Queens Boy Went to Paris
(This is one of those pieces I hate to write, but am compelled to do.)
It was March in 1953 and I bumped into John Vinocur in the GG subway, the local that ran underneath Queens Blvd.
John was a year behind me in Junior High 157 but we had gotten to know each other on the daily ride to Rego Park.
The headlines in the papers – everybody read a paper in those days – The Daily News! The Times! The Trib! The Mirror! – and these were just the AM papers -- were about the death of Joseph Stalin on March 5.
The question was, would the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. be lessened or heightened by whoever came next, a fun discussion in any decade. John was a news junkie and so was I and we chatted animatedly, and no doubt loudly and ostentatiously, until the GG local had arrived at our stop.
I thought of that subway ride when I read that John passed Sunday in Amsterdam, yet another great city he knew from his time as reporter and editor at the Associated Press, International Herald Tribune, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
He lived the dream that was perhaps in our brash Queens minds on that March morning of 1953.
The obituaries tell of his accomplishments and hint at his bluster. I know somebody who worked in the Paris office of the IHT for a year in the early 80s – “dashing and vibrant” were the words she used.
That was when the IHT was an eccentric wing of the Times, its office never far from the Champs Elysées, its product a must-read for ex-pat or vacationing Americans, long before the Internet. News from home! Sports scores! It was the offshoot of the paper being hawked by Jean Seberg – “New York Herald Tribune!" – in Paris, as Jean-Paul Belmondo sharks her, in the 1960 movie “Breathless.”
That was the same world sought out by John Vinocur, who had played a little basketball at Forest Hills High, went to Oberlin, and then off to France, where he played semi-pro basketball. The hoops were part of his rep, and he often mentioned it to me, knowing I would be properly impressed.
At some point, John went to work for the Associated Press in Paris, earning good assignments like the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Here is eager young John Vinocur, covering the massacre of Israeli athletes, described by another deceased pal of mine, Hubert Mizell, late of the St. Petersburg Times.
"A native New Yorker, he… matriculated to backwater France, learning the language from natives and picking up money playing semi-pro hoops.”
Hubert then describes how John “ignored police warnings and scaled a fence to get close to Building 31.”
That would be John from Queens, scaling a fence.
I can find no reference in his obit to how John got his job at the Times, but as I recall it, John was working for the AP in Paris when the movie “Last Tango in Paris” came out, portraying the club world of Paris in all its seediness, and John went to one of the raunchier clubs and wrote about it, and somebody at the NYT noticed. That’s how it worked: somebody likes your clips.
John worked in the home office of the NYT for a while but my guess is he was used to being The American in Paris, so he went back. We ran into each other over the years, and would share opinions of New York sports, our Queens voices the loudest in any brasserie or café, still bonded from the GG local subway.
If you can leap the paywall, you can find Sam Roberts’ obituary of John Vinocur here:
And just to get a feel of the dream, Paris in the 60s, here is the clip from “Breathless:”
Alan D. Levine
2/7/2022 03:24:03 pm
The fantasy life of a foreign correspondent/ expat come true. Survived by six kids, seven grand kids, Wife No.3 and his lady friend. Who gets the trench coat?
2/7/2022 03:36:49 pm
Alan, thanks, you were probably on some of those GG rides...and then the schlepp uphill to Halsey.
Alan D Levine
2/7/2022 07:26:02 pm
I know I rode the GG every day, but I have no memory of John Vinocur. I have seen "Breathless" four times, however, and Sandy and I have walked the length of the Champs Elysees.
Alan D LevineA
2/7/2022 04:08:57 pm
I've never thought of that. A sports writer just about always knows where and when he'll be working, doesn't he?
2/7/2022 06:47:22 pm
Alan: exactly. Correspondents are a special breed. I have immense respect for my colleagues like John, who jump in on anything with no notice. I had worked for 10 years as a sportswriter, where most travel could be predicted, but when I eagerly took a job as a regional correspondent, I could be away for many days, with no warning, no matter what my family might have planned.
2/7/2022 05:00:12 pm
I've been looking at a dozen or so wonderful clips by John Vinocur: 1979, early '80s, catching the drama of a Polish pope visiting his homeland, shaking the foundation of East European Communism. Big story, angled adeptly. I'm sorry I never met him.
2/7/2022 06:34:58 pm
Christopher Vecsey, Ph, D., is Professor of Philosophy and Religion; Native American Studies; Colgate University and my brother. I look forward to reading what John Vinocur had to report on those early days of that papacy.
2/7/2022 07:20:49 pm
George: Queens is a place of talented authors. Arlene Alda did very well with “Just Kids from the Bronx”. Queens deserves a likewise book, too.
2/10/2022 05:49:00 pm
Altenir: I never read her book...I would add that Brooklyn somehow seems to produce more prose -- for example, Thomas Wolfe's epic short story/long chapter called "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," from his time living in that borough-- lush Brooklyn accent and all:
2/10/2022 08:23:39 pm
George: Thanks for sharing the text by Thomas Wolfe. I saved it to read forward. I loved the song, too.
Alan D Levine
2/10/2022 11:09:27 pm
There's always "Goodfellas."
2/7/2022 10:26:20 pm
My compliments to the newsmen and newswomen of the golden age. Is it just the muted numbness of present reality, or was there something a bit romantic about reporters and columnists before the Internet?
2/10/2022 05:52:34 pm
Altenir, as I sit here in my scruffy clothes in my den, typing away on my laptop, I do mourn the end of that era -- there are still great reporters who go out and get stories...but drowned out by some new breed.
2/9/2022 01:50:44 am
This makes me want to unfold a newspaper that I found on a train, read, refold, and return to the crevice between the seats.
2/10/2022 05:55:44 pm
Mendel, shalom...yes, and also one could get the hair eyeball from a fellow strap-hanger if you leaned too close to read the paper at close quarters. Could you fold a standard-size paper and read just one narrow section at a time, when elbow room was scarce? I never could. I felt that was a skill beyond my potential. Now people flick away at their iphones...a whole new world. GV
2/11/2022 03:39:40 am
George: I imagine newspaper folds are like snowflakes and fingerprints. No two commuters are alike.
2/9/2022 08:46:17 am
2/10/2022 06:01:42 pm
Randolph: When urchins like Alan Levine and I and John Vinocur, a year later, were assigned to a junior high in Rego Park, parents questioned whether it was safe for 11-year-olds, but we got the hang of it -- changing trains at Continental, right near the old tennis club.Fact is, on my trips to Tokyo in 1998-2000-2002, I saw really young kids wearing short pans and carrying huge bookbags -- maybe 6 or 7.They knew their way around....I bet Bruce could tell us about that.
2/9/2022 12:48:50 pm
Some people, regardless of their profession, just seem to have an instinct to know where to be at the right time and how to interact with the locals.
2/9/2022 01:05:51 pm
A quick history note since Paris and France was mentioned. Amazon Prime (there are other outlets) has a 7 season series call "A French Village).
Alan D Levine
2/9/2022 04:47:43 pm
Look again, Alan; it's nine seasons worth of episodes, ending in the 1970s. My wife and I discovered it in the early days of the pandemic, often watching four episodes in a night. It is easily the best television dramatic series I have ever seen. I think part of its purpose was to finally open the eyes of the French people to what really went on during the war.
2/9/2022 06:34:24 pm
2/9/2022 04:07:42 pm
2/10/2022 06:08:14 pm
Bruce, you hit the mark about Shirer. He was part of my parents' generation when they (my parents) worked for the Long Island Press. Shirer was a foreign correspondent and came back to the US in the early 50s, and had to deal with the anti-Communist purges and lies of Joe McCarthy, My parents were interested in that subject, you might say, and had the book around, and I read it at 14 or 15 and did a book report on it for English class at Jamaica High, and the teacher, Irma Rhodes, liked it so much that she had me read the book report in class, thereby vastly improving my downward cycle, I give thanks to William E Shirer.
2/10/2022 07:24:05 pm
2/10/2022 04:22:08 pm
2/10/2022 06:15:18 pm
Dear Mr. Sellaro: welcome, I used to hear Doris from Rego Park when she called into Steve Somers, but I never met her, or talked to her. I recall her raspy cigaret wheeze and her wise insights into the Mets. Somers was very sweet with her. In her way, she seemed to epitomize haimish outer-borough Queens. She assed..and her retired last Nov. (but I havent listened to WFAN since I retired end of 2011.)
2/10/2022 06:19:25 pm
Oh, about Vinocur and baseball -- I ran into him in Paris or Florida or somewhere, years ago, and he told me he could somehow pick up Vin Scully's voice in mid-morning in Paris.
Alan D. Levine
2/10/2022 06:25:48 pm
George--You spelled "cigarette" in old-time Daily News style. That's marvelous.
Alan D. Levine
2/10/2022 04:40:19 pm
Bret Stephens has a tribute to John Vinocur on the editorial page of today's NYT.
2/10/2022 07:20:08 pm
2/11/2022 03:38:11 pm
PM Churchill set up the SOE (Office of Executives) to infiltrate agents into France to aid in the Resistance. More than half of the leaders were women and radio operators were at a premium. Towards the end of the war there was only one operating.
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“I don’t think people understand how Covid affects older Americans,” Mr. Caretti said with frustration. “In 2020, there was this all-in-this-together vibe, and it’s been annihilated. People just need to care about other people, man. That’s my soapbox.”
---Vic Caretti, 47, whose father recently died of Covid at 85.
---From an article by Paula Span, who covers old age for the NYT, which currently has 2646 comments, the majority criticizing the American public – and public officials – for acting as if the pandemic is “over.”
Classic wishful thinking, at a lethal level.