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Mary Blume by Alice Springs
Mary Blume
by Emily Lodge

"A French Affair"Picture

The International Herald Tribune’s most celebrated feature writer has brought out a luminous collection of her essays covering the Paris beat between 1965 and 1998. “A French Affair” — a sample of her wise, heart-rending, unsentimental... trademark wit — describes French culture and tradition seen through the eyes of Simone de Beauvoir and V.S. Pritchett, among others, and explores impossible topics like love, death, and anarchy through her interviews with Truffaut, Renoir, Resnais, Wertmuller, Peter Brook and Fellini.
Mary Blume might define creativity the way she described Bergman’s movies — as “a place of tenderness where there is no villain and everyone is forgiven.” She draws out Fellini on the regenerative quality of creativity and quotes him as saying: “I don’t think God was unhappy when He was creating all the things he is said to have done.”
There are memorably measured summations of character or period. One jewel is a tribute to Simone Signoret: “When someone treasured dies, it is as if time should stop for a moment and life should skip a beat.” Her essay on the 1945-46 period also ranks high: “It was a time of privation and great joy and discovery — of jazz and blue jeans, nylon stockings, parachutes (excellent for wedding dresses) and [...] GIs who brought them.” In a 1989 interview, she reports that countless people have written to photographer Robert Doisneau to say that they or their parents were that famous couple embracing outside the Hôtel de Ville; he always writes back and tells each one that he or she is right.
Mary’s reserve, cropped golden hair and thin frame could “fit in” easily on any French street, but she’s always felt like an outsider and hated it. Yet, she says the fascination of countryside as near as one hour’s drive from Paris beats the boredom of anything you’d see within the same distance outside of New York City. “You couldn’t even hit Poughkeepsie.”
As a student in New York City, it never crossed her mind to be a journalist. Her father was a businessman, her mother was a housewife and “they were inspiring only in that they kept talking about Europe.” During summers off from college, she took cultural tours abroad with her parents visiting cathedrals and museums.” She spent “her life” reading and majored in English. She couldn’t get a job because she couldn’t type. The only field open to her was journalism.
Mary wanted to be in Europe and came to Paris looking for work. The last place she tried was the Herald Tribune. There was no such thing as a copy girl. But the New York Times’ arrival edition “scared” the Tribune, so they were on the look out for fresh talent. She hadn’t even been on a school paper, but they still asked her to write a couple of stories on spec’. Assuming rejection, she was about to go to a travel agency to book a flight back to the States when the editors called and asked her to write two articles a week for 100F a piece and re-write the fashion copy for an extra 100F. That was in 1960.
“It was always a quirky paper,” she says, “Unusual. Unpredictable. It is less so now. Buddy Weiss, our editor in the ’70s, called it ‘an international paper that speaks with American accents.’ That’s a good definition. Now we’ve become an international paper with no accent. The word, ‘product’ is used a lot but I don’t know what that means. It used to be a nippy little roadster; now it’s a stretch limo.”
Mary is regularly told she has the best job in journalism — freedom to choose her own subject and never having one turned down. She is, of course, insatiably curious. Indeed, when you interview her she can’t help interviewing you back She says, “You have to be very alert and not make people feel uncomfortable. To be a listener and not an inquisitor. But I certainly don’t write about politics. I figured they’d just do a number on me. Other people might do a number on me but they’d be more subtle.” The variety of stuff she’s done is wide — but it doesn’t include the sports page — and she says she can’t write for the financial page because “I don’t know what a derivative is.”
When she began writing from Paris, it was mostly for the women’s pages and the readership was mostly American. Now it is 40% American. “We must keep that in mind when we refer to the adorable little corner bakery; it must amuse the French.”
“A French Affair” can be compared to Mary’s idea of the genius of French stores — “always measured profusion: Ali Baba reviewed by Descartes.” Her legacy is that she has managed to combine the best of America — freshness of spirit — with the best of France, the elegantly turned phrase of the skeptic. Her readers will agree with Sir Peter Ustinov who said that she is one of a sacred battalion of Americans with whom Europeans feel a kindred spirit — inquisitive and crackling with intelligence and grace.