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Inside the Inside Man

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The spines are fading now and advancing higher up the shelves in second-hand bookshops. Yet, when glimpsed, the word ‘Inside’ in their titles tells all – these are the journalistic documentary works of John Gunther.

Inside Europe, Inside USA, Inside Russia . . . if journalism is the first draft of history, John Gunther’s journalistic documentary works are indisputably dated – his last, Inside Australia, had to be co-authored and was published in 1972, two years after his death. The books are time-capsules: all the world leaders and political figures featured in the Inside series – and they focus primarily on leaders and politicians – are long gone. Gunther’s style, however, is still most vividly alive. He was first and foremost a reporter, and throughout his books an immediate journalistic active-case style dominates – short, punchy sentences such as ‘Hitler rants. He orates. He seldom answers questions.’ And: ‘If Stalin has nerves, they are veins in rock.’

These quotations are from his first book, Inside Europe, first published in 1936 and updated in no less than twenty-six editions over two years – quite a publishing feat in the turbulent pre-war period. In his own memoir about his writing entitled Inside the Inside Books (1962), Gunther tells how, as an already-busy European newspaper correspondent, he did all he could to evade taking on what was to become Inside Europe. In 1934 his publisher, Cass Canfield of Harper & Brothers, had to track Gunther down to a hotel in Vienna and sit on his bed to get him to agree to the project. On its publication, the book not only sold well but also won praise. The diplomat and diarist Harold Nicolson called Inside Europe ‘a serious contribution to contemporary knowledge. This is one of the most educative as well as one of the most exciting books I have read for years.’

What of John Gunth

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The spines are fading now and advancing higher up the shelves in second-hand bookshops. Yet, when glimpsed, the word ‘Inside’ in their titles tells all – these are the journalistic documentary works of John Gunther.

Inside Europe, Inside USA, Inside Russia . . . if journalism is the first draft of history, John Gunther’s journalistic documentary works are indisputably dated – his last, Inside Australia, had to be co-authored and was published in 1972, two years after his death. The books are time-capsules: all the world leaders and political figures featured in the Inside series – and they focus primarily on leaders and politicians – are long gone. Gunther’s style, however, is still most vividly alive. He was first and foremost a reporter, and throughout his books an immediate journalistic active-case style dominates – short, punchy sentences such as ‘Hitler rants. He orates. He seldom answers questions.’ And: ‘If Stalin has nerves, they are veins in rock.’ These quotations are from his first book, Inside Europe, first published in 1936 and updated in no less than twenty-six editions over two years – quite a publishing feat in the turbulent pre-war period. In his own memoir about his writing entitled Inside the Inside Books (1962), Gunther tells how, as an already-busy European newspaper correspondent, he did all he could to evade taking on what was to become Inside Europe. In 1934 his publisher, Cass Canfield of Harper & Brothers, had to track Gunther down to a hotel in Vienna and sit on his bed to get him to agree to the project. On its publication, the book not only sold well but also won praise. The diplomat and diarist Harold Nicolson called Inside Europe ‘a serious contribution to contemporary knowledge. This is one of the most educative as well as one of the most exciting books I have read for years.’

What of John Gunther the man? To me he seems to typify, possibly unfairly, the tough American newspaper reporter of the prewar period. Born in Chicago in 1901, and therefore growing up with the century whose events he was to chronicle, he joined the Chicago Daily News as a reporter at the age of 21. In 1934 he was in Europe as the newspaper’s bureau chief in London, working successively in Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, Rome and Paris, in what he called the ‘bubbling, blazing days of American foreign correspondence in Europe . . . before journalism became institutionalized. We were scavengers, buzzards, out to get the news no matter whose wings got clipped.’

In those days of emerging dictatorships, local wars and only rudimentary air travel, he managed to hop around Europe interviewing everyone who mattered. His primary focus was always on leadership, on power – summed up in his own question, ‘Who runs this place?’ He believed that ‘the accidents of personality play a great role in history’.

In his memoir Gunther lists questions that he always tried to put to political leaders; one he cites as ‘What are his fundamental sources of power?’ (There are very few ‘hers’ in the Inside series.) Knowing this, the reader can see the structures of support behind and beneath leaders from Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin to De Valera, Piłsudski and Churchill – and the benefits for the author of a chilly car ride through the Ebbw Vale coalfields with Aneurin Bevan. His chapter on the Romania of the colourful King Carol and his court could be pure Broadway musical comedy were it not for that country’s corruption. Reading the yellowing and invariably foxed books now, one cannot help but wear the spectacles of hindsight; yet Gunther was frequently spot-on in his predictions – including the certainty of war as a result of the rise of Hitler, and the eventual emergence of Churchill, then in his ‘wilderness’ period. ‘Millions’, he wrote in 1936, ‘depend for life or death on the will of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. Never have politics been so vital and dynamic as today.’

The phrase aptly describes Gunther’s writing style – nothing dry or overly academic there; one of his sub-heads is simply: ‘More Fascist scurvy’. Both his full profiles and his shorter ‘pocket’ summaries of political, military, business and social figures are vibrant with colour; one British lady, he said, credited him with ‘treating gossip in the grand manner’.

And he didn’t stop at Europe. At the end of the Thirties, along with his wife Frances, he visited eighteen Asian countries in ten months for the volume that would be published in 1939 as Inside Asia. His travels included overflying the Khyber Pass standing in the open cockpit of a fighter plane. And onwards: after revising Inside Europe yet again he set about tackling Latin America, travelling over 18,000 miles by air from Mexico to the Straits of Magellan, and interviewing on average twenty leading people per country, a total of over 400 interviews. Like its predecessors, the work contains nuggets of Gunther colour. Of the Argentinian leader General Justo he observed: ‘He likes to eat chocolates rapidly one after another.’ That the book did not contain a single mention of Juan and Evita Perón, who were to dominate Argentina’s politics a decade later, only demonstrates the transient nature of both politics and journalism.

After reporting the Second World War in the Mediterranean and Europe, Gunther went home, so to speak, to research and write Inside USA. By this time, he said, he ‘cared less what a dictator ate for breakfast’. Yet his state-by-state analysis is full of colourful detail, from the hyperactive Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, to the shenanigans of Governor Huey Long in Louisiana. Pointing up the transience of Gunther’s books are the single-line mentions of future presidents such as John F. Kennedy – ‘an attractive youngster’; Richard Nixon – ‘a noisy congressman’; and Lyndon Johnson – ‘wellliked by the middle citizenry . . . of Texas’.

Inside USA was poignant in its timing. Gunther said the book had been the suggestion of his son and only surviving child, Johnny, and it is to the youngster, only 17 when he died of a brain tumour in 1947, that the book is dedicated. One’s vision of a hard-boiled newspaperman ready to ride roughshod over his subjects’ feelings in his deadline-driven rush to judgement is shaken by Gunther’s handling of his son’s fate. After Inside USA, Gunther and Frances wrote the ineffably moving narrative, Death Be Not Proud (from John Donne), the story of his son’s life, his illness and his parents’ vain quest for successful treatment. John Gunther the journalist-writer managed to go on, travelling again in post-war Europe’s newly Communist countries. Reading Behind Europe’s Curtain today one can see the broken people, the dank rubble, the makeshift street furniture, and smell the boiled dumplings and potatoes of broken and battered cities like Berlin and Warsaw. In the mid-Fifties he produced yet another continental doorstopper, Inside Africa. Here, conducting 1,500 interviews and still master of the colourful nugget, he described one African Scoop-like state where dignitaries wore top hats to social occasions in order to facilitate thieving, the budget for brass bands exceeded that for public health and an official communiqué reported: ‘Tommy guns announced the arrival of the guests of honour.’ He wrote lengthy profiles – of Eisenhower, MacArthur, Roosevelt – and followed Inside Africa with Inside Russia three years later. He produced novels too, including The Lost City, reflecting his time in pre-war Vienna. I first picked up Inside Europe as a teenager in a second-hand bookshop in Dorking. Having been brought up on dry history atschool, I was enchanted by a pre-war Europe I hadn’t of course experienced, as well as the journalistic style I still admire fifty years on. Tips for budding journalists abound; as a reporter who only took written notes – never a tape recorder – Gunther reveals how he often got his most revelatory quotes once he’d slipped his notebook into his pocket, at which point his subjects felt they could relax. When a couple of years later Anthony Sampson produced his first Anatomy of Britain in 1962, one could see shades of Gunther in Sampson’s own seeking out of the sources of British power. Sampson acknowledged this with the final book in the Anatomy series, published in 2004 and titled Who Runs This Place? Gunther can be credited with founding modern-day ‘book journalism’. Incredibly he had no team of researchers and seems to have travelled only with his wives, first Frances and then Jane. But what do his Inside books and his prolific output generally offer to the bibliophile of today? He wrote primarily for an American readership so his books have recurring touches of provincialism. But anyone wanting to see how Europe’s terrible fate was already evident in the mid-Thirties should find and read Inside Europe. And there’s more: whether he’s in Paraguay, Thailand or Australia, or inside General Eisenhower’s office at SHAPE, over half a century later his writing remains vital and fresh. In three highly productive decades, he interviewed most world leaders and wrote profiles of political leadership in practically every country of the world – producing books that could well serve as set texts for the lesson of history. John Gunther was published in Britain by Hamish Hamilton, to whom he paid tribute, along with Cass Canfield, for getting the Inside books going. He died in New York in 1970, aged 69. If you can find them, his books pretty much contain his life, though a biography by Ken Cuthbertson was published in 1992.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 44 © Matt Huber 2014


About the contributor

Matt Huber started working life as a newspaper journalist and wishes he’d had the nerve to stick with it. Now he studies history, writes unpublished fiction – and worries about Putin’s Russia.

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