Joining CBS Radio as a protege of noted journalist Edward R. Morrow, Eric Sevareid (1912-1992) was the last U.S. correspondent to broadcast from Paris, France, before that country fell to the Nazi invasion in June 1940, near the start of World War II. He went on to a long career as a radio and television news broadcaster, writer, and commentator.
Journalist Eric Sevareid understood the average American, and Americans learned about the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Korean conflict, and the Vietnam War through his reporting. A self-proclaimed sentimental lover of the English language, he was given to drawn-out discussions rife with sophisticated vocabulary. Asked by veteran journalist Edward R. Murrow to join young reporters such as William L. Shirer, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, and Daniel Schorr on the popular Columbia Broadcast System (CBS) Radio news program in 1939, Sevareid became known and trusted by millions of listeners for whom CBS News was their source for news about World War II and the Cold War that followed. Sevareid and "Murrow's Boys," as these young journalists were dubbed, remained at the top of their field until radio news was overshadowed by the rise of television in the 1950s. Sevareid continued his long career in television news. Even into the 1990s, Sevareid continued to appear on special reports on American news shows.
Early Interest in Press
Sevareid was born on November 26, 1912, in Velva, North Dakota. His parents, Alfred and Clare (Hougen) Sevareid, like many of the wheat farmers and other inhabitants of the area, were of Norwegian descent. Alfred Sevareid was college educated and a bank president. Clare, who had a love of classical music and the plays of William Shakespeare, devoted herself to raising Eric and his two brothers and sister. Young Eric's interest in the press was evident as early as age six, when he hung around the offices of his father's friend Bill Francis, editor of the Velva Journal. In 1925, when Eric was 13, he and his family left drought-ridden Velva after Arnold Sevareid's bank failed. The Sevareids moved first to Minot before settling in a middle-class neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
After graduating from Minneapolis Central High School in 1930 with experience as editor of the school paper, Sevareid and close friend Walter Port began a 2,250-mile wilderness canoe trip north to Canada's Hudson Bay. The Minneapolis Star sponsored the two young men on their adventure. In his 1946 autobiography, Not So Wild a Dream, Sevareid wrote: "I knew instinctively that if I gave up, no matter what the justification, it would become easier forever afterwards to justify compromise with any achievement." Sevareid transformed this trip into the book Canoeing with the Cree, published in 1935.
Began Career in Journalism
Sevareid started with the Minneapolis Journal as a copy boy and within two months was promoted to reporter. Working full time for the Journal during his freshman year, he enrolled in night classes in economics and political science at the University of Minnesota. In the fall of 1932 he became a full-time student, supporting himself with articles for the rival Star and becoming involved in a number of liberal clubs and causes. He graduated in 1935 with a degree in political science. The previous fall, he had eloped with Lois Finger, the sister of a college teacher. She completed her law degree around the time the couple had their public wedding in May 1935.
Sevareid returned to the Journal as a reporter, but in 1937 the paper fired him because of his independent stance on several social issues. Sevareid and his wife moved to Europe in the fall of 1937. On their trip they had dinner with a friend of a friend, an American news correspondent stationed in London named Edward R. Murrow. Once in Paris, Eric was determined to continue his education. He edited the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune while studying at the Alliance Française and doing coursework at the London School of Economics.
In Paris, Sevareid came into his own. Dropping his first name of Arnold and using his middle name professionally, he got a job as night editor at the Paris branch of United Press International. Then a phone call changed the course of his career. In August 1939, with war on the horizon, Murrow telephoned from London and asked Sevareid to join his team of news correspondents. Impressed by the 27-year-old reporter's spare yet refined journalistic style, Murrow took Sevareid under his wing at CBS. As a European correspondent for what was becoming the most popular radio news network in the United States, Sevareid transfixed Americans with his on-the-spot reports on the progress of the French Army and Air Force in central Europe.
On the Front Lines
Living in France with his wife and their newborn twins Michael and Peter on the eve of the Nazi occupation, Sevareid was the last U.S. reporter to make a live broadcast from the vicinity of Paris before that city fell to Germany. Sending Lois and his children back to safety in New York City, Sevareid moved on to Tours and Bordeaux, and he was the first reporter to break the story of France's capitulation to the Germans.
Relocating to London, he joined Murrow and the rest of the CBS news team in reporting on the Nazi bombing campaign during the Battle of Britain. The imagery he included in his reports struck at the heart of America and conveyed the tragedy of war. In a broadcast made in London near the close of the war, Sevareid noted: "Only the soldier really lives the war. The journalist does not. He may share the soldier's outward life and dangers, but he cannot share his inner life because the same moral compulsion does not bear on him. War happens inside a man. It can never be communicated. A million martyred lives leave an empty place at only one family table. That is why, at bottom, people can let wars happen. And that is why nations survive them and carry on."
Sevareid soon returned to the United States. One of his first actions was to register for the draft. "When you've seen the homes of civilians destroyed, hospitals bombed and helpless women and children killed in the streets and in air raid shelters," Sevareid noted in an interview with the U.S. press upon his return, "you have a new idea of what's important." Though a seasoned combat reporter, Sevareid was put on a less dangerous assignment, covering the war effort from Washington, but in 1943 he was assigned to cover the Chinese-Burma-India theater. He and 19 others were forced to bail out of a damaged aircraft just before it crashed behind Japanese lines in the jungles of Burma. Discovered by a tribe of headhunters, the group emerged from the jungle a month later and Sevareid went on to cover the war in Asia. In January 1944 he moved to Italy, France, Germany, and into parts of eastern Europe before the war ended. He covered the United Nations peace conference in the spring of 1945.
Assigned to Washington, D.C. in a variety of capacities for CBS radio following World War II, Sevareid covered the 1948, 1952, and 1956 presidential elections and in 1949 received the first of three George Foster Peabody Awards for his role as chief Washington correspondent.
Television Brought New Challenges
The arrival of television in the 1950s signaled a new era in news reporting, and although Sevareid continued to view himself as a writer—he published articles in a number of news magazines and was the author of a weekly newspaper column—he quickly became a media celebrity. He was featured in Murrow's 1951 documentary See It Now. In 1961 he narrated Great Britain: Blood, Sweat, and Tears plus Twenty Years for CBS. In 1961 he moved to New York and a year later he divorced his wife, Lois. In February 1963 he married Cuban singer Belén Marshall. They had a daughter, Cristina, before divorcing 11 years later.
During the early 1960s Sevareid was a common sight on CBS, as moderator of the programs Town Meeting of the World, Years of Crisis, and Where We Stand and covering both political parties' national conventions in 1964. In November 1964, he left New York and returned to Washington, where he became a national correspondent and commentator for CBS. Watergate, a political scandal that rocked the United States during the presidential campaign of 1972 and culminated in the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon two years later, prompted a harsh reaction from Sevareid, who commented in a broadcast on May 1, 1974: "These are men whose minds are irrevocably fixed in the 'We or They' view of life and politics. … They are not interested in destroying their opponent's arguments, but in destroying their opponents, personally… ."
In 1977 Sevareid was forced to retire from CBS because of the network's mandatory retirement policy. However, he remained at CBS as a consultant and continued to appear on special news programming throughout the next 15 years. He married for the third time in 1979 to television producer Suzanne St. Pierre. On December 7, 1991, he made his final appearance on the CBS program Remember Pearl Harbor? On July 9, 1992, Sevareid died of stomach cancer in Washington.
The author of several books and numerous articles, Sevareid received many acknowledgments of his contribution to American journalism, among them awards from the Overseas Press Club and the New York Newspaper Guild, which honored him with their Page One Award for an article he wrote on statesman Adlai E. Stevenson two days before Stevenson's death in July 1965. To those Americans who recalled his many broadcasts, Sevareid was considered one of the best radio war correspondents of all time; to students of mass media he was respected as a consummate journalist, as well as one of the groundbreaking reporters in television commentary.
Gates, Gary Paul, Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News, Harper & Row, 1978.
McKerns, Joseph P., editor, Biographical Dictionary of American Journalism, Greenwood Press, 1987.
Newsmakers, Gale, 1993.
Schroth, Raymond A., The American Journey of Eric Sevareid, Steerforth Press, 1995.
Sevareid, Eric, Not So Wild a Dream, 1946.
Sevareid, Eric, This Is Eric Sevareid, McGraw Hill, 1967.
New York Post, November 21, 1965. □