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.

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.