Robert Gottlieb on John Gunther—”He Wrote an Amazing Profile of America”

From an essay in the New York Times headlined “Robert Gottlieb on the Man Who  Saw America (And We Mean, All of It)”:

Almost 75 years ago John Gunther produced his amazing profile of our country, “Inside U.S.A.” — more than 900 pages long, and still riveting from start to finish. It started out with a first printing of 125,000 copies — the largest first printing in the history of Harper & Brothers — plus 380,000 more for the Book-of-the-Month Club….

It was a phenomenon, but not a surprise: Gunther’s first great success, “Inside Europe,” published in 1936, had helped alert the world to the realities of fascism and Stalinism; “Inside Asia” and “Inside Latin America” followed, with comparable success — all three of these books were among the top sellers of their year, as would be “Inside Africa” and “Inside Russia Today,” yet to come. His “Roosevelt in Retrospect” is one of the best political biographies I’ve ever come across, a mere 400 pages long and pure pleasure to read. Like “Inside U.S.A.,” it is out of print — please, American publishers, one of you make them reappear.

Gunther was born in Chicago in 1901, went to the University of Chicago and then on to The Chicago Daily News….By the next year he was in London for The Daily News, and soon was darting around Europe on missions to Berlin, Moscow, Rome, Paris, Poland, Spain, the Balkans and Scandinavia, before being given the Vienna bureau….

He managed to find time to marry Frances Fineman, also a journalist, with whom he shared a very long and very tortured marriage, not helped by either her obsessive attachment to Jawaharlal Nehru or John’s wandering eye. (One woman on whom his eye had rested was Rebecca West, who referred to him in a letter to a friend as that “young and massive Adonis with curly blond hair.”) But his most important, if platonic, relationship with a woman was with the famous journalist Dorothy Thompson — hers was the other clarion voice alerting America to the perils to democracy, to civilization, from Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. The close bond between these two “competitors” never slackened until Thompson’s death, in 1961….

What was Gunther like? It’s a fair question to ask about him, since what people were like was always at the heart of his reporting. (“I had little basic interest in politics,” he wrote in “A Fragment of Autobiography,” “a fault which besets me to this day, but I was ravenously interested in human beings.”) Obviously he was a fanatical worker — his notes for “Inside U.S.A.” approached a million words — although he chose to believe that he was lazy at heart. (“I am not efficient at all, and anybody close to me knows how physically lazy and self-indulgent I am. I waste a preposterous amount of time sitting inert like a blob of protoplasm.”) He loved to laugh. He loved good wine, good food, good nightclubs. He had countless friends — from kings to bartenders, as he liked to say. He was never pompous, never self-promoting, never stuck-up. He made huge amounts of money and spent it all — often before it was actually in hand. And he was unfailingly generous. No wonder everybody liked him.

As for his writing, he would have been embarrassed at the notion that he had a “style.” What he did have was a voice — fluent, personal, casual, snappy. His opinions came across — he was a pro-New Deal liberal — though not through editorializing. He was a reporter — probably the best America ever had. He came, he saw, he wrote. When recently I mentioned to Bob Caro that I was writing about “Inside U.S.A.,” he lit up. “What a book! When I was writing ‘Master of the Senate’ I had it on my desk next to my typewriter, and whenever I needed to check on someone or something, all I had to do was open it up. And the sense it conveys about America in the postwar 1940s! There’s just nothing like it!”

One of the things that makes it so alive is Gunther’s curiosity about his own country; he knew Latin America, he knew Europe, he knew Asia, but he didn’t know America. “The United States, like a cobra, lay before me, seductive, terrifying and immense,” he wrote. “‘Inside U.S.A.’ was the hardest task I ever undertook.” He was yet again an outsider, looking in. “Not only was I trying to write for the man from Mars; I was one.”

Gunther begins his discovery of America in California — “the most spectacular and most diversified American state, California so ripe, golden, yeasty, churning in flux. … at once demented and very sane, adolescent and mature” — and he proceeds around the country, state by state, until he arrives in Arizona, next door to where he began. Sometimes he devotes an entire chapter to a single person — the perpetual presidential candidate-to-be Harold Stassen; the great industrialist Henry Kaiser; New York’s colorful (to say the least) Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who is probably best remembered for having, during a strike of newspaper deliverers, read “the funnies” aloud on the radio so as not to disappoint the city’s kids….

In counterpoint to these extended essays and profiles are hundreds and hundreds of short takes, seemingly chosen at random, culled by Gunther’s eagle eye as he scoured the country. Here are mundane conversations overheard; meetings with governors and senators; quotes from lunatic right-wing newspapers; the uninhibited talk of millionaires and sharecroppers….

No other country, Gunther says, “could have headlines like WAR WITH JAPAN PERILS WORLD SERIES … or the sign on the Success Cafe in Butte in 1932, EAT HERE OR I’LL VOTE FOR HOOVER, or another headline, one from a New York tabloid about a woman soon to be electrocuted, SHE’LL BURN, SIZZLE, FRY!”

What motors Gunther’s astounding energy, focus and recall is his almost demented curiosity. “Inside U.S.A.” is a voyage of discovery for him as much as for us, and after 900-plus pages his curiosity is unsated, as he regrets all the things he didn’t get to explore and reveal. “There is nothing in this book, and now it’s too late to put it in, about how airplanes spray trees with DDT in Oregon or why Pullman washbowls have the water tap set in so close. … I haven’t even mentioned that there were 72,000 G.I.s named Smith … or children in scarlet mufflers patting their scarlet mittens together and listening to Santa Claus out in the snow in a Vermont public square; or college fraternities and sororities and their adolescent hocus-pocus; or the lonely red railway stations and their water towers and greased switches in northern Minnesota; or people as authentically part of the American scene as Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, Blondie and Superman.” And on and on and on. You can sense him mourning the fact that he doesn’t have another 900 pages to fill.

And then there is America’s future to ponder. “There is no valid reason why the American people cannot work out an evolution in which freedom and security are combined,” Gunther concludes. “In a curious way it is earlier, not later, than we think. The fact that a third of the nation is ill-housed and ill-fed is, in simple fact, not so much a dishonor as a challenge. What Americans have to do is enlarge the dimensions of the democratic process. This country is, I once heard it put, absolutely ‘lousy with greatness’ — with not only the greatest responsibilities but with the greatest opportunities ever known to man.” Finally, “Inside U.S.A.” is an unintentional account of a man falling in love with his crazy and wonderful country.

Robert Gottlieb’s biography of Greta Garbo will be published in December.

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