Last Call at the Imperial Hotel: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War, by Deborah Cohen, William Collins, 557 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0008305864
In 1976 Norman Mailer wrote that in another few hundred years “the moral intelligence of another time may look in horror on the history implanted into Twentieth Century people by way of newsprint”. Mailer viewed the American public’s insatiable appetite for newspaper reading with the same distaste with which he regarded their embrace of plastic: it was an activity that “deadened the collective brain”, hindering a true appreciation of reality because reporters valued bland facts above any sense of mood, atmosphere or feeling. At first glance it seems an odd moment for such a critique. Mailer was writing in the year when All the President’s Men was released, lionising Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post for their role in forcing the resignation of President Richard Nixon and revitalising for a new generation the idea that the newspaper business was a heroic profession. And he himself was regarded as one of the pioneers of the New Journalism, an exciting mode of storytelling offering an explosive challenge to the stuffy, self-censoring conformity of objectivity. But the inference was that these glamorous departures were exceptions, glittering landmarks which concealed the dreariness of the surrounding terrain. The tension between these two poles is the stuff of journalism history. Every couple of decades a clutch of individuals emerges who seem to embody the highest aspirations of the heroic role of the press which disguise the unheroic actuality of the institutional and business influence on it.
Just as the 1970s consecrated Woodward and Bernstein, the 1930s produced a small cadre of American foreign correspondents whose words briefly escaped the instantaneous ephemerality of newsprint. They knew each other intimately and kept detailed accounts of their feelings and entangled love lives. Happening upon this archival trove, Deborah Cohen has written a vivid and compelling group biography of a generation of journalists whose fame rivalled that of Hemingway or Fitzgerald in an age, as The New Yorker put it in its profile of John Gunther, “that has elevated its journalists above its poets and philosophers”. Gunther and his wife Frances, Vincent Sheean, HR Knickerbocker and Dorothy Thompson roamed Europe when it was the centre of world politics, interviewing presidents and dictators and, later, travelling to Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The Americans would be the most prominent group among the correspondents gossiping in the café of the Hotel Imperial in Vienna. Thompson was the first American woman to be head of a news bureau in Berlin; it was said that Knickerbocker’s were the only despatches that Mussolini read in their entirety. Their newspaper and magazine pieces led to book commissions, then lecture tours and, most prized of all, radio appearances which connected them to a vast audience back home. Most of the biggest nonfiction successes of the mid-1930s were travelogues on international current affairs. Sheean’s Personal History was a bestseller, while John Gunther’s Inside Europe, first published in 1936 and then revised so often to take account of the news that critics suggested it should be printed in a loose-leaf edition to facilitate revisions, sold millions of copies and was taken up by the barometer of middlebrow taste, the Book of the Month Club. The epitome of the well-informed politician, John F Kennedy carried Gunther’s book as he travelled through Europe in 1937 “tempering his enthusiasm for a fascist victory in Spain after consulting what Gunther had to say”.
After the failure of Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to remake the world at the Paris Peace Conference the US had retreated to isolation, refusing to join the League of Nations or to be drawn into old world conflicts. But commercially and culturally American influence was seeping across the globe and Cohen’s band of correspondents were part of Hemingway’s lost generation, provincials in search of worldly experience and personal purpose. America’s apparent retreat from any attempt to create its own empire gave its citizens the illusion of innocence. Gunther’s editor saw Inside Europe as “a simple good-hearted Uncle Sam looking out upon a rather wicked and generally double-crossing world”. They believed in the primacy of American values long before that became a national mission to spread these everywhere during the Cold War. “To Americanize enough of the world so that we shall have a climate favourable to our growth is indeed a call to destiny,” Dorothy Thompson wrote in her column in the New York Herald Tribune.
Their fame inspired both hero worship and mockery. Several Hollywood movies of the 1930s cast stars such as Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart as roving foreign correspondents: swaggering, wisecracking but on the right side of history. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, which appeared in 1940, was a film treatment of Sheean’s Personal History, in which the journalist uncovers an evil spy ring and alerts the world to the threat of fascism. To others their escapades betrayed a peculiarly American form of vainglory. The British writer Malcolm Muggeridge dismissed Gunther and Knickerbocker as “Knights-errant of our time, rescuers of nations in distress, Champions of the down trodden and oppressed”. And one of the central characters in the most enduring satirical portrait of foreign correspondents, Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, was based on Knickerbocker, and, according to Cohen, partly on Gunther. Wenlock Jakes is known to his colleagues for outlandish expenses claims and fictitious scoops. Sent to cover a revolution in the Balkans, Jakes exits his train at the wrong train station but still files a story from the peaceful town describing “barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window”. His competitor special correspondents rush to join Jakes but rather than exposing his inventions, file more spurious copy about a non-existent revolution. Before long “government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny ‑ and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said.”
Waugh’s satire aside, these correspondents really did prophesy the drift of events in Europe in the 1930s. Hitchcock opened Foreign Correspondent with a dedication “To those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows.” As a young journalist Gunther proposed a series on “The Rise of the Dictators” as early as 1926, identifying at the same time its promotional value. “Isn’t that a tremendous idea. And a tremendous stunt?” In Inside Europe he wrote that “basic depth and breadth of Hitler’s antisemitism” would have been clear to anyone who had looked at Mein Kampf. Similarly, Sheean wrote dispatches detailing early attacks on Jews under the Nazis which he warned were merely a rehearsal for a more systematic assault. Thompson interviewed Hitler in 1931 and was impressed by his “startling insignificance . . . the very prototype of the Little Man”, even though he spoke to her “as if he was addressing a mass meeting”. In long articles for The Saturday Evening Post, she revised her view of his unimportance, pointing out how the banks backed him because they thought they could control him. Her reporting led to her being the first American correspondent expelled from Germany. “What right does such a nitwit woman, her brains must be made of straw, have to speak out publicly against such a great man as the Fuhrer,” Goebbels fulminated.
As foreign correspondents, Thompson and her colleagues had much more of a licence to take a view than their newsroom colleagues back home. Editors tended to be more sceptical about accounts of the terror waged by the Nazis and optimistic about the prospect of war. Americans who wanted to stay out of Europe resented being made uncomfortable by inconvenient truths. For proprietors like Col Robert R McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, Germany must be supported because it was anti-communist. They took cover behind the sacred idea of objectivity and impartiality. Herbert Matthews, the New York Times correspondent who fought with his pro-Franco desk editors while covering the Spanish Civil War later reflected how the objective ideal of giving both sides meant “equality for the bad with the good”. Even Dorothy Thompson disavowed the practice of landing interviews with powerful statesmen as “meretricious”. complaining in a review of a collection of pieces by her friend Knickerbocker that he been merely a stenographer for Mussolini.
Gunther was the master of this technique. In his Who’s Who entry in 1956 he listed the heads of state he had interviewed, including Lloyd George, Gandhi, Trotsky and de Valera. A New Yorker profile in 1947 noted that he had talked to everyone who had ever appeared on the cover of Time magazine and his collection of trivial detail in endless interviews from his time on the road was at one with the style of Henry Luce’s magazine. In Inside Latin America, the latest extension of the “Inside” brand published in 1941, Gunther revealed that the Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico “loves radios, cameras, fishing, motor boats and motor cycles”, while his counterpart in El Salvador, General Maximiliano Martinez “has great capacity to relax easily . . . His personal life is happy and he has five children . . . He is modest and hates pomp and ceremony.” The critic Dwight McDonald wrote that Gunther had made a career out of “exploiting the enormous American appetite for Facts”, a pointless genre of curiosity which had become “a nervous habit” like smoking.
Confiding to his diary in 1931 that “It is not in me to be profound,” Gunther relied on his wife, Frances, also a journalist but less prolific, for analysis and interpretation. When the Gunthers visited India in 1937 a British press officer exulted that if they could make sure that John created the right impression his fame would ensure that he would be “the finest pro-British propagandist in the world”. But it was Frances who devised the questions for India’s colonial rulers. “What is the wealth of Indians in India?” did not produce a satisfactory answer and she was angered by the lies they were told. “The moment the Indian people face self-rule without fear,” she later wrote in her diary, “that moment the British Raj is over.” When he published Inside Asia John wrote at length about the grievances of the Congress Party and concluded a swift summary of what the British had done with his reckoning of India’s value to Britain: “Above all it gets booty, loot.” Possibly inspired by Frances, he also struck an uncharacteristic anti-colonial note in Inside Africa in 1955, pinpointing accurately that US policy as the Cold War deepened “was to sympathize in the abstract with colonial peoples in their desire to be free, but to do nothing that will embarrass their European masters”.
By then the time when Gunther, Sheean, Thompson and co made the weather had passed. A few months after the end of the Second World War Sheean had suggested to Gunther over a drink in New York that journalism now belonged to the television personalities like Ed Murrow. But it was not just a question of the decline of the daily press. The wartime demands that journalists be patriots and not merely curious bystanders persisted and deepened as the Cold War developed. The new demands of national security required that journalists aligned themselves with government far more closely, becoming a semi-official branch of the state or, as Cohen puts it: “As the United States sought to exert its dominance globally, remaking the world to suit, foreign correspondents became more entangled in that project, either as critics or as sympathisers.” The threads of entanglement were woven from a new reverence for objectivity. It would take another generation before Mailer’s age of conformity was challenged.
Maurice Walsh is working on a book about Graham Greene and the twentieth century.