Higgins, Marguerite (1920–1966)
Higgins, Marguerite (1920–1966)
American war correspondent and author who, in the 1950s, was the most famous journalist in the world. Born Marguerite Higgins on September 3, 1920, in Hong Kong; died in Washington, D.C., on January 3, 1966; daughter of Lawrence Daniel Higgins (a businessman) and Marguerite de Godard Higgins (a teacher); graduated University of California, B.S., 1941; Columbia University School of Journalism, M.S.; married Stanley Moore (a philosophy professor), on July 12, 1942 (divorced 1948); married William E. Hall (a lieutenant general, U.S. Army), on October 7, 1952; children: (second marriage) Sharon Lee (died five days after birth), Lawrence O'Higgins, Linda Marguerite.
Became reporter, New York Herald Tribune (1942–44), war and foreign correspondent (1944–47), chief, Berlin bureau (1947–50), chief, Tokyo bureau (1950–51), staffer (1951–58), diplomatic correspondent, Washington (1958–63); was a columnist for Newsday (1963–65).
War in Korea: Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent (Doubleday, 1951); News is a Singular Thing (Doubleday, 1955); Red Plush and Black Bread (Doubleday, 1955); Jessie Benton Fremont (Houghton Mifflin, 1962); (with Peter Lisagor) Overtime in Heaven: Adventures in the Foreign Service (Doubleday, 1964); Our Vietnamese Nightmare (Harper and Row, 1965).
Soon after the Korean War broke out, an American infantry regiment stopped a North Korean tank drive just north of Taegu. Suddenly, however, the North Koreans launched a counter-strike, just as a brash female reporter was breakfasting with several officers. In cabling her account of the four-hour battle, Marguerite Higgins wrote: "A coffeepot knocked off the breakfast table by machine-gun fire was the first warning this correspondent and most of the regimental officers had of the attack." She told of hugging the floor to avoid the bullets tearing through the building, after which she remarked, "Medical corpsmen began bringing in the wounded, who were rather numerous. One correspondent learned how to administer blood plasma."
Within three weeks, the 27th's hardbitten colonel, J.H. ("Mike") Michaelis, complained to her newspaper, the New York Herald Tribune, that she had left out something important. He supplied it:
Miss Higgins, completely disregarding her own personal safety, voluntarily assisted by administering blood plasma to the many wounded as they were carried into the temporary aid station. This aid station was subject to small arms fire throughout the attack. The Regimental Combat Team considers Miss Higgins' actions on that day as heroic, but even more important is the gratitude felt by members of the command towards the selfless devotion of Miss Higgins in saving the lives of many grievously wounded men.
Marguerite Higgins was born on September 3, 1920, in Hong Kong. Her father Lawrence Daniel Higgins was a businessman who had courted her French-born mother Marguerite de Godard while stationed in Paris as an American pilot. At the age of six months, Marguerite was sent to a health resort in Dalat, Vietnam, to recuperate from malaria. When she was five, her family moved to Oakland, California, where her father worked as freight agent for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.
Growing up in the Higgins household was not easy. Marguerite's volatile father became increasingly alcoholic, while her mother was addicted to fainting spells. Higgins was a scholarship student at Berkeley's prestigious Anna Head's school, where her mother taught French to make ends meet. "Every time my report card showed a B instead of straight As, I risked the loss of the scholarship," she later recalled. In 1937, Higgins entered the University of California. While serving on the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, she gained a reputation for cyclonic energy, left-wing politics, a high-living lifestyle, and more than her share of ruthlessness. In 1941, she graduated cum laude with a B.S. degree. That summer, she was a cub reporter for the Vallejo (California) Times-Herald.
Soon moving to New York City, Higgins arrived—as she later noted—" with one suitcase, a surplus of seven dollars, and a letter of introduction to an uncle and aunt living on Long Island." She enrolled in the Columbia University School of Journalism on a scholarship, where she received her M.S. in 1942. While at Columbia, she was campus reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, which she joined as a full-time staff member after graduation. Assignments included the Hartford circus fire, Arabian princes visiting America, female Russian students at Columbia, Chinatown's war effort, Connecticut politics, and a day in the life of the Duchess of Windsor . In her first year as a reporter, Higgins was able to interview such aloof personalities as union leader James Caesar Petrillo and Song Meiling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek).
Tribune historian Richard Kluger describes Higgins as "a pretty but messy sight, fingernails dirty and forehead smudged from handling carbon paper and typewriter ribbons, hair and copy paper flying in all directions." Her aggressiveness, Kluger continues:
became an office legend, replete with charges that she stepped on those who got in the way, snatched off desirable assignments, arranged to phone in the legwork of others as if it were her own when out on a team assignment, and otherwise comported herself with a competitiveness bordering on the pathological.
By this time, Higgins was becoming a woman of singular beauty. Recalled Tribune staffer Judith Crist of the 5'8" windblown blonde, "She had a sort of movie-star prettiness, almost like a cross between Betty Grable's and Marilyn Monroe's, with a super figure and those absolutely blue eyes. She looked taller than she was because she was so slender."
On July 12, 1942, Higgins married Harvard philosophy professor Stanley Moore, whom she had met while he was a teaching aide at Berkeley. The couple drifted apart almost immediately, Stanley serving overseas with the Army Air Force, and they were formally divorced in 1948. Marguerite was soon talking quite openly about her frequent infidelities, revealing a pattern of flaunting her many sexual involvements that would last her entire life.
Finding herself blocked in her desire to cover World War II directly, Higgins bypassed her editors and pleaded directly with Tribune publisher Helen Rogers Reid . "My main anxiety," Higgins said, "was to get in the war before it ended." In August 1944, she was assigned to the Herald Tribune's London office. Six months later, because of her fluency in French, she was ordered to Paris. By March, she was at the front, covering the Allied invasion of Germany. Working 20 hours a day, she filed up to 3,000 words a night. In that year, she drew more front-page stories than any other reporter.
Accompanying the Seventh Army deep into Austria, Higgins reported Hermann Goering's claim that Adolf Hitler had ordered his execution; the plight of Spanish refugees in the French Forces of the Interior; the discovery of Nazi archives in a vault in Lichtenfels Castle; and execution of French collaborationist Pierre Laval. She provided accounts of the capture of Munich, the American entry into Buchenwald concentration camps, and life at Hitler's lair at Berchtesgaden.
Arriving at Dachau ahead of the American forces, Higgins—together with Peter Furst of the Stars and Stripes—had cut across six miles of
German-held territory to reach the prison compound. Along the way, they passed groups of fully armed Wehrmacht soldiers prepared to surrender. When an SS general surrendered to the two correspondents, German tower guards had Higgins in their sights.
I looked up. There was a watchtower crammed with … SS men. They were staring intently at me. Rifles were at the ready, and the machine gun was trained on me. God knows what prompted me other than the instinctive feeling that there was absolutely no point in running. Instead of heeding the frantic sergeant, I addressed myself to the SS guards. "Kommen Sie her, bitte. Wir sind Amerikaner." Come here, please. We are Americans.
At this point, 22 SS guards descended from the tower and surrendered to her personally. When the American forces arrived in bulk, the Dachau prisoners were told that they would be quarantined until they were inoculated for typhus. Not only did a major riot break out; in suicidal protest, six camp inmates deliberately threw themselves against the electrically charged fences. Higgins and Furst had to appeal for calm on the camp's loudspeaker. For her story on Dachau, she won the New York Newspaper Women's Club Award for best foreign correspondent of 1945.
Just as the war ended, Higgins formed a passionate if brief attachment to George Reid ("Golden") Millar, correspondent for the London Daily Express, whom she called "the most beautiful man I ever met." When the sophisticated Millar sought to have Higgins settle permanently with him in England, she broke off the relationship.
Subsequent Higgins stories included the Nuremberg proceedings, the treason trial of Marshal Philippe Pétain, the Four Power Control Commission in Berlin, and an interview with Czech foreign minister Jan Masaryk in Prague. Driving alone to Warsaw, Higgins saw the brutalities of Soviet rule in both Poland and East Germany. She was arrested once by Poles, once by Russians, and saw her secretary kidnapped by Communist police. The former campus radical was immediately converted to a lifelong abhorrence of Communism.
In 1947, Higgins was promoted to chief of the Tribune's Berlin bureau. To meet the challenge, she put in up to 18 hours a day, often falling asleep at her typewriter from exhaustion. One of her stories, based on an interview with the mayor of Düsseldorf, resulted in emergency American aid for starving Germans. Her beat allowed her to cover the hottest story of 1948, the Berlin blockade. In covering a riot at the Brandenburg Gate, she suffered lacerations of arms and legs and had to be hospitalized. All this time, her competitive streak antagonized fellow correspondents, including powerful New York Times bureau chief Drew Middleton.
In April 1950, the Herald Tribune made Higgins its Tokyo bureau chief. Although at first angry about what she considered a demotion, her misfortune soon led to the high point of her career: she was able to cover firsthand the initial engagements of the Korean War. On June 27, two days after North Korea attacked South Korea, she made the last American plane into Seoul's Kimpo airfield. Within hours, she was part of the long retreat south, at one point walking 14 miles to the town of Suwan. Although she barely left the front alive, General Douglas MacArthur, UN Commander for Korea, gave her a hitch back to Tokyo and an exclusive interview, one in which he revealed he was requesting fresh American ground troops.
American readers again became used to her front-page bylines. One story, datelined AN ADVANCE COMMAND OUTPOST IN SOUTH KOREA, dealt with the first American soldier to die in the war. It closed with the words:
The medics brought the dead soldier's body in here, tenderly lifting him from a jeep. The lifeless form was shrouded in a blanket which kept the pelting rain off the blond young face. As medics brought the body in, one young private said bitterly, "What a place to die!"
Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, Eighth Army commander, soon ordered all female correspondents away from combat zones on the grounds that "there are no facilities at the front." Higgins appealed to Helen Reid, who convinced MacArthur to rescind the order. At a time when women were expected to prefer safer occupations and special treatment, Higgins argued, "I am not working in Korea as a woman. I am there as a war correspondent." MacArthur's cable read: BAN ON WOMEN CORRESPONDENTS IN KOREA HAS BEEN LIFTED. MARGUERITE HIGGINS IS HELD IN HIGHEST PROFESSIONAL ESTEEM BY EVERYONE. Higgins had been equally admiring of the general, writing just before the war broke out that he possessed "the most brilliant and encompassing views of military and world affairs that I've ever encountered. I found him straightforward, charming, and far from pompous."
Higgins always shared the same hardships as the foot-soldiers. She wore the same dirty slacks and shirt for weeks on end, ate rations out of cans, and inhaled more than her share of Korea's brown dust. Once, when injured in a jeep accident, she suffered a slight concussion, but she sneaked out of the hospital that very afternoon so as not to miss a dinner party of the American ambassador. In September 1950, Higgins was supposed to be restricted to covering the Inchon landing from a naval ship. However, the relevant orders were so poorly drafted that she hit the beach with the fifth wave of Marine assault troops. "I walked out of Seoul, and I wanted to walk back in" was her only rationale.
Higgins' desire for scoops aroused the ire of veteran Tribune war correspondent Homer Bigart, who sought her removal from the battlefield. Ironically, the competition between Higgins and Bigart resulted in some of the best war coverage ever produced by American journalists. Bigart later paid her a backhanded compliment when he said, "She made me work like hell." Along with five fellow war correspondents, including her archrival Bigart, she won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Among her 50 other awards was the George Polk Memorial Award of the Overseas Press Club for "courage, integrity and enterprise."
A strong hawk, Higgins advocated use of the atomic bomb once Communist China entered the Korean war. "Korea has shown how weak America was," she wrote. "It was better to find this out in Korea and in June of 1950 than on our shores and possibly too late." Her firsthand account, War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent (1951), portrayed how Soviet-made tanks initially ripped through the ranks of the "whipped and frightened GI's," armed only with bazookas. In this book, she called South Korean president Syngman Rhee "a man of sincere democratic convictions," said that MacArthur's retreat in December 1950 was "one of the greatest strategic withdrawals in history," and claimed that the security of Europe depended upon containment of Communism in Asia.
In October 1952, Higgins married longtime lover William E. Hall, a lieutenant general with a first wife and four children who had directed intelligence during the Berlin airlift. Because of her unconventional personal life, she was the subject of various romans à clef, including Toni Howard's Shriek with Pleasure (1950) and Edwin Lanham's The Iron Maiden (1954). In 1955, Higgins tried her own hand at autobiography with News Is a Singular Thing. It was candid about her parents' stormy marriage and her affair with Millar. She did admit that she suffered from "a one-track preoccupied personality [that] can be very wearing and in many ways unattractive." At the same time, she dismissed her first husband in three sentences, never mentioning his name. Much of the book involved warnings about American weakness and a denunciation of U.S. policymakers for not seeking all-out victory in Korea.
Giving birth to several children did not curtail her ceaseless globetrotting. In the course of many trips, Higgins interviewed such leaders as Marshal Tito, Francisco Franco, Jawaharlal Nehru, the shah of Iran, and the king of Siam. In 1954, she became the first American correspondent allowed in the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin. Covering 13,500 miles in ten weeks, she traveled throughout Siberia without guide, interpreter, or companion. She claimed to have been arrested 16 times, always for taking pictures, but she noted while being held captive that she was always treated correctly and released within several hours. In her narration of her journey, Red Plush and Black Bread (1955), she again issued a warning: the current regime, led by Nikita Khrushchev, would pursue its goal of world Communism with far greater intelligence and flexibility than had been displayed under Stalin.
In 1958, Higgins left the Far East to become Washington correspondent for the Herald Tribune. She remained at the Tribune (which she called her "Holy Mother Church") until the middle of 1963, when the Long Island daily Newsday offered her a more attractive salary and generous expense account. Her thrice-weekly column also appeared in 92 other American newspapers.
Higgins traveled to the Congo in 1961, there to interview rebel leader Antoine Gizenga in Stanleyville. The following year, she warned that the Russians were entering Cuba in ominously large numbers. All this time, she was endorsing the increasing American involvement in Vietnam. "Like almost every American in Southeast Asia," Higgins said, "I believe Vietnam to be as much a front line of freedom as Hawaii or San Francisco." The French, she claimed, had not lost the area militarily. Rather, they had cravenly given up at the Geneva conference of 1955.
In 1963, Higgins took one of her many trips there. She traveled throughout the South Vietnamese countryside, interviewing peasants, Buddhist monks, tribal leaders, and American military personnel. As the Buddhist monks that she interviewed denied any persecution at the hands of President Ngo Dinh Diem, she alleged that the self-immolations of Buddhist monks were Communist-inspired. "What did the Buddhists want? Diem's head … and not on a silver platter but enveloped in an American flag." Her advocacy of American commitment to Southeast Asia led to another famous feud, this one with New York Times correspondent David Halberstam, who found her singularly naive about the South Vietnamese government.
In her book Our Vietnam Nightmare (1965), Higgins was particularly critical of "the inglorious role" of the United States in the fall of the Diem regime. To Higgins, Diem was a "misunderstood Mandarin," and Buddhist leader Thich Tri Quang was "Machiavelli with incense." The American bombing of North Vietnam, together with the commitment of U.S. Marines to ground warfare, was the only answer to give to doves like columnist Walter Lippmann and Senator Wayne Morse.
In the autumn of 1965, en route somewhere between Saigon and Karachi, Higgins contracted a rare tropical disease, leishmaniasis, which is incurred from the bite of a sandfly. She was hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, where despite a raging fever, she continued to produce her column until just before her death on January 3, 1966. Writes her biographer Antoine May, "The decision to bury Marguerite at Arlington National Cemetery seemed appropriate. Not only was she a soldier's soldier and a soldier's wife, but she was also a woman who had often risked death to record the quiet, day-to-day heroism of soldiers." At the top of the editorial page of the Washington Evening Star was a drawing of a row of cemetery crosses and a plot of freshly turned earth. The caption read: AND NOW SHE IS WITH HER BOYS AGAIN.
Higgins, Marguerite. News is a Singular Thing. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955.
May, Antoine. Witness to War: A Biography of Marguerite Higgins. NY: Beaufort, 1983.
Belford, Barbara. Brilliant Bylines: A Biographical Anthology of Notable Newspaperwomen in America. NY: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Edwards, Julia. Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
Elwood-Akers, Virginia. Women War Correspondents in the Vietnam War, 1961–1975. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1988.
Kluger, Richard. The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune. NY: Knopf, 1986.
The Marguerite Higgins papers are in the George Arents Research Library, Syracuse University.
Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida