Blade's man in Europe brought world to Toledo

8/28/2004
BY JACK LESSENBERRY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

Throughout most of the Cold War, Mr. Auberjonois had been one of the most highly respected and most admired American reporters in London. From 1956 until his formal retirement in 1983, and sometimes even after that, he covered many of the world's biggest news stories for The Blade, sometimes traveling as many as 50,000 miles a year.

"He was the consummate journalist. He dug well below the surface while others were superficial. He was a master," said John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade.

Mr. Auberjonois was in Berlin when the infamous wall went up in 1961 and was still writing occasional features and commentary for this newspaper when that symbol of the Cold War crashed down in 1989. He covered major summit conferences, roamed throughout Europe and Asia on special assignments, and helped explain an increasingly complex world to hundreds of thousands of readers.

His assignments ranged from traveling by mule through Afghanistan's Khyber Pass to being received by the queen at Buckingham Palace. He was one of the first reporters to cover the harrowing Algerian crisis of 1958 and was with Ohio's James Rhodes in 1979, when he became the first governor to make an extended visit to the People's Republic of China in search of goodwill and trade relationships.

Mr. Auberjonois was admired and respected by generations of reporters, many of whom also became personal friends. "Fernand was well liked and highly respected, and couldn't have been more gracious," said Curt Prendergast, Time magazine's London bureau chief from 1968 to 1973.

"In his great way, he was the most wonderfully debonair foreign correspondent," said R.W. "Johnny" Apple, Jr., a longtime London correspondent for the New York Times. "I enjoyed his company very, very much."

Though Mr. Auberjonois won the Overseas Press Club award and was nominated several times for a Pulitzer Prize, his written journalism was only a small part of his measure.

Journalist Fernand Auberjonois, who retired in 1983, dictates a story to The Blade from his London office in January, 1966.
Journalist Fernand Auberjonois, who retired in 1983, dictates a story to The Blade from his London office in January, 1966.

"I really admire his modesty, given what a remarkable life he's had," said Dan Pedersen, who covered London for Newsweek from 1989 to 1997. "He was the global man before globalization."

Though he was regarded by both publishers for whom he worked, Paul Block, Jr., and his son, John Robinson Block, as perhaps the best writer The Blade ever had, he preferred in retirement to write a series of novels, essays, and memoirs in a very elegant French, his native language.

While he lived in Europe for most of his life, Mr. Auberjonois was a proud naturalized American citizen and a distinguished hero of World War II who won medals from not only the United States, but France and Poland as well. He broadcast both before and during the war to Nazi-occupied France, and when the war ended, he helped launch the French-language service of the Voice of America.

Later, he was summoned to appear before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's famous red-hunting committee and spent three hours being grilled by Mr. McCarthy and his aides, who were looking for communist subversion at the VOA in March, 1953. They didn't find any, and Mr. Auberjonois was promptly and totally cleared by his agency.

Born in the small town of Jouxtens, just outside of Lausanne, Switzerland, he was the son of Rene Auberjonois (1872-1957), one of Switzerland's best-known post-impressionist painters, and grew up in a world in which celebrities, including Igor Stravinsky, were regulars at the family dinner table.

But after earning a degree in geology, he crossed the Atlantic and arrived in New York on Aug. 28, 1933.

That was in the depths of the Great Depression, but that wasn't enough to prevent him from falling instantly in love with America.

He worked for a time as Katharine Hepburn's private French tutor before joining the French news agency Havas. In 1937, he left to become the first host of L'Heure Francaise, NBC radio's first regular trans-Atlantic broadcast. The service continued after the fall of France, and Mr. Auberjonois was soon asked to join the fight against the Nazis by joining the Military Intelligence Service.

There was no reason that he would have had to fight at all. As a Swiss citizen, he could have kept his neutral status throughout the war. He was newly married, and by the time of Pearl Harbor was supporting a wife, Laura, two infant sons, and two young stepdaughters.

Nevertheless, Mr. Auberjonois enlisted and was sent to a top-secret training camp in Canada that was run by the British intelligence service. He went on from there to a variety of missions, including stints as a top aide to both Gens. George Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He set up allied radio operations in North Africa and helped weave a web of deception to fool the Germans about where the D-Day landings would occur. He also broadcast allied propaganda to French-speaking Europe.

Several times, he went on secret missions behind enemy lines, where he led teams of men who were trained to blow up railway installations. He was given a cyanide capsule before each mission and advised to commit suicide if captured, to avoid torture and certain death.

Two days after D-Day, he managed to publish La Presse Cherbourgeoise, the first free newspaper of liberated France. Following the war, then-Major Auberjonois was awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit, France's Croix de Guerre with four citations, and Poland's Polonia Restituta. France eventually made him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, something roughly equivalent to a knighthood.

After the war, he did a stint as publishing director for new editions of Time and Life in Europe, before returning to New York to work first for NBC and then Voice of America.

"America was an ideal to Fernand," John Robinson Block said yesterday. "He wouldn't let go of the ideal, even when it meant he was subject to double taxation living abroad and even when America was not popular with many of his friends."

Following his brush with Senator McCarthy, he vowed never to work for the government again. Instead, he helped co-found the international public relations arm of Hill and Knowlton International. He was handling public relations for the Suez Canal Co. in the summer of 1956 when he got a call from Paul Block, Jr., the publisher of The Blade, who had heard of Mr. Auberjonois from a mutual friend.

Mr. Block was looking for the right man to represent The Blade in Europe. Mr. Auberjonois was intrigued but said he was reluctant to write for an audience he didn't know.

"But Paul said, 'Come to Toledo and find out who we are.' And in fact he took me personally on a guided tour of his city and northwestern Ohio. It was a fascinating experience, and we found that we shared many interests,'' he later said. "I found that I liked Toledo and the Toledoans very much."

It was very rare for any but the largest papers to have their own foreign correspondents, but Paul Block felt it was essential for The Blade to have its own man reporting from what was widely regarded as center stage in the ongoing world superpower struggle.

Though he covered the big stories superbly, often interviewing participants in their own languages, whether French, German, English, Spanish, or Italian, Mr. Auberjonois was perhaps at his best at writing fascinating feature stories which illustrated just what life was like in divided Berlin, post-modern London, or strife-torn Belfast. He said he often regarded his stories as letters written to his good friend Paul Block in Toledo, explaining the situation in Europe or elsewhere.

Mr. Auberjonois initially disagreed with his employer over where the bureau should be located. To avoid getting bogged down in the details of French politics, Mr. Auberjonois successfully argued that he should report from London, where it would be easier to keep up with developments that would have wide appeal to an American audience.

Mr. Block, a passionate Francophile, would have preferred Paris but reluctantly agreed.

Older readers of The Blade may remember his byline originally was Fernand Fauber. Originally, it was feared Auberjonois would be too much of a mouthful for Midwesterners and decided to shorten it. That lasted for a few years, until the writer persuaded his editors "to give me my identity back."

Throughout his career, he insisted on a high standard for news coverage.

"There was a great change in the news business in his life, mainly, the rise of entertainment values and the decline of serious news. Fernand resisted that as well as he could," Newsweek's Dan Pedersen said. "He believed this was a serious business, though he also knew that it was important to observe and write with a sense of humor."

His legendary sense of humor often helped himself and his colleagues maintain grace under pressure.

During one particularly harrowing point when they were both covering the fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Time's Mr. Prendergast asked Mr. Auberjonois how he could possibly tell members of the two religions apart. "Oh, the Catholics have sweeter faces," he replied.

By the 1980s, he had settled in as the dean of American correspondents in London, whose advice was often sought by those who made pilgrimages to the Reform Club, his favorite after-hours haunt. But he remained a working journalist. "He was a colleague, not a father figure," Mr. Pedersen remembered. "He would be very helpful to younger correspondents, if he thought they were serious about news."

But he was always a competitive journalist. Once, during a free day in Hong Kong during former Governor Rhodes' visit to China, most of the other reporters went sightseeing or shopping. Mr. Auberjonois used the time to score a major scoop on the flight of Vietnamese refugees.

In his later years as a correspondent, Mr. Auberjonois found to his pride that his son, the actor Rene Auberjonois, was rapidly becoming more famous than he. Though the younger Mr. Auberjonois preferred the stage, he became widely known thanks to two starring roles in popular TV series, Benson and especially Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in which he played a security officer named Odo, who was capable of changing his shape. He later said that he modeled the character's rather formal demeanor in large part on his father.

The elder Mr. Auberjonois took great pride in his son's dramatic achievements. Mr. Pedersen, who covered London for Newsweek from 1989 to 1997, said "he would always say I am the missing link, meaning that he was overshadowed not only by his famous painter father but by his famous acting son. But I don't think he really felt overshadowed in his life."

Though he formally retired in 1983, he continued to contribute many freelance features and an occasional news story to The Blade until well into the 1990s. But he spent most of his time writing a series of well-received books in his native French, including two volumes of memoirs, Entre Deux Mondes, (Between Two Worlds) and L'Air d'Ailleurs (Notes from Elsewhere) and De Chittagong a Cork, which included stories about his ancestors.

Both books sold very well in Switzerland, where the first topped the best-seller lists for weeks.

He wrote only one book in English, Top Dog, (1980) which was allegedly penned by his beloved King Charles Cavalier spaniel, McMuck, and which was illustrated with Mr. Auberjonois' whimsical drawings; he was an accomplished amateur painter in his own right.

Besides Rene, he is survived by his wife, Helga, whom he married in 1968; son, Michael, of Houston; daughter, Anne, of New York City, and two stepdaughters, Ghislaine Vautier and Marie-Laure Degener. The body will be cremated. Services will be in his native Switzerland at a later date.

Mr. Lessenberry, a columnist, writing coach, and ombudsman for The Blade, knew Mr. Auberjonois well since the early 1980s.