Robert St. John, 100; Gave News as History Was Made

Times Staff Writer

Robert St. John, a globetrotting journalist who seemed to be on the scene or on the air for most of the 20th century's major news events -- mobster Al Capone's grip on Chicago, the Nazi onslaught through the Balkans, the London Blitz, D-day, the end of World War II and Israeli independence -- has died. He was 100.

St. John, who wrote more than a score of books after he was booted off the radio in the McCarthy Era, died Thursday of natural causes at his home in suburban Waldorf, Md.

Among his books were three autobiographies -- one aptly titled "Foreign Correspondent" -- which cannot begin to cover St. John's century of living or 4 million miles of travel, observing and reporting from 88 different nations.

St. John's longevity paralleled his endurance in front of a microphone. Reporting for NBC Radio in New York on June 6, 1944, which would become known in history as D-day, and again at war's end in August 1945, he was on the air 117 hours for one event and 72 for the other.

'A Fateful Hour'

"Ladies and gentlemen," he daringly announced at 1 a.m. that June 6, "we may be approaching a fateful hour. All night long bulletins have been pouring in from Berlin claiming that D-day is here. One -- unconfirmed by Allied sources, of course -- says that heavy fighting is taking place between the Germans and invasion forces on the Normandy Peninsula, about 31 miles southwest of Le Havre."

Fourteen months later, a war-weary U.S. clung to radios, awaiting word of Japan's surrender. Any announcement from Asia would reach St. John's New York newsroom on a wire service teletype machine, which had prescribed signals for major news. Associated Press, for example, would ring five bells before spewing out typed copy of an important story, and 10 bells for news "of transcendental importance."

On Aug. 14, stalling while talking steadily into the NBC network's open microphone, St. John heard five bells and waited only to hear a sixth bell, before announcing confidently: "Ladies and gentlemen, World War II is over. The Japanese have agreed to our surrender terms."

He had scored a 20-second scoop on other broadcasters.

When the story streamed out of the teletype machine after all 10 bells had sounded, a copy girl ripped off the paper and took it to St. John in the broadcast booth, confirming what he had just announced.

"After I got off the air," St. John told National Public Radio in an interview in 2001, "somebody said to me, 'St. John, what would you have done if that piece of paper had said, 'The president has been assassinated'?"

"I said," the self-effacing journalist candidly admitted, " 'I would have put on my hat and coat, walked out of that broadcasting booth, out of the NBC newsroom. I wouldn't have even stopped to collect my pay.' "

Born March 9, 1902, in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., St. John attended high school with Ernest Hemingway and delightedly claimed that both had been told by their English teacher, "Neither one of you will ever learn to write."

At age 16, St. John lied about his age to enlist in the Navy during World War I. On his return from France, he became the campus correspondent for the Hartford Courant while attending Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. But he was soon expelled for trying to expose the college president's censorship of an outspoken English professor.

Abandoning formal education, St. John pursued journalism as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago American. In 1923, with his brother, he co-founded the Cicero Tribune in suburban Cicero, Ill., and at 21, became the youngest editor-publisher in the country.

Scoop on Capone

Either courageous or foolhardy, St. John published a series of exposes about Cicero brothels and other operations of gangster Al Capone.

One morning on his way to the office, St. John was accosted by four Capone goons and beaten to a pulp.

He brashly complained to the police, and was invited back the next day to meet Capone in person. The gang leader offered St. John money -- which the reporter rejected -- and apologized, saying he liked newsmen and considered the exposes a form of advertising.

St. John worked for newspapers in Rutland, Vt.; Camden, N.J.; and Philadelphia before signing on as New York night city editor for Associated Press in 1931-33.

Then he moved to New Hampshire to farm for six years and write the great American novel. The novel didn't materialize.

In 1939, a friend suggested he ought to go to Europe to report on the imminent war. So St. John flew to Paris and took a train to Budapest. He went to the Associated Press bureau there, he once said, to get help translating the menu in a nearby restaurant.

He was asked if he could type, and when he said yes, he was hired on the spot, as his new boss yelled, "The Luftwaffe is bombing Warsaw!"

For two years, St. John reported from the Balkans. He fled from Belgrade with other newsmen when Hitler's troops overran Yugoslavia. In the harrowing 28 days it took him to get to Cairo on May 2, St. John dodged both German and Italian bullets, was wounded in the leg by shrapnel while riding in a Greek troop train and survived a perilous 400-mile journey down the Albanian coast in what he described as "a 20-foot sardine boat" with an outboard motor.

After filing dispatches from Egypt, despite losing all his notes, he made his way to Cape Town, South Africa, and by ship home to New York. There he holed up in the Roosevelt Hotel and, using his two-finger typing technique and a $7 Yugoslavian typewriter he had carried all the way, wrote "what I saw and smelled and heard." The resulting book, "From the Land of Silent People" published in 1942, was his first, and a bestseller.

Like most of St. John's later books, it earned mixed reviews. One reviewer called it "second-rate writing" while another said it was "the most distinguished front-line reporting" and some compared it favorably with the war reporting of Ambrose Bierce, Richard Harding Davis and even Leo Tolstoy.

After writing the book, St. John switched to broadcast reporting for NBC Radio, moving in 1942 to London, where he reported on the Nazi bombing of the city, and on to Washington, D.C., and then New York.

Victim of Red List

When he wrote a second book on Yugoslavia, "The Silent People Speak" in 1948, the New York Times Book Review suggested that his use of Communist sources made him "a subconscious follower of the 'party line.' "

Although intimates said St. John never liked Communism, he became one of 151 writers, performers, directors and others listed in the 1950 Red Channels, an American Business Consultants' report of Communist influence in radio and television. NBC fired him.

St. John spent the next 15 years based in Switzerland, before returning to the U.S., always roaming the world to write and broadcast major events on radio or in magazines and books. His work included research around the globe for the World Book Encyclopedia.

He became regarded as a Middle East specialist after covering the war for Israeli independence and the nation's subsequent wars into his 80s. Several of his books involved the Middle East, including biographies of David Ben-Gurion, Gamel Abdel Nasser and Abba Eban, and his lectures in 49 states including California focused on Mideast troubles. One of the books, "Shalom Means Peace," was called by one critic "the best book on Israel's birth written by a non-Jew."

St. John once discussed his consuming interest in the Middle East with the anthology Contemporary Authors, saying: "As an AP war correspondent during the early days of World War II, I followed the Nazi army down through Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Greece and saw at close hand what Hitler's men were doing to Jews.... Then in 1948, still as a correspondent, I reported the partition of Palestine and the rebirth of Israel, and acquired tremendous respect for an ancient people seeking to make for themselves a dignified and respected place in the family of nations."

In April, PBS will attempt to chronicle St. John's remarkable career as part of its "The Living Century" series hosted by Walter Cronkite and produced by Barbra Streisand and Steven Latham Productions.

St. John is survived by his second wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1965; and his half-brother, Richard.

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