The Birth of the American Foreign Correspondent

In 1928, the Soviet Union, then six years old, embarked on its first Five-Year Plan and held its first major political show trial. Leon Trotsky was exiled to Central Asia, a grain crisis prompted rapid industrialization, and the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow, denounced social democracy as a form of fascism. It was in the summer of that year that John Gunther, a twenty-six-year-old, Illinois-born foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, was posted to Moscow. Gunther found it practically impossible to understand the state formed by Vladimir Lenin’s proletarian revolution. But, since he had to file something, he took notes: that there were no outdoor cafés and hardly any street lights, that crowds gathered around loudspeakers to listen to the news, that his hotel chambermaid offered him a cigarette, and that servants now ate alongside the families that they served. After weeks of this, he finally cobbled together a story headlined “Animated Evenings Mark Life in Russia’s Capital.” As he settled into the five-month posting, his dispatches included the likes of “Wear Blue Shirts at Moscow Opera” and “Russia Land of Many Paradoxes.”

It was precisely this type of news-gathering that Evelyn Waugh lampooned in his satirical novel “Scoop,” whose Wenlock Jakes, a swaggering American journalist, is partly based on Gunther. Jakes, we’re told, once overslept and went to the wrong Balkan capital—a peaceful one rather than a war zone—and nevertheless “cabled off a thousand-word story about 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.” Waugh perceived the emergent American style of accreting detail when you don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Despite his analytical deficiencies, Gunther’s career rose like a hot-air balloon. He reported from nearly every European country, talked foreign affairs with F.D.R., and wrote a best-selling series of global-affairs books. He was one of the preëminent American foreign correspondents who came up in the freewheeling period between the two World Wars, who covered the world on the eve of U.S. hegemony with a distinctive blend of reportage and personal impressions.

These journalists are the subjects of the historian Deborah Cohen’s “Last Call at the Hotel Imperial,” a loose group portrait of the foreign correspondents who helped define the profession as we know it today. They were the Lost Generation’s tradesmen, as compared to its more well-known novelists and poets, though the reporters were also giant personalities in their time. Dorothy Thompson, a renowned columnist whose life was fictionalized in a Katharine Hepburn comedy, “Woman of the Year,” was the first American journalist kicked out of Nazi Germany, and also informed F.D.R.’s refugee policy. H. R. Knickerbocker, originally of Yoakum, Texas, won the third-ever Pulitzer Prize for “correspondence,” in 1931—a precursor to today’s “international reporting” Pulitzer—and went toe to toe against the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, for his hard-hitting reporting. (He was known to his friends, and referred to throughout this book, as Knick.) They’re joined by two Midwestern journalists who were just a year apart at the University of Chicago: John Gunther and Vincent Sheean, the latter of whom shot to fame at the age of thirty-five for his memoir, “Personal History,” which blended his journalistic impressions of the world with his own reflections on interwar anomie. The last major character is Frances Gunther, née Fineman, a left-wing Jewish writer and polemicist who married and had children with John Gunther.

John Gunther and Sheean came from what Cohen calls the country’s “provincial heartland,” in Illinois. They were middle class and didn’t go to élite boarding schools, but they had direct access to great books, in Cohen’s memorable formulation, thanks to the same consumer channels that brought Model Ts to their small American towns. The two men attended the University of Chicago during the so-called Chicago Renaissance, when the city was home to the likes of Theodore Dreiser and Carl Sandburg, and both blazed with a desire to write, even if they lacked strong political or ideological beliefs. They, and also Knickerbocker, sought adventure above all in their journalistic escapades.

In the nineteen-thirties, Joseph Stalin’s mother, a former serf, being interviewed by the American journalist H. R. Knickerbocker. Photograph from Getty

These writers all struck out in a time when American foreign bureaus still had fluid norms and plucky stringers could elbow their way into almost any beat. Frances Gunther, for instance, simply flew to Moscow, in 1924, even though she’d “never worked on a newspaper and no editor had sent her there,” but quickly landed articles in the New York Times. John Gunther and Knick started as hardboiled beat reporters in U.S. newsrooms and brought that sensibility to Europe, with a knack for the well-turned folksy simile. Mahatma Gandhi, John Gunther reported after meeting him, in 1938, was an “unbelievable combination of Jesus Christ and Tammany Hall and your father.”

Reportage was their era’s “most representative form of letters,” as Thompson reflected in a 1939 essay called “Writing Contemporary History.” The techniques of foreign correspondence were used by novelists and philosophers, such as Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus, and a number of political figures who shaped their period, including Trotsky and Benito Mussolini, got their start as journalists. The foreign correspondent’s predominant form was that of the view from the ground, as opposed to the experimental techniques of New Journalism or today’s more intricately structured long-form narratives. With the exception of a few episodes in conflict zones in places like Spain and Syria, Cohen’s subjects were not primarily war correspondents but a cross between modern-day pundits and foreign-bureau chiefs. And, though the group profiled in the book made tracks on three continents, covering the world most often meant covering Europe.

“Last Call” is as effervescent, for more than four hundred pages, as its winsome and hyperactive characters, and it blends scholarly attention to ideas like psychoanalysis and Wilsonian liberal internationalism with novelistic renderings of these writers’ dizzying trajectories abroad. Group biographies sometimes fail to congeal, but the members of this cohort did in fact have deeply enmeshed lives. The main action jumps from one character to the next across three decades. Sheean and John Gunther often turned up in the same scenes, from Palestine to Vienna; John Gunther had an affair with Knickerbocker’s wife while writing the foreword to one of his books; Knickerbocker started out as Thompson’s assistant; and Sheean wrote an entire book about the marriage of Thompson and the American novelist Sinclair Lewis. Celebrity cameos abound from the likes of Virginia Woolf (since Sheean mixed with and had affairs among the Bloomsbury group), Jawaharlal Nehru (a pen pal to Frances Gunther), and Rebecca West (a sort of fairy godmother to John Gunther in England). In order to create some intimacy with this globe-trotting group, Cohen insists on referring to every main character by their first name, which can make the book hard to follow in its early chapters.

The book is less thorough on the actual writing produced by its subjects. Their major works are too often paraphrased without illuminating excerpts: Sheean’s “Personal History,” for instance, is hard to grasp as the literary sensation we’re told it was. Amid the mountains of personal detail, descriptions of their competent reportage—such as Knickerbocker’s investigation of Nazis hiding assets abroad, or John Gunther’s discovering evidence of “millions of marks the Germans had spent on propaganda in Austria”—sometimes comes as a surprise.

But what’s most important about these characters, which the author notes in the prologue and epilogue, is that they were all Americans abroad while the U.S. was still in its “stumbling global ascendancy.” The role of the foreign correspondent would change dramatically after the Second World War. “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 sympathizers,” Cohen writes. But, for this lot, both their impressions and advocacy were a little less loaded. They rarely had deep knowledge of any foreign countries or languages before they went abroad; Thompson’s hard-won German remained “ungrammatical” in the nineteen-forties, during the war. The Chicago boys, even more naïve at the outset, were empty vessels, learning about the world as they wrote about it.

Is being an empty vessel an asset to the foreign correspondent? And is having strong beliefs, especially political ones, a detriment to journalistic objectivity? These questions are a major undercurrent of this book, and are most electrically animated in the romantic and professional partnership between John and Frances Gunther. Cohen makes use of a wealth of archival material about these two—letters, diaries, and, in the Freudian cast of their era, dream journals and analysis-session notes—and maps their debates onto the seminal world events happening around them.

John and Frances first collided in Paris, in 1925. John was from a German American family on Chicago’s North Side, and was a son of a seedy businessman and a doting mother; Frances was born, in 1897, to Jewish immigrants who ran fabric and convenience stores in uptown Manhattan. She attended Barnard, in 1916, where she became the secretary-treasurer of the Socialist Club. After dropping out or being kicked out of three consecutive universities, all the while mixing with such prominent left-wingers as Dorothy Day, she eventually graduated from Barnard, at the age of twenty-four. The Gunthers married in 1927, less than three years after Frances arrived in Moscow. Their first child, Judy, tragically died at just a few months old, in 1929, and their second, Johnny, was born later that year. After that, Frances did much of her reporting vicariously, through her husband’s postings.

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