OBITUARY: George Seldes

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The Independent Online
George Seldes had a knack for getting thrown out of the right places. His first big scoop, as a cub reporter on the Pittsburgh Leader, came when the two-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan shoved Seldes out of his hotel room. Seldes was the Chicago Tribune's man in Moscow until Lenin ordered him out of the country. Mussolini performed a similar favour for Seldes in Rome two years later - even though Il Duce had been a stringer for Seldes before taking power.

Seldes had the last word, publishing a scathing biography of the Fascist leader, Sawdust Caesar (1936). But, in a career that covered most of the leading events of the 20th century, Seldes usually had the last word. Fired by the Tribune in the 1920s for taking an insufficiently patriotic view of the United States' conduct in Mexico, Seldes distilled his behind- the-scenes knowledge of how newspapers work into You Can't Print That: the truth behind the news, 1918-1928 (1929), Lords of the Press (1935) and Freedom of the Press (1938). The three books made his reputation as a press critic. Hauled before Senator McCarthy's committee in 1953, Seldes proclaimed his independence and dared McCarthy to prove otherwise. Blacklisted, vilified, nearly bankrupt, Seldes was one of the few American radicals who lived long enough to receive posthumous honours while he was still alive.

Born in 1890 in Alliance, New Jersey, an anarchist colony started by his father, Seldes entered journalism in the heyday of the muckrakers. Ida Tarbell had just published her History of the Standard Oil Company; Lincoln Steffens was busy exposing The Shame of the Cities. On one of his first assignments, Seldes was sent to interview a saleswoman who filed a rape charge against the son of department store owner. Eighty years later his voice still shook with outrage when he recalled how his story, instead of being published, was sent to the advertising department, which used it to sell the store more space "under threat of blackmail".

Though he never lost his capacity for outrage - or his conviction that advertisers were a far greater threat to journalistic freedom than government censorship - Seldes always delighted in the perquisites that came with his press pass. As William L. Shirer's predecessor in Berlin, Seldes kept a suite at the Adlon Hotel. He boasted of breakfast with Emma Goldman, lunch with Charlie Chaplin, dinner with Calvin Coolidge and drinks with Isadora Duncan - and had the cuttings to back up his stories. Seldes photographed Trotsky, exchanged letters with Freud, shook hands with Hitler, interviewed Albert Einstein and Joseph Conrad, and hung out with Ernest Hemingway.

A visitor to Hartland Four Corners, the tiny Vermont crossroads where Seldes spent his retirement, was rewarded with a torrent of famous names and polished anecdotes (many of them word-for-word renditions of the stories in Seldes's 1987 best-seller Witness to a Century). But it wasn't his ability as a raconteur that brought a steady parade of pilgrims to Seldes's door, it was his courage.

In 1940, Seldes returned to the US from covering the Spanish Civil War and was so disgusted by the American press he decided to start his own newsletter. In Fact was a four-page weekly compendium of news other newspapers wouldn't print - much of it sent to Seldes by other reporters. Partly inspired by Claud Cockburn's the Week and partly by the muckraking journals of his youth, Seldes exposed corporate wrongdoing, political chicanery and journalistic cowardice. In Fact took on Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh (for Nazi sympathies), the American Legion (for strike-breaking) and the tobacco industry (then the leading advertiser in American newspapers). It was In Fact's publication of a suppressed 1939 study, "Tobacco Smoking and Longevity", that led, more than 20 years later, to the US Surgeon General's report on smoking and health.

Starting with 5,000 subscribers - most of them members of the Congress of Industrial Organisations, the US equivalent of the TUC - by 1947 In Fact had 147,000. By 1950, Seldes's warnings about the danger of home- grown Fascism were falling on stony ground. The Cold War made dissent dangerous, and though the government couldn't put Seldes in jail, he always claimed In Fact was Red-baited out of existence.

"George Seldes was the father of the alternative press," said I.F. Stone, whose legendary I.F. Stone's Weekly, itself the bible for a generation of American radicals and journalists, was directly inspired by Seldes.

"In 1952 I was over in Paris as correspondent for a paper that I knew wouldn't last very long and George saw me over there and encouraged me to start a little weekly like his," said Stone in a 1982 documentary about Seldes. Seldes also gave Stone his subscription list.

Seldes saw his next project, an anthology of The Great Quotations, rejected by 20 publishers. Once it was published, in 1961, however, the book sold over a million copies. He was the author of 21 books, but was sinking into obscurity when Warren Beatty introduced him to a new audience in Reds, the 1981 film biography of his old friend the writer John Reed.

In 1992 a reporter for the Boston Globe asked George Seldes, then 102, how he'd like his obituary to begin. "Just say: George Seldes, 105 years old, died yesterday . . ."

He was off by a year.

John Guttenplan

George Seldes, journalist: born Alliance, New Jersey 16 November 1890; married 1932 Helen Larkin Weisman (died 1979); died Windsor, Vermont 2 July 1995.