Some years ago we visited the land of big lakes in northern Italy. I had heard that George Clooney – the actor George Clooney recently seen hugging Katie Holmes in London – owned a smashing villa on the shores of Lake Como where he entertained his Hollywood friends. For some reason, even though we were in the area for several days, George neglected to invite us over for dinner. Or even cocktails. I would have gladly brought a bottle of the local wine.
So, no George on the trip to Varenna and Bellagio – the one on the big lake in Italy, not on The Strip in Nevada. I remember lovely Varenna most fondly, a little town perched rather precariously on a steep hillside above the frightfully beautiful lake. The lovely woman who ran one of the town’s small restaurants announced the menu of the day by saying simply, “we have meat and we have fish.” Perfect.
The first morning in Varenna I set off to find the European vacationing American connection to the New World – the International Herald Tribune. A small newsstand near our hotel turned out to be promising even as I entered with a certain trepidation, Italian not being my first language. The woman behind the counter waited patiently while I looked over the newspapers – La Monde, Corriere della Sera, the Wall Street Journal and the jackpot the IHT.
I pointed in my best Italian at the Herald Tribune, smiled and put down what I was certain was enough money to pay for the paper. The clerk returned my smile, handled me the paper and, thankfully, a little change. I went away happy, as Ernest Hemingway and John dos Passos must have in their day, with the paper that would catch me up on the pennant races, give me a flavor of news from Washington and tell me of a gallery opening in Milan.
I’ve bought the IHT in Paris and London, Milan and Buenos Aires. I had one of the few truly enjoyable airplane rides of my life when I boarded a flight in Europe and the smiling flight attendant handed me that morning’s Herald Tribune. How very civilized. How very international.
The paper has been through its good times and bad since James Gordon Bennett started the paper in Paris in 1887. In the 1920’s it became the tip sheet for ex-patriots living in Europe and has always offered a take on the world as seen through the distinct lens of Americans living in Paris. Simon Tisdall, writing in The Guardian, remembers that the paper – then called the Herald – figured in Hemingway’s great novel The Sun Also Rises. The “first thing the autobiographical hero, Jake Barnes, does on his return to France from Spain is buy the Herald,” Tisdall wrote, “and read it in a cafe with a glass of wine.” How civilized.
In their infinite wisdom the powers to be at the New York Times – they own what until today was the IHT – have re-christened the old girl The International New York Times. The Times brass says it is furthering “the global brand” for the mother ship and I suspect there is marketing wisdom, if not great respect for tradition, in the new name. I’ll just need to get used to it, I guess, as I’ve gotten use to smaller and smaller print papers and shorter and shorter stories. This “old school” newspaper lover is trying to adapt to what the newspaper folks call their “digital platforms.” Give me ink on newsprint, thank you.
Maybe the best thing about the transition to the new name is that there has been respect for the features and style of the old IHT, including the columns that the great Art Buchwald wrote for many years. If you’re too young to know who Art Buchwald was then let’s just say I’m sorry for you. There is no one writing today quite like Buchwald. In April of 1956 he wrote his IHT column about covering the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, he of Monaco not the Washington volcano. Think of that celebrity wedding as on par with Kate Middleton and that British bloke she married a while back.
After reporting that his seat at the ceremony, courtesy of the bride’s family due to his feud with the Prince’s family, offered the choice of sitting behind a post or behind ex-King Farouk, Art decided he could see more from behind the post.
Buchwald wrote: “At the palace reception, after the wedding, the bridegroom’s relatives and the bride’s relatives kept separated and eyed each other suspiciously. Most of us from the Kelly side, as we ate foie gras, lobster, chicken and wedding cake, decided our Grace was too good for their Rainier, and she was a girl in a million. We decided that America had given Europe many things in the past, but nothing comparable to this beautiful princess.”
Buchwald might have actually been at the Kelly-Rainier wedding since he knew everybody, but the beauty of his very funny pieces was it was often impossible to separate his fanciful imaginings from his eyewitness reporting. Most of the time the fanciful won out. Buchwald once wrote, as NPR reported, “you know, there are only three things worth seeing in the Louvre museum. That’s the Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. And the rest of the stuff is all junk.”
Art Buchwald was a treasure and the IHT was treasured because of his wonderful prose. He was also right about “our Grace.” She was a girl in a million…but that is another piece.
On my second morning in Varenna, still wondering why the less-than-gracious Clooney hadn’t called, I wandered down to my newsstand and after a few grunts in English and gestures in Italian I bought my Herald Tribune. Perfect. On the third morning, I repeated the ritual looking over the offerings and trying to spot the Herald Tribune among all the papers whose names I couldn’t pronounce let alone read. Finally after some moments of unsuccessful searching the woman behind the counter, who had always responded immediately to my graceless pointing, quietly said in perfect English – “There is no Herald Tribune today. Sorry.”
I smiled my Ugly American smile. She spoke English all along and I can almost hear her saying the same words this morning – There is no Herald Tribune today. I hope the International New York Times can somehow carry on the tradition. I’ll miss the quirky and beautiful International Herald Tribune, just as I miss the quirky Art Buchwald and the beautiful Grace.