Brief Encounters

Short reviews of new books about war correspondents Roi Ottley and Byron Darnton
May 1, 2011

Roi Ottley’s World War II: The Lost Diary of an African American Journalist | Edited with an introduction by Mark A. Huddle | University Press of Kansas | 199 pages, $29.95

On July 1, 1944, the troop-ship SS Scythia set out from New York for England. Among a group of journalists aboard was Roi Ottley, a former reporter for Harlem’s Amsterdam News, now representing PM, New York’s left-wing tabloid. Ottley had grown up relatively privileged and had earned a modicum of fame with his 1943 book, New World A-Coming, a survey of life in Harlem.

As an accredited African-American correspondent in a captain’s uniform, he was an unusual, even unique figure, and he knew it. He calculatingly measured the responses among his companions and among the troops aboard, especially those from the South, who, he reported, got used to him. His sensitivities alerted him to what was happening in England, where, at the instigation of white Army officers, “the American race problem is being transplanted to British soil—sometimes with a venom unknown in the United States.” For the most part, Britons were having none of it. Ottley spoke up for the African-American troops, and his bristling stories in PM may have been the only coverage of cases of their mistreatment. In addition, he witnessed the fighting in France and interviewed many of those who would deal with colonial problems after the war.

His day-to-day observations are set down in this previously unpublished diary, which was found in the library at St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York, which Ottley attended. The editor, Mark A. Huddle, who teaches at Georgia College, provides a full introduction reviewing Ottley’s uneven career, which culminated in the hostile reception of his last major book because it was viewed by activists as insufficiently militant.

Almost a Family: A Memoir | By John Darton | Knopf | 348 pages, $27.95

One of the legends of The New York Times is the death by what is clumsily called friendly fire of the correspondent Byron (Barney) Darnton in New Guinea in 1942, a few months after the start of the war in the Pacific. Darnton left two very young sons; the elder, Robert, became a distinguished scholar (he is now the director of the Harvard library), and the younger became a Pulitzer-winning correspondent for the Times. That younger son, John Darnton, has now written a remarkable memoir that stretches from his father’s childhood in Michigan to the author’s own retirement. With immense tenacity he has followed every lead and answered every answerable question about his father, about his mother, about their relationship, and about the incident in New Guinea, while telling the story of his own stressful childhood and adolescence.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

With the help of his brother, Darnton rediscovered the survivors, living their final years, of the hard-drinking, free-loving clique of journalists and pals of the 1920s and ’30s that included his father and his mother, born Eleanor Choate. When they met, they were both already married. They got divorces and moved in together but never married, for a reason that John Darnton eventually deciphered: the New York law of that era, which granted a divorce only on grounds of adultery, forbade the one found to be adulterous—in this case Barney—to remarry.

Eleanor’s fate after Barney’s death is a part of the legend that the Times has not been at pains to publicize. She worked for the Office of War Information for a time, then took advantage of the Times’s quasi-official policy of hiring spouses and children of deceased staffers. After starting in Washington, she was made women’s news editor in New York. Being intelligent and ambitious, she tried to upgrade coverage beyond the emphasis on fashion and food to broader issues of concern to the millions of women just emerging from wartime changes. In the Times archives, John Darnton found that her proposals were met with hard-bitten hostility by Lester Markel, the Sunday editor, and Edwin L. James, managing editor—attitudes that did not soften at the newspaper until decades afterward.

Eventually, Eleanor quit and founded a news syndicate into which she poured her modest savings. She persisted for several years but she could not keep it afloat, and after it collapsed, her life spiraled downward. Darnton’s account of what later happened to his mother is unsparing of her, and of himself. Once, years ago, Darnton writes, he and his mother were lying on a beach in Westport, Connecticut, when she said to him, “Watch out for The New York Times. They use you like a sponge. They squeeze you dry and then they toss you away.” At that time, he didn’t know what she meant. Now, he writes, he has at least an inkling.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.