Last Call at the Hotel Imperial:
The Reporters who Took on a World at War
New York: Random House, 2022
Kathryn S. Olmsted
The Newspaper Axis:
Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022
Did you ever have to write a book review, but when the time came you really weren’t that into it, so you decided to wing it, and just write a few thousand words on some tangential subject that was mostly unrelated? I’ve never dared to do that myself, but it sounds like something George Orwell would do on a bad-hair day. Or better yet, the windy, orotund Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Anyway, foreseeing a long day at the courthouse, I brought along a copy of the London Review of Books to sit out the waits. It’s a pretty good issue (January 19, 2023). I had already devoured John Lahr’s piece about his father’s friend Buster Keaton, as well as a massive, irresistible Geoffrey Wheatcroft review of the scandalous diaries of Sir Henry “Chips” Channon (three big doorstop volumes!). But there was still plenty of meat left on the bone. I settled in with a review of two intriguing books about twentieth-century journalism. One is called Last Call at the Hotel Imperial, a group biography of mostly American foreign correspondents between 1920 and 1960. The other is The Newspaper Axis, ostensibly about “press barons” who were isolationist or Nazi-friendly, though it’s really a denunciation of nationalist journalism in England and America, all the way from about 1900 to the recent era of Brexit and Donald Trump.
However, the reviewer — an LRB staffer named Deborah Friedell — chose not to really review the books at all, but rather to spend 4,000 words gushing about Dorothy Thompson, a character who has a small part in Last Call. Sometime wife of Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Thompson was one of the highest-paid, most controversial columnists-broadcasters-social crusaders of the era. Dorothy interviewed Adolf Hitler in 1931 for the Saturday Evening Post, and seemed rather to like him, while sagaciously predicting he’d never come to power. “When the article was republished as a short book [I Saw Hitler] it included Thompson’s suggestion, barely veiled, that Hitler was probably gay,” writes reviewer Friedell. Perhaps she was peeved that Adolf didn’t make a pass at her. To continue: “When she returned to Berlin in 1934, she knew better than to expect a warm welcome from the new chancellor.” She settled in at the Hotel Adlon for a few weeks and filed a few local-color stories. Then, a courteous young Gestapo guy in a trenchcoat met her at the hotel and handed her an order to leave Germany within 24 hours. Dorothy assumed this was all Goebbels’ doing. But no, this turned out to have been ordered by Adolf himself:
By the time she got back to the US, Thompson had been transformed into the most famous anti-Nazi writer in the country. She made a thirty-city lecture tour and began a column in the Herald Tribune, opposite Walter Lippmann.
A large-bodied, boisterous woman rather in the Eleanor Roosevelt mold, Dorothy seemed for years a flaming liberal, decrying “fascism” — she gave her husband, Mr. Lewis, the background and inspiration for It Can’t Happen Here. She raised money for Jewish refugees, and taunted America Firsters and Bundists. By Pearl Harbor, though, she was calling herself a conservative, and at war’s end she was denouncing the Morgenthau Plan and blaming the war on the Jews. And then she faded out. But she’d had a good run. Dorothy Thompson may have her points as a historical curio, a popular punchline in gag cartoons,  but she appears, in passing, in only one of the two books being reviewed. I suppose reviewer Friedell has read a lot of books on Dorothy, maybe is writing one herself, and chose to go with her strengths. I don’t think she gave either book more than a cursory flip-through. This is too bad, because it shortchanges the other nine or ten major characters in this book, most of them stars in the (mostly) American journo firmament during the interwar and war years . . . yet mostly forgotten today.
There’s John Gunther, with his 25-year series of geopolitical bestsellers, perennial cash-cows for the Book of the Month Club (Inside Europe, Inside Europe Today, Inside Asia, Inside Russia Today, etc. etc.). There’s also his wife Frances Fineman, a diminutive, neurotic Jewish blonde with serial enthusiasms for Indian nationalism, Jawaharal Nehru, and the violent Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky; as well as the Gunthers’ son Johnny, the Deerfield Academy student who died of galloping brain cancer in 1947, thereby giving his father subject matter for the classic Death Be Not Proud (the only John Gunther book still in print).
Then there’s John Gunther’s fellow University of Chicago alumnus James Vincent Sheean, known as Vincent to family and booksellers, otherwise invariably called Jimmy; the preeminent journalist/spy of the era, and the only one to have a memoir (Personal History) turned into a Hitchcock movie (Foreign Correspondent, starring Joel McCrea, whom Jimmy slightly resembled till he lost his looks through boozing).
Then there is H. R. Knickerbocker from Texas, who moved to Munich to study psychology, published several books in German, and eventually got in tight with the Nazi hierarchy — at least until they got tired of his jokes and gave him the heave-ho.
And there’s Wiliam Shirer, the bespectacled, mousy, longtime CBS correspondent from Paris and Berlin. And of course Dorothy Thompson and her sometime husband Sinclair Lewis; Rebecca West, the libertine, and her longtime paramour H. G. Wells; and Wilhelm Stekel, the platitudinous Viennese psychoanalyst (whom the unctuous Mr. Antolini in The Catcher in the Rye memorably quotes to Holden Caulfield before he tries to seduce him). Minor characters include Sigmund Freud; Clare Boothe Luce and husband Harry; Harold Nicolson and his brother-in-law, the sinuous aesthete Eddy Sackville-West, who apparently had a fling with Jimmy Sheean; Ben Hecht; H. L. Mencken; Putzi Hanfstaengel; and a dozen other distracting cameos.
If it seems the author of Last Call, Deborah Cohen, has bitten off more than can be comfortably chewed, let alone digested, well, that is a fair estimate. But she is trying to give a portrait of a forgotten age and idiom, along with her mostly forgotten cast of characters, who were often longtime colleagues, friends, rivals, and cuckolds. When they weren’t getting drunk, or drying out, or having breakdowns, or filing foreign-correspondent stories from Vienna for their newspapers in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, or London, these people were usually sleeping with their friends’ wives, husbands, and spare lovers. I suspect Last Call at the Hotel Imperial will be mainly useful as a reference book, particularly for screenwriters and novelists who want to recreate the flavor and idiom of the celebrity-correspondent world during the 1920s through 1950s.
Much more approachable and better organized is the other book, Kathryn S. Olmsted’s The Newspaper Axis. It has a much more limited cast (mainly the McCormick-Patterson cousins, W. R. Hearst and lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere), and all the characters are intrinsically interesting — and politically powerful, too. They do more than get drunk, sleep around, and scribble nasty columns (though they do those things as well). Olmsted additionally has an insight or two that will warm the heart of any researcher who spends a lot of time with old newspapers. Our knowledge of journalism and popular opinion from the 1920s-50s is limited and skewed because only a few major newspapers — the Washington Post, the New York Times, maybe the Times of London — have been adequately digitized. If you wish to research a lively and opinionated paper such as Cissy Patterson’s Washington Times-Herald, you have to find a library that has it on microfilm spools, and spend hours and hours scrolling — whirr-whirr-whirr-whirr — through the scratched and blotchy page images. Eugene Meyer’s Washington Post bought the Times-Herald in the 1950s in order to take over its features, and then put it out of business. There’s no question that the Times-Herald was a far better paper, so I have to wonder if WaPo is not at least partly responsible for pushing the Times-Herald — the most popular paper in DC during the 1930s and ’40s — down the memory hole. When WaPo reviewed this book, they accompanied it with the ugliest (heavily retouched?) photo of the 57-year Cissy Patterson they could find. Old grudges die hard.
Alas, The Newspaper Axis is made unnecessarily lurid on a number of levels. There’s the name, which Olmsted apparently took from Marshall Field III’s far-Left newspaper in New York, PM. In the early 1940s, PM would refer to the Patterson-McCormick papers (NY Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Washington Times-Herald) as the “Newspaper Axis” . . . because they were purportedly pro-Axis! Then there’s the cover, an impossibly lurid design of a newspaper-strip swastika against a background of garish, Blutfahne red. So over-the-top it put me in mind of Alan Coren’s Punch collection, Golfing for Cats, back around 1974. I gather the publishers decided this was all a bit much, so they removed the swastika for the Audible and Audiobooks versions.
But wait, there’s more. The author addresses us in an insistent, hyperventilating manner. On just about every page she’s denouncing anti-Semitism or is calling someone an anti-Semite. She manages to do this even though there are practically no Jews in the book. This sort of obsession should always be a red warning light to the reader.
On the other hand, Olmsted makes a pretty good case for some of these personalities as lovable, opinionated eccentrics. Jolly old-fashioned, upper-class Jew-wise raillery runs like a thread through the whole book. Newspaper proprietor Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson being introduced at luncheon to a Jewish guest — “Oh, I know all about Jews, I was married to one for four years!” — while her friends sit and cringe. Reputed to be a mean drunk and a bully, she made a lot of enemies before and after she became a “newspaperman” (as she described herself). She was quoted telling TIME, “The trouble with me is that I am a vindictive old shanty-Irish bitch.” Cissy was once married to an Austrian-Polish Count who beat her and then kidnapped their daughter — William Howard Taft and the Tsar had to intervene to get the child back — after which she bought a ranch in Jackson Hole and became an avid hunter. She was easily the most interesting person in her family, though followed close behind by first cousin “Col.” Robert Rutherford McCormick of the Chicago Tribune. The Colonel liked to practice his polo shots while sitting on a mechanical horse at the top of the Tribune Tower . . . all the while lecturing his senior editors. Then you have Cissy’s older brother Joseph, who wrote pro-socialist novels before founding the NY Daily News with part of the family fortune, and making it into the biggest newspaper in America in less than five years.
When she got to age 48, Cissy persuaded her friend William Randolph Hearst to let her edit one of his failing Washington, DC newspapers, the Herald. She took it and turned it into the liveliest, most popular daily in town. Some years later, nearing bankruptcy, Hearst sold both his Washington papers to Cissy. She merged them into the Times-Herald and ran them until her death in 1948.
Hearst himself is sort of the odd man out here, as no one ever accused him of being anti-Jewish, and he spent much of his career presenting himself as a populist progressive. Apparently he makes the team because he was a) a nationalist, b) a non-interventionist in the prewar period, and c) paid both Mussolini and Hitler to write columns for his papers. The columns, generally ghostwritten, weren’t very good and often arrived late, but for a while Hearst was paying them $1,000-$2,000 a shot. Il Duce supposedly used the money to buy himself a summer estate in Romagna.
The English press lords, literally lords, don’t really qualify for Olmsted’s swastika badge, either. Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, gets slammed mainly because he was “pro-appeasement” and anti-intervention in the late 1930s. And because his biggest newspaper, the Daily Express, continued to be anti-Europe long after he died. When the Brexit vote succeeded in 2016, that paper cheered and credited the shade of old Max. Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, was basically just a buffoon, despite his slavish praise of Hitler, and his cheers in the Daily Mail for Sir Oswald Mosley and company in 1934 (“Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”).
Much more amusing is Lord Rothermere’s connection to “Princess” Stephanie Hohenlohe, a Viennese adventuress whom Rothermere kept on a fat retainer as a go-between to the Nazi hierarchy and other European notables. Stephanie was Jewish, a fact that apparently did not bother Rothermere (or Hitler, either). Olmsted doesn’t mention it (could she not know it?) even though she gives Stephanie a lot of ink. But it surely is relevant to the denouement of this story. After some years, with war clouds gathering, Lord Rothermere ended the retainer, whereupon Stephanie decided to blackmail him by threatening to expose all the smarmy letters he had written to the Führer. Rothermere didn’t give in, so she sued for breach of contract. Stephanie ended up losing the suit; it turned out she didn’t really have access to that embarrassing correspondence. However, always a gentleman, Lord Rothermere paid her court fees.
Olmsted often misses out on a good side story because she doesn’t think the tale would be of interest, or more likely because she’s missing information. Just a few examples here:
She repeatedly mentions a 1930s foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune named Donald Day, and excoriates Col. McCormick for continuing to employ him as the paper’s man in Eastern Europe. She tells us again and again that Mr. Day was sympathetic to the German National Socialists, and even became a propaganda broadcaster in Berlin toward the end of the war. But what’s equally intriguing, and what Olmsted leaves out, is that his sister was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker. So here we have two siblings, both resourceful and idealistic radicals, marching to somewhat different drummers. 
Then you have the story of John O’Donnell, longtime “Capitol Stuff” columnist for the New York Daily News and Washington Times-Herald, whom Lefties variously called a pro-Nazi, a Naziphile, and an anti-Semite. One of his fiercest enemies was a newspaper publisher named J. David Stern, who roundly slandered O’Donnell in a Philadelphia Record editorial after O’Donnell reported in 1941 that Navy and Coast Guard ships were being used, illegally, to guard convoys of food and equipment going to Britain. This name-calling led to a $50,000 libel suit against Stern, which O’Donnell eventually won, though the judgment was whittled down to $8,000 after five years in litigation. Olmsted completely leaves out Stern’s name and the tale of the libel suit, which was big news at the time.  This is clearly deliberate, and dishonest.
Then there’s the story about Cissy Patterson and the comic-strips war. The Washington Post went bankrupt in 1933 and was sold at auction to Eugene Meyer (father of Kay Meyer Graham). Cissy’s family owned the Chicago Tribune-Daily News syndicate that distributed some of the most popular strips in the Post. (They actually concocted some of the most legendary ones in-house, e.g., Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy.) The Post‘s bankruptcy, however, voided the syndicate contract — according to the syndicate. So Cissy picked up these strips and ran them in her paper, the Herald. Meyer meanwhile insisted the Post still had valid rights to them, and he sued. So for the next year and a half these rival papers in Washington were running the same comic strips, while a bitter legal battle went on. Finally a settlement was reached, with Meyer winning the rights to run the syndicate’s comic strips. Olmsted skips over most of these details, but is careful to tell how the furious Cissy reacted: She sent Meyer a gift box with a pound of meat inside — only it was more exciting than that. It was a hunk of raw hamburger gift-wrapped like an orchid, with a card that (allegedly) said, “Here’s your pound of flesh, Shylock.”
Olmsted makes errors that a quick check in reference books, or even an Internet search, would have avoided. In discussing Col. Robert McCormick and his cousin Joe Patterson she mentions they both went to Groton and Yale, and while doing so she reveals that she is under the impression that the Groton School is in Connecticut. Which is pretty funny, seeing as this book is published by Yale University Press where, as I recall, they used to have fact-checkers and proofreaders. (There is indeed a place called Groton, Connecticut, but it is renowned for submarines rather than Endicott Peabody’s austere boarding school in Massachusetts.) And once or twice she refers to the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Britain as an offshoot of the regular (or “Parliamentary”) Labour Party. No, it’s quite the other way around: Keir Hardie’s ILP came first, and the other Labour Party came about a decade later, in the early twentieth century.
But now I am just being pedantic and paying too much attention to this enjoyably silly book.
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 Macaulay once chose to review a three-volume Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes of Rome, during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1840) by the German scholar Leopold Ranke. He wound up writing a 16,000-word essay on a subject that had almost nothing to do with Ranke’s book. Macaulay disposes of Ranke’s work in short order (“It is hardly necessary for us to say that this is an excellent book excellently translated . . .”), then jumps onto his hobby-horse, which is, basically: “Why is Protestantism failing us? Why does the Catholic Church keep growing, and why do they nurture their eccentrics and enthusiasts so much better?” This was during the time of the Oxford Movement, so the question was very much on the mind of Macaulay, a vaguely Evangelical low-churcher who found both High Anglicanism and Catholicism suspect. Macaulay almost certainly didn’t read all three of Ranke’s dense volumes about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century popes; he was in the government at the time, as War Minister — but this busy fellow nonetheless managed to turn out a mighty monograph on a distantly-related subject — and I don’t know that anyone ever complained.
 Because I have a subscription, I can share this archived LRB review with my friends: here you go. You might also check out this piquant bit on the Red Lewis–Dotty Thompson marriage in the zombie-like revival of the Saturday Evening Post: “‘What a Woman!’ The Story of Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis.”
 I recall Thurber’s angry-man-at-typewriter, with his wife saying, “He’s giving Dorothy Thompson a piece of his mind.” Or another cartoonist’s gag, with the doctor telling his middle-aged patient in the examining room: “And no more Dorothy Thompson!” Some real knee-slappers!
 Tom Tryniski at fultonhistory.com has done a valiant one-man job of digitizing old nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspapers from New York State and elsewhere. But the lacunae are vast and deep. I tried to search for Washington Times-Herald and mainly got denunciations of the Patterson-McCormick “triumverate” (Times-Herald, NY Daily News, Chicago-Tribune) from 1942 issues of the crazy-Lefty PM newspaper. No Times-Herald itself.
 Donald Day also joined the Finnish army for a while, much against the objection of the Tribune.
 I wrote about this feud back in 2015, in my series on Fortean Society weirdoes. Stern was one of the society founders, while O’Donnell was a friend of the eccentric 1940s chairman, novelist Tiffany Thayer. Almost Fortean!
 Women’s Wear Daily, Oct. 26, 2011: https://wwd.com/business-news/media/the-art-of-accuracy-5334867/#!
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