“WITNESS TO A CENTURY”
by Margie Arons-Barron
He was slight, five-seven-ish, with a round, mottled face, watery eyes, wispy white hair, and a kind expression. Dressed in draw-string pants, frayed shirt and sweater vest, he sat on a cushion in a straight-backed chair, eyeing a pile of newspapers on the coffee table. “Did you see today’s Times? Mandela’s out.”
George Seldes, 99, investigative journalist, foreign correspondent, historian of the 20th century, author of 23 books, and press critic, still read four papers a day. Stories of injustice or ineptitude rankled him.
We admired his 18th century brick house at Hartland-4-Corners near Dartmouth. “You know,” he said. “I bought this house for $4500. Sinclair Lewis put up the money and said I could live here as long as I want. The only condition was that his family could buy it back from my estate for the same price.” One could imagine what the house would bring today.
“Sometimes I see Lewis’ granddaughter walk by en route to church. I imagine she’s impatient, waiting for my demise.” He chuckled, but his smile faded. “It’s hard being 99. The friends of my youth are gone. The friends of my middle age are gone. The friends of my old age are gone.”
And what friends he had. Isadora Duncan. Albert Einstein. Emma Goldman. George Bernard Shaw. Theodore Roosevelt. He interviewed William Jennings Bryan, Lenin, Hindenberg. He covered the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. He knew Mussolini when the future dictator was a reporter. Seldes got Trotsky to pose for pictures in Red Square. He was there for the Russian Revolution. He spent 18 months with Hemingway in a Madrid hotel during the Spanish Civil War.
Seldes believed that the American people, given the facts, could rise to any challenge. He started the nation’s first magazine of press criticism in 1940. It was called In Fact, and it fell victim to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting. My husband had used Seldes’ press criticism in a college course he taught. When Jim learned that Seldes was still alive and 2 ½ hours away, he contacted Seldes, and we went for a visit.
It would not be our last. In 1990, we did a month of interviews in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. We brought Seldes memorabilia from the first elections in unified Germany and posters from Hungary, where he had covered Nazi collaborator Cardinal Mindszenty. We talked more than an hour.
He checked his watch, prompting concern about his fatigue. “Cocktail time,” he said. It was only three thirty. But we were not about to decline his invitation.
He shuffled in his terry cloth slippers toward the kitchen. From the yellow wood cabinet, he took down three plastic glasses, the kind given away at gas stations, placed them on the counter and mixed martinis. I let the burning liquid slide down my throat, listening to him reminisce, privileged to share his daily ritual.
In 1995, George Seldes died at age 104. A journalistic titan, barely remembered.
After a long and successful career as an editorial and political news director, Margie shifted her focus to writing memoir and even fiction when arriving at BOLLI. In addition to Marjorie Roemer’s memoir course, she has taken Betsy Campbell’s fiction writing courses, and Sue Wurster’s “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” course in creative nonfiction writing. She has been an active participant in the BOLLI Writers Guild and is also a member of the BOLLI Journal staff. Margie still keeps her hand in politics and issues of the day on her blog which you can reach by clicking here.