by OPC Past President Allan Dodds Frank
Shortly before she died, Jacqueline Albert Simon called to say goodbye, to say she loved me, her friends at the Overseas Press Club and the work being done by the many talented winners of the OPC Foundation fellowship she underwrote so generously. “This is the last time I am going to talk to you,” she said.
That fellowship – the Flora Lewis Award – is named after a famous New York Times columnist who was based in Paris and became a tough mentor to Jackie.
Jackie was petite, even tiny, but if sophistication were measured as height, she was a giant. And she was unruffled. Not too long ago, she survived an incredible moment when a heavyset man stumbled while she was on the sideway near her Fifth Avenue apartment and practically crushed her as he collapsed on top of her while suffering a fatal heart attack and stroke. As a glamorous 98-year-old, she confided: “If I included all the stuff about me, you would not believe it.”
Jackie was a sweetheart, always charming, and funny with a sly sense of humor and a great laugh. Once she got into the news business, she was dedicated to the pursuit of serious journalism, largely as the U.S. bureau chief and associate editor of Politique Internationale, a Paris-based French journal that specialized in erudite interviews with world leaders. She also mentored dozens of students as a resident scholar at the New York University Institute of French Studies. As a longtime board member of the OPC and the OPC Foundation, her advice was soft-spoken, firm and sage. Her wisdom and perspective quietly commanded attention. Nuance was her métier.
What a story Jackie’s life was. During the 30 years or so, we had known each other through the OPC, you would have sworn that this cosmopolitan woman was quintessentially French. But as she would remind me: “I am just a little American girl.” In 1946, at a cocktail party in New York, she met a dashing Frenchman named Pierre Simon who she would be married to for a half century. He was a man of mystery, a dealer of luxury leather, who had fled France with his family in the late 1930s in anticipation of the Nazi advance. He knew many French Resistance figures and enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was tapped immediately by Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan to be a liaison between the French Resistance and the American spy agency, the O.S.S. (Office of Special Services). When the war ended and France had to be rebuilt, Charles de Gaulle and rest of the French resistance trusted Pierre – now an American citizen – to help the nation recover.
As a result, Pierre became a highly successful international businessman who brokered major deals for French companies, such as Dassault, with other nations. He and Jackie lived in a beautiful apartment in New York and a fabulous house in Easthampton. Spending three months or more every year in Paris, they resided in Suite 301 of the Hotel Raphael while moving in the highest circles in France. Jackie became completely bilingual, flawlessly fluent in French speech and manner, the perfect French Citoyen du Monde (Citizen of the World) and an impeccable hostess. In the 1970s, she took a little time to earn a PhD in political science and was to begin teaching at Southampton College on Long Island.
Every year, until this final OPC Foundation Awards lunch on Feb. 28, Jackie delighted in meeting “her winners” and introducing them to the world. I asked her what Flora Lewis taught her that she wanted the OPC Foundation Award winners to know. “The message that Flora Lewis gave me was: ‘Work hard, don’t give up, keep working’.”
The winners also deserve a gentle dose of Jackie’s advice. She told me she wants them to know: “Do what always worked for me. Work on diplomacy, on tact, on saying the right word at the right time. What I learned from Pierre was how to do a deal, how to make things work and how to lose the deal having won it, by making the other guy think he won too. That was not Flora’s way. That’s not a journalist’s way in general. In general, you get to the point. I did it in the interviews. I was much more direct. ‘Excuse me, I am going to repeat my question because you didn’t answer it.’ In Paris life, I felt I needed more tact. In the interviews, I got right down to: ‘We are equals. I did not put you on a podium to have you give me your set speech. I have you for an hour so give it to me straight’.” I also learned from Flora: “Win some, lose some. Can’t win them all.”
Her friendship with Flora Lewis had begun in 1972 when they were introduced by Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, the publisher/owner of the New York Times at a party honoring Lewis, an Associated Press and Washington Post veteran reporter, who had just been named the chief diplomatic correspondent and Paris Bureau Chief of The New York Times.
Sulzberger told Jackie: “I suggested she get in touch with you, saying: ‘You know every man politique in Paris.’ Please note he did not say: ‘Every woman’, because there were not every women, there were none or one or two who I didn’t know.” A few minutes later, Lewis found Jackie and they set up a lunch in Paris for the following week. “She asked me if I could introduce her to two people she was having trouble getting in good contact with. She said: “I don’t know, Is it the secretary? Is it me? Is it the way I handle it? Do they not believe in meeting journalists person to person’?”
So, I said: “Who are the two?” I did know them.”
I said: ‘I’ll try’. So, I called up one. I was very, very French, very diplomatic. In a culture of philocracy – yes philocracy- (editor’s note: Philocracy: The rule of love as the governing principle of social behavior), you needed in 1972 to be extraordinarily diplomatic. So, I said: “Good to hear your voice. We haven’t talked for a while, so nice to talk. How are you? How’s your family? Etc. We talk for a while. Then I go on: ‘There is someone you should meet.’ ‘Really?” he says. “not because she is so warm and intelligent and a really really good journalist, but because she has the most extravagantly beautiful blue eyes. Well, he said (in French), “Bon. That seems interesting.” So that got arranged.”
(That man was Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury, an important French government minister who also served briefly as Prime Minister. Jackie could not immediately remember his name, so when she did in the middle of the night, she called me the next morning for what was actually our last chat.)
Soon Flora and Jackie were fast friends. Flora told Jackie: “Teaching is not where you belong.” As Jackie explained:
“Somewhere, I did drift into journalism. I was writing short pieces about American foreign policy for the French. Then Flora says: “You write about American policy for France. I write about French foreign policies to Americans. We are a perfect team, but you should be doing more journalism.” Jackie continued: “Somehow or other, when your name gets into that circle, we get little taps on the shoulder. Little phone calls. Little meetings at cocktail parties for journalists. Pretty soon, I found myself with a rather steady job at a new magazine called Politique Internationale. This new magazine was the first of its kind, the first to be sold on newsstands and the only one to be sold in France and distributed around the world.
Before I knew it, I was U.S. Bureau chief and Flora Lewis self-designated – became my mentor. So, our contact was frequent and I was always wrong. ‘Too long, too short, too this, too that’ and by the way always right. “
Jackie has sponsored the Flora Lewis Fellowship for nearly two decades and wants the winners to regard themselves as an elite club that is carrying on for Flora. She asked me to let future winners know this:
“Flora would have loved every one of you… Be careful. You have to have a strong ego to survive. Flora died some time ago (2002). It was hard for her friends – by now I include myself – to accept her death. She worked until the week before she died. I saw her in Paris the week before she died. She said it was not sad to go because it was time. She had become quite ill. She said, ‘Ok, I have done my job.’ What the job meant to her was what it is going to mean for all of you. It’s going to mean integrity. It is going to mean the search for truth. It is going to mean not easily giving up before you have the real story and before you have checked it out. What I am giving to you what Flora gave to me: An understanding that you do not interest me unless you are willing to give your best.”
Jackie always gave her best, right to the end. When she called back to tell me the name of the minister, she added this about Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury.
“I have a very funny story I want to tell you, but I don’t think I can. We’re having dinner a day after he had spent the day with the Queen (of England) so we are asking him all about it: ‘What is she like and so forth?’ He said: ‘One thing I can tell you: She wears a very bad bra.’ French people don’t get hysterical. They just laugh. So, we discussed that for a minute or two. “Come on, how did you notice?” “Couldn’t help it,” he said.
Jackie’s sign-off: “I figured that was worth calling you back about.”