Madame Geneviève Tabouis: A French Thorn in Hitler’s Side

I first came across French columnist Geneviève Tabouis in a letter from Sigrid Schultz, to the Chicago Tribune’s owner and publisher Robert McCormick written on May 17, 1939,* in which she outlined Hitler’s plans for a Nazi-controlled Europe. After outlining how Hitler intended to divide up Europe, she told McCormick “Friends of mine were present when Hitler explained to them how he plans to 'force England on her knees' should she try to prevent Germany from taking the land Hitler claims for his people. It sounds phantasmic, yet I feel it my duty to write to you about this. My source has always proved absolutely trustworthy and what seemed phantasmic to us became hard reality much quicker than even Hitler’s aides expected.”

Hitler’s plans for scaring the British into agreeing with his demands included the air bombardment of London. Schultz admitted that she wasn’t the first reporter to have heard about Hitler’s air bombardment plan: “One of the Paris 'sensation mongers', Madame Tabouis, wrote about this bombardment plan against London.  She was branded insane.  I did not believe it myself, but I now know that Hitler has repeatedly spoken to his closest aides along these lines.”

I was curious to learn more about this “sensation monger” who had beaten Sigrid to the punch with her “insane” prediction. It was rabbit hole time.

Tabouis was born on February 23, 1892—eleven months prior to Schultz—and like Schultz she was the daughter of an artist. (Her relatives on her mother’s side were French diplomats and senior military officers.) After brief periods in which she raised silkworms and kept a frog, she became obsessed with history and poetry. She studied at the Sorbonne for three years. (I can’t help but wonder if she and Sigrid crossed paths there given their shared interest in history.) She then attended the school of archaeology at the Louvre. (Somewhat earlier than Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt.) She was particularly interested in Egypt and was  proud when she had learned enough hieroglyphics to use them to write a letter to her favorite dance partner.**

Her life took a turn away from ancient history during World War I. *** She was married in 1916 and had two small children thereafter. During this period, she became fascinated by politics and attended political debates in the French Chamber of Deputies the way some women went to afternoon matinees. Her uncle, French diplomat Jules Cambon, recognized writing talent in her letters. With his encouragement, and access to his circle of contacts, she began to write short, amusing articles about people and events for two provincial newspapers.

In the 1930s, Tabouis became first a columnist for L’Oeuvre, a popular left-wing French paper and later its foreign news editor. Her columns were chatty, engaging, and smart. They were soon syndicated throughout Europe.

Tabouis was one of the first French journalists to speak out against Hitler and the Nazis. For week after week through the 1930s, she turned out columns in which she reported on Hitler’s political moves, speculated on his motives, and predicted his actions with uncanny accuracy. Her columns regular sent him into rages; her predictions occasionally disrupted his plans.

She fled Paris shortly before the German army arrived and took asylum in the United States. She was tried for treason in absentia.

In New York, Tarbois wrote for the Daily Mirror and founded a weekly French-language magazine, Pour La Victoire, which run through the war. After the war, she returned to France , where she was honored as an Officier de la Légion d’honneur and Commandeur de l’order national du Mérite. After her death, she was lauded as the “doyenne of French journalists.”

 

*Several months before Germany marched into Poland and triggered World War II.

**Which makes me wonder whether he was able to read it. My sources don’t say. And perhaps that wasn’t the point.

***She picked the topic back up after the war. At the same time that she was building a career as an influential journalist, Tarbouis wrote and published popular biographies of Tutankhamen (1929), Nebuchdnezzar (1931), and Solomon (1936) as well as three books on contemporary politics and diplomacy. She once told her readers that she couldn’t remember an evening when she hadn’t worked, including weekends and Christmas. Her only form of relaxation was playing with her cats.

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May Craig: “Tough as a Lobster”

May Craig (1889-1975) spent most of her career as the Washington correspondent for the Maine-based Gannet newspaper chain. She provided her Maine readers with a keen-eyed and sharp-tongued look at the nation’s capital in her “Inside Washington” column for some forty years.

She was the first woman to attend Franklin Roosevelt’s press briefings, an original member of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Press Circle, a weekly press conference that was only open to women journalists,* and a regular at presidential press briefings from Truman to Johnson. A colleague once described her as “the Washington press gallery nemesis of all evasive politicians." She was a frequent panelist on Meet the Press. She always wore a hat and gloves on the program. She said it was so that people would remember who she was, as if her pointed and relentless questioning wasn’t enough to make her memorable

As a war correspondent during WWII, she reported on V-bomb raids in London, the Battle of Normandy, and the liberation of Paris, but her primary focus was the experience of Maine’s G.I’s in the European theater.

Throughout her career, she fought to open doors for women reporters, including getting a women’s bathroom installed outside the congressional press galley. Her most important accomplishment for women’s rights was the “May Craig Amendment”, prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex, which became federal law as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Reminiscing late in her career, she said that “Bloody Mary of England once said that when she died they would find `Calais' graven on her heart.** When I die, there will be the word `facilities,' so often it has been used to prevent me from doing what men reporters could do.”***

*The press circle gave women journalists access to news and helped save many of their jobs at a time when newspapers were cutting reporters: if newspapers wanted to cover Eleanor they had to hire women reporters. According to Eleanor, the intention was that the conferences would cover subjects of special interest to women and would avoid what she described as “my husband’s side of the news.” They also gave her an unprecedented national platform.

**A reference to the loss of Calais, England’s last continental possession, during Mary Tudor’s reign. The city had been under England’s control since 1347 and was the main port through which English wool was exported.

***In World War II, the United States military did not allow women journalists to travel closer to the front than women service members, which effectively meant field hospitals with nursing detachments. The military justified the policy in terms of the difficulty of providing housing and latrine facilities. (A similar concern fueled regulations against allowing women in combat.)

And lest you think the question of facilities was limited to the battlefield, I offer you this blog post by author Nancy B. Kennedy on the facilities problems suffered by women members of Congress: “Democracy Demands a Pair of Pants.”

 

My publisher is giving away 25 copies of The Dragon From Chicago on Goodreads. You can sign up here  through July 4. Good luck!

A different path to being a war correspondent aka the woman on the spot

The Great War provided new opportunities for women journalists.*

No women received official press accreditation with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during World War I, but a number of female journalists reached the front as “visiting correspondents.” Soon after the war began, the Saturday Evening Post, which had the largest circulation of any American magazine at the time, sent popular novelists Cora Harris and Mary Roberts Rinehart to Europe as reporters. (Rinehart was the first journalist to visit the frontline trenches.) Freelancers, veteran newspaperwomen, reporters for women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal, and journalists with assignments from general interest magazines, like Scribner’s and Collier’s, followed in their footsteps.

At the same time, two women who were already reporting from Europe, May Birkhead  of the New York Herald and Carolyn Wilson of the Chicago Tribune, added war correspondent to their job description. Both wrote society and fashion news from Paris before the war.**

May Birkhead's passport photo from 1916. Birkhead's face is shaded by a large hat, proving that unflattering photos for official documents are nothing new
Birkhead, a seamstress who stumbled into a thirty-year career as a journalist with a firsthand account of the sinking of the Titanic, wrote feature stories about the war and later reported on the Versailles peace conference. She earned a commendation from General John Pershing for her work.

newspapeer clipping with a picture of Wilson looking over her shoulder and the caption "Back From War and Cell of Spy"
Wilson, who continued to write her illustrated fashion column throughout the war, filed thoughtful political analyses, human interest stories about American soldiers in the trenches, and reported pieces from both sides of the front. The Tribune described her war reporting as “the news of the battle front as a woman sees it.” She became the subject of the news rather than a reporter in 1915, when she was briefly imprisoned in Berlin on suspicion of espionage.

(To my surprise, another Chicago Tribune reporter followed Carolyn Wilson’s path in World War II, though with somewhat less verve. Anne Bruyere, like Birkhead and Wilson, was a fashion reporter in Paris when the war broke out. While she did not make it to the front, she reported on conditions in occupied Paris and later on the experiences of American soldiers, WACS, and Red Cross volunteers in liberated Paris—all the while reporting on French fashion.)

 

*If you want to dive more deeply into this topic, I highly recommend Chris Dubbs’ An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I

**This type of writing is a type of foreign correspondence in its own right though it is seldom treated as such, precisely because it was aimed at women and therefore not to be taken seriously

My publisher is giving away 25 copies of The Dragon From Chicago on Goodreads. You can sign up here through July 4. Good luck!