Obituary: Helen Kirkpatrick Milbank
Thursday 08 January 1998
Helen Kirkpatrick, one of the first and best American war correspondents in the Second World War, was always at the forefront of the action.
She encountered little of the hostility experienced by other American women reporters in the war, her appearance as well as her expertise commanding respect. Having inherited the features of her Scottish ancestors, she was a distinguished-looking woman, with high cheek bones and bright blue eyes. As a fellow correspondent remarked, she was tall enough to overlook insults.
By the time the other American war correspondents arrived in Britain, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Kirkpatrick had five years' experience of Europe. At the age of 30, she knew most of the leaders of Britain and France, and they respected her.
Kirkpatrick had an outstanding academic record at Smith College, one of America's leading female universities, and later at the University of Geneva. She worked in France as a stringer for the New York Herald Tribune and in 1937 came to England as a freelance journalist, temporarily acting as the diplomatic correspondent of the Sunday Times.
Together with Victor Gordon-Lennox, of the Daily Telegraph, with whom she was on close terms, and with Graham Hutton of the Economist, she started a weekly newsletter, the Whitehall News, which waged a strong campaign against the policy of appeasing the dictators. In the House of Commons, it was regularly read by Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. The King of Sweden was another subscriber. As the men working on the newsletter were moonlighters, Kirkpatrick and her secretary were the only full-time members of the staff. Of the Munich Pact she wrote, "This truce may well induce rather than prevent war." She expanded her views in two books, This Terrible Peace (1938) and Under the British Umbrella (1939).
As war approached Kirkpatrick was engaged to the London office of the Chicago Daily News, Frank Knox's liberal rival of Colonel Robert McCormick's isolationist Chicago Tribune. As her first assignment she suggested she should interview the Duke of Windsor. Her male colleagues scoffed at the idea, knowing that the former king did not give interviews. But Kirkpatrick knew the people with whom he was staying in England and went to see them. The Duke explained that he had sworn not to give any interviews, but he saw no reason why he should not interview her. Thus her first contribution to the Chicago Daily News was the Duke of Windsor's interview of Helen Kirkpatrick.
Peter Knox, who was to become Roosevelt's Secretary of the Navy, explained to her, "We don't have women on the staff." She told him, "I can't change my sex. But you can change your policy." Knox did not change his policy. He simply made an exception for her.
She fearlessly reported the London Blitz and in 1943 she went to Algiers and spent six months covering the North African campaign, including the surrender of the Italian fleet at Malta. After D-Day the Free French requested her presence and she became the first correspondent assigned to the headquarters of the native forces operating inside France.
She entered Paris on 25 August 1944 riding in a tank of General Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division. In the subsequent Te Deum which General de Gaulle attended in Notre Dame Cathedral she, who was the next tallest person present after de Gaulle, had to throw herself on to the floor, as he did, when snipers began shooting at them.
She went to Hitler's famous mountain retreat, "Eagle's Nest", above Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, where she swiped a frying pan from the Fuhrer's kitchen to cook field rations. After the war she covered the war crimes trials at Nuremberg. As a roving correspondent for the New York Post she was one of the first to interview Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of newly independent India.
Kirkpatrick's next post was as information officer for the Marshall Plan mission in Paris in the mid 1940s. Later she moved to Washington to become the Public Affairs Officer for the Western European Division of the State Department. I was then the BBC news correspondent in Washington and found her a wise and reliable source. One day, just before my radio circuit to London, it was announced that the banker Winthrop Aldrich would be the next American Ambassador to London. I rang Helen Kirkpatrick urgently. "You must know Aldrich. Can you give me in one sentence what kind of a man he is?" Without hesitation she replied, "A closed mind and an open fly." In those days that kind of remark was not acceptable on the BBC news.
Kirkpatrick next returned to academic life as the secretary to the President of Smith College and in 1954 she married Robbins Milbank, one of the trustees of Smith, a member of a prominent New England family. The Milbanks maintained homes in New Hampshire and California. She worked as a civic leader in both states. After her husband's death she settled in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she died peacefully, just after having her hair trimmed.
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