In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
In March 1937, eight months into the Spanish Civil War, Virginia Cowles, a twenty-seven-year-old freelance journalist from Vermont who specialized in society gossip, put a bold proposal to her editor at Hearst newspapers: she wanted to go to Spain to report on both sides of the hostilities. Despite the fact that Cowles’s only qualification for combat reporting was her self-confessed “curiosity,” rather astonishingly, her editor agreed. “I knew no one in Spain and hadn’t the least idea how one went about such an assignment,” she explains innocently in the opening pages of Looking for Trouble, the bestselling memoir she published in 1941. She set off for Europe regardless.
In the four years between arriving in Spain and the publication of Looking for Trouble, Cowles travelled the length and breadth of Europe. She was something of an Anglophile, having been captivated as a child by the stories of King Arthur and his Knights, and thus happily relocated to London, stoically braving its inconveniences—the “lack of central heating, the fogs, the left-hand traffic”—in order to benefit from the front-row seat it offered her to the “sound and fury across the Channel.” In her words, living in the English capital in the late 1930s was “like sitting too near an orchestra and being deafened by the rising crescendo of the brass instruments.”
In 1937, Cowles arrived in Madrid, wearing high heels and a fur coat—the first of quite a few sartorial descriptions in the volume, usually given because the inexperienced Cowles finds herself inadvertently under or overdressed!—but was soon gamely venturing out to the frontlines, ducking to avoid the bullets that whined “like angry wasps” overhead. When not in the midst of the action, she was holed up in the now famous Hotel Florida, alongside Ernest Hemingway—“a massive, ruddy-cheeked man who went round Madrid in a pair of filthy brown trousers and a torn blue shirt”— and other war reporters. Among them, too, was fellow female journalist Martha Gellhorn, with whom Cowles would forge a close friendship; the two later co-wrote a play loosely based on their experiences, ‘Love Goes to Press’ (1946).
This was the beginning of Cowles’s relatively brief but impressively prolific career in war reporting. She was in Prague during the Munich crisis, and Berlin on the day Germany invaded Poland. In early 1939 she escaped “the gloom of London” by means of a six-week trip to Soviet Russia, hoping for what might be “almost a holiday.” She soon stood corrected, determining Moscow to be “the dreariest city on earth,” the depression of which “penetrated [her] bones like a damp fog.” She’d probably have felt less grim if she wasn’t so cold, but yet again, she’d arrived inadequately attired: this time without any woollen stockings, naively assuming she’d be able to buy what she needed when she got there. “Good heavens! Do you really think you can buy woollen stockings here?” a shocked French journalist asked when she tried to enlist his help in tracking some down. A year later, she was in Finland—this time clad in a thick suit, fur-lined boots and a sheepskin coat—travelling north towards the Arctic Circle to report on the Winter War, the bloody battle being waged by the Finns against the invading Russians. In June 1940, as everyone else fled the city, she flew into Paris to cover its fall to the Germans. Three months later, she was in London on the first day of the Blitz.
Cowles is one of six women—along with Gellhorn, Clare Hollingworth, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller, and Sigrid Schultz—whose stories Judith Mackrell tells in her excellent new group biography, The Correspondents. When war broke out in 1939, Cowles and her sisters-in-arms were still enough of a “novelty” to invite special attention, Mackrell determines , but, “[a]s the battle lines spread and the story grew to encompass both civilians and soldiers, editors had to increase their global coverage, and, by the end of the war, around 250 of the reporters and photographers accredited to the Allied armies were women.”
Not only did Cowles distinguish herself in terms of the breadth and scope of her reporting, she was also one of the very first woman combat journalists to document the reporting experience itself. “As the compact yet comprehensive record of a woman correspondent’s unique experience,” wrote the New York Times in their glowing review of Looking for Trouble in August 1941, “her story makes one of the most engrossing and most illuminatingly effective books that the war has produced.”
Before she left for Spain, Cowles was a flapper columnist. The byline of her second report from the frontlines was “NY Society Girl Sees Americans Fighting in Trenches.” Her only apprenticeship as a freelance foreign correspondent was makeshift: in 1933, she and her sister Mary used the small inheritance they’d been left by their recently deceased mother to finance an ambitious overseas trip. The siblings spent eleven months travelling through Japan, the Far East and northern India, during the course of which Cowles cabled a series of columns back to Hearst newspapers in the U.S. These covered all manner of topics, from the feminist movement in Burma, through Tokyo’s commercial marriage bureaus, to reports of pirates on the China seas. “Although she was writing as a tourist—her research skimpy, her analysis superficial—she had an eye for the surprising incident, the piquant human detail, and she was very good at getting strangers to confide in her,” Mackrell assesses.
These skills are also much in evidence in Looking for Trouble. Cowles’s observation of the platinum blond Spanish woman “whose hair was growing out very black due to the fact that all the peroxide had been confiscated by the hospitals,” is tangible; so is her description of her first experience of being under fire: “a noise like the sound of cloth ripping. It was gentle at first, then it grew into a hiss; there was a split second of silence, followed by a bang as a shell hurtled into the white stone telephone building at the end of the street.” In a later chapter, she recounts travelling through Paris on her way back from Romania, where she’d watched Polish refugees “streaming across the frontier before the massacre of the German tanks and planes.” Amongst the hustle and bustle of the overcrowded Romanian hotel where Cowles, the other correspondents, diplomats and military attachés have gathered, the fleeing Poles are immediately identifiable:
You could tell them by their mud-stained clothes and the dazed looks in their faces. In one corner of the lobby a Polish woman, with a fine head and long slender hands, sat alone, crying. She didn’t make any sound but sat quite motionless, hour after hour, the tears streaming down her face.
Cowles concludes the chapter with a sharp juxtaposition to this “tragedy of smashed lives,” describing a woman who wants to get into the French capital in order to buy a Schiaparelli dress, incensed that she’s being denied entry just because she hasn’t got the right visa.
According to Mackrell, “the most powerful weapon in [Cowles’s] armoury was charm. Wide-eyed and slenderly built, disconcertingly glamorous in lipstick and high heels, she could walk into a military mess or a politician’s office, and coax the toughest, most recalcitrant of men to talk.” In England, between assignments, she hobnobbed with the political elite: Lloyd George, Chamberlain and Churchill. (Her friendship with the latter’s son, Randolph, opened all manner of doors.) She was granted an audience with Mussolini, and took tea with Hitler and his cronies in Nuremberg. The Führer struck Cowles as a decidedly “ordinary and rather inconspicuous little man.” In Spain, she drank champagne with a Russian Red Army General. “Here’s to the bourgeoisie! May we cut their throats and live as they do!” he shouted as they raised their glasses in a toast. On a bitterly cold January night in 1940, “in a world of white forests and glassy lakes,” she dined with the notorious General Tuompo, Commander of the North Finland Group and the man responsible for the deaths of 85,000 Russians. In Rome later that spring, Prince Philipp of Hesse invited her over for cocktails, during which he professed how sorry he was that the Germans couldn’t help the Finns—who, despite putting up an incredible fight during the winter months, were eventually forced to surrender—claiming that his country’s pact with Russia prevented them from interfering. “But darling,” his wife, Princess Mafalda, artlessly interrupted, “you told me you did interfere. You told me you persuaded the Finns to sign the peace treaty by promising to put things right for them later on.”
Cowles’s reportage from Finland, during what she rightly describes as “some of the fiercest battles of the war,” is particularly memorable. In the seven weeks prior to her arrival, over one hundred thousand Russian troops had crossed the frontier, only to be slaughtered by the Finns or pushed back over the border. “To understand how they did it,” Cowles explains, “you must picture a country of thick-snow-covered forests and ice-bound roads. You must visualise heavily armed ski patrols sliding like ghosts through the woods; creeping behind the enemy lines and cutting their communications until entire battalions were isolated, then falling on them in furious surprise attacks. In this part of Finland skis outmanoeuvred tanks, sleds competed with lorries, and knives even challenged rifles.” It’s here, in the “strange pink light” of dawn and on a stretch of road and forest that’s recently become known as ‘Dead Man’s Land’, that Cowles witnessed “the most ghastly spectacle” she’d ever seen:
For four miles the road and forests were strewn with the bodies of men and horses; with wrecked tanks, field kitchens, trucks, gun carriages, maps, books and articles of clothing. The corpses were frozen as hard as petrified wood and the colour of the skin was mahogany. Some of the bodies were piled on top of each other like a heap of rubbish, covered only by a merciful blanket of snow; others were sprawled against the trees in grotesque attitudes.
Already enough to “very nearly” make her ill, the scene only became more horrifying when she learned that she was looking at the remains of the 44th Division, the exact band of soldiers that she had encountered trooping along a country road in the Ukraine a year earlier; “husky, clean-shaven men,” whose “high boots and long, thick coats [had] offered a striking contrast to the shabby appearance of the peasants,” whom Cowles had been interviewing at the time.
Looking for Trouble isn’t just a memoir. It is also an impassioned cry to Cowles’s fellow Americans to do their bit and join the fray, an appeal in the tradition of Mrs Miniver, William Wyler’s 1942 film adaptation of Jan Struther’s 1940 novel about a resilient English housewife facing the hardships of the war with an impeccably vermillioned stiff upper lip, which was credited with rallying significant support in America for Britain and the Allies. Cowles draws her book to a close with a crescendo of rhetoric colored by what Mackrell calls “near-Churchillian levels of emotion”:
Let us recapture the virility of our forebears and rise up now, before it is too late, to declare war on the Nazi forces which threaten our way of life. Let us rise up now in all our splendour and fight side by side with Great Britain until we reach a victory so complete that freedom will ring through the ages to come with a strength no man dare challenge.
Following a six-month tour promoting the book across America (during which time the country officially joined forces with the Allies) Cowles was, according to Mackrell, “acclaimed for her contribution to the propaganda effort.”
After a brief stint in London, working in the office of the American ambassador to England, she returned to the action. In January 1943, during a two-month leave of absence from the embassy, she went to North Africa, where the American and British armies allowed her unprecedented access to the frontlines. Getting deeper into the desert war in Tunisia than any other correspondent, male or female, Cowles was embedded with the British 6th Armoured Division while they fought for control of the Kasserine Pass in the Atlas Mountains. Th e intelligence officer looking after her—who’d been astonished when she turned up in the first place—begged her to turn back while he and the other men fought on (all of whom, apparently, were utterly smitten with her, captivated by both her bravery and her beauty when she appeared, dream-like, in their midst). Only once she’d got the material she needed did Cowles agree to turn back .
Cowles was awarded an OBE for her services to war reporting in 1947, and promptly settled down to a new life as part of the British Establishment. Shortly after the fighting ended, she had married her beau, Aidan Crawley, a British pilot who’d been shot down over the Libyan desert in July 1941 and detained as a POW for the rest of the war. He became an MP, and the couple had three children. Cowles threw herself into her new roles of wife and mother. Mackrell reports that in the eyes of Gellhorn, her old friend became “the dullest of matriarchs, and [grew] unforgivably smug.” While Cowles did continue to write, she’d handed in her press pass. Instead, she turned her hand to historical biographies, the subjects of which included the Rothschilds, Churchill and Edward VII. Sadly, this only deepened the gulf between her and Gellhorn, who, “seeing Virginia so cosily ensconced with her biographies, her clever children and her Establishment husband, grew,” as Mackrell puts it, “touchily judgemental.”
One can’t help but wonder if the conventionality of Cowles’s second act accounts for the ease with which her ground-breaking work has been overlooked. Since the initial publication of Looking for Trouble, she has been largely overshadowed by her peers: Gellhorn, and, in more recent years, Miller, the Vogue model-turned-photographer whose work has been showcased in a series of major exhibitions across the U.K. Both of these women failed to readjust to civilian life. Gellhorn continued to work as a war correspondent well into her seventies. Miller did try to settle down, but, haunted by what she’d seen in Dachau and Buchenwald, was plagued by PTSD, depression and alcoholism. While Cowles’s later life is a tad pedestrian in comparison, it’s also an astonishing testament to the diffidence and dexterity with which she navigated identities —flapper, journalist, wife and mother —that might, even today, appear irreconcilable for a woman. She exited the world of war reporting as easily as she’d entered it: with all the grace of a well-timed change of dress.
The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II was published by Doubleday this month; so was Looking for Trouble, by Faber.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, the Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications. Read earlier installments of Re-Covered.
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