Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took On a World at War by Deborah Cohen

“The first night John spent with Frances, she played footsie with three different men,” Deborah Cohen writes by way of introducing the marriage that animates her riveting new book, Last Call at the Hotel Imperial.

Cohen, a historian at Northwestern, narrates the lives and careers of five foreign correspondents—John and Frances Gunther, Dorothy Thompson, H. R. “Knick” Knickerbocker, and Vincent “Jimmy” Sheean—as they navigate perilous personal and political terrain around the start of World War II. The women are sharp, ambitious, and pragmatic. The men are often sloshed (though they are also excellent reporters).

The correspondents jostle for interviews with figures such as Kemal Atatürk, Leon Trotsky, and Gandhi; wear disguises in pursuit of scoops; and negotiate the role of personal voice in their reporting. Each must decide how much to advocate, and how much of themselves to bring to their work, at a time when the moral stakes couldn’t have been higher. Their choices about when to take a stand shaped journalism in the war and beyond.

Vincent “Jimmy” Sheean and H. R. “Knick” Knickerbocker

Cohen bases her study, which reads like a novel, on a voluminous archive of letters, diaries, and other documents. She narrates watershed moments, such as the Nazi invasion of Vienna in 1938, through the eyes of the correspondents on the scene. So much trenchant analysis and narrative framing comes directly from their own writing. As some of the great reporters of their day, her subjects chronicled themselves and each other with specificity and verve. (They also exchanged excellent gossip.)

The story of Frances and John Gunther—their tumultuous marriage, stormy creative partnership, and, ultimately, deep personal tragedy—is at the center of the plot.

Frances, who for a time served as the News Chronicle’s Vienna correspondent, struggles to thrive in her career as a writer. She stage-manages her husband’s career as a foreign correspondent for the Daily News in European capitals, including Vienna and London, from behind the scenes while taking care of their son. John, who eventually becomes a best-selling author, relies on Frances’s analysis and counsel. At one point, while he is on a trip to New York and she is back in Europe filing stories for the News Chronicle and covering for him at the Daily News, he asks her to “come and do my thinking for me!”

Frances is shrewd and demanding, with gobs of brio and fierce political beliefs. She longs for action. Within a month of arriving in London for John’s new “plum post” in the Daily News’s London bureau, for example, she becomes embroiled in a “very public spat” with an “aristocratic controversialist” over whether England is dreadful. (Frances thinks so.) She finds an outlet for her pent-up rage about empire, and for her gifts as the “power-behind-the-throne,” when she develops a close relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru, then the cerebral and serious young leader of the Indian-nationalist movement. As she lambastes and motivates Nehru, she starts to ask herself if she’s wasting her talents on her husband.

Frances and her friend Dorothy Thompson, the famed American newspaper columnist, wonder at the quality of the men around them. Reflecting on feminism, the women observe that “there was no sign that men had taken competition from women as an incentive to better themselves.” Rather, Dorothy notes, women seemed to be improving, and men getting worse. (Dorothy’s marriage to the writer Sinclair Lewis ends in 1942 after 14 colorful years together.)

We learn early on that “moral certainties c[a]me easily” to Thompson. She had an impressive career as a reporter: writing for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, in 1921, she dressed up as a Red Cross nurse to breach Esterházy Palace in order to scoop the competition on an interview with the Hapsburgs.

Czech foreign minister Jan Masaryk and Thompson visit General Bohus Miroslav, commander in chief of the Czech armed forces, during World War II.

But as the world teeters into chaos and war, Thompson decides that “the news needed interpreting, not just reporting.” An early and vocal critic of Fascism, she was the first American reporter to be expelled from Nazi Germany. She became the first American woman political columnist, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, and generated a massive following. (Cohen notes that Thompson required special trucks for all of the mail she received.)

Thompson embraced charges of “emotionalism” in her work, and felt that she could make use of her voice in analyzing the “sea change in the way that ordinary people, even those seemingly removed from the action, lived.” She recognized the power of stories to motivate people, and soon became a full-blown anti-Nazi activist. Glamorous through it all, in one memorable scene from the book Thompson strolls into Madison Square Garden in an evening gown of black velvet with billowing satin sleeves to heckle Nazis. (Flashing her press pass at the door, she decided to “drop in” on a meeting for the German-American Bund in February 1939 to prove that she couldn’t be cowed.) That summer, Time put Thompson on its cover, describing her as “something between a Cassandra and a Joan of Arc.”

Knickerbocker, meanwhile, produced a scoop that made headlines around the world in September 1939 when he documented the assets that top Nazis were hiding abroad. He detailed his proof in an exclusive for Paris-soir which generated immense publicity—that month, the Royal Air Force dropped more than three million leaflets outlining his charges over northern Germany.

John and Frances Gunther

In 1938, Sheean, who struggled with mental-health and substance-abuse challenges, left his bed rest in Paris and headed to Spain. Having been provoked by Ernest Hemingway—“Out-machoing Jimmy was a sport for Hemingway,” Cohen writes—he got an assignment from the New York Herald Tribune to cover the Spanish Civil War. There, the loss of a young, idealistic friend inspired him to write that “provinces and nations can be signed away, but youth and honor never.”

Cohen has a vivid eye for aesthetic details, even in scenes otherwise dominated by grisly action. In a tour de force chapter that juxtaposes the Gunthers’ journey through psychotherapy with the fall of Austria to the Nazis, the author writes about the assassinated chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss: “The Nazis picked him up, depositing him on the Louis XIV divan. The pink-and-gold tapestry was soon soaked through with blood.” Here, too, she echoes the American correspondents, whose interest in lifestyle caused peers such as the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who famously satirized foreign correspondence in Scoop, to view them with some scorn.

Cohen’s argument that the personal and political are intertwined, and that characters’ personal lives are shaped by global affairs, while compelling, occasionally feels a bit forced. About a rocky time in the Gunthers’ marriage, she writes, “As dismal as things got between them, they came to no resolution, stalemated like the politicians in the Austrian parliament.” But in other moments this framing shines, as she cites characters’ reflections on the dissolving borders between the personal and the political.

With the breezy scene-setting of a party reporter, the rigor of a scholar, and deep empathy for the humans behind these historic bylines, Cohen makes the correspondents come alive. “Counterintuitive as it was,” she writes, “the world crisis raging around them made the dynamics of private life [seem] all the more exigent.” With her analysis in hand, that doesn’t seem counter-intuitive at all.

Lora Kelley is a Brooklyn-based researcher and writer