Papers of Paris
An Irishman’s Diary: Fact and fantasy in 1920s journalism
James Joyce was paid between $8 and $10 for each piece he wrote for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Bohemian Paris in the 1920s was a wonderful place for journalists, who could enjoy the city’ s non-conformity; the city was awash with vinous and many other libertarian delights. Not only were mainstream newspapers flourishing, but the city at one stage had four English language newspapers and a plethora of literary publishers. The comparison with Dublin was astonishing.
The collapse of the French franc against the US dollar precipitated an influx of Americans to Paris, including many literary figures. Paris became home to the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound. They could live for next to nothing in Paris and while away many hours in the literary cafes of Montparnasse, then the cultural centre of Paris. The seismic shift to the boulevard St Germain came much later.
One noted writer who contributed occasional newspaper pieces was James Joyce, who was paid between $8 and $10 for each piece he wrote for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. This paper was by far the most interesting of the three American newspapers in Paris, although after 17 anarchic years, it merged in 1934 with its better-off rival, the Paris version of the New York Herald. This was the progenitor of the present day International New York Times, still produced in Paris. The third paper, the Paris Times, had a far briefer existence. The fourth English language paper in Paris was the Continental Daily Mail, founded in 1905.
The Chicago paper had a staff of about 30 and how it managed to survive for so long on such perilous foundations remained a mystery. Cafe life was a constant distraction and its business editor always said that he made the office each day just in time for lunch. On one occasion, F Scott Fitzgerald, who had just arrived at its offices with Zelda his wife, announced that he had just been to a brothel and that he had enjoyed the experience so much that everyone on the staff should try it; most already had.
A young French woman called Louisette managed to have relations with most of the staff of the Chicago paper in Paris and after she died in her 20s, it was said that she had lived herself to death. Staffers working on its newsdesk had a great ability to fashion two columns of text out of a 20-word cable. Inventiveness was everything; the paper also did a Nice edition during the height of the winter season on the Côte d’Azur, and on one occasion, the editor in Nice was so short of copy that he simply had the entire edition set in 10 point type.
One man on the Paris newsdesk once took this creative spirit to new heights. The then Prince of Wales was on a visit to a Paris orphanage and Spencer Bull rewrote the handout about the prince’s trip. Bull was well under the influence, when he customarily could make no distinction between fact and fantasy. In his rewrite, he had the prince ask a young lad what his name was. “None of your goddamned business, sir,” the youth replied, at which the prince seized a riding crop from his equerry and beat the young lad’s brains out. Unbelievably, the copy made the front page of the paper next morning, with the banner headline: “Prince of Wales Bashes Boy’ s Brains Out With Bludgeon”. This sense of anarchy was widespread.
When Charles Lindbergh, the American aviator, arrived in Paris in 1927, a young Jean- Paul Sartre pulled off a celebrated hoax when he announced that the flyer was going to get an honorary degree from the École Normale. Some newspapers reported it verbatim.
The mainstream Parisian newspapers were also going through a golden age in the 1920s, with the best part of a dozen dailies, the same number then as New York. The splendidly titled L’Intransigeant was very popular, Paris-Soir even more so, selling two and a half million copies a day. Yet many of those papers failed to survive the start of the second World War – some didn’ t even last through the 1930s – and just about the only Parisian paper to still exist from those heady times to the present is Le Figaro, then owned by François Coty the perfume magnate.
Like all good times, 1920s Paris couldn’t continue and the 1930s were much more sombre for print there. Ironically, another great Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, managed to arrive just as the party was finally ending, at the tail end of the 1930s.