A Fur Coat and a Typewriter

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As yet another fearless female reporter in a flak jacket flashes on to our television screens to tell us in rapid bursts how British troops came under fire that day, I often think of the handful of women eighty or so years earlier who fought for the privilege of being in a war zone and communicating that horror to those at home.

I have an indelible image of one beautiful young woman in particular: Virginia Cowles, a Lauren Bacall lookalike. Cowles, an American, was in her mid-twenties when she arrived in Spain in March 1937, just after the devastating battle of Guadalajara. She was deposited in the middle of a square in Valencia with three dresses, a fur coat, a hat and a typewriter but no Spanish money or preparation for war. She had to ask a stranger for directions and realized later that one reason she was attracting unwelcome attention was because the band around her suitcase was red and yellow – Franco’s colours. She certainly looked glamorous but, as she herself said, her knowledge of foreign affairs was negligible.

However, for the next five years she reported tirelessly on world affairs as Europe hurtled towards war, and several American and British newspapers relied on her vivid first-hand accounts of how Britain and her allies were failing to stop the march of the dictators. Her natural intelligence more than filled any gaps left by her inexperience and she was taken up by leading politicians and newspaper magnates as well as other male foreign correspondents.

After several months in Spain she was sent to Germany, then Moscow and Kiev in the freezing winter of 1938–9, Romania, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. She was in France when that country was invaded, having been helped by the French Ministry of Information to acquire official accreditation in a war zone (the British were less co-operative). After the fall of France she returned to London and it was there that she wrote an extraordinary first-hand account of that perilous tim

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About the contributor

Anne Sebba was the first woman to work at Reuters as a graduate trainee foreign correspondent. Her book Battling for News: From the Risorgimento to Tiananmen Square (also now available as a Faber Find) was about female reporters. Her biography of Wallis Simpson will be published this summer.

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