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Florida’s own ‘French Dispatch’: Adventures of foreign correspondents

The job wasn’t always as glamorous as Wes Anderson makes it look.
This plaque used to hang in the Paris office staffed by Wilbur Landrey, the then-St. Petersburg Times' chief foreign correspondent who worked abroad in the 1980s and '90s.
This plaque used to hang in the Paris office staffed by Wilbur Landrey, the then-St. Petersburg Times' chief foreign correspondent who worked abroad in the 1980s and '90s. [ MARTIN FROBISHER | Times ]
Published Oct. 29
Updated Oct. 29

Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch, was written to be “a love letter to journalists.” Inspired by The New Yorker, the story is set in a fictional French news bureau staffed with American newspaper writers. Stars Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Timothée Chalamet tell the story of the satellite publication of the fictional Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.

The then-St. Petersburg Times once had its own “French Dispatch” — foreign correspondents who sent back stories from their travels throughout Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

The job wasn’t always as glamorous as a Wes Anderson flick. But those who remember it say it was an adventure.

Pakistani journalist Walayat Khan Bacha, his wife Basira and St. Petersburg Times journalist Susan Taylor Martin look at a map of Pakistan. Walayat points out the town of Sakhakot, in Northwest Pakistan, where he helped save Martin and photographer Jamie Francis from an anti-American mob in 2001.
Pakistani journalist Walayat Khan Bacha, his wife Basira and St. Petersburg Times journalist Susan Taylor Martin look at a map of Pakistan. Walayat points out the town of Sakhakot, in Northwest Pakistan, where he helped save Martin and photographer Jamie Francis from an anti-American mob in 2001. [ MELISSA LYTTLE | Times (2011) ]

The tradition started with Wilbur Landrey, a third-generation newspaperman who headed the St. Petersburg Times’ Paris bureau. Landrey could speak French, and understand Spanish and German, though people said his accent carried a Kansas City twang.

Landrey had enjoyed a three-decade career writing for United Press International. That’s where he met Gene Patterson, who would become editor of the St. Petersburg Times in the mid-1970s.

Patterson persuaded Landrey to join the Times as the paper’s first chief foreign correspondent.

This undated photo shows St. Petersburg Times chief foreign correspondent Wilbur Landrey, left, and St. Petersburg Times editor Gene Patterson. The two met while working for United Press International.
This undated photo shows St. Petersburg Times chief foreign correspondent Wilbur Landrey, left, and St. Petersburg Times editor Gene Patterson. The two met while working for United Press International. [ Times ]

The Paris bureau was a one-room private office, said Landrey’s widow, Beverly. The Baltimore Sun had its foreign office next door.

Beverly Landrey, a former professional hula dancer and public relations professional, helped to manage the Paris bureau. She set appointments, maintained her husband’s schedule and kept a list of the best French restaurants in her pocketbook. Her work didn’t earn her a salary, but she sometimes was able to travel with her husband.

Only once did she watch him head off to the airport and think, “I wonder if I’ll see him again.”

“He was on his mission to all these strange places, and anything could happen,” she said. “But he was always coming home.”

Wilbur Landrey jetted all over — to China, Panama, Jordan. He visited various Eastern capitals during the collapse of the Soviet Union and headed to Germany to document the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Wilbur Landrey, chief foreign correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times, documented history, like when the Berlin Wall fell.
Wilbur Landrey, chief foreign correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times, documented history, like when the Berlin Wall fell. [ St. Petersburg Times ]
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“He was such a wealth of knowledge about the inner workings of power structures of Europe,” remembered Neil Brown, the former Times editor. “It was like having your neighbor who had been on a trip ... Wilbur could tell you what to make of it.”

Jack Payton, the paper’s diplomatic editor, traveled to cover the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s and South Africa during the fall of apartheid. Reporters in Latin America, Canada, Hong Kong and South America sold stories to the Times on a freelance basis.

One of the biggest challenges was getting stories back to the newsroom in Florida. That’s where editorial assistant Natalie Watson came in.

Finding a steady internet connection from which to send stories could be cumbersome, so writers often dictated their work to Watson over the phone. Then she’d fact-check, edit text and add punctuation. Despite the time differences, she’d often call Landrey back with questions.

“By this time, he’s had dinner and a couple glasses of wine and is not too happy to hear from me,” Watson said. “It was an adventure half the time trying to get these things together for the paper.”

In 1996, Wilbur Landrey retired, and the Paris bureau closed. Times deputy managing editor Susan Taylor Martin was tapped as the next foreign correspondent. The paper rented a flat for her in London, though her busy schedule meant she was rarely there for more than a few weeks at a time.

Handout photo of the London apartment leased by the St. Petersburg Times. Susan Taylor Martin lived on the second floor. The address was 16 Lower Addison Gardens, W. 14, London.
Handout photo of the London apartment leased by the St. Petersburg Times. Susan Taylor Martin lived on the second floor. The address was 16 Lower Addison Gardens, W. 14, London. [ MARTIN, SUSAN TAYLOR | Times (1998) ]

Landrey, then 73, took her on a tour of the capitals of Europe, where they stayed in fine hotels and visited NATO headquarters. The rest of Martin’s time abroad was not always so lavish.

One night in Macedonia, Martin was dictating her story to Watson in her hotel room and noticed an enormous roach crawling up the wall. While reporting on Israel pulling out of Gaza, Martin spent a week without running water or power in the desert heat.

“It was a fascinating story,” she said. “So it was worth the discomfort.”

On a reporting trip in Pakistan in 2001, Martin and Times photographer Jamie Francis were swept up in an anti-American mob.

“A Pakistani journalist grabbed us and told us to run,” she said. “I lost my sandals. We ran about a mile to a police station.”

After waiting hours with police, Martin slipped into a burqa to disguise herself so she could escape. She still has that garment.

Times reporter Susan Taylor Martin, covered by a traditional burqa, rides toward safety after being trapped at a madrassa in Sakhakot in 2001 by protesters who were opposed to American attacks on Afghanistan. Jamie Francis, the photographer she was traveling with, shot this photo.
Times reporter Susan Taylor Martin, covered by a traditional burqa, rides toward safety after being trapped at a madrassa in Sakhakot in 2001 by protesters who were opposed to American attacks on Afghanistan. Jamie Francis, the photographer she was traveling with, shot this photo. [ FRANCIS, JAMIE | Times (2001) ]

As the years went on, Martin was able to report in places that her male colleagues couldn’t, like the women-only section of segregated shopping malls in Saudi Arabia. Still, she came up against discrimination as a female reporter.

“A lot of Pakistani men would not even look at me,” she said. “They would answer my questions, but direct them to Jamie. ... And that was kind of hard to get used to, although I did over time.”

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Times commissioned a series about life in Saudi Arabia. Martin also spent time in Israel and the Palestinian territory. She left for three-week spurts, coming back to her family in Florida between assignments.

“My approach to foreign reporting was to tell as much as you can about the people in these countries and their lifestyles,” she said.

With driver Sadiq in the front seat, then-St. Petersburg Times reporter Susan Taylor Martin takes a picture alongside the Karakoram Highway, also known as N-35 or the road to Abbottabad, in 2011.
With driver Sadiq in the front seat, then-St. Petersburg Times reporter Susan Taylor Martin takes a picture alongside the Karakoram Highway, also known as N-35 or the road to Abbottabad, in 2011. [ MELISSA LYTTLE | Times (2011) ]

When the Great Recession hit, the Times’ travel budget dried up. After a decade as a foreign correspondent, Martin returned to St. Petersburg and became a real estate reporter.

In 2011, she returned to the Middle East to reunite with Walayat Khan Bacha, the Pakistani journalist who saved her. She brought him a digital camera. His wife presented Martin with three beautiful scarves. Joined by a translator and Times photographer Melissa Lyttle, they exchanged stories for hours.

It was her last foreign assignment for the paper.

“It was just a once-in-a-lifetime type job that I can’t imagine too many other people ever having,” she said.

Walayat Khan Bacha's wife Basira helps then-St. Petersburg Times reporter Susan Taylor Martin with a traditional Pakistani scarf, a small token of affection she had brought as a gift for Martin in 2011.
Walayat Khan Bacha's wife Basira helps then-St. Petersburg Times reporter Susan Taylor Martin with a traditional Pakistani scarf, a small token of affection she had brought as a gift for Martin in 2011. [ MELISSA LYTTLE | St. Petersburg Times ]

Information from Times archives was used in this report.