Deborah Cohen’s book ‘Last Call at the Hotel Imperial’
There is no immortality for journalists.
One of them, Ben Hecht, addressed this question in a short poem written long ago: “We know each other’s daydreams / And hopes that fail / For we write each other’s obituaries / And they are Godalmighty brief.”
There is no immortality for newspaper reporters, but Deborah Cohen has done a remarkably powerful, illuminating and entertaining job of bringing back to life a quartet of long-dead reporters along with dozens of other interesting types, in his new book, “Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: Reporters Who Took a World at War” (Random House).
It’s a trip, she writes, to the “1920s and 1930s, (when) millions of Americans got their news from a very few international reporters. … In the interwar period, American foreign correspondents became the kings of the hill. … Armed with a uniquely American obsession with personalities, they sounded an early warning of the rise of dictators.
She focuses on four of them, each 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, where he struck his colleagues as “a young man going somewhere.” Has he done it before, flying to Europe with no job (he had quit the News) and $150 in his pocket but with big ambitions. He would report prolifically and marry another writer named Frances. He would become a best-selling author with what were called the “Inside” books, a series that included the best-selling “Inside USA” in 1947. He essentially invented the memoirs of grief with the heartbreaking 1949 book about death of his young son, “Death Be Not Proud”, which is unfortunately the only one of his many books still in print.
HR Knickerbocker, “Knick” to his friends, was born in Texas and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for his diary series on Stalin.
Vincent (Jimmy) Sheean came to the University of Chicago from the tiny state of Pana, Illinois, and quickly reported from far, far away, from Spain and beyond. His 1935 political memoir “Personal History” became the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film “Foreign Correspondent”.
Dorothy Thompson, perhaps the most famous of the gang, was originally from New York. As she wrote to a friend in 1921, when she was in her late twenties, “I have been a ‘wild cat walking beside my wild self’ most of my life since age of 16.” What she did – becoming the first female unionized political columnist and radio host, made her so significant that, as Cohen tells us, “On the eve of World War II, Time magazine portrayed Thompson and Eleanor Roosevelt as the most influential women in the United States.” She was also married for a long time to novelist Sinclair Lewis. Her life became the inspiration for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s 1942 film “Woman of the Year.”
Cohen tells us so much, bringing the characters of this era to lively and noisy life. It makes them all unforgettable and allows us to understand what made them vibrate and work as they visited European capitals and traveled in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
“Their Midwestern roots were crucial,” she says. “They understood their readers. They were able to talk to the Americans. They were as famous in their day as it could be and they were also pioneers of new journalism. They were subjective, intimate, emotional, powerful.
They also had an active social life and drank. “They were in and out of each other’s lives, sharing late nights, talking, sharing beds,” Cohen says.
As she writes, “Even when they were distant from each other, even after arguing, they continued to talk and argue long after the conversations had ended.”
The eight years Cohen spent researching and writing this magnificent book were time well spent. We meet personalities such as Hitler, Mussolini, Gandhi, Nehru and Stalin in new ways. We also meet now-forgotten people like Polly Adler, owner of Manhattan’s most famous brothel and friend of Gunther: “It was hard to find girls to work because they were all doing war service,” says she to John. Sexual peculiarities nowadays! The more tensions rose in Europe, the stranger the perversions.
Journalists were so prolific and active that they make the most famous writer of the day, a certain Hemingway, look like a slacker by comparison.
The maps detailing the movements of these reporters are admirable and dizzying. As Gunther would later say, “We were scavengers, buzzards, seeking the news, no matter whose wings were clipped.”
Cohen was born and raised in Louisville and at a tender age flirted with a career as a journalist. She started and edited a paper in high school but, admitting to being “hijacked by the archives”, earned a degree in history and women’s studies at Harvard-Radcliffe, then an MA and Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. . She taught at American University and Brown University before coming to Northwestern in 2010, where she now resides academically, living in the Lakeview neighborhood with her husband and teenage daughter.
“I love teaching, from freshmen to graduate students,” she says.
She is also a writer of palpable power and deep understanding.
After World War II, her quartet more or less, she says, “left the stage. Their time was the time of the warning, so once the conflict started, what was there for them to say, “I told you so”? »
In their time, they told us more than enough and they came to us in an intimate way. Cohen writes with easy authority and a powerful narrative drive. It’s a great book about great, flawed people caught up in a world going crazy.
She credits the voluminous archive she has perused with “capturing very closely the texture and course of thought (of her subjects)… My goal as an author has been to follow their own example as journalists – to convey what it’s like to be so exposed to history in the making.
For what it’s worth, Cohen would have made one hell of a reporter.