George Seldes at 94: A Living Panorama of World History

Times Staff Writer

This is how the stories come: in rushes, in great torrents, in word pictures as clear as the early spring sky here, as rich and as lush as Vermont's proud Green Mountains. The details are amazing, spewing forth with millisecond precision. No name is forgotten, no allusion overlooked. Hemingway, Hindenburg, Roosevelt, McCarthy, Franco, Fitzgerald . . . these are the names that pepper a conversation with George Seldes. Sometimes it is like listening to one vast news tape of modern history.

There is, for one of so many extraordinary examples, the tale of Trotsky.

Man With a Camera

"Well, it was 1922," George Seldes remembered, warming to the moment. "I was the only one there who had a camera." "There" was Red Square, where "they were celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and Trotsky was standing there, saluting the Red Army. Oh, the poor Red Army! There were soldiers with burlap instead of boots, that's how poor they were. Anyway, just as I took my first frame, a guy taps me on the shoulder. In German, he said, 'I am the official photographer, and I have a monopoly here, so get the hell out.' "

So boisterously did the two argue that soon Leon Trotsky himself was wondering what was up. "Well, I knew he spoke English," Seldes said of the Russian commissar of war, "because he used to sit at the Central Cafe in New York City. And I said, 'Mr. Trotsky, this guy says he has a monopoly. Now I've read everything since 1917 when this revolution was established, and you've abolished monopolies and big business and all like that. Surely this man is wrong. I want to take pictures for the Chicago Tribune.'

"So Trotsky turns to the guy, and he says, 'Beat it, you fool,' and then he says, 'How do you want me to stand?' "

'Unidentified Officer'

Smiling, saluting, Trotsky posed while Seldes snapped a full roll of film. Ever the diligent newsman, Seldes directed his editors to refer to one of Trotsky's companions as "an unidentified officer." And "guess who it was?" Seldes chuckled. "Stalin. He was so unknown in 1922 that he was the 'unidentified officer.' "

1922. George Seldes was 32, and firmly into the second decade of a career in journalism now well into its 75th year. He had yet to write the first of his 20 books, though now, today, even as his most recent volume descends on readers, 94-year-old George Seldes is fast at work on the next. Editors at Ballantine were aghast when the manuscript for "The Great Thoughts," Seldes' current literary offering, arrived on their corporate doorstep--in four crates. Not entirely enthusiastically, for he had been researching the book for 25 years and thinking about it for more like 75, Seldes returned to his 1937 Royal typewriter and agreed to pare down this compendium of "the ideas that have shaped the world." Freud, for example, was sliced from 40 typewritten pages to a trim 10 in the book. Finally, some 2,500 thinkers, from Abelard to someone named Huldreich Zwingli, survived to fill the covers.

By 1922 Seldes had already scored "the biggest story he ever had": the 1918 interview with Weimar Republic President Paul von Hindenburg in which the German field marshal attributed Germany's defeat in World War I not to "forces from within--the international bankers, and the Jews, and the civilian population and Socialists," as Hitler would later charge, but rather strictly to the entry of American troops.

Seldes remembered Von Hindenburg saying, "They were fresh, young, bright. They wanted to fight. All I had was 45-year-old reservists and people like that. . . . We were about to call it off, and suddenly this small but eager, enthusiastic army crashes through the woods in July, 1918. I didn't want to see Germany destroyed the way we had destroyed the cities of France, and so I had to appeal for an armistice and peace."

A Splitting Headache

Naturally, this story comes equipped with a wry slice of history. Waiting in Hindenburg's anteroom was a certain Gen. Groener. "And I think this is Homeric laughter," Seldes said, "the funniest story of a tragic situation that I have ever heard of." Groener, it seems, was sporting an elaborate head bandage. Had the general been badly wounded? No: As a press spokesman translated, "The General says he has just lost the world war, and it has given him an awful splitting headache."

Seldes had, after all, high-tailed it to Europe six years earlier as an antidote to a major personal headache of his own. Leaning back on his big, soft living-room couch, his trusty, sometimes noisy feline companion, Peepers, in his lap, Seldes smiled. "I was 26, and I had to get away from a girl. . . ." His hapless love affair drove him first from Pittsburgh to New York, and then, as the lady in question relentlessly pursued him, across the sea to Great Britain.

"Look, in a way, she's responsible for everything I am," said Seldes. "If it weren't for her, I would still be in Pittsburgh today, probably working on the paper."

Seldes was not yet 19 on Feb. 9, 1909, when he started out as the $3.50-per-week cub reporter at the Pittsburgh Leader. His career soon took a logarithmic leap, when, in 1911, he was sent to ask frequent presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan about his intentions in the upcoming election. "Pardon me, Mr. Bryan," Seldes said, "but will you be making a fourth try for the presidency?" It was the "fourth try" that apparently pushed Bryan over the edge, so much so that he physically ejected cub reporter Seldes from his sight. "BRYAN ASSAULTS LEADER REPORTER" read the banner headline the following day. In very little time at all, Seldes was promoted from cub reporter to star reporter.

March With Suffragettes

In Pittsburgh, Seldes joined with a handful of men to march with a group of suffragettes. Men and women alike, the marchers were pelted with cow dung by unsympathetic spectators. It was in Pittsburgh too that Seldes learned the pre-libel law art of noteless interviewing. "Memorize everything," his editor counseled. "Taking notes will only intimidate your subjects." The skill served him well, for a decade later he sat through a remarkable 2 1/2-hour interview with the Italian dictator Mussolini, and then, he says, re-created it word for word on his typewriter.

But Seldes' habit of relating what he heard, verbatim, did not win him universal admiration. His too-factual reporting on post-Revolutionary Russia saw him barred from that country, and in 1925, a disgruntled Mussolini had him booted from Italy as well.

Late in 1928, Seldes tendered his resignation to the Chicago Tribune, his employer of nearly a decade of roving in Europe, North Africa, the Soviet Union, Mexico. What he saw as highly slanted reporting about the latter country was what prompted him to bid farewell to the world of daily journalism, entirely oblivious, apparently, to the fact that the bottom was about to tumble out of the U.S. economy. "Luckily, out of the clear blue sky," a literary agent telephoned Seldes, asking him to do a book "on the difficulties of censorship and suppression, imprisonment, even killing of foreign correspondents." For the book that became the classic "You Can't Print That," Seldes' publisher was willing to offer an advance of $500. "Good heavens!" he spurted, still incredulous. "That was 10 weeks' pay! That was a fortune to me!" Seldes smiled. "Well, anyway, it was a best seller and I really lived on top of the world, even in 1929, after the crash."

Hemingway an Enemy

For Seldes, the Lost Generation of writers and artistes who populated the Paris of the '30s were pals, playmates and in the case of a famous writer named Hemingway, public enemies. "It's an amazing story, in a way," Seldes said. "You know Hemingway, as everybody who has studied him has said, was never certain of two things: his importance as a writer, and his masculinity." Indeed, Seldes said, the legendary tales of virility contests pitting Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were not legends at all.

But it was the way Hemingway treated critic-editor Gilbert Seldes that earned Hemingway the eternal enmity of fiercely loyal older brother George. Even today, Seldes hovers under a minor cloud of inferiority when the subject of Gilbert, author of "The Seven Lively Arts," is raised. Gilbert graduated from Harvard, his brother likes to crow, as if this event had occurred last week, whereas George, did just one year of college--albeit at the same institution.

But Paris brought Seldes his most treasured tale as well. There he was, a confirmed bachelor of 39, when his life was turned upside down by a third-year Sorbonne student from Cincinnati named Helen Larkin. "She was a genius," Seldes said. "She was 24, and she was studying biochemical physics. I said, 'What are you doing that for?' And she said that when she was through, she was going to Russia to offer her services to Pavlov, 'the greatest scientist there ever was.' " When Seldes "lit into my story of my horrors of my year and a half in Russia," he remembered, "she practically kicked me and said she never wanted to see me or hear from me again."

Tried Different Tactic

Three years later Seldes happened to be attending a party. "You know in Paris in those days, you could bring along anybody to a party. You went to a party, you brought along a friend." So who should appear at this party but the same Helen Larkin? Seldes' heart thumped. "This time I tried a different tactic." He approached Larkin's friend and said, "Dorothy, would you like to meet me for lunch tomorrow at the Select Cafe? Oh, and if you want to bring that crazy girlfriend of yours along, bring her along." Three months later Seldes and Larkin were married by the mayor of Paris' sixth arrondissement .

They honeymooned in Spain, where Seldes penned "the best book I ever wrote. It was called 'World Panorama,' and it was for Little Brown & Co., and it didn't sell one copy."

But Spain became a special haunt for Seldes and Larkin. Zealous supporters of the Spanish Civil War, fervent foes of Franco, they joined other leading U.S. defenders of the Loyalist cause in trying to spread its message in America. Years later, with Franco dead and buried, the Seldeses returned to spend holidays in Spain. There, in 1979, Seldes' wife of 47 years died quietly.

Returning Home

Seldes returned to the house here in rural Vermont where he and Helen had lived so happily. An earlier house, not far away, was bought with funds borrowed from close friend Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. His life here is quiet, punctuated mainly by frequent research expeditions to the Baker Library at nearby Dartmouth College, and regular Friday lunches at the Hanover Inn there. A tight web of friends keeps close watch on Seldes, and in turn each year he honors them with a giant thank-you party on his own birthday. It is to these 26 friends and neighbors, along with the editors to whom he still sends maple syrup each Christmas, that Seldes dedicates "The Great Thoughts."

Seldes, asserts one such neighbor/friend, innkeeper Audrey Wolpert, is "a national treasure, he really is." Never mind that more widely recognized writers, J. D. Salinger, for one, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for another, inhabit these hills as well. Lovingly, Wolpert lauds Seldes as far more than a local landmark. Equally fondly, she sends those who come to visit Seldes off with brown bags full of homemade goodies for her favorite author: fresh pate, today, homemade blintzes, some sausages to pop on the stove for an early supper.

By sunset, Seldes is swirling sherry in goblets he and Helen bought from a Spanish glass blower 30, maybe 40 years ago. "Five pesetas each. Bought all he had, a dozen." On one table lies a volume of Herodotus. "Hey, listen, he was a great journalist. He even said the whole story of Troy was a fraud." Nearby is a book on the McCarthy hearings, a subject Seldes launches into with almost no prodding at all.

Seldes, it turns out, holds the distinction of having been cleared by Joseph McCarthy. "In Fact," the periodical devoted to countering censorship and suppression that Seldes published for a decade in the '40s and '50s, was apparently part of what caused him to be summoned by McCarthy. " 'So if the President of the United States were to say you were a Communist,' " Seldes remembers McCarthy committee attorney Roy Cohn asking him, " 'you would say the President was a liar?' " Seldes said he narrowed his eyes and stared at McCarthy and Cohn, straight on. "If the President of the United States and all nine Justices of the Supreme Court were to say I was a Communist," Seldes said in a voice still brimming with wildly righteous indignation, "I would say they were all a bunch of liars." McCarthy pronounced Seldes cleared and sent him home.

His eye on history earned Seldes a role as one of the witnesses in Warren Beatty's movie "Reds." Seldes fleeting appearance was hardly enough to catapult him to fame and fortune, but one of his still-unwritten books, his nephew and literary agent Tim Seldes suggested, might ensure both on the basis of its title alone, "To Hell With the Joys of Old Age."

"Did I tell you I had a pacemaker put in last year?" Seldes inquired. "Of course when they put it in they said they were only good for seven years. . . ," Seldes smiled, "so in six years they'll have to put in another one."

Borrowing from Boswell, Seldes likes to say he is in his "anecdotage," and as such, he feels at perfect liberty to get on with the memoirs he has been accumulating these last nine-and-a-half decades. "Adventures With People," it will be called. "The Noted, the Notorious and Three S.O.B's."

"Men can commit murder," Seldes said, explaining the title, "but nobody will excuse dirty, dirty treachery. These will be my three examples of the most treacherous things in my career."

Prestigious Award

Honored two years ago with journalism's prestigious Polk Award, Seldes covets the telegram he received from "the acting President," as he calls Ronald Reagan, but bristles at accepting the label of conscience of the American press.

"Look," Seldes said, sounding just a shade impatient, "William Allen White and I had a formula: All we want is the facts, fairly and honestly presented. The truth will take care of itself." Late in the afternoon, 75 years into his career, Seldes is sitting on the couch, stroking the cat that came from a Fifth Avenue trash can. Seventy-five years into his career, said Seldes, the formula still holds. "Yes," he said quietly, "yes, I'm still working at that."

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