About the Book by Jennet Conant Titled “Fierce Ambition: The Life and Legend of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins”

From a Washington Post book review by Helene Stapinksi headlined”The trailblazing reporter who defied journalistic sexism”:

Around 9 p.m. on many nights in the early 1960s, an exclusive by the journalist Maggie Higgins would roll off the New York Herald Tribune’s presses, and editors at the New York Times would call to ask their Washington staff to match her scoop for the next day’s paper. For years, Higgins drove her competitors into fits of jealousy and resentment.

It is neither cliché nor exaggeration to say that Marguerite “Maggie” Higgins stood on the front lines of history. Not just American history, but women’s history. In addition to covering D.C. and New York, Higgins was a war correspondent who fought the military brass to allow her — and hence all women — access to the battlefield. Before Higgins, female correspondents had to hang back while the men got the scoops. But Higgins changed all that.

In her latest biography, “Fierce Ambition,” Jennet Conant examines Higgins’s life and legend, telling us where she came from and how she found fame, if not fortune. She describes Higgins’s youth in Hong Kong and California, raised by a World War I veteran father and a demanding French mother. Inheriting traits from both parents, Higgins had “the face of an angel” but earned a reputation as “something of a hellion.”

Like many great reporters, Higgins was not a team player. Once, when her class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism was assigned to write on a specific subject, Higgins went to the campus library and checked out every journal and book on the topic, infuriating her fellow students. More maddening was that she’d often use her good looks and feminine charm to work her way into a job or a story. Pretending to be a maid, not once but twice, the blonde, blue-eyed Higgins gained access to interviews others could not (to a wealthy tycoon’s wedding and later to a labor leader’s hotel room).

“There were so many barriers to women entering what was historically a man’s field, it was hardly surprising Maggie would resort to some devious shortcuts,” Tenant writes in a credible defense. “Since it was not a level playing field, she saw no reason to play fair.”

There are countless complaints from scooped reporters, accusing her of stealing a look at their notes, stealing their stories outright or sleeping around to get access to her subjects. Higgins liked to have sex, Conant tells us, which was taboo for any woman in 1940s and ’50s America. “Men were congratulated for their office conquests, but women always wound up being judged for them,” she writes.

Her hard work always paid off, to the consternation of colleagues, who would end the day in the bar while she was still out in the field hustling. Higgins also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, sniffing out the next big story. But luck was only part of the equation. She simply worked harder than anyone else.

After landing a series of big scoops, Higgins convinced her bosses to send her to Europe in the last days of World War II. At age 24, she would be one of the first to witness the liberation of both Dachau and Buchenwald, interviewing dozens of emaciated prisoners for hours, after the other reporters couldn’t handle it anymore.

After covering the Nuremberg trials and the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia and Poland, she was promoted to the Herald Tribune’s Berlin bureau chief. But when her bosses learned she was having an affair there with a married American military officer and father of four, she was sent to the Tokyo bureau, at the time a new backwater. While her colleagues were busy covering Japan’s economic recovery, though, she saw trouble brewing in nearby South Korea. Contested national elections soon developed into the Korean War, which landed Higgins on the front lines for the first time.

Her courageous coverage in Korea is rendered in wonderful detail by Conant, from muddy foxholes to a valley where Higgins was stuck in the crossfire and administered plasma to injured troops. When the Navy refused her entry onto a ship because of a lack of women’s facilities, she slept on the cold dock night after night while the male correspondents enjoyed hot meals and warm beds.

Her Korean War stories would win her a Pulitzer — the first awarded to a female foreign correspondent. At a time when women were barred from the National Press Club and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Higgins was the subject of a photo-studded feature-length article in Life magazine and became the most famous news reporter in America. She would be feted with awards and attract the attention of television executives and Hollywood studios eager to tell her life story. But those projects never came to fruition, partly because of Higgins’s objections to the fictionalized scripts.

She would make enemies with some of the biggest names in the business: Homer Bigart, her competitor at the Tribune, hated her and eventually admitted, “She made me work like hell.” The wife of one of her colleagues wrote a thinly veiled novel about a seductive female correspondent who would do anything for a scoop. “If you listened to all the stories,” said Life photographer Carl Mydans, “you could conclude that she slept with the entire U.S. Army.”

By the early 1960s, Higgins had settled in Washington and had the inside track to the Kennedy family, writing about the Cuban missile crisis and finally, Vietnam — her own personal Waterloo. The Korean War and her experiences in Europe had made her a staunch enemy of communism. As a result, Higgins would clash with Vietnam correspondents David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, eventual journalism legends who were just young reporters at the time and whose clique she referred to condescendingly as the Rover Boys.

Ultimately, as Conant clearly shows, Higgins’s missteps in covering the Vietnam War would land her on the wrong side of history. Her luck had run out, and not only journalistically. She would die at age 45 from a disease she contracted while covering the war.

Though Conant’s prose is plain and straightforward, her subject is so full of life that it makes up for any lack of literary flourish. Her painstaking detail would not have been possible without a woman named Kathleen Kearney Keeshen, who spent 12 years in the ’70s and ’80s interviewing Higgins’s fellow reporters, military officials, husbands and lovers for her master’s and PhD theses. It’s fortunate that Keeshan — whom Conant thanks on both the dedication page and at length in the book’s acknowledgments — was not as competitive as Higgins. Because of Conant’s and Keeshan’s collaboration, Higgins’s life is now rendered in full, no longer lost to the march of male-dominated history.

Fierce Ambition
The Life and Legend of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins
By Jennet Conant
W.W. Norton. 396 pp. $32.50

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