27 July 2009


In its way, one of the costliest homes ever built.

I first visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside Charlottesville, Virginia, when I was a boy of about eight. I’ve returned several times, most recently last week. The place turns out not to be one of those monuments that mysteriously seem to shrink as you get older: the estate is vast and the house itself still looks quite large, even to grownup eyes, not least because it’s built into the hilltop. Wander around a bit, and you will find a perspective that permits you to appreciate the size of the place. Getting a grasp on Jefferson himself is another matter.

Take a letter! No, I’ll do it myself!
Jefferson’s desk, with some other people’s inventions.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which maintains the estate, is working hard to provide perspective — and more honestly — these days. The visitor is now told that Sage of Monticello did not in fact invent any of the gadgets around the house: not the dumbwaiter, not the polygraph machine, not the swivel chair, not the cannonball clock, all of which used to be credited to him when I was a boy. An enormous visitors’ center is now open, with something like four exhibition galleries that examine Jefferson’s philosophy, his architecture, and other interests. (Pressed for time, I wasn’t able to explore.)

Most significantly, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which maintains the estate, has broached the sensitive topic of slavery at Monticello with candor and thoroughness, if you look for it. One of the walking tours around the house examines the individual histories of specific slaves who lived in the quarters and who worked in the “dependencies” (outbuildings) no longer standing. Of course we know a great deal about Jefferson’s slaves not least because of his sexual relationship with one of them, Sally Hemings, his late wife’s half-sister as well as the mother of several children who are believed to have been his. When I was a boy, the visitor to Monticello heard precious little about the slaves there, and nothing at all about the Hemingses or any of the other families who built and maintained the place.

The Madison Bedroom:
My generous offer to test whether the accommodation still befits a Madison was met with little enthusiasm.

There are still a few historians and Jefferson partisans (most of them white) who believe that Jefferson and Hemings didn’t have a sexual relationship, and the Jefferson Foundation tactfully acknowledges this viewpoint. But for the rest of us, Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery remains the great stumbling block to understanding him — and so it shall remain, I believe, simply because it never will be possible to reconcile the champion of liberty with the exemplar of oppression.

Fidel Castro’s philosophy has turned out rather different in the practice than in the preaching, too, and ultimately some contradictions may be inherent by necessity in the revolutionary type. Jefferson’s sins appear graver, though, and far more disappointing, simply because he was right about so much, and ahead of almost everyone else. Would it have hurt him to be a little perfect, really?

Portrait by Thomas Sully
This and all the illustrations on this page are copyrighted by
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

To wander around Monticello is to wonder. The audacity of his conceit is everywhere apparent: to live at once like an English nobleman and a Classical scholar, by dint not of titles but by worth both material and intellectual! To possess the greatest mind of his age, and yet to fool himself as to the human cost of his experiments! To embody the contradictions of a nation that, for generations after him, would continue to promise equality for all — while withholding it from millions!

In short, I can understand why so many of the visitors to Monticello prefer to take the gardening tour. It’s easier to think about.

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25 July 2009

Snapshots in the Palm of Your Hand

Portrait of the Artist as a Young (?) Man
All illustrations by Letitia Barnhill©
Used with permission

Because I was in Brussels for Father’s Day, I was unable to phone my dad. Instead, I did something I haven’t done in many years: I bought him a present. While strolling around the old part of town, waiting for Susan Graham’s performance at the Théâtre de La Monnaie/De Munt, I came across a little shop where a fellow was making 3-D photo portraits, etched by laser inside Lucite cubes.

In the gift shops of Paris, I’d seen much simpler objects, schematic images of the Eiffel Tower in cubes, but never a photographic image like this one. Figuring that my father, a retired engineer, would be even more intrigued than I by the technology, I sat for my portrait: my picture snapped by a camera with a couple of lenses, then rendered with that laser beam. Uncanny.

And yet I’d hardly received the finished portrait before I began to imagine how quaint — how primitive — how like a tintype to us — this portrait will seem to future generations. Say four or five years from now.

Side view

“Look, children, here’s an old-fashioned hologram!”

“Ewww, Mrs. Tillotson! It’s gross! Is it like some kind of a death mask or something? He’s all pale!”

“No, Betty, this was from the days before we had color.”

“Hey!” [Hitting the cube against a countertop.] “I can’t get this thing to work, Mrs. Tillotson! It’s not moving or anything!”

“I’m sorry, Jimmy. Back when this was made, holograms didn’t move. They didn’t even have the freestanding desktop model, in those days!”

“This is so dumb! Why would anybody want anything like that?”

My dad has the new freestanding animated laptop model, the Lap-Topless-a-Go-Go 3000. It cost him four hundred quatloos! It doesn’t look like Mommy, but what’s so cool is, it can even — ”

“That’s enough, Bobby, dear. I don’t think your father needs for us to hear about what he does with his hologram in his private time.”

“Mrs. Tillotson! Mrs. Tillotson! Can we leave the museum now? I wanna go play with the robots!”

“But Cindy, dear, you keep forgetting — I am a robot!”*

To give you an idea of the scale,
my cousin photographed the portrait next to her car keys.

*NOTE: In the future, no human will be able to afford to work for a public-school teacher’s salary.

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23 July 2009

Jules & Jim

La vie était vraiment des vacances.
Life was truly a vacation.

It’s been many years since I saw François Truffaut’s screen adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché’s Jules et Jim, and the only lingering impressions I bear are of a ménage-à-trois that seemed not so different from that of Noël Coward’s Design for Living — and of the sublime radiance of Jeanne Moreau. Now that I have read Roché’s novel, I really ought to see the movie again. For the “design for living” it depicts extends to many more than three people, and far beyond witty banter; and Kathe (Catherine), the character portrayed by Moreau, is one of the most disturbing heroines I’ve encountered. I need Moreau’s beauty — so fascinating that, at other times, I’ve been known to forget entirely what picture I was watching. In Jules et Jim, that fascination must have been hard at work, smoothing out Kathe/Catherine’s rough edges.

The novel, published in 1952, is written in a lean prose that, along with its depiction of aimless young people in Europe, before and after World War I, recalls Hemingway. We begin with the friendship that begins at first sight between Jules, a German, and Jim, a Frenchman, and is by far the most stable relationship in the book. Jules is eager to find a girlfriend and yet unlucky in love, especially because the women he fancies most often prefer the taller, athletic Jim. Jules seems to derive a great satisfaction from Jim’s successes, as if the women are his gift to his friend — almost as if they were offerings to his idol. This is never more true than of the woman who is for both friend the love of a lifetime — Kathe.

And she is, as a modern reader can hardly help but notice, manic depressive. Naturally, no one, including Roché, diagnoses her, much less treats her: fiction was simpler then. It’s surprising to learn that her real-life model, the critic Hélène Hessel, was a functioning, productive member of society, because her fictional self is quite exasperating. Somehow, Roché manages to hold the reader’s sympathy for Kathe across a twenty-year narrative of erratic behavior. When she commits, as she intends, “irreparable” acts, we don’t condemn her; instead, we try harder to understand her. (Jules and Jim, for their part, mostly accept her outrages as par for the course.) Shortly after she makes her first appearance, Roché begins to ratchet up the suspense: we see that she is dangerous, capable of anything, and we remain on edge, waiting for the next outburst. And there are a lot of them. She is a ticking time-bomb who goes off repeatedly before the ultimate blast.

C’est beau de n'avoir ni contrats, ni promesses, et de ne s’appuyer au jour le jour que sur son bel amour. Mais si le doute souffle, on tombe dans le vide.
It’s beautiful to have neither contracts nor promises, and to rely from day to day only upon one’s beautiful love. But if there is a whisper of doubt, one falls into the void.

If this suggests a high level of repetitiveness, so be it. Jules et Jim is a short book, and just as well: we might lose patience if the narrative were extended by a single page of Kathe’s shifting affections and betrayals. (She marries first Jules, then Jim, then Jules again, sleeps with each while involved with the other, and cheats on them both — a lot.)

And yet for the two friends she is an ideal of womanhood, a sort of goddess with “an archaic smile.” This is something they see first in a statue they admire in Greece; when they see it in Kathe, they are hooked.

Roché’s description of the “archaic smile” is pretty much limited to those two words, an adjective and noun that don’t guide the reader much, really. To know what Roché is talking about, we must imagine women we have known, women who have enthralled us.

Or else we can look at a picture of Jeanne Moreau. Is her smile “archaic”? Maybe. But it is one for which I’d willingly endure anything.

Jim aimait la pleine lune, Kathe pas. “C’est trop facile, disait elle, l’amour et la lune.” Elle devait lui rappeler de mauvais souvenirs.
Jim loved the full moon, but Kathe didn’t. “It’s too easy,” she said, “love and the moon.” It must have reminded her of bad memories.

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18 July 2009

Walter Cronkite

Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

The job of network news anchor requires a certain amount of constant, fond self-regard combined with a lot of chutzpah. It’s not a job for the shy and retiring, and the mistake Walter Cronkite made — and regretted — was to retire from the anchor chair, in 1981.

I daresay it’s a shock to shift abruptly from telling people, “And that’s the way it is,” and knowing that this sweeping statement will be accepted as authoritative, trustworthy, and true — to having to scramble to make your voice heard on the air, and to push for invitations to serve as an éminence grise at nominating conventions and special events. One day, the world hangs on your every word; the next, your little science program has been cancelled after two years for lack of viewers. In such circumstances, maintaining a sterling character probably was impossible.

Cronkite was not notably gracious to his successor at The CBS Evening News. I don’t know whether Cronkite himself was involved in the periodic palace coups that attempted to restore him to the anchor chair, but certainly plenty of his partisans plotted in his behalf. When these attempts failed, Cronkite fell back to the board of CBS, while his salvos against Dan Rather grew more bitter and more personal. Long after any chance had vanished that Cronkite might take back the anchor chair, he continued these attacks.

For Cronkite had learned that badmouthing Dan was an almost certain means to get his name in the newspaper. Attention-starved, he made a habitual practice of popping off. Dan admired Cronkite, spent decades seeking Cronkite’s approval, and daily confronted challenges Cronkite never knew and frankly couldn’t imagine (such as a universe in which 500 rival television stations are only one of the forms your competition takes). Walter showed no mercy, though; he seldom missed an opportunity to piss on Dan, from heights that were, in his own estimation but also in Dan’s, Olympian. And as Walter knew, there wasn’t damned much that Dan could do about it.

I met Cronkite many times, mostly at funerals but also when he was invited to the set to comment on the events of the day. He wasn’t terribly at ease on these occasions (why would he have been?), and he presumed (rightly) that I was the most pro-Rather guy in a generally pro-Rather newsroom. As a result, he revealed little of the charm others describe in him, and even his journalistic and analytic skills seemed to desert him. (The best-known example is probably a rambling anecdote about a rambling anecdote that his cab driver had told him on the way to the studio, one night during the first Gulf War. Cronkite the anchor wouldn’t have had much patience with Cronkite the visiting expert.)

That’s why I’m sorry I never worked in the newsroom when it was his: he was a titan, and I wish I’d known a better side of him, in the years when he did his best work — in the years when he worked at all.

Today’s audiences are less accepting of authoritative pronouncements like “And that’s the way it is.” If a news anchor were to say such a thing now, thousands of viewers might balk and change to another news channel, or log onto a Media Watchdog site to protest, or begin to compile lists of ways in which, no, “it” is not this way, appended to a list of things Walter left out of his report, never mind the statements that were contradicted by other news outlets — and then we’d post that list like the Diet of Worms on the church door of our blogs. Provided that we are watching the news at all, though it’s increasingly likely that we are not.

No one alive today will ever know power that Walter Cronkite wielded, or the challenge that he faced after he left the job that made him famous, simply because no one alive today will ever have a job quite like his. Cronkite’s stature, like that of Michael Jackson, can’t be replicated in today’s environment. He was more trusted than the President, more admired than the Pope, but something short of an Angel.

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16 July 2009

A Birthday Memory

I knew something was up, because she called two or three times that morning. “HAW-nee! Are you home?” she would ask in that strange low groan she calls her speaking voice; and then she’d phone back to make sure I was still there. Something in her tone made it clear that I’d disappoint us both if I wandered away; I didn’t dare budge from my living room. At last, the buzzer sounded downstairs, and I let her in. As she climbed toward my apartment, she began to sing the words of Mimì’s entrance in La Bohème: “Scusi! Di grazia, mi s’è spento il lume!”

She was wearing her little Chairman Mao cap, and she craned upward to kiss me on the cheek. In her arms, she bore a bouquet of roses, one for every year of my life, plus one more to grow on. I didn’t own a vase big enough to hold them all, so we placed them in the toilet bowl. It was a sort of improvised Pop Art installation. She contemplated this for a long moment and declared it good.

“Maybe I should get you a few more, though,” she said, “to put in the tank.”

She took me out for oysters and Champagne, because she knew without my telling her that these were my favorite things. That afternoon, we wandered all over the Upper West Side of Manhattan, talking of many things, of my grandmother who had died a few weeks before, but most especially of time and its lessons. I wanted to know what the city was like to her, when she was young and alone, as I was, and whether life would get less mysterious as I grew older. But she was too wise for me, and I am still trying to understand many of the answers she gave.

When we arrived back at her apartment, she lent me a vase for the flowers she’d given me. Because, when all is said and done, the toilet is no place for a bouquet from a diva.

I knew there would never be another birthday quite like this one, and I saved as many of the roses as I could, drying them, pressing them between the pages of old books, cherishing them even now, when they are long since crumbled.

That was twenty years ago today.

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15 July 2009

Reflections on a Further Frisson

Photographer Dario Acosta has a knack
for revealing Susan Graham’s playful side.

On Friday, 10 July, mine was the extraordinary luck to attend a recital by Susan Graham — the same program of songs from her recent album, Un Frisson Français, that she’d offered in Brussels, where I heard her last month. This time, her accompanist was Brian Zeger, instead of Malcolm Martineau, and the venue was the open-air Spanish Courtyard at Caramoor, in Katonah, NY, instead of the stage of the theater De Munt/La Monnaie. I was more concerned with other differences, however, because one of the great blessings of live performance is it’s never the same twice, and moreover, having the opportunity to hear Susan perform the Frisson program so soon, I hoped to get a sense of her artistic process.

If I were smarter, I might have sensed even more: give me another couple of dozen of these recitals, and I’ll be a genuine expert.

Writers often strive to create “prose that aspires to the condition of music,” and this writer finds himself constantly aspiring just to write about music. It’s an ongoing challenge, trying to describe in words a phenomenon that has so little to do with language. Indeed, there were moments during Susan’s recital when I simply switched off the part of my brain that uses language. I understood her meaning, because she colors the music with her voice; and the sheer physical pleasure of hearing that voice, of allowing the sound to envelop and embrace me, took precedence over almost everything.

And yet — I repeat — I did not unlock the mysteries of Susan Graham’s art on Friday. What follows are merely random observations, souvenirs of a summer evening, of a garden in song.


The garden helped me to understand that, when Susan inhales, she’s not merely breathing in order to power the next phrase of her song — she’s breathing in the fragrance, entering into the atmosphere, living inside the world that her song describes. There’s nothing vague or generalized about this, nothing that says, “Look at me! This is my song about a flower!” I am willing to bet that she associates a specific aroma with a particular phrase. I got something of the same sensation during the “Clair de lune” of Massenet’s Werther, which I heard Susan sing in March: the moonlight was real to her then.

The moonlight at Caramoor was real, and the roses were blooming. Susan’s voice made them more real, and sometimes she transformed them — to bright sunlight or cold shadows, or to the perfumes not of a flower but of an absent lover.


Malcolm Martineau is not an act I’d like to follow, but Brian Zeger is awfully good, really eloquent in every style and supporting Susan so lovingly.


The Caramoor audience seems to have included a number of French-speakers. We managed to follow the lyrics with relative ease, and there weren’t the odd lags that sometimes come from reading translated texts: we didn’t laugh before the jokes. Susan told me in Brussels that singing French texts to a French audience puts her less at her ease, and in fact she flubbed a couple of lines that night; but on Friday, she sailed through her lyrics, letter-perfect.

For a non-French audience, Susan told me, she’ll sometimes act out the text a bit more, gesture a bit more broadly, so that laugh lines hit their marks. I was seated much closer to her at Caramoor than in Brussels, yet her acting seemed much on the same scale, natural and lighthanded.


Canteloube’s lullaby, “Brezairola,” features the lyric “Soun, soun, béni, béni, béni.” Officially, this means "Sleep, sleep, come, come, come" in Auvergnat, but it sounds for all the world like “Soon, soon, Billy, Billy, Billy,” the tenderest words of comfort and counsel Susan (or Canteloube) could offer me as I endure this long waiting period in my professional life.

Does this mean that Susan will now enter into the highly select group of Those Who Call Me Billy (my late aunt Kay; Gabriel Bacquier; and Fredd Tree)?


When she got to Poulenc’s “La Dame de Monte-Carlo,” I could “see” not only her character’s face and costume, but the casinos and seaside around her, and I could feel the temperature of the waves that slapped at her as she walked into the water.

This is very cool.


However, an errant moth interrupted Susan and Brian’s encore, Reynaldo Hahn’s “À Chloris,” and so this time, the song didn’t make me cry, as it did in Brussels. So there are sometimes liabilities to performing outdoors.


I am not so stupid as to try to put Susan’s voice (or anyone’s) into words. It can’t be done satisfactorily — at least, not by me. You will have to listen for yourself.


Susan has what is probably the cutest nose in the history of opera. Her nose does not explain her genius, however; it merely adorns it.

Biker Babe: Susan, seen here at Lyric Opera of Chicago,
is her own best energy source.

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14 July 2009

Starii Trek: To Baldly Go

Experts believe that, for the first time in Trek history,
William Shatner’s hairpiece will look convincing.

The success earlier this year of Star Trek, a major motion picture in which actors who weren’t even born in 1966 (or ’76) portray the beloved characters from the original television series, has not gone unnoticed in Hollywood. Now comes word of a new, old Star Trek franchise, in which the original characters will be played by very, very old actors (including, when possible, the original cast). The series will be called Starii Trek, which is apparently a weak pun in Russian.

Some 79 installments are planned, and — exclusive to this blog — I’ve been able to obtain the titles of several of the upcoming adventures.

* * *

“What Are Little Girls Made Of? No, Really, I Can’t Remember”

“Operation: Expectorate!”

“The Continence of the King”

“Diaper of the Mind”

“Balance of Toupée”

“The Alternative Fiber”

“The Naked, Rather Saggy, Liver-Spotted Time”

“The Geritol-o Seven”

“This Sciatica of Paradise”

“The City on the Edge of Fix-O-Dent”


“And the Ungrateful Little Punks Shall Lead”

“Is There in Truth No Botox?”


“The Dysfunction with Tribbles”

“The Way to Edema”

“For the World Is Hollow and I Have … What Was I Saying?”

“That Which Survives”

“Spock’s Bran”

Kirstie Alley returns to the role of Saavik

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13 July 2009

Questions for Sotomayor

As a service to my readers, I spent much of last week in Washington, DC, asking leading Senators what questions they plan to ask Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Are you now, or have you ever been, a wise Latina woman?

Please describe for the committee your legal philosophy with regard to fluffy, adorable kittens with big, sad eyes.

Will you take this opportunity to swear to the committee to stop legislating from the bench in an activist fashion designed to undermine democracy and to destroy all civilization as we know it?

What is your recipe for empanadas?

Why do you hate white people so much?

If you had one prayer for America, what would it be?

Why are you so divisive?

Does this dress make my ass look fat?

At long last, have you no sense of decency?

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12 July 2009

Interview: Stanley Karnow, Part II

In Washington, DC
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

By far the majority of Stanley Karnow’s books treat very serious topics — international politics and war — and Stanley’s role is that of narrator and guide, not participant. The notable exception is Paris in the Fifties, which combines a memoir with a résumé of stories he covered as a young reporter. Augmenting the pages are another personal touch: illustrations by Stanley’s wife, Annette, who passed away earlier this month. Paris in the Fifties concludes with Stanley and Annette’s marriage, and the launch of the great global adventure they shared.

It was natural, then, that the conversation would turn to Paris, when Stanley and I sat down last week at his home in Maryland.

WVM: You were talking about sitting with Hemingway. I’ve been rereading Paris in the Fifties, as you know, since I’ve been here.

STANLEY KARNOW: I need to get you a copy.

I’ve got a copy! I bought it when it came out — gave it to everybody I knew for Christmas. … Again, just rereading it, the number of amazing, influential 20th-century figures that you were running around with on a daily basis in Paris.

Well, don’t exaggerate. I mean, Hemingway — my only meeting was just once. Audrey Hepburn was just once. The Duke of Windsor was just once.

But think about it! [Laughing] That’s not a bad little list, though! … The question is, as you look back on it: I’m living in Paris in the Aughts, and you were living in Paris in the Fifites. What do you think I’m missing out on most, by being there fifty years later?

I don’t know. It’s very hard for me to say, because places change. You have to find your own Paris.

I’m trying.

When I went to Paris, just after the war, France was just recovering from the war. It took me a long time to begin to understand what I saw. There was a lot of bullshit around. Everybody had been in the Resistance, of course, which was absolutely bullshit.

They still are, by the way. All of them in the Resistance.

I saw some statistics. On D-Day, there probably weren’t more than 25 thousand Frenchmen in the Resistance. You know who’s done some very good work on that, is Tony Judt. Does that name ring a bell? He teaches at N.Y.U.; he’s done a marvelous book on French intellectuals. What a bunch of phonies a lot of them are. You know, Simone de Beauvoir was broadcasting for Vichy radio during the war. Sartre — his plays were being produced during the war, which means they had to have authorization from the Germans. Louis Aragon, who made vicious, vicious attacks against collaborators and was in league with the execution of [Robert] Brasillach — but you don’t know about that.


Well, there was a guy — he wasn’t a collaborator, but he was executed [by firing squad, in 1945]. But [Aragon] himself was running a magazine, and if you ran a magazine, you had to have paper and ink and all those things, and authorization from the Germans. He was married to a Russian woman, Elsa Triolet. Anyway, there was a lot of that phoniness in that period.

I always think about Arletty —

She dated a German, yeah.

She did, yeah. She had a great line: “My heart belongs to France, but my ass is my own.”

She was a great woman.

Arletty, with Pierre Brasseur,
in Carné’s
Les Enfants du paradis

It doesn’t seem all that collaborative, honestly, in the end.

Well — I mean, there were some great heroic figures. Just after the war, for example, the Communist Party was very strong. And the chairman, the head of the Communist Party, was named Maurice Thorez. I don’t know if you know of him. And I remember you’d go to these Communist conferences and congresses and meetings, and they’d all stand up and they’d say, “Hail Maurice Thorez, Premier Résistant!” Bullshit! He spent war in Moscow. He was nowhere near the war. And all these horrible guys. The whip for the Communist Party in the Assembly was a guy called Jacques Duclos. A little tubby guy, an ex-baker. And when [Pierre] Mendès France became Prime Minister, in ’54, Duclos referred to him a “sale yupin.” You know what that is? Kike.

I never heard that word, I’m glad to say!

Anyway — they all were — I mean, today, the head of the Communist Party couldn’t even get elected to the Assembly from his own constituency. But in those days they almost carried the country. I mean, more — a lot of the Communism was protest. It wasn’t necessarily ideological. You had the big union, the CGT [Confédération Générale du Travail] was Communist. The south was very Communist, the “Midi Rouge.”

And then you had all these idiocies. Simone de Beauvoir goes to America, where she has an affair with that writer, Nelson Ahlgren. So she writes a book called America Day by Day, in which she denounces American intellectuals for being materialistic. I don’t know whether you remember that. “Oh, you know, American intellectuals are interested in cars and refrigerators,” and she waffles on about all that, denouncing them. And the rejoinder to that was a brilliant piece by Mary McCarthy, saying, “It’s you who are being materialistic, because you make such a fuss about it.” She said, “We have cars — so what?” That’s just the way it was.

Material Girl? Simone de Beauvoir

But you know, I remember when I first got my little Renault, there was a young French poet called — what was his name again? People tell me he’s well-known. André. It’ll come to me at some point. So he looks at me — he was friendly with my first wife’s parents. “Oh! He has to buy a car! How crude, how materialistic!” What was his name again? André de Boucher.

That’s all finished. I mean, I used to stay at my friend’s house, André — my beloved André [Wormser]. He lived in an apartment that his family bought in about 1920. And at one stage, he just renovated the whole thing. He got microwave ovens and all that kind of stuff. That’s what the French are interested in. As France became modernized, they wanted all those things. They wanted cars; they wanted microwave ovens. They wanted this, that, and the other thing. They wanted to travel. They got to travel….

And then of course, there was the whole story of collaborationism, and Vichy. A guy who did a lot of work on that was a professor at Columbia. What was his name? Robert Paxton. Did you ever see The Sorrow and the Pity?

Not all the way through.

But you know what I mean.

Sure, of course. The wounds of the war must have been rawer back then.

Well, as I say, everybody was in the Resistance. Which was bullshit. What they were doing mostly — the French were sort of scrounging, scrounging to keep alive. The black market was very active. I was married to a French woman [his first wife, Claude Sarraute]. Did you ever hear of her mother, Nathalie Sarraute? They were trying to be as pure as possible. And they were sort of railing against “B.O.F.” Beurre–Oeufs–Fromage. That was a sort of nickname during the war, during the post-war period and the shortages. It was a reference to a lot of merchants who made a lot of money on the black market with butter, eggs, and cheese — beurre, oeufs, and fromage. So in their attempts to be pure, they would denounce all that stuff. You know, there was nothing wrong with that [position].

You know the magazine Transition? It was a little magazine that was started in the Twenties by a guy called Eugene Jolas. Does that name ring a bell?

Because I read the name in the book last night!

Maria Jolas

It was a magazine that Jolas founded with his wife. His wife’s name was Maria Jolas. She was a rich woman. She had gone to France in World War I as an ambulance driver or something. She stayed on, and she became a sort of great patron of literature and the arts. She was connected with Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare & Co., Natalie Barney … Janet Flanner. And whatnot. When my mother-in-law, Nathalie, bought house in a village in Normandy — [Marie] kind of adopted Nathalie. And when Nathalie bought a house in this village in Normandy, Maria Jolas also bought a house in this same village. Her husband died; Jolas died. She wanted to have him buried in the village cemetery. And the villagers didn’t want a foreigner. Not just a — well, first of all, he wasn’t really a foreigner. He was born in Alsace. But he’d become American. But they didn’t want an outsider. So anyway, she paid a lot of money to get him buried there.

There was another trait of the French, which I think is probably true of a lot of people — “mesquin.” Cheap, sleazy. You can get the French to do a lot of things for money. I don’t know whether that’s the proper word.

But look at the positive side. One of the lovely things about living in Paris was, it’s a very discreet city. You can do anything you want in Paris, nobody cares. Privacy, nobody’s butting into your business. The other side of that is a total lack of what we call civic responsibility. The French least civic-minded people I know. I mean, you could be sitting on a café terrace, and lying on the sidewalk is somebody having an epileptic fit, and nobody will get up to help him.

I’ve seen the opposite, actually, often. Maybe they’re afraid of getting arrested for non-assistance, but they do actually stand up and help.

Really? In my day, the French were very civically — how shall I put it? Concerned with yourself, and everybody else is a stranger. The idea of helping other people was very rare. Now, maybe that’s changed.

Especially in the case of an emergency.

I think, while I was there, they were not terribly civic-minded.

Well, they’d just been under an oppressive regime and they were trying to make their way back out again. That does tend to make people more selfish.


Or looking out for their self-interest. But I’ve been at the scene of a few accidents in Paris, and people jump to help.

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

In my day, I thought that, in contrast to England — I went to England in the summertime. The English are the biggest buttinskis in the world. They’re always prying into what you’re doing. And so forth. The English are … always concerned with what you’re doing.

I think now because of terrorism — you had the I.R.A. for all those years, and now because of Islamist terrorism —

I’m talking about my time.

Yeah, but I think that today they’re just even more, perhaps, concerned about anything you might be doing.

Well, what else is there to say about France? I was an American kid, going there and rather puritanical in an old-fashioned way. I can’t say that I was shocked. In a way I was kind of bemused, if that’s the word, by the amount of kind of sexual — what’s the word I want to use? Activities? That’s a terrible word.

The openness, I would think — I mean, the Americans were having sex, they just weren’t being quite as open about it.

Well, think about it. For example, my father-in-law, Nathalie’s husband, was a lovely guy, a terrific guy, Raymond. I really adored him. We had a friend, her name was Anne-Marie. We introduced him to our friend. She worked for Air France. She was not particularly pretty. She was tall, thin, kind of very angular, model-y looking woman. The next thing you know, he’s having affair with her. She’s our friend. She’s telling us all about the things he tells her, about the affairs he’s having with other women, or had been having with other women. Including the maid in the house, and so on and so forth. She told it to us, we told it to the other kids. The kids are just teenagers, and everybody is just giggling about these stories about their father. Here he’s having an affair with one of the maids they had. And everybody seems to know except his wife. She was in many ways naïve. She would say things like, “Raymond needs fresh air, so he’s going to Normandy to walk on the beach.” Really he’s taking his girlfriend off, and they’re going to stay at this little hotel in Normandy, which we had told him about. We all knew what was going on. I suppose in the end it’s harmless, but for me, it was like — the puritanical guy I was as a kid, an American kid — it was kind of dazzling to me.

I mentioned some of this in my book, and I remember my ex-wife was furious with me. All of these things were done, but you’re not supposed to talk about it.

I don’t know what it’s like now. Things have changed. First of all, divorce was quite impossible in those days. The ideal was, you could have extramarital relationship. Go ahead and have it, but keep the family intact. I mean, the family was sacred, right? So you keep the family intact. I remember when my mother-in-law talked about her friends and their extramarital relationships. She would talk about it. I mean, she was a very sophisticated woman. She wasn’t shocked. One of her heroes of course was Picasso. She’d talk about Picasso and all his mistresses. And I remember one time, I wasn’t there for this story, but Picasso came to her house in Normandy. And her youngest daughter, who was then about 15 or 16, and Picasso was interested in Nathalie’s daughter. And she would have been delighted if Picasso had run away with her youngest daughter.

And then a lot of the theater had to do with all that kind of stuff. Farces like — have you ever seen any Feydeau?

Yes, exactly.

Jumping from one bed to another.

What I’ve noticed in reading books, is there’s this huge kind of culture of the mistress in French literature. From Manon Lescaut to Nana —

Some of them — Madame de Maintenon! Some of the mistresses would be historically remembered, with names of streets. It’s somewhere over there near the statue of Louis XIV —

The château of Madame de Maintenon is huge. And I live in the shadow of — it’s in ruins, but a château that was owned by Diane de Poitiers.

The Château of Beynes (right), Fêtes Beynoises 2008
Photo by WVM

Well, that all played a part in [the culture and attitudes]. You’d hear stories. I remember a French woman reporter, who was a Neiman Fellow when I was, in the Fifities. She was telling me a story about how a friend of hers at L’Express goes to the editor and says, “I’m having an affair with Mitterrand,” or whoever it was. The editor says, “Stick with it! You’ll get a raise!” [Laughter]

This may be a way to wrap up — but most Americans — I think there are surveys that will back me up on this assertion — but when I talk to Americans, they say, “Oh, the French are awful.” I’ve actually found them to be pretty welcoming.

When Americans go there? Well, I think [the French] are, actually. I mean, once again, you get different stories. I have a friend who was the editor of Nouvel Observateur, Jean Daniel. He was with Leclerc in the landings of Normandy in the second tank division. And he would say to me, “Oh, it was terrible. When I went through Normandy, all the people were complaining about the American bombing.” Why does he tell me that? It’s nonsense. He loves to come to America. He comes here. He considers himself the expert on America.

There was always a certain amount of jealousy on the part of some French toward the United States. But on the other hand — you could probably tell me more about it — young people, right? The young people, they’re into whatever, rock music —

The culture is very Americanized.

I remember seeing on the platform inside the Métro, where I used to get on when I stayed at André’s. I’d be sitting there, and the kids were coming by on skateboards, wearing Yankees T-shirts and sweatshirts, and Giants baseball caps. And the French are coming to America.

Oh, the tourism is amazing in New York! You can hardly walk down the block —

André Wormser

There are hotels where everybody speaks French! And there’s a hotel out west, I can’t remember, where the owners are French, and the whole hotel is French. When I took André out to a dude ranch one time, he loved it! He would eat these huge breakfasts, and he was on his horse all the time. He would brag to his friends. He’d go, “I have been to the Fahr Vest.” [Laughter]

You and I were both kind of adopted into French families in a way that our own families would not have done for our partners. Which I find very interesting.

Well, I must say, I thought that the way my French family adopted me — they were lovely people, they were terrific.

That was like my experience.

But when we broke up, naturally they supported their own daughter, of course. I didn’t expect anything else. I was a little upset, because I thought that they liked me so much. But anyway. They were much nicer to me than my family was to my wife. My mother was born in Europe, and you know, had this horror of being a greenhorn. So along comes this Frenchwoman, this French girl, and my mother thinks, “What is he doing, bringing some European refugee?” And my mother had no idea. She had never gone to Paris. She would’ve seen my in-laws’ apartment. This vast apartment in the 16th Arrondissement. They were classy people. But she had no idea. All she knew was that this foreigner — “can’t be foreign.”

Well, we can’t go on forever.

No. But this is terrific. Anyway, it is fun for me to be there, and having adventures against the same backdrop, against which you had yours. It’s a nice connection.

Well, you do what you want to do. I don’t know how I feel about it. I used to go to France quite often. I’m not going to go anymore. Cathy [his daughter] wants me to go there on a trip, she’s going to give one of her talks down there in the Midi. I’m not sure I’m gonna go. My friends are gone. My friend André is gone. I have some other friends, but not many.

It changes things.


Newlyweds: Stanley & Annette Karnow
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

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11 July 2009

Interview: Stanley Karnow, Part I

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,
Washington, DC, 8 July 2009
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

Stanley Karnow has enjoyed the kind of career that makes other journalists seethe with envy and non-journalists gape with astonishment. To that essential asset of good luck (being in the right place at the right time), he has added a powerful mind, lively prose, peppery conversation, and a tough, thoroughly winning personality. Name a nation, and he’s been there when history was made; name a field of endeavor, and there’s hardly a major figure of the second half of the 20th century with whom Stanley hasn’t locked horns or broken bread. And he knows everything — everything — worth knowing. There are few things I’m as proud of, as the fact that he consents to speak to me.

Following military service in South Asia in World War II, Stanley gravitated toward Paris, where he began reporting for TIME Magazine. His assignments took him to North Africa, and the Algerian War, then back to Asia. His coverage of the United States war in Southeast Asia led him to write what has become one of the standard texts on the subject, Vietnam: A History, which was joined by an acclaimed television series on PBS. His many books include In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), and Paris in the Fifties, a memoir.

Stanley and I sat down at his home in Maryland on 9 July. The day before, he had spoken at a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first American deaths in the Vietnam conflict, Major Dale Buis and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand. Stanley himself had reported that story, from the scene, in 1959.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

WVM: The event yesterday — I was thinking about it. You reported on the first American deaths, 50 years ago this week, and every phase of the war after that; and you wrote the book about it. People turn to the book because they’re looking to get a grasp on this war that is sprawling and slippery and seems ungraspable. Is there anything about it that you haven’t grasped yet?

STANLEY KARNOW: Yeah. There are a few things, when you look back on the war. One was, from the Communist point of view, why they didn’t at certain points try negotiations with the United States. There were a couple of opportunities where they might have tried negotiations. I’ll give you one example, in April 1965, Lyndon Johnson proposed that the Mekong River Valley be turned into another [Tennessee Valley Authority]: dams, hydroelectric plants, and so forth. And that would serve all of that part of Southeast Asia. And he invited Hanoi, the Communists, to come and participate in it. They turned him down. Lyndon Johnson was very surprised. You know, Lyndon Johnson was basically a Texas politician — he thought those guys up in Hanoi were like Texas ward-heelers. He kept saying, “Oh, old Uncle Ho [Chi Minh] can’t turn me down!” But they turned him down.

That was a big mistake on their part. They must have known the United States was going to put combat troops into Vietnam — which Lyndon Johnson did the following July. It seems to me that if they’d have agreed to come into the negotiations over this T.V.A. project, that they would have forestalled the entry into combat troops. And it’s a bit of a mystery to me. I can’t seem to get my finger on why they turned him down. I’ve asked various people, but I can only conclude from my own experience with them, [why] they turned him down.

One of the reasons, I think, was that they were very suspicious of diplomacy. These guys in Hanoi, these Vietnamese, they had no idea what diplomacy was all about. They had been double-crossed at the Geneva Conference of 1954, when they were forced to take — to partition Vietnam. They had to make a deal with the French. They had expected that all of Vietnam would come under their control, but they were forced to take a divided, partitioned Vietnam. Oddly enough, it was the Russians and the Chinese who forced them to do that, because the Russians and the Chinese at that point wanted to improve their relations with the West. The Vietnamese negotiator at that conference told me much later, he said, “We were betrayed by our comrades.” And they were. They were very suspicious of diplomacy. They didn’t know very much about it.

So I think that this turning down Johnson was a failure. So that’s one thing that I think — if you went back and looked at the war — we might have avoided getting as deeply involved as we did.

But I don’t know, I think I pretty much covered all of the bases and the whole story.

So there aren’t really that many questions still in your mind?

There were other opportunities, when I look back, we maybe could have avoided the war. But with that book — and I did a television series — I think I pretty much got it right. There’s always going to be something we can go back and look at, with historical events. Thurber wrote a piece one time, that if Grant had been sober at Appomattox and Lee had been drunk [laughter], Grant would have surrendered to Lee. So with anything — you know, if Washington had only done this, things would have been different.

Commemorating the deaths of Buis & Ovnand
Washington, DC, 8 July 2009
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

I think for a lot of people the big question about Vietnam is exactly — how could it have been avoided, how could it have been stopped?

Well, the way it could have been stopped in the very beginning was not to get involved. In the very beginning, one of the reasons we got involved in Vietnam is that the French were going to war to retrieve their colony, in 1945, ’46. Roosevelt had said before he died that he didn’t think that any colonies should be given back, or certainly the French colonies should not be given back to the French. But when Truman took over, he was very anxious to get the French to agree to German rearmament. And the French were then getting involved in their war to retrieve their colony in Indochina and Vietnam, and they wanted American help. So he agreed to help the French. And in fact, we paid for it: 85 percent of the French war. It was $57 billion, in the days when $1 billion was worth something. So we really were in the hole, and we got ourselves involved. You had these speeches, like Eisenhower saying that by helping the French, we were helping to stop the spread of Communism, and so on and so forth.

The French were defeated, at the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in May of 1954. And they had to leave. Then there was the danger that Communists in the North, once they had defeated the French, would take over all of Vietnam. So therefore, Vietnam was partitioned, and we really got ourselves involved. Now, in the course of getting involved, there were moments when it looked like the Communists might take over. Or it looked like some factions in the South might have favored some sort of neutrality for the South and come to terms, make deals with the North. That scared a lot of people in Washington, when you go back to the Sixties. The idea of a neutral South Vietnam scared them, because they said, if it’s neutral, then that’s only a step away from its becoming Communist. And so the idea of a Communist Vietnam anathema, going back to the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy administration, Lyndon Johnson, and so forth.

Now, when you look back, in retrospect, so what? Who cares that it’s Communist today? Communism is a dead issue. And the Vietnamese, even though it’s a Communist regime, they’re really anxious to do business with the United States. You have lots of Vietnamese coming to America to study, and Americans going to Vietnam to do things. So Communism is dead anyway. What’s taken over the world from the so-called Marxist revolution has been the consumer revolution. When I gave a lecture one time in Hanoi, a few years ago, I wanted to talk about the war. The kids weren’t interested in the war. They were interested in Michael Jackson, hi-tech, and so on and so forth. They didn’t care about any — most of them of course were too young to remember the war, though all Vietnamese lost people.

There’s still the idiocy that — you go back to the original Marxist thesis, and there will be a “worldwide revolution,” and “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Nonsense, in retrospect. The proletariat wasn’t interested in dictatorship. The proletariat was interested in makin’ money and buyin’ cars. Communism and Socialism never took any root in the United States. Workers joined labor unions to get better pay. I mean, there were some really attractive Socialists, in American history, guys like [Eugene V.] Debs and so forth. But they didn’t make much impact in America.

Noted Authority: Interviewed by the Pentagon Channel.
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

Standing back a little bit — again, struck yesterday by the talk — you covered the war first a reporter, and second as a historian. You’ve kind of worn two hats.

Reporters are historians. The time frame is different. Reporters have deadlines. They have to get their stories out. You know, the old cliché is that journalism is the first rough draft of history.

Do you believe that that cliché is true?

Yeah, in a way. We reporters would report stuff that then became — you know, we were wrong a lot of the time, but historians go back to old newspapers. Good historians do. And there’s some crappy stuff in newspapers, but there’s some really marvelous stuff. If you go back, for example, and read old issues of Harper’s Weekly. Now, Harper’s Weekly covered the Civil War, in great detail.

They were the ones who published Matthew Brady’s pictures, right?

Yes, and there were lots of etchings, and engravings, and whatnot. The Philippine–American War, the Spanish–American War. They had these images, either copies of them or the originals. The reporting was terrific. So — reporters were historians on deadline. That’s what they were. As I say, in many cases wrong. What you thought happened one day really didn’t happen that day. You had to go back to see what really happened. What motivated people to do things that you thought they were motivated to do.

Are there traits that you have as a reporter that you feel you have to suppress when you’re writing history?


Something that you feel you need to turn off a little part of your brain and say, “Now I’m doing this”?

No, no. There are thousands of reporters. There are smart reporters, and there are dumb reporters. There are. Smart reporters who have bad days; there are dumb reporters who have good days. You can’t generalize. I mean, this notion about “The Press,” as if it’s a monolith, is totally wrong. I’ve been in situations where you’d see 500 reporters at some news conference, in Vietnam or Washington. Some people understood, some were too lazy. Too lazy to follow up on what they had. You know, it’s like any other profession. There are good and bad doctors, good and bad lawyers, good and bad journalists.

You as a reporter, or me as a reporter, had to — first of all, had to be well-educated. Had to be extremely curious, filled with curiosity. Had to know what was going on. Energetic, to be able to follow up on things. And not be just content to take the handouts. One reporter just lived on handouts!

This is an interesting thing, because you were a Harvard graduate but went into journalism, and you were really sort of the first wave of Ivy League-educated journalists.

No, no. You go back to the Twenties and Thirties, there were well-educated journalists.


I mean, I had to learn my trade. And I made a lot of blunders. I got a lot of things wrong. There was one terrible, curmudgeon editor at The New York Times, called Lester Markel. And I had to do a story one time on some project of his. He was in Paris, on some project; it may not have been to do with The New York Times. I’ve forgotten what it was, exactly. I was then sort of a young reporter, a leg man for TIME Magazine. And my editors said, “Go over there and see what that’s all about.” So I go over there, and I see this guy Markel. And I say to him, “Mr. Markel, can you tell me what this project is all about?”

And he said, “You see that table outside? It’s covered with literature about our project. Have you read any of that?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “I’ll tell you, young man. You go out and read, and when you have an intelligent question to ask me, you come back.”

With his daughter, Catherine
Used with Permission©

That was a great lesson. I was mortified, but it was a great lesson. He was absolutely right. I didn’t do my homework.

I learned from those things that you have to do homework. You have to — to be endowed with skepticism. I was sitting at the Ritz Bar with Hemingway, and I asked him, “What do you think is the attribute of a good reporter?”

And he said — one of those phrases he probably used a hundred times — he said, “What every reporter needs is a built-in bullshit detector.” Nice phrase. And that’s what you do, you do need it. A horse-shit detector. It’s always amazing to me how many reporters just swallow that stuff.

I think we just saw the need for that in the build-up to the Iraq War.

The build-up to the Iraq War was like the build-up to the Vietnam War, filled with deceptions and lies.


Coming Up: Stanley Karnow remembers Paris in the Fifties.

At home: Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

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06 July 2009

The Diva Has Broken Her Leg!

Joyce has entitled this picture “Cast-a-diva.”

On Saturday at Covent Garden in London, Joyce DiDonato enlivened the first night of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville by breaking her leg onstage — then continuing to sing the rest of the performance before going to the hospital.

When an EMS guy came backstage, he asked for an autograph before he asked how she was feeling. This struck me as a wonderful diva moment.

Of course Joyce is much too nice to take full advantage of her status. Not all singers are so modest, however, and here is what happened, when another diva broke her leg.

The diva has broken her leg! What happened?

At the moment of the accident, she let out a shriek, hitting a B flat. (And in the audience, her voice teacher proudly whispered to the man sitting next to her, “You hear that note? I taught her that!”)

She immediately blamed the conductor’s tempi, then asked whether it wasn’t really more appropriate to break her understudy’s leg instead.

She made the EMS technicians wait for her.

“I refuse to be rushed,” she said as she got into the ambulance.

Upon arriving at the hospital and being told she was now a patient, she repeatedly insisted she did not know what this word means.

She demanded that the waiting room be repainted to match her wardrobe.

She requested that all stethoscopes and scalpels in use be “period” surgical instruments.

She addressed the doctor as “Maestro.”

She asked the administrators to announce over the hospital intercom that she was indisposed and would not be performing.

At one point, she murmured nostalgically, “Fibula in Anesthesia? Ah, yes! One of my greatest roles — seventeen curtain calls in Venice!”

Seeing flowers in other patients’ rooms, she naturally assumed that each and every bouquet was for her.

She signed her own cast.

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03 July 2009

How to Eat Couscous

The painter Annette Karnow, who passed away yesterday, will remain for me a lasting symbol of grace and talent, sophistication and wit. She also played a mean tennis game, though I was never good enough to get near her on a court; and among her greatest legacies is the sense of fun she instilled in her daughter, Catherine, one of my dearest friends. If there is any possibility of enjoying a moment, these ladies have always been able to find a way.

In tribute to Annette, there are many things I might write — and some things I have written already, here. Yet it seems fitting now to pass along a little wisdom that she and Cathy once shared with me on a summer evening in Maryland: how to eat couscous.

A staple of North African and French cuisines, couscous looks very much like (and basically, is) tiny pellets of pasta, and it’s made by rolling semolina in your hands, coating it in flour, drying it, and then, when you’re ready to eat it, steaming it — dropped pellet by pellet into the cooker. In truth, I don’t believe I’ve ever had the traditional variety. At any market in France, and many in the States, you can get perfectly good instant couscous that’s ready to serve in about five minutes: just pour it into a small amount of boiling water (or better, broth), turn off the heat, let it sit, and fluff it with a fork.

That’s the easy part, the foundation of the dish, also known (here in France, anyway) as couscous. For the rest, you will need a big bowl of vegetable broth, typically including chickpeas, zucchini, carrots, onion, and turnips, in a tomato-based stock. A few white raisins add welcome sweetness. If you’re not vegetarian, you will likely want grilled meat, too (lamb, chicken, beef, and in the best of all circumstances, spicy merguez sausages), which would make couscous fun for summertime cookouts.

Serve the couscous first, scooping it into a soup plate. Then ladle out the vegetables, arrange the meat, and pour some of the broth over it. Now you are ready for the harissa.

This is a paste made of oil and ground chili peppers, sold in little tubes in French groceries. In its raw state, harissa looks like drying ketchup, but it’s three-alarm hot, which is why restaurants serve it only in tiny little bowls. The uninitiated may be tempted to spoon the stuff directly into the dish — I’ve seen American tourists do so, and I’ve often had to rush to their aid. (For those of you sitting at a table too far from mine, I am providing this guide.)

However, against my warning objections, Rick Reidy ate his harissa straight, on a visit to Paris in April, and he declared it good. De gustibus non est disputandum, and all that.

For most of us, the better way is to take a small amount of harissa in a soup spoon, then pour vegetable broth over it. Mix these elements together in the bowl of the spoon, using a fork, and drizzle the sauce over your dish.

You aren’t required to use the harissa — but why wouldn’t you want to?

The genius of eating couscous is the constant quest for precisely the right balance of spice, broth, vegetables, meat, and couscous. I’m always happiest when the pellets have absorbed a good bit of broth (and spice), toward the end of the meal, and I don’t know whether to use a fork or a spoon, or both, or just walllow in it. It’s wonderfully satisfying.

Over the years, I’ve introduced several of my godchildren and other friends to couscous — though I’m sorry to say that my absolute favorite of all Parisian couscous restaurants, Chez Moustapha, a cramped, smoky dive decorated like something off the Warner Brothers’ backlot, closed ages ago.

On my early adventures in couscous, I preferred to accompany the dish with a chilled bottle of gris, a North African rosé, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a taste for the more robust reds from the same region.

Couscous can be served plain, with raisins and honey, as a dessert. It can be used much like pasta in a salad, too, and that’s how I first encountered it, in Annette Karnow’s kitchen. She and Cathy used cherry tomatoes, olives, onions or chives of some sort, olive oil, and fresh herbs to garnish the salad. It was, I announced without fear of contradiction, the best couscous salad I had ever eaten. It still is.

Prior to that evening, I was under the impression that Couscous was merely a character from Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World. For opening my eyes to other possibilities, I will always love Cathy and Annette.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with permission

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