Today is the birthday of American journalist A. J. (Abbot Joseph) Liebling (books by this author), born in New York City (1904). His favorite subjects were journalism, boxing, and food. He worked as a sports writer for the New York Times for a while, and then one day his wealthy father offered to foot the bill if he wanted to give up his job and study in Paris for a year. Liebling was thrilled, but felt a little ashamed of accepting charity. He was also afraid his father would change his mind, so he lied and said he couldn’t go because he was about to propose to an older woman of dubious moral character. His story had the desired effect: his father wired the funds into Liebling’s account within a week, and booked his passage on a ship to Europe.
Liebling studied medieval literature at the Sorbonne for a year. He also fell in love with French food and French culture, a love that would last the rest of his life. He returned to Paris in 1939. By then, he had been a staff writer for The New Yorker for four years; the magazine sent him to cover the war in Europe. He stayed in Paris for less than a year, and after the city fell to the Germans in June 1940, he covered the war from Britain and Algeria. Liebling was present — an embedded journalist, as we would say today — at the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and was with the Allied forces when they liberated Paris.
Liebling’s essays and reportage from the war were collected in The Road Back to Paris (1944). He begins the book by remembering how he learned of the impending war: “On Sunday, September 3, 1939, everybody with the price of a newspaper knew that Great Britain and France were about to declare war on Germany, which had already invaded Poland.” Liebling went on to write about people he met on his first visit to the city in 1926. He wondered where they might be now, more than a decade later, and what they might be going through. A month after reading that newspaper article, he requested an overseas assignment. The editors of The New Yorker gave him almost total freedom in how he covered the war. Rather than covering the big political and military events unfolding in Europe, most of his essays were about how the war was affecting ordinary people like the ones he’d known in 1926.
Liebling published his D-Day account, “Cross-Channel Trip,” in the July 1, 1944, issue of The New Yorker and spends much of the account introducing readers to the men aboard his landing craft:
“Pendleton, a large, fair-haired fellow who was known to his shipmates as the Little Admiral, came from Neodesha, Kansas. ‘They never heard of the Coast Guard out there,’ he said. ‘Nobody but me. I knew I would have to go in some kind of service and I was reading in a Kansas City paper one day that the Coast Guard would send a station wagon to your house to get you if it was within a day’s drive of their recruiting station. So I wrote ’em. Never did like to walk.’
“Sitnitsky was washing underclothes at a sink aft of the galley once when I came upon him. When he saw me, he said, ‘The fois’ ting I’m gonna do when I get home is buy my mudder a Washington machine. I never realize what the old lady was up against.’”
After the war, Liebling was awarded the Cross of the Légion d’honneur by the French government for his war reporting.
Liebling, who said: “To the Parisians, and especially to the children, all Americans are now ‘héros du cinema.’ This is particularly disconcerting to sensitive war correspondents, if any, aware, as they are, that these innocent thanks belong to those American combat troops who won the beachhead and then made the breakthrough. There are few such men in Paris.”
And: “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.”
And: “The world isn’t going backward, if you can just stay young enough to remember what it was really like when you were really young.”
And: “Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience.”