Of Fortunes and War: Clare Hollingworth, First of the Female War Correspondents
by Patrick Garrett
There is a tiny old lady who sometimes sits in a corner of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, on
Lower Albert Road. She’s frail now, at 104, too blind and deaf to watch the BBC on television, but she was once Europe’s most legendary war correspondent.
In August 1939, as a daring but inexperienced reporter, Clare Hollingworth sneaked alone over the German border and witnessed the first column of Nazi tanks mobilising to invade Poland. She broke the news of the start of the second world war to both her editor at The Daily Telegraph and the British and Polish authorities.
Of Fortunes and War: Clare Hollingworth, First of the Female War Correspondents explores her extraordinarily long career, which included covering Israel’s creation, the Vietnam war, cold war spy drama, the rise of modern China and the handover of Hong Kong.
Of Fortunes and War is a debut by Moscow-based Patrick Garrett, a former journalist and Hollingworth’s great-nephew. He spent eight years writing, interviewing and researching the book, including digging into family materials.
Any tome weighing in at just under 500 pages – especially one written by a relative – risks being a bit fawning. But this is a crisp and critical account that uses one journalist’s life to tell a greater tale of a century of progress.
Hollingworth grew up in England during the first world war, in an era when planes were new technology and middle-class girls were educated only so they could become “lady housewives”.
She was set apart by youthful rebellion, early romances and forays into risky travel. (Her honeymoon with her first husband was at an Austrian ski resort where she could overhear gossip by holidaying Nazi officers.) Fuelled by political idealism and wanderlust, she travelled to the continent as an activist. Before she took on her better-known role as a journalist, she had smuggled hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees away from the Nazi threat.
About one-third of the book focuses on the second world war, with particular attention paid to Hollingworth’s fateful first week as a Telegraph correspondent.
Twenty-seven years old and newly arrived in Poland, she asked to borrow the car of British consul general John Anthony Thwaites, with whom she reportedly had a conveniently timed “brief affair”. She slipped across the German border in the official diplomatic vehicle and went shopping for food, wine, film and electric goods. Driving back, she saw massed Nazi tanks ready to invade. The rest is history.
Hollingworth was known as an aggressive reporter, not a poetic wordsmith; but perhaps this assessment is not entirely fair, since so much of her early journalism was uncredited and her books are long out of print.
Garrett brings some of her writing back to the page. When the Germans surrounded Katowice, Poland, in 1939, Hollingworth wrote: “The blue light of my car brought out the humped figures, the carts over-piled, and everywhere the white discs of children’s faces, with the vague radiance of a blue-period Picasso.”
Except for the black and white portrait on the cover, Of Fortunes and War contains no photos. The reader is left to imagine a five-foot-one-inch-tall Englishwoman with no-nonsense dark hair and military-styled “war correspondents uniform”, travelling through Europe with her typewriter and pearl-handled pistol.
The book certainly does not glamorise war reporting. Hollingworth slogged through Eastern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa, often hungry, scared and bewildered as to where the action may be. (She was on the wrong side of the continent to cover D-Day.) She dodged censors, armies and officials who wouldn’t let a woman near the front lines. Despite getting arguably the scoop of the century – plus several others, such as interviews with the head of the Red Army and the shah in Tehran – she was still a freelancer lurching from assignment to assignment.
Many of the issues Hollingworth reported on 80 years ago – a refugee crisis in Europe, terrorism in the Middle East, rising nationalism – have modern-day equivalents. The book serves as a reminder that many Europeans underestimated Hitler and the Nazis until it was too late.
One issue it touches on only lightly is sexism. Fairly or not, the woman who broke the story of the second world war has become but a footnote in journalism history. While Of Fortunes and War will raise awareness of Hollingworth’s work, it could have done more to put her tale into the broader context of the struggle by women to be accepted in both the newsroom and on the front line.
That said, Hollingworth felt little camaraderie with other female journalists, and saw them as privileged rivals. Eve Curie was the daughter of the Nobel-winning scientists; Clare Boothe Luce was married to the publisher of Life and Time magazines; and Martha Gellhorn was Ernest Hemingway’s glamorous wife. But Hollingworth was probably most jealous of one Morley Lister, who had everything she wanted: a full-time job with Life, a pilot’s licence and the heart of Geoffrey Hoare, who nevertheless would become Hollingworth’s second husband.
Between the hard-hitting reports, there were periods of quiet domesticity in cities such as Paris, but they did not last. Hollingworth was a woman who thought a Nazi cap and an Arabian dagger were good souvenirs for children. When weeds in her Paris garden irked her, she took a flamethrower to them. She was not a soul destined to stay still.
Hollingworth’s decades of sleuthing and political contacts have brought allegations that she was a spy. Garrett argues she was not – or not really – but that the lines between journalists, the government and the military were not so clean-cut.
Hollingworth’s best-known link to the world of espionage was with the Cambridge Five spy scandal, in which high-ranking Britons defected to the Soviet Union during the cold war. Hollingworth and Hoare were friends with Donald and Melinda Maclean, two of the defectors. One fun chapter outlines the drunken antics of expats and diplomats, including the Macleans, in post-war Cairo. Donald would soon disappear with a friend called “Mr Styles”, who later turned out to be infamous spy Guy Burgess. It was because of these connections that Hollingworth was able to break the story of high-profile defector Kim Philby.
Hollingworth moved East in the later part of her life, as she felt the news of the future would be in China, not Europe.
In 1972, she became a rare Western correspondent in Beijing. She attended banquets with Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, and met George and Barbara Bush, long before they made it to the White House. (In an anecdote that will surprise nobody, she slipped past Bush, to get onto a diplomatic flight.)
Hollingworth has been a Hong Kong figure for so long that many forget she only moved here when she was almost 70, in 1981. And it was from this post that she wrote Mao and the Men Against Him, in 1985.
By the time of the handover, however, the sun was setting on both the British empire and Hollingworth’s career. She shook hands with Tony Blair and bade Chris Patten goodbye, but as an ageing VIP rather than a reporter. ■