A Necessary, Hazardous Calling: On Judith Mackrell’s “The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II”

A well-crafted true story of female journalists reporting from the front lines.

A Necessary, Hazardous Calling: On Judith Mackrell’s “The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II”

The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II by Judith Mackrell. Doubleday. 464 pages.

THERE MAY BE no experience related to war as surreal or traumatic — aside from actual soldiering — as that of the war correspondent. War reporters have to witness without intervening; they must spin events, from the mundane to the unspeakable, into coherent narratives, with the goal of accurately conveying cause and effect — even if none can be discerned. There’s a shocking amount of bureaucracy: figuring out travel to the front, keeping on top of press-office restrictions, managing inevitable technical difficulties, arranging short-notice interviews with subjects (who sometimes require translators), competing with other correspondents. Then, once the fighting ends, there’s the matter of finding a new war, to keep making a living.


The job has always been harder if you weren’t a man, as shown in Judith Mackrell’s gripping group biography The Correspondents (published in the United Kingdom in May as Going with the Boys). The book is a well-crafted true story of six female journalists reporting from the front lines of World War II: Virginia Cowles, Clare Hollingworth, Sigrid Schultz, Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller, and Helen Kirkpatrick. For these six, there was no getting between them and their necessary, hazardous calling.


Gellhorn and Miller will be familiar names to some readers, most likely because of their alliances with famous men and of forthcoming biopics (Gellhorn was married to Ernest Hemingway; Miller, the muse to Man Ray, is the subject of a forthcoming film starring Kate Winslet). In Mackrell’s book, their own stories take center stage, with occasional cameos from an ensemble cast including Janet Flanner (the New Yorker correspondent whose autocratic manner gave her a rep, according to Miller, for being “scratchy in places”), photographer Margaret Bourke-White, Ève Curie (daughter of Marie), and Elizabeth Murphy Moss, the first Black woman accredited as a war correspondent, whose reporting was cut short by illness.


It is no easy feat to weave six lives into a narrative that compels the reader all the way through, but like a big-canvas painting that brings together personal dramas and machinations of state, The Correspondents is full of intriguing detail. Structurally, it covers the revolving cast with near-equal focus, with Virginia Cowles’s story serving as a connecting thread. Though the book is occasionally head-spinning in its various layers, with each reporter’s timeline tracking against global events, Mackrell is concise with context, sticking to major tactical moves and the waves of optimism and pessimism that animated the Allies.


Ginny Cowles, billed by Hearst as a “New York Society Girl,” was anything but a stunt reporter. Born in Vermont to an aristocratic WASP mother and absent father, she wrote to make a living. After covering events, fashion, and gossip, she changed tack in the 1930s and reported on the Spanish Civil War. That conflict was a training ground for several of the correspondents, forging their expectations of day-to-day war: boredom punctuated by terror, near-miss arrests, attempts at indoctrination, and the inexorable rise of dictators.


The Correspondents introduced me to Clare Hollingworth, who seemed ordinary enough when she was growing up in Leicester, United Kingdom. War changed that; she alienated a staid fiancé, got herself hired as a stringer and then a staffer, and wound up on a dizzying sequence of battlefields, from Northern Europe to Greece, Romania, North Africa, and Iran. In Poland, she made it her job to hasten the removal of asylum applicants to England, short-circuiting paper trails and peppering the asylum office with insistent messages, all in code (a refugee party was “a consignment of 8 small and 22 large mixed pickles”). These were actions that put her job in jeopardy, but for her there was no turning away. Hollingworth, exceptionally, stuck with journalism long past the point — marked for some by age, for others by trauma — that prompted her peers to retire; she lived to be 105.


Sigrid Schultz, an American with Norwegian parents, figured out her youthful ambitions in World War I Berlin, where she bred rabbits on her family’s balcony and bartered them for flour at the bakery. Once she started working as a journalist and the Nazis had come to power, she built up a relationship with Hermann Göring and was so well informed about the regime — and determined to write about what she knew, despite the dangers — that she became a target. She began to vary the routes she walked home at night, kept her apartment ready for visits from the secret police, wrote decoy diary entries assuming her papers were being secretly read, and made up an alias for her most revelatory scoops. I was delighted to learn that she’d had the ingenious idea of booking a consultation with Hitler’s astrologer, who was surprisingly forthcoming about her most infamous client.


Mackrell’s portrait of Martha Gellhorn raises her high in the pantheon of great American writers without collapsing the complications of her life and work. Gellhorn was a literary genius of uncompromising honesty — objectivity was “shit,” she famously declared. Her voice drives home how tenuous the pivotal moments of a world war could be: “Finally it can boil down to ten unshaven gaunt-looking young men, from anywhere in America, stationed on a vital road with German tanks coming in.” Through Gellhorn we also catch an interesting view of Hemingway, who seems to have shown her the most annoying, vituperative facets of his personality before pulling the ultimate betrayal: he convinced Collier’s magazine to replace her, their special correspondent for the Allied Invasion, with himself, depriving her of accreditation, occupation, and income in one fell swoop. Afterward, she wrote to her friend and mentor Eleanor Roosevelt, “I have lost out on the thing I most care about seeing or writing of in the world and maybe in my whole life.” She stowed away on a hospital ship and made her way to the front anyway.


Lee Miller’s biographical sketch comes nearly halfway through the book, beginning with her childhood on the rural edge of Poughkeepsie, New York, and her evolution from assistant to artist (fully realized when her photographs of the London Blitz were published, with an introduction by Edward R. Murrow, as the 1941 book Grim Glory). Miller arrived at the front already struggling with demons from her youth, propelled through her career by a preternatural curiosity and a determination to seize her luck. (In 1927, she narrowly missed being hit by a car when a stranger pulled her out of the way at the last moment; he introduced himself as Condé Nast, recruited her as a model, and put her on the cover of Vogue.) At first, she admitted, being near bombing made her feel vulnerable as “a soft-shell crab”; later, she was drawn to the spectacle of destruction. During the war, she was temporarily housed at Hitler’s Munich residence, leading to a signal portrait of her career — in Hitler’s bath, with muddy combat boots on the bath mat.


Miller was one of the first writer-photographers to cover the discovery of the scale of the death camps. Alongside other journalists, she struggled to find answers as to why they were never targeted or prioritized by the Allies. Her photographs of Dachau provoked a groundswell of shock among the Americans and British, as did reports from Buchenwald by Schultz and Kirkpatrick. But Miller also looked beyond the camps themselves to the aftermath of their liberation, which put hundreds of thousands on the roads, looting food and fuel from trucks and jamming up transit, a logistical chaos that compounded the humanitarian catastrophe.


Helen Kirkpatrick, a Smith College graduate from Rochester, New York, went to Europe in the wake of a bad marriage. When she applied to be a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, the publisher told her, “We don’t have women on the staff,” to which she replied, “Well, you know you can change your policy, but I can’t change my sex.” He did change the policy, and she was a staffer for the paper through the war, reporting on the Blitz and North Africa before being assigned to the Free French forces in the summer of 1944. Reading about Kirkpatrick sent me online to try and find video footage of her, and the most substantial result was a C-SPAN panel from 1995, where Kirkpatrick, then in her 80s, was the only woman among the six journalists featured. Characteristically, she started by cracking a joke, puncturing any sense that she considered herself part of a privileged elite.


As an underdog class within the crowd of correspondents, all six women knew one another and, in some cases, became friends, drawing courage, tips, and much-needed laughter from their encounters. Cowles first met Gellhorn in Spain, and over the years they became so close that they wrote a play together (Love Goes to Press, a comic hit in London in 1946). Kirkpatrick read Schultz’s Berlin coverage; in time, her own work was read by Miller and Gellhorn; and eventually Kirkpatrick and Miller would share a flat in Paris and a billet in Cologne. They were united in dealing with the same formidable odds: in France after D-Day, women reporters had to find their own accommodation and organize their own filing logistics. The press camp had censors, teletypists, and radio transmitters, but only for men — women had to hire messengers to bike copy to the nearest airstrip to be flown to London, biked to censors, and finally sent to an editor’s desk, where it might be weeks out of date.


The reader is immersed in wartime life as nonspecialists have rarely seen it: grinding, cold, inconvenient, punctuated by random tennis games and bizarre meals. It is tempting to present a bouquet of the book’s most powerful moments — but better to say that The Correspondents, though running to nearly 400 pages, contains a higher proportion of affecting sensory detail and truth-is-wilder-than-fiction episodes than many comparable books.


It is also funny, in a way that recalls P. G. Wodehouse — who himself was frequently in the news throughout the war, for his long internment and ill-advised humorous broadcasts from Germany. Mackrell gives us Gellhorn’s description of Neville Chamberlain in a letter to H. G. Wells: “What a man, with a face like a nutcracker and a soul like a weasel.” We hear Unity Mitford gabbing about Hitler’s leisure pursuits, his dislike of reading, and his gift for comic impersonations: “If he were not the Führer of Germany, he could make a hundred thousand dollars a year on the vaudeville stage. But what he really likes is excitement. Otherwise he gets bored.” In the most pervasive absurdity, we hear commander after commander get leery about what the Brits called the “cloakroom question” (“the latrine business” to Americans) — the absence of a ladies’ room on the battlefield, the objection that would, exhaustingly, control the conversation around letting female correspondents into the army press corps. Reluctance congealed into hostility in the case of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Reginald Astley, a British officer whose dislike of female reporters was so overt that several of them got themselves reaccredited to American news sources to avoid dealing with him at all.


The final paragraph of The Correspondents conveys its central mission. “The history of the Second World War, like that of all wars,” Mackrell writes, “has traditionally been told by, for, and about men; and the story of how this small group of journalists found their way to the battle zones of Europe and North Africa stands as an important corrective.” This type of biography has special interest for readers looking for a telling of history that transcends the typical birth-to-death or series-of-battles genres. It is not that Mackrell has resurrected her subjects from deep obscurity or that she offers a new level of intimacy with them. Instead, the abiding value of The Correspondents is in its gathering of six experiences that shows their commonalities and divergences. Through this framing, a picture of a shared endeavor comes into focus, while individual contributions and preoccupations are less prone to exaggeration or psychoanalysis. This is especially fitting given that these particular subjects did not tend to write in the first person: as professional witnesses, they saw others, not themselves, as the true protagonists.


¤


Stephanie Gorton is a writer and editor living in Providence. She is the author of Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine that Rewrote America.

LARB Contributor

Stephanie Gorton is a writer and editor living in Providence. She is the author of Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine that Rewrote America.

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