There is no immortality for newspaper reporters.
One of them, Ben Hecht, addressed this in a short poem he wrote a long time ago: “We know each other’s daydreams / And the hopes that come to grief / Because we write each other’s obituaries / The illusion of great brevity.”
Newspaper reporters aren’t immortal, but Deborah Cohen has done a powerful, informative, and incredibly fun job bringing to life a quartet of former reporters along with dozens of other interesting genres, in her new book, The Imperial Hotel’s Last Call: Reporters Who Took a World at War (Random House).
It is a journey, as I wrote, in the 1920s and 1930s, (when) millions of Americans got their news from a very small number of international correspondents. …in the interwar years, American foreign correspondents became kings of the hill. … Armed with a strange American obsession with characters, they sounded an early warning about the rise of dictators.”
Focus on four of them, each of which is 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, shocking his colleagues that he’s a “going guy somewhere.” Has he ever taken off to Europe without a job (he had left the news) and $150 in his pocket but with big ambitions. He would report profusely and marry another writer named Francis. He would go on to become a bestselling author of what came to be known as The Inside Books, a series that included the 1947 bestseller Inside the USA. Memoirs of grief were invented through the heart-wrenching 1949 book about the death of his young son, Death Don’t Be Proud, a The book is unfortunately the only one of his many books still in print.
HR Knickerbocker, “Nick” to his friends, was a Texas native who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for his newspaper series on Stalin.
Vincent (Jimmy) Sheen came to the University of Chicago from the small town of Pana, Illinois, and was soon reporting from far, far, Spain and elsewhere. His 1935 political memoir “Personal History” became the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film The Foreign Correspondent.
Dorothy Thompson, perhaps the most famous member of the gang, was a Native New Yorker. As she wrote to a friend in 1921, when she was in her late twenties, “I’ve been a ‘wild cat walking next to my feral self’ most of my life 16 years ago.” What she did—becoming the first collective political columnist and radio host—made her so remarkable that, as Cohen tells us, “On the eve of World War II, Time magazine described Thompson and Eleanor Roosevelt as the most influential women in the United States.” She was also married to the novelist Sinclair Lewis. Her life became the inspiration for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s 1942 film “Woman of the Year”.
Cohen tells us a lot, making the characters of this age come alive and lively. It makes them all memorable, and allows us to understand what made them read and work as they visited European capitals and traveled to Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
“Their roots in the Midwest were crucial,” she says. They understand their readers. They were able to talk to the Americans. They were as famous in their time as they could be and were also pioneers in the new press. She was personal, intimate, emotional and powerful.”
They also had an active social and drinking life. “They were in and out of each other’s lives, sharing late nights, talking, and sharing family,” Cohen says.
As she wrote, “Even when they were apart, even after their disagreement, they kept talking and arguing, long after the conversations were over.”
The eight years that Cohen devoted to researching and writing this wonderful book was a good time. In new ways we encounter figures like Hitler, Mussolini, Gandhi, Nehru and Stalin. We also meet now forgotten people like Polly Adler, owner of the most famous brothel in Manhattan and girlfriend of Gunther: “It was hard to find girls to work because they were all doing war service, she said to John. Sexual idiosyncrasies these days! And the more tensions in Europe, the more sharpness of deviations.
The reporters were so prolific and energetic that they made the most famous writer of the period, a colleague named Hemingway, seem sloppy by comparison.
The maps detailing these reporters’ travels are impressive and awe-inspiring. As Gunther later said, “We were scavengers, hawks, going out for news, no matter who had their wings clipped.”
Cohen was born and raised in Louisville, and at a young age plunged into work as a news reporter. She began and edited research in high school, but admitted she was “hijacked by the archives,” earning a degree in history and women’s studies from Harvard Radcliffe and then an MA and PhD from UC Berkeley. She studied at American University and Brown University before coming to Northwestern in 2010, where she now resides academically, and lives in the Lakeview neighborhood with her husband and teenage daughter.
“I love teaching, first-year students until graduation,” she says.
She is also a writer with tangible strength and deep understanding.
After World War II, she said, her quartet, in one form or another, “moved off the stage. Their moment was a moment of warning, so once the conflict started, what was there to say, ‘I told you so’?”
They told us in their time enough and were coming to us in an intimate way. Cohen writes with easy authority and strong narrative motivation. This is a wonderful book about the great people and the flaws who fell into a crazy world.
She credits the vast archives through which she has sought to make it “possible to capture up close the texture and trajectory of (their subjects’) ideas… My goal as an author has been to follow their lead as journalists—to express the feeling of being lied to by being exposed to history in the making.”
For what it’s worth, Cohen had made the reporter one hell of a ride.