Sat. May 21st, 2022


In the mid-1930s, American star reporter John Gunther stopped off at tumbledown village in Lower Austria during a trip that took him from his Vienna office to Prague. Local peasants told him of tangled family histories and a sickly boy protected by a servant-girl mother against his drunken father as a future “great man”. No one before had gone to Spital to find Adolf Hitler’s relatives. His scoop fitted the method perfected by Gunther and the fellow journalists whose adventures fill Deborah Cohen’s swarming and engrossing book. In the age of world-shaking dictators, private lives mattered again in global politics as “individual personality had jolted history into a new gear”.

Between the wars, Cohen’s quartet of celebrity newshounds bestrode the globe like media colossi with cabin trunks and expense accounts, “buzzards in every foreign office,” Gunther wrote, “and kings on every wagon-lit.” From a Europe in turmoil they wired quick-fire dispatches, or mailed panoramic think-pieces, back to booming big-city papers that served a mass American public eager for trustworthy witnesses, even prophets, who “saw the world as a whole”.

By 1939, they “were the story”. Dorothy Thompson, who earned the equivalent today of $ 1.8mn per year, inspired Katharine Hepburn’s character in Woman of the Year and advised President Roosevelt. A memoir by Vincent “Jimmy” Sheean prompted Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Foreign Correspondent. As for HR Knickerbocker (“Knick”), his bedazzlement by Mussolini (“Benevolent, agreeable, polite, intelligent”) did not stop him from finding a “talented, dangerous demagogue” in Hitler before the Nazi takeover. If “personal pathologies became the stuff of geopolitics,” then in-depth interviews might unlock the true meaning of events. From Trotsky to Gandhi, this gang nailed the exclusives.

Two men stand beside a small airplane

HR Knickerbocker (right) was enthralled by Mussolini © Ullstein Bild / Getty

Last Call at the Hotel Imperial grips, excites and sometimes exhausts with its high-speed, four-lane storytelling. Cohen – a professor at Northwestern University – draws deftly and seamlessly on 70 collections of papers as she hurries these hyperactive lives down parallel tracks. Friendship and rivalry bound these high-achieving children of the Great War’s aftermath into a band of fractious professional siblings. They turned America’s newfound entitlement into the platform for strong-voiced, high-impact reporting that tried “to integrate an individual life with the world’s struggles”.

Truth mattered to them; political neutrality, not so much. After all, “facts carried viewpoints”. From India’s freedom movement to unrest in Palestine, they also raised their eyes beyond the “European slugfest” to glimpse a coming world. Frances Fineman, Gunther’s wife and Cohen’s fifth principal player, swapped reporting the news for shaping it as an intimate friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, leading Zionist activist, and “charismatic mainstay of two nationalistic organizations”.

Cohen’s all-action narrative bursts with color and incident though at times it screams at you in 96-point headlines. She shows too how the circles of her quartet spread: into literary London, for instance, where novelist Rebecca West served as part-muse, part-aunt to Gunther, while the bisexual Jimmy Sheean befriended the top drawer bohemians Duncan Grant and Eddy Sackville- West. Psychoanalysis, especially with their guru Wilhelm Stekel, enriched the quest for a “democratic language of plain speaking about taboo subjects” – tyrannical power, bigotry or sexuality.

Good reporting, though, quickened their blood. When Sheean, the adoptive Bloomsbury aesthete, exposed a racist pogrom in Tennessee in 1946, he recorded that “For once I have done something useful by writing.”

Their sensational bestsellers – Gunther’s above all – have dropped into oblivion. A younger, cold war generation revived “the ideal of objectivity”. The New Yorker scoffed at Gunther’s work, “a portrait of cornfed, globe-trotting American hubris”.

One book, though, stays in print: Death Be Not Proud, the trailblazing memoir of grief Gunther (with Fineman) wrote after the death of their son Johnny from a brain tumor, aged 17. “You see, your story was mine,” confided one of countless letters. He had scoured the world for scoops. The one that would endure brewed, in agony, at home.

Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War by Deborah Cohen, William Collins £ 25, 592 pages

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