Furlaud ornaments do float away — into listeners’ fond memories

Profile by David Stewart

I know more than a few public radio listeners who, while admiring the news reports on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, reserve their most ardent enthusiasm for what Bob Edwards once called “ornaments” — short, revealing commentaries scheduled between the “important” stories.

A master of the form, Alice Furlaud, has been supplying commentaries for nearly as long as NPR has been broadcasting, first from Paris and more recently from her home on Cape Cod.

Furlaud on location

Furlaud on location

Like another of my favorite NPR commentators, the psychiatrist Elissa Ely, Furlaud is a uniquely gifted, acerbic writer with a New England plainspokeness that adds considerable authority to what she says. Furlaud and Ely make no effort to disguise their exceptional intelligence. If you believe, as I do, that intelligence adds abundantly to attractiveness, you may concur that they are very sexy stylists.

Listening to their surprisingly different narrative manners is like observing two dissimilar women slip gracefully into perfectly fitted gloves. It is this match of distinctive writing and voice that lends their commentaries clarity, especially when they describe the complexity of their own existence or the lives of others. Through their personal essays we know much more about these authors than many people we meet frequently.

Toward the end of a recent conversation, Furlaud, who has supplied more commentaries to NPR than nearly any other independent writer-producer-narrator, began to talk about her profession: “One of the most frustrating aspects of making these programs is that they just float away on the air and are gone. This is a good thing, in a way, but it’s so sad, because no one ever remembers . . . This sounds self-pitying, but radio is not considered ‘creative.’ That word has sort of taken over the world. But even though we think we have creative elements, we radio people, I think we’re thought of as slightly below the salt.”

Furlaud has supplied commentaries for NPR since its earliest days, when she was a freelance writer in Paris, and more recently from her home on Cape Cod.

We know how she felt about her life on her 45th wedding anniversary and not long ago when she turned 70. Long before Car Talk’s current campaign against sport utility vehicles, Furlaud was musing about gangs of elderly people writing rude messages on the sides of SUVs. She cheerfully shares her deep dismay with malls, drivers who refuse to pick up pedestrians walking country roads in the rain, and much, much more. We also know that she loves pranks — on April Fool’s Day or most any other.

When Furlaud speaks, you not only believe what she says, you also suspect that it merits your full attention. This is what makes her April Fool’s spoofs so convincing. In one, she visits the Paris home of a “Doctor Guilletin,” a direct descendant of the guillotine’s inventor. As he shows her around the house, it becomes increasingly clear that her charming host harbors something more sinister than the facts of his ancestry, especially when he explains that the patent for the world’s most famous execution device is still held by the family. He, himself, it develops, has spent years perfecting a more efficient model. And would she care to witness a demonstration?

In another report, she visits an 82-year-old ex-paratrooper, now a minister of the French government, who coordinates hundreds of civil servants from a small office in the basement of the Palais de Justice. This busy bureaucrat dispatches men and women throughout Paris parks where they pose as lovers, to enhance the image of Paris as “the city of love.” Furlaud and the government official walk to a nearby park “to review the troops.” The benches are crowded with affectionate couples, about a third of whom, the Minister explains, “are my people.” They are all doing what lovers do, some quite vigorously.

“Oh”, Furlaud murmurs, “Isn’t he going a bit far?”

“Well, yes,” the Minister replies. “But they’re apprentices.” He draws a small pad from a vest pocket and makes a few notes. “One must learn by doing,” he sighs with Gallic nonchalance.

This is vintage Furlaud. The roles of “Doctor Guilletin” and the “Minister” were both played by her husband, Max, a writer and distinguished psychotherapist who died in 1999.

They had been married 48 years, since she was 23 and straight out of Radcliffe (where, she says, “I did nothing except act in plays”). He was then a successful scriptwriter attached to the Actors’ Studio in New York, and she had come for an audition.

They spent their lives together in California, Switzerland and Paris, as well as Cape Cod and Maine. They recorded a 45th wedding anniversary conversation for Scott Simon’s Weekend Edition. In it she remembers their candlelit marriage ceremony, a wedding dress now half-eaten by mice, and the time he posed as the French President’s “double” in another joke interview.

During the 1970s, Furlaud’s pieces from Paris led many public radio listeners to think of her as NPR’s equivalent of Janet Flanner, whose pen name was Genet, the New Yorker’s longtime reporter in the French capital.

Some highlights of Furlaud’s three decades of careful observation of Parisian life: an interview with Yves St. Laurent following a fashion show (“the most pervasive sound is that of high heels torturing the Parisian pavement”), a 6-year-old’s superb imitation of Paris fire engines, ambulances and police vans, a report on contemporary cuisine (“I’m here to reassure you that for $200 to $300 you can still get a really delicious meal in Paris”), a talk with actress Jane Seymour on location near the Eiffel Tower, and reflections upon shopping (“Paris is within us. We project it on the city. Paris is where good Americans go when they die.”).

When Prince Charles and his new bride, Diana, made their first visit to Paris, Furlaud was among the 500 journalists covering the story. “The saddest thing about our profession,” she said, “is that wherever we go, we’re there, too.”

Furlaud sketches with sound an elderly homeless woman who loves feeding pigeons from her bench in the sun near the Seine. One bird sits on her hat and several eat crumbs in her lap. As the commentator describes it, there appears to be a “permanent patina of dust on her brown coat, cracked, laced-up boots, and a round hat dating from the ’30s”. Still, the woman’s joie de vivre seems undiminished as she describes sharing her territory with the birds.

One of Furlaud’s contributions to Morning Edition wonders whether the terrorism in Europe “will eclipse the savageness of Paris saleswomen when you try on a dress and don’t buy it, or the fury of the market men when you haven’t got the exact change.” Her narratives, while evoking the world of expatriates, never slip into the banal hand-wringing and foot-stomping often found in dispatches from Americans who have chosen to live abroad.

While her reports during her long stay in France demonstrate her curiosity about the country, neither France nor the French seem to produce in her writing the misty-eyed sentimentality characteristic of much reportage from this part of the world. Her comments are not caustic, but finely pointed and ironic, with the kind of humor that permits her to be at once wise, funny and informative. If you listen closely, you may hear faintly the voice of A.J. Liebling, one of the most attractive American writers who ever graced the Parisian scene.

It is occasionally difficult, because of Furlaud’s intriguing inquiries and her penchant for mischief, to determine whether she is pulling our leg or simply twisting French ears. I continue to harbor deep skepticism about her lengthy report concerning the latest in avant garde French gastronomy — snail eggs — and the snail farms from which one entrepreneur hopes to earn $2 million. A commentary for ATC informs us that the French Post and Telegraph service has offered to equip all households in Paris with a combination computer-telephone which has the capacity to supply, among other useful information, obscene talk. Monthly bills over a certain amount would list phone numbers called. This new disclosure, Furlaud notes wryly, has made wandering husbands very jittery.

She is fine on French food. She was on hand at the Bibliotheque Nationale (roughly equivalent to our Library of Congress), wielding knife, fork and microphone, where nearly 1,000 Parisians assembled to taste food inspired by great authors. Furlaud was in her element, sampling an oyster and sausage patÈ out of Balzac’s Human Comedy, a jellied cheek of beef enjoyed by Proust and Zola’s omelette stuffed with chard.

Her report was prepared for the BBC’s Radio 4. In the Paris years she supplied many segments to the BBC and the CBC and travel articles to the New York Times. She has also contributed regularly to WBUR in Boston. Sam Fleming, the news director there, describes her as “an amazing essayist.”

“In some ways it’s very modern journalism,” he says. “It includes her own observations on every subject. Not everyone loves Alice, but those who do really love her. You don’t feel she’s reading. It’s as if she’s sitting across from you at the kitchen table, telling you a very personal story.” He recalls that from the first five minutes after meeting her he was “totally rapt.” WNYC’s The Next Big Thing has allowed her to rant and rave, she says, in a segment called “Don’t Get Me Started.”

Like Garrison Keillor, Daniel Pinkwater, Reynolds Price and other quick-witted broadcast stylists, Furlaud is never far from literary topics. Almost any excuse will do. On the 431st anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism, she reminds us that we don’t know the precise date of his birth, then moves effortlessly to recollections of a great American stage interpreter, Maurice Evans, and ponders the Bard’s true identity. (“It certainly wasn’t Queen Elizabeth I; she couldn’t have spared the time.”) For Furlaud and many unusually observant writers, literature and life often seem inseparable.

In a memorable mini-biography of the French novelist, painter, nobleman and pioneer aviator Antoine de St. Exupery, she describes how he left Corsica for his fatal flight over occupied France in 1944. At the end she reads a passage from his best-known book, The Little Prince. The lines describe how the child and the author himself looked at clouds and at life: “Look at the sky. Has the sheep eaten the flower, or hasn’t he? And you’ll see how everything changes, and no grown-up person will ever understand how very important that is.”

In an earlier NPR report, following a midnight owl hunt (with flashlights) in the Maine woods, the guide says that no owl he has ever summoned with his calls has ever returned when the call was repeated. Furlaud ends the commentary by quoting A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin: “Owl hasn’t got a brain, exactly, but he knows things.”

In a revealing commentary that aired when she turned 70, Furlaud invokes the famous “Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten toward their end.”

“What,” she then says, “did we know of old age and death when we learned these lines in grade school?” She then recalls the moment she knew she was old. It was while walking along Oxford Street in London. Among the pedestrians advancing toward her, she singled out one, “who looked like a nice old lady.” She smiled and the old lady smiled back. It was, of course, herself, reflected in the window of Selfridge’s department store.

She tells us — with a refreshing lack of ruefulness — that she’d find it difficult to be a young woman today. “I would be a failure as a computer programmer, a lawyer, a single mother or a stockbroker.” She appears to have few regrets as a septuagenarian but wonders how many housewives “are now weeping into the musty pages of their class yearbooks that tell them they are most likely to succeed.” With a nod towards those to whom she might have been kinder, she concludes, “I’m not elderly or a senior citizen: I’m old!” And so she may be. But she certainly does not represent herself as the victim of “ageism” or any “ism.” There’s no coyness here, no self-conscious older person’s tub-thumping.

When discussing politics (or most anything else) Furlaud is acerbic but never mean-spirited. In her suggested speech for a congressman, he would drop all pretense, telling his constituents that they should vote for him because he, frankly, loves power and adores Washington with its walls of TV cameras. He simply could not face returning to his incredibly boring small-town existence. Not now. Thanking them for their understanding, he closes with “And God bless . . . me.”

It is hard to imagine her being undecided about anything. But before the last presidential election she warned listeners that she found herself in this condition. To help her decide, she thought of the candidates’ pets: George W.’s three cats versus Gore’s two dogs. Gore was taller but Bush was “a nice, manageable size.” In the end it seemed to come down to the candidates’ ties — the ones they wore. In this, as in her other brief encounters with politics, her style resembles that of 60 Minutes‘ Andy Rooney, another formidable essayist.

Alice Furlaud grew up in Baltimore, where her father, Frederick Nelson, was a popular columnist and sometime London correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. For years, she reviewed books for the Sun. Some of her early radio programs became a series of “Postwar Postcards” describing a visit to England with her father in 1947. In one of these, she confessed that she was so bemused by her novel — like experiences in the U.K. that she failed to realize that the English class system had not really changed after World War II. She remembers being told that some listeners thought she sounded “aristocratic” or “privileged” — something that seems to rankle her after many years. (She does have a crisp way of speaking that some associate with the aristocracy.)

An early Furlaud report (for NPR Journal) concerned the arrival in France. Another, for ATC, described male prostitution in the Bois de Bologne. The latter program brought her work to the focused attention of the NPR staff. When she turned up at NPR headquarters Susan Stamberg was one of the first to greet her with “Alice Furlaud-the den mother of iniquity!”

“Susan then showed me all the hate mail from those who thought my feature was outrageous,” Furlaud recalls.

Her commentaries address assigned topics as well as those that strike her fancy, from the truffle market to turtles. In 1989 she created a memorable report, “April in Paris” (subtitled “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”) for Soundprint. She dissected dozens of cliches associated with the city, including its reputation for macho lovers. One American woman she interviewed claims, “It’s all technique, just technique. It wears off, but in the beginning it’s pretty exciting.” Furlaud also reports that those sexy French showgirls at the Lido and Moulin Rouge are tall American girls, the only ones strong enough to wear such heavy costumes.

Lately she has appeared most often on Scott Simon’s Saturday-morning program. Her commentaries there are obvious products of skill, knowledge, temperament and experience, though her more informal “chats” with Simon on such subjects as presidential ceremonies and her memories of the 1960 Democratic Convention are less successful. They are creaky, unsure and meandering.

Simon, commenting upon Furlaud’s feature about Harvard’s search for a new president, says, “There’s a respectable way of doing that as a news story. Then there’s Ali’s perfectly charming way. We have her on the show because she gives us a totally original view. She was inclining toward idiosyncratic material when she first came on the show.” (She once substituted for sports commentator Ron Rappaport to discuss the Tour de France.)

“She has a way of leading you from one sentence to the next without letting you know where the story is going,” says Simon. “This increases the audience’s attention. It also permits her to range over a wide series of reactions. She has a way of looking at both abstract and concrete ideas and understanding how they make sense in an individual life.” Speaking more personally, he says, “When my wife and I have children, I hope they will get to know their Auntie Ali, because I feel strongly that Ali’s view of the world should not expire with her.”

The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Furlaud’s essays NPR has sent “floating away on the air,” as she says, amount to a kaleidoscopic biography of an unusually talented writer. Her dismay that radio is such an ephemeral medium is shared by many who can only hope their best work will be held by a large number of people in some kind of collective cultural memory.

Meanwhile, Furlaud and other producers find some consolation in the process of making radio programs.

“The best part of what I do,” says Furlaud, “is having my awareness tuned up by holding a microphone. You’re listening and looking in a different way. You’re taking in the world. You’re grabbing everything you can.”

From the isolated area in Maine where she went hunting for owls and spent many summers with her family, Furlaud once sent a short reflection upon time and the nature of change. Noah Adams introduced it on ATC. A new house, she tells us, is being built nearby, much too close. Thinking about this sudden incursion on her privacy, she is forced to consider the ancestors of others around her — the seagulls, chipmunks, wood thrush, red squirrels and seals — who watched as her own family moved into this pristine place. She ends with a quote from Ben Jonson, an observation that might be a metaphor for both her life and the manner in which she has chosen to share it with us: “In short measures life may be perfect.”

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