Jun 232017

Sig Mickelson, the first president of CBS News

Our last two years in France were spent at 1 bis rue de Martignac, 7th Arrondisement, Paris. We lived in thirteen rooms furnished in authentic Louis XVI furniture. Our bedroom windows looked out to the L’Eglise de St. Clotilde, a double-spired church where Saint Saëns had been the organist. The buttresses across a narrow street almost protruded into our apartment. A portrait of our landlord, the aristocratic Baron de France, topped a wide winding staircase into the salon. The Baron was now elderly and dying.

The rent was two hundred dollars a month paid in American dollars to his eldest impoverished daughter, La Baroness de France. She was elegant, spoke excellent English, and very worried about her finances. I offered her a hundred thousand dollars for the whole building. (I didn’t have the money, but a close American friend who visited us said he would back me.) She refused, ruefully. He father had grown up at 1 bis rue de Martignac and until he died she could not sell the property.

Something had ended for me. The literary footpath that led to the 1920s and Hemingway, Henry James and Dos Passos had turned into a six-lane paved highway. The Moveable Feast had been warmed over too many times.

Years later, I did a documentary entitled, Our Friends the French, which included the following passages (you can imagine the illustrating visuals):

  • A quick history of the Franco-American insult.
  • 1781: Versailles, where the French King lived until they went broke.
  • The French Monarch became much annoyed with the popularity and simplicity of that American left-winger, Benjamin Franklin, our diplomat at Versailles. On New Year’s Day 1781, the king gave one of his lady friends a convenience needed even today—a chamber pot.


  • It was a small gift from a great King, but it began a greater tradition. In short Louis XVI started the movement: CUT TO GRAFTTI “Yankee Go Home.”
  • Lately the French have been bothering us a little too much. What seems to astonish the French is that it has taken us so long to rise to high resentment. The French have been waiting for it all the time. Many Frenchmen expect us to dislike their country because they know France has a superior culture and a longer history. Marianne of France, whom we liberated and fell in love with—is calling out our faults for the whole world to hear.

Mme. Falcoz once asked Thomas Ryan, my friend and attorney, “What do you think of France?

His reply: “Mrs. Falcoz, I think of France about as often as I think about Rhode Island.”

Before we left, an Algerian crisis threatened the country. It was feared the French generals in Oran were planning to seize the government in Paris. I had been in touch with the Paris Bureau. The chief correspondent was out interviewing high officials for television.

CBS radio in New York was impatient for fresh news. The back-up correspondent, Blair Clark asked me to take a sound engineer and see what we might find.  Large rolls of barbed wire had blocked the roads to Paris Orly Airport. I saw tanks on the runways. The sound of sirens was everywhere. We came back to the bureau. The technician cued the sound of sirens and I delivered and off-the-cuff report of what I had seen.

An hour later, a call came from Sig Mickelson. “I heard it in my car. Wonderful, we scooped everybody, and those siren sounds made the piece come alive. Skee, you have to come back. I need you.”

Despite St. Clotilde, despite Louis XVI, this expatriate was ready to go home. Paris was full of Americans at the time. The franc was cheap, the living was easy but like all immigrants, I was neither here nor there. Though my command of the language was better, I felt insulted when I was told I could not be an American because I pronounced French vowels so well. As a writer, I was disturbed by my illiteracy in the language.

Our son John was attending French Kindergarten. One day he cried, “Je veux mon cagoule! Cagoule! PAPA, CAGOULE!”

What in hell was a cagoule? We had to call Paul Andre Falcoz.

“He wants the hood for his cape.”

“Merci, Paul Andre.” We hung up.

I went to the Ecole Maternelle to bring John home. He said to a chum, “J’ai un drôle de père. Il ne sait pas parler français.” (I have a weird father. He doesn’t speak French.”)

Even worse. Tuulikki and I were planning a trip to the Burgundy wine country. We had maps spread on the floor. We showed him the villages from which our wines had come.

Beaujolais vienne de tout la region. Fixin vient de cette village.”

He interrupted us. “Papa, d’où vient le whiskey?”

We had been playing catch in the Bois de Boulogne, and I asked him in French to give me the ball. He kicked it, instead of throwing it. The grandson of Abe Wolff who had a tryout with the St Louis Browns! That settled it. This boy had to be brought back to his heritage.

At home, Kennedy was running against Nixon and the Americans were repeating the French errors in Vietnam. A lesser conflict was taking place in the upper echelons of CBS. Sig Mickelson wanted to fire Fred Friendly, the head of documentaries and replace him with me. He said nothing to me directly, but he knew how to talk to a writer-producer.

He came to Paris and said, “There’s a new technology. The kinescope process is finished. We now record programs on two-inch tape and edit carefully. It will change the whole business, and unless you come back, you’ll be playing catch up. And we’ll make you a good deal.”

“I’ll start packing,” I told him.

Sig continued, “By the way, CBS News and you are being sued for plagiarism in California. Take care of that first.”

“Where’s the suit?”

“Salinas, California. The lettuce capital of the world.”

I spent two days in New York and then I flew west.



Sig Mickelson: http://library.sdsu.edu/scua/raising-our-voices/sdsu-history/faculty/sig-mickelson

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