched narrator describes him as “the bald-headed chap.” Liebling is in uniform and significantly svelter than he would become after the war. Later that year he would turn forty.

Liebling loved France. He first visited in 1926 on his father’s tab. He was nominally there to study French medieval literature at the Sorbonne. His true occupation was eating, drinking and looking for girls. Unlike many visitors, he loved not only Paris but the provinces. When The New Yorker sent him to Europe in October 1939, eight months before the fall of France, it was personal. On June 6, 1944, he witnessed the Normandy invasion  while off the coast from Omaha Beach in an LCIL (Landing Craft, Infantry, Large). The German garrison surrendered the French capital on Aug. 25, 1944. In the Sept. 9 issue of The New Yorker, Liebling begins his “Letter from Paris” like this:

“For the first time in my life and probably the last, I have lived for a week in a great city where everybody is happy. Moreover, since this city is Paris, everybody makes this euphoria manifest.”

France is at the heart of his two best books – Normandy Revisited (1958), which recounts the sentimental journey he made to northern France in 1955, interleaved with memories of 1926 and 1939-1945; and Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962). In Normandy Revisited he described the visit to Mont-Saint-Michel:

“In 1944 a couple of battered old correspondents I knew crossed the same sands in a jeep, and arrived at the Mont in time to liberate it—the only Germans, a weather-observation unit, had left, and the official Army had not arrived. I believe they had a good welcome. Hemingway made the Hôtel de la Mère Poularde his headquarters after that. He had a good time and wrote and recruited his strength for his dash on Paris.”

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