Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II: “All six were good-looking, and used that when necessary. They had backbones of steel.”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Caroline Moorehead of Judith Mackrell’s  book “The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II”:

“I am going to Spain with the boys,” Martha Gellhorn famously declared as she left with Ernest Hemingway to write about the Spanish Civil War. “I don’t know who the boys are but I am going with them.” But being with the boys was precisely what neither she, nor her fellow women correspondents, could achieve once World War II broke out and Allied military leaders banned women from front-line reporting. Their presence, they were told, would be disruptive and embarrassing for the soldiers, and the question of their “conveniences” was too delicate even to contemplate. Blocked, corralled, marginalized at every turn, the six women who form the focus of Judith Mackrell’s “The Correspondents” nonetheless wheedled and charmed their way to where the action was. When that failed, they disobeyed orders, dodged their minders and pushed on regardless.

They were a formidable bunch. Bold to the point of recklessness, resourceful, inquisitive, crusading and utterly determined, they brought to their dispatches a sense of moral outrage, often to a greater degree than their male colleagues, about the war itself and the destruction it caused. Civilian casualties, bombed-out houses, separated families and the suffering of the injured all featured large in their writings. All six were good-looking, and used this fact when necessary. They had backbones of steel. They knew each other, but they preferred to hunt alone. Between them, working for different papers, they covered all the defining moments of the war.

Sigrid Schultz, the Berlin bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, was the eldest of the six women, and also the one most at peril. While reporting on Nazi repression and brutality, she was at the same time helping Jews to escape. Jewish herself, she would have stood no chance of survival had she been discovered. She stayed on in Berlin until 1941, inveigling herself into Hermann Göring’s confidence and drawing from him invaluable information that allowed her to make “glorious creepy stuff out of the Hitlerites.” A meeting with Hitler’s astrologer revealed that the Nazi leader wanted to be certain the planets were beneficially aligned before he signed the Nazi-Soviet pact. Schultz’s contacts were excellent. Even as the Gestapo was closing in on her, she continued to send out secret and sensitive information before escaping to the U.S.

The other five women were much of an age, all born between 1907 and 1911. Apart from Gellhorn, who, not long after the Spanish Civil War, became Hemingway’s third wife—which did not prevent her from covering the fighting across Europe—there was Clare Hollingworth, a peace activist from England; Helen Kirkpatrick, an American university graduate with a keen interest in foreign affairs; and Virginia Cowles, voted “the girl most likely to succeed” at her New England school—rash, ambitious and, like Gellhorn, a natural writer. The most exotic and vulnerable was perhaps the photographer Lee Miller, friend and muse to the surrealists, who felt like a “soft-shell crab” in the London Blitz, and went on to take some of the most memorable pictures of the war, mainly for Vogue magazine.

Group biographies are notoriously hard to write, and there are moments in “The Correspondents” when Ms. Mackrell’s protagonists merge and blur. But what comes across is a powerful and convincing picture of the overwhelming struggle these women—and others like them—were forced to endure to make themselves heard. Emerging from an era when women were relegated to the edges of most professions, and in the newspaper world of the 1930s deemed useful only to cover the “woman’s angle,” they had to navigate not only the danger and discomfort they shared in common with their male colleagues but the added burden of dealing with misogynist editors, obstructive army officers and disapproving family members.

All worked extremely hard. At one point, Kirkpatrick was producing up to 30 articles a week, while Cowles found time to write “Looking for Trouble” (1941), one of the most poignant books about what war did to “the terrified flow of humanity.” The war provided the women with an exhilaration greater than anything they had ever known. Hollingworth, one of the only British journalists left in Poland during the German invasion, met a Wehrmacht division marching in her direction as she drove herself toward Warsaw, and felt, Ms. Mackrell writes, “preternaturally alive, high on a cocktail of euphoric hormones.”

All six performed, at various times, acts of imaginative bravado. Having been refused permission to join the D-Day landings, Gellhorn smuggled herself onto a hospital ship bound for the Normandy beaches. There she helped with the recovery of wounded soldiers, acted as an interpreter for the captured German casualties, and was then able to file a first-hand—and first-rate—account of the day for Collier’s magazine. Hemingway, meanwhile, and to Gellhorn’s delight, having smugly won a place with the invading forces, wallowed at sea in a landing craft that failed to make shore, then produced a considerably inferior article.

The war’s end—by which time the authorities had grudgingly relented and allowed women at the front—found the six women searching to make sense of the atrocities they encountered as, one by one, the German concentration and extermination camps were liberated. The sense of guilt, fury and revulsion that filled them made its way into remarkable reports. But it also left them, as it left many of their male colleagues, with a legacy of depression and what Gellhorn called “concussion” to her soul. It took a while for them to find their feet in the postwar world, and none of them found it easy to relinquish the intensity and camaraderie. As Miller put it, she had acquired a “taste for gunpowder.”…

“The Correspondents” is more than an overview of how women reporters fared in the first real war in which they were determined to be major players. There had been individual women who had made their mark in earlier conflicts. Ms. Mackrell, the author of “Flappers” (2013) and “The Unfinished Palazzo” (2017), also paints here a picture of war reporting at a time when correspondents were not tied to their editors and their offices by cellphones, when there were opportunities to do considerable research, and when personal contacts—and personal charm—were often determining factors. The women who followed after these six—such as Marie Colvin, Lyse Doucet and Lindsey Hilsum—have all spoken of their enduring legacy. As Ms. Mackrell writes, when her six women set off with the boys, they “aspired to be treated as reporters first, and women second”—not merely the best female journalists, but “the best in their profession.”

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