Pierre Salinger, France’s American

Pierre Salinger, France’s American

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Unless
you never read newspapers, never listen to the radio or watch
television or are out hiking in the Himalayas, you undoubtedly are
aware that Pierre Salinger, journalist, politician, musician but, above
all, President John F. Kennedy’s high-profile press spokesman, passed
away over the weekend at the age of 79.

His
death marks the departure of a really remarkable individual who was
almost a living embodiment of the term, “Franco-American.”

Some
years ago, at a grandiose dinner in Versailles celebrating one or
another landmark anniversary in Pierre’s professional life, I remember
making a short speech describing him as someone considered by the
French not as “an American, or the American but THEIR American in
France.

And so he was.

He
was for many years virtually omnipresent on the French scene. Although
he was born in San Francisco, his mother was French and he spoke French
fluently if not always flawlessly. At various times he was the American
television network ABC’s Paris bureau chief. He was a correspondent and
columnist for the French weekly news magazine “l’Express.” He was a
fixture on French television and radio programs called up constantly to
comment on one or another aspect of what the U.S. government was doing
or what was going on in America. It was hard to find a French citizen
who hadn’t heard, seen or heard of Pierre Salinger.

Because
my own career, like that of Pierre, includes a French wife, time as a
journalist, as a press spokesman, as part of the White House staff and
finally, the decision to reside permanently in France, our paths
crossed a lot–in Moscow, in Sarajevo, in London, Washington and, of
course, in Paris.

A lot–an
awful lot–of people justifiably can make this claim, but Pierre was a
good friend. I had nowhere near his stature, his experience or his
contacts. We weren’t on the phone to each other each day and often our
friendship, depending on where our jobs were located at the moment,
didn’t surpass annual Christmas cards.

But
when we were in the same town or even the same country, we and our
wives frequently dined together at each other’s residences, sometimes
formally, sometimes spontaneously just for pot luck or sandwiches.

Chez
Pierre, even for pot luck, that always included good wine good food,
stimulating conversation and the omnipresence of his trade-mark cigars.
Often, it also included, chez eux or chez nous a turn at the piano by
Pierre, who had been a child prodigy on the concert stage from the age
of six.

One year when my wife
and I were planning a U.S. vacation, the Salingers generously offered
us use of their vacation home on the island of Nantucket which
otherwise would have remained empty until their eventual arrival to
join us. That stay included, with them when they turned up, a rather
memorable speedboat ride far out to sea where we transferred to Senator
Teddy Kennedy’s multi-masted schooner for a refreshing sail back to the
island.

Pretty heady stuff for
us. Just another day at the office for Pierre, who, wherever he was,
seemed to know and frequent everyone who was anyone on the local scene.

When
my wife, Christine, first heard of his death, her instant remark was
that he had been a “grand homme,” a great man. As usual, she was right
on.

In recent years she and I
visited Pierre and his wife, Nicole, nearly every September at their
home near Avignon in Provence. Staunch Democrat that he was, he left
the United States and settled permanently in France, in good measure as
a protest gesture, after George W. Bush’s election as U.S. President in
2000. It was in Provence, at the end, that he was stricken with his
fatal heart attack.

During
those years, Pierre’s health had declined steadily and visibly. At the
start, he maintained a vigorous schedule of lectures and appearances
throughout France and for guests at the Salinger home he remained a
spellbinding storyteller about his experiences, one who, as a bonus,
often would return to his piano to play again the repertoire of his
youth.

That pace slowed
inevitably with time. He remained, however, someone you simply couldn’t
forget if you met him. An instantly likeable “people-person” and a
dedicated journalist at heart, his home in Provence abounded with a
mountain of photographs, articles and books, by him and about him, most
centered on his time with President Kennedy. He regularly followed the
television news and had no shortage of opinions about how his own
country and his adopted one were being run.

We
couldn’t visit him this year because we were marrying off our son
elsewhere in France. So we failed to see him that one last time. We
would have liked to do that not just because we were friends but also
because we owed the Salingers a lot.

We will miss him greatly, as will many, many others in both his countries.

Editor’s note: Mr. Salinger will be buried in Arlington, VA. A memorial service will be held in Paris on Friday, November 5th.


An
accredited member of the foreign press corps, Minnesota native Robert
(Bud) Korengold first came to Europe in 1955 after serving in the
Korean war. A Chevalier in the order of Tastevin in Burgundy, the
recipient of a Presidential Award for Sustained Superior Accomplishment
in the conduct of foreign policy, and a member of the order of Palmes
Academiques and the order of Arts et Lettres, he lives in Normandy
doing a bit of gardening and a bit of writing and a lot of amused
reflection about life in France and with the French.

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