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Thursday, 27 January 2022

Liberating the Stories Behind the Characters and the Typewriters in ‘The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun’

The publisher-editor of The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun was orginally to be called Leibling, after Abbott Joseph Liebling. It was changed to Arthur Howitzer Jr, but the back strory of how Howitzer came to be in France remained Liebling's.

It had been a long, agonising 10 weeks. Yesterday we were finally able to go to a movie theatre and see Wes Anderson’s latest quirky offering, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. It is tout simplement magnifique, as they might say in Ennui-sur-Blasé, which, as it turns out, is anything but bore-dering on the jaded. After all, it's “the Paris of Jacques Tati” (actually, it's Angoulême) and the opening scene is a homage to the one in Tati's Mon Oncle, one of my all-time favourite films. Any movie featuring so many machines à écrire is going to be absolutely brilliant anyway. What's more, given it is Anderson’s “love letter to journalists”, it was a top-of-the-wozza must-see.

Ten weeks ago we were alerted to the existence of this new Anderson film, which had been released in the United States on October 22. A friend had picked up and dropped off one of those wonderful mock 20-page copies of The French Dispatch magazine, illustrated
 by Spanish artist Javi Aznarez, in this case 149 Série, N° 12, at “200 Old Francs”. Our friend found it at a cinema complex and, like us a subscriber to The New Yorker, she recognised the cover style straight away. Seeing a typewriter advert on the back cover, Penny knew it would be of great interest in this household. She wasn't wrong. Our sense of anticipation thus heightened to the max, we waited impatiently for a chance to see The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. And yesterday it came. Well worth the wait!

The back cover of The French Dispatch magazine, right,
and the Hermes Baby poster upon which it was based, left.

An illustration of A.J. Liebling by Javi Aznarez in The French Dispatch magazine.

Anjelica Huston’s voiceover at the beginning of the film explains that the publisher-editor of The French Dispatch, Arthur Howitzer Jr (played by Bill Murray) had, in his youth, convinced his father (proprietor of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun) to finance a series of travelogue columns from France to be published in the “Sunday Picnic” section of the Kansas newspaper. As soon as I heard Huston’s words, I recognised them as essentially A.J. Liebling’s story. In 1926, Liebling's father, wealthy New York furrier Joe Liebling, asked his son if he would like to suspend his budding career as a journalist to study in Paris for a year. Liebling, fearing his father might change his mind, concocted a yarn that he was thinking of marrying a woman 10 years his senior, a woman “being kept by a cotton broker from Memphis, Tennessee”. Joe senior promptly sent a letter of credit for $2000 and a reservation on the Caronia. Joe Jr sailed to Europe and studied French medieval literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, all the while absorbing French life and food. The experience inspired a lifelong love for France and the French. 

  That's a Japy on Bill Murray's desk, by the way, masquerading as an "Andretti Ribbon-Mate".

In An Editor’s Burial (Howitzer dies at both the beginning and end of the movie) - Journals and Journalism From The New Yorker and Other Magazines: Inspirations for The French Dispatch, an American Empirical Picture by Wes Anderson edited by David Brendel and published by Pushkin Press, Anderson tells The New Yorker’s articles editor Susan Morrison “Originally, we were calling the editor character Liebling, not Howitzer, because the face I always pictured was A.J. Liebling’s. We tried to make Bill Murray sort of look like him, I think. Remember, he says he tricked his father into paying for his early sojourn in Paris by telling him he was thinking of marrying a good woman who was 10 years older than he, although ‘Mother might think she is a bit fast’ … ” The Anderson-Morrison interview appeared in The New Yorker last September 5, under the headline, "How Wes Anderson Turned The New Yorker into The French Dispatch".

Illustration by Toma Vagner

For all that, it's a little odd that the Roebuck Wright character played by Jeffrey Wright (above) is a food journalist based on an amalgamation of James Baldwin and A. J. Liebling.” It's a memorable part, played extremely well by Wright. But Baldwin and Liebling? Seriously? (By the way, Wright and Bill Murray were also together in Broken Flowers, which featured a pink Olympia.)

The most discordant part of the movie, from the point of view of typewriter use (and there’s a lot of it), involves poor old (looking) Frances McDormand as Lucinda Krementz, a journalist profiling the French student revolutionaries of 1968 (in real life Mavis Gallant). The machine the props people have given Frances to use to type in bed (with Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, a student revolutionary) is one of those awful plastic versions of the Hermes Baby, for goodness sake! I’ve never tried to type on one of the plastic models while sitting up in bed, but the sound of a plastic portable typewriter is, in itself, sufficiently grating to put one off the idea. (Frances is later seen typing her report on a red plastic Hermes Baby.)

Below, the real Mavis Gallant using a metal Smith-Corona.
The portable typewriter on Bill Murray's editor's desk is a mock-up of a Japy, masquerading as an Andretti Ribbon-Mate, a product of Ateliers Andretti and Brothers. And why not? This model is also known by a vast array of different brand names, and is part of what Georg Sommeregger insists should be known as the Euro Portable Clan. Here we see Jeffrey Wright starting to type Horiwitz's obituary (the corpse is stretched out on the editor's desk), and below that different sizes of the mock-ups - the smaller versions using bottle tops as platen knobs:
Here are some real-life variations:
There is also what looks like a Hermes Media/3000 in the editorial office:
And others:
Please go see this movie. It's totally:


Richard P said...

Thanks for the background! I enjoyed the film and this adds to my appreciation.

Lucia Jacobs said...

Thank you! Much appreciated and have forwarded it to many.

Ixzed23 said...

My wife and I enjoyed the movie very much! I was stopping and rewinding many times to see the typewriters. Your article adds a lot to the movie. I bought the scenario as soon as it came out.

Daniel Burgoyne