On a dreary day in October 1922, a young man from Pana, a small town in southern Illinois, walked into the Paris office of the Chicago Tribune. In experience, he scarcely came up to the knee of most journalists. There had been a stint at the Chicago Daily News, from which he was fired; a few months covering scandal for the New York Daily News; and a few months more in Europe, writing the greater part of a novel that was eventually lost. Now Vincent Sheean needed a job and hoped to find one at the Trib, which hired him as a utility man for its Paris newspaper and for the Paris bureau of its foreign service. “In a click of time, I became what was called a ‘foreign correspondent,’ ” he later wrote in Personal History.
The six-foot, two-inch James Vincent Sheean “Jimmy” to his friends and “Vincent” to the Tribune editors who nixed the idea of a “J. V. Sheean” byline was never inconspicuous, even at the University of Chicago, from which (in keeping with his early career) he did not graduate. A classmate, John Gunther, described Sheean in awestruck terms: “He hummed Mozart, wore green pants, and spoke better Italian than the Italian professors.” But for all his panache, Sheean was not the only hopeful young journalist walking the streets of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Would-be foreign correspondents “rolled up in waves,” as an editor at the Paris Herald put it, in that city and throughout Europe. Some of the most important names of twentieth-century journalism Gunther, Eric Sevareid, William Shirer, and Dorothy Thompson, to name just a few wandered in the way Sheean did, as cubs, and left as lions.
What elevated Sheean even among luminaries in journalism was the literary quality of his reporting, his uncanny ability to situate himself in the slipstream of monumental news, and the intensity of feeling with which he viewed those events. All of that is on display in Personal History, published thirteen years after he found his job at the Tribune. For correspondents who stood witness to events rushing the world to war, Sheean’s chronicle became a defining narrative. And although the book is largely forgotten, it is still a potential beacon for journalists seeking to recover the purpose and credibility they see slipping from their hands today.
Sheean’s first decade or so of foreign correspondence, the framework of Personal History, was a tutorial in world news. He covered the Separatist revolt in the Rhineland, the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva, the early days of Mussolini’s fascist state in Rome, and Primo de Rivera’s Spain, where he was arrested. In Morocco, Riff rebel leader Abd el-Krim was willing to talk to any correspondent who managed the hazardous trip past Spanish or French forces to reach him. Donning a turban and a loose-fitting jellaba, Sheean finagled passage through the French lines and returned to Tangier under a hail of Spanish bullets.
Sheean wrote a book about the adventure, An American Among the Riffi, and a year later made the behind-the-lines trip once again. From there he went to Persia for the installation of the new Shah, Reza Pahlavi, who had knocked his predecessor off the Peacock Throne; to China, where Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces consolidated their hold on the country and ousted their Communist partners; to Moscow for the tenth anniversary of the revolution, an event marked by Stalin’s arrest of Trotsky; and to British-controlled Palestine, where in August 1929 Arabs clashed with Jews bent on creating their own state.
Between the first and second Riff adventures, Sheean and the Tribune parted company. The circumstances of his exit remain both murky and typical of that paper. Colonel Robert McCormick, the newspaper’s proprietor, gave Sheean a fancy dinner to celebrate his triumph and safe return from Morocco. Not long afterward, the star reporter was fired. McCormick subsequently wrote to his cousin, Joseph Patterson, that Sheean was “suspected of bad practices. I have forgotten whether he left the Foreign News Service or was fired.” Sheean himself was unfazed. He would not have stayed long, even if the mercurial colonel had been steadfast in his admiration. Sheean’s motto, after all, which he recorded in a 1946 diary entry, was “My own job in my own way.”