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Gloria Emerson, 75; Vietnam War Correspondent, Author

August 06, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Gloria Emerson, the award-winning Vietnam War correspondent and author whose book on the impact of the war on ordinary lives, "Winners & Losers," won a 1978 National Book Award, has died. She was 75.

Emerson, who had Parkinson's disease and was handicapped by a leg injury, was found dead by police and friends in her New York City apartment Wednesday. Friends said she left a number of notes indicating that she had taken her own life, in addition to a brief obituary on herself. The New York City medical examiner's office was investigating the cause of death.

Emerson was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times from 1965 to 1972. She won the 1971 George Polk Award for excellence in foreign reporting from Vietnam and later received a Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications.

While based in Paris and London for the Times, Emerson also covered Northern Ireland in 1969 and 1972, and the Nigerian civil war in 1968.

Her nonfiction books include "Some American Men" (Simon & Schuster, 1985), in which a cross section of men comment on masculinity, war and other topics, and "Gaza: A Year in the Intifada: A Personal Account From an Occupied Land" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990). The latter won a James Aronson Award for social justice journalism in 1991. She also wrote a well-received first novel, "Loving Graham Greene" (Random House, 2003).

But Emerson remains best known for her 1977 book on Vietnam.

"Winners & Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses, and Ruins From a Long War" (Random House) was the result of four years of interviews with Vietnam veterans and their families, antiwar activists, deserters, draft resisters, Vietnamese soldiers and others.

The book also provided a personal account of Emerson's time in Vietnam, from 1970 to 1972, as one of the first women sent by a major news organization to cover the war.

"For 15 years it was a country that haunted and held me. It still does; I do not expect to recover," she wrote in the book, which received mixed reviews and which she described as "too huge and somewhat messy" in her obituary.

"Gloria came to Vietnam with the intention of focusing on the Vietnamese people and what the war was doing to the Vietnamese," said Alvin Shuster, a former Los Angeles Times foreign editor who was the New York Times' Saigon bureau chief during most of Emerson's time in Vietnam.

In traveling the country widely, he said Thursday, "she made great friends with the American troops she'd encounter. She was tall, lanky, funny, chain-smoking, eccentric -- and the troops loved her, as we all did."

Emerson was also fearless, Shuster said.

She once tracked down a North Vietnamese soldier, in South Vietnam, and interviewed him. And when she and her interpreter once encountered a group of Viet Cong, they hid in brush at the side of the road until the danger passed.

"She'd go anywhere, do anything and talk to anybody -- and people opened up to Gloria," Shuster said. "The Vietnamese in particular felt she was sympathetic to what they were facing in everyday life, and she was."

Shuster said Emerson also "loved testing the patience of her editors in New York -- and sometimes her bureau chief in Saigon."

She once did a story on heroin use among American troops in Vietnam. To show how easy it was to get heroin, she walked out of the office and in five minutes came back with more than $40 worth of the drug.

"As she tells the story [in her book], I asked her to flush it down the toilet because I didn't want heroin lying around the office," Shuster said. "But she was worth every headache. She was just a wonderful, talented correspondent."

"Winners & Losers" included many stories of people dying.

"It was an ordinary thing for a reporter to do," Emerson wrote in the book, "riding choppers collecting the wrecked. One American, named John, was picked up for a head wound and lay on the floor, not dead or not alive. The medic could not stop the bleeding. There were never doors on the helicopters, so the wind moved his hair where the blood did not make it stick. It all becomes normal, the other correspondents, men, would say. In time you'll see. They lied."

Several of her pieces on Vietnam are included in the 1998 book "Reporting Vietnam: Part Two: American Journalism 1969-1975," and she was featured in "Reporting America at War: An Oral History," a compilation of interviews with war correspondents published in 2003.

Bob Simon, a "60 Minutes" correspondent who met Emerson in Vietnam in 1971 and remained a close friend, told The Times on Thursday: "Unlike many of us, she never went back to Vietnam after the war; she said she couldn't bear it."

Emerson was born in New York City in 1929. Her wealthy parents, according to a 1991 Washington Post profile, became alcoholics and the family lost its fortune, most of which had been made in oil. At the time of the interview, Emerson was living off a modest trust that brought in about $1,500 a month. The rest of her income came from writing and occasional teaching.

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