By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 23, 1988
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 23, 1988
George Seldes has been called every name in the book: scoundrel, troublemaker, Red. Sometimes he was called nothing at all. He swears that for 40 years his name never soiled the pages of The New York Times - and that was worse.
But Seldes outlasted every one of his critics and, at 97, is at work on his 22nd book. The recent publication of his memoir, Witness to a Century, even earned him a review in the Times. It was, of course, unfavourable.
Seldes has come to expect such treatment. He was kicked out of revolutionary Russia by Trotsky, and banished from Italy by Mussolini.
He fared little better at home, where his vociferous criticisms of the tobacco and newspaper industries led them to vilify his name.
For years no publisher would touch his work, and Seldes seemed destined to live out his life embittered and forgotten in a farmhouse in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
But after Warren Beatty interviewed him as one of his "witnesses" in the 1981 movie Reds, Seldes became the subject of newspaper and magazine profiles. Abigail van Buren, who writes the syndicated newspaper column Dear Abby, urged her readers to buy his books.
The old muckraker has lived long enough to see his reputation rehabilitated in his lifetime.
"At 90, all your sins are forgiven," says Seldes, who won a prestigious George Polk award for journalism six years ago. "I'm pushing 98. It's a little late for all this recognition and all this cash."
Ballantine Books will publish his current effort, which is tentatively titled To Hell With the Joys of Old Age. It opens with the sentence: "Retirement is the dirtiest 10-letter word in the English language."
Seldes, who has been a reporter for almost 80 years, is press critic and gadfly rolled into one. He led the way for both A.J. Liebling and I.F. Stone, who acknowledges his debt by calling Seldes "the granddaddy of us investigative reporters."
Seldes lives in a book-lined farmhouse in Hartland-4-Corners, where he pecks at the same 50-year-old typewriter he has used to write his last dozen books. On one wall hangs a portrait of Seldes done on the streets of Paris for a modest 10 francs. The artist was a yet undiscovered Alexander Calder.
Seldes says he owes his remarkable career to one simple ethic: Let the facts speak for themselves.
"I was trained that news is news no matter where it originates," he says.
Seldes was born in a Utopian colony founded by his father in New Jersey. The Russian writer Maxim Gorky was an early visitor, and the first of an impressive line of personages that Seldes would meet. He also recalls reading letters his father got from Prince Kropotkin, the anarchist, and Tolstoy.
He was hired as a cub reporter by the Pittsburgh Leader for $3.50 a week in 1909. The teen-ager soon won a front-page story when the politician William Jennings Bryan, clad in a one-piece suit of woolly underwear, evicted the pup from his hotel room for the impertinence of his questioning.
He interviewed Teddy Roosevelt and steel tycoon Andrew Mellon, but lost his reporting job after Rev. Billy Sunday visited Pittsburgh during a revivalist campaign. Seldes wrote that when Sunday called on sinners to come forward to repent, the first to do so were frauds paid to lure others from the crowd.
He was a war correspondent during the First World War and was later hired by the Chicago Tribune foreign news service. His beat stretched from Berlin to Baghdad, he liked to say, and he covered Balkan kings and Baltic presidents.
He was with Woodrow Wilson during the making of the Treaty of Versailles, knew Douglas MacArthur when he was still a colonel, and interviewed Hindenburg and Lenin. He met Hitler at a party in 1925 and found him insignificant.
Seldes covered the Spanish Civil War for the New York Post, and with his wife stayed in the same small hotel that housed Ernest Hemingway, who, though he fought with Seldes, called him "a damn fine newspaperman."
Seldes counted Theodore Dreiser among his cronies, and Sinclair Lewis bought him his first home in Vermont.
"Hemingway, Lewis, Dreiser, every one of them was a genuine newspaperman," Seldes said. "They became reporters not because they looked at it as a stepping stone to becoming novelists. They intended to make it their life's business, but something always stepped in and they went out."
Seldes briefly tried his hand at fiction, but declared his work a disaster and returned to what he felt so comfortable compiling - facts.
Near the end of the Depression, Seldes and Hemingway were hired by Esquire magazine editor Arnold Gingrich to write columns for a new publication to be called Ken.
"Ken magazine was one of the greatest disappointments of my life," Seldes says. "We would have had millions backing us in a big, illustrated publication like Life or Look. It was going to be called Ken: One Step Left of Centre. And the advertising agencies said, 'one step left of centre and you don't get one page of advertising.' And that killed it."
Soon after, Seldes founded his own magazine, a four-page weekly. It was to be a journal of press criticism and he called it In Fact: An Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press. For a reporter who began his career during the final days of the muckraking era, the newsletter cast a much- needed spotlight on an industry too long free of criticism.
"You can't imagine the days when you could buy the editorial policy of any paper in Pittsburgh for a $2-an-inch ad," he says. "Things like that don't happen any more."
In Fact was launched with $1,500 raised by 6,000 labor subscriptions at 25 cents each. Seldes wrote every word, but he was aided by about 200 reporters working for daily newspapers who sent him stories they could not get published. In Fact's circulation grew to 100,000, before dropping to 57,000 in 1950 after a 10-year run.
Seldes is credited with being the first reporter to document in print the link between tobacco and cancer as revealed by research at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1938.
"That was suppressed by every newspaper in the United States," he says, his indignation years after the fact seemingly as fresh as it was that day. "Not a newspaper would touch it."
Seldes has long railed against newspaper owners who in his eyes betrayed the public's health because they feared losing advertising revenue from cigaret companies.
The matter infuriates him still. For Seldes, the good fight will end when he does.