Sunday, August 07, 2005
Dad left too little behind -- he was a PR officer in 1945. An interesting & humorous piece!
Col. G. R. Johnston
AAF Public Relations School
Craig Field, Ala.
SCRIBE HOTEL, PARIS
G. R. JOHNSTON
No history of World War II would be complete without some reference to that curious institution—born in the minds of men who should have known better—called the “Press Camp”. Each theater of operations had its own, where war correspondents of both sexes and assorted nationalities congregated to bedevil harassed public relations officers (PROs), and to grind out ream upon ream of copy from grisly communiqués, interviews or personal observation. Many subordinate commands had their press camps, too, all devoted to the same end—the care and facilitation of corres¬pondents—and they were as varied and individual as the temperamental characters who inhabited them.
Africa, Italy, England, the Marianas, the Philippines, Japan and the OBI all possessed press camps of one form or another. Germany had several close to the war’s end and afterward, notably those at Wiesbaden, Hamburg and Frankfurt. And yes, at Bad Kissengen, headquarters of the Ninth Air Force, where public relations was housed in a former Nazi “baby factory”— a place where strong-bodied German Storm Troopers came to consort with strapping Nazi maidens to produce more specimens of the “master race”,
And at Nuremberg, too, for coverage of the war crimes trials, there was a press camp located in ancient Sabor Castle, a dank, tremendous pile of stone once owned by the Eberhard-Faber pencil magnates. Here W.B. Courtney, of Colliers, Anne O’Hare McCormack, of the New York Times, Geoff Parsons of the New York Herald Tribune, and many others—including Carl Levin, of United Press, the man who got the interview on de-Nazification which cost Gen. Patton his job, and indirectly his life.
Unlike any other wartime innovation was the press camp. And the most fantastic of these curious institutions, and the one most remembered by military men and correspondents alike, was the Hotel Scribe, in Paris.
Hotel Scribe—a kaleidoscopic combination of events and people, of grotesque happenings and singular experiences, yet a place brimful of human interest and nostalgic memories. For here, in the glamour capital of the world, amidst the tense days of the Battle of the Bulge and the surge to final victory, were written many of the most gripping tales of our times.
Scene of some of the heaviest verbal battles of the war, the Scribe was occupied by public relations officers and war correspondents while the wild scenes of the liberation of the French capital were still in progress. As they were the first uniformed Allied forces to come to roost after the hurried departure of the Hitler horde, they were the subject of great curiosity and emotional greetings.
Hundreds of women descended upon the hotel when the word got around, all wanting to see or feel an ally—an occurrence which, while pleasurable, interfered greatly with the preparation of news of the glad event. Mil¬itary police eventually had to be stationed at the front and rear doors of the hotel—and some near the skylights—to protect the shy Americans from mass feminine adulation.
For a time, those who had entered the city with French or American troops were the only correspondents and public relations personnel in the Scribe. But when Gen. Eisenhower moved his Supreme Headquarters from London to Paris, another swarm of correspondents came with him. These, representing many nations, were crowded more or less haphazardly into the hotel, where they promptly proceeded to get in all kinds of trouble.
Located on the Rue Scribe near the Opera, the Scribe was only a half-block from the Chatham, where all the SHAEF brass was billeted, and was only a block from SHAEF offices in the American Express build¬ing. So the correspondents were handy to everything, not excluding the cold atmosphere of the Follies Begere, where goose-pimply “babes” performed their routines in satisfactory stages of undress.
Life at the Scribe was one of continual adjustment and readjust¬ment. Prior to its liberation, it had been occupied by German propaganda forces, and it took considerable time to get the hotel employees to refrain from saying “nein” and similar Germanic expressions. And there was always the hustle and bustle of change in military personnel, the arrival, and also the departure—sometimes with loud huzzas—of members of the correspondent corps.
Most of the correspondents had permanent rooms assigned to them, from which they operated. Those unlucky souls without good billets carefully cultivated those correspondents who were often at the front, so that they could borrow their keys and live in splendor for a time, least.
Military operations—as distinguished from other varieties—in the Scribe were begun when public relations officers set up a press conference room and plastered its walls with huge maps. The entire Western Front was pictured, and keep up-to-date except during the Battle of the Bulge when no one, including SHAEF, knew where any unit was. Correspondents complained, and not without reason, that the room was the coldest spot south of the Arctic Circle.
Four press conferences were held daily, at 10:30 A.M., 2:30, 5:30 and 10:30 P.M., with an occasional one for good measure at 2 A.M. The tough session for PROs was at 10:30 p.m., when newsmen habitually ranted and raved, bellowed and burped because most of the news handed out had been on BBC radio earlier in the evening. This was attributed to leaks from No. 10 Downing Street. Although SHAEF officers could do nothing about it, the cries of rage directed at them for releasing stale news could usually he heard as far as the Moulin Rouge.
But despite this trouble, many vivid accounts of the war, including all of those concerning the hectic Battle of the Bulge, were prepared somewhere within the dingy recesses of the Scribe. So were all of the dispatches about the progress of the Allies across France into Germany which were datelined “SHAEF”.
“WIDEWING—code name for USSTAF headquarters—acquired the dubious honor of running the Scribe when SHAEF moved on, and retained possession until the press camp closed officially—but not regretfully—in December, 1945. Other public relations organizations at times operated there, also. “Gangway”, for instance, didn’t mean “One side, brother!” around the Scribe. That was 9th Air Force public relations, which maintained an office on the third floor next to WIDEWING.
Communications facilities of Press Wireless and MacKay Radio were set up in the hotel, and there was a restaurant and bar in the basement where any given person, military or correspondent, could be found at specified times. With food, lodgings and working facilities under one roof, many correspondents covering headquarters did not get out of the building for days at a time. They wrote their daily stories, slept, ate, entertained female friends, and did their elbow-bending without going outdoors sometimes for a week or two.
War correspondents from all over the world were numbered among the Scribe’s “guests”. There were Americans, Canadians, British, French, Chinese, South Americans, and Swedes, as well as more Europeans after their countries were freed of the Germans. Their tastes all differed. Some wanted “Borsht” and others “Smorgasbord”; some wanted news bulletins on the hour and others on the half-hour. Many a PRO—already convinced that “No one in his right mind would ever be a __”, rued the day he had agreed to take on such duties. No zanier collection of characters—from those harmless individuals who sported Custer-style mustachios, to others bordering on the gibbering idiot—was ever assembled under one roof be¬fore or since.
Perhaps, to do them justice, it was the conditions under which they labored to enlighten the world that contributed to their zaniness. In winter there was little heat, though it was better than the 15 degrees C. maintained in most of the other occupied buildings. Soap at times was scarce, and the food got pretty monotonous. Frequently the power system failed, and correspondents many times clustered shiveringly around the hall desk and wrote their stories by the feeble light of sputtering candles. The two tiny elevators moved with maddening slowness, and when a correspondent of the Quentin Reynolds type got in, the cables squeaked and groaned until the other passengers could barely keep from shouting, “Run for your life!”
In the famous news blackout immediately following the Ardennes breakthrough, when SHAEF decreed nothing would go out for several days, the Scribe was the scene of fierce verbal battles between PROs and the correspondents. Even the incessant poker and gin rummy games were inter¬rupted while the newsmen cornered harassed PROs and tried to wheedle, trick or frighten them into making a release.
PROs often were told their system “stank to High Heaven”, and one particularly vitriolic writer termed it “the worst public relations setup in six years of war.” Another said bitterly “You can call it ‘private relations’ if you want to, but you’ve got no right to call it ‘public relations’.” Such battles went on and on, and in sober analysis it is something of a miracle that generally friendly relations prevailed.
From the correspondents’ standpoint—expressed as often as they could get anyone to listen—everything was wrong with the way SHAEF and WIDE¬WING and GANGWAY ran things. PROs customarily announced newsworthy developments when received, at any hour of the day or night. Some corres¬pondents complained that they missed news, and then were the recipients of sarcastic queries from the home office, because they would be asleep when the releases were made.
So the PROs laboriously installed an intricate system of bells throughout the hotel, and announced they would ring once for an ordinary handout which only the most hardy would bother about, and three times if a communiqué was too important to hold for the usual process of mim¬eographing.
A few correspondents declared they could not hear the tinkling of the bells. The PROs—always a helpful lot—took out the bells and in¬stalled a system of horns which sounded half-way between an air-raid siren and a buzz bomb. That was all right for some, but others who were not interested in spot news—magazine and Sunday supplement writers—were unable to sleep. So these began slipping stealthily down the dark corridors snipping the wires here and there, with the result that when a really important release was ready for distribution, no one appeared to show the slightest interest. A violent battle of verbiage and invective occurred in the conference room over that one, terminated only when Col. R. K. Dupuy, then in charge, hinted darkly at what might happen to sabo¬teurs.
Taking a bath was a major operation at the Scribe for PROs and newsmen alike. The supply of coal was insufficient to heat water all day long, and various hours were tried, but it was impossible to please everyone. At last, in desperation, it was ordered that hot water would be available only from 7 to 10 in the morning, and that was the way it stood. Correspondents of morning papers who slept late, usually left a call for 9:30 or 9:45. Then they would get up, fill the tub with hot water, and go back to bed. At noon, when they again awoke, the water still would be warm enough to bathe in. Some took their baths at 10 and went back to bed, but this practice was generally frowned upon as indecent, and those who persisted were practically ostracized.
With such a heterogeneous conglomeration of characters infesting it, the Scribe naturally could be expected to have its immoral moments. An event which had all Paris in a dither concerned a big dance to which a batch of society girls and wives of diplomats were invited. During the affair, someone officiously decided that the credentials of the “guests” should be checked. There was considerable chagrin when it was discovered that mingling with the “upper crust” were many girls who carried cards of a decidedly yellowish hue—as required by trench law for followers of the world’s oldest profession.
And there was a great hullabaloo over a report that an army officer, and a PRO to boot, had a woman in his room. Investigation proved, however, that it was a woman correspondent who had invited a GI friend in for "tea", and the matter was dropped.
The spot where PROs and correspondents foregathered to talk over the progress of the war was, by mutual consent, the bar in the Scribe basement. The bar was a curious feature of an already curious institution. Well-dressed French women who through some strange quirk of fate had become acquainted with a PRO or correspondent, mingled readily with the hotels habitués and were considered an essential part of the establishment. Wo¬men correspondents and French liaison officers of the opposite sex also participated in operations.
Attendance at the bar fluctuated in direct proportion to the drinkables available. At times there would be plenty of champagne and cognac for sale, and then would come long, dry spells when only pale wine and tomato juice could be had.
One boisterous evening a member of the press started into the bar without his trousers. There was some consternation until it was learned that he was a photographer. Then everybody settled quietly back in their seats, for news photographers are reputed to lack about three staves of being round, and it didn’t matter whether they wore trousers or not.
Into this atmosphere, fresh from the city desk of the Kalamazoo HERALD, walked big Bill Jordan, on assignment to cover the last stages of the war for the Booth Newspaper chain. Tall, good looking, in the Cary Grant or Gary Cooper manner, he was the type often mistaken for awkward or clumsy. But Bill Jordan was a newspaperman’s newspaperman, as smart as they came despite his outward appearance, and a writer without peer. He’d never had time to take typing lessons—he’d been too busy on a police beat for that—but his ability with one finger on the left hand and two on the right was amazing.
He stood in the doorway of the Scribe bar, looking quizzically into the dark interior. There appeared to be no one there, except for the French bartender and a lone figure on the other side of the room. He strolled that way, wondering if it were someone he knew, or someone he could strike up an acquaintance with. On closer scrutiny he saw it was just a cameraman, to judge by the Speed Graflex beside him, glowering into a glass containing a villainous-looking liquid. He turned back, just in time to trip over a feminine ankle which protruded suddenly from a darkened booth. He tried to catch himself, uttering a startled “Damn!”, but failed and fell flat on his face.
“Oh, I’m so s—sorr—y!” exclaimed the owner of the ankle, trying to help him to his feet. “I thought you were going on. You—you turned so suddenly I—”
He rose and glowered at her, then stared in frank interest. She was French, a French WAC, or its equivalent, and quite pretty, and she was evidently sincerely concerned over the mishap.
“Oh, forget it,” he said, brushing off his clothes—that corres¬pondent’s uniform which was embarrassing because of its obvious new¬ness. “My fault. I didn’t see anybody around. Just clumsy, I guess.”
“You’re sure you’re not hurt?” she inquired, with just a trace of an accent. “Can I do anything for you?”
“Well,” he grinned boyishly. “You could have a drink with me. I’m new here, just arrived from the states. Thought I might see some¬one I knew, or someone who could get me used to things. How about it?”
She smiled hesitantly, then sat down in the booth and motioned him to the bench opposite her.
“I guess I owe you that much,” she smiled. “But there’s nothing left to drink—unless you want tomato juice. This is one of our dry spells. Next week, Pierre says—champagne!”
“Hope I’ll be here next week, then. My names Jordan, Bill Jordan. Booth Syndicate. That’s up in Michigan.”
“Meechigan?” Her dimples showed when she smiled. “Oh, yes, I’ve heard of this Meechigan. Where they make the automobiles, no?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Only they’re not making any now. Tanks, and guns and airplanes—things to lick the Nazis with. Tell me about the Scribe—but first, yourself. Who are you?”
She told him she was a lieutenant, detached from the French army’s public relations equivalent as liaison officer to SHAEF and WIDEWING’s public relations division—Madeleine D’Arcy. There was little else, for suddenly, with a muttered apology, she was on her feet and walking swiftly toward the door where a tall American officer was looking inquiringly around. They went of f together, without a backward glance from the girl, but with one hard, penetrating look from the officer.
“You’re new here, ain’t you?” queried a voice at Jordan’s elbow. He turned quickly, to find the cameraman perched on the table, his Graflex dangling from his hand. "I'm Joe Siddall. Cleveland Dispatch.”
Jordan gave his name and asked, nodding toward the door, “Who’s the big guy? Didn’t seem to like my talking to her.”
“That’s Lt. Col. Thomas—Clarke Thomas. He’s the PRD exec. Thinks Maddy is his property. Just last week he hung a shiner on Harry Nickels, of the Memphis Star, for trying to get fresh with her—so he said. Harry was just lonesome. Better keep away from her, though, unless you’re the kind who likes trouble.” After he’d gone, Jordan finds Maddy had left a small leather case in the booth. He was about to leave it with the bartender, but decided he didn’t like the man’s looks and takes it to his room. That night the door opens—no lock—and in the dark he is dragged from bed and beaten unconscious. When he awakes he finds his room has been thorough¬ly searched and the leather case taken. Gripped in one hand is a part of a sleeve—the strap from the wristband used to fasten it around the wrist, and from a French correspondent’s uniform.
The Scribe seems full of uniforms the strap will match, but it is not until he observes he is followed wherever he goes that he suspects Jean Dubois, of L’Matin. Later Maddy seeks him out, trying to get back her case, which she finally admits contains a list of prominent members of the French underground, or Maquis, which will mean death to many held prisoner by the Germans if it reaches them. She tells him she suspects that some of the employees of the hotel—a few of whom are from Alsace—are really Nazi sympathizers, left behind by the Germans to keep them informed of SHAEF activities.
Together they search Dubois’ room, but just as they discover the case and the list where he has hidden them, he surprises them and attacks them. Beating Jordan down, he forces Maddy to accompany him and escapes. Col. Thomas arrives and accuses Jordan of spiriting Maddy away, but finally agrees to listen; and the two team up and take after Dubois, who apparently is headed for the press camp at SHAEF advance headquarters in Luxembourg, hoping to continue posing as a French correspondent and getting through the lines.
They overtake Dubois just as he reaches a German patrol. The Germans are about to shoot Maddy, Jordan and Thomas, when an American infantry battalion rises up between the Germans and their line of retreat and captures the whole caboodle. What fun!