Sunday, September 12, 1999
“No Girls Allowed”
THE WOMEN WHO WROTE THE WAR By Nancy Caldwell Sorel
Arcade: 432 pp., $27.95
By BROOKE KROEGER
The women would not be stayed.
Some trained in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War and then joined newcomers over the next seven years to suit up in uniform and answer to “captain” just like the men. They reported major campaigns of the World War II, from the fall of Warsaw to the Battle of Britain, from the Battle of the Bulge to Iwo Jima.
They faced court-martial if they dared to court danger, and to this well-intentioned if misplaced chivalry, they responded by breaking the rules. Sympathetic, sometimes love-struck male colleagues came to their aid, providing transport in Jeeps to forbidden battlefronts or filing stories for them from press camps with no-girls-allowed latrines.
The back story of Nancy Caldwell Sorel’s graceful chronological narrative, “The Women Who Wrote the War,” is in anecdotes like these:
* In Spain, Frances Davis of the Chicago Daily News curried favor with male colleagues by playing messenger boy. She stuffed their censorable copy in her girdle to spirit it over the border to France, where she dictated it to home offices. Her own stories she typed in the back seat of the car en route.
* Betty Wason reported for CBS from Norway, Finland and Greece, and when the network complained that her voice was too womanly for war, she dutifully hired a man to read her copy over the air. Injury on insult, he also got her job.
* In August 1944, Army public relations sent Lee Miller of Vogue to photograph the work of a civic affairs team helping the French seaside town of Saint-Malo return to normal after Gen. George Patton’s forces had taken the entire northern coast of Brittany, or so that office had been led to believe. When Miller arrived, a remnant of enemy troops was still holding out on an island citadel, and snipers and solitary marauders were loose in the town. “I owned a private war,” she gleefully recalled. Her reward for the exclusive coverage? House arrest for ignoring regulations against women in combat situations.
Sorel unearthed much of the published work of skilled but forgotten women correspondents along with those of more enduring renown: Martha Gellhorn of Collier’s, Margaret Bourke-White of Life, syndicated columnist Dorothy Thompson and the New Yorker’s Janet Flanner, known in print as Genet. The heroines include 10 other women brought back to attention in the 1995 Library of America anthology, “Reporting World War II,” for which Sorel, a magazine feature writer and author of three previous books, consulted.
How many women reporters were there? Of some 1,600 American correspondents assigned to combat duty during World War II, nearly 100 turn out to have been female. It’s a surprising figure, especially considering the obstacles the military deliberately set in their way. The book documents the work of just over a third of this group (Sorel left out as many more in the interest of space) and pays homage to their “foremothers,” starting with Margaret Fuller’s reporting from Italy for the New York Tribune during the uprising of 1848.
By reviving the stories of so many of the long-forgotten along with the stars, Sorel has illuminated the important but persistently overlooked fact that many American women–not just the legendary few–have been making superb careers as reporters (and lawyers and doctors and biochemists) for more than a century. Of course, given the enormous effort that has been put into recovering women’s history over the last 30 years, nothing ought to be noteworthy about this information except that it continues to be noteworthy at all.
Far more impressive is the fact that despite the added difficulties military policy imposed on these women reporters, their collective experience was encompassing enough to allow Sorel to craft a full-scale action-driven story–with very little patching–from the stuff of their wartime adventures.
In fact, with the sources Sorel chose, or had available to work with, “The War the Women Wrote” might have been a more accurate title. The war is the book’s main thrust. Of the women, the revelatory details don’t quite deliver the emphasis the title suggests.
Sorel relies heavily on articles and memoirs either published or intended for publication, with all the artifice this suggests. She liberally retreads many of her personality sketches, fully attributed, from previous biographies. Other than the minor yield from Sigrid Schultz’s papers and Helen Kirkpatrick’s diary, personal collections appear to have provided little in the way of inside information. If Sorel had access to military or intelligence records, for example, letters to and from third parties or the archives of the news organizations involved, it is not apparent.
The richest of her sources are about a dozen late-life interviews with surviving subjects and their intimates, and these do add fresh bloom to the profiles. We learn whose boss was a vindictive misogynist; who saved her husband and both their careers when he bit off a Mongolian woman’s nipple in a fit of passion; who left her reporter husband for their foreign editor; who was gorgeous; who was ruthless; who needed sex; who had //A? heart. Sorel provides just enough of this gossipy detail to make a reader wish her rescue mission had started a decade or two sooner.
Just one complaint: One of Sorel’s favorite devices is to paraphrase and excerpt from the work of two or more reporters on the same subject, interspersing details and anecdotes from their stories and memoirs to re-create a scene–Flanner and Thompson profiling Hitler, for example, or Virginia Cowles and Kirkpatrick describing the bomber-blotted sky over Dover in 1940, or Schultz, Kirkpatrick and Marguerite Higgins entering Buchenwald. Except in the case of the North Africa reporting of Ruth Cowan of Associated Press and Inez Robb of International News Service–Sorel applauds Cowan for work of superior substance and depth–these passages appear with almost no comment or analysis and too little direct quotation for the reader to form a personal judgment.
Sorel on London during the Blitz: “It was Cowles who first glimpsed the bombers heading for London. She and a friend had gone for the weekend to the country house of the elderly publisher of the Sunday Dispatch. The weather was warm and sunny that seventh of September 1940, and they were having Saturday tea on the lawn when a barely perceptible drone of planes grew to a deep full roar. ‘We made out a batch of tiny white specks, like clouds of insects, moving northwest in the direction of the capital,” she wrote. “Some of them–the bombers–were flying in even formation, while the others–the fighters–swarmed protectively around.’ They counted more than 150 planes. The steady drone continued all night; whenever Virginia woke up, she heard it.
“Meanwhile in London, Mary Welsh and her husband, Noel Monks, were at the movies when a notice appeared on the screen: ‘An Alert Has Sounded. If You Wish to Leave, Walk, Do Not Run, to the Nearest Exit.’ The feature then resumed. The sound of sirens could be heard outside, but Mary and Noel remained in their seats. When they left, they were surprised to find that all the buses and taxis had vanished, and they were forced to walk the two miles home. ‘That night,’ Mary wrote later, ‘began the Luftwaffe’s long nightmare Blitz on London. . . . For the succeeding fifty-six nights, without surcease, London shuddered and burned.’ ”
We can’t really tell how gifted these women were as writers and reporters. What were they likely to emphasize in comparison to their male or fellow female colleagues? How solid was their reporting? What made their perspective important or unique? Leaving aside the style constraints imposed on them by their respective publications, what distinguished the work of one woman from another? From the men’s? Is there a reason Gellhorn, Bourke-White and Thompson are best remembered? In the case of the blitz, for example, Sorel does not tell us who among them came close to–surpassed?–the gold standard set by Edward R. Murrow, who thought a dive bomber came down “looking like a duck with both wings broken. . . . It’s almost impossible to realize that men are killing and being killed, even when you see that ever-thickening streak of smoke pouring down from the sky, which means a plane and perhaps several men going down in flames. . . . ”
And Ernie Pyle, who said he was ashamed of himself for thinking the bombing was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen: ” . . . that one single view of London on a holiday night–London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pin points of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares.”
Nevertheless, Sorel richly and skillfully interweaves the many elements she has brought together, spiking her chapters with evidence of exemplary pluck:
* Ann Stringer of United Press, after being refused Jeep transport to the battle at Remagen, charmed a general into giving her a ride in his tank.
* Iris Carpenter, deafened by a shattered eardrum (“memento of the crossroads at Saint-Lo”), broadcast anyway for the BBC.
* Virginia Irwin, passed over for a war assignment at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, got to Europe as a Red Cross volunteer, then started filing stories back to the office to put herself in line for accreditation, which, thanks to her proximity to the action, she received.
* CBS hired Pat Lochridge so she could double as bureau secretary and weekend relief, and she went on to cover the war from both the European and Pacific theaters.
* Bourke-White infuriated the military by evading regulations and violating security while on her first bombing mission with the 97th in North Africa. But her seven-page photo spread in Life was so spectacular that the military was forced to relent and gave her more assignments.
* Gellhorn’s tough-guy gumption and reporting for Collier’s (on D-day, she stowed away on a hospital ship) far outclassed that of the much more famous husband she was shedding at the time, Ernest Hemingway.
Not in the case of Gellhorn and Hemingway or Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, but for several of the other women reporters, it was marriage, not merit, that won them credentials and paid their passage overseas.
A few, such as Schultz of the Chicago Tribune and Sonia Tomara of the New York Herald Tribune, with their knowledge of multiple languages and European backgrounds, were simply the best men for the job.
Still others found a place in the battle zones because it was good for business. If the Trib had a woman on the scene, the Daily News needed one, too, and that was true in competitive metropolitan markets across the United States.
It may have taken editors half the conflict to figure it out, but in wartime, women composed an even higher percentage of newspaper readers than usual. As a group, they were far less interested in military tactics and strategy than they were in what was happening to their husbands, boyfriends, brothers and sons.
For once the stereotypes (even the very courageous wrote couture stories from Paris right after the liberation) worked to the woman reporter’s advantage. Sorel points out that a feminine byline reassured female readers back home that the writer was likely to grasp, as they grasped, and as Gellhorn both grasped and wrote, that the basic materiel of war is the human body.
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Brooke Kroeger is the author of “Fannie: The Talent for Success of, Writer Fannie Hurst” and “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist.” She, is a visiting associate professor of journalism at New York University
© 2002 Los Angeles Times
Video, event summaries from recent talks in Reports from the Road.
2021 Events: “The Branded Journalist: Nellie Bly Changes the Game.” [VIDEO of TALK] Ephemera Society of America, Jan. 14, 2020, 3pm. Nellie Bly: Pioneer of Investigative Journalism.” American Woman Writers National Museum, March 10, 2021, at noon. Empire State Center for the Book, March 18, 2021, 7pm.