A Conversation with Erik Barnouw
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 21, Numbers 2 & 3, May/September 1991
- pp. 96-108
- Additional Information
Erik Barnouw at the September 27, 1991 conference held to honor his contributions to broadcasting history by the Media Studies Project ofthe Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D. C. Photograph courtesy ofthe ^Woodrow Wilson Center. FUm & History, Vol. XXI, Nos. 2 & 3, May/September 199197 A Conversation with Erik Barnouw [Erik Barnouw was born in The Hague, Holland, June 23, 1908.] My mother was English, my father was Dutch and a schoolteacher in Holland. We had a large house and we took in students. When World War I broke out, heaps of Belgian refugees came across the border. There was a sudden influx of women fleeing the war and if you had room for somebody, you had a maid or a governess. So throughout those years we had two Belgian maids and a Belgian governess who all talked French to me. And my mother sometimes spoke English to me. And we had a student living with us who was German. So I learned all these languages. [The family moved to the United States in 1919.] My father was a considerable scholar and hoped I would be one. When I graduated from Princeton, the head of the English department said, "We'd like to give you a graduate fellowship and you could become an instructor and a scholar and professor here at Princeton." I said, "No, that's not what I want to be. That's one thing I know I don't want to be." I had been active in drama and had written poetry for the literary magazine so I wanted generally to go in that direction. Now, this was in 1929. Nothing could go wrong in 1929. It was a tremendous boom period; everybody had a job waiting for them. Most of my classmates were going into Wall Street or their fathers' businesses. I didn't worry very much about what I was going to be. I had three offers on the basis of what I had done in college: I was invited by Time, Inc. to become a writer on a new magazine to be called Fortune. I had an offer to become an assistant stage manager in a stock company run by George Cukor and George Kondolf, and also to play small parts in Rochester, New York. Cukor, by the way, had just left for Hollywood. They were just switching to sound and were desperate for people who had experience directing dialogue. So they were hiring people who had a reputation in the theater. I also had won a fellowship to travel abroad for a year without any strings attached. It was paid for by a lady in Princeton whose husband had built the stadium. She wanted to do something a little more cultural and so she had established a fund for this fellowship enabling you to stay abroad a year with the promise that you would mix with people of other cultures and not just sit around the Left Bank drinking with other Americans. These were all marvelous and I decided I wanted to do all of them. This Conversation, edited by Lawrence L. Lichty, combines the recollections made by Erik Barnouw at the end of the Conference and an interview Barnouw conducted with George Liston Seay, the next day, for "Dialogue," a Woodrow Wilson Center radio production. 98 The day after graduation, I joined the Cukor-Kondolf Stock Company in Rochester. For eight weeks I worked very hard as Assistant Stage Manager and played two parts~a marine in Rain and a juvenile lead in The Kibitzer. There was a show every night and four shows in the afternoon, and all that time, we were rehearsing next week's show. This was a thoroughly wonderful eight weeks. Then, because they didn't have air conditioning, they laid off for the summer. So, I went to Time, Inc., reported to the editor of that proposed magazine, Parker Lloyd-Smith, and I said, "I'm ready to begin work as a writer." I became a writer for Fortune for another eight weeks, sharing an office with Dwight McDonald. Every month we did a complete issue. We wrote a lot of articles which then went into...