The scoop of the awful century
THEY called her the doyenne of war correspondents, and she might have even let that slip from time to time. But it would’ve been out of character to let something go by without correction. She was a pushy broad, and would have been the first to say that, and put it exactly like that.
Doyenne? She slept on the ground, fella. Sometimes under the ground, when she would bury herself neck-deep in the desert sand to keep the cold off o’ night. She carried with her a passport, which she rarely had trouble convincing some apparatchik to give her, a typewriter, and a pistol. She was a reporter. She was a writer. She was a war correspondent. An inky wretch for all others to admire.
Doyenne, you say? Dispatches say she hated when women in combat zones were fussed over. That made them a hassle. And made things even more difficult for women reporters in her era. (Monty tried shipping her out of North Africa in 1943. She got around him, too.)
Clare Hollingworth died this week at 105. Her byline hasn’t been in the papers much in the last several decades, as you can imagine. But back in the day, she was a glamorous star of the news business. She covered the Algerian war in the 1950s, the Vietnam war in the 1960s, and the Middle East like sand. Who was the first person to interview the new Shah of Iran when he took over in 1941? Clare Hollingworth. Who was the last person to interview him after he fell? Clare Hollingworth. She “retired” from war when she became a correspondent for the Telegraph in Beijing. But even into her 90s, she’d call the news desks in London to report on the latest.
But only age kept her from the war zones.
“I enjoy action,” the lady told the BBC once. “I enjoy being in a plane that’s bombing something, or being on the ground in the desert when they’re advancing.” Somebody needs to do it. It certainly won’t be us.
The story goes that a young Clare Hollingworth, newly hired by the Daily Telegraph, was wandering around in some contested border area on The Continent one day when she got a glimpse of something she shouldn’t have. The border was between two countries you might have heard of: Germany and Poland. The year was 1939.
Time magazine described the scene:
“Knowing that war may be imminent, and bolstered by the presence of a diplomatic flag, she borrowed her host’s car, and ‘motored off alone into Nazi Germany’ to stock up on wine and aspirin. As she drove back along the border, a fabric partition separating the two countries flapped momentarily in the wind, exposing ‘scores, if not hundreds of tanks’ in the valley below. And there was her first big scoop: the outbreak of World War II.”
Yes, she was the reporter who first called in the outbreak of the Second World Catastrophe.
The headline the next day: 1,000 Tanks Massed on Polish Frontier; 10 Divisions Reported Ready For Swift Stroke; From Our Own Correspondent.
She was wrong. There were only nine divisions. But, hey, cub reporters make mistakes all the time.
CLARE Hollingworth was an old school journalist inasmuch as she didn’t mind doing right when it was more than called for. She wasn’t going to sit back and just report the facts when she could do more. According to the New York Times, she aided thousands of refugees from Czechoslovakia who were fleeing the Nazis. She wrote of their plight for Brits back home, and even arranged for British visas for the refugees.
But the reason she’ll be remembered? She was on the ground when World War II commenced. The story goes that when she was finally awakened by bombings on Sept. 1, 1939, she called the British Embassy in Warsaw. “The war has begun!”
The oh-so-British answer: “Are you sure, old girl?”
At which point she simply opened the window and held the receiver out so the embassy folks could hear the German tanks roaring by.
Against all odds, and against most of her colleagues’ reckoning, Clare Hollingworth lived to be 105 years old. Emphasis on lived. From Poland to China, from Algeria to Vietnam, from one crisis to another, her editors said she always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Or maybe the wrong place at the right time. And dutifully reported on it all.
What a reporter. What a character. What a remarkable life.