My life began in February 1930. I got ready in the summer of 1929, by leaving college at the end of my junior year, against my father’s will, and running through two jobs, proof that I could make my way and pay for it if I didn’t mind a diet of doughnuts and pawning my typewriter to tide me over weekends. 1930 was the real thing. I persuaded the Holland America Line to give me free passage in steerage, then described as Student Third Class, in return for a glowing article to use in their trade magazine. Aged twenty-one, with a suitcase and about seventy-five dollars, I set off for Paris, where I knew nobody – a joyful confident grain of sand in a vast rising sandstorm. I had visited Paris twice before and it was not my dream city, but I intended to become a foreign correspondent within a few weeks, and Paris was the obvious place to launch my career.

The launch lacked a certain savoir-faire. The flower stalls at the Place de la Madeleine suited my liking for a pretty neighbourhood. On a nearby side street I found a hotel, no more than a doorway, a desk and dark stairs, and was gratified by the price of the room. The room was smelly and squalid and I thought it impractical to have a mirror on the ceiling but perhaps that was a French custom. There was an amazing amount of noise in the corridors and other rooms but perhaps the French did a lot of roaming in hotels. I could not understand why the man at the desk grew more unfriendly each time he saw me, when I was probably the friendliest person in Paris.

Having checked the telephone directory, I presented myself at the office of the New York Times and informed the bureau chief, a lovely elderly Englishman aged maybe forty, that I was prepared to start work as a foreign correspondent on his staff. He had been smiling hugely at my opening remarks and mopped up tears of laughter when he learned where I lived. He took me to lunch – my enthusiasm for free meals was unbounded – and explained that I was staying in a maison de passe, where rooms were rented by the hour to erotic couples. My new English friend insisted that I change my address, and bribed me with an invitation to report next week again at lunch. He suggested the Left Bank; I would be safer in the students’ milieu.

A Guide to the City of Beirut