John Gunther, the son of Eugene and Lizette Guenther, was born in Chicago on 30th August, 1901. Both his parents were children of German immigrants. His father was an unsuccessful salesman while his mother became a schoolteacher. John and his sister, Jean, both suffered from ill-health as children. John later recalled: "We were lonely children. We both disliked games." John hated sport and spent most of his spare-time reading books.
Gunther enrolled at the University of Chicago. At first he studied Chemistry but later changed to History and English. Gunther's student friend, Vincent Sheean, later recalled: "The University of Chicago, one of the largest and richest institutions of learning in the world, was partly inhabited by a couple of thousand young nincompoops whose ambition in life was to get into the right fraternity or club, go to the right parties, and get elected to something or other."
Unlike most of his fellow students, Gunther took his studies seriously. He was especially interested in modern literature and was very impressed with Sinclair Lewis, the author of the highly successfulMain Street, which questioned the morality of small town, middle-America. Gunther also liked the work of James Branch Cabell, whose novel, Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice, was suppressed for several years after its publication on grounds of obscenity.
Gunther became a member of staff of The Chicago Maroon, the university newspaper. He specialized in book reviews and in 1921 his work was published by various newspapers. The following year, H. L. Mencken commissioned an article on Higher Learning in America: The University of Chicago , for his magazine, Smart Set (April 1922). Soon afterwards Gunther provided a regular column for the Chicago Daily News, that had a circulation of 375,000.
In July 1923 Gunther met Helen Hahn, an older sister of Emily Hahn. Gunther fell for her the moment they met. Ken Cuthbertson, argued in Inside: The Biography of John Gunther (1992): "When Helen was working or otherwise engaged, John dated her two older sisters, Rose and Dauphine, and occasionally the younger Emily... John was deeply and hopelessly in love with Helen. He was also jealous of her many other suitors. John was determined to marry Helen, and during a year of dogged pursuit he became a familiar figure around the Hahn's North Side home... Helen eventually made it clear to John that she regarded their relationship as mostly platonic. He was insistent that it be something more... She enjoyed his company and spent much time with him, but she did not find him physically attractive; the chemistry just was not there."
Upset by her rejection Gunther decided to resign from his $55-per-week job with the Chicago Daily News to seek work in England. On 22nd October, 1924, he left the United States on the RMS Olympic . On his arrival he visited the CDN office on Trafalgar Square to meet bureau chief Hal O'Flaherty. After a brief discussion, O'Flaherty offered him a job as his assistant. This involved writing several articles about leading writers such as Hugh Walpole, G. K. Chesterton and Frank Swinnerton.
During this period Gunther met Raymond Gram Swing, who was working at the London bureau of the Philadelphia Daily Ledger and the New York Post. Despite a fourteen-year-age difference, the two men became close friends. Swing also introduced Gunther to another journalist, Dorothy Thompson, who was soon to be appointed as the Berlin bureau chief. Ken Cuthbertson has pointed out: "Thompson, who was taken with John Gunther, befriended him both as a young man and a pupil. Theirs was an intimate, albeit platonic (as far as is known), relationship which endured through good times and bad."
At a meeting addressed by Emma Goldman, Gunther met Rebecca West. The two soon became lovers. West described Gunther as my "young and massive Adonis with curly blond hair." Gunther, who was nine years younger than West wrote to Helen Hahn saying that he was "a little afraid of her". According to Victoria Glendinning, the author of Rebecca West: A Life (1987): "Rebecca entertained John Gunther, smothered him in maternal affection, and introduced him to writers and loved him dearly in a carefree way."
During this period he also met the young English critic-novelist, J. B. Priestley, who had just published English Comic Characters (1925). Gunther was very impressed and wrote to Helen Hahn: "Please put him (Priestley) down in some book and underline him with red ink. Then, 20 years from now, thank me for first discovering a great critic. I mean this very seriously - Priestley is a comer." Gunther was correct in his assessment and three years later he published the best-selling novel, The Good Companions.
Rebecca West introduced Gunther to Eric Maschwitz, who worked for a publisher but really wanted to write novels. The two men soon became close friends and decided to go on holiday together in France. Eric's wife, the actress, Hermione Gingold, also joined them on their visit. However, after a week Maschwitz ran out of money and was forced to return to London.
While in Paris Gunther met Frances Fineman, a pretty, blonde-haired expatriate from New York City. The two soon became lovers. Francis also introduced Gunther to Ford Madox Ford and Ernest Hemingway. Gunther described Ford as "England's most promising young man for about 40 years." He was more impressed with Hemingway and told Helen Hahn: "Put that name down. Ernest Hemingway. He can think straight and he can write English. Heaven knows two such joined accomplishments are rare nowadays."
In 1926 Martin Secker agreed to publish Gunther's first novel, The Red Pavilion in London and Cass Canfield at Harper & Brothers in New York City. The novel was based on Gunther's relationship with Helen Hahn. The Spectator praised the novel as "one of the best, most cultivated and human of recent American books". The New York Times also liked the novel and commented on Gunther's mastery of the "technique of this genuinely sophisticated novel." However, The Saturday Review dismissed the book as "exceedingly pretentious and at times irritating". The sales of the book improved when it was banned in Boston because it was claimed that the novel was "morally objectionable".
Gunther continued to work for Chicago Daily News and became close friends with other American foreign correspondents including Dorothy Thompson, Hubert Knickerbocker, Vincent Sheean, George Seldes, Raymond Gram Swing, Walter Duranty and William L. Shirer. He was especially close to Shirer and Sheean. Shirer recalled: "We were, the three of us, Chicago kids, and we all had a lot of luck. Jimmy was the best writer of the three of us and a deeper thinker than John or me, I think."
Gunther married Frances Fineman in Rome on 16th March, 1927. According to Ken Cuthbertson Francis had come from a troubled background: "In 1911 her mother ran off with a well-to-do Texan named Morris Brown, whom she eventually married. She then took her daughter with her when she went to live at her new husband's home in Galveston... Frances had been deeply attached to her natural father. Her feelings of betrayal at the breakup of her parents' marriage turned to hatred for a stepfather who sexually abused her. The depth of Frances' emotional trauma manifested itself in later life in the form of a self-destructive ambivalence towards men. She was filled with a seething mistrust and resentment of males, yet she craved the paternal affection that had been denied her."
Gunther spent his spare time writing his second novel, Eden for One: An Amusement. "The story is about Peter Lancelot, a small boy with a penchant for dreaming. When a magician named Mr. Dominy causes Peter's every desire to come true, the boy promptly wishes himself into an idyllic new world for which, Mr. Dominy conjures up an island, a garden, a castle, a friend, and a lover. But in a moralistic twist, life in this paradise inevitably goes sour." When it was published by Harper & Brothers in New York City in the autumn of 1927 it received poor reviews.
In August 1928 Gunther spent time with Walter Duranty in Moscow: He wrote in the Chicago Daily News: "Perhaps the first impression is the almost total absence of automobiles. The few that we do see are relics of an almost neolithic past, strange monsters with distorted body lines, paintless fenders, grotesquely fanciful hoods." Gunther later admitted in his autobiography that he provided information that he picked up from these visits to American and British officials: "Naturally, we (American foreign correspondents) cultivated friendships with American officials and diplomats, as well as those of other countries."
Gunther made his radio broadcasting debut on Chicago station WMAQ. The Chicago Daily News reported: "The first few words were fuzzy, while engineers had fumbled with equipment, but then Gunther's voice was heard with remarkable clarity." One critic claimed that Gunther had a clear radio voice that reminded him of movie actor James Stewart. Gunther considered radio easy work and easy money but dismissed broadcasting as not being "serious journalism".
Judith Gunther was born on 25th September, 1928. Unfortunately she died four months later. An autopsy revealed that she was a victim of an undiagnosed thymus ailment known as status thymicolymphaticus. Ken Cuthbertson has pointed out: "Tortured by feelings of guilt at having aborted several unwanted pregnancies, she now became obsessed with the notion that Judy's death was a cruel form of divine retribution for her past indiscretions." A son, Johnny, was born in 1929.
Gunther also wrote freelance articles and in October, 1929, Harper's Magazine published a much acclaimed article on Al Capone and other gangsters in Chicago. Entitled, The High Cost of Hoodlums , Gunther argued that 600 hoodlums had succeeded in terrorizing Chicago's three million citizens. He pointed out that gangsters could have an enemy "bumped off" for as little as $50. However, the going-rate for a newspaper man, like himself, was $1,000. Although his work was being praised Gunther believed that he was a deeply flawed journalist: "I'm terribly limited. I completely lack intensity of soul. I'm not original. I'm really only a competent observer who works terribly hard at doing a job well."
In June 1930, Gunther became the Chicago Daily News journalist based in Vienna. He soon became close friends with Marcel Fodor, who worked for the Manchester Guardian. Another friend working in the city was William L. Shirer. The two men played tennis together. They also explored the city together and Gunther later recalled that it was "the friendliest city in Europe". Shirer argued that Gunther was an excellent journalist: "John Gunther would go to a country and he'd immediately want to know who had the power, who made the decisions, who had the money, those sorts of things. Wherever he went, he'd always want to interview the king, or the president, or the prime minister."
Dorothy Thompson, Hubert Knickerbocker, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, Robert Henry Best and George Seldes were other newspaper friends who also spent a lot of time in the city during this period. They used to meet at the Café Louvre. A student, J. William Fulbright, on a visit to the city, later recalled: "You could find a group of journalists there most evenings. I remember hearing Fodor hold forth, and he and I became friends. Fodor was a short, stocky man with a mustache, and it was obvious that he was very intelligent; he spoke with great authority on an astounding range of subjects."
Richard Rovere described Gunther in the 1930s as being "tall and blond, with a bulldozer frame, blue eyes, a ruddy complexion, and incongruously delicate features." When he met the film actress, Tallulah Bankhead for the first time, she said: "I'm in a helluva fix, because I think you're a writer, yet you look like a football player." Gunther asked why this mattered and she replied: "Because I don't know whether to be witty or sexy".
Gunther's biographer, Ken Cuthbertson, pointed out in Inside: The Biography of John Gunther (1992) that: "John Gunther was a larger-than-life figure who embraced life with passion... Gunther was an amiable, fair-haired bear of a man. His abiding passions in life were not political, but rather good company, gourmet food and drink, fine clothing, and beautiful women. As someone once noted, he had no friends, only best friends." Gunther had expensive tastes and his financial situation was not helped by his refusal to accept money from the Austrian government paid to most foreign journalists in return for favorable news coverage.
In 1932 John Gunther was elected president of the correspondents' association. One of his duties was to arrange informal weekly luncheons for local and visiting celebrities and dignitaries. People that Gunther invited to these luncheons included Oswald Garrison Villard, Margot Asquith, H. G. Wells, Rebecca West and Engelbert Dollfuss.
Gunther became infatuated with the young actress, Luise Rainer. Although she was only twenty years old she had already appeared in a couple of German-language films and was clearly a future big star. Gunther's friend, William L. Shirer, pointed out that this caused problems for his relationship with his wife, Frances Fineman Gunther: "He fell for her to an extent that I don't think Frances was pleased. John had a roving eye and liked to flirt." Rainer later recalled: "He was tall, husky, and blond. He was, of course, very bright and had a great sense of humor. I thought he was a terribly nice fellow... However, I must say something simply and brusquely: I was never in love with him, or anything of that kind."
In the summer of 1934 Gunther and Marcel Fodor visited the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. In the Austrian town of Braunau, they sought out and interviewed Hitler's surviving relatives, including a disabled first cousin, an aged and poverty-stricken aunt, and his godfather. This was the first time foreign journalists had delved into Hitler's background. The Gunther-Fodor expose appeared in several European newspapers and magazines. Hitler was furious and instructed the Gestapo that the two men were to be hanged if they were caught.
On 25th July, 1934, a group of 144 well-armed Austrian Nazis mounted a putsch aimed at toppling the government of Engelbert Dollfuss by storming the chancellery. Gunther was one of the first journalists on the scene: "The tawny oak doors were shut and a few policemen were outside, but otherwise nothing seemed wrong." However, the right-wing fanatics were inside the building. Faced with the prospect of surrendering or fighting to the death, the rebels laid down their arms in return for a promise of safe passage out of the building. Gunther raced upstairs to find that Dollfuss had been shot in the throat at point blank range and had bled to death. Gunther wrote: "His murder marked the entrance of gangsterism into European politics on an international basis... Dollfus died to keep anarchy out of Central Europe; and this is his best memorial."
In 1934 Cass Canfield of Harper & Brothers approached Hubert Knickerbocker, who had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting, and suggested that he wrote a serious and comprehensive book about Europe. Knickerbocker was in the middle of another project and replied: "Try John Gunther. He's the only one with the brains, the brass, and the gusto to write the book you want." Gunther also said he was too busy. In his book, A Fragment of Autobiography (1962) Gunther wrote: "I persisted in saying no to the project, and finally Miss Baumgarten asked me what, if any, financial advance would induce me to change my mind. To cut the whole matter off, I named the largest sum I had ever heard of - $5,000." Canfield said yes and in his autobiography, Up, Down and Around (1972) argued: "I had the strong feeling that the book would not only sell but blaze a new trail."
Gunther later recalled in the Atlantic Magazine how he did his research for the book. This included having meetings with his many contacts in Europe. "I should equip myself to be able to give information, since it's always easier to ask for something if you offer something in exchange. Journalism is really a process of barter between two people who each know something and find it to their advantage to exchange or pool their knowledge." His wife, Frances Fineman Gunther, helped him with the research and in 1935 he visited London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow. Gunther also met Hubert Knickerbocker who was based in Nazi Germany at the time. Knickerbocker shared his vast store of firsthand inside information on Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini.
Gunther finished his 190,000-word manuscript in just seven months. He typed the last words in the early hours on 2nd December, 1935. He celebrated by drinking "about a dozen beers" and dancing in the streets. It was typeset but Gunther continued to send updates until just before it was printed. This included the news that Anthony Eden had replaced Samuel Hoare in the British government.
Cass Canfield published the book in its entirety in the United States but decided to hire three British lawyers to look at the manuscript before it was published in London. Several passages were removed including a reference to Joseph Goebbels "Goebbels never kicks a man until he's down". Another passage that was not published in Britain was the comment that Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, was the "head of a dwindling movement". The British government made it clear that they wanted nothing published if it damaged Anglo-German relations. It was the same concern that kept Winston Churchill from being allowed to appear on British Broadcasting Corporation radio programs.
The 510-page Inside Europe was published in January 1936. It included a 4,000-word profile of Adolf Hitler. As the author of Inside: The Biography of John Gunther (1992) has pointed out: "The profile revealed in a matter-of-fact way the bizarre character of a man who eschewed friends, money, sex, religion, and physical activity in his Machiavellian quest for unbridled power; Hitler emerged as a dangerous, unpredictable ascetic, a peasant with insatiable drives." Hitler was outraged and banned the book in Nazi Germany.
The publisher, Cass Canfield, later admitted: "We figured that Inside Europe ought to sell just about 5,000 copies. That way, we'd have paid off our part of the advance and made a fairly decent profit." The first print run of 5,000 was sold out within days. The main reason for this was that the book received very good reviews. Raymond Gram Swing, writing in The Nation, pointed out that Inside Europe filled a real need at a time when America was reawakening from its self-imposed isolationism. "The vigor and almost impudent candor of this book mark it as distinctly American. I cannot imagine a man of any other nationality writing it." Lewis Gannett of the New York Herald Tribune argued that Inside Europe was the "liveliest, best-informed picture of Europe's chaotic politics that has come my way in years."
Eventually total sales reached 500,000 in the United States and Britain. Foreign sales amounted to at least 100,000. George Seldes later pointed out: "Everybody was envious of Gunther's success. We all asked ourselves why we hadn't thought of writing the same kind of book. I guess maybe many of us had, and that's why some people felt they could have done a better job than Gunther did. But the fact was that you really had to hand it to him - he did an excellent job."
The publication of Inside Europe turned John Gunther into a well-known figure. The journalist, Richard Rovere, claimed in The New Yorker that in the late 1930s Gunther occupied an exalted position alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh as "one of a half-dozen or so authentic international celebrities" of the era. It is estimated that his syndicated reports, which were carried by more than 100 newspapers across North America and had a major influence on public opinion.
Gunther held strong opinions about the Spanish Civil War and agreed with Archibald MacLeish that it was a "political battlefield between democracy and reaction". In June 1938 he attended the League of American Writers' Congress at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Speakers included Donald Ogden Stewart, Earl Browder, Ernest Hemingway and Joris Ivens.
Cass Canfield was so pleased with the sales of Inside Europe that he commissioned Inside Asia. After a long tour of the region the manuscript was delivered to Canfield in April 1939. It was published two months later. The New York Times reviewer claimed that the book provided a "vivid panorama". The New Yorker praised the book as "a corker" and added that it was "the plain duty of all anti-parish-pump citizens to ship east of Suez at once with John Gunther as their dragoman". Time Magazine was more restrained in its review describing the book as "lively, gossipy, not too profound but interesting encyclopedia of present-day Asia." The book received a hostile reception in Britain with several reviewers complaining about his "anti-British Empire sentiments".
On the outbreak of the Second World War Gunther was interviewed by Walter Winchell, who at the time was arguing in favour of United States intervention against Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Gunther argued: "I would be the greatest isolationist in the country, if isolation were possible, but it isn't. We have to negotiate with these dictators, and to do that we have to have some shoulders and muscles to show that we have to be listened to."
As Gunther was one of the leading figures arguing for intervention, was invited to London and on 13th September 1939, Winston Churchill, who had recently entered the government as First Lord of the Admiralty, agreed to an interview. Gunther later recalled: "Churchill... looked like an extraordinary kewpie doll made of iron and shiny pink leather. I noticed that his powerful body rose atop thin legs." Churchill was mainly interested in what he had discovered in his recent trip to the Soviet Union. "There were not many observers in London then who had been in Moscow a fortnight before and who could give a firsthand account of Russian moods and challenges."
John Gunther died on 29th May, 1970.
I should equip myself to be able to give information, since it's always easier to ask for something if you offer something in exchange. Journalism is really a process of barter between two people who each know something and find it to their advantage to exchange or pool their knowledge.
Everybody was envious of Gunther's success. We all asked ourselves why we hadn't thought of writing the same kind of book. I guess maybe many of us had, and that's why some people felt they could have done a better job than Gunther did. But the fact was that you really had to hand it to him - he did an excellent job.
Gunther's next book was Inside Asia. When we discussed this volume in its initial stages, I ventured the observation that, while he'd spent several years in Europe, he'd never been farther east than Beirut, where lie had stayed only a few days. He replied that he thought lie could bone up on Asia - which he did. As was his habit, lie read intensively before starting to write, and talked to academic experts as well as to people in Washington before going on his trip. At one point I introduced him to Nathaniel Peffer, a Columbia professor and an authority on the Far East, and, after a long lunch during which Gunther scribbled like mad on a big yellow pad, I suggested that lie cancel his trip to Japan because it couldn't possibly provide him with more information than he had obtained from Peffer.
Gunther was one of the most vivid characters I have ever known, and one of the most indefatigable workers. He was helped enormously by his beautiful and intelligent wife Jane, an acute observer with a gift for factual accuracy.
I remember sitting at a cafe in the Piazza San Marco in Venice and noticing a lovely young woman striding toward me, followed by a tired, droopy man; they were the Gunthers. John complained bitterly at having been dragged through the Accademia picture gallery lie was done in... A fortnight passed and the scene was repeated, in reverse. This time a bright-looking fellow walked briskly toward us, followed by a tired lady dragging her feet; the Gunthers again. During those two weeks they had been traveling in Yugoslavia, where John had interviewed scores of people. The explanation of the reversal in their roles was that the endless working sessions in Yugoslavia had acted on John like a shot of adrenalin, while Jane had found the experience utterly exhausting.
One of Gunther's remarkable qualities was his timing. Again and again it looked as if one of his Inside books would be hopelessly out-of-date by the time it was published, but there was a little alarm clock tucked away somewhere in the back of John's head which never seemed to fail him. He started Inside Europe just as Hitler was emerging as a dominant figure; he began Inside Africa when the nations of that continent were in the process of breaking away from colonization. An amazing man.