One steaming hot July morning, our team piled into a car to the Hamptons, in Long Island. No, we weren’t going to the beach, or to someone’s luxurious mansion––even better––we were headed to The Watermill Center, an arts Mecca created by legendary theater director Bob Wilson. The Center is a buzzing, symbiotic hive where artists not only harness the tools to reach creative bliss but pitch in with natural cooking and upkeep of the verdant grounds. Our tour brought us to Bob’s apartment, decorated with unique sculptures from all over the world, past his extra large bed with pristine white sheets, and into a gorgeous veranda, where we recorded this episode. We spoke about André Malraux, experimental theater, and France’s cultural policy.
At the French Embassy we have an award called the Arts and Letters Award, where we effectively “Knight” people for their contributions to French culture. When author Rick Moody was next up to receive it, we knew we had to organize a podcast episode to get his take on France. In characteristic French extravagance, we ended up organizing a marathon evening that included an award ceremony, a podcast recording, and even a conversation at our bookstore, Albertine. That afternoon, Rick strolled into my office in his signature hat and radiating positive energy. The conversation centered on French theory, the American reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the benefits of creative constraints in writing.
Katherine Fleming, provost of NYU, is living proof of the merits of international exchange. She’s one of the leaders of the academic world in the United States, and her humor, which is as sharp as her intelligence, defies all stereotypes about academia. She feels equally at home in Greece and in France, and she has supported many of the French Embassy’s initiatives to encourage exchange between American and French universities. We spoke about the big payoffs that studying abroad can have, despite the risks; about how being a waitress in Greece had a direct influence on her professional trajectory; the cost of tuition in American and France; and her childhood experience on a farm in France.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has hosted some of the most amazing French performances on both sides of the Atlantic, from Les Fêtes Vénitiennes by Les Arts Florissants to mesmerizing contemporary circus. The man behind all of these incredible productions is Joe Melillo. As Executive Producer Emeritus at BAM, Joe has been a pillar of the New York performing arts scene for the past 30 years, as well as a daring presenter of new talents. One sweltering morning in July, Joe and Bénédicte met and discussed the Avignon Theater Festival in France, the most innovative French artists he has presented to American audiences, and one unforgettable musical performance at Versailles.
Gloria Steinem is a household name in the United States, yet she is less known in France. Some might even call her the Simone de Beauvoir of America. We were fortunate to have Gloria and her friend, Robin Morgan, curate our annual Festival Albertine in 2017––an event that gathered the most relevant feminists on both sides of the Atlantic. It was radical, exciting, and very political. And Gloria’s kindness, openness, and authenticity really shined through. In this episode, we discussed the difference between French and American feminism (7:25), what advice Gloria would give to her 20-year-old self (29:41), and about the idea of Paris as a village (4:50).
All of New York seems to be talking about the new restaurant, Le Coucou, by chef Daniel Rose. Fortunately, Daniel’s son and Bénédicte’s daughter attended the same nursery school, and after a playdate one day, a podcast recording was arranged. Daniel has led an incredible life––a Chicago native, he studied philosophy in France before opening several successful French restaurants in Paris. Our late-afternoon conversation at Le Coucou was so fascinating that we recorded right through our planned apéro. We spoke about modernizing traditional French cuisine (7:51), expanding traditional French food internationally (22:48), Daniel’s dream of eating ortolan (10:57), and why Americans love the Big Mac (10:04).
We first collaborated with Darren Walker, the passionate and articulate President of the Ford Foundation, on a groundbreaking exhibition entitled Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today at Colombia University's Wallach Art Gallery in New York. It shed new light on black models in the arts throughout history and was so successful that it was exported to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. With characteristic rigor and enthusiasm, Darren made sure to assemble the best team possible to work on this project, and like a true Francophile, even travelled to Paris for the opening. We talked about the role of art in creating an empathetic society (10:42), philanthropy as a catalyst for social change (15:02), controversial funding sources (20:55), the Notre Dame Cathedral fire (18:19), his favorite Francophone artists (24:10), the African diaspora (28:08), and more.
The amazing thing about Adam Gopnik, staff writer for The New Yorker, is that he knows more about France than many French people. It’s as if this podcast was made for him. You can ask him a question about anything, from the Statue of Liberty to French pop music, and he will give you an eloquent, informative and captivating answer. When he arrived at the French Embassy’s building on Fifth Avenue for this interview, we had just begun major renovations. We basically met in a storage room, between two cabinets and a sofa propped on its side. Let’s say, this is what added to the informal nature of the conversation. We talked about the intellectual exchange between France and America (2:10), the role of the president in both countries (24:30), Montaigne (3:34), Romain Gary (12:40), and Bastille Day. (31:50).
Visual artist Mickalene Thomas seems to have artwork everywhere, from the Moody Arts Center in Houston to the Brooklyn Museum and Paris. One morning in June, Mickalene and her partner and muse, Racquel Chevremont, joined me at Albertine, the French bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The three of us talked at length about how Mickalene reinterprets famous French paintings; about the visibility of black women in the arts; Mickalene and Racquel’s love for Dior and French butter; and the role that Paris plays for African-American artists.
Jonathan Galassi has been at the helm of the legendary publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux—one of the most literary publishers in the U.S.—for more than 30 years. He is the Antoine Gallimard of America, if you will. He’s also an eminent translator of Italian and French poetry and a poet himself. Jonathan Galasssi walked over to my apartment one spring morning, carrying a giant tote bag of French poetry. We talked about French and American poetry (6:33), how French authors get published in the U.S. (16:05), Michel Houellebecq (20:35), and his favorite spots in Paris (29:34). It was a wonderful and poetic morning, as you’ll hear in this episode.
Adam Weinberg is the Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art—one of the most important museums in the United States. I met him when I first arrived in New York, during his own Arts and Letters award ceremony, which we had organized at our bookstore, Albertine. It was then that I first discovered that, despite his grand title, Adam is an extremely generous, down-to-Earth person. In this episode, we candidly broach some very controversial topics, including cultural appropriation (17:00) and funding in the art world (5:03). And of course, we also spoke about cultural life in France (15:18).
When I started as Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, everyone told me that I had to meet Claire Messud—that she was quintessential Francophile intellectual, not to mention author of six works of fiction. We conversed about what it means to be a citizen of the world (2:04), literature (4:45), Flaubert (5:20), Algeria (7:20), and feminism (9:50)—as well as her memories of childhood vacations in the south of France (20:12). It was like talking with a friend, as you’ll hear now. C’est parti.
I met Liesl Schillinger, the literary critic and translator, 11 years ago. I had just been appointed as a negotiator for France at the UN Security Council in New York. As a critic for The New York Times, she was invited to every book party in town, and she generously took me to every one. Here we talked about translation (4:55), French books (13:54), and secret recommendations for visiting France (19:58). She also surprised me by declaring her love for the most unexpected French singer (21:17).
David Sedaris––one of the best-known American humor writers and radio personalities––has written extensively about his time in France. No one skewers the French like he does. He's written about our language, especially our weird gendered words, living in a village in Normandy, and shopping at unusual Parisian boutiques. He came to my apartment one afternoon and we talked about his French teacher (15:40), the different types of humor on each side of the Atlantic (2:43), his love for certain French words (16:44), our health care system (25:15), and his dislike for the French habit of kissing (29:57).
Dee Dee Bridgewater is a star in France. With three Grammys and a Tony Award under her belt, she represents the quintessential American jazz singer in my country. This talented singer-songwriter and actress came over to my apartment on a Sunday afternoon––exhausted from rehearsals, though you never would have guessed it––with her fluffy dog Daisy. We talked about Marseille (27:15), her favorite French songs (24:20), feminism (14:56), and racism on both sides of the Atlantic (09:05).
David Sedaris––one of the best-known American humor writers and radio personalities––has written extensively about his time in France. No one skewers the French like he does. He's written about our language, especially our weird gendered words, living in a village at Normandy, and shopping at unusual Parisian boutiques. He came to my apartment one afternoon and we talked about his French teacher (15:40), the different types of humor on each side of the Atlantic (2:43), his love for certain French words (16:44), our health care system (25:15), and his dislike for the French habit of kissing (29:57).
The Thing About France is a podcast that takes you inside the minds of American cultural figures who stepped outside their country and came back wiser. By hearing the personal stories of prominent artists and professionals who immersed themselves in France—whether intellectually or by living abroad—we’ll gain insight into how our countries are the same, and how they differ, on pressing topics including Me Too, climate change, and cultural appropriation—and much more.