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Marguerite Higgins: Persistence to Pulitzer

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APRIL 21, 2018

In 1941, at 20 years old, Marguerite “Maggie” Higgins moved to New York with a single suitcase, 7 dollars and a conviction that she was destined to be a reporter. Her first stop was Times Square, where she asked a man at a news stand to direct her to the offices of the nearest newspaper. That she would spend more than 20 years working for the New York Herald Tribune, the first place he pointed out to her, is a testament to her determination.

Higgins’ career as a journalist — which led her to become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting — began at The Daily Californian while she was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley.

Her first byline was titled “Mexico… No Bed of Roses,” which discussed the election and the brewing revolution in Mexico in 1940. She also pioneered a feminist column titled “What About the Women?” that featured the accomplishments of campus women.

Many of her other articles were also centered around female feats, although she wrote about everything from theatre to Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC. She used these clippings from her time at the Daily Cal when she first marched into the Herald Tribune offices looking for a job, with only the experience of writer and night editor on her resume.

Masthead from a 1940 issue of The Daily Californian, when Higgins was a night editor.
Masthead from a 1940 issue of The Daily Californian, when Higgins was a night editor.

Having grown up in Oakland, listening to her Irish father’s accounts of war as an aviator, she was always enthralled by tales of foreign lands. Her mother, a Frenchwoman, had a love for creating drama that gave Higgins her hallmark ability to remain poised during crises, whether of the emotional or political sort. This family dynamic sparked her interest in conflict: “I have known since childhood that if there was to be a war I wanted to be there to know for myself what force cuts so deep into the hearts of men,” Higgins later wrote in her autobiography.

As a foreign correspondent, Higgins discovered that war was neither like her father’s dazzling stories of dignity nor like the raw expressions of agony found in novels by Ernest Hemingway and Erich Maria Remarque that had captured her imaginative adolescence. Instead, Higgins found the unsung elements of war most compelling.

“What has impaled itself on my mind and heart is the awful accusing silence of those who are irreparably lost,” Higgins wrote in 1955. She felt that fear fueled by danger molded a shared humanity unlike anything else — that the exceptional emotional bonds of conflict are lost to the neatness of the American suburban experience is part of the poignancy of wartime. To Higgins, homesickness was not a longing for the stagnancy of home, but rather a longing for the full range of feeling that the crises of war provide.

Despite her belief that the essence of war can never be truly conveyed to those who have not experienced it, Higgins spent much of her lifetime covering the end of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. She described the era as having an “unprecedented capacity for swift destruction and swift recovery.”

Higgins’ work was always wrapped up in the complexities of being a woman. She stood at the front line, both literally and metaphorically, in fields dominated by men — journalism and warfare — constantly having her sense of belonging contested.

When she convinced the editor of the Herald Tribune to hire a woman reporter, she then had to fight to be allowed to serve as a foreign correspondent. When women were later banned from the battlefront in Korea, she again had to argue her way up the chain of command until she found a man willing to let her stay. This constant battle to exist as she desired brought a boldness to her narratives.

Gender often overshadowed her achievements. In the introduction to her autobiography, “News is a Singular Thing,” Higgins wrote: “It has been my experience that curiosity about a woman working in a man’s world (so called) frequently takes disconcerting priority over my own greatest interest: the reporting and interpretation of foreign affairs.” The first questions she fielded when giving lectures on foreign relations usually inquired as to how she felt about her experiences rather than engaging her political knowledge.

She had to dispel notions of the abnormality of her career, not only for others, but for herself as well. When she arrived overseas, she found herself working alongside the men she considered her heroes and inspirations for pursuing journalism. In a diary entry from 1945, she noted: “I, war correspondent Marguerite Higgins, am a colleague of war correspondent Ernest Hemingway. How about that?”

Beyond constantly threatening to eclipse her brilliance at the time of her achievements, her female identity is still often used in biographies of her life to explain or discredit her success. Her quick rise in the ranks of the Herald Tribune is often attributed to seductive charms rather than her ambition or acute observations, and her ability to score coveted interviews with high-ranking officials is likewise credited to her resemblance to Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe rather than her persuasive persistence.

A closer inspection beyond the sensationalized accounts of her escapades, however,  reveals a woman far more artfully dynamic than the sheer sexuality attributed to her.

In a lifelong conversation with her identity, Higgins was well aware of both the benefits and the obstacles of being a woman. She lamented that all of her actions overseas were highly scrutinized and thus blown out of proportion, while acknowledging that the novelty of her position garnered her work more attention. She ultimately came to the conclusion that “the advantages balance the disadvantages.”

Nevertheless, the ways in which gender always sat just beneath her narratives sometimes still manifested itself to uphold the very notions of womanhood that Higgins attempted to dispel.

Her own writing—whether intentionally or subconsciously— is tailored to the specific audiences her pieces are written for. In an article written for the Woman’s Home Companion about her encounters with Queen Frederika of Greece, for example, Higgins launches into an uncharacteristic anecdote about the etiquette of white gloves and curtsies. That the piece reads more like a work of epistolary fiction is a striking deviation from the typical self-assured nature of her reports.

Moreover, her work was always viewed under a gendered lens. When she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1951, the committee stated that “she is entitled to special consideration by reason of being a woman, since she had to work under unusual dangers.” What Higgins thought of this is unknown, but even as it tries to acknowledge the additional obstacles Higgins faced, it undermines her work with the phrase “special consideration,” as if her writing weren’t strong enough to stand on its own. The message is clear: “You’re pretty good — for a girl.”

This subtle discrimination carried on beyond her immediate work to articles surrounding her achievements. An article announcing her win of this same Pulitzer Prize published in The Daily Californian on May 11, 1951 is found in “The Woman’s Page” section of the paper — surrounded by ads for engagement rings and corsets.

Whether Higgins succeeded because of, or in spite of, her female identity, she was undeniably a personality to be reckoned with. Her demeanor is shrouded in controversy; in her quest to succeed, many questioned the ethics of her methods.

There are claims that she threatened the upper management at the Daily Cal to get the stories she wanted, as well as accounts of reporters hiding their notes for fear she would steal them for her own articles. These have led to portrayals of her as ruthless and emotionally detached. The fact that she was kicked out of her sorority for her ties to communist and socialist organizations and for flaunting her premarital affairs only added to this curated image of Higgins as an untamable spirit.  

Higgins as a college student and sorority member of Gamma Phi Beta at UC Berkeley.
Higgins as a college student and sorority member of Gamma Phi Beta at UC Berkeley.

How much of this “immoral” behavior was exaggerated because she was a successful woman may never be known. Tales of her elusive disposition construct much of her legacy, but behind the bursts of confidence was a woman whose fear of failure remains a recognizable one.

Referencing her adolescence in her autobiography, Higgins says: “I was haunted by the fear that there might be no place for me in our society.” Her worry grew as she watched talented classmates work jobs they were overqualified for.

In her autobiography, she also tersely addresses her anxiety. “I am by nature restless, impatient, and given to taking things too hard. The psychologists, I’m told, say this is the result of insecurity. Anxiety can be a great driving force.” Never one to delve into her own emotional deficiencies, she spun success from them instead.

Higgins’ life is most often defined by the battles she witnessed, but she should also be recognized for the ones she fought on her own.

Contact Alejandra Dechet at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aydecks.

APRIL 22, 2018