Obituary: William Shirer

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE OTHER facet of William Shirer's remarkable talent is worth pointing up, writes Jack Adrian (further to the obituary by Sir Geoffrey Cox, 30 December). His fiction.

By no means a prolific novelist (his total output came to less than a handful), he nevertheless made a notable contribution to that small body of anti-Joe-McCarthy literature courageously written and published actually at the height of the McCarthyite witch hunts. His 1954 novel Stranger Come Home concerns the fate of one Raymond Whitehead, journalist and radio broadcaster, who returns to the United States after 20 years in Europe to join the Federal Broadcasting Company as a commentator and is then blacklisted for his liberal views, sacked and nearly jailed.

When reviewers remarked on a certain resemblance to real life, Shirer insisted that his characters and events in the book were entirely imaginary. This was somewhat disingenuous. Whitehead's wife, like Shirer's, was European; his career matched his creator's point by point, even to his blacklisting by a right-wing magazine called Red Airwaves (in reality Red Channels). His nemesis, the thuggish Senator O'Brien, is 'short and flabby-faced' with 'something shifty in his eyes': all in all a dead ringer for Tailgunner Joe, right down to his irritating 'nasal whine'.

Some of Shirer's most stinging barbs, however, were reserved for the 'half-demented' journalist Burt Woodruff, who routinely 'spews out a venomous column of complete tripe . . insults . . . vituperation . . .' and whose 'pinched, angular nose' and 'large mouth with thick lips' did nothing to disguise the columnist, broadcaster, rabid anti-Communist and thoroughly nasty piece of work Walter Winchell, at one time or another creature to both J. Edgar Hoover and the egregious Roy Cohn.

Stranger Come Home (Shirer cleverly utilised the diary format which had made his non-fiction Berlin Diary such a massive bestseller) was not a great novel - it didn't have the tragic power of Irwin Shaw's The Troubled Air (1950) or the 'Hollywood Ten' scriptwriter Alvah Bessie's The Un-Americans (1957) - but it was an honest and compelling one, and a brave effort, written as it was a year before McCarthy stupidly took on the US Army and spectacularly lost, thereby paving the way for his own ignominious end.

Comments