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Medieval French Village Echoes With the Voice of Kennedy’s Camelot

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Medieval French Village Echoes With the Voice of Kennedy’s Camelot


The New York Times

July 12, 2012

LE THOR, France — If the French loved John F. Kennedy, there is a special spot in their hearts for Pierre Salinger, his rotund, cigar-smoking, francophone-ish press secretary whose maternal grandfather served in the Assemblée Nationale and fought to clear Capt. Alfred Dreyfus.

So it’s not surprising that here in this medieval Provençal village east of Avignon, where Mr. Salinger spent his last years with his fourth wife, there is a temple to the jovial spokesman who traded a prizewinning journalistic career for a roller-coaster life of politics, public service, comedy and tragedy.

In a memoir published nine years before his death at a local hospital in 2004 at 79, Mr. Salinger averred distaste for what he called the “Camelotization” of the Kennedys.

Yet, on exhibit here is the leather cigar case with the gold initials “J.F.K.” that Jacqueline Kennedy presented Mr. Salinger, “with my love and appreciation for all you did to make his days here so unforgettable.” Also, Mr. Salinger’s presidential appointment certificate (“Reposing special trust and confidence in your integrity, prudence and ability, I do appoint you. ... ”), and other memorabilia of happily-ever-aftering, like his PT-109 tie clasp and prototype American Express card, color purple, No. 200.

The poignant little museum has been tucked away since 2006 in a corner of a former marble yard that Mr. Salinger and his last wife, Nicole, bought in 1998 and turned into an upscale bed-and-breakfast, La Bastide Rose, the pink bastion, or country house. Their foundation sponsors annual exhibits on the property — this year, a tribute to Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Senegalese poet, liberator and statesman.

But Mr. Salinger — who went on to high-profile careers as an ABC News bureau chief, a prolific fiction and nonfiction author, a publicist and, for one brief shining moment, United States senator — remains the heart and soul of the enterprise.

“Pierre loved France, and France loved him back,” wrote Jonathan Randal, an author and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Washington Post, in an e-mail. “Pierre became the quintessential American for the French, partly because of the J.F.K. gold dust, partly because he made it his business to get to know the French political scene and partly because he spoke atrociously accented French that made the French feel good about themselves and about America, for here was a son of both countries who loved France but spoke odd French.”

To be sure, Mr. Randal added, “Pierre was part of what cynics sometimes call ‘La sauce Lafayette,’ ” a reference to the affectionate relations that developed with the French help for the colonists during the Revolutionary War. But as a Navy veteran he also embodied the sacrifices Americans made for France in two world wars.

Robert Korengold, a former Newsweek foreign correspondent and aide to President Ronald Reagan, once toasted Mr. Salinger at Versailles as someone considered by the French not as “an American, or the American but THEIR American in France.”

The exhibits trace Mr. Salinger’s childhood as a piano prodigy in San Francisco; his attendance at a longshoremen’s union summer camp (Kennedy later kidded him about being a Communist); his World War II service, when he took up cigar-smoking for gravitas; and his award-winning series in The San Francisco Chronicle in 1953 exposing barbaric conditions in the jails. When his investigative series on the Teamsters was scrapped because Collier’s magazine folded, he sought out Robert F. Kennedy at the Senate labor investigations subcommittee. He soon became the panel’s chief investigator and joined John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president.

In his 1995 memoir, “P.S.,” Mr. Salinger said he opposed Senator Lyndon B. Johnson’s place on the 1960 ticket while Robert F. Kennedy supported it. But it was under President Johnson that Mr. Salinger was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy and to run for the California seat in the 1964 election. He lost to the Republican actor George Murphy, concluding, “The people have spoken — the bastards!”

Le Thor is remote, with a 14th-century castle and ancient gates along the banks of the Sorgue River. But those who find their way here among the lavender fields and van Gogh landscapes of France’s sunny south may get an earful of oral history from Mr. Salinger’s ebulliently bilingual widow, Nicole (known as Poppy, to distinguish her from Mr. Salinger’s third wife, who was also named Nicole).

The couple met in 1983. She was then the Comtesse de Menthon, wife of a French aristocrat, and communications director for the fashion designer Guy Laroche in Paris. Then separated from his third wife, Mr. Salinger, in his recounting, fell hard for the Bardot-look-alike, besieging her with phone calls and surprise visits. Finally won over, she divorced and they married in 1989. (After his death she married a childhood beau, Aygulf Le Cesne, and now, at 67, is Nicole Salinger Le Cesne).

She tells how Mr. Salinger, prone to conspiracy theories, continued to believe that an errant American missile from a Navy ship, not a mechanical malfunction, brought down T.W.A. Flight 800 off Long Island in 1996, killing all 230 aboard. Mr. Salinger said French intelligence sources had given him a document pointing to a cover-up, but the F.B.I. said the account was baseless.

Mr. Salinger’s French roots ran deep. His mother’s father, Pierre Bietry, founded the Syndicat des Jaunes, or Yellow Labor Union, of anti-Marxist socialists, winning a seat in the French Parliament from 1906 to 1910 and championing the defense of Captain Dreyfus, the Jewish officer hounded into prison for supposed treason. His daughter Jehanne, Mr. Salinger’s mother, became a journalist in Asia before settling in San Francisco in 1921, where she met and married Herbert Salinger, a divorced Jewish mining engineer who had founded a symphony orchestra in Salt Lake City.

Here in Le Thor, Mr. Salinger’s penchant for fine wine and cigars is fondly recalled. A centerpiece of the museum is a large wooden cigar box, all that remains of a gift that Nikita Khrushchev presented Mr. Salinger during a visit to Moscow in 1962. The 150 cigars had come from Fidel Castro and violated the newly installed embargo. President Kennedy was aghast, directing Mr. Salinger to surrender the cigars so Customs could destroy them.

Years later, Mr. Salinger reflected ruefully that he could have done that himself, “one by one.”

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