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George Seldes at 94: A Living Panorama of World History

June 12, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

HARTLAND-4-CORNERS, Vt. — This is how the stories come: in rushes, in great torrents, in word pictures as clear as the early spring sky here, as rich and as lush as Vermont's proud Green Mountains. The details are amazing, spewing forth with millisecond precision. No name is forgotten, no allusion overlooked. Hemingway, Hindenburg, Roosevelt, McCarthy, Franco, Fitzgerald . . . these are the names that pepper a conversation with George Seldes. Sometimes it is like listening to one vast news tape of modern history.

There is, for one of so many extraordinary examples, the tale of Trotsky.

Man With a Camera

"Well, it was 1922," George Seldes remembered, warming to the moment. "I was the only one there who had a camera." "There" was Red Square, where "they were celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and Trotsky was standing there, saluting the Red Army. Oh, the poor Red Army! There were soldiers with burlap instead of boots, that's how poor they were. Anyway, just as I took my first frame, a guy taps me on the shoulder. In German, he said, 'I am the official photographer, and I have a monopoly here, so get the hell out.' "

So boisterously did the two argue that soon Leon Trotsky himself was wondering what was up. "Well, I knew he spoke English," Seldes said of the Russian commissar of war, "because he used to sit at the Central Cafe in New York City. And I said, 'Mr. Trotsky, this guy says he has a monopoly. Now I've read everything since 1917 when this revolution was established, and you've abolished monopolies and big business and all like that. Surely this man is wrong. I want to take pictures for the Chicago Tribune.'

"So Trotsky turns to the guy, and he says, 'Beat it, you fool,' and then he says, 'How do you want me to stand?' "

'Unidentified Officer'

Smiling, saluting, Trotsky posed while Seldes snapped a full roll of film. Ever the diligent newsman, Seldes directed his editors to refer to one of Trotsky's companions as "an unidentified officer." And "guess who it was?" Seldes chuckled. "Stalin. He was so unknown in 1922 that he was the 'unidentified officer.' "

1922. George Seldes was 32, and firmly into the second decade of a career in journalism now well into its 75th year. He had yet to write the first of his 20 books, though now, today, even as his most recent volume descends on readers, 94-year-old George Seldes is fast at work on the next. Editors at Ballantine were aghast when the manuscript for "The Great Thoughts," Seldes' current literary offering, arrived on their corporate doorstep--in four crates. Not entirely enthusiastically, for he had been researching the book for 25 years and thinking about it for more like 75, Seldes returned to his 1937 Royal typewriter and agreed to pare down this compendium of "the ideas that have shaped the world." Freud, for example, was sliced from 40 typewritten pages to a trim 10 in the book. Finally, some 2,500 thinkers, from Abelard to someone named Huldreich Zwingli, survived to fill the covers.

By 1922 Seldes had already scored "the biggest story he ever had": the 1918 interview with Weimar Republic President Paul von Hindenburg in which the German field marshal attributed Germany's defeat in World War I not to "forces from within--the international bankers, and the Jews, and the civilian population and Socialists," as Hitler would later charge, but rather strictly to the entry of American troops.

Seldes remembered Von Hindenburg saying, "They were fresh, young, bright. They wanted to fight. All I had was 45-year-old reservists and people like that. . . . We were about to call it off, and suddenly this small but eager, enthusiastic army crashes through the woods in July, 1918. I didn't want to see Germany destroyed the way we had destroyed the cities of France, and so I had to appeal for an armistice and peace."

A Splitting Headache

Naturally, this story comes equipped with a wry slice of history. Waiting in Hindenburg's anteroom was a certain Gen. Groener. "And I think this is Homeric laughter," Seldes said, "the funniest story of a tragic situation that I have ever heard of." Groener, it seems, was sporting an elaborate head bandage. Had the general been badly wounded? No: As a press spokesman translated, "The General says he has just lost the world war, and it has given him an awful splitting headache."

Seldes had, after all, high-tailed it to Europe six years earlier as an antidote to a major personal headache of his own. Leaning back on his big, soft living-room couch, his trusty, sometimes noisy feline companion, Peepers, in his lap, Seldes smiled. "I was 26, and I had to get away from a girl. . . ." His hapless love affair drove him first from Pittsburgh to New York, and then, as the lady in question relentlessly pursued him, across the sea to Great Britain.

"Look, in a way, she's responsible for everything I am," said Seldes. "If it weren't for her, I would still be in Pittsburgh today, probably working on the paper."

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