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The Woman in the Trenchcoat : WOMEN OF THE WORLD The Great Foreign Correspondents by Julia Edwards (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95; 275 pp., illustrated; 0-395-44486-1)

September 25, 1988|Nikki Finke | Finke, a Times staff writer, was a foreign correspondent in Moscow and London for the Associated Press from 1978 to 1980. and

A decade ago, shortly before I was sent to Moscow as a foreign correspondent, one of my editors at the Associated Press leaned back in his chair one day and declared, "You remind me of Marguerite Higgins." Something in the tone of his voice alerted me that this might not be a compliment, but I didn't know for certain. I didn't know who she was.

It was days before I found a history of foreign correspondents that more than just mentioned Higgins' highly touted but also much troubled career. If Julie Edwards' book had been available then, I would have known much sooner whether to go back to that editor and thank him profusely or punch him out. (The latter subsequently was more appropriate.)

Edwards, herself a foreign correspondent whose credits include 25 years of covering wars, riots, revolutions and "what passes for peace" in more than 125 countries, intended "Women of the World" to fill this gap in both the history of women and the history of journalism.

"With as much stamina and more persistence than the challenge demanded of men, women have reported all the great and catastrophic events of the past 140 years," Edwards writes. "But in the history of their profession women have been relegated to the footnotes or at best resurrected for amusing sidebars--anecdotes about how one posed in the nude and another slept with a general to get her story."

Edwards goes much further than that, finally lavishing on female foreign correspondents the respect and admiration they never received but very much deserved. And she has done so in an intimate, breezy style with only occasional (and very forgivable) lapses into didacticism.

A less skillful writer might not have managed to blend the factual gruel that makes up most of these women's careers with the inevitable gossip. As talented as these women journalists were, Edwards doesn't let the reader forget that they also were just as colorful.

There was Margaret Fuller, a one-time language teacher who became America's first female foreign correspondent by reporting on the bloodshed during the European Revolution of 1848 until her fears for the safety of her illegitimate child forced her to stop. And there was the "blue-eyed tornado," Dorothy Thompson, the columnist on the New York Herald Tribune who liked to say she tramped through the mud of Poland in an evening gown and dancing slippers in 1926 when she learned that right-wing Gen. Jozef Pilsudski was planning a military coup--when in fact she had had the good sense to change into sensible shoes and a suit.

Generally, Edwards dwells on women who weathered the two world wars and focuses fleetingly on those who covered Vietnam, including combat photographer Dickey Chapelle, whose obituary made the front page of the New York Times. Disturbingly, only summary treatment is given to the female correspondents reporting from the war zone of the 1980s--Central America.

If there's a problem with Edwards' book, however, it's her unwillingness to go beyond the facts and anecdotes and delve into psychological analysis. It's not enough to say over and over that these women were different; Edwards fails to fully explain why.

Though she devotes an entire chapter to "the outrageous Marguerite Higgins," detailing both the admirable competitiveness and dishonorable ruthlessness of this "tall blonde with the face of a Barbie doll," Edwards doesn't flesh out adequately what it was in Higgins' personality that caused her to make enemies of friends, sleep with many and love so few, and suffer bouts of inner panic in the midst of her greatest successes.

As a result, Edwards unwittingly provides yet another book cataloguing the alleged "glamour" of the foreign correspondent's work when in fact she seeks to deglamorize the whole business as it pertains to women. Where, for instance, is the candid discussion of the loneliness that female foreign correspondents are known to suffer? I and nearly every woman correspondent I've ever known eventually returned to the United States, not because we were tired of reporting overseas but because we were tired of not having a normal love life. While male reporters seemed able to find spouses who didn't mind traipsing around the globe or being left at home, many of us searched in vain for a male equivalent. The problem was that, hooked on our exciting jobs, we would become hooked on equally exciting men--who all too often had demanding careers that simply didn't allow them to follow us from dateline to dateline.

Obviously, while Edwards has written the first book about women foreign correspondents, there is plenty of material for a second, third, fourth and so on. Because, judging by the numbers of female foreign correspondents being sent abroad, the American media finally has accepted the fact that women can report overseas news--both good and bad, in peacetime and combat--as well as men.

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