Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true New Yorker stories, editors, and reporters that inspired Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Wes Anderson is an admirer of The New Yorker. A fascination with the kind of high-brow culture and style chronicled in the magazine runs through Anderson’s movies.
His love for the magazine forms the basis of The French Dispatch, a fresh and spectacular mid-career work from the master of quirk. The new movie centers on a team of American journalists at the titular France-based periodical. And it presents a collection of stories, some of which are inspired by the editors, reporters, and writing of The New Yorker.
From our review out of Cannes, written by Luke Hicks:
“In pique Wes Anderson fashion, a narrator (voiced by Anjelica Huston) reads us through the articles at a silly rate. She rattles off mini-biographies, local histories, and statistics seemingly pulled out of a hat in a sheer fit of delight. It’s nearly impossible to follow everything on the first watch. Perhaps still so on the second and third.”
As we prepare for the release of The French Dispatch later this year, here is a look at the true stories and people that influenced the film:
Bill Murray as the Obsessive Editor
The cast of the movie is overflowing with Hollywood stars, including many of Anderson’s regulars. One of them, Bill Murray, plays The French Dispatch founder and editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr., who is based on the true New Yorker co-founder and editor-in-chief Harold Ross. He started the magazine with his wife, Jane Grant, in 1925 and served as its boss until his death in 1951.
Ross was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers who regularly met at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. The collective included the likes of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, and even Harpo Marx. The group has taken on a mythic status in American letters and has been regularly cited and depicted in popular culture. Most notably in the 1994 movie Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, in which Sam Robards plays Ross.
Despite The New Yorker‘s reputation as a periodical for the American and global elite, Ross came from humble beginnings. He was born in Colorado, in a prospector’s cabin, never graduated from high school, and served in the military. A newspaperman at heart, Ross famously told people he walked one hundred and fifty miles to Paris after he heard the US Army had launched a newspaper there. That paper, Stars & Stripes, still exists today.
His devotion to The New Yorker is the stuff of legends. Ross edited an astonishing one-thousand, three-hundred, and ninety-nine issues of the magazine. According to current New Yorker editor David Remnick, even as Ross died in the hospital from lung cancer, “his eccentric, unstoppable obsessiveness, his unembarrassed habit of questioning every matter of grammar, usage, and fact, no matter how niggling, seemed undiminished.”
A comma obsessive, Ross’ friend and New Yorker contributor E.B. White once said, “Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” It’s a style that still lingers in the pages of the magazine today.
Owen Wilson as the Prolific (and Sometimes Not) Reporter
Another longtime Anderson collaborator, Owen Wilson plays Herbsaint Sazerac, a French Dispatch journalist based on the true New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. He joined the staff of the magazine in 1938 and technically stayed on until his death in 1996. In his heyday, Mitchell earned a reputation as a profile writer who, as his New York Times obituary notes, “tended to avoid the standard fare of journalists: interviews with moguls, tycoons, movie stars and captains of industry. Instead, he pursued the generals of nuisance: flops, drunks, con artists, panhandlers, gin-mill owners and their bellicose bartenders, at least one flea circus operator, a man who sold racing cockroaches, a bearded lady and a fast talker.”
Once one of the most prolific and dogged reporters at the magazine, Mitchell published his final piece for The New Yorker in 1964 and then entered into what Thomas Kunkel, in Publisher’s Weekly, called “one of the most celebrated ‘writer’s blocks’ in American letters.” Each day, Mitchell would commute to the magazine’s office, work on projects, and interact with colleagues, but produce nothing. Once a year, he would meet with editor-in-chief William Shawn (Ross’ successor) to update him on his progress. As Kunkel notes, Mitchell was busy, he just had nothing to show for it.
“An infinitely courteous and patient man, Shawn never would have pressed Mitchell about his work, much less imposed any kind of deadline on him,” Kunkel writes. “Besides, Shawn knew full well that back in the late ’30s and ’40s, when Mitchell was relatively prolific and his quirky pieces helped establish the magazine’s popularity — and profitability — the writer earned a relative pittance.” Seems fair enough.
Sazerac, the character inspired by Mitchell, is an active journalist in The French Dispatch. But I’ll be curious to see if Anderson hints at any looming writer’s block in his future. According to an article about the movie in The New Yorker, actor Wally Wolodarsky plays a member of the staff who “has never completed a single article.” Perhaps he is inspired by Mitchell’s later years.
Jeffrey Wright as an Amalgamation
According to The New Yorker, actor Jeffery Wright plays French Dispatch journalist Roebuck Wright, a food writer from the American South, whose true inspiration is “a mashup of James Baldwin and A. J. Liebling.”
Baldwin, one of the most celebrated American writers, contributed a number of articles to publications like The New Yorker during his career, including the famous “Letter from a Region In My Mind.” The essay is one of two works that formed his seminal work on race and racism, The Fire Next Time.
He first arrived in Paris at the age of twenty-four with only forty dollars. It was the distance from America that life in Europe allowed that gave Baldwin the ability to reflect so eloquently on the oppressive nature of life in the US for a gay, Black man. Or, as the National Museum of African American History & Culture puts it, “Baldwin found a place within a diverse community of creative types. The social scene of that neighborhood gave him a respite from the constant tension that living in the United States meant for someone like him.”
Liebling was more closely associated with The New Yorker than Baldwin. He joined the magazine in 1935. A frequent visitor to Paris, Liebling was equally famous as an eater as he was a writer. In 1959, he published a memoir entitled Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. According to his friend Mitchell, Liebling sometimes used a piece of bacon as a bookmark. I can’t imagine treating my own books that way, but it certainly sounds like something a character in a Wes Anderson film might do.
Adrien Brody as the Art Dealer
In a 1951 New Yorker profile, S. N. Behrman describes the true inspiration for the character played by Adrien Brody in The French Dispatch as “the most spectacular art dealer of all time.” Quite a statement. Brody, another Anderson regular, plays Julien Cadazio, an art dealer based on Sir Joseph Duveen.
In fact, Behrman’s “The Days of Duveen” serves as the inspiration for one of the core three stories that comprise The French Dispatch. Duveen made his millions by selling European art to wealthy Americans. His genius, as Behrman put it, was that he “noticed that Europe had plenty of art and America had plenty of money, and his entire astonishing career was the product of that simple observation.” I need only mention the last names of some of his clients for you to get the picture: Rockefeller, Morgan, Mellon, Huntington.
Rich people buying up tons of artworks undoubtedly sucks, but Duveen’s deals did lead to many of those collections finding a public home in museums. “In his five decades of selling in this country, Duveen, by amazing energy and audacity, transformed the American taste in art,” Behrman writes. “The masterpieces he brought here have fetched up in a number of museums that, simply because they contain these masterpieces, rank among the greatest in the world.”
Another one of the main narratives in The French Dispatch is based on the true story presented in a two-part article by New Yorker writer Mavis Gallant titled “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook.” Those titular events discussed have now become known as May 68, a period of unrest in France first ignited by student protests as part of the political, cultural, and sexual revolutions that helped define the 1960s.
“Their spontaneous occupation of some of the administration buildings was partly a demonstration against the Vietnam War,” NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley wrote in 2018, “and partly to demand something closer to home: to be able to spend the night in each other’s dorm rooms.”
The demonstrations led to broader protests against the government and global capital. Eventually, ten million workers joined in. “Each person that engaged, engaged himself all the way,” Bruno Queysanne, a teacher, told the New York Times in reflecting on the events. “That was how France could stop running, without there being a feeling of injustice or sabotage. The whole world was in agreement that they should pause and reflect on the conditions of existence.”
In The French Dispatch, Frances McDormand plays Lucinda Krementz, a journalist covering the protest, while Lyna Khoudri and Timothée Chalamet play two student protesters. You may have already seen the clip from the movie in which Krementz confronts Chalamet’s character, Zeffirelli, while he bathes.
Much of the rage of the protesters was directed towards the French government led by President Charles de Gaulle. At one point, the protests got so heated that de Gaulle left the country. The government eventually negotiated with unions for better pay and conditions for workers. And while de Gaulle won re-election the following month, the impact of the protests remained.
“But the established hierarchy and formality that permeated relationships between teachers and students, parents and children, bosses and workers, and ultimately even politicians and citizens, had been upended,” writes Alissa Rubin in the aforementioned New York Times article. “When students returned to classes, they could now ask questions in class and dispute ideas — a revolution in the French educational system. Bosses had to treat their workers better.”
The French Dispatch releases in theaters on October 22, 2021.