From Guidebooks to Hot Line, the Fielding Family Has Long Been a Tourist's Best Friend

updated 07/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/07/1980 01:00AM

When travel budgeteer Arthur (Europe on $15 a Day) Frommer was first discovering the Spanish island of Majorca as an Army pfc. in 1955, Major (ret.) Temple Fielding had already lived there for four years. And for three years before that he had been writing his pioneering guidebooks to postwar Europe. Columbus discovered the New World for Europeans; Fielding introduced the old one to U.S. tourists. Denmark is especially grateful to Fielding's Europe (Morrow, $11.95). The first edition sang the country's praises and Americans have been flocking there ever since. As a result, the Danes treat Fielding almost like a national hero. When he celebrated his 50th birthday in 1963, 2,000 taxis in Copenhagen carried flags with his picture. And a balance-of-payments-conscious President Kennedy sent greetings to the expatriate urging him to "turn your talents to encouraging the people of Europe to visit us."

Belatedly, Fielding is doing just that. For the first time, the number of foreigners visiting the U.S. will probably exceed that of Americans traveling abroad this year. So the 66-year-old author's next major project will be to compile three foreign-language guides to the U.S. to be published in 1983. If Fielding is late in capitalizing on that market, he is currently offering Americans the most imaginative travel idea since the Eurailpass and Freddie Laker. "The Living Guide," set up last year by Fielding's 34-year-old son, Dodge, is a toll-free hot line for travelers, giving instant answers to questions like: what to wear to the Paris Opéra, the train schedule from Hamburg to Antwerp, whether there's wheelchair access to the Prado. Headquartered in Madison, Wis., the service is America's biggest information bank on European tourism—and will have a range of seven languages by year's end. Travelers qualify by sending in cards attached, naturally, to Fielding's guidebooks. So far 50,000 people have registered.

Fielding has produced 99 editions of his guides in all, 19 of them written by freelancers. The big seller is Fielding's Europe, of which there are five spinoffs, focusing on low-cost European travel, shopping, hotels and inns, sightseeing and touring with children. The only other area of the world Fielding covers is the Caribbean. He has published nothing on Asia, Africa, South America or the Middle East. Yet he is the most widely read travel writer in history. In 32 years, he figures he has counseled 26 million tourists.

The basic guide covers 20 European countries in Fieldingese—a concoction of humorous, exclamatory and, at times, dated prose. Readers can wander through 1,148 pages to learn that there's a dial-a-strike number in Rome to keep them abreast of the latest work stoppage, that the Emerald Isle has a "Meet-the-Irish" program where visitors are matched with natives having similar interests, and that Europe's best-kept scenic secret is the Peer Gynt mountain country of Norway.

Researching the guide can be a hazardous, as well as tiring, business. Fielding's dapper right-hand man, Joe Raff, had his lip split by a bouncer in Hamburg when he realized a now defunct nightclub was a clip joint and protested. Temple and his wife, Nancy, both of whom had to overcome a fear of flying, have survived eight forced landings. (He clutches a Saint Christopher medal on takeoffs and touchdowns.) Lately, both Fieldings have been struck by how bad the service in most places has become. "Traveling," complains Nancy, 67, "is a bloody hassle now. I resent it. They treat us like cows."

The Fieldings, who are on the road about five months and speak minimal Danish, French, Italian and Spanish, split the chore of updating Europe (150,000 words are changed annually) with Joe Raff, his wife, Judy, and Dodge. Last year the team's travel expenses ran to $147,817.56. They spend up to a month in each country, checking out places considered lacking in the previous year to see if they've improved. Listed spots not personally checked are monitored by a network of informants and by readers.

The Fieldings themselves visited eight countries last year. But Temple and Nancy have grown increasingly fond of home, a 14-room stucco retreat cantilevered 250 feet above the Mediterranean in Formentor on Majorca's northeastern tip. Around it bougainvillea and pine trees grow in profusion. The Fieldings rent an office in nearby Puerto de Pollensa, but Temple prefers to do his writing in his study. Because he is a perfectionist, it comes slowly.

The couple entertains nonstop with the help of a domestic staff of four. Last year 50 house guests from eight countries visited. Friends include actress Joan Fontaine, novelist Allen Drury and former TV personality Faye Emerson, a Majorcan resident. Fielding may have the best-stocked bar on the island—at least 125 bottles of everything from Georgia moonshine to Majorca's own Foe y Fum. He sometimes puts his liqueurs in the deep freeze, claiming they taste better icy-cold.

Fielding is a very formal man—some say stuffy—who is a gracious host. But he makes social gaffes such as repeatedly forgetting the name of an associate's wife. "My father is an extremely kind person, but he's insensitive to social situations," says Dodge. "My mother, on the other hand, is extremely sensitive and covers for Temp." (Fielding insisted his son stop calling him Dad at 10.) "People first see the courtliness," says Joe Raff, Fielding's best friend for 19 years, "and later they wonder about his sincerity. But the demeanor is a shell for his timidity."

There is general agreement that Nancy's cool business sense has steered the Fielding enterprise through troubled times—they almost lost the villa several years ago when they became entangled with an entrepreneur who wanted to merchandise the Fielding name. "Nancy," confides one friend, "is the power—and the fountain of sanity."

In 37 years of marriage she has good-naturedly adapted to her husband's peculiar and often irritating habits. He compulsively corrects his own as well as Dodge's and Nancy's speech ("Dearest, it's 'none of us is,' not 'are' "). He wears contact lenses and a toupee, and nags her to give up her glasses and use a wig (which she sometimes does).

If achievement is hereditary, then Fielding's success was all but predestined. A descendant of the British novelist Henry (Tom Jones) Fielding, Temple was born in a 32-room Bronx mansion. He grew up at the knee of his maternal grandfather, William Hornaday, a writer and well-known naturalist who was a founder of the Bronx Zoo. Temple's father, George, headed a team that invented steam irons and dishwashers for General Electric. "Whatever code I live by I learned from them," says Fielding. One of three children, Temple moved with his family to Stamford, Conn., when he was 6. Two years later he made his first trip to Europe and followed it up with a grand tour at 13. For all his privileges, Fielding floundered through four prep schools before finally flunking out in 11th grade in 1930. "I was a wild kid," he recalls, "dashing around in a brown Oldsmobile. I had too much. I played too hard." He sold appliances in Connecticut until 1934, returning to high school that year. He went on to graduate in 1939 at 25 with honors in psychology from Princeton. Fielding wrote his first article, "And So You Are Drafted," for Reader's Digest in 1940. The Army beckoned in 1941, and a year later, at his commanding officer's request, he put together a rookie's guidebook to Fort Bragg, N.C. That same year he married his pretty literary agent, Nancy Parker, the daughter of a Massachusetts silversmith. He served with the OSS in Africa, Italy and. Yugoslavia. After the war Nancy goaded him to write his first guide after he complained about the lack of practical travel books. It was an instant success.

Fielding was the first travel expert to tell men where they could pick up women. "It is part of life and a part of travel," he says. "It's not for some husband so he can sneak off while his wife's shopping, but for men who travel alone, whether they are married or not." In the early days of their marriage, he made an agreement with Nancy. "I knew I would be traveling for five months in Europe, and I was not going to be a monk," says Fielding. "So I told Nancy that when I was away for that length of time I would be with other women, and that when she was alone she could be with other men. I was always honest with any woman I was with and told her I was married and would never change that. Nancy never asked questions and always greeted me with, 'Did you have a nice trip, dear?' " However, Nancy didn't take advantage of Temple's beneficent ruling. "It was not for me," she says quietly.

Today the Fieldings have no need for such an open arrangement since they rarely travel alone. "In the last five years," says Nancy, "we've decided, to hell with it, let's enjoy life together. It's later than we think." When they do vacation—up to six weeks a year—they like to take in the theater in London, read and walk in Madeira and visit friends in Denmark. He sees the travel situation changing for the worse. "I think tourism will drop early in the 1980s," he says, "because Europe is too expensive. Air travel is also going to become more and more uncomfortable with even less legroom." But with inflation, he says, Greece, Ireland and Portugal are still bargains. He continues to seek ways to excite interest in traveling, and in 1981 will bind small plastic records in Hotels and Inns. This will permit the tourist, with a hand-held microphonograph, to take walking tours.

Fielding has gotten some criticism for offering 15 to 30 extra lines in two of his books (Hotels and Inns and Selective Shopping Guide) to approved establishments in exchange for "production fee subsidies" of $250 to $1,000. The hotels and shops use the space to recount their histories and most popular features. "The fee doesn't even pay for our time or traveling expenses," says Nancy, "and we are terribly careful to whom we offer it." The Fieldings candidly tell readers of the arrangement in the front of each book. But no such offer is made for Fielding's Europe. "It is inviolate," Temple says.

When Temple and Nancy are on Majorca they guard their privacy, having once been caught in the nude by tourists peering in a window. They do not have a telephone, but once 18 travelers called in person in one day. Their home is crowded with books—biographies, mysteries, spy thrillers. Nancy has more than 1,000 cookbooks, and Temple collects 19th-century travel literature. Looking back over their lives, they share one major regret—that they didn't find time for another child. "We could have done it," says Temple, "but I needed Nancy full-time in the early years." With the prospect of retirement ahead, Nancy considers the perfect life. "We want to spend three months a year in Majorca," she says, "three in London, split three between Florida and New York, and travel the rest of the time. If I'm home more than a month, I get itchy to move."

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