“Dateline — Liberated Paris: The Hotel Scribe and the Invasion of the Press” By Ronald Weber (Rowman & Littlefield. 240 pages, $27.95)
Keen to attach a coveted “Liberated Paris” dateline to their dispatches, five Canadian newsmen threaded jeeps through French crowds “mad with happiness” on Aug. 24, 1944. Their destination: the fashionable (and aptly named) Hotel Scribe, the newest Allied press camp on the march from Normandy to Berlin. Though Nazi propaganda officers had abandoned the hotel only earlier in the day, the journalists succeeded in broadcasting word of the city’s impending deliverance from the rooftop that night.
As recounted in historian Ronald Weber’s immersive “Dateline — Liberated Paris,” the Canadian reporters were the vanguard of an offbeat invasion force: By two months after D-Day, more than 900 Allied scribes had been accredited to cover the European theater. Some 200 of them infested the Scribe by sundown on Paris’ Liberation Day, Aug. 25. Soon the hotel lobby would be converted into a press room filled with telegraph machines and typewriters, their rapid-fire keystrokes mimicking the “machine-gun barrage” of Champagne corks from the bar below. Within a month, recalled U.S. Army Lt. Col. Barney Oldfield, 250 “public-relations officers” (military speak for censors) had taken up blue pencils inside the hotel, “pawing over an average of more than 3,000,000 words … 35,000 still pictures, and 100,000 feet of movie film every seven days.”
Lingering gunfire understandably overheated some of those words. On Aug. 26, as bullets from Wehrmacht die-hards stippled the courtyard walls of the Ritz (its bar “liberated” by a grenade-festooned Ernest Hemingway the day before), the occupant of a “sinfully luxurious suite” upstairs was painting the City of Light in purple prose: “Paris today is Betty Grable on a bicycle and Billy the Kid on a bender,” wrote Ralph Allen, reporting for Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Paris is the Mona Lisa in a jeep and François Villon behind a Sten gun. ... Paris today was partly itself at its best, partly Deadwood Gulch at its worst and partly Strauss’ Vienna at its most improbable.”
One woman who kissed him in the street, Allen reported, had laughed off the gunfire with patriotic sang-froid: “Why let a little shooting spoil a day like this?”
Other correspondents braved much more to get the story. They rode in open vehicles down narrow streets where sniper fire still rang out. Three American newsmen were captured and imprisoned in Germany until war’s end. Reuters correspondent William Stringer — that nominative determinism again — was killed by enemy fire Aug. 17. Two days later, Thomas Treanor of the Los Angeles Times died when an American tank hit his jeep near Chartres.
Short of food, cigarettes, coal and public transport, Paris in the post-liberation period lacked “virtually everything needed for everyday life,” Weber writes. “Yet what it singularly had was itself, the magnificent and largely undamaged city that appealed as much as ever to the Western mind and imagination.”
No wonder newshawks hunkered down in their “silver fox holes” at the Scribe. The combat “left Paris behind” by year’s end, Oldfield observed, “but the war correspondents hadn’t the heart to do likewise.”