It All Began with . . . The Toss of a Coin (1918-1967)

Hans Steinitz wrote this history for the 50th Anniversary celebrations and covers the years from the FPA’s founding in 1918 to the anniversary in 1967. Steinitz has been a correspondent in the US since 1947 for Der Bund of Berne, Switzerland, and also for newspapers in Germany. He was president of the FPA in 1960-61. His major contribution was securing the use of an office in the Foreign Press Center when it was opened in 1961. He also helped to start up and organize the ten international FPA balls which were inaugurated in 1954. He is now retired and lives in New York.

It was the height of the Civil War. America was in turmoil. Into the Willard Hotel on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue checked a British gentleman by the name of William Howard Russell. His occupation: foreign correspondent.

From all the records Mr William Howard Russell – a representative of the London Times – was the first foreign correspondent to work in the United States.

Today, a century later [1967], there are, at a modest guess, some five to six hundred foreign correspondents in America. But few of them have as tough a job as Mr Russell had then.

Fresh from the Crimean War, he threw himself into the job of covering the war between the States. He traveled to the battlefields by rented horse or in the troop trains carrying Union soldiers to the front.

He filed his stories irregularly by steamboat back to Britain. That, for many years, was the only way that newsmen in America could get their stories back to Europe.

At that time quite a few emigrants from Europe used to contribute, on a freelance basis and at irregular intervals, to newspapers in their old country, telling them about America and, a favorite topic in those days, the conquest of the West. Regular full- time foreign correspondents employed by an overseas news organization and especially assigned to cover the United States remained exceedingly rare.

Even after the establishment of a regular cable connection between the Old and the New World, only a small handful of European newsmen established residence in the United States. However, quite a few roving reporters began to show up, who returned home after some more or less adventurous cross-country trips.

But even in the early years of this century the situation changed very little. When Theodore Roosevelt was president, a newly arrived correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph made his formal introductory visit to the president, attired in striped pants , top hat in hand – and gossip had it that the White House usher, little used to the presence of newsmen, thought he must be some new ambassador.

The President, after greeting the newcomer, said: It is high time you fellows began to discover America. Actually it was at least another decade before the bulk of the overseas Press did discover America.

Before this, however, that legendary foreign correspondent Percy Bullen was already established in New York as the representative of the London Daily Telegraph. He arrived in 1902 and remained at his post until he retired in 1934.

During his long career in the United States (which followed service as a special correspondent in the Boer War), he reported the first plane flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in 1903.

He probably knew and understood the United States better than any British newspaperman at any time, wrote Lord Burnham in his book Peterborough Court, adding that in those days there was nothing known in Washington that was not known in New York the day before.

It was not until much later that Washington became a vital center for American news.
When the United States entered World War I, President Wilson’s Press officers (working for the war agency of the Bureau of Information) endeavored to gather together the regular Press representatives from the Allied countries in order to provide them with news of the American war effort.

The journalists themselves grouped together in mid-November 1917, exactly 50 years ago, and for better contact with the Federal Government formed an organization provisionally called The Association of Foreign Press Correspondents in the United States.

It had at the start only 11 members: eight British, two French and one Italian. At its first official meeting in February 1918, Frank Dilnot of the London Daily Express was elected president, with Percy Bullen the Secretary-Treasurer. Such was the informality, that the two actually tossed a coin to decide who should be President!

Percy told often that his office of treasurer was at first a highly nominal one indeed – and that the seat of the secretariat was in his right breast pocket where he used to store the FPA’s files.

The first nine months of the FPA’s existence was a continual round of travel for its handful of members. First-class trains with club coaches were placed at their disposal for visits to shipping centers, ammunition plants, army camps, ordnance factories a nd aviation centers.

Then came the Armistice in November 1918. President Wilson thanked the FPA with this message: The service of the FPA in the Allied cause at a time when the Allies were fighting with their backs to the wall was both acceptable and useful.

There was talk of disbanding the FPA. The war is ended, our work is done, it was said. But the idea was resisted by Frank Dilnot, A. Arbib Costa, Joseph Bourgeois, Walter Bullock, Skipper Williams, W. W. Davies, Levy Lawson, G. J. M. Simons, J. H. Furay and Leonce Levy – to name a few of the stalwarts of those pioneer days. Warren Mason of the London Daily Express, one of the few native-born American members, wrote the Constitution which until 1940 remained substantially the same.

Bullen recalled those early days in some notes he wrote for the Foreign Press News in March 1955. Little did we dream, he said, that the acorn which we planted would develop into so mighty an oak. In those days we had no rules for a year or two. Everything was pretty much of a slapdash category. But even in those days few important visitors to New York escaped our luncheons and dinners and receptions.

The FPA grew rapidly during the Twenties. Several times its by-laws were amended: to include radio correspondents, to create a class of Associate members (mostly part-time correspondents) and to create special classes for the correspondents stationed in Washington, although the headquarters of the FPA remained in New York.

Three times members of the FPA traveled to Washington to be received at the White House, once by Presidents Coolidge and twice by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The 25th Anniversary of the FPA in the middle of World War II was celebrated by a dinner in the Waldorf, with Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox the main speaker. For the 35th Anniversary New York Mayor Impelliteri gave a reception at City Hall and invited the correspondents to a sightseeing boat trip around Manhattan.

During this time the FPA’s membership was greatly increased by the establishment of the United Nations in New York. It created its own Welfare Fund for members and provided the correspondents with a special health insurance scheme, opened up a special section for Stage and Screen writers, and crowned all its previous activities by inaugurating, in 1954, its International Press Ball, which has since become an annual event.

There were many other noteworthy activities during the 1950s. The FPA met with the members of the New York State and New England Newspaper Publishers’ Association for a public round-table conference in Corning, NY, and with the editors of American college newspapers for seminar talks and debates in Hamilton College, Clinton, NY.

A trip to New Hampshire had to be canceled once because a local newspaper in that state campaigned virulently against the presence of foreign newsmen – or at least some of them – on New Hampshire soil. This cancellation created a major scandal in the world press, and the furor only died down when the governor of the state of Rhode Island invited the FPA to pay an official visit to his state in order to repair the damage. The trip to Rhode Island turned out to be one of the most pleasant functions ever held by the FPA.

In the 1960s the status of the foreign Press corps in the US improved considerably. President John F. Kennedy, his Press officer Pierre Salinger and Edward R. Murrow, director of the US Information Agency, were approached by the FPA and asked to provide foreign correspondents with improved facilities.

The result was the Foreign Correspondents Center in New York in which the late President took a personal pride. It was formally opened by Pierre Salinger in September 1961.

The center has proved an important institution for the foreign Press corps, serving as working headquarters, social center and gathering place for them ever since.

At the present time [1967], the FPA has more than 350 members representing 57 different countries. Although the bulk of its members come from Europe, there is not a single region of the world which is not represented among the membership.

Including the present Administration, the FPA has had so far 36 Presidents, of whom 16 have been from Britain, five from France, three from the Netherlands, two each from Argentina and Mexico, and one each from Australia, China, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Poland and Switzerland.

On occasion the FPA has taken steps on behalf of individual members in favor of their rights, for example, to gain access to the Senate Press Gallery, for extension of stays, or for renewal of visas. The intervention of the FPA has always received a fair hearing from the Federal government agency involved, and has usually been crowned by success.

One problem for newsmen in the US is that there are two main news-making centers. Some large foreign newspapers or agencies have therefore had to open offices in both Washington and New York – while correspondents from smaller or less prosperous organizations have almost to commute perpetually between the two cities. This makes life hectic, as well as imposing quite a strain on expense accounts!

Some years ago, a student of the School of Journalism of the University of Missouri wrote his thesis on the foreign Press corps in this country. The thesis revealed that the average foreign correspondent in the United States, provided such an animal exist s, is a mature man (or woman) in his (or her) early forties, speaks 2.3 languages besides his own, carries a little bundle of academic degrees, is married and has 2.1 children. He drives a medium-priced car, was a war correspondent in at least one major military operation and denies emphatically that he looks or behaves like the romantic Hollywood picture of the foreign correspondent.

But his life can still be an exciting one. Among the members of the FPA are newsmen who have crossed Greenland by dog sleigh, who have flown over the North Pole and the South Pole, who were eye witnesses of the sinking of the Andrea Doria, who covered the last civil war in Guatemala on mule back (as no other means of transportation was available) and watched Fidel Castro’s bearded guerrillas ride into Havana.

Some of our members can claim never to have missed a political convention, or a manned space shot at Cape Kennedy.

Others have risked their lives covering rebellions in places like Cuba and the Dominican Republic, braved the worst of riots in Harlem, Detroit and Watts. There is hardly one who cannot summon up an impressive list of film stars, politicians and other celebrities they have interviewed.

The majority, in the course of their work covering the US, travel thousands of miles every year.
In fact probably few Americans know their own country as well as many of the foreign correspondent members of the FPA.

Hans Steinitz

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