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George Seldes, Alive and Well at 97 : Last of the Great Muckrakers of the '50s Fights On

December 18, 1987|KEN CUTHBERTSON | Cuthbertson is editor of the Queen's University Alumni Review.

HARTLAND-4-CORNERS, Vt. — George Seldes beams as he recalls how in 1981, when he was just 91, he was "resurrected" by film star Warren Beatty, who invited him to appear in a cameo role as a "witness" in the film "Reds." Seldes' telephone didn't stop ringing for weeks after the film's release as journalists from far and wide called for interviews.

"Many of them seemed amazed to discover that he was still very much alive and well," Seldes says with a laugh.

One can imagine that those same people must have been astounded recently to see Seldes' name in the news again. This time, it was because his latest book made the best-seller list. Although he's "pushing 98" (as he puts it), the dean of American foreign correspondents and the last of the great journalistic muckrakers has just written a colorful, rollicking volume of memoirs entitled "Witness to a Century: Encounters With the Noted, the Notorious, and Three SOBs" (Ballantine; $19.95). The title was suggested by his good friend Studs Terkel, who told Seldes it would sell books; he was right.

The book made an unexpected appearance this fall on the New York Times best-seller list, climbing as high as seventh spot.

Seldes was delighted. He revels in his role as a survivor. He still subscribes to a bit of wisdom that he uttered to Helen Dudar of the Wall Street Journal in a 1985 interview: "Living longer is the best revenge." He smiles as he savors the thought.

Seldes, whose wife of 42 years died in 1979, now lives alone in a spacious, old red-brick farmhouse a few miles from the sleepy central Vermont town of Windsor. He still rises most mornings at 5:30 to tap away at his typewriter; old habits are hard to break. Seldes is as passionate as ever about the one thing he says matters most to him in this world--freedom of the press. His life has been one long battle against those who would deny or pervert that right.

Seldes, the brother of the late literary critic Gilbert Seldes, was born on a farm in Alliance, N.J., on Nov. 16, 1890. He began his journalism career in 1909 in Pennsylvania with the Pittsburg Leader as a $3.50-per-week cub reporter. (For some years early this century, Pittsburgh was spelled without a final h.) And he still bristles as he recalls how a story he wrote on his first day on the job was changed to please an advertiser.

Joined Army Press Corps

In 1912, Seldes took a year off to attend Harvard, but money woes drove him back to work at the Leader. He stayed at the paper until 1916, when he left again, this time to become a foreign correspondent. For a while, he worked in London, rewriting United Press wire copy. Then he gained admission to the U.S. Army press corps and headed for France.

After the war, Seldes joined the staff of the Chicago Tribune. During the next 10 years, he reported from Moscow, Italy, the Middle East and Central America. In 1928, he became a free-lance writer, later covering the Fascist revolutions in Germany and Spain and writing a series of books and articles that exposed the suppression and distortion of news by press owners such as William Randolph Hearst, Frank Gannett and Col. Robert McCormick, his one-time employer at the Chicago Tribune.

In May, 1940, Seldes and his wife, Helen, started their own weekly newsletter called In fact. It was crusading, iconoclastic and dedicated to revealing the "inside news" that other publications wouldn't--or couldn't--print.

It was Seldes who reported on some of the first studies pinpointing the health hazards of smoking tobacco and who warned of safety defects in North American cars.

Supported by Liberals

At the height of its influence in the mid '40s, In fact enjoyed the support of a who's who of prominent American liberal journalists, labor leaders and politicians. Among them were Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt and Washington watchdog I. F. Stone (who, in 1953, began his own newsletter, I. F. Stone's Weekly, patterned on the Seldes' example).

The weekly circulation of In fact topped 200,000; Seldes, never one to mince words, claims it would have been higher "had not almost every newspaper in the country and every crooked and prostituted journalist in the country united in red-baiting us--and finally (in 1950) destroying (the newspaper)."

"Witness to a Century" is actually Seldes' 21st book. His best known is "The Great Quotations" (1961). Although the book was initially rejected by 20 publishers, it has sold more than a million copies worldwide. For that, Seldes goes out of his way to thank his good friend Abigail van Buren, better known as Dear Abby. Sales skyrocketed after she praised the book in one of her daily columns.

"Witness to a Century," which took Seldes two years to write, has been another unexpected success. "I guess the book's popularity caught everybody by surprise," he says. "When it came out, people rushed to buy it. Then, all of the copies were gone and sales just stopped. When more were delivered to the stores, it suddenly jumped onto the best-seller list."

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