Vietnam War reporter with an eye for illuminating detail
Tuesday 17 August 2004
Gloria Emerson was an American journalist and writer, who with passion, insight and art documented some of the darkest scenes of our times. She was best known for her award-winning reporting of the Vietnam War for the
New York Times.
Gloria Emerson, journalist: born New York 19 May 1929; twice married; died New York 3 August 2004.
Gloria Emerson was an American journalist and writer, who with passion, insight and art documented some of the darkest scenes of our times. She was best known for her award-winning reporting of the Vietnam War for the New York Times.
Her book about the war and its aftermath, Winners and Losers (1976) won the National Book Award in 1978. She published three further books: Some American Men (1985), Gaza, a year in the Intifada (1991), and a novel, set in Algeria, called Loving Graham Greene (2000).
Emerson was born in 1929 into a wealthy and, as she recalled, alcohol-impaired, New York family. She had no college education but rather "ran away from home" to travel and work as a journalist. She fell in love with Asia and especially Vietnam. Her early adventures included importuning an interview in India with Nehru, who assumed that she was a relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson (as her family sometimes claimed). Nehru told her that he dreamed in English.
She joined the New York Times in 1957 to work on the women's page but loathed the trivial hats-and-hemlines subject matter. She left the paper in 1960 to live in Brussels, but rejoined in the mid-1960s as a foreign correspondent based first in Paris and then London. She covered the early days of the troubles in Northern Ireland and the Nigerian Civil War. In 1970 she went to Vietnam.
In Vietnam Emerson wrote about the human impact of the war. Whereas her male colleagues were swept up in the hardware and strategy, she paid attention to the suffering of ordinary soldiers and South Vietnamese civilians.
Her stories ranged from an exposé of American officers falsely awarding themselves medals to a surreal account of a tank crew with a superstition against eating apricots, which, in a few spare sentences, showed young, exhausted men attempting to maintain control of their destiny in a place of sudden death. Though she said she lost count of the number of young Americans she comforted in their final moments, she never became inured to the suffering around her. She went on to cover conflicts in Southern Africa, Central America and the Middle East.
Emerson was a skilled interviewer who swiftly extracted illuminating details from the people she encountered, whether the formal subject of a story or that morning's taxi driver, yet friends knew little of her private life. She was married, unhappily, twice, to a Pole named Znamiecki and an Italian named Brofferio. She fended off further enquiries by explaining that they were Europeans and she "married them for their history". What was important to her she freely volunteered to the world: her keen sense of justice and sympathy for the oppressed. When those oppressed were the people of the Gaza strip, which whom she spent the year 1989, her compassion cost her friends.
Six feet tall, thin, and a frenetic smoker, Emerson did not suffer pretence or foolishness. She was the sort of New Yorker who thought nothing of intervening in the overly loud conversations of others with a strident "Oh please. . ." and pointing out if they were in error. The documentary film Imagine: John Lennon (1988) has preserved the moment in which she informs a rather startled Lennon exactly what she thinks about his celebrity gesture politics.
Despite her sometimes ferocious exterior, she was a devoted and funny friend and a generous and inspiring teacher. In the 1980s she became a familiar figure on the campus of Princeton University, where she served three spells as a Ferris Visiting Professor of Journalism. She also taught creative writing to Vietnam veterans through the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She remained in touch with and continued to help many of the people she had written about.
In 1994 she sustained a serious leg injury and never recovered full mobility again. But continued to write, still using a manual typewriter. In her last months she completed the introduction to a new edition of Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt (to be published by Penguin in October), and had also been working on a novel about Vietnam veterans. Like her friend and fellow war correspondent Martha Gelhorn, she chose the moment of her going. After a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease and many months of careful preparation she took her own life.
Her friend from days as a Manhattan "deb" Jackie Kennedy Onassis once remarked: "If I hadn't married I might have had a life very much like Gloria Emerson's". In a letter to Gloria written in April 1994 as her own death approached Jackie said: "I think you are more incredible than anyone in the street thinks I am."
Gloria Emerson felt the burden of her experiences too deeply to imagine anyone seriously envying her career. She was haunted by the things she had seen, and joked about someday requesting a lobotomy to help her forget. But she never forgot the Vietnam War and was dispirited by the news from Iraq that suggested that her countrymen had.
Nicholas J. Cull
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