From the red carpet of Cannes to French politics and protests, NPR listeners expect to hear news from France reported by the distinctive voice of Eleanor Beardsley. What local listeners might not realize is that the Paris-based correspondent got her start — and at least a little of her accent — right here in her hometown of Columbia.
Eleanor did not have a deliberate plan to secure this dream job. Looking back, though, the first seeds were obviously planted on Wolf Circle in Forest Acres, where Eleanor grew up. “When I look at my rather unplanned life and all the different and disparate jobs I’ve had,” Eleanor says, “the only constant through it all has been my interest in France and desire to speak French fluently one day.”
A lifelong interest in France is born
“When I was maybe 10 or 11, my father decided that I was going to speak French, so we started having French lessons every night,” says Eleanor.
Her father, Ed Beardsley, Ph.D., was a history professor at the University of South Carolina. She and her two younger brothers were already getting history lessons from their dad all the time. “We were steeped in it,” says Eleanor. Dr. Beardsley also could read French and speak a little. Their father-daughter lessons centered on reading French comic books from the “Asterix the Gaul” series. “I was kind of fidgety. He says I wanted to get up every five minutes to use the bathroom or get water. But something must’ve sunk in.”
To reward her study, Eleanor’s parents took her to France for a month when she was 12. It was not her only extended trip abroad as a child. Her entire family spent two six-month stretches in England, first when she was 8 years old and again when she was 16. While Eleanor says those opportunities opened her eyes to the bigger world, the family’s second stint in England was not something she embraced. At the time, she was a student at Keenan High School. “I felt ripped out of my 10th grade class and away from my friends. I guess I acted surly and disagreeable to my parents. When I look back, I feel a bit ashamed.”
Her years at Keenan High proved to be some of the most important of her life. “I’m very grateful that I had this upbringing in the multiracial South Carolina of the 1970s and ’80s. I consider it a very central part of who I am today,” she says. “As Americans, we have so many more similarities than differences. You just have to run into another American when you’re abroad to realize that.”
She also keeps in touch with her high school French teacher, Gladys Goforth. “When I was named to the Richland District 1 Hall of Fame in 2014, I was honored to have Madame Goforth come to the awards dinner,” says Eleanor, “and we have spoken on the phone and written letters since.”
Following high school, Eleanor went to Furman University, earning a degree in European history and French. She worked on Capitol Hill for three years, then came home to Columbia to get her Master of International Business degree from USC. Graduating from that program in 1991, she went back to Washington, D.C., and waited tables at a French restaurant while she looked for a job. A recruiter for EuroDisney came in during one of her lunch shifts and wound up hiring her to work outside of Paris for the opening of the new theme park. Fifteen months later, Eleanor was back in Washington.
“I wanted to use my business degree, and I wasn’t able to get the papers to work anywhere else than Disney,” she says. She took a position with a French business consulting firm. It didn’t work out. “What got me into reporting, ironically, was getting fired from another job. I always tell young people looking for career advice that they shouldn’t be afraid to embrace their failures. Because sometimes a failure — or what you think is a failure — can actually put you on a better path, the right path for you.”
Though she had no journalism experience, Eleanor did speak French. And she knew U.S. politics. That helped her land a job as a producer with the Washington, D.C., bureau of French television network TF1. “Even though I liked to write and tell stories, journalism never crossed my mind, and no one ever suggested it either,” says Eleanor. “Actually that’s not true. I remember my father took a bunch of us neighborhood kids to McDonald’s when we were maybe 12 or 13. He proposed that we do a sort of neighborhood newspaper … that we interview the neighbors and see what was going on on the street, and he’d help us publish it. Do you think we followed up on that or had any interest at all in it? No, of course not.”
After four years with TF1, Eleanor had found a new career, but she also felt stuck. Because she was not French, she could not work as a TF1 reporter. She started looking for new opportunities. A colleague suggested she try radio. She bought the gear and taught herself to use it. She planned a trip to Kosovo in August 2000 because, as she explains, “I had a friend who was working for the UN mission in Kosovo, and I went to visit him. It was right after the war so it was still a fascinating place, but it wasn’t as dangerous.”
Before she departed on her two-week trip, she pitched stories to The World, a radio show (co-production of the BBC, American Public Media, and WGBH) out of Boston that takes freelance content. And while she did not have a definitive answer before she embarked on her trip, she set off for Kosovo with the mindset that she was a foreign correspondent on a mission.
“They didn’t say ‘yes,’ but they didn’t say ‘no’ either,” Eleanor recalls. “As luck would have it, my trip coincided with Milosevic [Slobodan Milošević is the former president of Serbia] being voted out of office. Hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets. All of a sudden, The World was very interested in my stories.”
That reporting led to a full-time position with the United Nations in Kosovo for the next three years. “I completely thrived in this postwar environment. It was fascinating and raw. There were power outages and water cuts every day, but what did I care? I worked in the press office of UN Peacekeeping Operations with a dynamic international team.”
Her time in Kosovo opened new doors for her as a journalist. While many fascinating stories were yet to be told, most major news outlets no longer had a correspondent there after the war ended. “So, in my free time, I pitched and wrote stories for The Christian Science Monitor, The World, and Marketplace. I even had front page features in The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.”
After three years, Eleanor was ready to move again. She had begun dating the man who is now her husband, French journalist Ulysse Gosset. He was in Paris, so it was back to Paris for her, where she enrolled in a course at the Sorbonne in order to get a student visa and start looking for her next assignment.
“The outlets I had previously worked for were not at all interested in my reporting from Paris. What I would discover later is that everybody is interested in working in Paris and France,” she says, explaining journalistic competitiveness in this location. “I couldn’t even get The World to take any interest in my pitches from Paris — until I found a story they couldn’t turn down.”
The year was 2004, and the U.S. presidential election was in progress. French media outlets were fascinated with John Kerry’s French cousin, the mayor of a small town in Brittany. It was a story the U.S. media had yet to pick up. Eleanor called the town hall and asked to speak to the mayor. “He invited me to come to Brittany and see him. I did. I had a piece on the air that featured John Kerry’s cousin standing by the sea showing me where he and ‘little John’ used to hunt octopus. It was my big break, and I haven’t stopped working since.”
Today, Eleanor is NPR’s Paris correspondent. “It’s an exciting and fulfilling job, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. People always write to me and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, you have the dream job.’ What’s funny is that my obsession with France and French all these years has paid off.”
She says, “Even though I’ve been here a while, I still love reporting from France. There are always things that surprise me, and there’s something so real and genuine about France. It’s not a processed kind of place. The food is authentic, with its hooves and claws still attached, and so is life.”
Eleanor and Ulysse have a 12-year-old son, Maxime. “My son is growing up bilingual and bicultural, which is what I always wanted to be,” she says. “I also love telling my son about South Carolina. I love teaching him about the Civil War, and we recently visited Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. And he loves grits. “But I must admit that I’m glad I’m just plain old American and South Carolinian. People are always interested, and they think South Carolina is exotic.”
“Idyllic” is the word Eleanor uses to describe her childhood in Columbia. She has ventured far from the days of dodgeball and kick the can with her Wolf Circle and Bradley Elementary School friends. She has reported on everything from the war in Ukraine, the Arab Spring in Tunisia, and terrorist attacks in Paris to a recent conflict between the vegans and butchers of France.
“Experiences build on themselves. I’ve discovered that. I always tell young people when they graduate from college not to worry about the paycheck, but go out there and do a job that feels important to them. And worthy. Start getting those layers of experiences, because the job that you’ll really want will come along when you’re 32, not 22.”
Eleanor says even a dream job isn’t always dreamy. The hours can be long. Breaking news stories require immediate response. And the time difference may mean writing and recording in her home studio while her family sleeps. “Sometimes at 3 a.m. when I have a whole story to do for Morning Edition, I’m thinking, ‘Why am I doing this job?’ But mostly I love being able to go out and talk to people and discover people’s lives and problems in foreign places. To be able to get an understanding of what’s going on in other parts of the world and to bring these people’s stories home to Americans — to tell Americans why it matters — is the most rewarding job in the world.”