Philippe Labro, the Tireless “Americanologist”

Through diverse chapters of U.S. history such as the conservative South of the 1950s, the 1960s, the assassination of JFK, and the election of Barack Obama, French journalist and writer Philippe Labro has observed, recorded, analyzed, and tried to understand America.
© Francesca Mantovani/Gallimard

The president of the United States was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and Philippe Labro was sent to Dallas by French newspaper France-Soir. While walking through the corridors of the police precinct, the 27-year-old journalist bumped into the accused gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, and shook hands with Jack Ruby, who would murder Oswald soon after. Labro remembers Ruby was wearing “a signet ring set with a tiny diamond” on his little finger. “It was probably a fake,” he says. The flashy jewelry of a pimp and small-time gangster.

Labro also wears a signet ring, a heavy college ring on his left ring finger as a souvenir of the two years he spent at Washington and Lee University in Virginia during the 1950s. A handful of symbols. On the campus covered with elm trees, the Frenchman discovered “the rituals, customs, behaviors, prejudices, and everything else that makes up American culture and university life.” This was the beginning of his love for America that shows no signs of wavering today.

Labro is now a renowned reporter, novelist, and filmmaker, and has offered multiple visions of America. Fact and fiction intertwine throughout his works, set in classrooms, at high-society dinners, and on hitchhiking adventures. Personal experience is never far behind. The journalist and writer recorded his time in Virginia in The Foreign Student (1986), his stay in the Colorado forests in One Summer Out West (1988), and the murders in Dallas in “On a tiré sur le president” (2013). Labro was recently invited to present his latest novel, Ma mère, cette inconnue, by the Maison Française of NYU. We sat down with him to talk about his life.

France-Amérique: What inspired this fascination with America?

Philippe Labro: Everything began when I was a child. I was born just before World War II, and throughout that time my parents told me the Americans were coming. I associated the United States with freedom from the age of four. After the Liberation, France was flooded with every aspect of American culture we had been refused until then, such as movies, music, and literature. At high school, I would skip class to watch movies by John Ford, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder at the theater on the Champs-Elysées. Even then I had this yearning for America.

After being awarded a Fulbright scholarship, you arrived in the United States in 1954. What were your first impressions?

I was met by a breathtaking vision. There is nothing more beautiful and moving for a boy of 18 to see the skyscrapers of Manhattan appear out of the dawn mist. Going to the United States in the mid-1950s was no small thing. It was rare. As I lent on the railings of the Queen Mary, I felt like I was discovering the New World, a new world.

How was it when you arrived in Virginia?

I landed in the South like a Martian coming to Earth. The statue of Robert E. Lee on the campus [of Washington and Lee University] wasn’t a talking point in 1954, and I experienced segregation close up. But during my time on campus and my hitchhiking trips, I also discovered the extraordinary hospitality of the American people. I just had to mention I was French and a student, and I was invited everywhere. I was a foreigner, but back then when people said “Hi stranger!” it was meant in a friendly way. The word “stranger” now has far more ambiguous and unsettling connotations.

How has “your” America changed today?

It has changed, like all civilizations. America has lived through far more difficult and violent periods than the time I spent there between 1954 and 1956. Eisenhower was president, he had just put an end to the Korean War, and the country was basking in a simple, prosperous time. The way of life has changed since then, with the political assassinations of the 1960s, the reappearance of ethnic divides and racism, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in the Middle East. But the changes have not been all negative. The renowned “melting pot” concept has never been stronger, and the technological revolution is continuing to transform the United States and the rest of the world. We’re a long way from the pastoral America of my years on campus!

You tirelessly reported on the 1960s in America in your role as a journalist, novelist, and filmmaker. What are your memories of that time?

From the ages of 21 to 31 I spent my life in planes accompanied by a portable Olivetti typewriter. I was able to observe the increasingly large role played by the media as I covered the campaigns of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and all the way to George Bush Senior. The media have now taken control by imposing certain behaviors on politicians. Communication, image, televised debates, and speeches are of the utmost importance. And a single detail, one sentence, can bring it all tumbling down.

JFK fascinated you so much that you devoted part of your career to investigating his assassination, and your research made you the French specialist on the matter. Who are your other American heroes?

Muhammad Ali, Frank Lloyd Wright, Woody Allen, Pocahontas, Marlon Brando, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Carl Lewis, and Rosa Parks, who in my opinion is the greatest American woman to have lived. I love rebels, non-conformists, and those who come out of nowhere and shoot to success. Ralph Lauren started out as a sales assistant at Brooks Brothers, and now he’s at the head of an empire! America remains a land of drama, catastrophe, and error, but also one of invention, discovery, and surprise.