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.