Some career turns may truly be foreordained, as may have been the case of A.J. Liebling (1904-1963) who - as presumably recorded in family lore - “by age eight can recite the names of Napoleon’s marshals” - then, when nearly 40, wangled a magazine correspondent posting to Paris in the prelude to the Nazi invasion. In one sense he appeared ideal for the role: world-traveled urban sophisticate writing for that bible of American urban sophisticates, the
New Yorker of the 1930s.
His magazine’s management clearly had doubts, possibly viewing him as ill-equipped to cover a looming
Second World War foreseen as ripping and rending the continent and its doomed-to-suffer people. After all, as he sardonically admits, “I was writing excellent pieces about sea-lion trainers and cigar store proprietors.”
On the other hand, Liebling could claim prior personal knowledge of the star-crossed European continent’s geography, history, and citizens. This was gained during a privileged upbringing including family travels abroad and a succession of formidable German nannies seemingly dedicated to what we might call “tough love.” He seems, though, to have won the assignment - rather loosely defined as conveying “the reactions to war of ordinary French people” - more as a result of fortunately timed staff shuffles, plus a crass bit of strategic boozing: “...I had spent several man-hours of barroom time impressing St. Clair McKelway, then managing editor, with my profound knowledge of France.”
Strengths Liebling brought to the assignment shine through, though, as a dark curtain of disaster-to-come forms, hovers over France during the un-nerving, ambiguous pre-invasion lull, then crashes down with the Nazi bombing of Paris on June 3, 1940. His prose is lucid and detailed of Parisians reacting to their world gone awry.
“Women on the train that evening were talking about the leaflets German planes had dropped, promising to bombard Paris the next day. The word ‘bombardment’ had a terrible sound, evoking pictures of Warsaw and Rotterdam.” Those cities and others had already suffered Nazi bombings, and Paris’ initial pasting lasted 45 minutes. Subsequently, Liebling describes the great, almost mythical city being emptied out:
“The last impression of Paris we carried with us was of deserted streets everywhere except around the railroad stations, where the crowds were so big that they overflowed all the surrounding sidewalks and partly blocked automobile traffic. About everybody who had any means of transportation...left the city on Monday evening, the tenth of June, or Tuesday the eleventh.”
The nightmare logistics of untold numbers of voluntary refugees fleeing suggests both panic and traumatic recall of World War I horrors: “The roads leading south from Paris were gorged with what was possibly the strangest assortment of vehicles in history...a farm tractor hitched to a vast trailer...cars moving forward only a few yards to stop again with grinding brakes...Paris autobuses, requisitioned for the occasion to carry the personnel of government offices and major industrial establishments.” Liebling’s road-hell sketch is minutely leavened by a small instance of cluelessness among the bureaucratic minions in the autobus: “Some of the girl stenographers and clerks appeared to be enjoying the excursion.”
Leaving France just ahead of the Nazis and returning to New York, Liebling’s war-zone reportage had hardly begun. On the book’s cover he is seen bundled in drab wool overcoat and highly unflattering cap - hardly the stereotypical image of a dauntless wartime journalist. Had he not been posed next to a gun emplacement, he might have been just a heavyset, bespectacled burgher toughing out a near-Arctic winter in his native New York. In contrast, Ernest Hemingway was a correspondent who apparently strove successfully to fit the swashbuckler image. Yet the more I delved into this weighty and diverse anthology (encompassing three books, 26
New Yorker commentaries, plus maps, notes, extensive index and other reader aids), the more I came to respect Liebling who, though lacking Hemingway-esque panache, certainly proved a master of the scene and substance of war.
Post-Paris assignments were varied, and most involved personal peril. In 1941, he flew to Britain aboard an RAF bomber and settled in to write a
New Yorker series on that country at war. Later, from that bit of besieged but once “green and pleasant land,” he wrote about American transport and air crews stationed there. In 1943 North Africa, he observed American squadrons operating in Algeria and Tunisia; saw Normandy again in 1944 from a large landing craft filled with troops who would de-board at Omaha Beach; and subsequently made his way to Paris to see the German garrison surrender.
The most acute of observers and chroniclers of extraordinary times must seek a sort of literary closure in a retrospective view of the places and events once reported. Liebling went back to France in 1955 to assess how the nation and its citizens were faring after a decade of peace and recovery. Encountering a group of young fishermen in Normandy, he asked if any remembered D-Day when, he judges, they had been between 10 and 13 years old. Though surely not surprising to him, it still must have been mind-blowing that “They remembered it as a super Fourteenth of July celebration...But no one had been hurt, because it was early in the season and the summer people had not yet moved in.”
He concludes the account with particularly pointed and poignant prose: “Just as a small boy who knows himself to be safely awake tries to re-establish the mood of a nightmare, I looked back at the cliffs...“ Then he envisions the historic record of titanic and terrifying times: “millions of photographs, and nobody wants to look at them.”