Eyewitness to An Era
Seldes was born in Alliance, N.J. in 1890 and raised by his father, George, a pharmacist, to be "a nonconformist, a libertarian and a freethinker." The elder Seldes taught his two sons, George and Gilbert, the love of words. While George chose journalism, Gilbert won a scholarship to Harvard and became one of the country's preeminent drama critics.
By the mid-'70s, despite a distinguished 65-year career in journalism, George Seldes was all but forgotten. Then in 1981 he appeared as a "witness" in Warren Beatty's film Reds, recounting his memories of journalist John Reed, one of 800 historic figures Seldes met and wrote about. Seldes, who has just published his 20th book, The Great Thoughts (Ballantine, $12.95), recalled his meetings with some of them one lovely summer afternoon in the book-cluttered living room of his brick cottage in the mountains of Vermont. He reads three newspapers a day, takes one "civilized" martini in the late afternoon, and considers retirement "the dirtiest 10-letter word in the English language."
It was 1922 and I had been sent to Moscow as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune to cover the fifth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. A group of us were standing next to the walls of the Kremlin near St. Vasily's Cathedral with its eight domes, each shaped like an onion and each in a different color. Trotsky stood by the side of the street saluting the army. He was the biggest man at the time next to Lenin, who was sick and had been away for six months, and no one knew if he'd recover. I went up with my camera and just as I snapped the first shot there was a punch on my back. A soldier yelled at me in German, "I am the official photographer, and I have the monopoly here. Get the hell away." Trotsky, thinking we were two Germans, said, "Was ist hier los?" I knew he spoke English because he used to sit at the Colonial Café" on Second Avenue in New York reading about Grant's and Lee's Wilderness campaign in the Civil War. "That's where modern war began," he told me once. I said, "Mr. Trotsky, I represent the Chicago Tribune, and I would also like to take your picture, but this man says he has a monopoly. I thought that with Communism you abolished big business, capitalism and monopolies." Trotsky laughed and said to the soldier in Russian, "Get the hell out of here, you fool." He posed for me, and I took 11 frames and smuggled the film out in the diplomatic pouch of the American Relief Administration, which was there feeding the six million starving children. Imagine! Because of the censorship they'd never seen a picture like that outside of Russia. I sent the photos to our London bureau chief, John Steele. I identified Trotsky and the men standing with him. And I said, "Put down that the last man in uniform is an unidentified officer." I didn't find out until later that the unidentified officer was a man named Stalin.
Moscow was a long time after my first job in 1909, when I was 15. I remember taking my raincoat, lifting my collar up, slanting my hat and walking into the office of the Pittsburgh Leader. "I'd like to get a job in a newspaper office," I said. "Is there anything I could get started on?" They told me if I wanted to work, they would give me lunch money—$3.50 a week. I had only been there a few weeks when the editor heard that William Jennings Bryan was in town. So he sent me over to see him. When I knocked on the door of his hotel room, Bryan said, "Come in." I walked in and there was a man in bed wearing a Jaeger suit, a one-piece rough wool union suit with a flap in the back. And this cub reporter says, "Mr. Bryan, my city editor told me to ask you, 'Are you going to run for President a fourth time?' " When he heard the phrase "a fourth time," he jumped out of bed and yelled, "Get out of here, you impudent cub!"
I went back to my city editor and told him, "Mr. Bryan refused to answer your question. He just called me an impudent cub and threw me out." My editor said, "Did he hit you?" I said no, he shoved me through the door. He asked, "Was it a hard shove?" I said yes. And he said, "Sit down and write the story. And don't forget the union suit, the flap in the back—or the shove." Believe it or not, there was a four-line, four-column headline in the evening edition: "Bryan assaults Leader reporter." The next day the city's other paper, the Gazette Times, offered me a job at $8 a week.
I first went to Italy in 1919. I had a friend on the Italian paper Popolo d'Italia—Benito Mussolini. We became such good friends that he started calling me "cam collega," dear colleague, and even "caro Giorgio." In 1924 when he had been Duce for two years, I came back to Italy to ask for an interview. He wouldn't receive me. Then one day—the morning of February 29—the telephone rang and a man said, "The Duce has forgotten this is a leap year, so all of today is blank. He had no dates, so you can have all the time you want for your interview." There wasn't the least acknowledgment we ever knew each other before.
The next year, because of a story I wrote later, which the Duce didn't like, I got orders to leave the country. I packed up everything and got on the next train to Paris, the Orient Express. No one else was in my compartment; few were traveling in those days. I wasn't afraid until I heard shouts of "Dove Seldes?"—which meant, where is Seldes? I looked out the window and saw what they called the squadristi, a squadron of Fascists with clubs. There were four British gentlemen in the next compartment, so I said, "Gentlemen, I'm the Chicago Tribune man. I'm sorry, but if it wasn't for the fact that I'm about to be killed by the Fascists, I wouldn't disturb you." They said, "Sit down. We are four admirals from Malta." Two were in civilian clothes, so they said they would say there were three admirals in civilian clothes. At the next stop some men pulled open the door and yelled, "Dove Seldes?" The admiral with the most stripes said to them, "Sporchi Fascisti!"—which meant fascist pigs. When he said that, they got down on their knees and said, "Perdone, signore," and went off down the hall yelling, "Dove Seldes?" About 20 minutes later we crossed the border into France. I have never kissed the earth anywhere, but I felt like it then.
I first met Hemingway at the Café Select in Paris of course. The Select was where you met everyone. Hemingway and Canadian Morley Callaghan had the first table on the terrace to the right of the door going into the main bar. Djuna Barnes, who was a lesbian, and her girlfriend always sat at a certain table. And the whores, proceeding up and down the aisles, would sneer and say something dirty whenever they would pass the lesbians.
Well, once while Madrid was being bombarded, we were all downstairs in the big hall of the Hotel Florida. J.B.S. Haldane, the noted scientist, and Saint-Exupéry, the French novelist, were there, as were some British notables, including the Duchess of Atholl. Hemingway starts telling everyone about all the great publications that had turned him down before he was known. "But the dirtiest rejection," he said, "was from The Dial in New York. It said, 'Stick to newspaper work or, better still, become a truck driver, because you have no signs of being a writer at all.' " And then he turned to me and said, "That letter from The Dial was signed by its managing editor, who is your brother, Gilbert Seldes." Well, the first thing I did when I got back in 1937 was to tell Gilbert. And he said, "We never got any contributions by Hemingway when I was managing editor of The Dial." Hemingway was building himself up because he wasn't certain he was the great man people said he was. Well, he was. But I never forgave him for what he said about Gilbert.
You know, I was with Pershing's army during World War I. Before every attack Pershing, who did not especially care for the press, would come to press headquarters with the chief of operations, and they would roll out the maps. Then they would show us the coming attack: when we would be at a certain place, when we would crush the Hindenburg Line and capture Saint-Mihiel, things like that. We could take positions with any regiment. There was never a breath of suspicion that anyone would blab anything at Harry's Bar, where the newspapermen all hung out.
Of course, Reagan doesn't trust newspapermen, and he wouldn't take them on his expedition to Grenada. My God, it made me sick. If I still ran In Fact, we'd have raised hell. I wish I had In Fact to run again. I'd like to be dictator of the country for three days and change things. Then I'd go back to democracy.
I want to ask you a question. Why does the greatest country in the world not have one statesman? Name one statesman today. George Kennan is a statesman, but he's not active. Bush, Shultz, they're nobodies! My God, a lot of nobodies running against a lot of nobodies. Is that what's going to happen again in 1988? Gosh, I hope I'll be alive to vote in 1988!