DATELINE — LIBERATED PARIS: THE HOTEL SCRIBE AND THE INVASION OF THE PRESS
By Ronald Weber
Rowman & Littlefield, $27.95, 232 pages
It was if Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s hard-bitten, cynical and profane crime-beat reporter characters from the 1928 play “The Front Page” were all assigned to cover liberated Paris in World War II.
In Ronald Weber’s “Dateline Liberated Paris: The Hotel Scribe and the Invasion of the Press,” an army of war correspondents converged on Paris after the Nazi Germans left the “City of Light” toward the end of the war.
As Mr. Weber explains, in the European combat zones of World War II, press camps were an integral part of Allied operations. Accredited war correspondents attached to combat units dressed in the uniforms of their countries and wore insignia that identified them as correspondents. They were treated as captains, although they wore no insignia of rank.
The correspondents were housed in buildings or tents and they were fed, briefed on war news, and given jeeps with military drivers for transportation by military public-relations officers. The correspondents’ copy, photos, radio broadcasts, field art and personal letters were reviewed by military censors before they were sent out by cable, teletype, mobile radio, or by land and air courier to the international media centers. The press camps followed the combat units as they moved on to new positions.
“The Hotel Scribe was one of several Allied press camps on the march from Normandy to Germany. It was also one of a kind,” Mr. Weber tells us. “Among other distinctive features, it was located in central Paris in a storied hotel that before the war was favored by foreign journalists and during the occupation became the Nazi headquarters for information and propaganda. It had a lounge bar and dining room, an experienced French staff, chambermaids, phone service, running water, electricity, and enough coal for some heat and warm baths in limited hours. It could accommodate as many as five hundred correspondents, as against the fifty or fewer of other press camps.”
The Scribe quickly took on an aura of journalistic legend and folklore, as a good number of correspondents chronicled the hotel as well as the war in their dispatches. The Scribe was also featured in several novels and nonfiction books by the correspondent residents and customers after the war.
“In a report just after the liberation, the Reuters news service pinpointed the Scribe as the maddest place in all of the mad city of freed Paris,” Mr. Weber notes. “Press jeeps ad trailers packed the street outside while inside the hotel was completely booked with Allied correspondents. The busiest spot within the hotel, Reuters added, was the dining area, where the clatter of typewriters comingled with shouts of correspondents needing hot water to brew coffee from military powder. Other reports claimed the basement-level bar as the hotel’s top attraction.”
After the war, Life magazine published a photo of a painting by Floyd Davis, a combat field artist, which showed correspondents packed tightly at the bar. Some of whom, such as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Capa and Ernie Pyle, were world famous. The painting is featured on the cover of “Dateline Liberated Paris.”
Mr. Weber notes that it was appropriate for the Scribe to house the war correspondent scribblers in Paris. The hotel was named for a writer, Eugene Scribe, a popular French literary figure who died in 1861 as the hotel was under construction.
The book profiles the well-known correspondents, as well as the lessor known. The book also profiles the brave and resourceful women war correspondents, such as Helen Kirkpatrick, Marguerite Higgins, and Ernest Hemingway’ then-wife, Martha Gellhorn, and his future wife, Mary Welch.
As a Hemingway aficionado, I was interested in reading more about the famed author’s wartime activities. Although Ernest Hemingway famously “liberated” the Ritz Hotel in Paris with some French resistance fighters, he also spent a good deal of time at the Scribe. He was disliked by many, but one admirer introduced himself to the novelist as Eric Blair, and then told him his pen name was George Orwell.
The famous novelist was hired by Colliers, which billed him as their “famed war correspondent.” As a magazine correspondent rather than a daily newspaper one, he was able to follow any military group he chose. With his driver, Army Pvt. Archie Pelkey, Ernest Hemingway drove around freely in a jeep and Reuters reported that the novelist and his driver took six prisoners after first tossing grenades into the house the Germans held. He was later accused of participating as a combatant rather than a correspondent, a charge that he was cleared of.
“Dateline Liberated Paris” is a well-researched book that covers how World War II was covered by the men and women war correspondents.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.