Pierre Salinger was a journalist, author, cigar and wine lover and probably best known as press secretary to President John F. Kennedy. It’s been almost 10 years since Salinger died on Oct. 16, 2004 in southern France. I was fortunate enough to have spent an entire day with him in Philadelphia and the inside of my car had a wonderful perfume from his cigar for many months afterward. Here’s a small sampling of our conversation from that day.
After lunch today you sat at the piano in this hotel’s lobby puffed on your cigar and easily started to play Debussy. Is music in your blood as well as politics and wine and cigars?
P.S.: I was born in San Francisco. My mother was a music and arts editor of the San Francisco Examiner, and my father had created a symphony in Salt Lake City, Utah. So, there was a music mentality in the house and I started to play the piano when I was 3 and 4 years old. Then came the 1929 Wall Street Crash, which started the biggest economic problem in the United States in history. My father lost his job and we moved to Toronto. There my mother discovered a wonderful piano teacher. So, I started to learn how to play the piano really well, and I played my first concert when I was 6 years old.
You once hosted a PBS TV series on wine …
P.S.: It was a 13-part series that I did in 1985 for a joint U.S./French company who put it together and I got my company, ABC, to allow me to do it, but they said that I had to work at times when I wasn’t working for them. So, I did most of it on weekends or vacations. I had been living in France since 1968. I’d gotten to know all of the great chefs in France because this was something that interested me in life
Of all the wines that you’ve obviously enjoyed in France, are there a couple that are your particular favorites?
P.S.: I was a long-time fan of the wines from Burgundy. When I moved to France in ’69, I bought a castle in the Loire Valley. And, not far from there, was a wonderful man who was creating Loire Valley wines… white wines. He became a great friend, and every time I went down there for the weekend I’d go to his cave where he made his wine. In fact, he would bring out bottles of 1921 wines…it was just absolutely fabulous. One day he said to me, “You know, when you become 60 years old, you’d better not drink anymore Burgundy wine, you’re going to get sick”. I said, “That sounds crazy”. At 62 I got desperately sick drinking Burgundy wines and now I only drink Bordeaux wines, and I’m a Bordeaux nut.
Do you keep a wine cellar? Do you have a wine collection?
P.S.: I have a wine collection, but I have to tell you a secret: it is all Bordeaux wines. It is true that as I travel around the nation I end up drinking more California wines. Of course, having been born in California, and having a brother who is based in Napa, California, the center of California wines, I used to go there and visit the wineries. One of my nephew’s sons is now running a California wine company. California wine has improved over the years in a dramatic way and now it is at a top level and is a wine that can be quite competitive to French wines and other world wines.
I have to ask you a little bit about the years of the Kennedy White House and the food and the wine. We know that the president enjoyed cigars. Did he enjoy wines? Did he or his wife have any say over the foods and the wines that were served in the White House?
P.S.: Kennedy was a cigar smoker, but he was also a Cuban cigar smoker. I remember an extraordinary story that happened after the Bay of Pigs, which was Kennedy’s biggest mistake as president. I think it was about five or six months later and he called me into his office one afternoon at 5 o’clock and said, “Pierre, I need help”. I said, “What do you want, Mr. President?” He said, “I want some Cuban cigars”. I said, “How many do you want?” He said, “A thousand”. I said, “A thousand! When do you need them?” He said, “By tomorrow morning”. I said, “That’s a hell of an assignment”. But, of course, I had pretty good Cuban contacts, I had cigar contacts… but I did my work, and the next morning I arrived at the White house at about 8 o’clock in the morning and the phone was already ringing from the Oval Office, and the President said, “Come in, come in, how’d you do?” I said, “I did great , Mr. President”. “How many did you get?” he asked. “Twelve hundred”. He said, “Fantastic”. He opened up his desk drawer and pulled out the decree banning all Cuban products from coming into the United States.
You have have had fascinating career, and Pierre Salinger is a name that will forever be synonymous with a very special period in this country’s history. If you could relive your life and change just one thing, what would you change?
P.S.: I have to be very honest with you…Even though I have had some very sad moments in my life when I lived through the deaths of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, when I lived through the fact that my oldest son committed suicide….As far as my career and my life are concerned, there is nothing back there that I would want to change.
One of the privileges of my career is to have savored moments in the company of truly amazing people like Pierre Salinger. Cheers!
Phillip Silverstone’s column appears each week in this newspaper. “Time Out With Phillip Silverstone” is a weekly two-hour podcast heard exclusively on TuneIn radio anytime and anywhere worldwide either on the free TuneIn app for all smart phones and tablets (Search: Phillip Silverstone) or online on Tunein at: http://bit.ly/1gY2Ht4. “Follow” the show for weekly updates. You can also LIKE Phillip on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Phillipsilverstone and follow him on Twitter: @wining