Lester Ziffren, 101; journalist reported on Spanish Civil War, later wrote Charlie Chan films

From a Times Staff Writer

Lester Ziffren, a former United Press reporter who was among the first journalists to report the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and whose later career in Hollywood included credits as a screenwriter of Charlie Chan films, has died. He was 101.

Ziffren died of congestive heart failure Nov. 12 at his home in New York City, said his daughter, Didi Hunter.

Born April 30, 1906, in Rock Island, Ill., Ziffren began his reporting career writing golf stories for the local newspaper. He then went to the University of Missouri, earning a degree in journalism in 1927. According to a biography released by his daughter, Ziffren joined United Press when he encountered the president of the news agency at his college graduation dinner. He asked for a job and got one. A year later, he traveled to Buenos Aires and covered South America throughout the late 1920s.


After a stint on the foreign desk of United Press in New York, he was sent to Madrid in 1933 to cover political developments.

He provided nightly broadcast reports for United Press on the run-up to the Spanish Civil War.

In July 1936, he sent a coded message to the New York office reporting that elements of Spain’s military stationed in Spanish Morocco had revolted. With support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, this action signaled the start of a greater military move against the Republican government. By the end of July, rebel forces in the military controlled a third of the country.

By the end of the year, his daughter said, Ziffren had run afoul of Gen. Francisco Franco, the nationalist leader, and decided to leave the country. Franco ruled the country until his death in 1975.

United Press offered him a post in Rome. But Ziffren, traumatized by the experience in Spain, rejected the offer and wound up in Hollywood.

In the late 1930s, he joined 20th Century Fox as a scriptwriter and worked on several Charlie Chan films starring Sidney Toler, including “Charlie Chan in Panama” and “Charlie Chan in Rio.”

During World War II, he worked in Chile as an aide to U.S. Ambassador Claude Bowers, whom he had known in Spain.

After the war, Ziffren returned to Los Angeles and ran his father-in-law’s talent agency, whose clients included director John Ford. But in the early 1950s, he returned to government work as the first secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Colombia.

During the 1960s, he was public relations director for Kennecott Copper in New York.

He later founded the North American-Chilean Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to his daughter, Ziffren is survived by a sister.