My Museum Piece
The American Journey of Eric Sevareid, by Raymond A. Schroth. Steerforth Press, 462 pp. $28.
In 1985, CBS News invited Eric Sevareid to appear in its commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of VE Day. Past seventy by then, he walked with a cane and wore a heavy back-brace; but the war had been the seminal experience of his life and, eager to get back in harness, he flew to London, then on to the banks of the Rhine where, with videotape rolling, he recreated the radio commentary he'd broadcast from the same spot for the same network in 1945 -- an elegant little essay explaining why the absolute truth about combat "can never be communicated" by reporters or soldiers.
War happens inside a man . . . and that is why, in a certain sense, you and your sons from the war will be forever strangers.
If, by the miracles of art and genius, in later years two or three among them can open their hearts and the right words come, then perhaps we shall all know a little of what it was like -- and we shall know then that all the present speakers and writers hardly touched the story.
Good, wasn't he? Yet when the producers saw that solemn face gravely addressing the camera, they deemed it too dull, and quickly dissolved to archival pictures irrelevant to his words. They seemed to have no sense of who he was or what he represented, of how or why the craggy Nordic features they had wiped from the screen were once recognizable to millions of Americans. Seeing themselves as the future of television -- the young Merlins of the new magic, the kaleidoscopic graphics, the spinning images, the intricacies of satellite technology -- the producers saw the old man as a museum-piece, as obsolete as the wireless, as passé as the lofty standards he and his generation had set, as dry as the analyses and the plodding documentaries in which they had taken so much pride.
The truth is, they were right.
If a rejuvenated young Sevareid were job-hunting at the networks these days, like some resurrected Lincoln running for president, he'd damn well be out of luck. Too dull. What is also true, however, is that he was similarly unsuited to his own day as well -- frightened by microphones and cameras, blinded by lights, burdened with an expressionless voice, resistant to coaching and improvement. "The paradox of his life was that he really did not belong in broadcasting," Raymond A. Schroth concludes in The American Journey of Eric Sevareid, an admiring but ultimately sad biography of one of the country's most prominent journalists, a genuine icon whose long public career (thirty-eight years at CBS) brought him fame and fortune but whose personal life -- to the very end of it -- brimmed with grief and guilt.
But what a remarkable life it was, a rich lode of adventure and achievement Schroth has skillfully mined and processed into a narrative that traces Arnold Eric Sevareid's journey across nine separate decades, from his birth on the icy North Dakota prairie in 1912 -- three weeks after Woodrow Wilson had won the presidency -- to his death in steamy Georgetown in the summer of 1992, on the eve of Bill Clinton's nomination.
From his boyhood on the Mouse River, Sevareid single-mindedly pursued his dream of becoming a newspaperman, a writer. As a child, he learned to set type at the weekly owned by a friend of his father. As a kid just out of high school, he wrote a surprisingly good book about his hair-raising 2,000-mile canoe-trip to Hudsons Bay. At the University of Minnesota, he worked for the campus daily and two Minneapolis newspapers (posing as a room-service waiter to interview Katharine Hepburn); and in 1937, a couple of years after graduating, he and his new wife, Lois, went to Paris where he joined the staff of the New York Herald Tribune, moonlighted for the United Press, and was soon noticed by Edward R. Murrow, always trolling for talent.
Murrow called from London in the summer of '39 to offer a job with CBS. Sevareid was reluctant. After all, he was a writer, not a broadcaster; but he was also about to become a father -- twin sons, as it turned out -- and so, at $250 a month, he became one of "Murrow's boys" (along with William L. Shirer, Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood, Winston Burdett, and Larry LeSueur), adding his flat baritone to one of the most distinguished reportorial choirs ever assembled -- though his own uninflected voice was hardly the paradigm for radio then or now. (Years later, one of his sons said he coveted Murrow's mellifluous voice. "So do I," Sevareid answered.)
What he did bring to his new job and perhaps, as Schroth suggests, what he would leave as his professional legacy was "an attitude toward journalism," the essence of which was an uncompromising respect for the intelligence of his readers and listeners (and eventually his viewers) and for the power and primacy of words, spoken or written. He was a twenty-six-year-old rookie in 1939 but he worked hard and learned quickly, broadcasting moving and memorable descriptions of the Germans' approach to Paris, the exodus of thousands from the city, and finally the French capitulation; from London, like his boss, he offered vivid vignettes of life inside the blitz, though he did not try to match what he called Murrow's Hemingwayesque "fixation with physical bravery." Unlike him, Sevareid spent many hours in air-raid shelters, though two years later, he left Washington for the war again. "He was afraid," says Schroth, "but he conquered his fear."
That fear was never greater than the day in 1943 when he parachuted from a crippled army plane into Burma. He'd been en route to China; instead, he and nineteen other survivors, including the diplomat John Paton Davies (whom he later defended against Senator McCarthy), were rescued by head-hunters and, playing hide-and-seek with Japanese patrols, walked out through the jungle back to India. There, Sevareid crawled back into another C-46 and flew to Kunming, his original destination. Then came the Italian campaign, from Anzio to Rome, after which he took the Allies' southern route through Marseilles and finally across the Rhine into the final moments of the war. Sevareid landed back in America the day Franklin Roosevelt died, having had, as they say, a good war. He'd not only survived, he'd also earned a graduate degree in the only curriculum that really matters in journalism, what Homer Bigart often called the school of portable ignorance -- the constant willingness to look and see, to listen and learn.
In the post-war years, radio was still king and Sevareid one of its princes, a familiar and forceful voice, far ahead of Murrow, for instance, and most everyone else in condemning McCarthy's witch-hunts; but he was always writing as well: a classic memoir (Not So Wild a Dream), several other books, and scores of articles for various magazines. As television sprouted and grew, he painfully adjusted himself to its demands -- though never completely -- and to its celebrity. He hosted a weekly summary of the news from New York and frequently appeared in Murrow's various programs; but he did not become a television reporter, like the dashing Collingwood, for example. Instead, working mainly from Washington, he presented himself as a thinker, a pundit, adapting his standard five-minute radio commentaries to the two-minute television essays that would become a staple of the CBS Evening News and bring him both respect and reproach, including Spiro Agnew's. After the vice president's alliterative attack in 1970 on the news analysis, Sevareid fired back. "Nobody in this business expects . . . that the full truth of anything will be contained in any one account or commentary," he said, "but . . .
the central point about the free press is not
that it be accurate . . . but that it be free --
and that means . . . freedom from any and
all attempts by any power of government to
coerce it or intimidate it in any way.
It was vintage Sevareid, a masterful rejoinder that reflected all he'd learned about his craft and his country -- though by then, he was as preoccupied with the tragedy playing itself out in his private life as he was with national policy and politics. Lois, a bright and vivacious attorney, had descended into the violent mood swings of manic-depression; he was for years fastidiously solicitous of her needs but finally divorced her for a woman twenty years younger. That brittle marriage produced a daughter but also ended in divorce. His third wife, Suzanne St. Pierre, was a talented producer who became his widow.
Schroth makes clear that during the '60s and '70s, as America was changing, so was Sevareid, moving toward a conservatism clearly reflected in his embrace of the cold war as a necessary struggle between good and evil. Still, along toward the end of it, he offered his viewers an eloquent condemnation of the Vietnam War and, in his final broadcast in 1977, provided his own blunt appraisal of his work and his career:
There is in the American people a tough, undiminished instinct for what is fair. Rightly or wrongly, I have the feeling I have passed that test. I shall wear this like a medal.
I met him several times in Washington, at this cocktail party or that dinner, and I'd sometimes say hello when he lunched at my favorite restaurant or as he limped with his cane through Georgetown, my neighborhood too, nodding shyly to those he met; but, alas, I never knew him -- didn't know that he'd always been uncertain about his wonderful gifts, didn't know the battles he'd fought or the dues he'd paid, didn't know that he'd probably done the best he could with what he had, didn't know he somehow felt he was more blessed than he deserved but had less than he'd earned, didn't know the pain he'd endured and the pain he'd inflicted, didn't know the grief and the guilt he carried, didn't know that he was probably as flawed, as screwed-up as most of the rest of us. It was, I think, my loss.
He wrote no memoir after he retired, but this deft portrait comes as close as anyone ever will to explaining a complex and complicated man "as elusive in death as in life." Schroth makes lucidly clear what those young producers failed to see in the brooding old face on their edit-room screen: who Eric Sevareid was and what he represented.