Obituary: Henry Tanner

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HENRY TANNER turned up at the New York Times after emigrating from Switzerland in the late 1940s and pleaded to work for the paper of his dreams, even as an office clerk. He was turned down and took a Greyhound bus to Texas where the editors at the Houston Post saw what he was worth. "Only the Post has Tanner," its ads would run, listing the 30-year old journalist's experiences: United Press reporter with Tito in war-time Yugoslavia, in Trieste under partisan rule, covering the first post-war Greek elections, the Italian plebiscite (the monarchy lost to the republic by a hair's-breadth), filing from the gloom of post-occupation France and Holland.

Indeed, Henry Tanner - "solid and correct," the Post's ad had called him, "a personable man, bordering on the handsome" - was one of the last journalists to have covered the Second World War and gone on to report from the Congo and pre-independence Algeria, from the UN to the 1968 Paris riots, the 1980 Iran-Iraq war and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

He was one of the last "pre-media" men, brought up on the wire agencies long before the days of satellite television and websites, appalled by the cruelty he witnessed, carefully excising his emotions from his reports, a quiet man who had rowed across the lake outside his hometown in Switzerland to look at "Anschluss" Austria, immediately hating the German soldiers he saw on the streets.

He joined the Swiss army in 1939 at a time when it looked as if they might have to fight. His brother joined the RAF and died when his plane crashed in 1943. In Zurich for the United Press, Tanner tuned in to the German service of Soviet radio and broke the story of Russia's last great offensive against Paulus's Sixth Army at Stalingrad.

War would frame Tanner's professional career; in 1975, his friend and colleague Edouard Saab was shot dead by a sniper as he drove Tanner across the Beirut front line. Spattered with blood and with a piece of glass in his own eye, Tanner wrestled the wheel from his dead friend and steered the vehicle through a sandbag emplacement. When that night he reported Saab's death in the New York Times - the paper had had the good sense to hire him in the mid-Fifties and he stayed with them for 30 years - he did not even mention his own role in the drama.

He had studied at universities in France, Italy, Switzerland and the United States, although after the word "Degrees" in Box 36B of his application to join the Times in New York, Tanner wrote: "None." He didn't finish degrees. Perhaps this lent his work a cold, almost chilling reality, free of the self-conscious academic analyses in which younger journalists liked to indulge.

In the Iranian city of Khorramshah, newly liberated from the Iraqis in 1982, Tanner would write that he had found "a wasteland of rubble, minefields and abandoned trenches. Virtually no building has escaped destruction. There is no life in the ruins." He could have been writing about Stalingrad.

Tanner did not suffer those he thought were fools. Those whose work he disliked could expect no mercy. He once berated me at a party in Cairo for an article I had written in the London Times on the lack of democracy in Lebanon. "Way over the top," he said bluntly. "But I loved the piece you did on Lebanese censorship the following day. Gin and tonic, Bob?"

Henry Tanner knew how to make a point. His closeness to his only son Vic - named after the brother killed in the RAF - produced pages of private memoirs from father to son. Among the most powerful is an account of a turbulent Yugoslav province in 1945, hearing distant gunfire as he drove along mile after mile of empty roads, past "furtive figures" who would disappear into the forests. The province was Kosovo.

He was horrified by human cruelty, his disgust manifesting itself in a taut prose which could also be brilliant journalism. In Lebanon during the civil war - already 58 years old - he wrote of how the highway north of Beirut was:

humming pleasantly with noon-time traffic . . . and the small white sedan holding its speed at 40 miles an hour looked like all the other cars. But trailing behind it, dangling feet first from the end of a rope, was a dead man. His back swept the road. He wore a torn yellow shirt and dark slacks caked with blood and dirt. He had a wound in his chest. One ear had been cut off. When the body hit a hole, the head jerked and the bent, rigid arms jumped like those of a puppet.

If he did not suffer fools, Tanner was an intensely loyal man to his friends, remaining in touch with his faithful Egyptian driver Gamal Moheddin years after leaving Cairo, insisting on always footing the bill when he met friends for lunch at his favourite Parisian restaurant, La Bauta in Montparnasse. And when the waiters greeted him with "Bonjour Monsieur Tanner", the old reporter would look furtively at guests to see if they understood the reverence with which he had been addressed.

He was happy at the end of his life, having married a woman much younger than himself only last September, retreating at weekends to the home he had made in Normandy. The day after his death, the International Herald Tribune was commemorating the May 68 Paris riots. And there, amid a page of contemporary reports was the by-line: Henry Tanner. Old journalists, it seems, never die.

Henry Tanner, journalist: born Berne, Switzerland 7 July 1918; married three times, second Peggy Aarup (deceased; one son), third Christine Gensollen; died Lisieux, France 15 May 1998.