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The Reporter Whom Time Forgot

How Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day changed journalism
May 13, 2010

In 1957, an expatriate Irish newspaperman struggling to make a buck after his most recent employer went under began making the rounds of magazine editors and book publishers, hoping to get someone to help foot the bill for a hazily formed idea about a fifteenth-anniversary retelling of the events of June 6, 1944: D-Day. Here was the true, humble, and all-but-forgotten beginning to the modern age of Journalism as Literature.

Over the years the trade had produced occasional flashes of inspiration in which a writer—Daniel Defoe, Rebecca West, Joseph Mitchell, W. C. Heinz, John Hersey—took a turn at bringing to a true story the qualities of fiction. But those moments came, and always went, and did not much alter the journalistic landscape. That began to change in 1957, when Cornelius Ryan, staked by the least hip of all magazines, Reader’s Digest, began placing ads in newspapers and trade publications, searching for men and women who had been in Normandy that day. From those ads sprung a great journalistic enterprise that would culminate, two years later, with the publication of The Longest Day.

The book was a triumph, earning rave reviews and sales that, within a few years, would stretch into the tens of millions in eighteen different languages. And yet, in latter-day journalistic circles, The Longest Day is an afterthought—a book recalled not for spawning a revolution but for its big-screen adaptation of the same name, which seems to appear on cable early every June.

Conventional wisdom has it that the uprising that continues to define how so much journalism reads, and how so many journalists prefer to think of themselves, began, like so much else that feels transformative about American culture, in the 1960s. It was then that such icons as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson began producing so much terrific work that by 1972, Wolfe would look back and proclaim that a “new journalism” had been born. Wolfe took it a step further. He argued that New Journalism—now a decade into its full-blown adolescence—was not only trampling on the flower gardens of the craft’s more sober practices but stomping upon the topiary gem of American letters: the Big Novel.

Wolfe’s essays in New York magazine were followed a year later by the publication of the Scouts Handbook for young journalists, his co-edited New Journalism anthology. By then, legions of eager reporters had shoved aside the he-said-she-said-can-you-spell-it-for-me ways of the past and embraced the idea that they could bring to their work the sensibilities and techniques of fiction. Novelists, too, had taken up the call, abandoning the garret and loading up on #2 pencils and steno pads before heading out across the land to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears. Truman Capote, celebrated as a very hot novelist at twenty-two before finding himself in a creative trough, returned to New York from Holcomb, Kansas, in 1965 proclaiming that with In Cold Blood, he had invented an entirely new literary form: the nonfiction novel.

Wolfe had presented a template for the many ways a writer could make a name for himself. And perhaps the combination of that collected work and the pyrotechnics of his prose obscured the larger lesson he preached. Yes, the New Journalism was about attaining in nonfiction the realism that novelists had abandoned, or ignored. But to achieve what Talese and Thompson had accomplished meant performing the very act that Norman Mailer, whose best work was arguably his nonfiction, had dismissed as “chores”: reporting.

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Wolfe extolled the virtues of immersion, a school of gathering information in which “the basic reporting unit is no longer the datum, the piece of information, but the scene. . . .” To report, he went on, meant hanging out, watching, listening, taking it all in to achieve a novelistic effect. But his enthusiasm for the thrill of the hunt came with a warning, offered in the simplest and most sadly overlooked words in his essay: “Reporting never becomes any easier because you have done it many times.”

It was easier, then, to focus on the writing. After all, it was in the writing where you could show how you’d sweated. To be regarded merely as a good reporter was to be dismissed as the sort of person in whom the object of one’s desire sees only a friend.

So it is not surprising that within a few years of the publication of that essay and anthology, the revolution that Wolfe had evoked with such delight had ground to a halt. In its place would come the very sort of ossification and hewing to convention (“What, no anecdotal lede?”) that Wolfe and his cadre had worked so hard to crack. More and more, journalists would trade in the most expedient forms: stylistic flourishes and one-liners and the witty turn of phrase that is the last redoubt of the fellow who, as Faulkner once said, can write but has nothing to say.

The revolution built upon reporting in service of achieving the feel of fiction was never about the writing, at least not for its own sake. But who cared? So many young journalists, myself included, did not necessarily think of ourselves as reporters.

But Wolfe did. And so did Cornelius Ryan.

I will confess to a romantic attachment to The Longest Day that has nothing to do with journalism. It was the first “grown-up” book I read. I was not a reader, but I had seen the movie and watched Combat! on TV and, in my pre-Vietnam growing up, was a sucker for war stories. Having dipped in and out of the Landmark young-adult books on great battles and heroes, I was ready for something more. My father, hoping to find a book that might catch me up, handed me The Longest Day. It worked; I read. At least, I read that one.

He did it again, for sentimental reasons, in 1978, giving me a new copy after I had moved to Chicago for a newspaper job. I do not recall rereading the book. I was too much in the throes of Wolfe and company and, given where my aspirations lay, did not see how The Longest Day and its author could be of much use.

It would take a long time and a good many stories before I began to fall in love with reporting. The realization came as I began to understand that while my writing would after a time improve only incrementally, reporting was a craft that could, if done ambitiously, remain beyond perfecting. The lonely and maddening business of writing could be fueled not by what dexterity with words I could summon but by all the many things I had to find out. I fell in love with reporting only after I was old enough to appreciate that, journalistically speaking, it could keep me young.

Which is what led me back to The Longest Day. I had not opened the book in many years. And yet the story, or rather the many small stories that filled the narrative, had stayed with me. I had seen the movie from time to time over the years. It is a remarkably faithful adaptation—Ryan had worked on the screenplay. But was it the film or my early memories of the book that drew me back? Or was it something else entirely: my growing realization that the qualities that made the book endure—the precise details, the way each of Ryan’s many set pieces unfolded so quickly, even as the sentences were packed with multiple facts—could come only through an approach to reporting that I had long considered secondary to the words themselves?

I opened the book on the eve of a long weekend. I was hooked after a single page. Something was taking place in the telling of this story that transcended the journalistic equivalent of mere looks—a richness, a depth. A little like love, not as it happens for teenagers, but for adults.

Ryan opens his story in the coastal village of La Roche-Guyon. He lingers there for only two pages, long enough to establish the date (June 4), the weather (gray, misty), and the sounds of dawn (a church bell ending the nighttime curfew and heralding day 1,451 of the German occupation) before introducing his most compelling character, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. When we meet him, the German commander—and D-Day’s biggest loser—is awaiting the invasion in the village’s castle. It is a neatly accomplished piece of foreshadowing; Ryan sprinkles in his facts without gumming up the machinery, and delivers an implicit promise to the reader. You want details? You want characters? I’ve got a million of ’em.

The author immediately makes good, tightening his focus on Hitler’s most celebrated general:

In the ground-floor room he used as an office, Rommel was alone. He sat behind a massive Renaissance desk, working by the light of a single desk lamp. The room was large and high-ceilinged. Along one wall stretched a faded Gobelin tapestry. On another the haughty face of Duke Francois de la Rochefoucauld—a seventeenth-century writer of maxims and an ancestor of the present Duke—looked down out of a heavy gold frame. There were a few chairs casually placed on the highly polished parquet floor and thick draperies at the windows, but little else.

Nothing slows the eye’s journey across the page; the author feels no compulsion to call out, “Look over here, it’s me!” And this makes it easy to miss what is so striking about this otherwise simple passage: the efficient accumulation of fact.

We learn that Rommel was a) alone, b) seated at a desk that was c) massive and d) Renaissance and fitted with a single lamp, and that he worked under the gaze of e) Duke Francois de la Rochefoucauld whose face was f) haughty and whose portrait was framed in g) gold. And then, quite subtly, Ryan offers a quick peek at his character: “In particular, there was nothing of Rommel in this room but himself.” Not a photograph of his wife (Lucie-Maria) or son (Manfred, age fifteen) or mementos of his great victories in North Africa, such as the field marshal’s baton Hitler had presented him (eighteen inches, three pounds, gold, red velvet covered with gold eagles and black swastikas) because such extravagance, Ryan writes, was alien to Rommel, a man who “cared so little for food that he sometimes forgot to eat.”

Rommel did not know when the Allies were coming nor where they would land. But, Ryan tells us, his defenses were stretched thin and he decided to return to Germany and plead for more materiel from Hitler. He would stop at home along the way to present a pair of shoes (gray suede, size five and a half) to his wife on her birthday, June 6.

Size five and a half? How did he get that?

Cornelius Ryan was at Normandy twice on D-Day, the first time on a bomber flying over the beaches, the second time on a patrol boat that took him back after he landed in England. He had turned twenty-four the day before. He had been working as a war correspondent for London’s The Daily Telegraph since 1943, having come to London from Dublin in 1940, and to journalism a year later at Reuters, after attending a school where he studied violin. He covered the air war over Germany—perilous work—as well as Patton’s Third Army, then reported from the Pacific.

In 1947, Ryan moved to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen and, eventually, a writer for Time, Newsweek, and, until its demise in 1956, Collier’s. By then, he had written four books, including two about Douglas MacArthur, and another, One Minute to Ditch, about an airliner’s ocean landing. He also published a good many magazine stories that, taken together, reflected less a budding literary career—“I Rode in the World’s Fastest Sub”—than the workmanlike yield of a man who knew how to churn out copy.

But one story did suggest that, given the chance to pursue the best material, Ryan could produce memorable work. In 1956, the liner Andrea Doria collided with a Swedish ship off the coast of Nantucket and sank. Ryan set about reconstructing the collision, the rescue of all but forty-six of the ship’s 1,706 passengers, and most memorably, the drama of a husband and wife who had switched beds the night before, only to be woken when a beam split their cabin—separating them, as it turns out, forever. The writing was at times overdone. But the reporting, which included the surviving husband’s moment-by-moment account of his wife’s demise, was a harbinger of the big projects to come.

Ryan had initially proposed a D-Day book about only the first two or three hours of the invasion. But then he began to report, and his ads (“Personal: Were You There on 6 June 1944?”) yielded thousands of responses. He followed up with a three-page questionnaire that could serve as a primer for reconstructing a narrative: Where did you land and at what time? What was the trip like during the crossing? Do you remember, for example, any conversations you had or how you passed the time? Were you wounded? Do you remember what it was like—that is, do you remember whether you felt any pain or were you so surprised that you felt nothing?

One thousand, one hundred, and fifty people wrote back. And of that group, he interviewed, alone or with his assistants, 172. Ryan’s daughter, Victoria Bida, told me that her father had once been away for eighteen months reporting, suggesting that to find the man, the reporter, you need look no further than his files. And to read the files—to deconstruct how the book was assembled, to connect names and stories in the book with questionnaires, interviews, letters, diaries, and regimental histories—is to feel yourself in the presence, so many years later, of a man compelled to learn everything.

Here, for instance, was the questionnaire from Lieutenant Donald Anderson of the 29th Infantry Division, who wrote about getting shot: “No pain, just stunned. Figured my brains were spilled all over my helmet.” Here was Ryan’s interview with General Maxwell Taylor, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division and who told him what it had been like parachuting into a dark field: “Lonesome as hell.” And here was the interview with Private Aloysius Damski, a Pole who had been forced to join the German 716th Infantry Division, who told of playing a card game called “scat” on the night before the invasion, then peeling away from his unit so that he could surrender to the British.

Then there was the material on Rommel, who committed suicide in October 1944 after he was implicated in a plot to murder Hitler. Ryan had the general’s diaries (nary an entry without comment about his dog) and an interview with his widow and son. But it was his adjutant, Captain Hellmuth Lang, who proved to be an interviewer’s dream. Lang recalled all the many telling details of the morning before the invasion, when Rommel, after a breakfast of tea and a slice of white bread with butter and honey, set out at precisely 6:47 a.m. in a black convertible Horch for his home in Herrlingen, where he would celebrate his wife’s birthday before continuing on for his meeting with Hitler. Frau Rommel later produced the birthday-gift shoes, long since resoled. And Lang, bless him, recalled the size: five and a half.

But Ryan was not only hunting for the small bits. As it happened, the Germans wanted it known that Rommel was not with his troops on D-Day because he was with the Fuhrer. Not so, Lang told him. He was at home—a discovery that was as thrilling as it was frustrating. Now he would have to rewrite the first chapter, and was already feeling overwhelmed by the task of culling, cataloguing, and deciding how best to use all the material he was gathering. “I do not know how I’m going to do this right now,” he wrote his wife Kathryn, a novelist who had also been his most valued aide.

And then, after he was done, he began doing the same thing all over again. Two more books followed: The Last Battle (1966), in which he recounted the fall of Berlin, and A Bridge Too Far (1974), the story of the Allies’ botched attempt to bring the war to a quick end in 1944. The latter is his most poignant and, at times, angry book; the first two, after all, ended in triumph. Like its predecessors, A Bridge Too Far tells of the personal courage of so many foot soldiers. But it also recounts the hubris of the commanders who sent those men into battle, an agonizing story of needless carnage that Ryan raced to finish as he was dying.

He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer at fifty, and despite a grim prognosis, had endured the rigors of his treatment and outlived by three years his doctors’ grave predictions. But by the spring of 1973, with A Bridge Too Far still not done, he wrote to an old friend, the San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, about the burdens of what had been his secret illness, and about the career he had crafted.

“I am three years late with it and the publishers are screaming,” he wrote. “The advances have been spent and we are trying to keep our heads above water with the hope that the book will be finished within the next four to six weeks.”

He had sold, he believed, between 25 and 35 million copies of The Longest Day and 400,000 hardcover copies of The Last Battle in the United States alone. Yet each book had cost him some $150,000 to research. “I have no less than 7,000 books on every aspect of World War II. My files contain some 16,000 different interviews with Germans, British, French, etc,” he wrote. “Then there is the chronology of each battle, 5×7 cards, detailing each movement by hour for the particular work I’m engaged in. You may think this is all a kind of madness, an obsession. I suppose it is.”

The books brought him fame and, even after deducting his research expenses, wealth. But as he confessed to Caen, he wished they’d also brought him a measure of professional recognition. “I’ve never seen myself as a writer but only as a journalist,” he wrote. Still, he hoped that his last book might bring him a Pulitzer. The Pulitzer board had not yet established a category for general nonfiction, and Ryan understood that he would find it hard to compete with academics for the big prize.

“So there’s probably little chance that I may be cited for a Pulitzer because so many of these bastards sit on the board,” he wrote, “but it would be nice to get one anyway.” (For the record, the 1975 prize in history went to Jefferson and His Time, Volumes 1-5, by Dumas Malone.)

Ryan was fifty-four when he died in November 1974, survived by his wife, son, and daughter. The material he had gathered in twenty years of reporting about the war went to Ohio University in Athens, where the dean of the College of Communications was an old friend. The collection’s curator, Doug McCabe, told me that even now, sixty-six years after D-Day, historians from around the world, as well as the children and grandchildren of men who fought that day, stop by to search through Ryan’s papers in the archive center of the library. It is, he said, the most heavily used collection in the center.

Meanwhile, The Longest Day was reissued in 1994 for the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. It still sells—a fact that belies the glaring omission of Ryan’s work from so many anthologies of literary journalism, and also offers a powerful lesson for a trade trying to figure out what people will pay to read. There is nothing, it turns out, like a densely reported story propelled by the palpable sense of a reporter chasing his story.

In a sense, Cornelius Ryan started reporting The Longest Day on June 6, 1944, and never really stopped. That day, that war, was his story. And when a reporter comes back with something that, as Norman Maclean once wrote, “tells him something about himself,” readers know it. They feel it on the page and in the prose, and willingly join along in that relentless need to know, and to make sense of things.

Ryan, it turns out, did learn something of himself in his work, and came to know himself well enough to have it inscribed on his tombstone, beneath his name and the years of his too-short life. A single word: Reporter.

Michael Shapiro , founder of The Big Roundtable, is the author of six previous nonfiction books. His work has appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ, and Columbia Journalism Review. He is a professor at Columbia Journalism School.