There is no immortality for newspaper reporters.
One of them, Ben Hecht, addressed this matter in a short poem written long ago: “We know each other’s daydreams / And the hopes that come to grief / For we write each other’s obits / And they’re Godalmighty brief.”
There is no immortality for newspaper reporters but Deborah Cohen has done a remarkably powerful, enlightening and entertaining job of bringing back to life a quartet of long-gone reporters along with dozens of other interesting sorts, in her new book, “Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War” (Random House).
It is a journey, she writes, into the “1920s and 1930s, (when) millions of Americans got their news from a very small number of international reporters. … In the interwar years, American foreign correspondents became the kings of the hill. … Armed with a peculiarly American obsession with personalities, they sounded an early warning about the rise of the dictators.”
She focuses on four of them, each a vessel of immense curiosity and energy.
There was Chicago-born John Gunther, who was a student at the University of Chicago before becoming a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, where he struck his colleagues as “a young man going somewhere.” Did he ever, taking off for Europe with no job (he had quit the News) and $150 in his pocket but with big ambitions. He would report prolifically and marry another writer named Frances. He would become a bestselling author with what was known as the “Inside” books, a series that included the bestseller “Inside U.S.A” in 1947. He basically invented the grief memoir with the heart-wrenching 1949 book about his young son’s death, “Death Be Not Proud,” which is sadly the only one of his many books still in print.
H.R. Knickerbocker, “Knick” to his friends, was Texas-born and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for his newspaper series on Stalin.
Vincent (Jimmy) Sheean came to the University of Chicago from tiny downstate Pana, Illinois, and was soon reporting from far, far away, from Spain and elsewhere. His 1935 political memoir “Personal History” became the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film “Foreign Correspondent.”
Dorothy Thompson, perhaps the most famous of the gang, was a native New Yorker. As she wrote to a friend in 1921, when she was in her late 20s, “I have been a ‘wild cat walking by my wild lone self’ most of my life since 16.” What she did — becoming the first female syndicated political columnist and a radio broadcaster, made her so prominent that, as Cohen tells us, “On the eve of the Second World War, Time magazine described Thompson and Eleanor Roosevelt as the most influential women in the United States.” She was also married for a helter-skelter time to novelist Sinclair Lewis. Her life became the inspiration for the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn 1942 film “Woman of the Year.”
Cohen informs us of so much, bringing the characters of this era to vivid and raucous life. She makes them all unforgettable, and allows us to understand what made them tick and work as they visited European capitals and traveled to Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
“Their Midwestern roots were crucial,” she says. “They understood their readers. They were able to speak to Americans. They were as famous in their time as famous could be and they were also pioneers in new journalism. They were subjective, intimate, emotional, powerful.”
They also had active social and drinking lives. “They were in and out of each others’ lives, sharing late nights, talking, sharing beds,” Cohen says.
As she writes, “Even when they were far apart, even after they fell out, they kept right on talking and arguing, long after the conversations had ended.”
The eight years Cohen devoted to researching and writing this splendid book was time well spent. We encounter in fresh ways such figures as Hitler, Mussolini, Gandhi, Nehru and Stalin. We also meet such now-forgotten people as Polly Adler, the proprietor of Manhattan’s most famous brothel and a friend of Gunther’s: “It was difficult to find girls to work because they were all doing war service, she told John. The sexual peculiarities these days! The higher the tensions got in Europe, the stranger the perversions.”
So prolific and active were the reporters that they make the most famous writer of the period, a fellow named Hemingway, seem a slacker by comparison.
The maps detailing the travels of these reporters are admirable and dizzying. As Gunther would put it later, “We were scavengers, buzzards, out to get the news, no matter whose wings got clipped.”
Cohen was born and raised in Louisville and at a tender age flirted with a career as a newspaper reporter. She started and edited a paper in high school but, admitting to being “hijacked by archives,” earned a degree in history and women’s studies at Harvard-Radcliffe and then a master’s and doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. She taught at American University and Brown University before coming to Northwestern in 2010, where she now academically resides, living in the Lakeview neighborhood with her husband and teenage daughter.
“I love teaching, first-year students to graduate level,” she says.
She is also a writer of palpable power and deep understanding.
After WWII, her quartet, more or less, she says, “moved off stage. Their moment was the moment of warning, so once the conflict started, what was there for them to say, ‘I told you so’?”
In their time they told us more than enough and they came at us in an intimate fashion. Cohen writes with easy authority and a powerful narrative drive. This is a great book about great and flawed people caught up in a world going mad.
She credits the voluminous archives that she pored through for making it “possible to capture the texture and the course of (her subjects’) thoughts at very close hand … My aim as an author has been to follow their own lead as journalists — to convey how it felt to lie so exposed to history in the making.”
For what it’s worth, Cohen would have made one hell of a reporter.