The annals of the greatest generation are not complete without acknowledging the contributions of America’s fearless female combat correspondents. In this long-overdue book, Nancy Sorel pays homage to these unsung heroes, many of whom left comfortable lives behind to chronicle events on the battlefields of Europe and Asia during the Second World War.
A few became world-famous, like photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, the only Western photographer to cover the Nazi invasion of the USSR; Martha Gellhorn, writer and wife of Ernest Hemingway, who presciently reported on the menace of fascism; the New Yorker’s Janet Flanner, recording the bleak realities of life in post-liberation France; and Marguerite Higgins, who dared to enter the concentration camp at Dachau just ahead of the American army. Many others have been overlooked by history. In this seamless narrative, Nancy Sorel weaves together the lives and times of one hundred gutsy, incomparable women, giving us, in the words of Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “an absorbing account of a generation of brave and resourceful women who proved that they were every bit as good as men in covering the greatest war in history.”
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In the early 1920s three American women, young then and unknown to each other, seized a chance at a reporter's life and never turned back. Each appreciated the rarity of her opportunity, her great luck, and gave back in kind. Their successes, both before and during the coming war, would prove pivotal in beckoning other women into the field.
Dorothy Thompson, Curtis syndicate
The oldest child of an English-born Methodist clergyman, Dorothy Thompson grew up in small towns in western New York. Her mother died when she was eight, and she rebelled against her stepmother's conventionality. As a scholarship student at Syracuse University, she was remembered as unusually articulate in class discussions, but also for monopolizing conversation and for the intense attachments she formed with other women students. She was tall and slender, with clear blue eyes and early indications of what would become a commanding presence. After three years of work with the women's suffrage movement, Dorothy went to Paris as a publicity writer for the American Red Cross, and from there to Vienna, where she supplemented her Red Cross duties by becoming a stringer for the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Freelance submissions were for women a time-honored means of entry into the newspaper world. Hearing that her firsthand account of an attempted coup by Emperor Franz Josef's grandnephew had impressed her editors, she applied for a salaried position, and rushed off to the paper's Paris office to present her case. In person Dorothy could be magnificent. She got the job.
In the spring of 1921, now a bona fide foreign correspondent, Dorothy Thompson tentatively entered into the Viennese world of love, sex, and gossip. Gossip linked her with a handsome Hungarian writer, Josef Bard. Love was instantaneous; sex, her first, welcomed. Commitment was another story. "I am so scared of marriage," she confided to a friend, but marry him she did. Not long afterward the Curtis syndicate promoted her to the position of Central European bureau chief for the Ledger and the New York Evening Post — in Berlin. Berlin was many hours by train from Vienna. If Thompson weighed the pros and cons of a long-distance marriage, if for a moment she considered not accepting the job, she left no evidence.
Sigrid Schultz, Chicago Tribune
Born in Chicago to parents of Norwegian descent, Sigrid Schultz grew up with the outward demeanor of a china doll complemented by a razor-sharp mind. Her father was a portrait painter, and when she was eight, the family moved to Paris. Sigrid graduated from the Sorbonne in 1914, then joined her parents, who had settled in Berlin. When World War I broke out a few months later, they remained, secure in their American citizenship. Even after the United States entered the war and they had to report daily to the authorities, their lives were little disrupted.
Supporting herself by teaching English and French, Schultz turned to international law, where her fluency in those languages in addition to Dutch, German, and Polish stood her in good stead. In 1919 the Chicago Tribune Berlin office took her on as an interpreter. She watched for her chance, and before long she was reporting, seizing initiatives available to one with her command of German politics. She was not averse to a little flirtation either: there were few attractive young single women in Berlin's professional circles, and if getting the story required charming the German establishment, why not? Schultz would have years of success in that arena before the political situation hardened. Sure that a reporter's best approach was to inspire confidence and be a good listener, she maintained a low profile. By the mid-1920s prominent men in government including the chancellor and foreign minister were seen at the Tribune office in the Hotel Adlon, talking with the knowledgeable young woman on staff there.
In late 1925 the Tribune's Berlin bureau chief was reassigned to Rome, and Sigrid Schultz inherited his job.
That was the year that Dorothy Thompson was assigned to Berlin. Nothing at all like sleepy, romantic Vienna, the German capital was a bizarre metropolis, with its mix of stolid Weimar Republic officials and extravagantly garbed cabaret patrons of undetermined sex, its high culture of music and theater alongside pornography and drugs. The German nightmare of postwar inflation had waned; the mark stabilized, and with it the lives of the average Herrenvolk. An Austrian war veteran had recently been released from prison, where he had been detained for his part in an attempted coup d'etat against the Munich city government; Adolf Hitler was still largely unknown.
On arrival in Berlin Thompson was warmly welcomed by the "news gang," Schultz said, even while she deplored Dorothy's "sketchy" grasp of languages and European history. They were friendly but never close, partly because Thompson shared a house facing the Tiergarten with Edgar Ansel Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News, the Tribune's competition. Her share was sufficiently spacious to accommodate her husband, but Josef Bard stayed in Vienna. As was customary for an unmarried European woman, Schultz lived with her widowed mother, in a large atelier apartment.
In their early thirties, Thompson and Schultz were natural reporters, willing to go to great lengths for a story. Berlin offered plenty of material. By day there were chancelleries to visit, press conferences to cover, dignitaries to interview, and by night, the lights and bustle of the concert hall, opera, and theater. The evening often ended in the bar at the Hotel Adlon, second home to the American correspondents. When Josef Bard did visit Berlin, he found his wife distracted and the apartment without the requisite quiet for a contemplative writer like himself. He preferred Vienna; before long he preferred another woman as well. Although she had thought herself a sophisticated, modern wife (and logic hinted that it was she who had left first), Dorothy found the rejection devastating. The first solution to her distress was work. "Good old work!" she noted gratefully, "it stood by me and doesn't let me down. Good old routine, good old head that functions automatically at the sight of a newspaper." The second solution was another man.
In the summer of 1927 Sinclair Lewis, author of Main Street and Babbitt, arrived in Berlin. Thompson, who had read and admired both books, met him almost immediately, and although his (second) divorce was as yet incomplete, he proposed the next day. Lewis pursued his courtship over succeeding months. When in October Dorothy went to Moscow to cover the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, he followed her there, and proposed again. On their return, and despite warnings about his alcoholism, she accepted; the following spring she quit the bureau post and left Berlin to marry him.
That same spring the Nazi Party won 12 out of 491 seats in the Reichstag, less than half those held by women, but a beginning. Two years later that number multiplied by nine, and Sigrid Schultz, watching Hitler's lieutenants goose-step into Parliament in their brown uniforms, decided she could no longer afford to ignore them. She selected World War I ace pilot Captain Hermann Goering as the most likely candidate for reliable information, and "auditioned" him at lunch in a small elegant restaurant. Between the hors d'oeuvres of French snails and the coffee, he talked.
In return, when she later encountered him in the Kaiserhof, Goering introduced her to Hitler. At this time Hitler greeted all women with a kiss on the hand, Austrian style, while staring into their eyes. Schultz masked her animosity enough to remain part of a small group of correspondents who interviewed him several times in the early 1930s. Interviews were arranged and overseen by the half-American Harvard graduate head of the foreign press, Ernst Sedgwick Hanfstaengl, known as Putzi. Schultz later recalled that Hitler liked to take the first question asked him and extemporize an answer at length, after which he would declare the conference over. At one session, in order to deflect him from this practice, she zoomed in immediately with a question on a rather abstruse subject, commercial negotiations between Germany and India, and though momentarily brought up short, he gave a very intelligent answer. Schultz knew that although Hitler spoke no English, he kept tabs through his informants on the nature of the stories written about him in Berlin. She always knew just how far she could go.
Not so Dorothy Thompson Lewis when she interviewed Hitler in the fall of 1931:
I was a little nervous. I considered taking smelling salts. And Hitler was late. An hour late. Waiting upstairs in the foyer of the Kaiserhof Hotel I saw him shoot by, on the way to his rooms, accompanied by a bodyguard who looked like Al Capone. Minutes pass. Half an hour. ... When finally I walked in ... I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the whole world agog. .. . He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the "Little Man."
It was the kind of misjudgment that can haunt a journalist for years, but Thompson passed it off with her usual sangfroid. Her readers loved her, she knew, for her daring, her willingness to go out on a limb, and cared not at all when she took a tumble.
A year earlier — the same year her husband won the Nobel Prize for literature — Thompson had managed an accomplishment of her own: she had had a baby. During the first two years of her son's life, she traveled extensively in America and spent seven months abroad. She salved her conscience by hiring an excellent domestic staff and supplying them with detailed instructions. Having lost her own mother so early, Dorothy had no role model, and she felt little inclination for mothering. She had even fewer qualms about leaving her husband: it was already clear that their most congenial communication was by letter.
In 1933 Hitler was named chancellor of Germany, and the following year he assumed the post of president. Once again Thompson left her husband and son for Europe. As she reasoned, a serious journalist with expertise on Germany could do nothing else. Crossing from Austria into Germany that summer, she was greeted by an explosion of swastika flags and a Hitler youth camp — "six thousand boys between the ages of ten and sixteen," she wrote in a story for Harpers, "beautiful children. ... They sang together, and no people sing in unison as the Germans do, thousands of them, in the open air, young voices, still soprano, and the hills echoing! It made one feel sentimental." But those romantic notions were undercut by the sight of an enormous banner stretched across the hillside. "It was so prominent that every child could see it many times a day. It was white, and there was a swastika painted on it, and besides that only seven words, seven immense black words: YOU WERE BORN TO DIE FOR GERMANY." With relief she thought of her own son back in the unadorned hills of Vermont.
In Berlin Thompson went to the Hotel Adlon, warmly familiar, with the same bartender, the same dry martinis, "the manager who always remembers how many people there are in your family and what room you had last time. ... It was all the courtesy, all the cleanliness, all the exquisite order which is Germany." But she soon discovered it was all facade. Friends warned her not to use the hotel phones. A bank stenographer told her that wages were way down, and a car mechanic said that a man could eat but do little more on what he earned. She spent one afternoon in seclusion with a previous acquaintance, a tall young German now a storm trooper but not in uniform. He divulged details of Hitler's recent bloody purge of "mutinous" leaders and opponents of his dictatorship. A few days later the Adlon porter rang her from the desk: a member of the secret state police wished to see her. A young man wearing a trench coat served her with an order to leave the country within forty-eight hours.
Sigrid Schultz promptly wired the Chicago Tribune. "Dorothy Thompson, American writer and wife of Sinclair Lewis, noted novelist, has been banished from Germany," she wrote, and added that Thompson had been requested to leave "because of her numerous anti-German articles in the American press." Not entirely displeased with the turn of events, Dorothy offered her own explanation of the expulsion: "My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man. That is a crime against the reigning cult in Germany, which says that Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent of God to save the German people. ... To question this mystic mission is so heinous that if you are German you can be sent to jail. I, fortunately, am an American, so I merely was sent to Paris. Worse things can happen to one."
On her return to Vermont she had the expulsion order framed, and hung it prominently on her wall.
Janet Flanner, New Yorker
In 1925, the same year Sigrid Schultz and Dorothy Thompson were appointed bureau chiefs in Berlin, Janet Flanner began writing her semimonthly "Letter from Paris" for the New Yorker. She wrote under the pseudonym Genet, a name chosen for her by the fledgling magazine's editor. The New Yorker preferred its regulars to write under aliases, preferred objectivity to the point of detachment; the pronouns "I" and "me" hardly existed. Anything might be reported as long as it was neither boring nor tasteless, but pieces tended to be descriptive rather than analytical. The scope of Flanner's reporting would grow. In the beginning it was sophisticated but shallow.
That streak of rebellion shared by women who came to Europe as prospective journalists in the 1920s and 1930s surfaced early in Janet Flanner. As a chestnut-haired and already hawk-nosed teenager, she found it difficult to adapt to the social code of midwestern America. Her father was a funeral director, a not quite "acceptable" occupation, and when she was in her late teens, he killed himself. The nonconformist in her began to hold sway. She later gave a variety of explanations for leaving the University of Chicago after less than two years, but not attending classes and barely passing her courses would seem reason enough. She returned home and abruptly married — to get out of Indianapolis, she said later, but perhaps also because, at that time and in that place, marriage fell on the "acceptable" side of life's choices. It was while living as a newlywed in Greenwich Village that Flanner came to realize how much less responsive she was to her young husband than to the beautiful women she met there, Solita Solano in particular. In 1921 Flanner abandoned her husband, with a finality Dorothy Thompson would not show on leaving hers, and she and Solano sailed together for Europe.
Four years later, in Paris and with a novel about to be published, Flanner was approached by the New Yorker to write a regular column from the French capital. The offer provided a legitimate reason for her to remain in Paris, as well as funds (thirty-five dollars per submission) to help with the rising expenses of her increasingly social life. She accepted. Although she could not be said to belong to the cultural elite, she wrote her "Letter from Paris" about the arts, fashion, cinema, and cafe life of the capital, as if she did.
Over the next decade both the New Yorker and Genet flourished. The magazine gave Flanner room to experiment and improve her style. Happily ensconced at the small Hotel Saint-Germain-des-Pres for less than a dollar a day, she felt she had made a real life for herself in Paris. Paris suited Janet, who considered it the capital not merely of France but of civilized Europe. The disapproval of midwestern America was far away. She lived as she chose. She continued to live with Solano even after she transferred her emotions to Noel Haskins Murphy, a nearly six-foot-tall high-cheekboned blonde training to become a singer. Noel Murphy (whose husband, brother of Gerald Murphy, had been killed in the war) owned a small farm outside the village of Orgeval; it was there that Flanner spent her weekends.
In addition to her regular "Letter from Paris," Flanner occasionally profiled a well-known European figure for the New Yorker, and she spent much of 1935 working on a long portrait of Adolf Hitler, titled "Fuehrer." She employed her usual detached, semisatiric approach, concentrating on the myriad details of his life and personality, but in the end she could not avoid taking into account what he was doing in, and to, Germany. She began her third and final section with an acute dissection of the man:
As a ruler of a great European power, Herr Hitler is the oddest figure on the Continent today, but even as a humble individual, he would still be a curious character. With a limited mind, slight formal education, a remarkable memory for print, uncanny powers as an orator, and a face inappropriate to fame, in fifteen years he planned, maneuvered, and achieved an incredible career. He is a natural and masterly advertiser, a phenomenal propagandist within his limits, the greatest mob orator in German annals, and one of the most inventive organizers in European history. He believes in intolerance as a pragmatic principle. He accepts violence as a detail of state ...
Excerpted from "The Women Who Wrote the War"
Copyright © 1999 Nancy Caldwell Sorel.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Note on the Foremothers,
1. The Groundbreakers,
2. Cassandras of the Coming Storm,
3. Apprentices in Spain,
4. The Lessons of Czechoslovakia,
5. One Thought, One Holy Mission: Poland,
6. Waiting for Hitler: The Phony War,
7. Fleeing France,
8. Braving the Blitz,
9. Working Under the Swastika,
10. Margaret Bourke-White Shoots the Russian War,
11. Treading Water, Marking Time,
12. China Hands,
13. Facing the War That Is Our War Now,
14. Women Behind Walls: Manila, Siena, Shanghai,
15. Learning the Rules, Dressing the Part,
16. Women on Trial: North Africa,
17. Touching Base on Five Continents,
18. Slogging Through Italy,
19. New Women Come Over for Overlord,
21. Trekking North from Rome,
22. That Summer in France,
23. Liberating Paris,
24. Crossing the Siegfried Line,
25. The Battle of the Bulge,
26. Penetrating the Pacific Barriers,
28. Of Rain, Ruin, Relationships, and the Bridge at Remagen,
29. The Month of April: The Advance,
30. The Month of April: The Camps,
31. The Longed-for Day,
32. "It Is Not Over, Over Here",
33. Women Winding Up a War,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I wish I'd discovered rhis book 15 years ago, I can't speak to the
These hard scrable women are resilient and creative when it comes to covering wars!