Interpret the World

Vincent Sheean's Personal History reminds us what foreign coverage once was…and what it might be again

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.”

We forget how many outlets freelance correspondents had in the interwar years. Sheean wrote for Asia magazine and the North American Newspaper Alliance, which serviced a number of American dailies. Both used him extensively, but without monopoly. His reporting, along with short fiction, appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Woman’s Home Companion, Collier’s, Century, Saturday Evening Post, Commonweal, and The New Republic. In France between assignments, he worked for another English-language Paris newspaper, the Times, which lacked circulation and revenue, but not talented journalists. The newspaper appeared to have correspondents everywhere…in fact, its clever staff more or less imagined what was happening abroad, and wrote it with authority. In between this and more travel in Europe, Sheean wrote another book of reporting, The New Persia, and his first published novels.

Sheean’s swashbuckling adventures in the Riff brought him a Richard Harding Davis sort of fame. Rumors during the first trip circulated that he was killed; on the second, he was supposedly shot as a spy. As useful as this was to his career, Sheean was impatient with superficial thrill-seeking, as well as “professional indifference to the material of journalism.” Davis, in his A Year from a Reporter’s Notebook, found coronations and wars “interesting”…a word he liked quite a lot. For him, these were merely events without any profound significance. But Sheean dove below the surface of the news to seek its meaning. It was this quest that energized Personal History, which ended this way:

Even if I took no part in the direct struggle by which others attempted to hasten the processes that were here seen to be inevitable in human history, I had to recognize its urgency and find my place with relation to it, in the hope that whatever I did (if indeed I could do anything) would at last integrate the one existence I possess into the many in which it had been cast.

The decade in which I had pursued such a conclusion through the outer storms had ended, and I was on my way back to a civilization that could never again be so sure of itself, never again so blind.

Personal History, Sheean wrote in a preface to a later edition of the book, “is, I suppose, a hybrid form, and is neither personal nor historical but contains elements of both.” In one way, the book was all about him. His experiences appeared on every page. Yet the autobiographical tone was deceptive. Much of his life was left out or obscured. The focus was on the events he witnessed. His persona was that of a self-deprecating guide. He could be any American searching for answers to the pressing political and social questions of the day.

A poignant foil in this drama was the beautiful revolutionary Rayna Prohme…another young American who also happened to be from Illinois. Sheean met Prohme in Hankou, China, where he had gone in 1927 as “your plain seeker-after curiosity —tending, more and more, to treat the whole of the visible universe as a catering firm employed in his service.” This industrial city had become the base for Communist operations after Chiang Kai-shek gained control over most of China and purged leftist elements from his government. Prohme worked for Mikhail Borodin, an agent of the Comintern, the Soviet Union’s organization for promoting revolution abroad.

Sheean fell deeply, if platonically, in love with Prohme and her commitment to Communism, about which they sparred for hours. After Hankou fell, Sheean smuggled Borodin’s wife out of the country. Prohme and Sheean subsequently met again in Moscow. Hers, he wrote, was “a marvelously pure flame, and even though I clearly could not hope to share its incandescence, it seemed to me that I must hover as near it as possible.” When she died of encephalitis in 1927, some seven months after they met, Sheean wept and drank disconsolately. He would go on to dedicate Personal History to her, and the concluding section of the book was an imaginary conversation with the deceased woman.

When Personal History appeared in early 1935, the praise was nearly universal. Mary McCarthy, known for her acid reviews in The Nation and elsewhere, pronounced Sheean “a human being of extraordinary taste and sensibility, who throughout fifteen years of turbulent experience has been primarily interested in moral values.” Malcolm Cowley, literary editor of The New Republic and a fellow sojourner in Paris, thought “the most impressive feature of the story is that besides being an extraordinarily interesting personal document, it is also, by strict standards, a work of art — [T]his autobiography, with a few names changed to give it the appearance of fiction, would certainly rank among the good novels of this decade.”

Bookstore sales were as enthusiastic as the critical reception. Personal History was the fourth best-selling nonfiction title of the year. And when the National Book Awards were inaugurated in 1935, Personal History won in the biography category. Not long afterward, producer Walter Wanger purchased the film rights. The resulting movie appeared in theaters as Foreign Correspondent (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Although much rewritten to keep up with political events in Europe, the theme of the independent journalist willing to take a stand was pure Sheean, and the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Personal History became a journalistic sun that drew other correspondents into its gravitational field. In the past, correspondents either wrote colorfully of their adventures, as Sheean had about his exploits in the Riff, or produced desiccated tomes on foreign affairs, one of the most erudite examples being Paul Scott Mowrer’s Our Foreign Affairs. In Personal History, Sheean showed how to be both engaging and serious, an approach that was perfect for a time when fearful Americans were desperate to make sense of the world. In 1937, two years after Personal History appeared, Saturday Review of Literature editor Henry Seidel Canby scanned the shelf of recent books by foreign correspondents. He pronounced Sheean’s the archetype of a new genre that sought “to break through the crust of the news to see what lies underneath.”

This was saying quite a lot, as many correspondents’ memoirs had received rave reviews. In 1936, the year after Personal History appeared, three memoirs by foreign correspondents showed up on the list of the ten most successful nonfiction books of the year. One was The Way of a Transgressor by Negley Farson, who was identified by his Chicago Daily News colleagues as a “combination of Childe Harold and Captain from Castile.” The second was I Write as I Please by The New York Times’s Walter Duranty, the doyen of the Moscow correspondents. The third, Inside Europe, was by another Chicago Daily News reporter, Sheean’s classmate John Gunther.

None of these personal histories was exactly like Sheean’s, whose prose, insight, and intensity were difficult to match. But he was the touchstone. United Press correspondent Mary Knight, author of On My Own, had “joined the parade,” wrote a reviewer, after Sheean “set so many worn portable typewriters clacking.” The dustjacket of UP reporter Webb Miller’s I Found No Peace: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent proclaimed: “Like Vincent Sheean’s Personal History, another absorbing biographical record of an American newspaper correspondent.” John T. Whitaker’s And Fear Came, Robert St. John’s Foreign Correspondent, Quentin Reynolds’s A London Diary, Shirer’s Berlin Diary, and Sevareid’s Not So Wild a Dream…the last two best-sellers…picked up Sheean’s métier, as did scores of others.

“Sheean established, as had nobody before him, that what counts is what a reporter thinks,” observed fellow correspondent Kenneth Stewart of the books that followed as “extensions and refinements” of Personal History. “I should guess that no book published in our time had a greater direct response from the working press itself or gave the public better insight into a newspaperman’s mind.” John Gunther put it more simply: Vincent Sheean was “the father of us all.”

Through the rest of the 1930s and the war, there wasn’t a media door that Sheean could not walk through. He authored more novels, translated Eve Curie’s biography of her mother, Madame Curie, and Benedetto Croce’s Germany and Europe: A Spiritual Dissension, and wrote a play, An International Incident, for actress Ethel Barrymore. He continued to report for newspapers and magazines, as well as on CBS radio with Edward R. Murrow in London, and produced three more memoirs, which he wanted to title Personal History II, III, and IV, but ended up as Not Peace but a Sword (1939), Between the Thunder and the Sun (1943), and This House Against This House (1946).

The emotional intensity that continued to suffuse Sheean’s books was not a literary put-on. As far as he was concerned, those imaginary conversations with Prohme were real…and ongoing. “I see her, Bernie,” he blurted out to a colleague, while they sat drinking in a Paris bistro. “There she is. There’s Rayna.” Sheean conversed with her while his companion looked on. Nervous breakdowns and wild drinking were mixed with eerily accurate premonitions, the most spectacular of which was his prediction that Gandhi was going to be assassinated by one of his own kind, a Hindu. With credentials from Holiday magazine, whose range of interests belied its title, Sheean went to India. A few days after he arrived in early 1948, a fanatic Hindu fatally shot the Mahatma while Sheean stood a few paces away. Afterward, he wrote Lead, Kindly Light, which mixed his experience with a study of Gandhi’s spiritual life.

As happened with so many correspondents, when cold-war certitudes about Communism drove out other questions, Sheean’s fame faded. By 1949, when Lead, Kindly Light appeared, not one of the ten top-selling books for the year was by a journalist, let alone a foreign correspondent. The public was hungry for lighter fare: three of the top sellers were how-to books about winning at canasta, and another was Norman Vincent Peale’s A Guide to Confident Living. “One wonders,” wrote a reviewer of This House Against This House, “if this type of intimate, first-person journalism hasn’t about outlived its usefulness as a serious contribution to world thought.”

It is a question still worth pondering.

For the modern reader, Personal History celebrates a lost golden age of foreign correspondence. News outlets were plentiful. The dollar was strong and the cost of living abroad cheap. Americans were well liked. Editors could not yet reach a reporter on the steppes of Russia by pressing a few telephone buttons. In those days, American correspondents enjoyed great freedom, and large numbers of them spent years abroad, roving and learning. When it came to foreseeing the impending World War II, Sheean wrote, “International journalism was more alert than international statesmanship.” This self-confidence makes for a poignant contrast with our current pop-cultural image of the foreign correspondent, a disheveled figure most often freighted with angst. “It’s not a fucking forties movie,” says a character in The Killing Fields. “You can’t just get on a goddamn plane and make the whole world come out right.”

We cannot bring back that era. But in a world in which our security is threadbare and questions abound about what is happening and why, the need for foreign reporting is no less urgent…and Sheean’s approach no less compelling.

The drive for credibility has pushed journalists toward greater caution. When USA Today correspondent Jack Kelley was found to have fabricated news, the home-office solution was to double-check quotes in reporters’ stories and comb expense accounts to see whether they had been where they said they were. Such scrutiny may avoid more Kelleys (or it may not). But it does not encourage correspondents to interpret the world for an audience that often doesn’t have the background to weigh a leader’s quote or judge the relevance of a distant fact.

For all its emotion, Sheean’s approach was more objective than the pseudo-scientific artifices of attributing all insights and opinions to others and of balancing unequal points of view to avoid seeming “biased.” Like a proper scientist, Sheean brought expert observational skills to his reporting…he told the reader what he saw, the conditions under which he saw it, and what it meant.

That was strikingly apparent in 1938, when Sheean covered Germany’s annexation of Austria for the Herald Tribune. He rejected the widespread argument that the Nazis succeeded by terror alone. The party’s message, argued Sheean in the paper’s banner story of July 5, had mass appeal:

I am unable to name any sources or any authority for what I say, since nobody in Vienna is willing to be quoted, but investigations in the last ten days have given me one firm belief…that nothing will shake the power of national socialism here until it has completed its historic functions and has reached its natural and inevitable conclusion in general war.

This was not the antiestablishment free-for-all of the New Journalism that emerged in the 1960s. Nor was it the self-centered blogging of today. It was informed reporting of the highest order.

Journalists of a certain age remember Sheean. As I was working on this article, long-retired cbs correspondent Marvin Kalb mentioned that he read Personal History when it came out and said to himself, “I’ve got to be a journalist.” May it inspire a new generation of correspondents as well. 

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John Maxwell Hamilton is the dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and the author of the forthcoming Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting.